Monday, January 30, 2012

The Path of Libertation

May ALL sentient beings have happiness!
May ALL sentient beings be free from suffering!
May ALL sentient beings never be separated from the joy that is free from suffering!
May ALL sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion!
(The Four Immeasurables)

I anoint the Earth with fragrant water
And adorn it with Mount Meru, the four continents, the sun and the moon...
Imagining it a Buddha field,
I offer it that ALL beings may enjoy this pure realm!
(From Tibetan Buddhist Ngondro Mandala offering)

Birdbrain harpoons whales and chews blubber in the tropics
Birdbrain clubs baby harp seals and wears their coats to Paris
Birdbrain runs the Pentagon his brother runs the CIA, Fatass Bucks!
Birdbrain writes and edits Time Newsweek Wall Street Journal Pravda Izvestia
(Allan GinsbergBirdbrain)

Check out the Buddhisn 101 series presented by the Gay Buddhist Sangha.
Please join us if you can.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Issan and the founding of Maitri

What follows is an interview that I recently did with Marlin Marynick for his book about AIDS, Undisclosed: Secrets of the AIDS Epidemic.

I'm a gay man in San Francisco. I've been living here since 1974. I'm a former Jesuit--I’d been in Berkeley studying theology--and when I came out, I stayed. I did all the crazy kind of things that people do when they first come out--particularly the men of my generation who were just beginning to do the things we were really capable of in spite of all the discrimination against us. I drove a cab for a number of years, and I started a wood shop, perfect for a guy with a degree in theology, but I didn't really feel much like practicing any religion. When I met Harvey Milk, I joined the fight for gay rights. I had a partner, and we tried to build a life here in gay Mecca.

Then, all of a sudden in the mid-80’s, our friends began dying, huge numbers...first it was called gay cancer, then it was called grid...nobody really knew what it was. It was terrifying. Towards 1987-88 I felt that I had to do something, although this was also a process of me overcoming my own fears, of dealing with them. I had many friends that were diagnosed, and everybody was dealing with fear and loss and the not knowing what we were really dealing with. (For the record, I also have HIV).

In 1988 I met a gay Buddhist priest, Issan. Friends had told me that he was remarkable guy, but my first impressions were that he was actually rather ordinary, far more effeminate than any of my gay friends, and not in any way “spiritual” as I understood the word. Issan, “Tommy” Dorsey, did have an unusual path to a Zen. He had been a professional drag queen, and a heavy drug abuser, which was not terribly out of the ordinary for gay San Franciscans 40 years ago. He was also a very bright, funny, human being, and he had just started an aids hospice. (He himself died there of the disease on September 6, 1991--he’d contracted HIV from his partner, James). I was blessed to be able to be with him during the last few years of his life, and helped him create Maitri Home and Hospice for People with HIV.
I moved into the Zen center on Hartford Street to practice meditation, to get away from a relationship that was ending, and to put some perspective around all that. Very quickly after I packed my bags, my partner and I closed our furniture business, we made and sold furniture, and ended our relationship. So there I was living in this Zen center-hospice, and I started doing some general carpentry work, fixing bathrooms, getting rooms ready for the men who would live with us. It just was the next thing to do, right in front of me. This quickly lead to finding money to pay for the building materials; then more organizational stuff; and by 1990, I followed Steve Allen as executive director of the hospice. Looking back, it was something that my Jesuit training, and everything, prepared me for though I didn't have much experience with non-profits and no experience in health care.

Back then people with HIV-AIDS died quickly after being diagnosed... 3 weeks, 6 weeks, a few months, perhaps a little bit longer in rare cases. It felt like we were picking up bodies off the street. Some months 100 men died in San Francisco, in our neighborhood, the Castro. You'd walk down the street, pass someone you knew who looked pretty healthy. Then you'd see him 2 weeks later and he’d aged 40 years. Within a year or two I said to myself "Oh my god, where did my friends go." No one knew what to do, or how to behave around those infected--these were friends. Of course a lot of us were afraid of catching the disease, because no one knew how it was transmitted, although we had our suspicions, no one really knew.  No one knew if it was poppers, or kissing, or if it really was sex and drugs and rock and roll. That didn't appear on the horizon for a while because no one wanted to give those things up.  Sexual freedom was part of our emancipation, or that’s what we though. Denial was a big part of the epidemic’s horrifying spread through the community.

Issan said that the only real thing that we could do was to take care of what was in front of us, take care of life as it presented itself. He said HIV was like a guest who’d come and knocked at the door, and couldn’t be turned away. When one member of the small meditation community, JD, became so sick that his partner Pierre could no longer care for him, despite the misgivings of some in the community--Issan could be very firm, even stubborn, when he was sure of the next thing he had to do--he moved JD into the bedroom next to his. And he began looking after his immediate needs, which included martinis after evening meditation, spicy hot dogs, and cable TV. It was a very simple concept--just take care of people in the most basic way and sustain a normal life for as long as possible. And be as happy as you could--no matter what.

And then something unexpected happened, JD did not die quickly. The symptoms of the disease worsened, he could no longer walk, was bed-ridden, but when a supporter gave Maitri a motorized wheel chair, JD became a teenager with a hot rod, missing meals, staying out past curfew. He found a new boyfriend who was also disabled, and they began to spend the night together. We moved him from the second floor to the street level front room of the second building where he held court. Four or five other men would be in his room watching campy movies on VCR at all hours. He stocked his small refrigerator intended for medications with soda and beer, and in the front window a hydroponic wheatgrass farm, for health, of course. All this really tested some zennish sensibilities, and the CNA staff. But despite complaints, Issan remained firm in his support for JD. When JD returned one day from Oakland--he’d taken BART across the Bay--with an iguana, no one believed that he would actually take care of it himself. He did. In fact he smuggled his pet onto a plane when he went back to Florida to spend his last days with his mother. The story of the lizard squirming around under his shirt while JD locked himself in toilet at 30,000 feet became the stuff of legend. I think that JD’s story is also a real example of what kind of life is possible when your guests are not bound by some rigid rules for how you expect guests to behave.

Even if people couldn’t see the compassion what Issan was doing, most everyone trusted him enough to give money. Another friend of his bought the building next to our small Victorian house, and we bought back the lease. That gave us rooms for another 5 people. Within a year we had 8 beds for people with HIV-AIDS plus 6 people to take care of them, Issan, Phil Whalen a zen priest, as was Steve Allen, and his wife, Angelique, Michael Jamvold, myself, and David Bullock. We shared a life together--we meditated, had fun. We worked hard and cried.

Maitri was a ragtag operation, and we learned we would create a Buddhist hospice piece by piece. I began to spend time helping people get their paperwork arranged for the end of their life, getting everything straightened out with their partners, and their families, taking care of the kinds of things that come up towards the end of life. I asked social workers and lawyers to help and everyone I asked stepped forward.

What also started to become clear, we were charting new territory. We were the only Zen center in the United States to put meat, chicken and sausages on our vegetarian, Zen, table. People with HIV needed protein.  There were a lot of other things that broke rules, both in Zen terms, and hospice-wise. When we had to take care of getting the drugs adjusted so that people could have a fairly comfortable life, we got help from Visiting Nurses and Hospice (Steve Allen worked out a contract with them to provide a full-time nurse and certified nursing attendants using moneys already allocated for care from the city). As I started to investigate how we could get money for hospice, I discovered that for most insurance, and federal funding, people had to have a 6 month diagnosis to receive assistance and they couldn't take any drugs which would prolong life. Issan said that’s crazy because he wanted people to live and enjoy life as much as they could for as long as they could. There was a new, experimental drug called Foscarnet which prevented, or at least retarded, blindness caused by CMV retinitis. It had to be given intravenously. The nurses from hospice were not allowed to do that with hospice patients so I recruited a small group of volunteers who learned to how to do administer it.  Then several patients wanted to sign up for drug trails of the new HIV drugs that began to appear. It would probably have been prohibited in more formal hospice settings, but somehow, I convinced VNA to not report any person at Maitri who got into a drug trail.

The partner of my friend Michael who was dying called Maitiri,“the house of death” when I suggested that he move Michael in. I was pretty offended. I saw what we were doing as creating a house of life. While I was trying to figure out how to keep the cable TV from being shut off, and lamb stew on the table, there were times I thought I was running “animal house.” There was lots of humorous, funny things going on all the time. Yes, people were dying, in the 2 + years I was there 82 people died in those 8 beds, and I was with almost every one of them. I won’t deny that it tested my defences, that it was trying, and stressful work. There was always a poignancy about life at Maitri. But when death is simply part of life, it becomes more easy to sustain what we think of as normal life.

Bit by bit, we did put something together, and what we created is now the longest surviving aids hospice, “home and hospice for people with AIDS,” in the city. The morbidity rate from HIV/AIDS has gone down enormously, thank god. Only a few people actually die in the hospice now, so the current staff deals with things like drug addiction, and adherence to medical protocol for the antiviral drugs, respite care, things that Issan would have encouraged us to to do to make life as normal and happy for as long as it lasts.  What we did in the early days of the epidemic and what continues to be done now is really extraordinary.

By the time he died, I realized that Issan was a truly extraordinary man. He was far more than an extremely funny sense of humor. He’d worn a skirt, or as he used to say, "I still wear a skirt but I renounced the heels." His speech was always in entirely plain language. But he really was a Zen master. When this drag queen, substance abuser par excellence started to sit meditation with Susuki roshi, he sat down and looked at the bottoms of his feet, and said to himself, oh my god, they are dirty...and he started to clean up from drugs, and meditate.  He also discovered what was important for his own life. In official Zen, he went as high as any man can go. For me he was an absolutely extraordinary, terrific human being.\

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

The science behind: When will Hell freeze over?...

Dante Conversing with Farinata degli Uberti by William Blake
The following is an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term. It is so "profound" that the professor shared it with colleagues, via the Internet, which is why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well. Many thanks to my friend Andrea Tosi for forwarding this to me. It made my day!

Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law (gas cools when it expands and heats when it is compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

"First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

"As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Most of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there is more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell.

"With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately as souls are added.

"This gives two possibilities:

"1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

"2. If Hell is expanding at a faster rate than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

"So which is it?

"If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my freshman year that, "it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you", and take into account the fact that I slept with her last night, then number 2 must be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over.

"The corollary of this theory is that since Hell has frozen over, it follows that it is not accepting any more souls and is therefore, extinct...leaving only Heaven thereby proving the existence of a divine being which explains why last night, Teresa kept shouting 'Oh my God.'"


Originally published on July 21, 2008 in my blog “spiritually incorrect.”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Calling out the Archbishop

If I were Obama, this is how I might answer you, Eminenza Revma, but if I were the President, I couldn’t be this snarky. But I’m not Obama. I'm just a gay man and a citizen of these United States. Once upon a time I was also a Catholic and a Jesuit.

I don’t know you and might even like you given the right social setting, church or meditation hall, provided you didn’t insist on being right. No, I’m just saying that. I’m pretty sure that you wouldn’t give me the time of day, and I doubt that I'd be a "good gay" and kiss your ring. But I’ll still try not to insist on my position without being too self-righteous.

Dear Most Reverend Eminence Archbishop Dolan,

Sorry that I couldn’t find the time to get back to you and answer your provocative questions before now. As you’ve probably watched the green backs in the collection basket dwindle, you know that I’ve got real money problems to deal with too.

I hate to be so upfront, but the tone of your letter was more than a bit defensive--this is when you weren’t being mildly hostile ramping up to outright antagonistic
I can sympathize with you--really. It sucks to have your authority blasted by people who can buy TV time, or even own stations and networks, but such is life in a democratic society. When you were elected, if my statisticians are correct, you received 128 votes against your opponent’s 111 on the third ballot. I wish I only had 239 bishops to deal with. But you guys, and you are still all guys right? are making a real stab at democracy, so I applaud even small steps. It’s a major shift from the days when you could handle the opposition by sending them all to Hell, or burn them. I can’t just allow those who disagree with equality in marriage to break away and start their own religion. We already fought a civil war.  But you had the Reformation, a war without as much blood.

Don't take this as a low blow, but I have to point out that one of your complaints, that the government’s stance on contraceptive devices and the use of condoms to prevent HIV goes against what you preach, would definitely not stand if put to a vote of the faithful. It doesn’t take a statistician to see that they’ve voted with their penises, if not their feet. That collection plate take will eventually catch up with you.

Sometimes the reality of leadership is a hard road. And I'm not trying to strike a note of reconciliation to get the sympathy vote. I am obliged to make room for all points of view. My oath of office forces me to leave the eternal questions to my private time, or when I leave office, though my opponents are using them right now to weaken whatever authority I have left as president. I can only hope that your comment about creating a constitutional crisis was just an observation--that there was no threat implied in your language--I wouldn’t want to alert Homeland Security.

I recall that you call upon a Higher Power, or perhaps that is reserved to the Most Holy Father some of the times when he opens his mouth. I’ve tried the Higher Power thing too in some of my speeches, but my opponents have a real knack for that sort of thing. I feel at a disadvantage.

There was one statement that really caught my attention: “If the label of ‘bigot’ sticks to us—especially in court—because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result." Apparently you think that this is a solid argument because you repeat it: "It is especially wrong and unfair to equate opposition to redefining marriage with either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination, as your Administration insists on doing.”

Ok, let’s get real. You can hold any position you want, but the courts seem to be beginning to recognize that all men and women have a right to marry, regardless of sexual orientation, and the majority of the citizens of this country seem to be coming to the same conclusion. Everything changes, opinions change, and the teaching of your church on some matters has changed.

I mean really changed. Your church has been around for a long time and your memory shouldn’t be so short. Slavery is mentioned in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Sometimes it’s about regulations for slave owners and sometimes it’s used as a metaphor. I’ll let scholars fight about the exact meaning. However, it has not escaped my notice that St. Augustine taught that slavery was part of the natural harmony of the universe, and that at least one early synod (Gangra 340 CE) condemned abolitionists. As late as the 15th century popes owned slaves as well as accepted human beings as presents and gave them to friends in high places. That means that for about three quarters of the history of Christianity, slavery was accepted with hardly a second thought at the highest levels of your religious institution. I don’t need either the courts or innuendo to point out that you were on the wrong side of history on that one. If those attitudes existed today, you'd be loudly condemned outright. It might be considered “bias and prejudice.”

You are the spiritual shepherd of many Catholics, but you can’t dictate their votes really, can you?

Love to welcome you to the right side of this battle. It’ll be lots of fun.

With all due respect,


Friday, January 20, 2012

Finding God in All Things

Bonnie Johnson Shurman
Jan. 20, 1944-June 2, 2011

Bonnie Johnson would have been 68 today. I am among the many people who loved her and miss her kind and warm presence. She was an extremely generous woman and expressed her love as wife and mother,  daughter, grandmother and friend, in a way you could count on.

More than a decade ago, when she was first diagnosed with leukemia, her husband Daniel Shurman told me that she was interested in doing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and asked if I could suggest a book that she could use. She did the Exercises, and I was blessed to be her guide. But it was her enormous spiritual gift that allowed her truly embody the Teaching of Jesus, and then to share it with others, just as the Lord asks us.

During the years that her cancer remained in remission, she continued to explore the path that her Lord, through Ignatius, opened. She continued to live her life in prayer, exploring and digging further, following her own inspiration and gifts. This mystical bent was always balanced by the consummate professional and the scholar with common sense.

She found a possible link between Ignatius and Julian of Norwich via an informal association of seekers who called themselves “the Friends of God.” She wrote about Julian, Ignatius and the Friends when she was studying at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is dated March 8, 2005.

Thank you, Daniel for being the kind of husband who inspires, and for introducing me to Bonnie.

To thank Bonnie for the gift of friendship, I am going to post the paper, “Finding God in All Things,” here.

We miss you, Bonnie. and your gentle presence. We are enormously grateful for the gifts you gave us. May you sing with the angels.

I have given this paper the same title as William Barry’s book: Finding God In All Things, A Companion To The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius (Barry 1991). I was reading the book when Julian of Norwich was assigned in class. The similarities between Julian’s writings and Ignatius’s were striking to me. Both Julian and Ignatius write of multiple sensory experiences with God occasioned by life-threatening illness. Before I understood that Julian was born 150 years before Ignatius, I considered that her visions, like mine[1], might have been delirious manifestations engendered by Ignatian-style guided meditations. When I realized that she lived long before Ignatius, I abandoned the paper I was writing on the general topic of asceticism to delve deeper into parallels, coincidences, and possible connections between these two late medieval mystics.

The theological proposition of this paper is that the writings of Julian in circa 1400 and the writings of Ignatius circa 1525 are representative of a distinct spirituality: God as Friend. God as Friend is a paradigm shift from the dominant spirituality from the 4th century: Deity of Christ; it is distinct though related to two paradigms which were soon to emerge in the reformation: Salvation by Faith Alone and Incarnational Participation. At the end of this paper I will argue that the paradigm of God as Friend is finding new relevance in our time, hence bringing a renewed interest in both Julian and Ignatius.

In my search for a “social network” connecting Julian and Ignatius, I learned about an informal group called “Friends of God” from one of the many websites devoted to Julian. The name for this “association of pious persons, both ecclesiastical and lay [also men and women], alludes no doubt to John 15:14-15[2] … Friends of God appears to have had its origin in Basle between the years 1339 and 1343, and to have thence extended down the Rhine even as far as the Netherlands” (Walsh 1909). I am skeptical that Julian herself had any direct connection with the informal network of German mystics, but there is indirect evidence at least that many of them had access to her writing. One version of Julian’s Short Text (the so-called “Amherst Manuscript”) also contains writings of Friends’ mystics Marguerite Poerete, Henry Suso, and Jan van Ruusbroec (Holloway 1997). The manuscript had been in the Brigittine Syon Abbey; it was owned by the Lowe family and through them found its way to the Low Countries and Rouen (Holloway 1996). While there is no direct evidence of who might have read it and when, there is enough indirect evidence to conclude that Julian’s ideas were circulating among German mystics following her death circa 1425. The German mystics influenced Ignatius through the Carhusian and former Dominican monk, Ludolf of Saxony (Gieraths 1986). Ignatius is known to have read and re-read a four volume Spanish translation of Ludolf’s Life of Christ and to have been profoundly influenced, even converted, by what he read there (Ignatius 2000, p. xiv; Loyola 2000, p. xiv).

The references to Julian’s writing in this paper come from a “Long Text” version translated from the manuscript found in the British Museum. As I read Revelations of Divine Love (Julian 2002), I noted about sixty passages expressing ideas similar to those found the Spiritual Exercises, far too many passages to discuss here.[3] I am concentrating on five concepts that point parallel notions of God as friend; in particular, I am limiting myself to the best examples that reveal similarities in their views of how people carry on friendship with God various media/modes. I use quotations from the work of each to document my argument that friendship with God is created and maintained through intimate communications which take at least five different forms: imagery, senses, colloquy, consolation/ desolation, and prayer. In the conclusion of the paper, I also point similarities in how they describe the nature of this friendship in their discussions of sin, love, goodness, choice, and the indwelling of God in our nature.

Communication is the sine qua non of any friendship. To have a concept of friendship with God, therefore requires that there be some form of media which constitutes that communication. For both Julian and Ignatius, imagery is the most important media and the Passion is the most important topic of that imagery. In examining Julian and Ignatius’s imagery of Jesus’ Passion, such in the illustrative passages below, it is easy to dismiss their perspective on friendship. After all “Body of Christ” imagery was a common theme of medieval piety yet friendship with God was not. I have little knowledge of other writers in the “Body of Christ” genre, so I cannot say that the friendship imagery of Julian and Ignatius is unique. What I observe in their imagery, however, is its intimacy. Both show intimacy with Jesus’ body; this use of imagery signals closeness, friendship.

… All the precious blood was bled out of the sweet body that might pass therefore, yet there dwelled a moisture in the sweet flesh of Christ as it was shewed (Julian 2002, p.). 

… Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus hear me. Within Thy wounds hid me (Ignatius 2000, p. xlv).

Simply imagining another in a prayerful way can also create a close relationship with the one imagined with the need for conversation as we typically understand that term. A few months ago my husband and I were contacted by a friend to provide direction to on-line medical information for a friend of his with a rare bone marrow disease. We started to email with both Jim and his wife about Jim’s illness and potential resources in Palo Alto. Mostly we prayed intensely for Jim and also for his wife; we never spoke with them even by phone. When Jim died unexpectedly from a heart attack, both Daniel and I were devastated; we still cry at the thought of Jim. We had lost a dear friend, one whom we knew only through imagery, email, and prayer. It was a dramatic Julian-Ignatian lesson for me: I felt so close to this person and that closeness was entirely the product of my imagining his circumstances and my daily prayers for him. Knowing Jim in this way helped me to experience God in a fresh way; I learned how I can know God without human encounters just as I had known Jim without these encounters.

Imagery in Julian and Ignatius is not only visual, it is also multi-sensory.

I HAD, in part, touching, sight, and feeling in three properties of God, in which the strength and effect of all the Revelation standeth (Julian 2002, p. 197). And then shall we, with His sweet grace, in our own meek continuant prayer come unto Him now in this life by many privy touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feeling, measured to us as our simpleness may bear it (Julian 2002, p. 90). 

The Fifth contemplation will consist in applying the five senses to the matter. … seeing in imagination the persons, in contemplating and mediating in detail the circumstances in which they are… hear what they are saying… smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness of the divinity … touch, for example by embracing and kissing the place where the persons stand (Ignatius 2000, p. 45).

Communicating with ones Godfriend goes beyond merely experiencing God through ones imagination and senses; both Julian and Ignatius converse directly with God. Throughout the Julian text, she is posing questions to God, and God is answering her, for example: “AND thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably: I may make all thing well, I can make all thing well, I will make all thing well…”(Julian 2002, p. 61); the result of this is conversational. Ignatius uses the term “colloquy” to refer to conversations with God (and also with Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Spirit on occasions): “The colloquy is made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another” (Ignatius 2000, p. 24). These two examples exemplify a pattern of “shewing” vs “exercise” that I find over and over as a distinction between these two books: Julian shows her communication with God; Ignatius instructs the maker of the exercises to perform these same kinds of communications. Thus, “revelation” in Julian becomes “exercise” in Ignatius.

God has special kinds of communication with Julian that I would call, following Ignatius, “consolations” and “desolations.” In Ignatian spirituality, consolidations and desolations are the movements of the spirit—“internal movements” by which we can discern God’s will in our lives. Those making the exercises are taught how to listen or feel for these movements and thereby to guide their lives in accord with God’s will. Again, we see that Julian experiences these interior movements but makes no methodical use of them. Ignatius’s biography describes how he initially experienced them much as Julian did and then learned to put them to use in his own communications with God.

AND after this He shewed a sovereign ghostly pleasance in my soul. I was fulfilled with the everlasting sureness, mightily sustained without any painful dread. This feeling was so glad and so ghostly that I was in all peace and in rest, that there was nothing in earth that should have grieved me. …This lasted but a while, and I was turned and left to myself in heaviness, and weariness of my life that scarcely I could have patience to live. This Vision was shewed me, according to mine understanding, sometime to be in comfort, and sometime to fail and to be left to themselves. God willeth that we know that He keepeth us even alike secure in woe and in weal. And for profit of man’s soul, a man is sometime left to himself (Julian 2002). 

God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause. It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty (Ignatius 2000, p. 119 section 330). ...When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. For though God has taken from him the abundance of fervor and overflowing love and the intensity of His favors, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation (Ignatius 2000, p. 116, section 320).

On the topic of prayer, Julian and Ignatius could not be more similar. Yet, it is not as simple to point to parallel passages as with the preceding topics. For them, prayer is not just a “doing” – not just a message we send to God, in the form of a petition, for example. Rather, prayer is a way of being in which ones very foundation, ones “ground” is God and therefore prayer is fitting ourselves to that Ground of our being. Julian puts it this way:

OUR Lord God willeth that we have true understanding, and specially in three things that belong to our prayer. The first is: by whom and how that our prayer springeth. By whom, He sheweth when He saith: I am [the] Ground; and how, by His Goodness: for He saith first: It is my will. The second is: in what manner and how we should use our prayer; and that is that our will be turned unto the will of our Lord, enjoying: and so meaneth He when He saith: I make thee to will it. The third is that we should know the fruit and the end of our prayers: that is, that we be oned and like to our Lord in all things; and to this intent and for this end was all this lovely lesson shewed. And He will help us, and we shall make it so as He saith Himself; Blessed may He be! For this is our Lord’s will, that our prayer and our trust be both alike large. For if we trust not as much as we pray, we do not full worship to our Lord in our prayer, and also we tarry and pain our self (Julian 2002).

“Grounded in God” has several implications. First, that prayer is about the will of God and our place in that will. From this the next implication, only implicit in the statement above, that God is eternally present and has already “answered” our prayers in our very existence, our salvation, and in all that we enjoy: “The first is our noble and excellent making; the second, our precious and dearworthy again-buying; the third, all-thing that He hath made beneath us, [He hath made] to serve us, and for our love keepeth it. Then signifieth He thus, as if He said: Behold and see that I have done all this before thy prayers; and now thou art, and prayest me” (Julian 2002). Julian cautions us not to go looking for this or that way that God might have answered our small petitions, but to understand that God is answering even the prayers we have not yet asked. So how then should we pray? We should pray that “our will be turned unto the will of our Lord.” The true end of our petitions is that we become like God, indeed that we are at one with God.

William Barry describes the same understanding in Ignatius in his chapter entitled, “Grounded in God: The Principle and Foundation” (Ignatius 2000, pp. 33ff.). God is up to one action; we can experience the creative action of God which is always at work (Barry 1991, p. 39); Ignatius draws out the implications of our place in God’s one action in the Principle and Foundation: “We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things… Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a short life. … Our one desire and choice should be what is conductive to the end for which we are created (Ignatius 2000, p. 12, section 23). In other words, it is about God’s will; our prayer is our participation in that will. We are engaged in the world of God’s creating and God is already answering the prayers we have not yet made.

We have seen in both of these late medieval mystics a central concern with our relationship with God and how that relationship is continuously created through various media. The relationship is one of love. While both mystics write extensively on sin, theirs is not the sin of the medieval church or of Jonathan Edwards. Indeed, Julian comes as close as one might in her day to saying that her Church is misguided in its notion of sin and salvation (Julian 2002, p. 104). Ignatius’ first week of the Exercises is devoted to examining ones sin, but the point is not to berate or belittle the maker of the Exercises. Rather, the grace of the first week is the experience of love. “Ignatius expects that God will reveal our sins in such a way that we will actually be consoled. We are to have an increase of faith, hope, and love, be moved to tears of sorrow for our sin, but also to tears of love for a God who has been so good to us” (Barry 1991, p. 51). The heart of the message from both Julian and Ignatius is the goodness of God, the love of God, and the freedom which God gives us in the hope that we will choose to put God at the center of our lives, and participate in God’s mission.

Both mystics are saying that we must look in the world and in ourselves to find God. Their piety is finding God in all things, starting with finding ourselves IN God. “For our Soul is so deep-grounded in God, and so endlessly treasured, that we may not come to the knowing thereof till we have first knowing of God, which is the Maker, to whom it is oned” (Julian 2002, p. 133). This is such a contemporary message; it is not surprising that both mystics are being read more in our time than in any time of the past, including their own.

I have argued here that both Julian and Ignatius provide us with kataphatic paths to relationship with God as friend, one in which we are constantly called to God’s mission, but never coerced or threatened. We are called to examine our own sins, not the sins of others; we communicate with God who already God loves us and forgives us already. This is a contemporary theme. These are mystics for our time.


1 Since this is not a “personal reflection paper,” I will not discuss further my own experiences. Suffice to say that the parallels I find in Julian’s writings to my own experiences were the motivation for my choosing this topic.

2 “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my father.”

3 References to “Pages” in Julian are to the original manuscript pages; references to Ignatius are to pages in the Vintage-Random House version with section numbers referring to Ignatius original sections.


Barry, W. A. (1991). Finding God In All Things A Companion To The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius. Notre Dame, IL, Ave Maria Press.

Gieraths, G. M. (1986). "Life in Abundance: Meister Eckhart and the German Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century." Spirituality Today 38 (August): Supplementary Book.

Holloway, J. B. (1996) The Westminster Cathedral/Abbey Manuscript of Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love.

Holloway, J. B. (1997) Godfriends: The Continental Medieval Mystics.

Ignatius (2000). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. New York, Random House.

Julian (2002). Revelations of Divine Love. Grand Rapids, MI, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Walsh, R. (1909). Friends of God. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Online Edition, K. Knight. 6.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mindfulness Is Not a Part-Time Job

(L to R) Shunko Jamvold, Del Carlson, Angelique Farrow, Steve Allen, Issan Dorsey

A Dharma talk by Issan Dorsey-roshi

This transcript appeared in the newsletter of the Gay Buddhist Fellowship in January of 1995, four years and five months after his death from AIDS.

Someone said to me the other day, “Aren’t you always working on something?” Yes, we are always working on something, but hopefully it’s not up here in our heads, filled with words to obscure it. I was talking with a friend recently about the phrase, “coming to reside in your breath-mind,” and working with the phrase, and how useful it is to me. I thought it was interesting that I’d never really heard it before, and was just now beginning to work with it. I realized that I actually just heard it deeply.

This has been with me since I first started practicing. It’s a whole way of working with your mind--and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. I hope you won’t have to wait for 20 years before you you begin to to hear how to work with this thing called mind in [your] zazen meditation.

Now, people who come to practice, immediately sit much easier that they did when I first began to to sit at Sokoji Temple years ago. I remember everyone sitting with their legs legs bent up. They’d sit for five minutes, then they’d lie down and moan. But now people come and it’s like we already did that part for them. It’s as if we have a shared body that has already gone through that preliminary stuff, and people are already able to experience some aspect of zazen practice and how we practice together.

We have to be willing to explore and experiment. First we have to have a sense of humor and a willingness to explore and experiment with our lives and our uncomfortableness. We know that sometimes we can sit for a few minutes, or even a few days, and at some point it gets pretty uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable for us not to invite our thoughts to tea, and reside in our breath-mind.

“Don’t invite your thoughts to tea” is an expression of Suzuki-roshi’s which I’ve always found useful. You know these are just words, and we have to remember that every human concept is just delusion. Still, we use words and provisionally talk about our experience. Lately I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I’m thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is attacking so many of us now ends up being in the brain. So is there some way for us to experience that? I don’t know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have anyway? It’s called delusion. Mind is always creating confusion, joy and pain, like and don’t like, and depression. But there is also a “background mind.” That is what my friend and I have been discussing.

Sometimes when I’m talking about uncomfortableness, I talk about the five fears. One of the five fears is the fear of unusual states of mind. How can we come to have appreciation and respect for this fear and not just some resistance, so that we can enter our fear, allowing these new areas of uncomfortableness? When we can enter each of these new spaces, we can begin to look at truthfulness.

Why do we have to sit? Really there’s no reason to sit. If we’re completely sincere, then there’s no reason to sit. I’m not completely sincere so I have to keep sitting to check. Even if we’re involved with unskillful actions, the one quality we should strive for is truthfulness. Truthfulness takes a total commitment to see all aspects of ourselves and our unskillfulness. If we can embrace the totality of ourselves, we can embrace the totality of others and of the world. Our tendency is to think about things before we do them. Even when we see a beautiful flower, we say, “Oh what a beautiful flower.” “Beautiful flower” is extra. Just look at the flower with no trace.

Suzuki-roshi wrote, “When we practice zazen, our mind is calm and quite simple. But usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrating on what are doing.” This is because when we act, we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea. The traces and notions make our mind very complicated. When we do something with a simple, clear mind, we have no shadows and our activity is strong and straightforward.

So, even with zazen practice, it gets so complicated. We’re dissecting every aspect of what’s going on, reviewing and comparing. How do we keep it simple and straightforward? How do we come to know this basic truth of practice and Buddhism? The teaching and the rules can and should change according to the situation and the people we’re practicing with, but the secret of practice cannot be changed. It’s always truth.

We teach ourselves and encourage ourselves by creating this space, the meditation hall, so we can begin looking at our mind. “Don’t invite your thoughts to tea.” “Where is your breath-mind?” I used to say, allow this kind of mind to arise. But now I’m saying create background mind.

This practice is simple: watch your breaths and don’t invite your thoughts to tea. But not inviting your thoughts to tea doesn’t mean to get rid of thinking. That is discrimination. So, there’s no reason to get rid of thoughts, but rather to have some blank, non-interfering relationship with them. Don’t make your mind blank, but rather have some blank relationship with the thoughts. Begin to see the space behind and around the thoughts, and shift the seat of your identity out of your thoughts and come to reside in your breath-mind. We develop our intention to reside in our breath-mind by first bringing our intention to to “breath as mind,” and then by shifting the the seat of our identity from our thoughts to our breath.

This all ties in with how we use this space, this laboratory. We should have a willingness to explore with our lives, and this is our laboratory right here--how we use the meditation hall and how we use what happens outside of it. Mindfulness is not a part time job.

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