In 1999 while still here in Houston I was given a book that flowed in a three-year process of friends giving me Buddhist imagery and tchotchkes. For a while I had been attracted to Buddhist thought, but no more or less than any other spiritual/wisdom/mystical path. Neither I nor my friends had ever knowingly met a Buddhist at that time, and none of us even considered the thought of being Buddhist. It was all about fat deities in Chinese restaurants, and the worlds of Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon. Street Zen- The life and work of Issan Dorsey by Dennis Scneider changed all that.
This book is about a man who not only was an Anglo-American Zen Priest, but a flaming queen like myself who had done drag like myself, used drugs like myself, had an adventurous sex life like myself, was arrested for prostitution like myself, and lived with AIDS in his body like myself. He was complicated- a conservative radical and deconstructionist. Here was a Buddhist I could relate to.
Flawed and complex, Dorsey was a role model of sorts for others coming to Zen practice from the LGBT community. In the beginning of his practice he resisted that mantel, but as AIDS ravaged San Francisco he more and more he embraced it. He opened Maitri House (a Zen Hospice for AIDS) and the Hartford Street Zen Center- both still operating in the Castro.
He was known for critiquing both the comfortable members of SF Zen Center and the SF Clones (think The Village People) for their closed mindedness towards those who were “not like themselves”. Those people who were poor, sex workers, sisseys, the addicts, and the diseased. In the midst of all this he was able to teach Buddhism in the context in which it was surely meant to be taught, that is, within the framework of a life-and-death search. The Buddhist teaching of impermanence began to take on new power and immediacy.
He went so far as to allow a resident of Maitri House who had advanced dementia to give a dharma talk. Not because it was going to be erudite and polite, but because it was important for this resident to do so. “We all have dementia!” was Issan’s gleeful response to the community’s reservations.
“We all have dementia” was just another way of reminding everyone of the delusions which make up the fabric of our daily lives. While others around the zendo were caught up with ideas about this individual’s intellectual competence and the protocols of dharma discourse, Issan made his decisions with other criteria in mind. Status in the sangha, the hidden agenda behind opposition to this man’s talk, were not factors in Issan’s decision, just compassion and the true expression of the practice of equanimity. In other words, who is capable of saying who else is accomplished enough to speak the dharma? Who among us is not deluded or demented?
It was another ten years, living in the SF Bay Area, and knowing a couple of Buddhists- One a black lesbian and a gay JewBU that the causes and conditions were ripe for me to begin my Buddhist Practice. It is Issan’s story that inspired me to volunteer at an AIDS Hospice and take on a leadership role in the Meditation group at the local LGBT cultural center. It is Issan’s story that inspires me to live with my own HIV/AIDS. It is Issan’s story that inspires me to have a lighter and more fearless grip on my own mortality.
This life or death scenario that Issan lived in is not over. In the most recent Lion’s Roar the teacher/activist Pablo Das speaks of Western Buddhism’s “privileged lack of urgency” and that we need to do more than “sit with our fear and sadness” or invoke “the truth of dukkha” to deny real human suffering. The marginalized need protection now here in the US (as well as in Africa, the Middle East, and Russia). One of the aspects of this sangha that I appreciate is it’s embrace of me- and my own queerness and qwerkiness- as member, retreat manager, and board member. Another one is Ginger’s talk of the inhumanity and oppression in Mexican jails. I encourage each of us to reach outside our comfort zones and stand with those that live without being the right race, age, economic and social standing. The weak. The marginalized and the oppressed. The GLBT persons, immigrants, the dying, those victimized by police violence, and on and on. Issan Dorsey lived this way. I aspire to live more this way.
I finish this dharma talk with a few short remembrances and quotes-
“The practice is always beneath your feet”
He was an obviously gay man whom was well established in the practice himself. It was very helpful and very encouraging for me to have a role model like that.” – Myo Denis Lahey, Abbot at Hartford Street Zen Center
“Many Buddhist teachers have described compassion as the ability to react freely and accurately in any situation. Being nice or feeling sorry for someone may be called for, but so may being fierce and unyielding. When sweetness is applied indiscriminately, it is seen as ‘idiot compassion.’”
His personal history was proof to many of us in those days that maybe we could make a go of Buddhist practice. “If he can do it, then maybe I can too,” is a thought that ran through many more minds than just my own.
“AIDS is about living,” Issan said more than once. Whatever happens after death, the experience of Big Mind happens in the world of the living. In the Big Mind context which Issan came to realize, pleasure and pain, fear and confidence, denial and acceptance, are all just dip and wave in the ever-changing ocean of change and liberation.
Now my favorite…..
Once at a question and answer tea session at Hartford Street, a young gay man asked him, “I’ve been studying for six months now and I don’t notice any difference in my behavior or thoughts. You’ve been doing zazen for twenty years, have you noticed any difference in yourself?”
After a few minutes of hesitation and puzzled facial expressions, Issan replied, “Well, I don’t wear high heels anymore.”