One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Friday, October 11, 2019

Issan said, "I have things to do."

Originally posted April 23, 2010

Photo: ©Rick Gerharter
One night during Winter sesshin, John Tarrant opened the floor for questions and comments. He began by saying that the real point of all our meditation practice was finding a place of freedom, no, I misspoke, it is not a place, not some approximation or substitute that might be available when we experience a lesser degree of the suffering that goes hand in hand with life. The point of our practice was really FREEDOM.

For some reason, or maybe none, memories about Issan had been surfacing during my meditation. In Issan’s life, the fact that he loved was no secret and no one doubted its depth. Even though he was an open book, some aspects of his love few people could understand. Those memories formed a kind of backdrop for my work on “Little Jade.” In the koan, a noble lady utters the name of her servant just so that her secret lover can hear her voice. 


I had a friend who had been recently diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. He asked his doctor if he could postpone the only treatment they recommended, a resection followed by chemo. He said, “I have things to do.” Yes, we all have things to do, and taking care of them is exactly the crux of the matter. I am caught so often between what I really have to do and what responsibilities are just manufactured. Where in between is there any space for freedom? 


The last ten days before Issan died were such a powerful experience that I've spent almost 20 years digesting the gift that he gave me and many of his friends. With the words "I have things to do" that week sprang to life again, and I reconnected with my friend and teacher and to that brief moment of his life in a way I had not experienced or understood before.


I am trusting that I can write the story with enough clarity to allow the freedom of the moment to shine through the jumble of my words.


Issan had an appointment with his oncologist. It was to be the last time he left Hartford Street, but if we knew it, no one said it. He was quite weak. His skin was bleached, working hard to cover his bones. He was a sick man—he knew that. We all did. Steve Allen and Shunko Jamvold helped him into the beat up car that had become the hospice taxi, and off they went to General Hospital.


Two hours later, maybe it was as long as three, they returned. I opened the front door and was shocked. Issan looked ghost-like. The pain on his face brought tears to my eyes. He couldn't even look at me. He clutched onto the banister for dear life, while Shunko lifted him from step to step.


They reached the top, and I heard the door of his room close. I turned to Steve who was standing with me at the bottom of the steps and asked, “What happened?”


Steve recounted the doctor’s visit in a very flat voice. I am almost certain I recall all the details of the story, though I know that Steve’s emotions and mine certainly color what I will say.


Issan was scheduled to have an MRI. They had waited for a long time for the doctor to arrive. Steve described Issan as smiling as he was placed on the moving platform and the machine’s loud clacking began. Steve stood next to the doctor as they watched the images flash on a screen. Cancerous areas showed up as a soft glow, and Steve said that Issan looked like a Christmas tree—every part of his body lit up.


The test ended. Steve, Shuko and Issan went into a private room with the doctor. He said to Issan, “You’re dying.” Issan tried to smile and said, “Of course I know I’m dying, but I have things to do. It will take at least a month. I have to give Steve transmission, I have to ordain David and Harper.” I could almost hear his voice trailing off. The doctor looked at him and said (it is not difficult to imagine the tone of his voice. This kind of message can only be delivered with love), “No, Issan I don’t think you quite understood me, you’re dying now.” 


Steve described Issan’s response as a simple matter of fact question: “How long do I have?” The doctor told him that he could die at any time, or he might last a week, even ten days on the outside.


Issan thanked the doctor for all that he'd done. An automatic “Oh, thank you” never came from Issan’s mouth, and certainly not in this situation—they both knew that it would be their last meeting. 


That doctor was the first of a long line of people who would say good-bye—and thank you.


As Steve spoke I understood the anguish that I saw in Issan’s face. The stage had been set for the last moments in his life. He was a Buddhist priest, an abbot, a roshi, a gay man, loved by hundreds of people. And I’d seen an entirely human being, clutching onto the banister as he struggled to get up the stairs.


I usually dropped into Issan’s room before the 6 PM meditation to see if he needed anything. Steve and Shunko had been taking shifts to be with him all the time so perhaps Steve had asked me to check in that night so that he could get ready for meditation. 


I knocked and heard Issan’s telephone voice. That man loved the phone! I opened the door, and he pointed to the chair next to him. He was talking with his teacher, Richard Baker. “Oh roshi, you can’t get out here before the 10th? That is too bad, the doctor told me just this afternoon that I won't last that long. Yes, I'll miss you too. I do love you. Yes, goodbye for now. I'll call again or have Steve call if I have no energy." 


Here was a different man than the one who only a half hour earlier had been clutching the banister. And it was absolutely the same man but with a brightness in his voice that shocked me—if I said surprised, it would be far too mild to register the degree of the transformation that I felt.


I can’t remember exactly what Issan said next, but after only a few minutes, I had clear instructions to make sure that everyone coming to say goodbye would feel welcomed. 


He told me how much he liked my fresh tomato marinara sauce, and that it would be a good dish to serve because he couldn’t know how many people would stop by. There would be hundreds actually, and although he didn’t have energy to see them all, they still came.


He also asked me to please do whatever Steve or Shunko asked of me. It was clear that Issan, through Steve, would orchestrate his last days, hours, and moments to accomplish as much as humanly possible of what was on his plate, and whatever that was would be exactly enough.


He was dead 10 days later. He took full advantage of the outside limit promised by the doctor. Richard Baker did come to San Francisco to be with his student and dharma heir before he died. 


Richard told Issan how much he wished that he could change places with him. Issan laughed, “Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance.”




To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.



1 comment:

  1. Thank you dearest Ken! I love this, I love your kind words.

    ReplyDelete

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