In my experience, many people come to Zen practice
because they love the stories of Zen masters of long ago. They
love reading about outrageous teachers who said strange things
and acted in even stranger ways, seeming like children, fools,
and even madmen to the rest of society.
It has also been my experience that while we love these characters
that lived hundreds of years ago, we don't love them so much while
they're still living. We don't always love our present day madmen
and eccentrics, for these are the people who manifest our shadow.
They live in the cracks &endash; nor just of our society but
of our psyche. They put in our faces those qualities in ourselves
that we'd prefer not to see &endash; a refusal to conform,
a refusal to "grow up," a human being who ignores conventions
and acceptable standards of behavior and makes up his life as
he goes along.
I think of Issan Dorsey as the shadow in many people's lives.
He was a drug addict, he was gay, he appeared in drag, and he
died of AIDS. For many years he lived right on the edge, befriending
junkies, drag queens and alkies who lived precariously like him,
on the fringes of society. When he died, a Zen teacher and priest,
he was still befriending and caring for those whom our society
rejected then and continues to reject now, people ill with the
Like the old Zen masters of old, Issan Dorsey was outrageous;
he manifested the shadow in our lives. And he was loved not just
after his death but also during his life. For Issan had exuberance
for all of life, and that included death, too.
I first met Issan Dorsey in 1980, just after he began the Maitri
group on Hartford Street. I happened to be visiting San Francisco
Zen Center and was in the zendo when Roshi Richard Baker, Abbot
of the Center, announced that a satellite group of gay Zen practitioners
was forming in the middle of San Francisco's Castro District,
under the leadership of Issan Dorsey. Baker Roshi strongly supported
Issan's work, as he would continue to do for years to come. That
was my first meeting with Issan. By then I had formed the Zen
Community of New York with a vision of manifesting our practice
in the area of social action, providing housing and jobs to our
disadvantaged neighbors. This was highly unusual for Zen centers
in those days, so I was curious about how Issan's mission would
During the following years Issan and I often talked on the telephone,
he from San Francisco, I from Yonkers, New York. We'd exchange
news about what we were doing, and one day he told me that he'd
taken into the Hartford Street Zen Center a man dying of AIDS.
That took place in 1987. This may not seem so unusual now, 11
years later, for some Buddhist groups have begun to take an interest
in their communities, taking care of the disadvantaged, the sick
and the dying. After all, didn't the Buddha himself begin his
search for enlightenment after coming across illness and death
outside the walls of his palace? But back in 1987, Issan's behavior
was seen as outrageous. Most people thought that the proper practice
of Zen Buddhism was coming to a zendo and sitting on a cushion,
nothing more. There was lots of talk about putting practice in
our daily life and about the role of the bodhisattva who vows
to save all sentient beings. But many believed that the role of
the bodhisattva didn't begin till after enlightenment. Thus, the
practice of providing dying people with shelter, food, medical
care and a warm and loving environment was not seen as a proper
Zen Buddhist practice. In founding the Greyston mandala of organizations
that helped the Yonkers community, I was constantly told that
I was doing the wrong thing, and that both as a teacher and as
a priest I was not transmitting the teachings in their pure form.
Issan, too, received plenty of flak for the work he was doing.
But he didn't let it stop him. So J.D. came into the Hartford
Street Zen Center, having been told by his doctors that he had,
at most, three months to live. Six months later I visited Issan
and J.D. at Hartford Street. J.D. was still living and in excellent
spirits. He didn't die till more than a year later, and by then
Issan had opened Maitri Hospice for more men infected with the
During that visit I spent a lot of time with Issan, and fell in
love with him. He was always "right there," very present
to the people around him, full of humor in what some may call
a macabre situation. In fact, I often think of Issan as a combination
of Lenny Bruce and the Dalai Lama. He had the ability to laugh
through any situation, no matter how difficult or painful, greeting
the grim corners of life with lightheartedness and even joy.
I remember when he called to tell me that he had just discovered
that he was HIV positive. There was absolutely no sadness or fear
in his voice. His tone was almost nonchalant as he talked about
how he had loved his friend knowing full well that he was HIV
positive, how they had made love, how he got tested and found
that he was HIV positive, too, and now had to work with it. The
conversation was that simple.
I was reminded of Fr. Damien, who had taken care of the lepers
on Molokai Island in Hawaii during the second half of the 19th
century. Leprosy is not easy to contract if you take regular precautions,
but Fr. Damien had not taken those precautions. He ate from the
same dishes as the lepers, he didn't wash his hands, and finally
he contracted leprosy and died.
I don't wish to say that Issan didn't appreciate the gravity of
AIDS and didn't take the necessary precautions. But I know how
sensitive Issan was to the epidemic ravaging the gay population
at the time, and in particular his friends in the Castro District,
and I can't help having the feeling that, like Fr. Damien before
him, Issan wished to live and die through his friends' pain. He
wished to bear witness to everything they endured: their strong
individuality, their exuberant life styles, their joie de vivre,
and their illness and death.
Like Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Issan Dorsey
bore witness to the joys and pains of the universe. People loved
him because of his great delight in life, his way of evoking all
the happy reasons we have for living. They loved him even more
when he bore witness to our deep pain and sorrow. He didn't just
talk about it, he lived it, and brought J. D. Kobezak, who had
AIDS, into the zendo.
There's a famous Zen Buddhist chant honoring Kanzeon, who is none
other than Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Once,
in a telephone conversation with Issan, I told him that I had
just completed a translation of the chant. Full of excitement,
he asked me to send it to him as soon as possible since he wished
to talk about that chant in a coming retreat. I did so. The chant
celebrates Kanzeon, who hears all the sounds of the universe and
bears witness to each and every one of us. The impact of such
a bodhisattva surpasses our understanding. He influences people
directly, as the direct cause of their transformation, and also
indirectly, as part of the environment, the gestalt, that accompanies
them on their path. Karma is the total of these direct and indirect
causes. And this karma continues long after a teacher's death.
In fact, it is often said that a teacher's greatest teaching occurs
upon and after his/her death.
In 1997, ten years after Issan died, the Greyston Network in Yonkers
opened its AIDS Center. We called the Adult Day Health Program
Maitri Center, after Issan's Maitri Hospice. We called the housing
complex of 35 apartments for people with HIV/AIDS Issan House,
after Issan Dorsey. Several months later I was walking through
the center when a man I didn't know approached me. He was from
the local community and he had AIDS. He was not a Buddhist. He
thanked me for our work in building the AIDS center, and then
he told me how much he wished that he'd known Issan Dorsey.
Kanzeon! At one with Buddha,
Directly Buddha, also indirectly Buddha,
And indirectly Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.
Joyful, pure, eternal being!