Monday, November 17, 2014

The Gift of Tears

My mother, Leona Carroll Ireland, died 7 years ago. I was preparing for a talk tonight at the Portola Camp zendo about Hsiang-Yen, and remembered this piece that I wrote when my mother began what would be the last years of her life. I dedicate it to you, Mother, and to all our mothers.

May 10th, 2009 
I woke up this morning missing my mother who has been dead now for several years. Given the contentious quality of our relationship for most of our 60 years together, I am surprised that oftentimes I find tears in my eyes when I think of her. I still remember phone calls where she slammed down the receiver, our long periods of not speaking, her steely resolve that I was going to somehow go straight, and marry. We were locked in an absolute stalemate for almost 20 years.

In the last short years before she died, I got really lucky, or was blessed, when I was able to touch the pain these behaviors were covering. That alone took away their power to hurt, and allowed me to experience a kind of love that I could not have imagined. This is what I write about this Mother’s Day morning.

There is a famous story in zen about a monk, Hsiang-yen, who, by most standards applied to monks, was a failure. He worked away in his teacher's monastery expecting nothing - and he got nothing; he sat long hours in meditation - nothing; he did rounds of begging – right, again only scraps; he got thrown out of the hojo every time he presented himself before his teacher to check out how he was doing because he didn’t seem to be absorbing much. A hopeless case. So after many years of getting nowhere, his teacher died. Convinced that realization was beyond his capabilities, he retired to a remote temple where he tended his teacher’s grave. One day, the story continues, as he was raking the stones in the garden, (I like to imagine the ones you see in the fancy books with perfectly ordered lines in the rocks,) a small stone bounced off the garden wall with a Ping! Just that sound, and his mind gulped in all his training in a single instant, and he understood. He got his life.

Even someone who has never practiced long days of meditation can understand the appeal of this monk's story. Everyone I know has some dilemma like this in his or her life. For me my relationship with my mother was a huge conundrum. This is the story of how it began to unravel.

I flew to Tucson to be with my mother after her first serious heart episode. It was decided that she would get a pacemaker, that the doctor would electrically jolt her heart and, hopefully, restore a normal rhythm. 

Then the elements of a really bad melodrama unfold. My father’s disappeared for several days when he couldn't take anymore, my mother brawled with her sister and a buffed nursing attendant as she tried to put on her clothes to leave: she is going to go out into the street and hail a cab to take her home given that no one in her family seems willing to yield to her command and return her to a normal life. Eventually a compassionate case manager calmed her, and mother agreed to the procedure. The drama to follow can be a quick note in the margin: family crisis; harsh words exchanged in anger; the heart specialist looked like the 14 year prodigy, Doogie Howser M.D., on the TV (I’m not kidding. He really did look like a teenager). I started to laugh ... "this kid is going to thread electrodes to my mother’s heart? What is she going to think?” She thought he was cute and refused treatment in the operating room. Back to square one. That evening we try again.

Before her surgery, food and water are restricted. She can only have small ice shavings. I hold a plastic cup and gently spoon the ice shavings on her tongue. For what might be her last moments of life, I am with my mother, just her, just this spoonful, just this ice, just my breath and hers, just her pleasure in ice and water. It is very sweet and I feel like the good son. I hear the ice click against the side of the plastic cup as I scoop it up. If nothing else about zen meditation, it does train you to be present in the moment. And that moment I decide it will be enough, it will have to be enough, for this particular gay son and his mother.

The medical procedure goes as well as any scripted denouement on Doogie Howser. We couldn’t have hoped for more: the patient gets well; the family crisis is temporarily resolved when the stubborn mother agrees to go to the nursing home; the father returns, shaken, humbled but unharmed, forgiven and loved; my sister has taken over managing the mother’s care. And I board Frontier Air for the return trip to San Francisco.

After the exchange of pleasantries, I discover that my seatmates are going to San Francisco to be reunited with their birth mother whom they have never met (how could I make this up?), and I tell them that I have been at my mother’s sick bed. We are in flight. Staring out the window as we flew over the Rockies, across the desert and into the sky over Death Valley, I lapse into a brown study, and sit mesmerized by the wonder of the world. The flight attendant offers me a second Diet Coke with ice. My orphaned seat-mates pass it to me. I take a big gulp, and, when I swirl the ice around the cup, it clinks against the edge. In an instant my mind tumbles and I am no longer "me" in a plane over Death Valley, but I am in my mother’s life--I mean really, not some theoretical proposition--all of it, her hopes her pain her struggles her fear her birth her death, and I burst into tears and sob. My orphan seat mate understands something about finding mothers: she just reaches out and gently touches my arm, holding me connected to the breathing world as my mind flies away. Any trace of resentment, regret, bitterness, or recrimination about the way my mother treated me at any time in our lives together evaporates. She is just my mother, and I am finally able to enter into the mystery and wonder of being a son.

The plane lands in San Francisco. I mumble good-bye to my seat-mates whose mother that gave them birth is waiting at the gate. I wish them well and I walk back into my life, praying that everybody be lucky enough to find out who their mothers really are, to be able to step into their lives, and to cry when they are gone.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Founding of Maitri Home and Hospice for People with AIDS

by Morgan Zo Callahan & Ken Ireland

(This is the draft of a chapter from a forthcoming book: A Thousand Arms: A Guidebook for Buddhist Leaders, edited by Danny Fisher and Nathan Michon.)

I met Ken Ireland in 2002 after sitting in a Zen meditation group he led at the YMCA in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He invited me to visit Maitri (Sanskrit for “compassionate friendship”), a hospice for people with AIDS in San Francisco. ( In 1987 Maitri was founded in San Francisco’s Castro district by Issan Dorsey, a Zen priest, and several friends, among them Steve Allen and David Sunseri. “The Castro was a place for the gay revolution with its arts, its parties, its style and its joie de vivre, and Issan was part of these happenings. Then, in the early 1980s, AIDS started to appear and, at first, no one knew what to make of it.” (John Tarrant, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, p.77)  Issan Dorsey had been ordained a Zen priest in 1975. By 1980, he was part of an informal group of gay Buddhists, and was invited to become the head teacher at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro. Issan was appointed abbot in 1989, and his teacher, Richard Baker Roshi named him a lineage holder: he became Issan Roshi. In 1987 Issan invited a homeless student dying of AIDS into the Zen center, and Maitri was born. Issan himself died from AIDS in 1990. (Cf. Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey by David Schneider)

Issan Dorsey and David Sunseri at Maitri
I was impressed that Maitri was a warm, “at home” environment where both caregiver and patient deeply listened to each other. The ample kitchen had a signed, framed photo of Elizabeth Taylor who had visited, and encouraged the residents. Golden light danced on the fresh green plants in the hallways and communal areas. I was reminded of Camus: “The great courage is still to gaze squarely at the light as it is at death.” Maitri is the first Buddhist residential hospice in the U.S. Over more than 20 years Maitri has been the final home for more than 900 people with AIDS. This is from Maitri’s mission statement: “We strive to provide the type of care that each of us would like to receive at the end of our lives—care that is dignified, non-judgmental, and unconditional. We hold dear the principle that each resident has the right to determine the degree of choice and awareness with which to experience life and death.”

Issan and his friends, Ken among them, didn’t set out to found a Buddhist Hospice. Rather he was creating a way to respond to the deadly epidemic that was ravaging his community. He was also creating a place to practice with his own death fast approaching. The result was Maitri.


Ken Ireland has practiced Buddhism for more than four decades, first with Master C.M. Chen, then Issan Dorsey Roshi and Philip Zenshin Whalen at HSZC. In 1994 he began koan practice with Robert Aitken, and continued with John Tarrant and David Weinstein. Ken was Maitri’s executive director from 1989 through 1993. He and his partner currently spend half the year in northern India with the community gathered around H.H. the Dalai Lama.

I first interviewed Ken more than 20 years ago. I have allowed him to let his words reflect how that experience has remained with him and changed him over the years.

Morgan Zo Callahan: Wonderful talking with you. Ken, how do you relate with someone who's dying?

Ken Ireland: The short answer is “as normally as possible.” But right away as soon as I began to live with people who had a grave diagnosis and who were very close to death, I noticed that their world, and by extension mine, was quite different. It is both slower and much more immediate. I saw theorizing fall away--intellectual considerations like “What's going to happen after death? Am I going to be around?” Conversations got real and something else came forward. I heard requests such as “I want to have my relationship with my family straightened out before I die. I want to make peace with my ex before I die. I want to die on my own terms.” Somehow, even when they seemed impossible, all of us who were part of Maitri tried to fulfill those requests. What we crafted was far from perfect, but life and living life to the end changed on its own accord.

MZC: Apart from the interpersonal relationships, how do you respond to the inevitable natural laws of the process of dying? How do you stay focused and mindful without expectations about how it is all supposed to be?

KI: As hard as we, in cahoots with our medical professionals, try to fight nature and stave off death, nature always wins. All I can do is try to stay present with that process. The body begins to shut down in its own way; physiological, mental, and psychological changes move into place and take over. We're also at the mercy of those processes. We may try to defend ourselves. We experience a variety of natural human reactions in the face of uncertainty, fear, grief, anxiety, but we have no real control. We will eventually have to give up that kind of control whether we want to or not.

What I’ve seen over and over is that our normal reaction to postpone the inevitable proves useless. There’s no way out. There’s no tomorrow. I can only take care of my own mental state--an iffy job at best--but I just say to myself, okay, I'm with this particular person at this very moment. I've decided to be here. I've committed myself to be of service, to alleviate the pain, to ease the transition.

MZC: In what ways is your work a natural expression of your Buddhist practice?

KI:  I can’t lie and pretend that it was all hunky dory. Living through the AIDS epidemic, being with so many people, mostly gay men who were my age or younger, was extremely painful. From the point of view of my own cherished ideas about how things should be, it was an impossible task. But on the other hand, in terms of training, in terms of deepening my own meditation, and in terms of personal rewards, it was, and is, great practice. 

MZC: How were your teachers helpful in preparing you to engage hospice work?

KI: When I met Yogi Chen in Berkeley in the early 70’s, he introduced me to the meditation on impermanence and the suffering arising from clinging. In Tibet he’d lived for three years in the charnel grounds where dead bodies were brought to have vultures strip the flesh from their bones before they were gathered up. Very specially, highly trained practitioners undertook this practice. When I first became involved at Maitri, partially I’m sure to assure myself that I was not entirely crazy, I tried to tell myself that we were trying to adapt this practice for our times. (There’s always a need for practice manuals, I suppose, both as a record of the experience of our ancestors and a kind of reassurance that we’re on the right track.) But in time I gave that up, and realized that we were just responding to the circumstances of our lives in way that made sense and arose from our own practice.  I learned from Issan and the many people we took care of. They taught me to relate to humans in any circumstance with respect and love, getting out of the way as much as possible. Over the years I’ve noticed that the experience changed something in me in terms of my relationship to people, my own life, my growing older, the physical breakdowns of my body. It's not just acceptance, and certainly not resignation. It’s more like a transformation, a noticeable change in the air we breathe.

MZC: So meditations on impermanence and encounters in hospice have changed the way you live your life?

KI: Of course. I am definitely not the same man who moved into Maitri and cared for more than 80 people who died.  I have the same questions that I had when I was a Jesuit: What are our lives about? What do we want to make our lives about? What do we want to do with our lives in the time that we have? How can I do something that's of value? But for me this is where my Buddhist practice comes in: I'm going to do something that aims to benefit all beings because I'm not alone in the universe. If I consider how I can really take care of a person in the way in which he or she would like while at the same time taking care of myself, the world becomes different. At least that was my experience. When the point is to be of service to somebody when they're at the end of their lives, then the question becomes something like, instead of avoiding the end of life, how does life become full and complete from beginning to end? The whole process is alive and well; it breathes and pulsates, as we breathe from beginning to end.

MZC: One night I received a call at one o’clock in the morning; it was from a member of our school board who very desperately related to me that a Japanese gentleman, a devoted Buddhist, was dying; the family wanted to take the man off life support. I was asked to call the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery and come with a monk to the hospital.  I said, my gosh, it's one o’clock in the morning. But I said I'd do it. So I called the monastery; the monks were very upset at first. But it ended up that three monks happily went to the bedside, and chanted. “We transfer the effects of the good that we’ve done in our lives for whatever journey this dying person is going on.”

KI: That's what we do. The monks got out of bed to be of service to the family and dying person.  They sat with them, and chanted, performing the rituals of the end of life. They were present with him when all this was going on. It's a profound matter.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Goa, St. Francis and me

April 7, 2014

(This was written for a publication in Transitions in the Lives of Jesuits and Former Jesuits).

One Sunday this past February, Ashish and I went to the English mass at the Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa. Initially we were steered into the line to pass by the shrine of Saint Francis which is no more than just a small Baroque style side altar with his body encased in glass--during mass people venerating the saint wind through the courtyard of the Jesuit residence.

Once we negotiated our way into the back pew of the church, and began to feel at home with the “Jesuit-ness” of the ceremony, I was able to pay more attention. The priest’s sermon was not entirely easy to follow. As he struggled to connect Xavier’s religious enthusiasm to martyrdom, something I felt didn’t match the facts of his remarkable life nor the current situation of Christians in India, I looked around at the rest of congregation, mostly Indians, Goans I suspect, and certainly, as English speakers, educated. They were also, as far as I could tell, remarkably uninspired, not unlike the Irish American parish of my childhood.

The sermon and the ceremony were also disconnected from what was happening at the side altar. Men, women, and children, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, pushed their way forward towards the barely visible body of the saint. Ash and I had seen almost identical scenes at the many temples, mosques, shrines, gurdwaras we’ve visited across India. What they were seeking was a personal matter, blessing for a new marriage, healing, relief from suffering, forgiveness for a personal transgression, a prayer for a child’s good fortune, or perhaps even a superstitious belief that contact with a realized being would produce a child. And to be honest, it also seemed unconnected to the Francis I knew as a Catholic, Jesuit saint. But it was real.

I turned my attention back to the priest at the altar and felt deep compassion, even kinship. He was obviously competent, educated, thoughtful, even a devout, spiritual man who was sincerely trying to connect our messy lives with another dimension. With any luck, I might have turned out like him. In that same moment, I also realized why I’d left the Society.

After I graduated from Dartmouth in 1966, over the objections of my parents, I entered the Jesuits at Shadowbrook,  and stayed for more than a decade. When time came for me to be ordained, I took a leave of absence and extended it for 2 years before I signed my exit papers. I realized that I had to confront, and deal with coming out as a gay man, my addictive personality, and, at the time, it seemed that the most effective path was psychological work rather than prayer or meditation.

I had of course done the spiritual exercises of Father Ignatius many times. The experience was rich. When I was trying to decide whether to leave or stick it out, I undertook then again as well as trying to recreate some of that experience through a study of the enneagram, and beginning Buddhist meditation practice. Then for more than three decades, I either wore the designation “ex-Jesuit” as a badge of honor, or disavowed any value in my religious training except on the rare occasion when I ran into someone from that era.

Twenty-five years ago a chance meeting with a Zen priest who was starting a hospice for people with AIDS turned my attention back to meditation practice. It also allowed me to carefully trace the roots of suffering through a spiritual practice that is agnostic with regard to any particular religious system of beliefs.

Today my experience in the Society grows dim, like a series of events in a very ancient land, but what also remains is a sense of intimacy that feels indelible and timeless. I regard things “spiritual” as reflecting on some of the questions that life presents squarely. Most of the puzzlers of my youth--the struggle of coming out in an unaccepting culture, finding a spiritual expression that suited me, etc.--have faded into the background. I no longer seek the kind of answers that I demanded years ago, though I value seeing things through to the end, even things that do not turn out well.

In my view most of the ordinary language of “spiritual” conversation is inadequate. Describing my particular path as as series of “transitions” feels melodramatic. Speaking of a path or a journey sounds like I just bought some nifty running shoes to train for a marathon at my unlikely age. It feels more like just growing up, looking around and realizing that our lives amount to only a brief second, but in that time we can leave things better than we found them, that we are not alone, and that the universe is vast and awe-inspiring.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Remembering my Dad

My Father was a remarkable man, and he lived a long and truly blessed life. When he died on May 20th, he was almost a hundred and one years old, and I might have entirely missed knowing and appreciating him.

I have no idea where to begin, so many stories about my Dad’s intelligence, his impeccable memory, his endless curiosity and quick whit. His golfing buddies will testify how much he loved the sport and bridge partners will swear that he remembered every card played even when he was more than 100 years old. People will tell stories about his work ethic, his writing and stamp collecting. He was devoted to his family, our mother Lee, her sister Judy, his Dad, his brothers, our Uncle Donny and Rich, Uncle Chunk, his wife Freddy, and Bill, Don’s partner, his seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren as well as his many, deep friendships.

I want to share one memory that I changed our relationship. It’s also about memories. On one of my first visits to Huntington Commons, in part to hide my trepidation about not having visited for a long time (I almost called it off and probably would not have made the trip without Ashish’s encouragement and support) plus my personal fears about not measuring up, I tried to start a fun conversation--reminiscing about growing up.

We went back to the time when he was a young dad soon to have 4 kids, a new business, and the responsibility for an extended family that included our maternal grandmother, Nana, and mother’s sister, Judy, who was suffering from TB at a time when cure was far from certain. But our family life, thanks to both Mother and Dad, extended beyond those concerns.

Our parents had a close circle of friends, other young couples in Nichols. BIF and I went up and down Huntington Turnpike, and talked about the people we grew up with and their kids. Their shared experiences included learning life’s lessons during the great depression and fighting a great war, raising families and building schools, bike trips on Nantucket and family summers on Cape Cod.

Then there was the Milford Yacht Club, our memories of the countless summer weekends when we campaigned our Lightning up and down Long Island Sound and our sailing friends, the life guards and sailing instructors who Dad had a hand in hiring. He spearheaded the first World Championship for the Lightening class in Milford, and that opened up the opportunity for him and mother to travel to Italy and Peru. When we talked about Ned and Emily Daly, their sons Ned and Jerry, he had me pick up the phone and call Ned Junior.

From the days of Ireland Heat Treating on the Post Road, we talked of his many loyal workers, his long-term secretary whom was almost part of our family, and the men who’d encouraged Dad to go out on his own.

We drifted in and out of this conversation over the three days we spent together. For more than 60 years I believed a story I made up: that my Dad was distant, that just because we’d had a difficult time communicating (and of course that was entirely his fault, not mine), that Dad was somehow self-absorbed and not really in touch.

Nothing could have been farther from the truth.

He remembered details that I’d entirely forgotten or never heard before. But what really astonished me was the level of feeling, the kindness and compassion in his recollections. He talked of the happy events and the sad moments, the set backs as well as the accomplishments in a way that made them present. It was so clear that he cherished these men and women. As we talked I could see his face change. I felt his admiration for their successes, sadness for their losses, and gratitude for their friendship. I can also tell you that if there was any funny story about any of the people we talked about, he told it with his gentle laugh and bright smile. That weekend he gave me a real gift—himself.

When I talk to my friends about my father, they are amazed that he lived such a long life, and that it was such a happy and rich life right to the end. They ask, “What was his secret?” Those of us who were close to him know that he was not perfect by any means, that he had his share of disappointments and sorrows, but when I look at his life for an antidote to life’s sufferings I marvel at the wonderful way he connected with so many people, accepting and treating everyone with an even hand, balanced with good humor and love.

I can’t close without thanking all the people here in Kennebunk who became part of Dad’s family during his last years, the friends and admirers who welcomed me when I came to visit. I will mention Ruth, Annette and Nancy, the Chandlers, by name, and I have to include Dick and Peg, who are no longer with us.

Julie, thank you for everything you did to make Dad’s last years so rich and fulfilling. You are a totally extraordinary woman.

It’s best to end with a funny story, and one that inspires me, as I grow older.

When we were celebrating Dad’s 90th birthday at Elen and Charlie’s ranch up in the high Arizona desert, I told Dad that my friends who were golfers (I am not one) were really impressed that he’d cut 7 strokes off his handicap since he was 85. He looked at me with a deadly serious face and said, “Well, Ken, I’m sorry that it isn’t true. … It’s 11. “

The photo was taken at Bif's 100th birthday party which we celebrated on Goose Rocks Beach, at the Tides Inn where he worked in the kitchen during the depression. Ruth, Dad, Annette, Julie and me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cardinal Dolan’s on dole

Home Depot founder, Ken Langone, who is leading an effort to raise $180 million to restore St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. took his concerns to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

“I’ve told the cardinal, ‘Your eminence, this is one more hurdle I hope we don’t have to deal with. You want to be very careful about generalities.  Rich people in one country don’t act the same as rich people in another country.'”

Who can't agree with that?

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Beauty Of Hopelessness

by Rebecca del Rio

You are hanging from a branch
by your teeth. No
way to save yourself
or others who hang, too.
Arms that cannot reach
any branch, legs stretch but
cannot find the smooth safe trunk.

All around, your loved ones,
friends, strangers hang--
teeth clamp bony twigs
that suspend necessary hopes
and plans.

It is hopeless. No rescue will arrive.
So you relax, taste the clean,
unfamiliar tang of sap,
feel the forgiving wind against
your waving arms, arms
that swim through emptiness.

Without hope, life is
focused, fluid, a ledge
of fragile earth suspended
over the ocean of unknowing, the end
of the branch. Life is
the glorious moment
before the fall when all
plans are abandoned,
the love you give
as you hang, loving

those who hang with you.