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



Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Phil, dreaming of gummy bears, sees angels descending.

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.


Now Phil was dying. Perhaps as long as a year before, he’d reached back for his chair which wasn’t there and fell breaking his assbone. Thus began a slow decline. I was alarmed. It’s hard to say that a Zen Master, especially one that I loved, had given up on life, so I won't. But progressive blindness had stolen the delight of seeing words on a page, physical pain made the formal posture of zazen impossible and now immobility obliterated the comforting routine of meditation, gabbing, study, jokes, and food. Not physical therapy with Baker Roshi’s student Joe Muscles, not Chinese food with taro root, not even gummy bears, could turn the tide. The ever present good cheer, except when it suddenly disappeared, felt concocted. The veneer was wearing thin. I didn’t feel the bitter resignation of a person fed up with life. It was more a sense that he’d just had enough. He invited the dying to begin, and the invitation had been accepted. It would be long and slow.


Some sages claim that this was a good way for a meditator to die, as if waving a long slow goodbye to everything that had been assembled to make you--a precious death. In a way I feel that this is a bit like sticking a smiley face on a Hallmark condolence card. It masks the uncertainty of each piece tumbling into oblivion. Phil was always so kind to those who were helping him, but on the other hand he couldn’t hide the day to day frustrations. 


He would rail at the dying steps prescribed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, saying "I have to decide if I’m at the bargaining stage or the resignation stage.” But he seemed to be following them exactly, or at least that was the framework that I carried into my conversations with him. I actually felt that he’d only taken baby steps away from the anger stage, but all that is extremely subjective. Perhaps I was still angry with him for ending the Maitri experiment, or screaming at me in the hallway, or harping on that old time religion. 


Zenshin’s mind had always been clear as a bell, much clearer than his vision. His memory for words, phrases, even pages in a book, had been almost photographic. I wonder how much of this was compensatory.


Once when I was entertaining some weird questions about presumed Kundalini energy in meditation, what Phil called the “squigglies,” he said, “Ol’ Luk Luk has something to say about that.  ”Middle case, third shelf, second from the left. (I think it was Charles Luk’s “Secrets of Chinese Meditation, but it might have been “Empty Cloud.”) Page 63, middle paragraph, beginning at the forth sentence. That’s the interesting part. Read back to me. Then he gently told me that focusing on the heart might be good practice rather than chasing swirling whirling wisps of energy all over the place.


Another time when we were reading “Scenes from the Capital,” we got to a part where he talks about Gerald Manley Hopkins. He started to recite “The Windhover” not with his flat voice, not with his whimsical voice, but reverently, almost like plainchant. When he stumbled, he pointed to the first case, second shelf, 12th book from the right, page 43, “Just start reading.” 


  No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.



When I was sitting with him in a bright room of the Zen Center Hospice on Page Street, he asked me, “Do you see them?”

“Who?”

“The angels.

“No actually, I don’t. Where are they?”

“Right there, floating around,” pointing towards the upper corner to the left of his bed.

“No, I still don’t see them.”

“Look, goddamn it.” His voice sounded plaintive, perhaps wistful.

“What do they look like?”

“Just like the ones on the Macy’s gift bags.”

I can’t see them Phil, what would you like me to do?”

“Call the police, they’re reliable.”


Together we looked. I could see nothing while at the same time I wondered where his mind had gone. The Mind is a terrible thing to waste, he used to joke. What mind? Here we were using what was left to search for angels.

The angels on the Macy’s bag too “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”


When he died I arrived late to the crematorium in South City. Baker Roshi read from one of his poems a line about eating delicious raspberries. Then we filed past, bowed and placed a raspberry in the plain box that held his body. 


Contrary to Zen custom, I visualized dumping buckets of crimson raspberries gashing gold-vermillion. I couldn’t stop myself.


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,

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.


Friday, October 1, 2021

Sex, death, and food.

Dainin Katagiri Roshi admonishes Issan!


This life we live is a life of rejoicing, this body a body of joy which can be used to present offerings to the Three Jewels. It arises through the merits of eons and using it thus its merit extends endlessly. I hope that you will work and cook in this way, using this body which is the fruition of thousands of lifetimes and births to create limitless benefit for numberless beings. To understand this opportunity is a joyous heart because even if you had been born a ruler of the world the merit of your actions would merely disperse like foam, like sparks. from Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo by Eihei Dogen zenji 


Let’s talk about death while we’re still breathing. Talking about it after we’re dead might  be challenging.


A dying Isaan told me something Katagiri Roshi said to him when they were both very much alive. I find myself revisiting this conversation about impermanence and death. And while I’m at it, can I also include a conversation about sex? They’re both dead and can’t have that conversation, or we’re not privy to it, but I will try to do it for them. 


And I’ll even stick my tongue out at you, Katagiri, even though you may only be a ghost.


And now, in reverse order, sex, death, and food


During one practice period at Tassajara, Issan ran the kitchenthe position of tenzo is highly respected in Zen monasteries thanks to Dogen weaving a spell about the cook’s practice of making food. Issan told me he’d been working night and day in the kitchen. According to the Founder of Soto Zen, this is really good practice: “Day and night, the work for preparing the meals must be done without wasting a moment. If you do this and everything that you do whole-heartedly, this nourishes the seeds of Awakening and brings ease and joy to the practice of the community.”


But Katagiri Roshi called him in. 


Of course he went. The Roshi asked him why he was missing so many periods of zazen. Issan said he felt he had to explain himselfhe was terribly busy; there were a huge number of students to cook for; directing the preparations required an enormous effort; and, cut to the chase, Issan  admitted that he was challenged working with some of the students as well as not complaining about foodstuff he didn’t think was terribly wonderful to begin with. 


Katagiri sat stone-faced. Then he said, “Yes, we work hard long hours. Then we die.” That was it. And as they say in the koans, Issan bowed and left. A true koan exit.


Issan told me this story just months before he died. In both his smile and the bright tone of his voice, I could sense his gratitude for the decades old warning. The certainty of death added urgency to his story. HIV was ravaging his body. He knew he was dying. His body felt it. Denial was no longer possible, but I didn’t hear even the faintest note of resignation in his voice, rather a note of surprise that seemed as fresh as the day of that meeting. Past and present seemed to merge.


He never forgot those few words. They changed his life. They were a blessing. They shook something loose. They turned every excuse and explanation upside down, and released unexpected wonders.


A conversation about food ended in death. Issan spoke honestly. He was dying as the direct result of a sexual encounter with his longtime boyfriend. What did he have to hide, and how could he hide it anyway? Despite the fact that many people loved Issan, they also found his relationship with James troublesome, not particularly because it was gay love, but the love of his life was a man addicted to methamphetamines. 


I began to look for other things Katagiri might have said about death, and found several. The old horse always found his way back to the barn. The words of a beloved and respected master have a way of creating their own currency. In Zen the phrase “turning word” points to a phrase that helps a student refocus his or her attention, perhaps even prompt a realization. In turn students circulate a good turn of phrase. 


Steve Allen told me that when Katagiri visited Suzuki Roshi just before Suzuki died, Katagiri cried out, “Please don’t die!” Another version of his plea is more personal and direct, “I don’t want you to die.” I had also heard that Katagiri’s last words were, “I don’t want to die,” but that may just have some sincere student either misquoting, conflating or confusing time and place. I can find no solid confirmation, but none of these statements are what you might expect from a Zen master. They certainly don't fit any sentimental notions of a master’s death poem.


But each version of the story rings of something real, gut emotion crying out. I accept the invitation to get real. 


Onto Questions about Sex!


Dosho Port quotes you, Katagiri, as saying: "After my death I will come back and haunt over you, checking on your practice."* Yes, for me, Roshi, even though I was not your student, you have come back to haunt my practice, but not checking it as you did Issan’s work as the tenzo. I find myself weighing the value of your words. They have some punch, but is it a strawman? If I deflect the impact of your admonition about dying with the volatile ammunition of sexual scandal, am I ducking the question?


"But I kept my mouth shut"

Can I take you seriously? Revelations about your sexual misconduct have come to light after your death. I am unsure if you actually lied about your relationships with women in your community, and there was no accusation that you were abusive. But keeping your mouth shut is not entirely honest either. I get that your reputation did depend, to some degree, on the perception of your being a steady family man. Perhaps you felt that if you were not directly confronted, your silence would serve the dharma. You are often quoted as saying that a good Zen student kept his or her mouth shut, followed directions, and sat upright. Roshi, I am told you were a good sitting monk, that you followed directions, well mostly; your form was good; and you certainly kept your mouth shut.

I have also tried to keep my mouth shut. I have not commented on your sexual dalliances, Roshi. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even judge themif it were left to me, I would allow you any sexual expression you felt drawn to as long as it didn’t hurt others. But you were not fully transparent about your affairs. Did you really think that they would not come to light? Your naivete has come back to haunt us.

I am obliged to add your name, Katagiri, to the list of teachers who have abused their position. Of the more than 450 Zen teachers in the United States, the amount of oxygen taken up by the small proportion who have been involved in sexual scandals is enormous. The distraction alone gravely harms the teaching.

I will name names: Issan’s own teacher, Richard Baker,* Joshu Sasaki, Taizan Maezumi, Eido Shimano, Dennis Merzel. High profile Tibetan teachers whose names have been dragged into the same mud include Sakyong Mipham and Sogyal Rinpoche. These men, and they are all men, truly hurt us in real ways.


Po-chang and Huang-po: "The Buddha-Dharma is not a small affair”*


When the hurt goes away, does it mean that we have understood? I’ll stick out my tongue!


One day the Master [Po-chang] addressed the group : "The Buddha-Dharma is not a small affair. I twice met with the Greater Master Ma's 'K'AAA! ' It deafened and blinded me [for] three days."


Huang-po hearing this, unconsciously stuck out his tongue saying "Today, because of your exposition, I have been able to see Ma-tsu's power in action. But I never knew him. If I were to be Ma-tsu's heir, afterwards I'd have no descendants." 


The Master Po-chang said, "That's so, that's so. If your understanding is equal to your teacher's, you diminish his power by half. Only if you surpass your teacher, will you be competent to transmit. You are very well equipped to surpass your teacher."


Roshi, you were saved by the queer guy! Issan fished some sound practice advice out of a muddy pond and passed it on. He wasn’t blinded or deafened by a few words. but he wasn’t blindsided either. He carried them in his heart for more than three days. In fact he used them till the day he died.


Your dharma heir, Teijo Munnich, quotes you, Katagiri, “Please don’t call me ‘Zen Master.’ No one can master Zen.” And you also said, “Do not make me into a god after I die.” 


Don’t worry, Roshi. I won’t. Thank you.


Maori Haka


The Maori people of New Zealand have created a ritualistic dance, the Kapa Haka,
in celebration of light triumphing over darkness.

_______________________


* Tenzo kyokun: Instructions for the Tenzo by Eihei Dogen zenji 


*Dosho Port,  Me in Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri


* Bivins, Jason C. “‘Beautiful Women Dig Graves’: Richard Baker-Roshi, Imported Buddhism, and the Transmission of Ethics at the San Francisco Zen Center.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 17, no. 1, [University of California Press, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture], 2007, pp. 57–93, https://doi.org/10.1525/rac.2007.17.1.57.


*following the Ming version as translated by Cleary. Also quoted in Zen's Chinese Heritage

The Masters and Their Teachings by Andy Ferguson 





Thursday, September 16, 2021

Is life over when it’s over?

Photos courtesy of alanwatts.org

Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973)

"Each one of us, not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable". ~Alan Watts Sensei


Are there reasons for living and reasons for dying?


Why should we think that Zen is in trouble simply because there are flawed people who practice and flawed people who teach? Certainly punches and counter punches are distracting, especially in a scandal, but they are not off limits. In my view, idolizing revered teachers also limits the possibilities in practice for anyone who sets foot on the path. This presents its own set of problems which I might explore at another time. Zen is devised for humans, not gods.


Many years ago I went to a meeting with several of Claudio Naranjo’s old Seekers After Truth students on the “Vallejo,” the Sausalito houseboat where Alan Watts talked and drank, womanized and created legends. It is common knowledge that he was an alcoholic, but I have no knowledge of sexual excess.  From both my reading and first hand reports, however, I can say with certainty that he did go on and on. He wrote and published 25 books before his death; 40 more have appeared since. That is the stuff of legend, and an enormous contribution.


I also visited a couple who lived in the rustic cabin in Druid Heights near Muir Woods where Watts died. One report is that he slumped over his desk drunk and died though some say he made it to bed that night. The story is vague as are a lot of stories about alcoholics. We will never know the truth because we don’t really need to know. But his desk was kept in the same condition as it had been when he died as a kind of shrine to assist his passage to the Pureland, or Byzantine Heaven, or some New Age version of Limbo. I asked hesitantly if I could sit in the chair where he sat when he wrote. My host said, “Of course. This way is open to anyone.” I imagined that I heard a faint echo from the Master.


Phil Whalen told me that he loved to listen to Watts on the old Berkeley KPFA. Many of the people who first gathered around Suzuki Roshi did. For some it was their initiation into Zen. Watts read widely and wisely even if at times he speculated wildly.  David Chadwick recounted in his biography of Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, [that] when a student of Suzuki's disparaged Watts by saying "we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing", Suzuki fumed with a sudden intensity, saying, "You completely miss the point about Alan Watts! You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva.” Suzuki did not disparage the ox who tilled the soil even if all the rows were not perfectly lined up. That would come later, and in some cases the insistence on plowing perfectly straight lines got a bit out of hand. 


At dinner in Mandala House I remember a lively conversation with my host's wife who was very close to a dear friend who was also present. The woman's son by another marriage, a bright, handsome guy had driven across the Santa Cruz mountains to be with his mother. Not long after he died in a car wreck on a treacherous part of that same highway. His mother chose to join him. She took a huge number of sleeping pills and never woke up again in the same house, perhaps the same room where Watts died.


I never met Alan Watts, but I met his ghost. I also carry with me the memories of many other men and women who left life with a troubled past. Though I might think I understand some of their reasons for living, I cannot claim to know the reasons for their dying.


____________________


Michael Papas was a guest student at Tassajara during the Summer of 1980. He recalled a talk by Issan that he says was a real downer. “I can’t repeat any of it, and the memories of the specific content are vague, but I didn’t find any good news in it at all!”


Afterwards, he asked Issan, “If things are so bad, why don’t we just kill ourselves ?”

 

Issan's answer came quickly, “Because it wouldn’t help.”

 

My friend is a long-time Zen student. He says, “It was a great answer obviously. It has stayed with me for more than 40 years. I thought of it many times in 2016 when my wife left me and suicide seemed like the only way to stop the pain. But truthfully back then, having children was my main reason for sticking.”


Issan died on September 6, 1990. He was 57 years old. If he were still alive, he would be 88 years old today. Watts was only 58 when he died and his legend spans decades. I might complain that they both died too young with so much left to contribute. I might sing that tired old tune “only the good die young,” but I’d add that sometimes the good die young because they were bad, or at least not as good as we would like to believe.


Michael, thank you for sharing Issan’s kind answer. It still has life.


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)


Monday, August 30, 2021

Don't Worry. Be Happy. Just do your best!

File:Don't worry, be happy.jpg
Issan loved the Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t worry. Be happy.” I am not sure whether or not he knew that it came from Meher Baba, or that Meher Baba took a vow of silence. It doesn’t matter. He'd humm it like a mantra.

But he also said that Meher Baba didn’t get it entirely right. It was incomplete. He was insistent. “I always tell people: life is uncertain. Just do the best that you can. We aren’t asked to do more. It’s more than enough.”

I almost forgot. If you told him about some unhappiness, he would have happily given you his phone number. "People call me all the time. They need to talk about things."







Who better to supply the verse?

Bobby McFerrin


Here's a little song I wrote

You might want to sing it note for note

Don't worry, be happy

In every life we have some trouble

But when you worry you make it double

Don't worry, be happy

Don't worry, be happy now

don't worry


Ain't got no place to lay your head

Somebody came and took your bed

Don't worry, be happy

The landlord say your rent is late

He may have to litigate

Don't worry, be happy


Oh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh don't worry, be happy

Here I give you my phone number, when you worry, call me, I make you happy, don't worry, be happy

Don't worry, be happy


Ain't got no cash, ain't got no style

Ain't got no gal to make you smile

Don't worry, be happy

'Cause when you worry your face will frown

And that will bring everybody down

So don't worry, be happy

Don't worry, be happy now


Now there, is this song I wrote

I hope you learned note for note

Like good little children, don't worry, be happy

Now listen to what I said, in your life expect some trouble

When you worry you make it double

But don't worry, be happy, be happy now



Khyongla Rato Rinpoche died this morning.

Khyongla Rato Rinpoche died this morning in McLeod Ganj. He was probably 101 years old. The registry of births in Tibet was not very precise...