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 Maitri Compassionate Care. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maitri Compassionate Care. 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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Issan hears the parable of the Good Samaritan—for the first time!

Originally posted on April 22, 2010. Revised Palm Sunday 2021


Dedicated to Rev. Rusty Smith, the E.D. of Maitri Compassionate Care. Rusty was trained as a priest in the Jesuits. Please visit their website, and consider helping in anyway you can.

 

The Case:

A teacher of the Law came up and tried to trap Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”

Jesus answered him, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you interpret them?”


The man answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ ”


“You are right,” Jesus replied; “do this and you will live.”


But the teacher of the Law wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”


Jesus answered, “There was once a man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him, and beat him up, leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down that road; but when he saw the man, he walked on by, on the other side. In the same way a Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man, and then walked on by, on the other side. But a Samaritan who was travelling that way came upon the man, and when he saw him, his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Take care of him,’ he told the innkeeper, ‘and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on him.’ ”


And Jesus concluded, “In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbour towards the man attacked by the robbers?”


The teacher of the Law answered, “The one who was kind to him.”


Jesus replied, “You go, then, and do the same.”

 


My friend, Joe Devlin, a Jesuit priest, said Mass in the zendo at Hartford Street early in 1990. Joe was visiting friends in San Francisco, and I asked him to come by to say Mass for the Catholic men in Maitri Hospice. I told Issan about my plan, and he said he was happy to have Mass and very excited to meet Joe. 

 

It was a Saturday evening. Joe was due to arrive at 5. I was scrambling, assembling a few basics, actually just the essentials, bread, wine and a clean tablecloth for the dining room table. Issan, who was at the time in the final stages of HIV disease came downstairs in his bathrobe, to ask when “Father Joe” was due to arrive, and see what I was doing. After I explained, he said with a big smile, but firmly, “Mass will be in the zendo, not the dining room.” Then he took over and directed all the preparations with the same care that he would have given to a full-blown Zen ritual, the table he wanted for the service, the table cloth, the candles, the cup. He went back upstairs, and when he came down again, he was dressed in his robes. He greeted Joe at the door with a hug and kiss, thanking him for coming, and telling him that Mass would be in our chapel, the zendo.

 

Issan and five or six of us sat in meditation posture on cushions while Joe improvised the ancient Catholic liturgy, beginning with a simple rite of confession and forgiveness. I noticed that Issan brought the same attention to the Catholic ritual as he did zazen and Zen services. When it came time to read from the Testament of Jesus, Joe took a small white, well-worn book out of a pocket in his jacket, and said that his mother had told him that the story he was about to read contains all the essentials for a true Christian life. Sometimes even Jesuits get their best theological training from their mothers.

 

 

Then he read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan. For any of you who need a refresher course in New Testament studies, this is a story about a man who is robbed, taken for everything he has, savagely beaten and left by the side of the road to die. All the people who might have helped, even those who should have helped, chose to walk on the other side of the street when they saw him—except for the Samaritan. Now the Samaritan in Jesus’ day was the guy whom good upstanding members of the community might have called the equivalent of “faggot” or “queer.” He was an outcast, but he was the only person who actually stopped and took some real action to help the poor fellow out. Jesus teaches us that real love is shown through actions, not words.

 

The next morning—Sunday mornings were the usual gathering of the Hartford Street community—Issan began to talk about Fr. Joe and the liturgy. Catholic Mass in the zendo was not universally welcomed. Actually so many members at Hartford Street carried the wounds of discrimination in the religion of their parents that Christianity was rarely spoken about. And the kind Irish priest from Most Holy Redeemer who came to administer the Last Rites to hospice residents who requested it was friendly, but, how can I describe it? sacramentally efficient. However Issan was exuberant. He’d fallen in love with Joe. He said that during the Mass he had the experience of really being forgiven and that had allowed him to feel peace, even appreciation for his early religious training. 

 

Issan had also fallen in love with Luke's parable. He turned to me and asked, “What was the little white book that Fr. Joe read from?” Startled, I said that was the New Testament. “Oh,” Issan said lightly, “it must have been in Latin when I heard it as an altar boy, but it was exactly how we should lead our lives as Buddhists.” 

 

Issan saw Maitri as much more than just a Buddhist hospice, though it was deeply Buddhist to its very roots. He shaved his head and wore a Soto priest’s patch-work robe, he bowed and chanted in Sino-Japanese, but he understood very clearly that real wisdom, what Buddhists call prajna, is not the sole property of any religion. I actually think he took the Teaching of Jesus to a new, heroic level: the definition of friend included building an inn for the injured traveler when he couldn't find one in town.

 

When Joe and I had dinner together the night before he flew back to Boston, I told him what Issan had said. A few days later, the small New Testament that had been in his jacket for years arrived in an envelope addressed to Issan. Before Issan died 6 months later, during one of our last meetings, he asked me to thank Joe again for the zendo mass after he was gone. I did. And that New Testament which passed from the pocket of Joe’s jacket to Issan’s bookshelf at Hartford Street to my altar, I have since passed on to a person who asked a dharma question about one of the stories in the Gospel of Jesus.

 


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...