Tag: buddhism

FLASHBACK: Issan Thomas Dorsey Roshi, Sanctus

issan-girl-boy

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!

(Originally published at Antinous for Everybody)

No clever title today

I’ve been enjoying my daily writing prompt, but the further I go with the 30 Days of Polytheism meme, the less the questions seem to have to do with polytheism. Today’s prompt, for example, brought me up short: “The non-theistic/secular aspects of your faith.”

First of all, it’s not a faith. My religion is my religion. It’s Christianity, and Protestant Christianity specifically, that has reduced religion to faith in or belief in propositions that aren’t demonstrable by reason, nor are they experienced as true, but taken as true on someone else’s word. My religion does not consist of believing in something that my intellect knows is not true, and thus tamping down my intellect and channelling energy into the act of believing. My religion consists of having relationships with certain deities and spirits and doing things that maintain those relationships. Writing about my religion is one of the religious things I do. Thinking about religion is something I find fun, but it’s not the ideas that are crucial, it’s the relationships.

Second, I’m not at all what “non-theistic/secular aspects” is supposed to mean. On the one hand, I could say that there aren’t any non-theistic aspects to my religion. Even when I put on my Buddhist nametag, Tibetan Buddhism does not deny the existence of any gods and, in fact, has its own deities who can be meditated on, propitiated, supplicated, and so forth, such as Tara, Dzambhala, and Sarasvati. Other forms of Buddhism look even more theistic, such as the Pure Land sect with its devotion to Amida Buddha.

On the other hand, I could also say that all of my religion is secular. It takes place in the city, in the mundane world. It takes place at my oversized dining table, which is lined up against my tiny fireplace so that one end of it is part of my shrine, along with the mantel just above it. I honor Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities, but I don’t cover my head like a Roman or wear a Greek lady’s chiton or put on an Egyptian wig. I don’t even have to leave the house to practice my religion, since I’m a solitary.

If there are strong hints of Protestant Christian defaults in this 30 days meme, there are strong hints of Wiccan defaults, too. There are questions about tools, altars, clergy, gender roles. But I can’t explain my religion by starting off with casting a circle, calling the quarters, and invoking the God and Goddess. My primary deity, Antinous, is a divinized mortal who is firmly and eternally an adolescent male, an ephebos in his own language. I also worship the Tetrad++, recently revealed deities who are transgender, pangendered, metagender, genderfluid, and nongendered. I honor many deities through the year, but they don’t line up in neat male/female pairs. The eight holy days of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year are always about the Goddess *and* the God, together. The holy days of ancient polytheistic cultures are usually about celebrating one particular deity at a time.

For future reference, let me observe here that the polytheisms of the ancient Mediterranean world had three different aspects: the domestic cult, the state cult, and the mystery cult. The domestic cult was what people did at home on a daily basis, the offerings to Hestia in Greek households or to the Lares and Penates in Roman practice. No doubt Egyptian homes had little shrines where lamps were lit for the favored deities of the household.

The state cult was public worship sponsored by the government: The Pharaonic rituals in Egypt, the Vestal virgins and Arval brothers and other important priesthoods in Rome, sacrifices for the public well-being sponsored by wealthy Greek citizens. These were formal, public, elaborate rituals that had to be carried out just so.

Then there were the mystery cults. The Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone held at Eleusis were the most famous in the ancient world. The worship of Mithras became a mystery cult for soldiers in Rome. The worship of Isis took on mystery aspects as it spread outside of Egypt. These cults were relatively small-group organizations, something like joining a fraternity; you met certain standards, paid your dues, were initiated into the mysteries, and experienced something that would help you in the afterlife. Perhaps only the rites at Eleusis were potentially open to anyone, until Christianity came along.

Christianity was a mystery cult that grew into a state religion. Wicca is essentially a mystery cult that spawned what might be called a domestic cult, what is generally called the Outer Court. Then the Outer Court ran away with the word “Wicca” and left traditionally initiated, coven-trained witches wondering what the heck happened. My religion is a domestic cult, which I practice, that also has a mystery cult, which I have not yet entered.

To sum up, I might not be following the 30 days of polytheism meme strictly for the rest of the month, but I am still committed to writing a prose post reflecting on my religion every day for the month of June.

Issan Thomas Dorsey Roshi, Sanctus

issan-girl-boy

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!