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 Steve Allen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Allen. 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.

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.”


Friday, December 10, 2021

Q and A Zen

A cautionary tale plus a koanor two.

A friend recently told me about some advice from a Taoist master. I admit that I automatically distrust some Western dude with an ancient Chinese title. It feels like a label to make him credible. I don’t fully understand what Daoism is, and certainly haven’t the faintest idea of what it might have meant in 6th century BCE China. The friend didn’t actually repeat his Taoist teacher’s advice. I think I might be required to fork over some cash before I had the pleasure. We are a gullible lot.

I investigated my initial response and discovered two basic questions: What are the prejudices that spark my immediate response? And what would be the criteria for me to trust a teacher and what he or she teaches? These are separate questions. It is important for me not to discover one answer and think that it provides a solution to both investigations. It is easy to conflate and confuse the answers: because I have discovered that I am distrustful for X reason, the teacher and his or her teaching must be trustworthy.

Sometimes in Zen circles we western practitioners get lost in a lot of talk about our way, the Rinzai Way, the Soto way, the right way. This kind of jabber is barely distinguishable from cultish blabber.

The questions this raises are really the same: How can we recognize what we call “authentic” practice; and what makes a teacher trustworthy?

These questions bite their own tails. Some people, even trusted teachers, counsel us to trust our feelings. But when we honestly examine them, we find a twisted mess. We are told to just sit and they will sort themselves out. We sit. Perhaps a few of the knots disentangle, but there is no guarantee that a clear direction will emerge. Judge by the solutions that appear in real time, there are no easy answers.

In 1990 when nearly 100 men were dying from AIDS in San Francisco every week, I remember talking with a bright, engaging woman who came to sit zazen at Hartford Street. She asked questions about the Hospice and Issan. I invited her to come back, perhaps become a hospice volunteer. She begged off, explaining that she was very involved in her practice at “the big Zen Center.” I remember her words exactly. “We do the real Japanese Buddhism: we bow at everything every time we turn around.” That is one choice.

I never saw the woman again. What stopped her? Did I get in the way? Perhaps there was something about the dying, knowing that you’re dying, and the emotions that stirs up. I cannot say. Several of Issan’s close students didn’t visit. When he started to get sick, they actually disappeared, later explaining that they couldn’t bear to see him suffer or they preferred to remember him as the Pastor of Castro Street. Many were also gay and themselves HIV positive. There was such pain and suffering in the community, facing death head on was hard for all of us. I met Issan when HIV started to ravage his body and mind so that is really the only Issan I knew. It was his gift and my luck. But when I listened to stories of Issan at Tassajara or at Zen Center, Green Gulch or Santa Fe, I knew that dying Issan was the same man dedicating himself diligently and completely to the practice.

I feel that the bowing woman missed an opportunity to experience a man who lived out the teaching until his last breath, but I also know that Issan would never have faulted her for avoiding him and bowing every time she turned around. He was so non-judgement and tolerant not to mention how much he loved to bow. I admit to applying a little pressure on the woman—I needed help at the hospice—and I also admit to feeling slightly superior in my role running the hospice which was of course real practice. I can’t set my experience center stage for applause, but on the other hand, I need to avoid rote answers, or getting caught up in some cultural forms that I don’t understand as if they unlock some esoteric secret.

Quick change of scene

Listening in on a recent discussion bemoaning the death of Zen in Japan—so many first-son priests escaping the lifeless tedium of administering the family's temple business, my mind went back to a morning I spent looking over the library at Hartford Street, searching for a book that might unlock the mystery of the universe. Trained as a Jesuit, I hoped to find an answer, even a coded one, recorded by someone at some time in some place that might point me in the right direction.

I picked up a volume and read about the third and final destruction of Nalanda, including its vast library, and tried to start a conversation with Phil Whalen. I was more horrified at the loss of the the sutras, the Mahayana texts and commentaries, including all the works, the notes and who knows what else, of the pivotal scholar Nāgārjuna than I was by the wanton murder of thousands of monks and teachers. I blurted out something about the horror of burning books to Phil who was sitting in his chair across from me. He just looked up, smiled and said, “Don’t worry, kid. They left us enough, just enough.”

Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji is not alone in trying to destroy the dharma by burning books and killing monks and nuns. Beginning in 1950 Mao and the People’s Liberation Army systematically destroyed monasteries and burned as many sacred texts as they could lay their hands on in Tibet. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration began the campaign of Haibutsu kishaku (廃仏毀釈), literally "abolish Buddhism and destroy Shākyamuni," which led to the wholesale destruction of Buddhist temples and monasteries as well as sacred texts. The Taliban destroyed huge ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan Afghanistan early 2001 which shocked the world and was soon followed by the regime’s defeat, but it did not prevent them from reasserting their hardline earlier this year.

haibutsu-kishaku01.jpg

The burning of sūtras during the Haibutsu kishaku (unknown source).


So while I deplore book-burning or destruction of religious art, their preservation is not a necessary condition for our practice. The loss of cultural Japanese Buddhism, centuries old beauty and tradition, including bowing to everything all the time, is a real loss, but it might have already disappeared.

How much remains? Just enough.

Issan is dying.

In the early morning of September 6th, 1990, Issan’s breaths had become very labored. Someone woke me. My room was directly above his. I went downstairs and joined the others. There were perhaps ten people in the room, most of whom had shared the last difficult months of his journey, his doctor Rick Levine, Steve Allen, Shunko Jamvold, Angel Farrow, David Bulloch, David Sunseri, Kai Harper Lee, Jakushu Gregory Wood, myself—I can’t really remember who else was present. Most of us were sitting as best we could in the posture of meditation. Phil Whalen sat in a chair.

The time had come. We waited for the end. I actually don’t know if it felt so dramatic to others, but to me it did. We were told that certain endorphins naturally kicked in to numb the pain, and of course there was palliative medication, but it was almost painful to hear the sound of his struggling for breath. His body jerked and trembled. Steve got up, lay down beside him, and held him gently. At first I was shocked. I was sure that Steve had never held Issan in that way before, but then it seemed like a perfect, spontaneous response—Issan loved the reassuring caress of another man. Gradually his breath became calm but more shallow. I tried to follow my own breath, to remain present and focused. It was difficult. There was a cascade of thoughts and emotions realizing how much I’d come to love Issan and how deeply I would miss him.

The room became very quiet. Then Phil got up from his chair and bowed one last time to his old friend. Was he leaving? I was startled. It felt important to me to stay to the end. In a soft voice Phil said, “I’m sorry but I have to excuse myself. I will open the Zendo in the morning, and I need to sleep.” Then he left while life remained.
  

Love rides on the breath,

Labored, easy, 

When the breath ends 

It stands up, walks out,

And saves itself.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

"The End of the Rainbow"

Over thirty years ago at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Steve Allen asked Issan, “The world is ending. Where is the great peace when we need it?” 

Steve tells us that the setting for his question was the formal ritual in which Issan took the high seat of a recognized Zen teacher, his mountain seat. Steve imagined that he was simply cementing his relationship with his root teacher.

Issan remained silent.

After a while Issan turned the question around and asked Steve what he thought. Steve answered, “We find it with each other.” Not just a good answer--but one that held real answers to questions that we didn’t even know we had.

A disciple’s question might bring forth the deep understanding of his or her teacher, but Steve also found a way to liberate himself. Our connections with each other are not limited. The ancient ritual might have required that Issan portray the immutable stone face of one mountain, but his follow-up question revealed a heart of gold. 

When the end of the world gets in your way, follow the way that brings us together. When the storm clears, it may lead to the end of the rainbow.


David Bullock, Del Carlson, Angelique Farrow, Steve Allen, Issan Dorsey

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