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!


Poem: Perpetua to Felicity


No more dutiful matron and deferential slave,

keeping their places, obeying the aged father,

the absent husband. No more gods who ordain

that things shall go on forever as they always have,

parent and child, husband and wife, mistress and slave,

one higher, one lower, orders given and orders

accepted, until death in childbirth or of boredom

and a shadowy afterlife of nothing but memories.

No more pretending that family can’t be chosen,

that love doesn’t encompass all, that hierarchy

is holy, that nothing in this world can be changed.

The dream is real. Better to go forth into the arena

hand in hand, arm in arm, better to die with one’s

true family than to live with strangers. Our Shepherd

is waiting, Felicity: Let us cross over the river together.

An Antinoan in Lent

Last Saturday I was barely aware that Lent was about to start on Wednesday the 18th. I was quite prepared to ignore the whole season as simply irrelevant to a pagan polytheist devoted to Antinous. Then I was nudged gently into awareness of the observance and into looking again at Jesus.

First of all, Lent makes more sense when I look at it from a pagan perspective. Many cultures, European and other, observed and still observe rites of cleansing and purification around this time of year. The beginning days of Lent frequently overlap with the lunar New Year celebrated in Asian cultures and with the ancient Roman Lupercalia and honoring of Juno Februa the purifier. Years ago, when I worked at a Catholic-owned bookstore in my twenties, I read an essay in an annual sourcebook for Roman Catholic liturgy that explained both Catholic folk customs and liturgies *and* the neopagan Wheel of the Year. In November you bring home your cattle and slaughter all the livestock you cannot afford to feed through the winter. In November and December and into early January, you eat well on the harvest of the preceding summer and fall. By February, however, those food supplies are running out, but you have milk, butter, and cheese because the ewes have given birth. Pancake Day, Mardi Gras, Carnevale are a last hurrah that uses up the old food stores, and then you fast in Lent because you are waiting for new food supplies: Lamb, salads from early greens, seafood from thawing waters, eggs now that the increased light has caused the chickens to lay again. All of those foods are ready to consume by Easter, which is linked to the spring equinox.

Industrial agriculture has rendered that cycle unnecessary, but Catholic and Orthodox Christian customs still hew close to the old agrarian patterns, unlike Protestantism. The old customs make sense if you look at them from a pagan point of view.

I’m not planning on fasting, though….

Not only does Lent make more sense to me as a pagan and polytheist, but so does Jesus. Once I stepped outside the boxes of the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian definitions, and all those other official fourth-century pronouncements, I found I could look directly at Jesus as an itinerant wisdom teacher, charismatic healer, prophet-as-social-critic, and inspired holy man who could be as disruptive yet auspicious as Dionysus. Once I dropped the official, institutional teachings about Jesus, I was free to look afresh at what Jesus actually taught, and to look at unofficial sources like Gnostic literature (the Gospels of Thomas and of Philip, for example). The unofficial Jesus, the Dionysian sage who becomes a god through his willingly accepted execution as an enemy of the state, is far more interesting than the official Jesus, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made–sorry, I learned the Nicene Creed in the Tudor English version.

Christ of the Desert by Robert Lentz, OFM
Perpetua & Felicity by Robert Lentz, OFM

So in an observance (sort of) of Lent, I have added the icons of Christ of the Desert and early Christian martyrs Perpetua and Felicity to the ancestor side of my altar. Perpetua and Felicity are honored as Sanctae in the Ekklesia Antinoou, anyway, and I have honored them during Lent for a good many years; their feast day is March 7th. Christ of the Desert is an icon that depicts Jesus as a Semitic-looking man, dressed in the white wool robes often worn by holy men in Middle Eastern cultures; for me it focuses attention on Jesus’ life rather than his death or apotheosis, on his teachings, and on his cultural and historical context.

I’ve also begun re-reading some of the key Jesus texts, starting with the Gospel of Thomas, the most famous of the so-called “Gnostic Gospels”. (I am going to leave out all the scholarly arguments over what “Gnostic” really means, whether Thomas is really Gnostic, how old the text is, etc., etc., etc.) At the same time, however, I was nudged to pick up The Lunar Tao by Deng Ming-Dao, a book of daily readings that comes out of traditional Chinese culture. In concert with that, I’m reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s rendition of the Tao Te Ching. It’s worth remembering that LeGuin, who has made such a huge contribution to science fiction, fantasy, women’s writing, and American literature generally, has been a Taoist for most or all of her adult life. I know from her own writings that she has a regular practice of t’ai chi, that she regards the Tao Te Ching as her primary spiritual wisdom text, and that her values have been shaped by her study of Chinese and Taoist traditions.

May this time of cleansing and purification be easy and fruitful for all who observe it, and may all my readers in the frozen parts of the United States stay safe and warm!