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



Saturday, May 22, 2021

Issan’s Jesus Koan


Sacred memories hidden in a shoe box
Originally posted 23 April 2010


This is a story about my friend and teacher Issan Dorsey Roshi, but it's also about the moment I realized what I always knew—that even my own meditation experience doesn't belong to me.

The line from the dedication in the Soto Zen service at a temple founder’s altar, “May the Teaching of this school go on forever,” is almost a cliché. Are there even answers to the obvious questions, “What is the Teaching of this school?” “How, or even, why should they go on forever?” The founder’s teaching is treated like an assumption. I knew Issan as a friend, a man dying of AIDS, an hilarious prankster even when he was in great pain, and a teacher who opened up a vast, new exploration for me. Of course I harbor assumptions, and if I were to examine his life as if he were the token gay Buddhist saint in drag, that might be more of a blinder than an opening.

A student from New York Zen Center’s Contemplative Care Program contacted me about unearthing some of Issan’s legacy. He had been referred by Rev. Rusty Smith, the Executive Director of Maitri Hospice, or as it’s now called, “Maitri Compassionate Care.” Since the separation of Hartford Street Zen Center and the Hospice, I feared that a lot of material had been lost. Adding to the predicament, Issan loved the phone but the written word not so much: there were no notes from dharma talks. There were a few snapshots from Del Carlson, a close friend, one dharma talk that had been transcribed, and of course David Schneider’s wonderful “Street Zen.” As for the rest, the kind of stuff that you don’t really know what to do with, the sentimental gifts stored in an old shoe box, personal memories of the way that he interacted with each of one us as his students, his jokes, the outrageous stories that you might not want to share with your mother—and there were plenty of those, where could we begin to look?

In early Spring of 2010, I ran into Bruce Boone, a longtime student of Issan, outside the Café Flore which is only a short walk from the Hartford Street Zen Center. After the usual “bring me up to date” conversation which, sadly, included news of his longtime partner’s death, we began to talk about our friend.

I try to be on the lookout for any expression of his teaching that feels genuine, and not anecdotal gay-feel-good Buddhism. I turned the conversation to gathering Issan’s old students together and beginning to record our memories of how our friend really did teach us. I cannot remember if Bruce thought the gathering was a good idea, but he shared a story that moved me.

One morning in North Beach, he’d walked into a quiet church, the shrine of Francis d'Assisi, with his teacher, a man who had HIV and knew that he faced a certain painful death. Bruce might have been trying to offer Issan a place to rest, or maybe peace and comfort, or he might have just been acting as a kind tour guide to the hidden shrines of San Francisco.

When Issan saw the image of Jesus crucified, he turned to Bruce and said, “Oh, that’s me.” Bruce, a former seminarian, said the words brought tears to his eyes, but, as he told the story, Issan spoke in almost an off-handed way. His tone was flat, and Bruce knew that the remark was entirely serious. He called it “Issan’s Jesus koan.”

I knew that Issan had been raised as a Roman Catholic in the traditional Irish-American way, and as a young adult he’d left the rank and file of practicing Catholics. I think that “reject” would be too strong a word. “Neglect” might be better, as in “hardly enough time” for the more pressing things in his life, running a commune, cleaning house, finding the perfect dress with the right hairstyle and make-up, and eventually drugs. But I really had no idea how he held his inherited beliefs. Now facing pain and suffering, he was confronted with a familiar image from his impressionable years in a suburban catholic parish in Santa Barbara, and there it was—just recognition. It sounded almost matter of fact.

Bruce’s words kicked something loose in me—the cross as a koan? It had been almost 20 years since Issan died, and Bruce still held this story about Issan, one for which he had no ready answers or explanations, in a loving way. Then he said, “Even those brief moments while I sat facing the wall, when everything seemed clear as a bell, those few deep experiences have only begun to open up what he might have meant.”

Then I got it: Bruce has been sitting right next to me and meditating for me. He’d handed over the fruits of his zazen without a second thought. They were mine. How generous. Generosity is of course a necessary condition for sharing my meditation with the person sitting next to me, but I don't want my thinking too much to get in the way. It just happens. It is the path that the Zen ancestors have always used to transmit their experience to us. If it's a mystery or even a slippery slope, so what?

Hakuin Zenji’s hymn in praise of meditation contains the verse: “From dark path to dark path,” and indeed that seems an inescapable part of our human experience. But we can also sing “From bright path to bright path!” I’ve had moments when I saw very clearly that meditation experience is not a solipsistic self-generated enlightenment. I would be more than willing to congratulate myself for all the good effort that I'd been making over many years in practice, but what if it weren’t necessarily so? What if the work has already been done or is always being done? Bruce had been working on Issan’s koan for more than 20 years, and all I did was to stand next to him on the street for a few minutes. The Teaching of Issan's school has lived on for almost 30 years. Wrapping my mind around “forever” seems just a step away.

My friend Ken MacDonald added more lyricism to the Soto dedication at the closing of the founder's service:


"These teachings go on forever;
on and on they flow,
without beginning or end."



To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read a dharma talk, go to my page The Record* of Issan.

4 comments:

  1. Yummy, dear Ken - thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for your vivid recollections of Issan's teachings, which convey the flesh and bones of his realization.

    Just now where I live, the ICU is full and in fact we are transporting patients to other provinces. Yet we have pastors rebelling against COVID public health orders in order to congregate (and undoubtedly fleece) their flock. What about Jesus on his Cross?

    Yes, may every last one of them read their Bible stories as koans, make personal the teachings, and run from these church buildings as though it were on fire, because their lives and souls are on the line.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I was a guest student at Tassajara in 1980.
    Issan came for a visit and gave a lecture that I found quite depressing and gloomy.
    Afterwards, there was a Q and A in the dining room and I asked him,
    "If things are so bad, why don't we just kill ourselves ?"
    He quickly answered, "It wouldn't help."

    ReplyDelete

Sex, death, and food.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi admonishes Issan! This life we live is a life of rejoicing, this body a body of joy which can be used to present offe...