Issan Thomas Dorsey Roshi, Sanctus


I first came across the name of Issan Dorsey when reading a book called Shoes Outside the Door, about the San Francisco Zen Center. SFZC was famous as the home of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, one of the first Zen teachers in the West, and later infamous as the home of Richard Baker Roshi, successor to Suzuki, who was at the center of a knot of scandal involving sex with students, misuse of community funds, and all the stuff that makes for good reading. At present Baker Roshi is still teaching, but not at San Francisco Zen Center, and SFZC has survived the death of Suzuki Roshi and the scandal of Baker Roshi and keeps on going.

Dorsey was one name among many in a four- or five-hundred page book full of names, interviews, histories, but he stood out. A gay man, a former drag queen, a sometime junkie, Dorsey used his Zen training and the Dharma transmission which Baker Roshi gave him to minister to people, mostly other gay men, with AIDS. Under his leadership, a club for gay men who were also Buddhists became a Zen center that supported a hospice, the first hospice run by Buddhists in the U.S. Dorsey himself died of AIDS in 1990, but his Zen center, now also known as Issan-ji Temple, continues to serve.

I followed Suzuki Roshi into a biography, Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick, and Dorsey Roshi into another biography, Street Zen by David Schneider. Then I went on to other things, but I never quite forgot Issan Dorsey. Last year, when I began to practice Antinoan devotion and observe the calendar of the Ekklesia Antinoou, I looked at the Calendar of the Sancti and found Dorsey Roshi again. I am honored to count him as a spiritual ancestor.

I recommend reading Street Zen–try your local library system before you try Amazon. Here are some links pertinent to Dorsey Roshi’s life and work:

Hartford Street Zen Center, which he founded

a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece on Dorsey from June 13, 1988 by Katy Butler
Bernie Glassman of Zen Peacemakers reflects on Dorsey
And from Joan Halifax Roshi, two stories (this is a pdf).

There’s much more out there: Dorsey Roshi’s legacy is alive, and so is he. Now let me combine traditions, if I may:

Ignis corporis infirmat, ignis sed animae persistat!

Nine bows to Issan Thomas Dorsey Roshi!


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Writer, musician, polytheist, and friend of birds. I like science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes a lot.

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