The New Yorker
Talk of the Town
1988 Jun 13
AND A WOMAN WE know who lives in San Francisco has written:
Shortly after I became interested in Buddhism, eight years ago, I saw a photograph of one of America’s first Zen teachers, a Japanese sculptor and monk named Sokei-an. The photo, taken in his Manhattan apartment in the late thirties, showed Sokei-an sitting on an ottoman before an elaborately carved desk, with a tabby cat in his arms. In this domestic American milieu, Sokei-an, with his shaved head, meditation beads, kimono, and finely sewn leather loafers, was the only foreign object. From 1906, when he worked on America’s first Zen commune, an unsuccessful strawberry farm outside San Francisco, until his death, in 1945, not long after he was released from an American internment camp, Sokei-an offered Zen to just about anyone who would listen, including the residents of his apartment house and also the writer Alan Watts, who later introduced him to a wider American audience. Sokei-an once said that bringing Buddhism to America was like holding a lotus to a rock and waiting for it to take root.
I thought of Sokei-an recently when I went to visit my friend Issan Dorsey, the head priest of the Hartford Street Zen Center, formerly known as the Gay Buddhist Club, which occupies a white frame house in the Castro neighborhood here. Issan (his given name is Thomas, and his Buddhist name means One Mountain) is in his mid-fifties. He never spent much time in the closet—in fact, he was a female impersonator in the nineteen-fifties— but he missed out on most of the gay-liberation movement because by then he was living in a monastery near Big Sur or in the San Francisco Zen Center’s temple-residence. This relatively cloistered life started to change seven years ago, when he left the residence to visit a gay man dying of a then unnamed disease at the San Francisco General Hospital. Two fellow Zen students have since died of AIDS, and Issan kept them company during their illnesses and washed their bodies with sweet tea after they died. Last year, at the request of its members, he moved into the Hartford Street Zen Center— it’s the first time he has lived in a gay neighborhood—and he has conducted more than fifty funeral and memorial services there. He has also founded a small hospice called Maitri, which means “friendliness” in Sanskrit.
When I visited Issan, he was standing at an ironing board in the Center’s living room, pressing pleats into a wide-sleeved black net meditation robe. He has a shaved head, bright eyes, fine features, and the toes-out duck walk of a ballet dancer, he was wearing Birkenstocks, drawstring pants, and a white T-shirt, and he was smiling. “We’ve got a busy weekend ahead,” he said when I asked him how things were going. “We sit three periods of zozen a day, we’ll have an ordination here on Saturday, and we’re taking care of one person with AIDS upstairs. At the end of the month, we’re moving another man in—a man from Martinique who had the reputation of being a very good hospice attendant and now needs twenty-four-hour care himself, just establishing a Buddhist presence in the Castro would have been enough; with AIDS on top of it, I’m overwhelmed. Sometimes I think we’ve bitten off more than we can chew, but it’s nothing I want to get out of.” He held up the robe, which was torn at both shoulders. “Look at this,” he said. “It’s almost as bad as the one I’m going to cut up to make the patches.” He went on, “If I hadn’t been practicing Buddhism, I wouldn’t have been so deeply involved in the AIDS crisis. Before, I didn’t like uncomfortable situations. Now it seems that I can’t stay away.”
He gathered up his robe and led the way upstairs to a bedroom where a small, convivial lunch party was taking place: on a low sofa, two men dressed in T-shirts and black Levi’s were eating hamburgers, at a bed in the center of the room, a hospice attendant with a full, patriarchal beard and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle cap was gently feeding quarter-sections of a bacon-and-cheeseburger to a man Issan introduced as J. D. Kobezak, whose hands were fluttering like butterflies. J. D. told me that he used to work as a sign-interpreter for the deaf, and one of the men in Levi’s asked, “Hey, J. D., how do I say ‘What do you want?’” There was a pause—it was almost as though a time-delay loop were going through J. D.’s brain—and then the tremors stopped and he raked the fingers of his right hand across his left palm and pulled his hands toward his heart as though tugging on reins. The man who had asked the question—he was a bartender, he said, and sometime had trouble communicating with deaf customers– thanked J.D. and asked, “How do I say ‘strong’?” There was another pause in the fluttering, and J.D. made a fist and raised it in the air.
“Last week, J. D. said he wanted to die, and wanted us to help him die,” Issan told me a little later, as he sat down at a table in the next room and took out a sewing kit. “Now he doesn’t say that. He’s appreciating just breathing, just being alive until he dies.” Issan threaded a needle and said that he came to Buddhism in 1968, when, after fifteen years of heavy drinking and drug use, he took some LSD and saw, by chance, a photograph of the Indian saint Ramana Maharshi. “I saw myself in that picture,” he said. “I recognized a fundamental urge to evolve, and I remembered that when I was a child I’d wanted to become a Catholic priest. I made a little altar by my window, and put Ramana Maharshi’s picture on it, and a champagne glass for my works—my hypodermic needle. I’d shoot speed and stare for hours at that picture. Then I stopped shooting speed. I don’t remember how—I just stopped. It was a big surprise to everybody—especially to the people I used to shoot speed with.
“I started meditating to deal with the depression that hit after I stopped. First once a day, then twice, then a one-day sitting, then five days, then seven days, and then a three-month practice period in the monastery at Tassajara, near Big Sur. I just kept going on to the next thing, which is the same thing I’d done with rugs.” He laid his robe flat on the table and began to stitch. “Half of the people in this community are going to die within the next five years. That’s what’s happening to everybody. It’s just our daily life. It’s nothing to get out of or wish wasn’t happening—it’s happening.” He smiled. “This truth is so lose to us that it makes it easier for us to take our energy glue out of our plans and ideas, and reside instead in our breathing—in what I like to call our breath-minds. More and more certainly I know I’m going to die. Of course, I’ve always known this, but in the back f my mind I used to think maybe I’d be excused. Now it’s clear—the rug has been pulled out from under me. I know many people who are taking courses in he Tibetan Book of the Dead, but think it’s too late for a crash course in dying. This is your preparation for dying.” He put down his robe. “Right now. Just to live your life more completely in each moment. The way I get ready for my death is by sewing these things and talking to you.”
©1988 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.