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 Hospice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maitri Hospice. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

An Unauthorized Death

When Maylie Scott’s mother died at home in Berkeley, she called me. Apparently after my stint at Maitri Hospice, I had the reputation as the go-to person for dealing with Buddhist death rites. Personally I found the designation of hospice priest slightly uncomfortable. I had done my best to distance myself from any sacred ritual after spending several of my Jesuit years fussing over post Vatican 2 updating. But as we say, that was my personal issue.

Actually I made it up as I went along. I had to. I’d fallen into my role taking care of men dying from HIV without any formal hospice training. The crisis trained us all, often brutally. The same for taking care of the Last Things. If there was a handbook, it was untranslated or came with tons of cultural baggage. This is a story about some of what we did, why we did it, and where our hands were tied.

When Issan died, Steve Allen asked Kobun Chino Roshi to perform the exacting Soto ritual done at Eiheiji for their most revered priests. Kobun had served in an official capacity there, teaching ritual and chant. He himself had been well trained; his seemingly endless chanting was mesmerizing but certainly beyond our language ability not to mention voice control. He could not train us. I drifted off and realized that it probably wouldn’t make any sense to translate it anyway. It was perfect for that moment, and that was enough. It had to be. Later there were a few odd ceremonial gestures, like pouring salt on either side of the doorposts, that I understood even less. The salt heaps seemed to be Japanese superstition, perhaps to ward off marauding Yōkai. I didn’t want to believe that they had crossed the great waters with the Dharma, but I might be wrong.

Issan had arranged for his own cremation with the Neptune Society. We followed their car to the crematorium. It was a bare, ugly industrial space; the workers were dressed for work around the hot furnace. Though not disrespectful, it was utilitarian which came into sharp contrast when Kobun, Philip, Steve, Shunko Jamvold, Angelique Farrow, David Schneider and David Bulloch put on their formal Okesa. The usual work of burning bodies was interrupted by our chanting. I could see that this was outside the usual practice, and it cost extra. 

Steve and Shunko returned several hours before Issan’s body was reduced to ashes. Usually the crematorium would grind any remaining bone fragments into a powder in what looked like a giant food processor before returning them to the next of kin. Steven had requested that Issan be spared this process so that he and Shunko could sift through his ashes with ceremonial chopsticks, looking for small gem-like fragments to keep as relics.

Several weeks later there was an elaborate funeral at Zen Center. Hundreds of people gathered; Richard Baker Roshi, Issan’s teacher, was the head priest, but Kobun, as well as Mel Weitzman, Blanche Hartman, Norman Fisher and Reb Anderson were also present. Towards the end Richard Schober, the chair of Maitri and not a Buddhist, turned to me and said it felt like high mass for a bishop.

Between 1989 and 94 I was part of so many services for men who died in the hospice as well as others for Issan’s friends that I lost count. Almost 90 men and one woman died during Maitri’s first years. I tried to school myself, attempting to discover an appropriate level of formal ritual. Issan, Steve and Phil performed the Soto memorial service that included food offerings, and chanting, particularly the Daihi Shin Darani, an invocation for the compassionate intervention of Avalokitesvara. There was also a period of spontaneous sharing about the person’s life and loves, something that Richard Baker may have added at San Francisco Zen Center. Several times I helped gather a minyan so that we could recite Kaddish, and there was one Roman Catholic Mass in the zendo. On at least 4 occasions Issan, Steve or Phil performed Tokudo for men who wanted to join the sangha and shave their heads before they died.

The Book of the Dead

In 1989 at Lone Mountain College, I went to a teaching regarding the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö, coupled with the bardo initiation. There were only six to eight of us who attended all the teachings. The lama sat on a high throne in the neo-gothic chapel for three hour sessions twice a day for three days. Despite all this formality he was very approachable, answering questions in an informal, personal way. I remember a long argument he had with an animated, forceful Jewish woman who said she could not forgive Hitler but felt she had to. Jamgön Kongtrül’s resolution, as I recall, was if the Talmudic leaning woman could stop harming herself no matter what she wanted to hold onto, opinions and positions would inevitably fall away.

When on the evening of the last day, time came for the empowerment of passing through the bardos, the audience swelled to overflowing, mostly gaunt men with HIV. I knew in my heart that many of these men were engaged in some kind of magical thinking. The fear of death was palpable. Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö performed the ritual in the manner of someone steeped in tradition. Perhaps death’s sting had not dissipated by the last chant, but if the pain of the men who lined up for his blessing was even slightly mitigated, it was a success. In my own life, the sting would linger for years, a kind of survivor guilt. Along the way ritual became less important, though it did not entirely vanish.

Normally an initiation ends with some practice instruction. On that last evening Jamgön Kongtrül concluded with a plea for everyone to live their lives as fully as possible for however many minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years remained. He said that would be the best practice; that bardo practice was noticing what happened in the “in-between” gaps in our experience. Many of these men would be dead in a few months. His instruction was a kind gesture of compassion.

Joshi, Kennett Roshi, and bending the law to death’s favor

Paul Joshi Higley was the first Zen priest in the community to die after Issan. He was one of two men and one woman Issan ordained. Paul had been a student of Chogyam Thrumpa, and held some level of Shambhala Training. He came to the hospice with a six month life expectancy and lived for nearly two years. He became part of our community, and my friend. In his late 30’s, dying of AIDS, he had a strong will to live fully. Determined to take full advantage of anything that medicine could provide during that first terrible decade of the epidemic, he didn’t die in the hospice but at Garden Sullivan Hospital out on Geary Ave after an experimental treatment.

The hospital called early in the morning, perhaps 1 AM. I’d promised Paul that his body would not be embalmed and that it would remain undisturbed for at least three days before cremation, but I was not at all prepared to find a way to transport a dead body from a hospital back to what looked like an ordinary San Francisco house in the dead of night. In those days the hospital afforded you 4-6 hours to have a funeral service to pick up “the remains.” I called Paul's father who met me at the hospital and provided the signature required for the release of his son’s body. Then I had to convince a tiny African-American mortuary to transport his body to “a Temple.” This was not entirely a fiction as Maitri was still part of Hartford Street Zen Center, but it was pushing the limits. It was against the law for a body, certainly an unembalmed body, to remain in an ordinary house, not a licensed funeral home, for three days.

We returned Paul’s body to his room at Maitri between 4 and 5 AM. I began to wash it carefully with sweet tea and a few drops of alcohol added, the astringent to help seal the pores; then I inserted some cotton balls into his anus. He’d been my friend so this was both a labor of love and extremely difficult. Issan once told me that in the time of AIDS, we were at war, and the ravages of Paul's last struggle with the virus were visible on his body. I imagined that I was washing them away. It was sunrise when finally Paul’s body, properly dressed, lay undisturbed in his room, dominated by a huge Tibetan style shrine. I turned and saw the last calligraphy that he’d done on large pieces of fine paper hanging on the wall. They read “Yes, Yes, Yes.”

Over the course of the next three days, friends, family and admirers came and went. It was a kind of Buddhist wake.

Phil sent me to Jiyu Kennett Roshi’s Selling water by the river: A manual of Zen training, to review what she wrote about a priest’s funeral. Together he and I sketched out the full ceremony, where everyone would stand, the placement of the altar table, the food offerings, the order of the chanting. Phil was a Soto priest performing the cremation ceremony of a Soto priest. He wanted to make sure that we omitted no part of the ritual performed in the crematorium in Emeryville.

Paul had kept $25 dollars in his pocket to pay for his cremation. After the ceremony, we used it to buy lunch in a Japanese restaurant. It didn’t quite cover the entire bill.

What did we keep?

A few appropriate words!

After all my experience and hard won lessons, I might expect that I could say something definitive about The Last Things. I cannot. As far as ritual, the first thing that comes to mind is Aitken Roshi’s counsel to Joel Katz, Ken MacDonald and me when we carried Dan Dunning’s ashes to a long boat at Queen’s Surf to be spread out beyond the reef. The Old Man said, “a few words would be appropriate.” Dan had been a dear friend for years. As I took the lid off the urn, I mumbled, “I loved you immensely, and I’ll miss you immensely.” Joel and Ken saved the day. They chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, banging rhythm on the gunwale as we rode the waves back to shore. I’m sure Dan loved that professional musicians did the honors, especially since he’d seen Phantom half a dozen times.


Washing the body

Frank Ostaseski taught me the practice of washing a body for the final time. It is an intimate gesture of love and respect. It is also a difficult practice. When not left to morticians or hospital nurses, it can be an act of friendship. It is also a physical act, reminding us that death is real. Thank you Frank.

Don’t touch anything for a while

I had a Japanese friend whose partner died of AIDS. Yoshi wanted to keep the man’s body undisturbed for three days. He bought all the dry ice available in his small Marin town. Early on we decided that Maitri also ought to allow a resident’s body to remain untouched for three days. Cultural conventions certainly did not influence me nor do I have any particular beliefs about the soul traversing to a nether world, but I did sense that trying not to interfere with a natural process was probably a good thing, akin to not interfering with the natural process of thought in meditation. 

I certainly wanted to be respectful. Working in the hospice, I'd become keenly aware of a delicate balance between pushing to get something done and leaving things alone. Although it may feel like a good idea for personal relationships to be as loving, complete and even as robust as possible as death approaches, there may have been damage which requires more healing time than what’s available. On the other hand, having a formal will in place as well as written instructions about funerals etc., is something that has a definite time frame. Sometimes I had to push through denial and procrastination to get papers signed. Thankfully I had the assistance of very well trained social workers from Visiting Nurses and Hospice to help.

But more of a problem was the legality of not removing a body immediately. The law required that we not keep a body more than 24 to 48 hours without refrigeration or embalming. Luckily I found a funeral director who helped with the legal forms, the death notice, so that we could keep a body in the hospice for as long as possible. After some experience we realized that though we didn’t need dry ice, we did need a lot of ventilation. We always seemed to be pushing the limits.

One of the social workers called it “lying in state” when she would ask patients how they wanted their bodies treated after they died. Many, if not most, chose our Buddhist wake. Their friends did come by. It always took its own form. Sometimes there was chanting or some spiritual practice, but it didn’t have the religious formality of visiting hours with the obligatory rosary of my upbringing. Most of the men in the hospice would have rejected that anyway. In almost every case I can remember, it just seemed to fit.

As I sat with many bodies, I began to notice that dying is not instantaneous. Like any process of saying goodbye, life doesn’t just end when the breath stops. It’s not like walking out and closing a door. The legal definition of death may be that the heart no longer beats, but hair and fingernails continue to grow. The skin seems to continue to breathe. Bodies actually change. Over the course of several days I could actually see life taper out. I was not imagining something. It is a reality that I can no longer escape.

Full Circle

After Maylie Scott’s mother Mary died, I'm sure Maylie washed her body with love. Then she called several of us who’d been close to her mother during the last years of her life. We came and sat up with Maylie through the night. Three days later she called the Neptune Society. Within the hour they arrived accompanied by two cops because there had been an “unauthorized death.” Maylie thought that her mother would have been very amused by the ruckus she caused.

Mary’s ashes are kept in the ancient Malling Benedictine Abbey south of London where her other daughter, Sister Mary John, was the abbess. From Eiheiji, through Kaddish and The Book of the Dead, to a small Buddhist Hospice in San Francisco during the time of AIDS, and onto a small abbey of cloistered Anglican nuns. Perhaps a bit wobbly, but full circle. Life and death continue to circle on and on.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

CONTENTS, All and Nothing

Introduction

What is “The Record of Issan?”

An Invitation
Several ways to read and listen to a conversation about things that matter.

"The End of the Rainbow"
Steve Allen questions Issan when he became Abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center.

The Hands and Eyes of Great Compassion
What about compassion is difficult to understand? A koan commentary

Memories in a shoe box, Issan’s Jesus Koan 
Bruce Boone’s memory of Issan.

Hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan—for the first time!
My friend, Fr. Joe Devlin, S.J., celebrated a Catholic mass in the zendo.

Don't Worry. Be Happy. Just do your best!
Issan humms Bobby McFerrin. Actually he told me he couldn’t get it out of head; it was one of those loopy tunes that we can’t stop. But then he amends Meher Baba.

Dokusan goes Kung-an, Talking publicly about sex
The Master teaches how to brush sexual fantasy from meditation.

“They Never Get the Pleats Right” A Mondo
Never Blend In. Not even a fever of 102 could keep Issan from the obligation of officiating at the wedding of some old friends.

"One day not work, one day not eat," 一日不做一日不食
There are always dishes to clean and cookies to bake, if you’re lucky.

Sex, death, and food
Dainin Katagiri Roshi admonishes Issan! “Yes, we work hard long hours. Then we die.”

“Are you going somewhere?”

Buddhist Heaven. Three Cheers for Grandmother Zen!

Lord Krishna comes to tea

Issan and Sweet Baby James

Is life over when it's over?
A friend asks Issan, Why don’t we just kill ourselves?

Really Choosing Death.
There were men who took their own lives in the Hospice. We do get some choice in the matter.

Q and A Zen
A cautionary tale plus a koan—or two. My memory of Issan’s last breaths.

When the Breath Ends, "Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha."
Issan practices till his last breath.

Issan said, "I have things to do!"
This story about Issan’s last week of life came back to me when another Buddhist friend received news of a grave diagnosis from his doctor.

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.
A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Road to Rohatsu
After a powerful meditation retreat, Issan asks me to come back to Hartford Street.

I didn’t shout but I’m still a big phoney.
Blue Cliff Record, Case 10.

How does the past become the past? Therapy, Jesus and Zen
Perhaps this does not belong in the story of Maitri, or maybe it does.


Other Stuff

Mindfulness is not a Part Time Job
Bowing, Boring and Bliss
Saint Francis, Goa and Me

Friday, March 18, 2022

The Ripple Effect: An Engaged Buddhist Conversation

This is a short piece I wrote about my experience living and practicing at Maitri Hospice for a German Buddhist magazine, Ursache & Wirkung, in an edition about "Buddhismus unter dem Regenbogen."

Tobias Trapp asked me to write a few words about volunteering during the AIDS epidemic. I jumped at the chance because it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge Frank Ostaseski and Issan Dorsey Roshi as well as to encourage others to accept the invitation to be with another human being at the end of their lives.

In 1989 I lost a very dear friend, a woman who’d been like a mother to me. Her daughter asked me to donate the hospital bed that she had in her room at the retirement home where she’d spent the last years of her life in San Francisco. 


Through a series of phone calls, a gay friend who was doing design work for the Zen Center Hospice Project, gave me Frank’s number. Could the Hospice use the bed? Frank said he’d love to have the bed. How could we move it across town to the Hospice? I had a truck. Frank said let’s meet and be delivery men. We set a time. 


I liked Frank immediately, bright, up beat, not my picture of a deathbed priest. He was also very persuasive--between the time we’d loaded the bed in my truck and unloaded it at the Zen Center, I was signed up for the upcoming Zen Hospice Volunteer Training Program. 


That afternoon also set the tone for volunteering, listening and responding to simple requests, taking care of what was at hand, and working with others. No special knowledge was required.  


Within 6 months, I met Issan Dorsey Roshi, and became a volunteer at Maitri Hospice. Guided by Issan’s compassion, taking care of almost 100 men changed me. I cooked spaghetti and painted walls, I helped men sort through a lifetime of personal letters and called their mothers. Not every task was easy, but the rewards were immense. 


I could not have known that this simple trip would lead to the first Buddhist Hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. I was just helping a man carry a bed across San Francisco. Thank you Frank, Issan, J.D., Bernie and the other men who came into my life. Your gifts were amazing.


Sunday, February 27, 2022

I didn’t shout but I’m still a big phoney.

Blue Cliff Record Case 10

Let me begin with a snippet from the few introductory lines that Hsueh Tou calls the pointer: “If on the other hand, you neither face upwards or downwards, how will you deal with it? If there is a principle, go by the principle. If there is no principle, go by the example.”

The koan

After Mu Chou’s formula introductory question, “Where are you from,” in a reversal of roles, the shouting teacher gets shouted at.
Then Mu Chou said, "After three or four shouts, then what?"
The student had nothing to say.
Mu Chou hit him and said: You thieving phon[e]y.


It was sometime in the Fall of 1993. If Mu Chou asked me where I’d come from, I would have said “Hartford Street Zen Center,” but he would not have recognized our lives there. A small temple in the heart San Francisco’s gay ghetto, it had never been your typical Zen Center even before AIDS. After I moved in 1989, more than 80 men and one woman died in its 13 bedrooms. Our everyday life was centered around doctor’s appointments, dispensing medications, talking with friends and family about wills and funerals, performing funerals, cooking food as well as two periods of zazen every day plus a pretty standard Soto ritual. We tried to organize some of the more formal Buddhist study typical in Western Zen centers, but the grief support groups had more attendees. I have to add that my daily ritual usually ended with a bout of heavy drinking in a local bar a block away. It was more than a full time job.

The concern of our zendo was the pain and fragility of life. It was inescapable. You could try to run away, and we all did from time to time in our own way. But now Issan was dead; Steve Allen had resigned as abbot, and left for Crestone. And it was the end of Maitri Hospice being part of the Temple. Phil told me to get rid of it. It was Issan’s project, and he had other ideas about Zen masters’ dying. In retrospect I think that he hated trying to live his life with everyone dropping dead around him. He might have accepted Issan’s invitation to move in because they were old friends; they had been in Santa Fe together, and they were Dick’s first real dharma heirs. But actually I really think that one of his main motivations was that he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. He had set himself to master Zen, and though he had done his work deeply and thoroughly, he was still a human, and a frail old man.

We had been sitting all day, and I went into Phil’s room just before the closing bell. I remember quite clearly what transpired. It could be fairly labeled passive-aggressive. From time to time, I have been less than proud of my behavior although I let myself off the hook with the recognition that I am also human.

I forget the exact reason I was so pissed off, but I was. Of course I was burned out and disappointed, perhaps something about the changes at Hartford Street, perhaps Phil’s brushing me off, but we all were a bit “reactive,” Phil included. That is the way with anger’s confusion--whatever remains, the angry mind latches onto like a life raft in a raging sea. With all that experience of dying, anger turned out to have been a clever student and strategized its survival with the cunning of a fox.

I remember that I’d determined beforehand that in this dokusan I would not say anything. Just sit like a fat lump and keep my mouth shut. If I felt even the slightest inkling of the beginnings of a word, much less the formulation of a question, I would shut it down. I would kill an errant thought before it even showed its face. I would not recommend this strategy for inching towards happiness, but on occasion it is interesting to test if it is even possible. Perhaps yelling the nonsensical “Katz” has some salvific result as it involves more of the spontaneous, emotive parts of the psyche, but my Mother had taught me that shouting was always bad manners. Despite the fact that we learn that great Zen teachers favored this theatrical gesture as a pedagogy, I still believe my mother. Western teachers have tried to polish this skill, but when I hear them affecting a Katz shout, it feels contrived. Or embarrassing. It is still better than cutting off fingers and other outlandish external “shoves” designed to facilitate the dropping off of body and mind. Shouting is not a principle in Zen, nor is it really an example of anything but the coordination of breath and vocal cords.

So for whatever reasons I could never be a shouting student, and I sat. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was shouting inside, though I did feel a few interior bumps. And once in a while Phil began to look up and begin to say something, but then he stopped too. And so on for a very uncomfortable span of time.

Then Phil faintly smiled and said, “Let’s go back down to the zendo and join the others.” I remember or imagined a feeling of disappointment in his voice. That was it. He didn’t call me a phony. Do you spell it with an “e”? Did he see through to my anger? It makes no difference. All things considered, he was very generous.

I said in the beginning that Mu Chou would not have recognized our lives at Hartford Street Zen Center. Perhaps I’m selling him short.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Buddhism doesn’t need saints

And by the way, don’t cry too much over Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Dorothy Day said: "Don't call me a saint, I don't want to be dismissed that easily." Of course Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, proposed her for canonization as soon as he could. The old left wing Catholic in me finds it ironic that a man who is the complete antithesis of the kind of life Day proposes for a modern Christian calls her Blessed Dorothy. She might accuse him of dampening her radical voice, even silencing the anarchist grandmother who confounded comfortable notions, but I wouldn't hesitate, not even for a nano second.


Pushing for sainthood lets purveyors of religious doublespeak, cults, snake oil and associated pyramid schemes off the hook for their flagrant sins. I will also argue that the whole rigmarole of canonization is just lip service to what Jesus calls Christians to do. We don’t really have to go and take care of lepers. Saint Damien did it. Pray to him that we be spared. Or in the case of the Founder of the Catholic Worker, someone can take care of the castoffs our materialistic culture dumps on the Bowery as long as it’s not me or my kids.


One of the reasons that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation dismissed saints was to end the superstitious practice of encasing some bones in the local cathedral to entice lucrative pilgrim spending as well as defund the Papal ponzi scheme of selling indulgences to cover the extravagant cost of building Saint Peter’s in Rome. Every organized religion needs a building maintenance fund so this might be just have been marketing but it has always felt a bit underhanded to me.


There are some people who want to make Issan Dorsey into a Buddhist saint--gotta have a saint in high heels. Of course we could do worse. 


Before I started work at  Maitri Hospice, the Dalai Lama’s rain-maker, the Yogin Yeshe Dorje visited. He and Issan got on very well, one of those connections. The rainmaker grabbed Issan and said, “You’ve created Buddhist Heaven.” Issan laughed. Later when I asked Issan about the visit, he smiled and said, “He was a very nice man, but he didn’t pay the water bill.”


All that is just a preface to something that has been creeping to the surface as the tributes pour in for Thầy, “The Saint of Mindfulness, Beloved Thích Nhất Hanh,” and I need to say it. Whether he really was a very nice Buddhist dude, or even if he was just an ordinary flawed human like the rest of us, don't for a minute think that the work of being mindful, practicing, looking after our interconnected world can be done by anyone else but us, and that includes all the difficult bits. Don’t waste a lot of tears or weave nostalgic odes about all the really good teachers dying. The Lord Buddha died too, quite a few years back.


We can't allow ourselves to get distracted by any cult of personality. We can't get off the hook no matter how hard, by whatever devious means we try. We have to do the work ourselves.


I began with the caution from Blessed Dorothy Day undermining the whole sanctification scheme, and I will close with a hopeful note from the same complicated woman who lived an exemplary life, "The world will be saved by beauty." Amen.








Monday, December 13, 2021

Begin with a joke!

My friend and mentor, Jon Logan gave me some wise and generous advice, advice that Issan would have seconded, “Always start with a joke.”


So here goes.


One bright afternoon, Isaan was walking down Hartford St. towards 18th with Steve Allen and Jerry Berg. They were headed to the hamburger place that used to be close to the corner right next to Moby Dick’s. That information might not be important unless you want to know if Issan loved hamburgers—he did—but you have to know that Steve is a Zen priest, one of Issan’s closest friends, his dharma heir, and the first Executive Director of Maitri Home and Hospice. Jerry Berg was a successful lawyer and prominent leader in the gay community, and an early supporter of the hospice.


As they walked, Steve and Jerry were talking about possible legal structures for the hospice while Issan lagged a few steps behind. He noticed a bottle lying on the sidewalk and bent to pick it up. Yes, any rumors that he was an incarnation of Mr. (or Miss.) Clean are well founded. But when he noticed that the bottle was rather beautiful and might be worth keeping, he took out the rag that he kept neatly folded in his monk’s handbag, and began to polish it. Suddenly, a Genie appeared! A Buddhist Genie, a Bodhidharma look-a-like, with a shaved head, droopy ears and a bright robe. The Genie looked at Issan and Issan looked back, a staring match of wonderment. Steve and Jerry turned around to see what Issan was holding Issan up, and stopped dead in their tracks.


The Genie spoke the time honored script of genies: “Because you have freed me after many lifetimes of being cramped-up in that god damned bottle, you, yeah, I guess all three of you, get one wish. It’s just one so you’d better make it good.”


Steve didn’t hesitate: he knew his Buddhism and asked to be released from his karma and enter Buddhahood, or nirvana, or the Pure Land, right there and then. Just as he was about to raise his palms in gassho, the traditional gesture of respect—poof, he was gone.


Jerry thought to himself, that’s powerful magic. I’m going for it. I’m not getting any younger so how about a great life in a heaven modeled after Palm Springs—but without the humidity—endless pool parties, rafts of handsome men, an eternal nosh that never made you fat? As he smiled and waved good-bye—poof, he disappeared too.


The Genie turned to Issan who was left standing alone—it might have been wonderment on his face, maybe just a bit puzzled. The Genie said, "OK, honey, it's your turn, what does your little heart desire?


Issan didn’t hesitate, “Get those two numb-nut girls back here. We have a hospice to run.”


Sunday, December 12, 2021

"One day not work, one day not eat," 一日不做一日不食

The renowned revolutionary Chinese Master Baizhang Huaihai ( 百丈懷海; Hyakujō Ekai) is perhaps most well known for introducing manual labor to Zen Monasticism. From his rule book comes the oft-quoted phrase, “One day not work, one day not eat.” Modern western students can thank him for samu, chopping vegetables and cleaning toilets during our retreats.

 

Legendary teachers create legends. Some of Suzuki’s students came upon him cleaning the public toilets at Zen Center. Not exactly what they expected. Perhaps their surprise was at least partially the result of some lingering guilt for leaving a dirty job undone.

 

One asked, “Roshi, what are you doing? Why are you cleaning the toilets?”

 

“Because they needed to be cleaned.” And there was still time before meditation and dinner.

 

It is said that Suzuki gave Issan his name during samu. Someone tells the story of Richard Baker climbing the stairs at the Page Street Center with Suzuki Roshi and coming upon Issan balancing a large industrial floor polisher, keeping it close to the floor to do its work. Machines have a mind of their own. Suzuki Roshi admired his tenacity, and said “Issan, One Mountain,” I think pointing to some determination to quell the bumpy forces at work in our nature, or that is my story.

 

There are several versions of both these stories floating around to amuse, edify or even prod us. Zen students love a pious yarn. They circulate like the wind, picking up little particles from each teller, sometimes veering so far from the facts that they become jokes or even lies. That is the nature of stories. I will add a few more.

 

Issan loved to cook and clean. We have to learn to sit zazen correctly but Issan knew samu in his bones.

 

At Christmas the first year I lived at Hartford Street, I wandered into the kitchen to find him carefully inserting cloves of garlic into a pork loin. There must have been 50 shiny white slivers obeying Issan’s careful, meticulous thumb. Raw pork, raw garlic—meat was only allowed in the kitchen on special occasions; I thought I caught a fierce look of concentration as if to wrap it more quickly in aluminum foil.

 

“What are you doing?” along with the unasked question, what is it? “Oh” he said, “I’m trying a roast Cuban pork with mojo sauce for JD (the first resident of the hospice). He told me that he loved it, and it is Christmas.” He could never say No to JD. Many people complained that he was just continuing to spoil a spoiled child. But in my heart I feel that Issan knew there'd be no miracles in the last few months of the young man's life. It was just cooking a tricky Cuban dish with a lot of garlic. 

 

For most of us in the Castro, “Come out the the closet” meant to be honest about our sexuality, to banish all secrets about being gay. It had connotations of a difficult process for most white middle class gay men of that era, difficult conversations with backward, prejudiced families, about why we weren’t going to marry. Coming out of the closet opened the possibility of losing not only family but long time friends, jobs, inheritance. I certainly had to deal with all those scenarios. It took years. So when Issan told me that if he was depressed, he cleaned out the closet and almost immediately felt better, my mind immediately latched onto every Gay Liberation catch phrase.

 

At the bottom of the stairs that led up to my attic room, there was a shallow closet with shelves next to the door to Issan’s room. One morning I came rushing down the stairs, probably late for a meeting. The door of the closet stood open; Issan stood behind his ironing board, neatly pressing his worn underwear. He smiled and said, “Oh, I feel so much better.” He really meant cleaning out the closet. Just that. No time for my middle class preoccupations, well maybe the nanosecond between jokes.

 

Issan often said that Maitri was difficult work, taxing, and demanding. Once he even compared it to war, telling me that he’s been to war, on a ship during the Korean conflict, and it was not fun. But he also said that what made it bearable was to laugh a little and have some parties, tell a few jokes between the deadly serious bits. One of the most delightful samu tasks was baking chocolate chip cookies for the parties, wigs and skirts optional.

 

I came into the living room looking for Issan, needing to ask about some mundane detail. I asked Phil where he was.

 

“Probably cleaning the toilet with a toothbrush.” Yes, just cleaning a toilet bowl can be that difficult. I saved the joke for last. And I'm not lying.

Below is Ken MacDonald, Issan's heart student, joking, I hope. But he has an important environmental message which might help inform our samu.

Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about 2 million die each year because of it. By 2025 nearly ⅔ will live in water-stressed countries.Nearly 40% of the developing world’s population lacks clean drinking water and about 2 million die each year because of it. By 2025 nearly ⅔ will live in water-stressed countries.

In the developed world we take our supply for granted, flushing it away mindlessly. But BRITA’s latest ads seem to imply that since the water we use for all our purposes “comes from the same source,” it’s as if we are drinking sewer water. Do you think that’s tasteless?

But if you do buy a BRITA filter, don’t expect it to protect you from anything…it doesn’t filter bacteria,

Thursday, September 2, 2021

“They Never Get the Pleats Right”

A Mondo

Master Nansen* was washing clothes.

A monk asked: "Is the master still doing such things?"

Master Nansen, holding up his clothes, asked: "What is to be done with them?"

 

*Nansen was the accomplished teacher of the famous Mu-dog guy, Joshu, who when Nansen died went into a deep state of grief that, we’re told, lasted decades. I’m not Joshu, but I will tell a Nansen style tale to focus my own grief that reappears from time to time decades after Issan died. 

 

 

A more formal sounding Buddhist name to this story might be “there’s nothing too small that you can let escape your attention, even if no one’s going to notice,” but “They Never Get the Pleats Right” tells the story.

When we began Maitri at Hartford St, we carried on a full meditation schedule on top of running the Hospice.

One Saturday we were sitting meditation from early morning till dusk. Issan was not sitting. It was during the last six months of his life, and actually he was in bed. His fever had spiked to almost 103 the previous day; his doctor, Rick Levine, was sitting with us and monitoring his patient.

That evening Issan had a longstanding commitment to officiate at the wedding of two men, old friends, at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Issan married same sex couples in the religious tradition of Soto Zen long before the issue of gay marriage exploded, Prop 8 passed, was then voided, the Supreme Court—well, that’s a whole other story.

After lunch I came upstairs from the zendo, and noticed that Issan’s formal white kimono had appeared on the coat rack in the hallway, wrapped in plastic fresh from the dry cleaner. The simple garment had several deep pleats around the waistline, but with the Okesa, the Buddha’s robe, worn over the left shoulder, not much of it is actually visible. It’s almost like ceremonial underwear.

I went back to my cushion in the zendo. When I came upstairs again about 3:30 to fix tea before the last block of sitting, Issan was standing behind his ironing board in the living room, in his bathrobe, wearing a little head band. Sweat was dripping from his forehead. He was ironing the kimono fresh from the dry cleaners. I stopped on the stairs, and had to stop myself from telling him sternly to get back to bed--the hot iron didn’t mix with an elevated body temperature. He saw my shock. He turned towards me, smiled and said, “They never get the pleats right.” I knew he wanted me to laugh. But he was serious about his task, and didn’t want me to stop him. How could I argue with a man obviously in a deep state of concentration if I was laughing? I didn’t. I didn’t dare.

I went back to the zendo, and Issan returned to his bed. Just after the closing ceremony, we met again. Steve and Shunko, part of the ceremonial team, had packed the car, and everything was in place. Issan came down the stairs perfectly dressed. He might have been brushing off his fears when he said, “It’s such a long complicated ceremony. I hope I get it right, but it's a Zen ceremony—When I forget what I’m supposed to do, I just bow. That's always right.” This time we both laughed.

Everyone came home relieved. The wedding had been fabulous. When Shunko complained that the husband’s gift list of toasters and table service included nothing for the Hospice, Issan was quick to remind him that it was the couples’ special day. They were setting up house together for the first time.

Oh that man loved to iron. He also ironed his non-priestly underwear. I saw it with my own eyes. I don’t know if the newly married couple were given a shiny new steam iron, but I do know that Issan gave them the gift of his practice.

Issan taught me ironing practice though I am not as devoted to it as he was, but there’s another lesson here about gifts and toasters and table service. It took me a long time to digest and I still struggle with it: There is always enough money to do what you need to do. And most likely it will be just enough, not a penny more or a penny less. When you are tight, (or especially if you’re tight) it’s probably time to reorder your priorities, and mindfully count your pennies.


The Verse is from the poem, “Ironing,” by Vicki Feaver

And now I iron again: shaking

dark spots of water onto wrinkled

silk, nosing into sleeves, round


buttons, breathing the sweet heated smell

hot metal draws from newly-washed

cloth, until my blouse dries


to a shining, creaseless blue,

an airy shape with room to push

my arms, breasts, lungs, heart into.









In memory of Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990)


Saturday, July 24, 2021

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 Tendzin was still alive, and just at the time when the extent of Tendzin’s reckless sexual conduct as a person with HIV/AIDS was coming to light. Butterfield’s article does not address this controversy that was ripping the fledgling Western Buddhist world apart.

In 1990 Ösel died in San Francisco where he’d come for treatment of advanced HIV disease. At the time I was living at Hartford Street Zen Center and working as the Director of Maitri AIDS Hospice; for some reason I felt it was important that Maitri, a Buddhist program set up for helping ease the pain of the AIDS epidemic, should be present for the funeral of an important Buddhist teacher who’d died from the disease. I didn’t realize how deeply I would wade into the murky waters of denial.

Shambala was going to conduct the elaborate funeral ritual at their center on 16th and Mission. We phoned, asked if we could attend, and were given a time; we put on our rakusus and climbed to the second floor above a Jack in the Box in a pretty marginal neighborhood.

I can’t adequately describe my shock.

It may have been the first Tibetan ritual that I’d attended, but after we’d entered the hall and made our prostrations, there was Ösel’s corpse trussed up in an awkward meditation posture, full regalia barely masking the ropes and poles required to hold it upright. I’d sat with many men who died of AIDS so it was not that the body itself showed the ravages of the disease. There was no attempt to hide them. It was not that the ritual seemed foreign or exotic. It was, but it was a Tibetan ritual, and I wasn’t expecting a low church Episcopalian service.

What totally overwhelmed me was the veneration of a man who had knowingly infected others with AIDS. Shambala tried to mitigate the damage with a mystical smokescreen. It was rumored that some had spread the lie that the guru’s Vajra powers bestowed by the lineage would prevent reinfection, or that it was even an opening for the great enlightenment. There was at least one teenage boy involved, a young man whose life would now be cut short. Everyone present, and there were several hundred, knew that their Regent had knowingly infected people with HIV and that their deaths would be soon upon them. It was all supposed to be OK in the great scheme of things. The drums beat, the chanting began. Steve Allen got up and motioned for us to leave. On the way down the stairs he said, “All that was missing was the bones in their noses.”

We returned to Hartford Street. I was shaken, but managed to get up the next morning and take care of Bernie, J.D, and the five other men in our care.

I have never picked up “Cutting through Spiritual Materialism” again, brilliant as it is. Nor have I recommended it to anyone, and I never will. I feel that it would be condoning the damage to the precious dharma caused by the actions of these men.




Some people have tried to defend Ösel. One wrote to me and said, “hindsight is easy.” I lived through that period, I took care of more than 100 men who died of AIDS. My own teacher died. It was a terrible time. Of course there were mistakes. Of course it was difficult. Of course it takes time to sort things out. It took me years.

Steven Butterfield writes about his personal interactions with Ösel, wondering why in an airport lounge he can’t muster the courage to ask him a question about his HIV disease. He chose to remain silent, and they go on pretending that their world of limousines, crazy wisdom practice and unprotected sex could just go on and on. In retrospect can Butterfield even question his belief in guru transmission? He says he can, but I get the distinct feeling that there are still far too many threads that tie him to the myth.

But there can be no passing the buck here. It was arrogance and grave harm. We have to name it. Hindsight may be easy, but murder is still murder. Sexual abuse is still abuse. People say, oh it was the 80's, things were different. I strongly disagree. We knew that HIV was sexually transmitted for certain by 1983 when the virus was isolated by the Pasteur Institute in France. Ösel knew that he was positive for the virus, and still had unprotected sex with at least one minor. Sorry. Call it what it was.

Searching Google for a picture of Mr. Thomas Rich, I found vajraregent.org. When I entered “AIDS” into the site’s search engine, nothing. But I did find these verses. I think that some people are still in deep denial.

This is offered with love, appreciation and gratitude to Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his Vajra Regent and dharma heir Ösel Tendzin, for the benefit of their present and future disciples, and all beings.

Through hearing, seeing and contemplating these teachings of the Vidyadhara through his Vajra Regent,

May we realize the essence of transmission from teacher to student.

May we hold precious this seed planting of Vajrayana dharma and Shambhala vision in the West.

Through their gestures and words, may we wake up on the spot.

May we not become confused by spiritual materialism in any form.

Now, practicing moment by moment until the end of this life and beyond, may we free all beings.


And I will add my own petition to this list:


May we work diligently to repair any damage to the transmission of the precious Dharma caused by our heedless actions.

And deliver us from cults.

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, May 11, 2021

Volunteering in an AIDS Hospice

This is a short piece I wrote about my experience living and practicing at Maitri Hospice for a German Buddhist magazine, Ursache & Wirkung, in an edition about "Buddhismus unter dem Regenbogen."



Tobias Trapp asked me to write a few words about volunteering during the AIDS epidemic. I jumped at the chance because it gave me an opportunity to acknowledge Frank Ostaseski and Issan Dorsey Roshi as well as to encourage others to accept the invitation to be with another human being at the end of their lives.

In 1989 I lost a very dear friend, a woman who’d been like a mother to me. Her daughter asked me to donate the hospital bed that she had in her room at the retirement home where she’d spent the last years of her life in San Francisco.

Through a series of phone calls, a gay friend who was doing design work for the Zen Center Hospice Project, gave me Frank’s number. Could the Hospice use the bed? Frank said he’d love to have the bed. How could we move it across town to the Hospice? I had a truck. Frank said let’s meet and be delivery men. We set a time.

I liked Frank immediately, bright, up beat, not my picture of a deathbed priest. He was also very persuasive--between the time we’d loaded the bed in my truck and unloaded it at the Zen Center, I was signed up for the Zen Hospice Volunteer Training Program.

That afternoon also set the tone for volunteering, listening and responding to simple requests, talking
about what was at hand, and working with others. No special knowledge was required.

Within 6 months, I met Issan Dorsey Roshi, and became a volunteer at Maitri Hospice. Guided by Issan’s compassion, taking care of almost 100 men changed me. I cooked spaghetti and painted walls, I helped men sort through a lifetime of personal letters and called their mothers. Not every task was easy, but the rewards were immense.

I could not have known that this simple trip would lead to the first Buddhist Hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. I was just helping a man carry a bed across San Francisco. Thank you Frank, Issan, J.D., Bernie and the other men who came into my life. Your gifts were amazing.


Friday, May 7, 2021

When the Breath Ends

The case: Hekiganroku Case 3

Master Ba Is Ill

Great Master Ba was seriously ill. The temple steward asked him, "Master, how are you feeling these days?" The Great Master said, "Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha."


I knocked on Issan’s door, and heard a faint “come in.” He was on the phone. He waved his hand towards the seat next to him, inviting me to sit down.

“Oh,” he said, “let me write that down.” And he picked up the small ballpoint on his desk and began to write carefully in his neat hand.

"The inbreath is the first breath of my life."

"The outbreath is the last of my life." He paused.

"Just to make sure that I have this correctly: when I breathe in it’s as if I were taking the first breath that I’ve ever breathed, and when I breathe out, it’s like the last. And soon it will be the last one.” He laughed. “I’ll probably be terrified.”

“Good bye, Roshi. Thank you. I love you too.”

As he put down the phone, he looked at me and said, “It’s important for me to write these practices down. They’re so simple but I’m not quite myself these days. Sometimes I'm confused or forget. I have to try to do my best.”

Yamada Kuon fills in some of the detail for Case 3 of the Blue Cliff Record: The "sun-face Buddha" is the 202nd Buddha who is supposed to have a life-span of 1800 years. The "moon-face Buddha" is, on the other hand, the 858th of the thousand Buddhas, and has the extremely short life of just one day and night, only 24 hours.

Objectively speaking Issan was towards the moon-face Buddha end of the spectrum. He would be dead within 10 days. But he was also 57 years old, and Richard Baker Roshi had just counseled him that his whole life changed with each breath. What changed? The memories? I know that Issan cherished some and perhaps regretted others. The cells, diseased and healthy? We know that the disease was winning. Loves lost and forgotten? All very present. The pain of the moment, or the cessation of that pain? Yes, that too. Just follow the breath.

My friend Jakushu Gregory Wood jaywalked into this koan conversation and started talking about last breaths and cutting off emotions. He cited Chan Master Shen, imperial attendant of the western capital. Shen picked up a quill, and wrote this poem for Case #36 of the Book of Serenity*:

When the breath ends, it cuts off emotions
Arousing the mind there is no path of mind
Without even the strength to bat an eye
Never do I go out the door


Issan was not prematurely or artificially cutting off any emotion, but on the other hand I didn’t see him exaggerate them either in a kind of swan song. I did hear the faint note of nostalgic farewell in those moon-face days, but he’d been a professional drag artist so that might have just been for the limelight. The practice just indicated following the inbreath as the first breath and the out breath as the last. There is no instruction to stop anything. As Master Shen points out that’s not a roadmap either.

I stood up to leave, and as I opened the door, Issan asked if I would be back before lunch to remind him to take his medication. He invited me into this last part of his life. I tried to breathe with him, residing as he often said, in our “breath-mind.” That gesture of friendship changed my life.

Hakuin warns, “There'll be a lot of fatalities if people take a view of emptiness to be the Sun Face Buddha.” Don’t worry old man, Issan didn’t allow for any confusion. He wrote it down very carefully with a ballpoint pen.

Thank you, Issan. Your best was wonderful.

 

Issan Dorsey (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990) with Ken Ireland (May 26, 1944 to ...)


Hotetsu's Verse:

Listen, I will tell you the good news: you're going to die.
You don't have to get everything fixed, figured out.
It's not up to you. You're off the hook, Dead One Walking.
You only have to be present to the sky's shining faces.
If you say, "no time soon, I hope," you might as well be dead already.
1800 years is just the same as one day.
Right now, the only eternity there is, they're just the same.

 

 


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.

 


"Too Many Words"

What I learned from Phil Whalen about writing. It's a matter of some reassurance That we are physically indistinguishable from other men...