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



Showing posts with label Hartford Street Zen Center. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hartford Street Zen Center. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Three Key B’s of Buddhism: Bowing, Boring and Bliss," by Phil Whalen & Ken Ireland

Phil with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman at Naropa

Bowing, Boring and Bliss


I recall a talk about “Bowing” by Zenshin Phil Whalen at the Hartford Street Zen Center. Damn I loved his talks. He was without a doubt one of the most literate men ever to don the robes of a Zen priest anywhere, at any time. And if you want to challenge me, I’ll be suiting up on the Dalai Lama’s debate ground up here in McLeod Ganj. 


But first things firstI was going to try to record the talk, but was my usual bumbling-self with electronic equipment, and couldn’t get the machine working in good time. Being his usual patient-self, he yelled at me, saying that we didn’t have all day and, anyway some things were just not meant to be recorded. Sometimes words are purposefully impermanent. It was not like he was going to recite some goddamn hidden, secret sutra for the last time before he croaked.


So I lost the talk, but I am going to do my best to reconstruct it from the basic “B’s” as I remember them.


He began by saying that if he really wanted to write a bestseller, his publisher would insist that he come up with a title like the “The 10 Recondite Rules for Clean Buddhist Living” or something like that. So let’s give it a try: “The Three Key B’s of Buddhism, Bowing Boredom and Bliss.”  Perhaps Phil’s publisher was onto something. More than 20 years have passed, and I still remember long sections of his talk (it’s also true that as with many teachers, he returned again and again to his favorite topics like an old horse headed back to the barn).


When he was in Japan, in the monasteries and temples there, everyone bowed three times. People just always bowed three times. But for those who couldn’t count, he said, before he just sat down to begin his talk, he bowed nine times. We all bow nine times at Zen Center, why is that? Well he said, when the first students began to gather around Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco, they went to him one day and complained, “Roshi we love you but we’re Americans and we don’t like all this bowing. We don’t understand it. So why are we doing it?” And the Roshi said with a smile, “Oh so you don't like bowing three times? Good. Perfect. I think we should bow nine times. Better that way, More practice.”


So we bow nine times. Better that way. Practice.


Phil then told an anecdotal story about some legendary old Japanese teacher way out in the middle-of-nowhere backcountry who was revered for the callous on his forehead. He explained himself: one of his first teachers had scolded him for being stubborn and told him bowing would be a good practice. So he began bowing. He never stopped. He discovered that the body is stubborn and the mind is stubborn. He said that he would stop when he stopped being stubborn. So he just kept bowing and thus the calloused forehead. In one way or another, we’re all like that.


Then he said that Zen students actually have it very easy. In Tibet all the new monks bow 100,000 times before they do anything. It’s called Ngondro, and it involves the whole body, not just your forehead, hands, arms, knees and feet touching the floor but your whole body flat out, like you were a swimming fish, and it’s so strenuous that it takes a lot of effort to reel back and bounce back up. Do that a hundred thousand times. I’m told that it’s a purifying exercise. But it’s not done with some idea of repentance like Christian pilgrims bowing every three feet along the Camino de Santiago. It’s done because we practice meditation with every bit of ourselves, wholeheartedly, fully, without reservation, holding nothing back. 


And then he said that anyone who’s lived in Asia knows that bowing is just good manners. It’s a sign of respect. You tilt your body down, your eyes are not focused on the face of the person you’re greeting, your whole body is lower. Of course you’re going to bow lower to a king or abbot. There’s a whole book of bowing etiquette: you bow very slightly to someone who’s your equal, but your bow is lower when you greet your parent or someone who’s older out of respect. That’s why we bow to our teachers in a formal situation. We’re showing respect and love. And we show it by using our whole body and mind. Our mind bows down, and for maybe an instant, we’re slightly less arrogant. We have to throw every bit of being into the bow.


But the most important thing, and here is a place where I actually have Phil’s own words, from his notebooks from Tassajara, we have to make it our own. In the rule infested monastery or practice center, we ask ourselves are we “bowing to rules rather than using them? We must contrive to be Buddhas & patriarchs rather than students who are good at following schedules (and bowing).”


But you’ll notice, he said, we follow a certain order in the zendowe bow to the cushion, then everyone else in the room, and we sit. How strange, bowing to the cushion. We’re not bowing to a Buddha, or a person. You can think of it anyway you want to. Sometimes I like to  think that I am bowing to the practice, but that is really way too abstract. Sometimes I do it just automatically, without thinking much of anything. But in any case, we just do it. It’s probably not important what you think about.


Now we get to the B for boring.


We sit and almost immediately after we learn to sit with only slight discomfort and our bodies become both more relaxed and more alert, we get bored. We all have our own experiences, but I’ll tell the world, I get bored.


But then the mind, it’s like fiddling with a bungled up ball of twine, if you try to untangle it when you’re frustrated or angry, the knots are just going to get tighter. You’ll be looking for a knife (He laughed). I’ve pictured the mind as a bag of worms or a net of living anchovies. But you get the point, it’s a conundrum, it’s a mess. It may be filled with ghosts or paranoia or algebraic equations. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s just there, all tangled up. 


So there’s this big mess of thread sitting in your mind, and you just begin to play with it, without much purpose, no rhyme or reason. You tug a bit here and notice a bit that’s a bit looser over there, but you’re relaxed and maybe you follow the thread to a knot that looks tight but on closer inspection, it loosens up and falls away. And maybe after a while there’s just a whole mess of lovely threads in front of you, and though you really don’t fully grasp how it happened, there it is.


Then the bell rings. 


I’ll end by quoting Mr. Robert Bly who tells us to follow our bliss. Of course Mr. James Campbell has also told us to follow our bliss, and he did it on the Public Television Station so it must be something worth doing. But I was watching Bly talk about it on the TV and found him quite interesting, if not persuasivebecause bliss is not something I can buy, like the gummy bears I get at the Walgreens. It’s just there. 


Some very fussy Buddhists might describe it as a fruit of meditation. If you hang out long enough, it’s just there because it’s always been there, but you wake up, or you open your eyes, or you open your heart. I’ll agree that it’s just there, and it really doesn’t matter how it got there. But this it does share with the gummy bears: when you taste it, you know that it’s a gummy bear.


And sometimes it might feel like something is lost in the process. Bly quoted a poem by Antonio Machado which I quite like.

The wind one brilliant day called to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

The wind said, “In return for the odor of my jasmine, I’d like all the odor of your roses. ”

[Machado said,] “I have no roses; all the flowers in my garden are dead … ”

The wind said, “Then, I’ll take the withered petals, and the yellow leaves, ”

and the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself, “What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

I think that’s enough for today. Keep bowing. Thank you.



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.



The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to an article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails . It was published in 1989 while Ösel Tend...