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 Issan Dorsey Roshi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Issan Dorsey Roshi. Show all posts

Friday, November 6, 2020

"Mindfulness is Not a Part-Time Job," a talk by Issan Dorsey

A Dharma talk given by Issan Dorsey Roshi
Originally posted on 1/13/2012

This transcript appeared in the newsletter of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in January of 1995, four years and five months after his death from AIDS.

From Allen Ginsberg's collection
Someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you always working on something?” Yes, we are always working on something, but hopefully it’s not up here in our heads, filled with words to obscure it. I was talking with a friend recently about the phrase, “coming to reside in your breath-mind,” and working with the phrase, and how useful it is to me. I thought it was interesting that I’d never really heard it before, and was just now beginning to work with it. I realized that I actually just heard it deeply.

This has been with me since I first started practicing. It’s a whole way of working with your mind—and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I hope you won’t have to wait for 20 years before you begin to hear how to work with this thing called mind in [your] zazen meditation.

Now, people who come to practice, immediately sit much easier than they did when I first began to sit at Sokoji Temple years ago. I remember everyone sitting with their legs bent up. They’d sit for five minutes, then they’d lie down and moan. But now people come and it’s like we already did that part for them. It’s as if we have a shared body that has already gone through that preliminary stuff, and people are already able to experience some aspect of zazen practice and how we practice together.

We have to be willing to explore and experiment. First we have to have a sense of humor and a willingness to explore and experiment with our lives and our uncomfortableness. We know that sometimes we can sit for a few minutes, or even a few days, and at some point it gets pretty uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable for us not to invite our thoughts to tea, and reside in our breath-mind.

“Don’t invite your thoughts to tea” is an expression of Suzuki-roshi’s which I’ve always found useful. You know these are just words, and we have to remember that every human concept is just delusion. Still, we use words and provisionally talk about our experience. Lately I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I’m thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is attacking so many of us now ends up being in the brain. So is there some way for us to experience that? I don’t know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have anyway? It’s called delusion. Mind is always creating confusion, joy and pain, like and don’t like, and depression. But there is also a “background mind.” That is what my friend and I have been discussing.

Sometimes when I’m talking about uncomfortableness, I talk about the five fears. One of the five fears is the fear of unusual states of mind. How can we come to have appreciation and respect for this fear and not just some resistance, so that we can enter our fear, allowing these new areas of uncomfortableness? When we can enter each of these new spaces, we can begin to look at truthfulness.

Why do we have to sit? Really there’s no reason to sit. If we’re completely sincere, then there’s no reason to sit. I’m not completely sincere so I have to keep sitting to check. Even if we’re involved with unskillful actions, the one quality we should strive for is truthfulness. Truthfulness takes a total commitment to see all aspects of ourselves and our unskillfulness. If we can embrace the totality of ourselves, we can embrace the totality of others and of the world. Our tendency is to think about things before we do them. Even when we see a beautiful flower, we say, “Oh what a beautiful flower.” “Beautiful flower” is extra. Just look at the flower with no trace.

Suzuki-roshi wrote, “When we practice zazen, our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrating on what are doing.” This is because when we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a simple, clear mind, we have no shadows and our activity is strong and straightforward.

So, even with zazen practice, it gets so complicated. We’re dissecting every aspect of what’s going on, reviewing and comparing. How do we keep it simple and straightforward? How do we come to know this basic truth of practice and Buddhism? The teaching and the rules can and should change according to the situation and the people we’re practicing with, but the secret of practice cannot be changed. It’s always truth.

We teach ourselves and encourage ourselves by creating this space, the meditation hall, so we can begin looking at our mind. “Don’t invite your thoughts to tea.” “Where is your breath-mind?” I used to say, allow this kind of mind to arise. But now I’m saying create background-mind.

This practice is simple: watch your breaths and don’t invite your thoughts to tea. But not inviting your thoughts to tea doesn’t mean to get rid of thinking. That is discrimination. So, there’s no reason to get rid of thoughts, but rather to have some blank, non-interfering relationship with them. Don’t make your mind blank, but rather have some blank relationship with the thoughts. Begin to see the space behind and around the thoughts, and shift the seat of your identity out of your thoughts and come to reside in your breath-mind. We develop our intention to reside in our breath-mind by first bringing our intention to “breath as mind,” and then by shifting the seat of our identity from our thoughts to our breath.

This all ties in with how we use this space, this laboratory. We should have a willingness to explore with our lives, and this is our laboratory right here—how we use the meditation hall and how we use what happens outside of it. Mindfulness is not a part time job.

If you want to see more about the life and teaching of this remarkable man, please visit my page: "The Record of Issan."

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.

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