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



Sunday, August 15, 2021

Dokusan goes Kung-an

Talking publicly about sex


Zen students don’t talk about our private meetings with our teachers. “Dokusan” means "going alone to a respected one." These conversations have an aura. They take place in the context of meditation. We respect their privacy because they can be very intimate, shaking our world to its very foundations. 


I’m going to break that rule, and talk about just such an intimate conversation I had with Issan Dorsey Roshi. I’m going public and talk openly about a private conversation about sex. In Zen these kinds of conversations are called koans, a term which comes from the Chinese characters, 公案, Kung-an, which literally means “public notice.” 


Issan has been dead for almost 30 years. In the traditional koan collections, the teachers have been dead a lot longer, and, as most of these dialogues were between celibate members of the sangha, most talk about sex is, how shall I say it, in a different context. You’ll also have to take my word that the conversation was one that shook me to the core, and helped me, as a gay man, focus my meditation. Issan can’t verify his side of the conversation, but if I’ve hit the mark, and done my job as Issan’s student, you might be able to use his teaching to untie some personal knots about meditation.


I grew up in a traditional Irish Catholic family, or at least I had a very traditional Irish mother. Her word was law. She taught us to avoid talk about sex in polite conversation which meant that it was rarely, if ever, spoken about. Drunken conversations were of course another matter. There politeness was optional. As drunken conversations, they carried less weight, but they were at least a time when you could talk about sex. Good Jamison could be counted on as the Irish un-inhibitor.


Fitting quite nicely with my preconceived notions, in Zen settings most talk about sex focuses on the prohibitory precepts, or that has been my experience. 


At one of my first sesshins, a long intense meditation period, hours upon hours with a few breaks to eat and get the blood flowing back into the legs, my mind began to play a nasty trick on me, or so I thought. I imagined myself in love with a very cute guy who was sitting about three seats to my left. Let’s call him “R.” R has been a Zen priest for many years. He also knew and practiced with Issan so I’m sure he would love being part of this koan, but I don’t know how useful it would be for the public to know the real name of R who was the object of my sexual fantasy.


My mind couldn’t do anything else but fantasize! When I got up after a period, I glanced in his direction to know that he was still there. Even if I managed to focus on my breath for a few seconds while I was sitting, It required enormous effort.


My obsession had totally hijacked my mind.  


I went to see Issan after the first period. His bedroom doubled as his interview room, a few candles, a bell, two cushions set close to one another. After I bowed, I blurted out the whole story.


He looked at me, entirely present, and then we both began to laugh, slowly at first, but then louder and louder.


Finally he took a breath and said, “Oh, I fell in love with someone every practice period at Tassajara. They were usually straight so you can imagine how that went.”


Then he told me a story. 


“When I was tenzo at Tassajara during one practice period, I fell head over heels in love with a very handsome young man. I suppose you could say I was obsessed. It was hard enough to escape all those fantasies in meditation, but it even got to the point where it was dangerous--when I was chopping, I had to consciously pull my mind back to the vegetable, the knife, and the board to avoid mindlessly chopping off a finger. 


"When you’re actually in deep concentration the strangest things can happen. It got to the point that it was even difficult to concentrate when I was cooking--and that was my responsibility--so I went into the Roshi and talked about it!


“And then I discovered that I could just stop it. I mean it really stopped. I think I might have just been more able to return to my breath. Probably nothing more.”


Then he asked, “Can you stop loving R? Would that even be a good thing? I just don’t want you to chop off your finger.”


Issan & James 






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