Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gabriel Whispers to Muhammad: Be a Prophet of Peace

by Morgan Zo-Callahan and Ken Ireland

In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate One, the Merciful, Praise be to Allah. And we add, “Praise Compassion, Praise true Love for ourselves, others, the environment, and the poor.”

This joint piece began as a reflection about Morgan’s real face-to-face meeting with three American Muslims at the Rosemead Buddhist Temple where he practices. That was a very interesting story and so characteristic of the way in which he approaches his interior life—always seeking and always looking for an outer expression of interior work. I recalled that John Lounibos in his essay in Intimate Meanderings, My Path to Islam, made the observation that most Americans are uneducated about religion, including “their own.” Suddenly, a new focus for the article about Morgan’s experience began to take shape: How to begin a conversation among ordinary believers from any religious community and the followers of the Prophet, religious people, who after 9/11 had real questions for one another? What resources would you try to have on hand as everyone was grappling for his or her own answers? What are good ways to frame questions? And finally, what, if any, results you might be able to expect? – ed.

This paper will cover these topics:
• Talking with real Muslims
• Poets and Sufis, Rumi and Hafiz
• The Five Pillars
• Ordinary Muslims and Christians and reform
• The Shari’a and the roots of radical Islam
• Antidote to extremist interpretation: View the entire life of the Prophet.
• New voices! Support the best spokespersons for Islam
• Muhammad’s Dream of Gabriel

The events of 9/11 shocked our political sensibilities as liberal Americans with some religious sensibility; we’d always assumed that religion, at least the kind of core beliefs in the Deism of the founding fathers, was good, even essential, for our democracy. That day, radical Muslim fundamentalists claimed their god was pleased that they drove two aircraft into New York City’s twin towers killing a huge number of innocent people.

Those horrible events, plus the actions-reactions that followed, left most of us feeling helpless. Morgan and I shared the impulse to do something, but visceral reactions to what we read in the press open very few possibilities other than attack and reprisal. Given our education and, especially, our shared Jesuit and Buddhist training, we knew that any course of action we chose had to involve a deeper understanding of Islam as a religious expression of living a life dedicated to God. Although neither of us was completely ignorant about the teaching and history of Islam, there was some blind spot, and the worst part was that there was no strategy to guide action, study and prayer.

At an inter-faith conference at Rosemead Buddhist Monastery, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims held talks and discussions, prayers and meditations; there was also sharing about various programs that serve the poor and promises of mutual support. At the conclusion of the meeting, as people mingled in small groups, continuing conversations from the formal part of the gathering and saying good-bye, Morgan found himself talking with three Muslims and a Buddhist monk from Thailand.

Morgan had read Karen Armstrong’s warning: “To cultivate a distorted image of Islam, to view it as inherently the enemy of democracy and decent values, and to revert to the bigoted views of the medieval Crusades would be a catastrophe.… Be kind to everybody. It doesn’t matter what tradition you belong to.” Though he knew it wouldn’t be easy, he had to say what he felt in his heart: “Why aren’t there more protests from Muslims against violent terrorism, against intolerance towards women and gays?” he asked animatedly. The Muslims were calm and direct saying Muhammad was a prophet of peace; the Thai monk commented that he seemed angry, that this interfaith conference is all about espousing peace.

There was an insight in that moment, and the beginnings of a real conversation: Morgan knew he had both to look inside for the source of his feelings, and talk to real Muslims, not some impressions that he carried from his reading or the press. And he began a conscious effort to clarify and deepen his understanding of Islam. Some of his feelings were deeply angry, but the monk, just by his comment and presence, helped Morgan see that he could engage in conversation without being angry. At the same time, this encounter in an atmosphere where shared humanity felt more important than any particular religion, stimulated a desire to go deeper into Islam and the mind set of Muslims, especially those who are our fellow citizens. Morgan was talking sincerely and directly with Muslims; he did not hide his anger; and he asked some difficult questions.

The Muslims that Morgan encountered that day wanted to answer his questions as honestly they could. They pointed out that in many of the fifty-three Muslim countries being a moderate could be a ticket to jail or, even, to beheading. So we have to consider the circumstances and conditions of the one who is speaking out. But “we are American Muslims,” they said. “We want to live in a pluralistic democracy.”

They had a fairly long, friendly conversation, first connecting as humans, some attitude adjustment, some levity and laughter, which allowed for meaningful interchange. Morgan felt he was listening to real people, not from Rumi’s thirteenth century, not in an idealized or merely intellectual way, but now, talking with believers who embrace Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance.

These Muslims told Morgan that the Islam they follow and were taught is fundamentally rational and human which translates as being peaceful and non-violent. “No rational person is a suicide bomber.” The majority of Muslims are not radicals or terrorists. They reminded everyone that all prejudice is wrong. They related personal incidents that happened to them in the milieu of the heightened emotions after 9/11. One related an experience of racial and religious hatred directed at her, just for being a Muslim. She was yelled at, pushed, called names. She said she felt as if the frustration of 9/11 was being screamed and spat upon her. She added with a smile, that she had plenty of understanding American friends who comforted her.

Since 9/11 many Muslims complain that they have been stereotyped, automatically considered fanatical; compared with other religious traditions, inferior and, compared with other people culturally, as not quite human. They say other Americans assume that they must be silently in favor of terrorism; they’re called “brainwashed,” afraid to speak up for tolerance, civility, and mutual understanding. This is a very harsh indictment of prejudice. Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the total US population (2.3 million). Sixty-five percent are immigrants who hail from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, not Arabia (most Arab immigrants are Christians). So the numbers are small enough in this country that their complaint can be overlooked.

However, it is not an American tradition to allow racial and religious prejudice to remain unchallenged. The Iranian-born American writer and scholar of religions, Reza Aslan says, “There are millions of Muslim Americans who have fully reconciled their Islamic and American identities and who are solidly middle-class and integrated into every level of American society. They’re our doctors, our lawyers. Sixty percent of them own their own homes. They’re the most educated ethnic minority in this country. And they’re living proof that this idea that there is one fundamental clash between Islam and the West is absurd. Here is Islam in the West, and it’s doing just fine. They are working diligently to provide a counterweight to these ideologies of fanaticism and Puritanism and violence and extremism, but they’re being ignored.” (Sun magazine, December 2006)

Such interfaith conferences have stimulated Morgan’s interest in continuing to learn and become friendlier towards Islam and Muslims, to develop a sense of what Muslims are about in a most genuine sense. This has to happen before we can all open our hearts, while at the same time being vigilant against violence in Islam, or in any religion, or in ourselves. We cannot change Islam to suit our expectations, but we can educate ourselves, and experience ourselves as equals, whatever our religion or spiritual practice, believer, atheist or agnostic, man or woman, gay or straight. Our study and conversations have helped us see that American Muslims are people of good heart, who have no intention to follow blindly tribal norms of their ancestors or their native lands, and it is only a small number of radical Muslims worldwide who hold “ideologies of fanaticism and Puritanism and violence and extremism.”

We would like to encourage the kind of dialogue that Morgan experienced at the interfaith dialogue at the Rosemead monastery, and the rest of the paper will be suggestions about the conditions that encourage these kinds of exchange. We both hope that this produces a balanced image of Islam and the followers of the Prophet.

لا إله إلا الله

In the late 70s, Morgan began a Ph.D program in Comparative Religion under Professor Haridas Chaudhuri at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. His work included Arabic, and comparative religion—Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism—but his first real encounter with Islam was reading about Sri Ramakrisha’s three-day retreat of worship, meditation, prayer, based on the teachings of Muhammad. During the retreat, Ramakrishna said he felt no attraction to do his Hindu rituals. He immersed himself in Islam and would go on to praise and honor Islam as a true way to know the Eternal.

Muhammad, as Karen Armstrong writes: “made a distinctive and valuable contribution to the spiritual experience of humanity.” Our minds may immediately go to the heart-felt wisdom of the Islamic poets, Hafiz and Rumi whose wonderful human touch expresses a most exquisitely true religion as lived and practiced. Genuine teachers and teachings point the individual to life and joy within one’s own being.

Reading Rumi and Hafiz has been a continued habit, but after 9/11, Morgan wanted to go back to deeper study, and if possible, some conversations about Islam. He says: “I’ve been learning that my own level of human maturity and understanding has a lot to do with how I relate to someone else and how I talk to them about the two most interesting but taboo subjects: religion & politics. How do we each live in a religiously plural society? Can this pluralism, with welcoming conversations, be enriching for us all?”

Rumi and Hafiz can open our eyes to spiritual dimensions never seen before. “The word Sufi comes from the Arabic suf, wool, for the simple coarse, woolen garments worn by early mystics. Sufis were concerned about the new wealth and excesses that accompanied imperial expansion and rule.… They emphasized the importance of a spiritual life of piety, fasting, and prayer. Sufis stressed the spirit over the letter, seeking to experience enlightenment or the presence of God. In place of intellectual or legal understanding, they followed a more mystical path.” (The Geography of Religion, p. 359)

Poetry is also a way to begin to read scriptures of the great religions as literature, rather than as historic or literal fact. We value them as evoking imaginative and poetic modes of consciousness that point the way and encourage us to be better human beings. Every religious tradition is given much of its heart and inspiration from its particular forms of mysticism and from its highest moral values for the individual who requires respect, rights and dignity. This mysticism promotes a feeling of connectedness to all others. Gary Schouborg, who is a scholar and contributor to Meanderings, says that this kind of knowledge is esoteric rather then exoteric understanding, expanding in a useful way the meaning of esoteric understanding beyond some specialized, ritualized secret knowledge.

What a marvel Rumi is! He inspired the Mawlawyiwah order, better known as the Whirling Dervishes. We have both witnessed their sacred dance, twirling elegantly, chanting Koranic verses, tall red cone hats, thick black belts cinching their flowing white skirts—spinning yet focused, centered, graceful, swinging in ecstasy. This is art, poetry, dance, and prayer all together. As young seekers in the late 1970s, disillusioned by our own Catholic religion as the only, true faith, Rumi taught us to look for a faith behind all faiths, the inner confidence of goodness and genuine joy, and pointed a real path to the heart of real religion through the cultivation of the interior life.

Rumi is now well known in the United States, but perhaps Hafiz is not. Morgan only became aware of him when his friend, Lily Hsu, gave him a copy of The Gift, poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master. Born around 1320 in Shiraz, Iran, Hafiz (Shamseddin Muhammad) is a phenomenon of insight, poetry, intelligence, love that can arise in any human. Can such a revered poet offer the world, in the present circumstances of religious fanaticism, an artistic call for the respect for human freedoms and one’s own deepest desires? Goethe wrote of Hafiz that he “has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly, a madness I know well.” And Emerson said of him, “He fears nothing; he sees too far; he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to be.”

In one poem Hafiz asks,

Do sad people have in
It seems
They have all built a shrine
To the past
And often go there
And do a strange wail and
What is the beginning of
It is to stop being
So religious

Our religion can either be fresh, friendly, and of service, or it can become just a stale shrine for worshipping past religious expressions or, even worse, it can inspire violence. A tentative answer is also found in his poetry:

Do I
Listen to others?
As if everyone were my Master
Speaking to me
Words …

(The Gift, p. 99, translated by Ladinsky)

This is how we might listen to Americans who are Muslim if we are courageous and able to be completely open to the religious expression of another. It has some of the feeling as Merton’s description of listening in The Hidden Ground of Love, 1985: “By being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of love for which there can be no explanations.”

The great periods in Islamic history when Muslims scholars inter-mingled peacefully with other religious scholars could serve as models, and provide possible remedies to stop destructive conflicts and wars. Political, civil and religious freedoms allow for creativity to flourish. To extend true inner happiness into our own intimately inter-related world, these conditions have to be encouraged.

By the eighth century, it took one year to get from one end of the vast Muslim empire to the other. Yet Baghdad’s House of Wisdom invited scholars who were Hindu, Christian, Jewish, as well as Muslim, to think collaboratively, to do art, philosophy and science. In medicine, the first study of germs began, as well as the hospital system; mental illness was addressed. Western medicine would use their anatomical descriptions for six hundred years. The Muslims developed Arabic numerals; trigonometry; algebra; astronomy; engineering. It was a period of respect for the various cultural and religious sources of knowledge. The Muslims made a gift of Greek writings by first translating them into Arabic. From the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, there were more religious, philosophical, medical, geographical, historical, and astronomical works in Arabic than in any other language.

In Cordova, Spain, this ninth and tenth century Muslim “City of Light,” was filled with libraries, open tranquil streets, large homes, running water, when in Paris people lived in shacks, along the sides of the river. Viewing the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, when he visited, Morgan felt imbued by lovely textures, space, light, water fountains, marble pillars, artful designs and curves, inter-playing to delight and facilitate the flowering of human hearts.

لا إله إلا الله

It also seems, before any real conversation can begin, that there ought to be some understanding of the basis of Islam and the Five Pillars: faith in one God; charity; prayer; fasting at Ramadan; if possible, pilgrimage to Mecca.

The first pillar, shahada, is “bearing witness” to Gabriel’s message to Muhammad: There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. There’s also a bearing witness to all the great teachers and prophets who preceded Muhammad in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the gospels of Jesus.

The second pillar is salat, group prayer and worship, most commonly five times a day (dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, evening). Muslims prepare by cleaning their space of worship and by ritual washing with water or with sand if water is unavailable, bowing to the knees, making prostrations, and finally sitting or kneeling for recitations and meditation.

The third pillar is zakat, meaning “to purify,” “to bless,” “to increase.” It consists of tithing, alms giving—both of which I consider forms of activism—for the poor, for worthy causes. “Alms are for the poor and the needy.… ” (Qur’an 9:60) “By paying it, one is aspiring to attain blessing, purification and the cultivation of good deeds.” Muslims contribute 2.5 percent of their annual income as a compassionate practice. (Islamic Free Market Institute, Vol. V, No. 1, Dec. 10, 2002)

The fourth pillar is sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month; continuing the purification, the practitioner examines his or her thoughts, actions, intentions, relationships, much like in the Examen of St. Ignatius or Buddhist mindfulness meditation. One releases such rocky emotions as jealousy, greed, excessive lusting. We’re encouraged to let go the emotions which torture us, into the spaciousness created by meditation. Eid-al-Fitr is the happy celebration of breaking the fast and cleansing introspection. It’s time to play and be happy, to socialize, to give and receive gifts.

The fifth pillar is the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, usually about sixty days after Ramadan. Mecca is sacred to Muslims. Ali Sharitate writes in The Geography of Religion: “As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka’aba, you feel like a small stream merging with a big river.” Morgan had that same feeling of awe when, many years ago, he entered the sinking cathedral in Mexico City to see paintings of St. Ignatius and other saints. Pilgrims spend five days in Mecca, worshipping, meditating, visiting various holy sites, such as Medina where one can touch the tomb of the Prophet, just as in Vatican City, Morgan was able to “touch” the tomb of St. Peter.

لا إله إلا الله

If we look for nourishment and wisdom within what’s best in the great religious traditions, as lived and taught by seasoned, accomplished practitioners who are sensitive to contemporary culture, this is the place to begin a conversation. Muslims can turn to the Five Pillars to find a way of peace and happiness. For Buddhists the way out of inner and outer violence is through the Four Noble Truths and practice.

Several years ago, Morgan heard the Dalai Lama speak at the University of California Irvine. While struck by his good humor, and lack of anger, his really listening and refraining from the blaming of others, Morgan couldn’t help thinking about the sufferings of Tibet. Here was a man full of joy and intelligence. What could be a better ‘advertisement’ for Buddhism? One woman, a Roman Catholic, asked him if she should convert to Buddhism to find “liberation.” The Dalai Lama said all religions can lead to liberation, and laughing said “perhaps no official religion at all.” He said it’s usually best to stick to your own religion and really live it—study other religions, so you can practice your own religion even better! “I reverence all the religions,” he said. “And I reverence each person.”

The dark side of human nature, however, can be a stronger force than any religious ideas. Not all Buddhists conduct themselves with the non-violence and poise of a Dalai Lama; not all Buddhists are free from using violence as a tool for control and domination. In Korea Morgan watched mobs of Buddhist monks hurling bottles and fists at other monks, fighting over who would control the largest temple in Seoul. He had a sinking feeling, but also saw a lesson of how strong a force our attachment to power can be. What conditions all conspired together to bring about this bloody conflict? We can appreciate that this angry confrontation doesn’t exemplify the rich ground of Buddhism.

More recently we saw the attempted uprising in Burma (Myanmar). The military oligarchy there claims to be Buddhist, yet they kill and imprison Buddhist monks. They also have a dreadful history of forcing children to be soldiers. As American Buddhist practitioners, and to most of the world, this is totally contrary to Buddhist practice.

The limitations of both ordinary Muslims and Christians with regard to real, widespread reform are apparent. If we cannot cause real reform in our own religions, how can we ask Muslims to clean up their own houses? “Ordinary believers” are not so encumbered by theology and tradition as the higher level within churches and mosques, we can begin to have real conversations with real people, working on our own prejudices and feelings. Not entirely wed to the past, this is the only possible course of action.

It is unfair to use Pope Benedict’s apparent faux pas in a public lecture (September 2006) at the University of Regensburg where he once taught, to denigrate the authority of his position as a teacher of the Gospel message, but it might be an example of how not to set up a useful conversation. It does not seem possible for believers of various religious faiths to speak to one another if the past keeps getting in the way?

The Pope quoted a 1301 work attributed to Manuel II Paleogus, who was one of the last Byzantine emperors of Constantinople before its fall to the Ottoman Empire: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Very few people heard anything other than the quote, and didn’t care that it was taken out of context.

The Pope’s staff was perhaps unaware of modern Islamic scholarship that contradicted the Pope’s implied objection to Islam. Mustafa Akyol, a Muslim journalist from Turkey, observes: “Pope Benedict said that the Koranic verse ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ is ‘of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.’ However, that verse, numbered 2:286 is actually a very late verse. The traditional Islamic consensus was that this verse was revealed in the Medinan period, when Prophet Muhammad and Muslims were not powerless, but in fact, were the rulers of their own state. This is one reason why the great majority of Muslim scholars accept that forced conversion is against Islam.”

History shows that violence is possible within all religious traditions, at various times and to varying degrees. The Church of the early Middle Ages actively promoted warfare and violence against Muslims; the Pope organized armies and lobbied with kings and princes to recapture Jerusalem. Plenary indulgences combined with looting and plunder seemed to be a winning combination. And to be fair, the Pope ought to have acknowledged that “forced” conversions were practiced by the clergy who followed Portuguese and Spanish armies to the new world and India.

It also seems that the Pope’s remarks have to be seen in light of a very different situation in Europe. As distinct from the United States, the population of immigrant Muslims into the EU is substantial and gaining in political power. The European press is filled with anecdotal reports that seem to reinforce the prejudice that Muslims will not and cannot integrate into the culture of western democracies.

But as one Muslim critic of the Pope’s remarks, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, said: “most westerners don’t listen to him anyway, so why should we?” (MSNBC Sept. 17, 2006). After examining the situation carefully, Thomas Haidon, of the Free Muslim Coalition (; 1/18/08) makes an insightful criticism: “The current model of interfaith dialogue which superficially focuses on general high level and common traits of faiths has failed.

An effective meaningful framework for “safe” dialogue must be developed which also focuses on the “difficult” issues in Islam that Muslims have failed to address.” And, from the perspective of Roman Catholics, the top-heavy authority within the Church either is unable to address these issues or refuses to see them outside ancient history.

What might a “framework for ‘safe’ dialogue” look like? This would be a good beginning: if your words inflame the person or persons you’re talking with, quickly acknowledge it, and then try to see where you were misunderstood, or what in you seems to be blind to the other person’s point of view. You may have been wrong in your assumptions.

لا إله إلا الله

The Shari’a and the roots of radical Islam

Wahhabism (from Saudi Arabia, eighteenth century) and Salafiyya (late nineteenth, early twentyieth century in various countries) are usually puritanical, extremist, intolerant, homophobic, militant, and violent. Since 9/11, we’ve paid more attention to religious extremists coming from these two movements. Wahhabism is a form of Sunni Islam, coming from Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab (1703–91) who called for a “pure” practice of Islam. Followers of Wahhabism have fought with other Sunnis, as well as Shiites and non-Muslims. In the 1920s, Wahhabi-trained warriors, Bedouins, allied with the founder of the modern Saudi kingdom, Abd al Aziz ibn Saud, attacking fellow Sunnis in Arabia (western part) and also Shiites in Iraq. So Wahhabis became, and remain, a politically powerful faction in Saudi Arabia and within the Saud family.

Salafiyya, sometimes used interchangeably with Wahhabism, became very strong during the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s. During that period, the fighters would be indoctrinated in large numbers in mosques. Al Qaeda comes from elements of this movement.

Power and dogmatic religion do not combine gracefully. So when there’s no separation of church and state, there’s power and money available to back up violence, to provide madrasas, mosques, which indoctrinate young people into intolerance and militancy. Studies show that there are some tolerant Saudi school textbooks, but many which are not. Students are forced to conform to Wahhabi beliefs. Law and belief are mostly undifferentiated in Saudi Arabia. Radical Islam lacks the freedom of thought based in reasonable discourse, at least by western standards.

Islam is dangerous when viewed and lived as a religio-political dogmatic ideology of authoritative Shari’a, which calls for violent imposition of jihad as war, waged against “infidels” and also against Westernized Muslims who are considered “apostates.” Such radical Islam wants to control and impose its dogmatic interpretation of the Shari’a on others.

We feel that even dealing with the terror of this fundamentalist interpretation of jihad, there is an opportunity to understand Islam more deeply. We are still faced with the question what can I do? I want to change my own attitude to be jihadist in a spiritual, inner way, rather than in violent, destructive ways. There is an inner, spiritual meaning of jihad within the heart of Islam. We have had to face our own confusion about Islam. Muhammad said that it is wrong to take one’s own life, so how can terrorism be justified? Professor Carl Slawski comments: “It is important to emphasize the theological difference between greater (or primary) jihad (work to perfect oneself) and lesser (or secondary) jihad (converting unbelievers, which via individual extremist textual interpretation, gets morphed into violence unto death of the infidel).”

لا إله إلا الله

Faith demands that we acknowledge the absolute accountability of each individual before God, and that communal solidarity should never impede honest self-criticism, nor should it lead to injustice against other groups. –Ingrid Matteson

As Americans we find great wisdom in the U.S. Constitution to protect freedom of religion, religious expression and to ban government from dictating what the people must believe. But this tradition, and its common law roots, are not something that are shared with the Muslim code of law, the Shari’a, where the basis is that entire polity, the Ummah, be in accord with God’s will as envisioned in the Qu’ran. Although there is still concern for what we would call “human rights” in the west, there is not the same legal recourse as in the United States for those who are suffering oppression, even if it were in the name of religion.

Muhammad says: “A person should help his brother, whether he is an oppressor or is being oppressed. If he is the oppressor, he should prevent him from continuing his oppression, for that is helping him. If he is being oppressed, he should be helped to stop the oppression against him.” Does this mean that contemporary Islam encourages more individual personal expression and choice? Will Islam protect human rights or stop oppression, because it is truly a serious Islamic obligation? Reza Aslan says, “If we are going to talk about human rights, we have to discuss them on a country-by-country basis. Nobody in their right mind would say that the Muslim world is free of human-rights violations, but to say that human rights and Islam are incompatible is ludicrous.”

Doug McFerran, another contributor to Meanderings, writes privately: “Just as Muslim businessmen have managed to work around the Islamic prohibition against lending or borrowing money at interest, Muslim citizens, in the United States at least, have accepted democratic values without feeling they have betrayed their religion. Islam today is going through a difficult time of adaptation; the fundamentalism found in such places as Saudi Arabia and in Bin Laden’s movement will be seen for the anachronisms they are, rather than as the wave of the future.” The Islamic fundamentalists would like the Sahari’s to be seen as set in their efforts to purify within Islam. Yet history again shows that the system was developed over several centuries after the death of Muhammad and his early followers.

Within a Western context, it’s certainly legitimate to challenge Islam’s religious and societal leaders, just as Catholics question and criticize their pope and bishops. Our contemporary circumstances force us to fiercely criticize crimes, even if they are supported by religious leaders and their followers. It does not seem acceptable to allow the Vatican or fundamentalist Christians to meddle in U.S. elections or in same sex marriage debates just as much as it does not allow the justice system here or in Europe to turn a blind eye to honor killings.

We need to be clear what is acceptable behavior in affluent, tolerant democracies and what is unacceptable: homophobia, abuse of women, honor killings, what is called euphemistically “family law” in some western countries (i.e. that a Muslim household stand outside the rule of law and is allowed to continue practices of “tribal” justice which often contravene western notions of individual rights). We do not and will not condone slavery—Muhammad had slaves and slavery still exists in parts of the Islamic world—yet slavery remains unacceptable in a civilized world. The practice of polygamy, common in Arab culture at Muhammad’s time, will not find wide acceptance in modern western cultures. The execution of women for a variety of offenses by stoning or the beheading of homosexuals cannot be tolerated by the international community. This is barbarism.

لا إله إلا الله

Antidote to extremist interpretation: View the entire life of the Prophet.

There are many qualities that make Muhammad a compelling spiritual figure for our times. He is the only major religious founder who was a family man, not a celibate, throughout his entire career—he fathered six children and was totally devoted to his wife, Khadijah; he was a successful merchant who conducted his affairs in an ethical, admirable and profitable way and did not withdraw from the world after his experience of the Transcendent; he was a mystic who spoke very personally about his inner turmoil—he went through a genuine spiritual transformation, rooted in his whole-hearted devotion to the one God, the Compassionate. He was also a reformer and innovative spiritual leader. He wasn’t always a man of peace—he lead armies and killed in battle, but by the end of his life, he actively sought peace, and we will argue, by extension, would have no part of today’s terrorist actions or fanatical interpretation of the Qu’ran.

The story of Muhammad’s life has been told by biographers and historians with more knowledge and skill than we have. We will consider in broad strokes a few incidents that tell of the times when Muslims lived in peace and inspired diversity and acceptance of others, a story that we as non-Muslims have to consider.

When he was forty years old, Muhammad retreated to a cave, questioning the materialistic aspects in the Meccan market places. We have heard the story of how he heard a voice telling him to “Recite … recite in the name of your Lord who created; he created man from a clot. Recite, by your Most Generous Lord, Who taught by the pen; He taught man what he did not know.” At first Muhammad fled to the lap of Khadijah, terrified by the voice, confused, but impelled irrevocably into a deep spiritual life in response to Gabriel’s message. As he gained in his confidence as a messenger of God, however, he preached against greed, materialism, and covetousness.

Over the period of twenty-two years during which Muhammad ‘recited’ the 114 chapters of the Qu’ran, he proclaimed there was only one God and that surrender to God brings true peace. After he had finished writing down the last verses of the Qu’ran, he is reported to have said, “It was as if the scripture were written on my heart.”

Islamic scholars have noted the differences between the verses of the Qu’ran that date from the early, Meccan period and later Medinan verses. The verses can be viewed as either contradictory, or evolving in wisdom, and in some cases abrogating the earlier verses. This type of textual analysis is now widely accepted by most Christian scholars and theologians, though not in the most fundamentalist readings. And that is certainly reflected in the range of Muslim understanding of the Qu’ran. Muhammad grew in his understanding over the span of his life, just as we all change, adapt, and grow in our own practice.

Muhammad insisted that Christians have the right to practice their religion without fear. After he was established in Medina, a community of Christians lived at Najran was under his care and protection: “If anyone infringes upon their rights, I myself will be their advocate.” He also wrote one of the world’s first constitutions, the Covenant of Medina.

He promoted rights and privileges to women in his early community. Muhammad was married to Khadijah for twenty-two years, giving them two boys who died in childhood and four girls who survived. Khadijah and Fatima, his youngest daughter, were said to have best exemplified his teachings. Muhammad defended the rights of orphans, widows, and the poor.

Muhammad challenged the conventional, age-old society of many tribes, many gods. During Muhammad’s early life as a community leader, when the Ka’aba fell into disrepair and the sacred black stone fell (Abraham was said to have founded the Ka’aba and the black stone to have fallen from the heavens), the chiefs of four clans argued bitterly about who should return the black rock to its proper place. Muhammad suggested that all four carry the black symbol reverentially, each holding a corner of a rug on which the rock was placed.

He asked his disciples to be accepting and understanding, even when confronted. He taught by example: in Mecca, he was constantly berated and taunted by an opponent to his teachings. This “protester” would throw garbage and obstacles in Muhammad’s path, and his disciples urged him to retaliate, but Muhammad refrained. When he noticed no trash or obstructions in his path, he inquired about his “adversary.” It seems he was deathly ill, confined to his bed. Muhammad then went to the man’s home to ask after his health, to wish him well and to say that he missed the encounters on the road.

After Muhammad and his followers were in control of Mecca, he gave up warring and made a treaty with tribes who had been adversaries. He did not demand that his religious title as “Prophet” be put on the document, which horrified some of his followers. He signed as “Muhammad, the son of Abdulla” to the treaty that brought an extended time of peace. Peace. Why won’t we let it last?

Muhammad’s farewell teaching, “to regard life and property of every Muslim as a sacred trust,” ended long held customs of raiding and vendettas. “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.… Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord … it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women but they also have rights over you … an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab, also a white person has no superiority over a black person nor a black has any superiority over a white—except by piety and good action” (The Geography of Religion, pgs. 350-1).

لا إله إلا الله

New voices! Support the best spokespersons for Islam

If this is to be a conversation, and it has to be, at least in Europe and the United States, how does one enter in without prejudice and without dictating?

Writers like Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong and scholars-activists such as Ingrid Mattson point out one possible direction. Movements for reform are growing within Islam; inter-religious dialogue and learning are increasing. There are dedicated activists and dedicated thinkers arising within Islam. Let’s listen to each other.

In October of 2007, prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars, clergy and laity met in Los Angeles to discuss scriptural passages that are “hostile” to other religions (Cf. Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2007). Similar conferences are planned in 2008 and 2009 in Germany and in Israel, respectively. Muzammil Siddiqui, chairman of the Islamic Law Council of North America, spoke of a “troublesome” passage in the Qu’ran (5.51) which says: “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies; they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them—God does not guide such wrongdoers.” Siddiqui explains that it is only extremists who use such texts to promote distrust of other religions. “The idea behind this verse is not that Muslims should shun Jews and Christians, but that they should stand up on their own feet and do their best.” It was written at a time when Muslims of Medina were a minority and some Muslims wanted to ally themselves—from fear—with Jews or Christians for protection. It was saying if you really are into what I’m saying as a prophet, then strap on your balls and engage the practice, even if we’re not popular or influential. Don’t run to religion just for its security. This is an important step in the direction that faces the “difficult” differences within religion. These conferences are being given to implement what Thomas Haidon recommends: inter-religious talking about important, serious, “difficult” topics, to really ask each other our most burning questions.

On October 13, 2006, thirty-eight Islamic authorities, leader and scholars—with differing denominations—from all around the world delivered a letter to Pope Benedict XVI by the Royal Academy of The Toyal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan. They proposed offering the true teaching of Islam to affirm the common ground between Muslims and Christians: to be in love of God and of our neighbor, the two great commandments (

Muslim women will be at the heart of the leadership for a renewed generation of Islam. Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel, Free Press) calls for a reform, “Enlightenment,” within Islam to overcome the inequality, the fundamentalism, the abuse of women in the name of religion, in particular, in Africa.

Irshad Manji is a thirty-eight year old Canadian Muslim, a self-declared “mouthy chick” and “out” lesbian. She wrote The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith ( “Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves.… Will we move past the superstition that we can’t question the Koran? By openly asking where its verses come from, why they’re contradictory, and how they can be differently interpreted, we’re not violating anything more that tribal totalitarianism.… ”

Mohja Kahf (author of  The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf) encourages respect for all religions despite differing customs and beliefs. “Does wearing a veil make you less American than wearing a yarmulke or a Mennonite bonnet?” Mohja also criticizes her own Islamic religion. “The egalitarianism that the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached never much budged Arab tribalism. The Qu’ran’s sexual ethic, enjoining chaste behavior and personal responsibility was for both men and women, not tribal ownership of women’s sexuality.”

The Pakistani-American writer Munawar Anees was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work encouraging cultural and religious pluralism. Munawar Anees received his Ph.D in biology (Indiana University) and has dedicated his life to the study and teaching of Muslim religion and science. He’s written six books, including Islam and Biological Futures and Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Language. He founded the journal Periodica Islam; he’s religious editor of the online encyclopedia, Nupedia. He co-founded the Journal of Islamic Philosophy which can be found on the scholarly and extensive Web site Anees calls for reform—intellectual, economic and cultural. He says “a strategy of change in the Muslim world is one of the crying needs of the hour … how to revive the culture of learning, how to revive the culture of tolerance, how to revive the culture of liberalism.” (Cf. What is Enlightenment magazine, May-July 2004) Anees wants to get at the roots of why an “ossification” has happened in Muslim thought and behavior, why “an inward-looking attitude” has led to literalism, fundamentalism and the rejections of others’ opinions and ways of living. Muslims must learn “the magnanimity of critical self-analysis.” Anees points out that Muhammad in the later part of his life allowed Jews and Christians to live as they pleased, without trying to force conversion. In fact, Anees says that this openness to other schools of thought is inherent in Islam: “According to the teaching of the Prophet, one’s cognizance of the Almighty is inseparable from the cognizance of the Muslim tradition of liberalism and tolerance.”

لا إله إلا الله

Muhammad’s Dream of Gabriel

Once Muhammad dozed off after evening prostrations and found himself in the angel Gabriel’s company, riding on horseback from heaven to Jerusalem. “Muhammad alighted on the Temple Mount, the Temple of the Israelites, where Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets welcomed him into the circle. Offered goblets containing wine, water, and milk, Muhammad selected the one with milk—a sign of the middle way of Islam, neither indulgent nor austere.…

From that spot, Gabriel led Muhammad up a ladder into heaven, where God greeted him and told him that the devout must pray fifty times a day. On the way down the ladder, Moses advised him that daily prostrations could number as few as five but still fulfill God’s wishes,” (The Geography of Religion, p. 344). How interesting that Moses trimmed down God’s demands by 90 percent! And that some of the greatest prophets from Judaism and Christianity are together in this communication.

This is a dream of unity and cooperation among the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Muhammad finally fully drank from the milk of a “middle way,” a balance to promote harmonious living, that we all together “have life more abundantly.”

A final story shows a human, light and wise Muhammad.

Muhammad goes out late at night to pray in the desert. And his young wife, Aisha, thinks he’s going to meet another woman. So as he’s going out into the silence of the desert (as Jesus would do), Aisha, full of anger and condemnation, stomps out to confront him. Muhammad looks at her enraged face and says, “Oh, Aisha, Lovely, have you brought your little Satan with you?”

“What little Satan?” she answers, calming down in his serene presence.

“Every human being has a little devilish part, their nafs.”

And she, softly now, roundly open-eyed, asks sweetly: “Even you, O prophet of God?”

“Yes, even me. However, I made mine a Muslim.”


Friday, September 17, 2010

Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi

Remembrance of the 20th anniversary of the death of Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi (March 7, 1933 — September 6, 1990)

Last night at Maitri Hospice I was honored to speak during the wonderful celebration of Issan’s legacy on the 20th anniversary of his death. Here is the written version of my remarks. 


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 right next to Moby Dick’s, close to the corner. That 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, a close friend of Issan, his dharma heir, and the first Executive Director of Maitri. Jerry Berg was an early supporter of the hospice, a successful lawyer and prominent leader in the gay community.

As they walked, Steve and Jerry were talking about possible legal structures for the hospice while Issan lagged behind. He noticed a bottle lying on the sidewalk and bent to pick it up. Yes, any humors 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 Geni appeared! It had to be a Buddhist Geni, a Bodhidharma look-a-like, with a shaved head, droopy ears and a bright robe. The Geni 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 geni 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 ghasso, the traditional gesture of respect—poof, he was gone.

Jerry thought to himself, that was 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 Geni turned to Issan who was left standing alone—it might have been wonderment on his face, maybe just a bit puzzled. The Geni 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.”

Del Carlson and Issan, best friends

Tonight we’ve come together to remember Issan Dorsey.

Jana just lead us in an ancient ritual to call upon the powers that guard the unseen world from which we can still feel Issan’s presence from time to time. Perhaps we can also allow ourselves to enter that world tonight to see him, to hear him, and allow ourselves to be inspired and get the strength we need to live our own lives as completely and authentically as we can.

There are many reasons why we might want to remember him—for most of us who knew him and loved him—we cherish who he was for us, the way he moved through the world. We remember the kindness of his actions—and his great one-liners.

For those of us who meditated with him, he inspired us by his depth of his practice—the way that he carried his understanding of the Buddha’s teaching into his life seamlessly. The man who sat in the zendo was not one bit different from the man who had a martini at the gay bar around the corner or who listened carefully to everyone’s point of view during a staff meeting.

For those of us who worked with him, we knew that his projects had heart. No matter how complex they became when we tried to made them real, no matter what problems or difficulties arose, Issan always directed us back to the heart of the matter—love, compassion, service.

For those of us who only know him by having read about him or heard about him, or having worked at Maitri, you still know him. He didn’t write any books himself, but he left a real example of how humans can look after one another with love and friendship. Here it is! We’re standing in the middle of it right now. And that is perhaps the best way to know him, by trying to look after one another throughout our entire lives in ways that make difference and bring us closer together.

Tonight we are going to try to bring him back into our lives as a way to honor him, and thank him, and be inspired again by his vision for home and hospice for people with AIDS.

I have heard more than 100 versions of this story over the years: "if I hadn’t met Issan at the door of City Center or Tassajara, if he hadn’t really hugged me, told a joke, said a few words that calmed me down immediately, I wouldn’t have struck around—I wouldn’t be here today." He was a man with the ability to find those few words that you needed to hear in the moment, words that came from the heart, words that gently cleansed the sting of whatever was troubling you. He was a man with an open heart. He was truly a Zen priest.

He was also a man whose path to Zen was among the most odd ball that I’ve ever read about in Zen’s almost 2 thousand year history. Many senior Zen students of Suzuki Roshi have told me that when they saw the bedraggled hippie with dirty feet walk though the doors of Sokoji Temple on Bush, there was never a more unlikely candidate for roshi. Yet when this effeminate, gay, drug-addicted drag queen discovered the path of meditation, he found his life and never turned back.

Issan and me in the garden at Hartford Steet, photo byRich Gerhearter

I have moments when a single phrase that Issan said to me just comes up, for no apparent reason. He had an uncanny ability to take complex issues and say what was important in a few words. Some people can only understand an issue presented in its most simplistic form. But Issan’s few words didn’t show any lack of understanding. When I worked with him (and particularly when I talked about my meditation practice with him), I felt his few words go very deep.

And for gay man like myself, part of the large influx to San Francisco of gay, lesbian and bi men and women during the 70’ and 80’s who were, by and large, alienated from the religious practice of our mothers and fathers, a simple, light-hearted message that went to the heart of the matter was perfect. And if it were delivered with perfect timing and some campy trimmings, all the better.

Once at a staff meeting I was fretting over something that was stamped “urgent” (it seemed as if almost every item in my to-do pile had some red flag, screaming “right now,” “get me done”). Issan just reached out, touched my hand and said, “We’re at war. I’ve been at war, and it’s not fun—well not always fun. We can still have some parties.”

Back in 1988 and 89 sometimes more than a hundred men a week were dying from the effects of HIV/AIDS. It was a disaster the dimensions of which the nation as slow to recognize. There wasn’t time, money or resources to do everything that needed to get done, much less do it perfectly. Somehow, I knew that if I could just focus on what was in front of me, and get that done, it usually turned out to be exactly what was required. And for those of you who know me, it’s something I still struggle with. Thanks Issan—your teaching continues.

And the story also reminds me that when you’re at war, you also find out quickly who your friends are. When the epidemic hit full force, after all the political posturing and bullshitting, our community found resources within itself to care for a tragedy of unbelievable proportions. And we were helped by large number of generous men and women from the wider community who saw beyond whatever labels were being thrown around then—forgive me if I’ve blocked them out—and stepped forward to ease the suffering of some fellow travelers.

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 we call prajna, is not the sole property of any religion.

I want to tell a story about the Mass that my friend, Joe Devlin, a Jesuit priest, said in the zendo at Hartford Street early in 1990.

I had asked Joe to come by and say Mass for the Catholic men in the Hospice. It was a Saturday evening, and 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. 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. When it came time to read from the New Testament, 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 contained all the essentials for a true Christian life.

Then he read from the gospel of Luke, chapter 11, 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’s 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. So Jesus teaches here 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. He was exuberant. He had fallen in love with Luke's parable, and Joe. 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,” said Issan, “it must have been in Latin when I heard it as an altar boy—or something, but it was exactly how we should lead our lives as Buddhists.” He then said that during the Mass he had the experience of really being forgiven and that the experience had allowed him to feel peace, even appreciation for his early religious training.

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 out 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 spare bookshelf at Hartford Street to my altar, I have since passed on to another person who asked a dharma question about one the stories in the gospel of Jesus.

If I were to give a nice sounding Buddhist name to the next story, it might be something “like there’s nothing too small that you can let escape your attention, even if no one’s going to notice,” but I think that “They never get the pleats right” tells the story better.

When Maitri was on Hartford St., we carried on a full meditation schedule plus running the hospice. One Saturday we were sitting meditation from 5 in the morning till dusk. Issan was not sitting, actually he was in bed and his doctor, Rick Levine, was monitoring a fever that had spiked at about 103 the previous day. That evening, he was to preside at the wedding of two men, old friends, at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. 20 years ago 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—well, you know that story.

Sometime after lunch I noticed his white koromo, fresh from the dry cleaners, hanging on the coat rack in the hallway. The koromo is a simple kimono style garment that a priest wears under the Okesa, the Buddha’s robe that is worn over the left shoulder. With the full robe, not much of the koromo is visible. It’s really like ceremonial underwear.

I went back to my cushion in the zendo. When I came up stairs again about 3:30 to fix tea before the last block of sitting, there was Issan in the living room, in his bathrobe, with a little head band, and swear dripping from his forehead behind an ironing board. He was ironing the Koromo fresh from the dry cleaners. I stopped on the stairs and I had to stop myself from telling him to get back to bed, follow his doctor’s orders and save his strength. I am sure he saw the shocked look in eyes. He turned to me, chuckled and said, “They never get the pleats right.” I certainly wasn’t going to argue with a man who was obviously in a deep state of meditation.

He did preside over the wedding and it was fabulous. Steve and Shunko who were also part of the ceremonial team, came home relieved though complaining about the two husband’s gift list of toasters and table service, “Nothing for the Hospice!” Issan was quick to diffuse them—it was a very special day for the couple who were setting up house together for the first time.

And here is another lesson I learned from Issan, one that took me a long time to digest and one that I still struggle with: there is always enough money to do what you need to do. And most likely, in the best of circumstances, it will be just enough, not a penny more or a penny less. When you are tight, (or if you’re tight) it’s probably time to reorder your priorities.

Over more than 2 decades, Maitri has rethought its priorities many times and revised its budget accordingly. New drugs have increased the longevity of persons with AIDS, and the death rate has plummeted. But new issues have arisen: some people can’t manage the rigorous schedule of drug administration and need training; partners and family who are caring for people with more limited abilities imposed by HIV need a break to care for themselves and thus Maitri’s respite care program and training in self-care.

The new director along with the board will continue to adapt and reinvent Maitri’s programs to maintain the two hallmarks of Issan’s vision: quality care and a true home. This is also a place where we might dedicate our energy tonight: to support them as they chart new directions and promise to do what we can when they ask for whatever they’ll need, ideas, resources and of course money.

In the last year of Issan’s life, a local musician with some spiritual roots had a minor hit. I’m talking about Bobby McFerran’s, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Issan loved the song and sometimes would hum or sing a bit of the lyric and then say, “that’s good but I think he should add, ‘Just do the best that you can.’ We aren’t asked to do more, but that’s more than enough.”

So I’ll end my stories here with the refrain: “don’t worry, be happy, do the best that you can.” Issan, you showed us whatever you can do with your own mind and heart is more than enough to make a lasting impact in the world.

And now finally to wrap it up, I’m going to return to my Buddhist joke:

Issan knew that he wasn’t a one-man show—even in his drag days he didn’t perform alone. He was not the Lone Rangerette, or Mary Tyler Moore facing adversity with a smile and disarming off the wall comments though he had some of that quality. Actually if I had to pick TV character for him it would be Rue McClanahan who played Blanche Devereaux in the “Golden Girls,” one of his favorite TV shows. So I can hear telling me, “Ken, be a sweetheart, and thank everyone.”

All of us are intimately connected with one another. The inner workings of an organization as complex as Maitri are also connected to us. As I look at this web, this net, the list of people whom I should thank is longer than the list of names I am going to read. But I will take a few minutes to read some names and I ask you to join me in acknowledging these people and offering them our deep gratitude.

Steve Allen, who returned from nirvana to help Issan (in his case, an innovative temple in Crestone Colorado), represents the many Buddhist practitioners who interrupted their own lives and practice to be with Issan as death approached. They include Steve’s wife, Angelique Farrow, Shunko Jamvold, David Bullock, David Sunseri, David Schneider, Lucien Childs, Zenshin Phil Whalen, Angie Runyon, Paul Rosenblum, Rick Levine, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Richard Baker roshi, Kobun Chino roshi, John Tarrant roshi, Joan Halifax, Frank Osteseski, Ram Dass, Wendy Johnson and the gang from Green Gulch who brought cartons of food every week for the kitchen, Rob Lee whose photographs you see displayed here tonight, Tozan Mike Gallagher and Joshi Paul Higley, men with HIV who were ordained as zen priests, who practiced at HSZC and added enormously to the richness of our practice. I’ll humbly include myself among this group. I began my formal Zen practice at Hartford Street/Maitri Hospice and that has been an enormous gift. The privilege of being allowed to do this work changed my life.

Jerry Berg was a wonderful human being and fabulous leader in the San Francisco gay community. He can stand for all the men and women who were not members of the Buddhist community but generously stepped forward into important roles that ensured the success of Issan’s vision. They include, Richard Schober, Will Spritzma, Richard Fowler, George Heard, Tim Wolfred, Bill Musick, Tim Patriarcha (who is Buddhist), Tova Beatty, Maura-Singer Williams, Christine Vincent, Lynn, our head nurses, beginning with Jan Clark, and Anne, Visiting Nurses and Hospice, now Sutter-Home-Health, and Glo Newberry-Smith; I want to thank the hundreds of individuals who gave whatever they could afford, whether time or money, Jim Hormel, Al Baum, Jon Logan to name just a few; our volunteers, board members, Traci Teraoka, Sally Anne Campbell, George Stevens, Boone Callaway, Anne O’Driscoll who cooked great hearty meals, Jane Lloyd who cut hair, Bob Gordon and Bill Haskell, and perhaps a hundred more wonderful men and women who gave of themselves to be with our residents; I want to thank all our CNA’s, Gary, Ichto who’s been with Maitri for more than 20 years, Joyce Cabit, who has also been with us almost from the beginning to name just a few; I have to thank the many small businesses that helped with services, like Marcello’s pizza. Friday night pizza dinner was a highlight of the week and allowed the cook a well deserved night off. I also want to include the designers, craftsmen and carpenters who helped us covert 61 Hartford Street into a hospice, only mentioning 2, Alberto, and Juan (Issan thought you were about as handsome as men come), and I have to thank those who transformed the building where we’re standing now, especially Sylvia Kwan and Joseph Chance. You helped Issan create Buddhist heaven.

And finally I want to thank the almost 950 men and women who made Maitri their home during the last months and days of their lives. You allowed us the privilege of being your servants, and walk with you as you completed your earthly journeys. Your generosity taught us lessons we can never forget. You changed our lives.

The list goes on but I have to stop here. To all the many people and organizations who’ve shared and contributed to Issan’s vision over nearly 25 years, our heartfelt thanks.

Thank you all for your kind attention. Thank you, Issan. As is said in the traditional closing prayers for celebrations like this: May the teaching of your school go on forever. May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tommy D, the boy as pretty as the girl next door

Del and Issan in Santa Fe

I can't let these pictures Of Issan and some of his friends sit on my computer's hard drive out of sight. They were, I think, a gift from Del Carlson to the Hartford Street Zen Center. Jeff Thomas scanned them and sent me digital copies. I found a few others in various and sundry places.

This is the earliest photo of Issan I found. I'd recognize that face anywhere.

He shaved his head.

He wore a dress and did his hair.

He was never afraid to share the spotlight.

Issan and James
Shunko Jamvold, Del Carlson, Angelique Farrow, Steve Allen, Issan Dorey

To read more reflections about the life of Issan, see some photographs, read his dharma talks, go to my Record of Issan page.

The Xavier I left on the cutting room floor

I confess: I became obsessed with Xavier. I collected more images than I felt I could use for my blog posts about him. For some I would have had to explore a much wider context than I intended; some had no attribution; and some I just didn’t know how to handle.

However, because of the interest among the Compañeros y compañeras, a group of former Jesuits, their wives and partners, to which I belong, I’ve created this page from what wound up on the cutting room floor.

The body of the saint.

I can only guess the purpose of this contraption —
perhaps it shelters the glass coffin in its procession from Bom Jesu to Se Cathedral.

Garry tells me this is the coffin that carried Xavier's body from Malacca back to Goa.

His right arm was detached in 1615 by order of Caludio Acquaviva, then the General of the Jesuits. Some men on the Companions list actually came into physical contact with the relic while they were in the Society. “The lore around it was how many Asians he had baptized with that arm.” –Gene Bianchi

“I consider it one of the most beautiful churches I have seen in Goa. Built in 1873, the shrine of the Nossa Senhora Mae de Deus was brought over from the ruins of the convent of Mae de Deus in Old Goa to Saligaon. Saligaon, sal means “wooded,” gaon means “village,” which translates to “village in forest,” is some 14 km’s away from Panjim, the capital of Goa.” —Anurag Jain, photographer

One of the extraordinary events, or tales, surrounding his travels. Artist not identified.

By whom? Possibly Br. Andrea Pozo, S.J.

San Bac: If you have any doubt about that Xavier was a saint of the Spanish-Portuguese, visit San Bac outside Tucson, geographically half a world and culturally light years away from Goa. I might have to build a case that the cultural artifacts of the missions signify more than simply artistic taste, but the evidence here is so astounding that I rest my case.

San Xavier del Bac Mission was founded by Father Eusebio Kino, S.J. in 1692. The pictures are of the newly restored sacred art in the old church, which was completed in 1797 after 15 years of construction, making it one of the oldest existent structures from the 17th century in the New World. I visited San Bac several times when my parents were living south of Tucson, and it is an extraordinary place.

The late Fr. Charlie W. Polzer, S.J., a friend of many of the Compas, wrote extensively on Kino. His last book was the 1987, Kino Guide II: A Life of Eusebio Francisco Kino, S.J., Arizona's First Pioneer and I Guide to His Missions & Monuments. Morgan also wrote a tribute to Charlie in Meanderings.

And finally, sometimes art just leaves you speechless! Even given the distance of time and place, cultural differences, what could have been going on in the mind of the artist in this pose? Samba, or, perhaps, the Bosa Nova. Not a bad idea, really, but not something that immediately pops into my mind when thinking about Xavier.

The Meanderings of Francis Xavier

For my friends Garry Demarest and Tom Marshall, travelers and seekers

"Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins where it begins and nothing's over when it's over, and everything needs a preface: a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct....." Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

My friend Garry Demarest was in Goa a few weeks ago, and I suggested that he and his camera seek out the Basilica of Good Jesus, the final resting place of Francis Xavier.

April 7th was the 504th anniversary of Xavier’s birth, and though neither Garry nor I were aware of any celebrations, if he had arrived just a few weeks earlier, he could have seen the mummified body of the saint carried in procession from Bom Jesu to the Cathedral across the street for veneration.

Veneration was also part of my request: I was asking Garry to help me complete a spiritual journey by paying respects to Xavier with his fine eye and camera. My experience of spiritual journeys is that they contain precious few endings, and many beginnings. In fact the journey seems like countless beginnings with a common thread. But I had intended my request, and my desire to complete my following Xavier in much the same spirit as I understand Ignatius’s making his confession to a friend before the Battle of Pamplona when no priest was at hand—the first step of his new life after soldiering.

I wanted to end my tracking of the meandering Xavier, but truthfully, I also wanted to be done with Xavier. His adventurous spirit was heroic—you have to admire that. He traveled to the edges of the known world over treacherous waters in vessels were like leaky rowboats compared with what modern mariners sail, and reportedly the man never acquired a sailor’s belly. On the other hand, he made me uncomfortable. His concern for all men and women, when that seemed fully present, was generous and loving, but reading from his own words, he seemed to trip up on a rigid, dogmatic understanding of the world.

Saints are human beings, and, in my view, some of the men and women whose lives Christians are told to admire and imitate also possessed, or were possessed by, some habits of mind that make the world less bright and friendly. Xavier seemed dogmatic, judgmental, and stubborn, always ready to pick a fight. He was also reckless. If just his own life were in jeopardy, I might be able to attribute it to his quirky behavior. However if you read carefully, he also put others in harm’s way. The ethos aboard a Portuguese man of war certainly encouraged bravado in the face of danger, but it seems to have fed a kind of fanaticism in the man. And although he was a guest in Japan, and didn’t know the language and customs, it is clear that he tried to stir up ill will towards Buddhist monks for what he perceived as sexual abuse of minors. He intention was to topple their authority as well as to present the teaching of Jesus. I make no secret that I would favor that outcome in the current scandal of abuse that has rocked the church. Perhaps Xavier forces me to look into a mirror and see the viscous side of my own attitudes.

The reconstructed map of Xavier’s voyages look like meandering, but they were certainly purpose driven, as was he. Francis left Lisbon in 1541 and for the next 11 years traveled many thousands of miles, from Goa to Japan with stops in Sri Lanka, Malacca, the Moluccans. He established missions that were to be staffed by the many Jesuits who followed him. On December 2, 1552, two years after he left Japan, he died on the Island of Changchuen while waiting to gain entrance into the Celestial Empire. His body was dipped in quick lime and returned to Goa 15 months later.

In spite of my personal aversion to parts of Xavier’s personality, I still admire his courage and dedication. As a small tribute to his explorations, I’ve assembled the following images. I’ve supplemented Garry’s shots with others that I found on the Internet. My only criterion was that I found the images interesting or beautiful. Credits for the photos appear if they were available.

The Beginnings of my own Journey

I began reading about Xavier more than 8 years ago when Tom Marshall gave me the 4th volume of Schurhammer’s Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times. I had wanted to read Xavier’s letters to Ignatius from Japan, especially several in which he describes his meeting with the Zen adept “Ninxit,” his transliteration for Ninjitsu, the abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoji. This was the first encounter between Zen and Christianity. The year was 1549, soon after Xavier landed at Kagoshima on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan.

I attempted to reconstruct the meeting between Xavier and Ninxit in Buddha S.J. There were some hints that he formed quite a wonderful friendship with Ninjitsu that was not entirely driven by his missionary zeal. Apparently Xavier broke off his relationship when he could not convert Ninjitsu and pushed further north.

Xavier’s letters to Ignatius are the only record of this encounter. Xavier was writing to his friend and mentor, but he narrated with a kind of the formality that I didn’t expect, although my understanding of writing letters conventions 440 years ago is entirely best guesses. Xavier may have taken a very dogmatic tone because intermediaries might read them, or they were what Rome and Portugal wanted to read, or they may have just reflected the rigid side of his personality. He also brought only the most rudimentary linguistic skills to encounter, and seems in no way prepared for the kind of conversation that he tried to have. He was aware of his handicap and, in his letters, recommended thorough linguistic training for the Jesuits who will follow him.

[Signature of St. Francis Xavier taken from a letter to the King John III of Portugal, dated May 16, 1546. The letter itself is in the collection of the 26 Martyrs Museum, Nagasaki, Japan. Go to their catalogue for further inspection. I have not reproduced the entire letter as requested. I am also conscious that the Museum may not be entirely comfortable with my portrayal of Xavier.]

The story with a larger series of images continues at “A saint for the East or the Portuguese expansion into the East?

Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, Vol. 4: Japan and China, 1549-1552
, Georg Schurhammer, Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973
St. Francis Xavier, J. M. Langlois-Berthelot, Jean-Marc Montguerre [pseud.] Trans. Ruth Murdoch, Doubleday, 1963.