Friday, April 23, 2010

Issan's Jesus koan


This is a moment when I realized what I always knew—even my own experience in meditation doesn’t belong to me!


The line from the dedication in the Soto Zen service at a temple founder’s altar, “May the Teaching of this school go on forever,” sounds like a clichĂ©. Are there really answers to what seem to me obvious questions, “What is the Teaching of this school?” and “How or why should they go on forever?” Is the founder’s teaching treated like an assumption and not really a question? I knew Issan as a friend, a man dying of AIDS, a really funny prankster, and a Teacher. I always try to be on the lookout for any expression of his teaching that feels genuine, not made up.

Last week I ran into Bruce Boone, an old student of Issan Dorsey, outside the CafĂ© Flore, only a short walk from the Hartford Street Zen Center. After the usual “bring me up to date” conversation which, sadly, included news of his longtime partner’s recent death, we began to talk about Issan’s teaching.

I turned the conversation to gathering Issan’s old students together and beginning to record our memories of  how our friend really did teach us. Bruce told a story about walking into a Catholic church with Issan. Seeing the image of Jesus crucified. Issan said to Bruce, in almost an offhanded way, “Oh, that’s me.” Bruce understood that Issan's remark was entirely serious. He called it “Issan’s koan.”

His words kicked something loose in me—cross, koan? It's been almost 20 years since Issan died, and Bruce still held a story Issan told him, and for which he had no ready answers or explanations, in a loving way. Then he said, “Even those brief moments while I sat facing the wall, when everything seemed clear as a bell, those few deep experiences have only begin to open up what he might have meant.”

Then I got it: Bruce has been sitting on my right and meditating for me, and he had handed over his zazen without a second thought. It was mine. How generous. Generosity is probably a necessary pre-condition for sharing my meditation with the person on my left, but I don't want my thinking too much get in the way. It just happens. It is the path that the ancestors use to transmit their experience to us. It's a slippery slope, so what?

A hymn in praise of meditation contains the verse: “From dark path to dark path.” Why not sing “From bright path to bright path?” I have had moments when I saw very clearly that meditation experience is not a solipsistic self-generated enlightenment. I would certainly be more than willing to give myself lots of bonus points for all the good effort that I have been making over many years in practice, but what if it ain’t necessarily so? What if the work has already been done or is always being done? Bruce has been working on Issan’s koan for more than 20 years, and all I did was to stand next to him on the street for a few minutes. The Teaching of Issan's school has lived on for at least 20 years. Wrapping my mind around “forever” seems just a step away.

And this might a good enough reason for starting to write down a new set of experiences working with the koans.

My friend Ken MacDonald added more lyricism to the Soto dedication at the closing of the founder's service:

"These teachings go on forever;
on and on they flow,
without beginning or end".



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

On hearing the parable of the Good Samaritan — for the first time!

Issan said that he really read only one book as an adult, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He had read it several times. But he didn’t have to read the gospel to understand it.

In 1991, I had asked my friend, Fr. Joe Devlin, S.J., of the New England Province to come by and say Mass for the Catholic men in the AIDS Hospice.

It was a Saturday evening. He was due to arrive at 5 or so, and 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, and firmly, “Mass will be in the zendo.” He took over, and directed all the preparations with the same care that he would have given to a full-blown Soto Zen ritual. Then he went back upstairs, and when he came down again, he was dressed in his Zen 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, and I would get him anything he needed.


Issan and five or six of us sat in meditation posture on cushions while Joe improvised the 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 told us that his mother had told him that the story he about to read contained all the essentials for a Christian life. Then he read Luke 11, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Issan sat right next to me but he gave his entire attention to Joe and the Mass. I couldn’t get a read on how he was reacting. The next day, I discovered that he had fallen in love with Luke's parable, and Joe.



Sunday mornings were the usual community gathering of the Hartford Street community, and Issan began to talk about Fr. Joe and the liturgy. He was really exuberant. He turned to me and asked, “What was the little white book that he 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 such peace with 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. He would die 6 months later, and, during one of out last meetings, 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 room at Hartford Street is now on my altar.


For another piece on the Good Samaritan and Buddhism, go to "We Inter-Are" by Morgan Zo-Callahan.

The image of the Good Samaritan is from the painting by Vincent Van Gogh.

"I have things to do!"

A friend was just diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. He asked his doctors if he could postpone the only treatment they recommended, a resection followed by chemo, for just a week. He said, “I have things to do.” 

Yes, we all have things to do, and taking care of them is exactly what we are about. It is the crux of the matter, even if I have a great deal of trouble staying on top of. I am caught so often between what I really have to do and what are imaginary responsibilities. Is there any space between for freedom? For me this story throws those questions into a new perspective.

During a Zen meditation retreat, we had been working with the koan “Little Jade.” It is enough to say that in the koan, the sound of a spoken name, the name of a servant uttered so that a secret lover can hear her voice, I reconnected to my old friend and teacher Issan Dorsey.

For some reason, or maybe none, memories about Issan had been surfacing during my meditation. The last ten or so days before he died were such a powerful experience that I have spent almost 20 years digesting the gift that he gave me, and many of his friends also received that gift. Those memories formed a kind of backdrop for work on “Little Jade,” and then suddenly connected me to that brief moment in way I had not felt since he died.

In much the same way, the phrase “I have things to do,” set off a massive chain reaction in my memory system, and that week sprang to life again

One night after his dharma talk about the koan, John Tarrant opened the floor for questions and comments. He had said that the real point of all our meditation practice was finding a place of freedom, no, it is not really a place at all, and I misspoke. He really meant FREEDOM, not some approximation or substitute that might be available when we experience a lesser degree of the suffering that goes hand in hand with life.

Here is the story that I told that night and the one that my friend’s words brought to life again. I am trusting that I can write it with enough clarity to allow the freedom of the moment shine through this jumble of words spread across the page.

Issan had an appointment with his oncologist, I think it was on Friday but it might have been mid-week. It was to be the last time he left Hartford Street. He was quite weak. His skin was even more white and bleached looking then usual. It seemed like it was working hard to cover his bones. He was a sick man—he knew it, we all knew it. Steve Allen and Shunko packed him into the beat up car that had become a kind of hospice taxi and off they went to General Hospital.

About two hours later, maybe it was as long as three, they returned. I opened the front door. He looked even more white, almost ghost like, and the pain on his face brought tears to my eyes. He didn’t even look at me. I don’t think he could. He held the banister for dear life, while Shunko held onto him under the left shoulder lifting him from one step to the next.

After they reached the top and I heard the door of his room close, I turned to Steve who was still standing at the bottom of the steps and asked, ‘What happened?’

Steve’s voice seemed quite flat as he recounted the doctor’s visit. I am almost certain I recall the story with all the details that I am gong to report, though I know that Steve’s emotions and mine have certainly colored what I will say.

They had waited for a long time. Issan was having an MRI, and the doctor was present. Steve described Issan as smiling as he was placed on the moving bed and the noise of the machine. Loud clacking began. Steve stood next to the doctor as they watched the pictures flash on a screen. The cancerous areas showed up as a soft glow, and Steve said that Issan looked like a Christmas tree--every part of his body light up.

The test ended. Steve, Shuko and Issan went into a private room with the doctor. He said to Issan, “You’re dying.” Steve said that Issan tried to smile and said, “Of course I know I’m dying, but I have things to do. It will take at least a month. I have to give Steve transmission, I have to ordain David and Harper.” I could almost hear his voice trailing off. The doctor looked at him and said (it is not difficult to imagine the tone of his voice. This kind of message can only be delivered with love), “No, Issan I don’t think you quite understood me, you’re dying now.” Steve described Issan’s response as a simple matter of fact question: “How long do I have?” The doctor told him that he could die at any time, or he might last a week, even ten days at the outside.

Before they left, Issan thanked the doctor for all that he'd done. An automatic “Oh, thank you” never came from Issan’s mouth and certainly not in this situation—they both knew that it would be their last meeting. 

That doctor was the first of a long line of people who would say good-bye—and thank you.

When Steve spoke I understood the anguish that I saw in Issan’s face. The stage had been set for the last moments in his life. Here was a Buddhist priest, abbot, roshi, gay man, loved by hundreds of people, many who had never even met him, and certainly entirely a human being, clutching onto the banister as he struggled to get up the stairs.

I usually dropped into Issan’s room before the 6 PM meditation to see if he needed anything. Recently Steve and Shunko had been taking shifts to be with him all the time so perhaps Steve had asked me to check in that night so that he could get ready for meditation. I knocked and heard Issan’s telephone voice. That man loved the phone! I opened the door and he pointed to the chair next to him. He was talking with his teacher, Richard Baker. “Oh roshi, you can’t get out here before the 10th? That is too bad, the doctor told me just this afternoon that I won't last that long. Yes, I'll miss you too. I do love you. Yes, goodbye for now. I'll call again or have Steve call you if I have no energy." Here was a different man than the one who only a half hour earlier had been clutching the banister. And it was absolutely the same man but with a brightness in his voice that shocked me—if I said surprised, it would be far too mild to register the degree of the transformation that I felt.

I can’t remember exactly what Issan said next, but after only a few minutes, I had clear instructions to make everyone who would he coming to say goodbye feel welcomed, and that I would do whatever Steve or Shunko asked of me. I was clear that Issan, through Steve, would orchestrate his last days, hours, and moments to accomplish as much as humanly possible of what was on his plate, and whatever that was would be exactly enough.

He was dead 10 days later, taking full advantage of the outside limit promised by the doctor. Richard Baker did come to San Francisco to be with his student and dharma heir before he died.

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