Tuesday, May 14, 2024

I Don't Want You to Chop Off Your Finger!

Dokusan goes Kung-an

Talking publicly about sex

Zen students don’t talk about private meetings with our teachers. “Dokusan” means "going alone to a respected one." These conversations have an aura. They take place in the context of meditation. We respect their privacy because they can be very intimate, shaking our world to its very foundations. 

I’m going to break that rule and talk about just such an intimate conversation I had with Issan Dorsey Roshi. I’m going public and talk openly about a private conversation about sex. In Zen these kinds of conversations are called koans, a term which comes from the Chinese characters, 公案, Kung-an, which literally means “public notice.” 

Issan has been dead for almost 30 years. In the traditional koan collections, the teachers have been dead a lot longer, and, as most of these dialogues were between celibate members of the sangha, most talk about sex is, how shall I say it, in a different context. You’ll also have to take my word that the conversation was one that shook me to the core, and helped me, as a gay man, focus my meditation. Issan can’t verify his side of the conversation, but if I’ve hit the mark, and done my job as Issan’s student, you might be able to use his teaching to untie some personal knots about meditation.

I grew up in a traditional Irish Catholic family, or at least I had a very traditional Irish mother. Her word was law. She taught us to avoid talk about sex in polite conversation which meant that it was rarely, if ever, spoken about. Drunken conversations were of course another matter. There politeness was optional. As drunken conversations, they carried less weight, but they were at least a time when you could talk about sex. Good Jamison could be counted on as the Irish un-inhibitor.

Fitting quite nicely with my preconceived notions, in Zen settings most talk about sex focuses on the prohibitory precepts, or that has been my experience. 


At one of my first sesshins, a long intense meditation period, hours upon hours with a few breaks to eat and get the blood flowing back into the legs, my mind began to play a nasty trick on me, or so I thought. I imagined myself in love with a very cute guy who was sitting about three seats to my left. Let’s call him “R.” R has been a Zen priest for many years. He also knew and practiced with Issan so I’m sure he would love being part of this koan, but I don’t know how useful it would be for the public to know the real name of R who was the object of my sexual fantasy.

My mind couldn’t do anything else but fantasize! When I got up after a period, I glanced in his direction to know that he was still there. Even if I managed to focus on my breath for a few seconds while I was sitting, It required enormous effort.

My obsession had totally hijacked my mind.  

On the third or fourth day, I went to see Issan after the first period. His bedroom doubled as his interview room, a few candles, a bell, two cushions set close to one another. After I bowed, I blurted out the whole story.

He looked at me, entirely present, and then we both began to laugh, slowly at first, but then louder and louder.

Finally he took a breath and said, “Oh, I fell in love with someone every practice period at Tassajara. They were usually straight so you can imagine how that went.”

Then he told me a story. 

“When I was tenzo at Tassajara during one practice period, I fell head over heels in love with a very handsome young man. I suppose you could say I was obsessed. It was hard enough to escape all those fantasies in meditation, but it even got to the point where it was dangerous--when I was chopping, I had to consciously pull my mind back to the vegetable, the knife, and the board to avoid mindlessly chopping off a finger. 

"When you’re actually in deep concentration the strangest things can happen. It got to the point that it was even difficult to concentrate when I was cooking--and that was my responsibility--so I went into the Roshi and talked about it!

“And then I discovered that I could just stop it. I mean it really stopped. I think I might have just been more able to return to my breath. Probably nothing more.”

Then he asked, “Can you stop loving R? Would that even be a good thing? I just don’t want you to chop off your finger.”

Issan & James


Monday, May 13, 2024

Please Leave

After hearing about the ordeal that Ed Brown went through when a member of the audience sent a complaint to several senior priests about the content of Ed’s dharma talk. I felt that if I were asked to talk, I would be compelled to pass out a disclaimer to cover my ass. (Of course, I have never been asked to speak at ZC, and at least one of the reasons might become clear if you make it to the end.)

Friends, we have gathered to practice one of the most essential pieces of our work together. We listen and respond all the while realizing that the perfect dharma is imperfect in our hands. We chant a bit here and there and make some odd-sounding promises about dedicating our efforts to the liberation of all beings but then comes a presentation of the dharma. I intend to do my job. Hopefully, you will be offended; if you come with a mindset that can only hear what you’d like to hear, please leave. I am not a mind reader. I am not quite sure where my own mind will lead me, but hopefully it will be down a dark alley that needs a bit of light. If you’re at least willing to stay, sit still, and follow your own mind, you are welcome. This is a joint exploration. If not, the time is now. Please leave.

If you are willing, your mind and mine can start to dance, more like a call-and-response in the Black Church, allowing us to see ourselves. I say something, and you respond. There’s as much of a formula here as treading the well-known lyric of the "Old Rugged Cross."

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,

the emblem of suffering and shame;

and I love that old cross where the dearest and best

for a world of lost sinners was slain.

If I follow the (boring) script of most Zen Center talks, I will open by telling a personal story and paint a picture of myself, the inadvertent hero of my story, as stumbling along through life. Despite my sincere training, I got distracted; I stumbled, cracked my head, stepped in shit, mindlessly crushed a frog or even a snake, heard a madperson screaming incoherent truth in the center divide on Market Street, thoughtlessly dropped in the gutter the fiver that was intended for Mother Theresa, but I use the occasion to turn my attention inward, examine myself, realize that in this fleeting instant the dharmakaya opened with unmistakable brilliance. I resolve to dive in more deeply, to apply my Buddhist principles more generously, plus any number of other worthwhile ways in which I might lessen my suffering and the suffering of others in the world. I am not disparaging any of these aims or outcomes. In a word, they are lovely. it’s all very genial. We smile over cookies and tea.

But now we come to the part in my talk where you ask, why is he saying that? How dare he go there? That tone. That language. We can talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll as long we use the prescribed politically correct language and (at least pretend) that is all in the past. We left those experiences as we emerged from the Summer of Love with a drug hangover that lasted a few weeks. Thank god it cleared up quickly. 

Most talks are, at least to some degree, commentary on some Buddhist Scripture. And if it gets real, it gets real, but the chances are minimal. I recall hearing a public talk by the Dalai Lama when he attempted to bring an esoteric distinction from a Gelugpa text into a bedroom fight between a husband and wife. He was not successful, but not because of the bedroom part. He turned it into an Ozzie and Harriet squabble, not a serious discussion about sexuality and the inequality of power and consent. He opened the door but then didn't walk through. He played it for the laugh. Ed Brown’s accuser would have little to complain about. 

I promise that if I am lucky enough to open a door, I will try to walk in. I certainly will not shy away due to some prudery or elevated sense of myself. 

Now, just to be clear, my mother taught me well, and I usually reserve profanity for private moments. I will also try to frame what I say in a way that you are at least open to listening. I certainly will not encourage you to break the precepts even if I am commenting on the “Kill the Buddha” koan, but neither will I try to explain it away or give an answer I don’t have—certainly not one that you want to believe but is just a pack of lies.

When I first started going to Hartford Street Zen Center, there was a small group of gay men who were students of one Tibetan teacher or another. They gathered around Issan because he was himself a serious student willing to talk to them about their practice while their teachers were too far away or sitting on a throne too high. One Monday night after Zazen, I met one of these men, and we struck up a tentative light-hearted conversation. That next weekend, he was headed south to LA for a White Mahakala ceremony led by the renowned Kalu Rinpoche. I mentioned that I had taken refuge with the Rinpoche almost 20 years earlier. He said come along. We would drive down to Monterey Park, where the Rinpoche’s supporters had rented a Chinese hotel for the occasion. Afterwards we would go to a seedy Hollywood hotel my new friend liked for some reason I cannot fathom other than it was gay and seedy. Coincidentally my friend Juan B. was also going to attend. We arranged to meet at the ceremony. He was going with some of his rich Chinese friends, and they had already made dinner plans. A steady stream of world-renowned chefs had turned this affluent suburb into a gourmet haven for Hong Kong cuisine before HK was to be handed back to the People’s Republic  

My new friend and I went to the ceremony, did the complicated visualization, chanted, and received what would be Kalu’s last blessing. We then went to the gay hotel for a sleepless night of incessant knocking on the door, and in the morning we drove back to San Francisco. There had been no sign of Juan and his friends. I called Juan, but he did not answer. 

I returned to a flood of horrific news. Juan and his friends had been seated at a choice table facing the street when a driver lost control at high speed, jumped the curb, and crashed through the large plate glass. One of Juan’s party was killed. They were all taken to hospital. The emergency room and morgue became the shrine room of the White Mahakala. After we clean up the blood, comfort the grieving, and arrange for the cremation, what else is there for us to do? Some might ask why the occasion of a great blessing turned into a nightmare. Can a lama spin a tale of hidden karma and honorable intentions to help us escape our fear of pain and death? Is there any satisfactory explanation beyond the pious lie machine? I say no, not within the realm of our understanding. 

The choir invokes the image of the old rugged cross. It is imaginary. It makes no sense. In our case, the only part that does make sense is that it is an emblem of suffering. Somehow the hymnist manages to drag love into the picture of sin and shame. I’m sorry. That is the best I can do with it myself without wandering into a make-believe world of elevated lies. Sometimes the dharma is like that, rudely breaking into our world with no formal introduction, not making any sense.

It seems hit or miss. I will not ask you to forgive the pun. Sometimes a teaching will get you to first base, and sometimes the fly ball will be caught and you’re out. But we still honor the dharma. We cannot retreat. It is in the very nature of the dharma. If you can't hear that and are going to feel affronted, please leave.

May be an image of 2 people and pigeon

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Zen Bland!

Originally posted December 21, 2011, revised during the Coronavirus lockdown, March 25, 2020.

In the Spring of 2011, I did an eight-day, totally silent Zen retreat at a former Catholic Convent, the Angela Center, in Santa Rosa California. As I was unpacking my bag, I thought to myself that my “cell” was just a slightly less Spartan, more feminine version of the one where I was isolated from the outside world for two years as a Jesuit novice 45 years earlier, the same bland institutional architecture thrown up to accommodate the large numbers of men and women who were entering religious life after World War II.

In a Jesuit house of formation, we got up at 5:30 and went to bed at 9. During this retreat, my 10-hour meditation day started an hour earlier and lasted an hour later, but it seemed to re-stimulate both the ecstatic and painful memories of my novitiate, a period that was for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life. For the first few days, I couldn’t stop a flood of memories, tastes of prayer, study, and feelings that soon included my 11 years of Jesuit indoctrination as well as the aftermath.

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th day, as I was walking back to the room, my actual perception of the building suddenly shifted. I was just walking on a linoleum floor that was just a floor, the walls of lightly plastered-over cinder block were just walls. Nothing more. No sounds but the sound of my feet, no visions but what I saw through my eyes—just pictures on a wall, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. There was nothing else in that moment but the moment. This was not the dramatic, flashing-bright-lights insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I was hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. Rather bland for a mystical experience.

But then I began to notice something very powerful open up inside me—every burden that I had been carrying since my Jesuit training was gone. It was extinguished, not conceptually but actually. My past life as a Jesuit was gone, completely gone. Not that it didn’t happen, not that it had no effect on me, but I understood in a non-intellectual way that anything I carry into the present moment was for me to carry. It doesn’t drag itself along. There’s nothing there. It’s not real.

Suddenly in that moment of bland Zen, I was totally and irrevocably free—no one, no thing, no outside authority, no god, no doctrine, no experience could ever enslave me.

Three cheers for bland Zen!

Outside My Window

The light rain
clears momentarily.


A bird's three bare notes—
infinite variations
flood over me.

Red Camilla blossoms
upside down.

*The title of this reflection comes from a piece my friend Laurence Platt wrote, “Zen Bland,” which was not at all bland but very juicy. He argues that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else!

Dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at Spring sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

What compels belief

As usual, BG’s question got me going. Watch out. When I wrote that I was having trouble with the god question, I meant that I was stuck, logically, perhaps linguistically, even structurally with the long essay that I’ve been working on for months now, “A Buddhist looks at the proofs for the existence of god.” Setting my personal beliefs aside as much as possible, I have been examining how a Buddhist deals with “the god question” instead of what we might consider the more non-theistic position of more Buddhist philosophers until they are in the shrine room chanting away.  My starting point was what we call the “Unmoved Mover” then extending up, or back, through the Ontological Argument. I look at each argument and see if I was moved to belief or ontologically convinced. Very objective. I am happy to say that I am still a qualified agnostic until you lock me up in the shrine room or hand me some personal crisis I will need help with.

Then BG suggested that I try on the Gaia or Goddess model, and my first reaction was why would I do that? Is there something intellectual, spiritual, or material lacking in my life that “believing” in the goddess, however we define that act, would remedy? But suddenly I was thrown into another world. Of course, beliefs have consequences, and after a lot of self-examination, I realize that there are a lot of beliefs, assumptions about reality, and even prejudices that I carry around that do influence me even though I am not entirely aware of their existence much less influence and inner workings. However I can google the scientific effects of believing on serotonin levels, and it will show that in the long run, I am probably happier if I surrender some of my mad neurotic desire to control, and hand it over to a Higher Power as we say in 12 Step work. I can do that as long as you don’t require that I bet the farm. So I am stuck in a “practicum” belief system: If I believe that the early bird catches the worm, I get up earlier, catch people when they are more alert, probably make more money, and thus be happier. But maybe not.

So yes, beliefs do have real-world consequences. My mother stopped seeing a Doctor who was the father of one of my high school buddies, the only Jew at Fairfield Prep when she found out that he was an atheist. I asked why and she said that she had to know that her doctor believed that his hand was guided by the hand of God before she would go under the knife, So she switched to Doctor Mack who with his wife, also a physician, had nine kids, They were devout Catholics who never mastered the rhythm method, a hot topic in Catholic circles post WW 2. Then she switched over to another Catholic doctor who was not much more than a pill pusher. He nearly killed me with a dose of penicillin without checking if I’d become allergic, dangerously so, after an extreme treatment after an accident during my freshman year at college, but he supplied the valium she thought she required. 

Then when she faced major surgery in the last years of her life, she turned to a team of Indian doctors at Yale New Haven Hospital. I didn’t ask if she had checked their religious credentials but I suspect that it probably fell into the “They believe in something” category--Krishna, Jesus, it all tends to blend into one, especially as we age. (Yes, and among those beliefs are that Indian doctors make a much better living in New Haven than in New Delhi. Perhaps a motivational belief when applying for medical residency in the US, but it turns out to be a fact. (An Indian doctor in the US makes between 125-180,000 USD, whereas in India, he or she would only make about 50,000 USD. A compelling belief).

But still “Something is better than nothing.” Or the philosophical statement: Why is there something rather than nothing?’ I have argued that I consider this a junk statement, but it persists and I have to qualify it. What kind of belief statements does it encompass, and how are these statements changed or strengthened or “made true" by a personal assertion that they are always and everywhere true despite any evidence to the contrary? 

In the Germany of the 1930s, the belief that the Arian race was superior to the rest of humankind was gaining appeal. This belief had such dire consequences that it would probably be best left on the junk heap of intellectual, spiritual, and moral history. But enough people assented and it devolved into a horrific war as well as the attempted extermination of the Jewish race.

Some have argued that when Augustine talked about the Lord giving mankind domination over the earth and its creatures in his comments on Genesis 1, he set the stage for the exploitation of the earth that has led to the climate crisis. The burnt earth thesis probably extends further into the early Fathers, and it is even harder to prove that as a belief it was partially responsible. Adopting some notion of Gaia, or goddess consciousness might be an antidote to this kind of thinking and nudge us to treat the material world with more respect and even reverence. Thank you Gerta Thunburg for capturing our imagination. You show us that belief takes more than just intellectual assent. Imagination and dreams carry some weight.

Most people, at least in the West or among the intellectual elites, believe in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Again, the statement or definition was not “a given” before the end of the Second World War with Germany and Japan. Most of the male governing class agreed that any statement would include civil and political rights, but it was Eleanor Roosevelt who convinced the United Nations to include social, economic, and cultural rights. Her belief changed the way we think and argue about the structure of human society on earth. 

But I fail to see that assenting to a personal belief in a god being, he/she/it, god or goddess, has any value. In fact, I will argue that it has the opposite effect of mudding the waters and making us “deluded” to borrow a Buddhist virtue. It might be time to go back to Saint Thomas and Anslem to disentangle the mess I got myself into.