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The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey Print

The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey

By Kobai Scott Whitney
Issan (Lone Mountain) Dorsey was not a Buddhist scholar, nor was he a saint. But for those of us who knew him, this drag-queen-turned-Zen-abbot was, without question, a bodhisattva alive in our midst.

Before the lore surrounding Issan and the founding of Hartford Street Zen Center becomes an unmanageable apocrypha, it is important that gay and lesbian Buddhists look at his life and death with some care, with attention to his failings and conflicts, as well as to his immense compassion and his wacky insight.

Born Tommy Dorsey in Santa Barbara, California in 1933, he was the oldest of ten children and raised Catholic. Although he contemplated studying for the priesthood, he ended up joining the U.S. Navy, from which he was eventually expelled for homosexual conduct. In the 1950's he then began a long career as a performer in drag shows in San Francisco's North Beach-a district which served as the Castro Street of its era and also hosted such fringy populations as the Beat poets, drug dealers, coffeehouse anarchists and jazz musicians.

In his shows he was billed as "Tommy Dee, the boy who looks like the girl next door." In the 1960's Tommy deepened his use of alcohol and drugs while joining the hippie movement as founder of a large, still well-remembered commune. In his North Beach years, Tommy Dee shot heroin with Lenny Bruce, partied with the late Carmen McRae and claims to have "discovered" Johnny Mathis (McRae used to argue with him about this, claiming that she was the one who discovered the young singer).

During these years he had frequent injuries, overdoses and run-ins with the police. He once said, "Sometimes I'd wake up hung over in jail. The first thing I'd do was feel to see if I had my tits on. This would tell me whether they had locked me up on the men's side or with the hookers on the women's side."

In the late 1960's, he began to sit zazen with Suzuki-roshi and his life began to change. He was eventually ordained as a Buddhist priest by Richard Baker, Suzuki-roshi's successor, and given the name Issan. A full account of Issan's life can be found in David Schneider's Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey (Shambhala Publications).

The Shaman as Mother

Issan claimed never to have read a single book from cover to cover, except for one: Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Through-out the late 1970's and 1980's, he moved through the world of the San Francisco Zen Center like an angel in tabi socks, as graceful and outrageous as the stage-wise drag queen he had been before meeting Suzuki Roshi.

Unafraid to acknowledge his long history of drug use, cross-dressing and prostitution, Issan Tommy Dorsey served as a kind of fringy shaman to the uptight and elitist Zen Center community of those years-a community with an atmosphere that actor and writer Peter Coyote once called "high Episcopal." Tommy had always been comfortable in the borderlands of respectability and could serve to welcome anyone to Zen Center, no matter how odd they seemed to the broader sangha. This benefited individual beginners whom Issan could usher through the sometimes unwelcoming veneer of the Page Street City Center. It also helped the sangha, since Tommy's success in adjusting to the rigors of Zen training proved to them that meditation practice could benefit anyone.

Like a shaman, Issan served in the capacity of healer and what ethnographers call a "stranger handler." He acted as clown, as mediator and, generally, in the archetypal role that Robert Bly has dubbed the Male Mother. Many of his students saw him as an embodiment of Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. Like this female manifestation of the Buddha, he learned to hear "the cries of the world" and to respond to them in his own unique way.

Issan Dorsey, as Zen priest at Tassajara and the San Francisco city center, did not see himself as any kind of Buddhist missionary to the gay community: in fact, he made fun of the macho, middle class, consumer values of gay San Francisco. Those were the years when jeans and lumberjack flannel shirts were the official uniform for gay men, when doing drag or using "Miss Names" were not politically correct activities.

Years before the founding of Hartford Street Zendo, when the first meeting of a "Gay Buddhist Club" was announced, Issan scoffed at the idea. "Buddhism is Buddhism, practice is practice," might be a summary of his response. At that time, in those last, pre-AIDS years, his major preoccupation was starting a soup kitchen in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.

Although he made fun of white middle class American culture in all its forms-gay or straight-he never judged or rejected a person because of their social class or values. He had wealthy friends and he had friends who lived on the streets. He spent most of his social time in the seventies with the predominantly straight men and women who practiced at Zen Center. In his role as male mother, Issan had many straight men who were deeply devoted to him as friend and mentor.

"Sometimes," he told fellow priest Shunko Michael Jamvold, "I like to go out with straight men because they treat me like a lady."

Endlessly Refining

It may only have been after his death that many people who spent time with Issan realized how he had taught them. While many remember his wacky one-liners, it was with his wordless demeanor that he actually taught us.

In his book, David Schneider comments on Issan's fondness for his beads, his Buddhist rosary. His care for what western culture views as non-animate objects was a form of teaching to many around him. Issan dressed impeccably and meticulously. Whether in monk's robes or street attire, he adjusted every piece of fabric lovingly. He often spent quiet time in his room mending clothing. The careful, sensuous way he applied Oil of Olay to his face and his shaved scalp each day reminded one of his friends of a retired actress intent on preserving her aging countenance.

Every corner of his room at Zen Center, and later at Hartford Street Zendo, was always dusted and adjusted; bedding was folded and there were always fresh flowers around. Many Zen students remember his tenure as director of the building at Page Street, when the polished floors shone as they never have since.

His long study of tea ceremony under Suzuki-sensei, the wife of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, was another way he perfected the aesthetics of movement in the world of space and time and matter. As often as he reminded us of the importance of taking care of people, he also insisted on the importance of taking care of buildings, gardens or tea cups.

When leaving to go somewhere in the city, he always took his black Danish school bag, a finely made canvas bag that had pockets for everything in it. This bag, which he fondly called his Life Support System, contained: a handkerchief, a plastic case filled with tooth picks, pens and pencils, an address book, medications, chapstick, matches, a notebook with reminders to himself, breath mints and, among many other things, his famous Sears Charge Card, the only "plastic" he ever owned.

So, one of his teachings to others was contained in this reverence for his physical space and for his few worldly possessions. In a 1987 interview with a now-defunct gay newspaper, he said, speaking of the zendo at Hartford Street, "All you do here is come sit. It's hard to do. But there's no end to it. You can sit all kinds of ways, and you can learn that you can also refine your life endlessly, and that there are endless ways of extending yourself into the larger community. So you come and sit, and then we see what happens from there."

Big Mind and the Epidemic

What happened from there was AIDS. As the health crisis grew in San Francisco, Issan told a friend that, more and more, the epidemic was teaching him what Suzuki-roshi had meant when he talked about Big Mind.

Meditation practice, at least in the Zen tradition of Dogen, is about mind and body dropping away. Small, lively, individual mind and grasping, needful, individual body can recede, if only temporarily, into the background of experience. After twenty years of Zen practice, Issan was able to experience life with Big Mind in the foreground of consciousness; he began to see and express the fact that an individual death, including his own, might not be such a big thing in the light of the steady blossoming of Big Mind experience.

To appreciate Big Mind in the midst of a plague is to know that the seemingly pressing concerns of individual personalities, identities and cravings can fall away in an instant. With mindful practice, the compassion which arises automatically with the experience of Big Mind makes working for the good of all much easier. Big Mind, Issan began to see, presumes that taking care of others is also taking care of self. As co-participants in Big Mind, sufferer and helper are mutually necessary-both help, both suffer. Living and surviving, while someone nearby is dying, becomes like wave and trough on the surface of the sea-each needs the other, both are fleeting.

Regular meditation and mindfulness practice gave Issan the experience of mental balance needed to be with self and others through the losses caused by the epidemic. His street experience added an important dimension in the form of daring, direct action that could get things done, like the founding of Maitri Hospice. Yet he knew that no amount of social action and no amount of time on a meditation cushion could spare us from all suffering and grief. He responded to the needs of survivors in different ways at different times.

Zen Center student George Gayuski remembers going to Issan after the death of a close friend. "I was so upset," Gayuski says, "and I don't remember anything we said at the time. But I do remember that he immediately started doing a small ceremony with me. We both offered incense and then we chanted the Heart Sutra together and somehow that was the right thing to do at that moment."

It is such ability to spontaneously enact "the right thing at the right moment" that is the fruit of advanced practice. Tenryu Steve Allen, Issan's successor at Hartford Street, remembers his friend's ability to deal with the parents and lovers of the dying men at the hospice: "One of the qualities that Issan exemplified was the ability to accept anything. For instance, his capacity to be there in a room filled with fear and denial and to accept everyone there and everything about the situation. When the person dying could not accept their situation, and the friends and family and lovers around them could not accept it, Issan could be there in the midst of it all and accept their non-acceptance. His simple capacity to be with people and accept whatever was happening was what he taught me."

"Got that Uji Thing."

Shunko Jamvold remembers Issan in his last years playing with the Japanese Buddhist term Uji (Time-Being or Being-Time). Sometimes he would just yell out the word in the midst of things: "Uji!" Everyone around him would wonder what he meant. At other times he would make up sentences like "Got that Uji thing going," as if it were a jazz lyric off Carmen McRae's latest album.
Probably the most profound exposition of the concept of Time-Being is found in Dogen Zenji's fascicle written in 1240. It is a brief document-seven pages in the Tanahashi English version-yet it contains some of the most challenging, obscure, poetic and important statements in all of Japanese Zen literature. Here are some samples:

"...when sentient beings doubt what they do not understand, their doubt is not firmly fixed. Because of that, their past doubts do not necessarily coincide with the present doubt. Yet doubt itself is nothing but time." (Tanahashi translation, pp. 76-77, sec. 2) or: "You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival." (p. 79, sec. 12) or: "As overwhelming is caused by you, there is no overwhelming that is separate from you. Thus you go out and meet someone. Someone meets someone. You meet yourself. Going out meets going out. If these are not the actualization of time, they cannot be thus." (p. 82, sec. 17)

This is Dogen at his most beautiful and most profound- pushing the limits of language, pushing the limits of his readers' ability to understand. So the question is: did Issan understand this difficult concept of time intertwined with, and inseparable from, existence-or did he just like the sound of the word "Uji"?

The answer seems to show itself in the fruit of Issan's practice, rather than in any conceptual framework given, for instance, in a dharma talk. Once he was listening to a gay man who was talking to him at length about what direction he should take in the future. After describing to Issan the various alternatives available to him and the consequences he envisioned for pursuing each of these particular choices, the man finally stopped and asked Issan, "Well, what do you think?"

"I don't know," Issan said, "I just got here."

A gentle, ironic reminder that the only time is "just getting here," that future and past are spun from delusion and that the fullness of time/being can only be got to through the door of present practice. "There is no overwhelming that is separate from you" is another way of saying "I just got here."

"Understanding does not depend on its own arrival," the difficult, but truer-than-true teaching from the Uji fascicle, could have been the motto for Issan's whole life of practice. While he was not an intellectual, he was able to appreciate those, like Richard Baker, who were. His understanding manifested itself in the offhand remark or in the way he entered a room or took care of his tea bowls. Like the best of the Zen masters, his understanding was manifest in his body: in his walking, in his cooking, in his loving application of Oil of Olay to his face and his shiny monk's scalp.

Practice, Not Perfection

If his dharma talks were not intellectual performances, they were not without their own charm and directness. 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."

And indeed, not all things changed with Issan. He was certainly no model of adherence to the Buddhist precepts. His drinking-although limited in later years mostly to Friday night outings-still could get him in trouble. The poor judgement which led to unsafe sex, and thus to his infecting incident, occurred while he was drunk.

His tolerance for the bizarre led him to allow behavior in James, his addicted sometimes-lover, that strained the tolerance of the communities they lived in, and which sometimes led to violence against Issan. His doctor and fellow Zen student, Rick Levine, recalls:

"I loved Issan. There was a transcendental loveliness about him. But it makes me nervous when people mythologize him or call him a saint. He enjoyed being admired, as most of us do, so he might not object to being thought of in that way. But his dying was exemplary in its ordinariness. Like everyone, he had difficulties. He had a special fondness for, and interest in, his medications. He got anxious and he could get pretty angry."

In other words, Issan experienced all the conflicts of ethics and behavior, of hedonism versus detachment, that many gay men go through when trying to put together a spiritual practice. He went through all the fear and anger and denial that anyone facing death must experience. "There was no posturing with Issan," says Dr. Levine. "He didn't die like a story from the deaths of ancient Zen teachers. But he did die beautifully, cared for by old and loving friends."

AIDS as God

In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the Christian right was describing AIDS as the wrath of God directed against homosexuals for their sins, Issan was asked to participate in a San Francisco Council of Churches symposium called "Is AIDS the Wrath of God?" He was the only Buddhist representative at the meeting, and he was quite emphatic about removing the reality of AIDS from the dualistic good/bad, sin/salvation paradigm being dealt with at the conference. He ended his short presentation with the astonishing (to Christians, anyway) statement that "AIDS is not the wrath of God. AIDS is God."

As Issan was called upon more and more to make sense of the AIDS pandemic, for himself and for others, 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 as Issan's work with the founding of Hartford Street Zendo soon turned into the work of founding a hospice for the people dying of AIDS.

Before there was even any clear name or understanding of the disease, Issan regularly visited a young gay man in San Francisco General Hospital who had what we now know was AIDS. Taking Issan aside after one of his visits, a stern and disapproving charge-nurse commented to him that this particular patient had probably had more than 400 sex partners. Miffed at the woman's moralistic tone, Issan terminated the conversation: "Only 400 partners!" he said loudly, as if on stage again, "Is that ALL?"

Dementia and Delusion

J.D., the first gay man with AIDS to be taken in by Issan, was virtually at the point of death when he arrived, but the good care he received at Hartford Street helped him live for quite some time. At one point J.D. asked Issan if he could give a dharma talk. Issan had no problems granting J.D.'s request, even though many gay people around the zendo reminded Issan that J.D. had a rather severe case of dementia and would probably embarrass himself and everyone attending the talk.

"We all have dementia!" was Issan's gleeful response to the community's reservations, and despite the discomfort of others J.D. gave his best effort at giving a dharma talk. This lecture, however uncomfortable it might have been for his audience, came to be of great benefit to J.D. and was a major spiritual milestone for him prior to his death.

"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 J.D.'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 J.D.'s talk, was not a factor 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?

Later, expanding on this idea in a dharma talk to the Hartford Street community (which he gleefully referred to as the "posture queens"), Issan said:

"'Don't invite your thoughts to tea' is an expression of Suzuki-roshi's which I've always found useful. Lately, I have been exploring this way of thinking with a friend who has AIDS dementia; the virus is living in his brain. I'm thinking and working on it and talking with him about it because the virus that is now attacking many of us ends up being in the brain.

"So is there some way for us to experience that? I don't know yet. My question is: how to be with people who have dementia and how to experience the dementia that we all have now anyway? It's called delusion." (Quoted in the Gay Buddhist Fellowship Newsletter, January, 1995.)

"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.

On the Path

If Issan was not a saint, he was at least on the way to becoming a bodhisattva. Perhaps in Issan's case the early Mahayana definition of the arhat needs to be revived. At that point in Buddhist history, an arhat was considered to be one who had attained deep understanding of the dharma, but was not yet completely liberated.

Issan was just that: still a bit addicted, still co-dependent, still subject to anger and fears. Not perfect, but he was solidly on the path, and he helped guide many of us along with him into the world of practice. In his last days, now with the title of Abbot, he had certainly gone beyond what anyone might have expected of the 1960's "boy who looks like the girl next door."

As Buddhism makes its way more thoroughly into the religious history of Europe and North America, Issan will be remembered, I think, as the man/woman, male-mother figure who kicked over the boundary stones of the West's most under-rated god, Terminus. His compassion threw open the high Episcopal church doors of the over-intellectual, self-important Zen community of his time. He let the hungry and the addicted and the demented into his zendo without a second thought. This was his legacy.

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. He was sometimes criticized for his continued loyalty to the exiled Richard Baker, and that loyalty did have a traditional, Confucian, unquestioning reverence to it. But it was also another part of his tendency to accept a wide range of people, with all their deluded behaviors. It was part of his non-judging and his automatic identification with anyone in trouble.

There is an old tradition in Chinese Zen of remembering Zen masters by the name of the mountain or monastery where they lived. In Lone Mountain's case this happened in reverse: the Hartford Street Zendo is now called Issan-ji-Lone Mountain Temple. And because of Issan Dorsey it still remains a place, like every proper Buddhist temple, where people-who-are-not-perfect can practice Buddhism together, and see what happens.

Kobai Scott Whitney is a freelance writer in Honolulu, and a student of Robert Aitken-roshi. He practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center throughout the 1970's.

The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey, Kobai Scott Whitney, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.

Playing a Round Print
Shambhala Sun | March 1998

Playing a Round

By: "Let's go out and play" is not an expression we associate with adults, yet adults are eager, even desperate, to play. Play could transport us from the sedentary earnestness that can make up so much of our lives. It could refresh us and inject an element of amusement into our ordinary activities. In early societies, many games, rituals and entertainments served such a role in community life.

We want to play, but damn if we seem to know how. Just go to one of our cavernous book palaces these days. The atmosphere is playful (Ah! Let's play. Let's browse. Let's buy.), but the content is deadly serious. Let's achieve something in business, in child rearing, politically, socially, spiritually, literarily, and above all in sport, which is often the achievement metaphor for all the rest.
After I had the obligatory latte on my first visit to the latest big book carnival, I was drawn to the golf section (Imagine, an entire section!). Nearly every selection was bent on achievement but almost none on appreciation and enjoyment. By most accounts, the thing to do with a sport is to apply the Desert Storm dictum: "Let's choke it off and kill it."
As I watch people take up golf in their late thirties and forties, I'm often struck by the seriousness that arises in the face of the inherent silliness that is golf. Golf is indeed tricky to learn, but in the end it's a sport, desporter, a diversion, a time apart, a walk in the woods interrupted by ridiculous outbursts. When you stray too far from that, the colorfully veiled desperation that drives the sporting "industry" takes over, and the pursuit of golf becomes something almost pathetic.
Seriousness is the death of play. We can all remember the experience we had as children when a game got out of hand. One person takes it too seriously and then another and before you know it, you have a fight on your hands. What began as enjoyment turned into struggle. If it happens often enough, struggle becomes a way of life.
I had the good fortune to learn golf at a playful age. When I was eight, I took my first lesson from Art Edgar, a Scottish golf pro, at a club in Scotland, Pennsylvania. Art was lanky and hawkish like Ben Hogan and delivered his instructions in a thick but gentle brogue. On day one, I and about ten other children were whacking mostly dirt, but under his tutelage slowly we saw the ball take flight. Everyone loves flight.
Seized by that primal urge, I played golf in every available moment. I lived it and breathed it. Slapping plastic balls in the backyard. Taking balls out to vacant lots and hitting them hour after hour. Caddying for others and learning the pace of the game-long stretches of silence punctuated by bursts of conviviality. There was great solace in all that. I could never handle the baseball or football coach screaming epithets when you screwed up, but I could make the little white ball take flight. I could pick a target and hit it.
Inevitably, I got involved in competition and managed to secure a place on the high school golf team. Not an exalted place, but a place nonetheless. This ensured you an entire day off on the day before a match and on the day of the match itself. A day in school was no match for a day on the golf course.
The second year I naturally tried out again, but this time on a new and unfamiliar course. On the last day, I exploded on the fourth hole, scoring a nine. For the remainder of the day I struggled to regain my composure and my place on the team. On the final hole, I lost to my opponent by one stroke, as hoots of joy sprang up from several of his friends.
Black with despondence, I sped home on the hilly back roads near Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, trying to out-race my depression. Suddenly, my visual field turned black as the hood of my '53 Chevy sprang up and bent over the roof. Screeching and fishtailing, I pulled the car over, tied the hood down and limped home, where my father put the car in the garage for good. What was supposed to be making me happy had made me miserable. Whatever joy I had felt with Art Edgar was sapped dry. I hung up my golf sticks and gave up the game.
That memory stuck. It took me decades to shake the seriousness that clouded my appreciation of golf. Actually playing—playing—golf was a childhood memory. As an adult, I found I had to pursue it and conquer it, even though the fickleness of the game always defeated my ambitions.
There's the great irony and the great secret of golf's allure, and perhaps the allure of any sport. Playfulness is what lends sport its subtlety, grace, and enjoyment. It transcends the equipment fetishes, the overly coiffed courses made for TV viewing, the books and magazines, the endless drivel of the announcers, the Calvinistic rule-worship, the haughtiness of the country club set, and the over-spiritualization of the Zen-in-the-art-of crowd.
Wandering in a field hitting crab apples with a wooden-shafted iron after a glass of scotch can bring all the joy one needs from sport. No book and no membership credentials required, just a simple sense of how it all began.
Surely, when struggle has eclipsed delight, even in play, we need to take a closer look.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication

Playing a Round, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.

Everybody Loves Something Print

Everybody Loves Something


According to Pema Chödrön, love and compassion are like the weak spots in the walls of ego. If we connect with even one moment of the good heart of bodhicitta and cherish it, our ability to open will gradually expand.

The Buddhist term bodhicitta means completely open heart and mind. "Citta" is translated as heart or mind; "bodhi" means awake.

The cultivation of the noble heart and mind of bodhicitta is a personal journey. The very life we have is our working basis; the very life we have is our journey to enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something we're going to achieve after we follow the instructions, and then get it right. In fact when it comes to awakening the heart and mind, you can't "get it right."

On this journey we're moving toward that which is not so certain, that which cannot be tied down, that which is not habitual and fixed. We're moving toward a whole new way of thinking and feeling, a flexible and open way of perceiving reality that is not based on certainty and security. This new way of perceiving is based on connecting with the living energetic quality of ourselves and everything else. Bodhicitta is our means of tapping into this awakened energy and we can start by tapping into our emotions. We can start by connecting very directly with what we already have.

Bodhicitta is particularly available to us when we feel good heart; when we feel gratitude, appreciation or love in any form whatsoever. In any moment of tenderness or happiness, bodhicitta is always here. If we begin to acknowledge these moments and cherish them, if we begin to realize how precious they are, then no matter how fleeting and tiny this good heart may seem, it will gradually, at its own speed, expand. Our capacity to love is an unstoppable essence that when nurtured can expand without limit.

Bodhicitta is also available in other emotions—even the hardest of feelings like rage, jealousy, envy and deep-rooted resentment. In even the most painful and crippling feelings, bodhicitta is available to us when we acknowledge them with an open mind and heart and realize how they are shared by all of us—when we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat feeling the same pain. In the midst of the most profound misery, we can think of others just like ourselves and wish that we could all be free of suffering and the root of suffering. When we tune into any of our feelings, become aware any of our feelings, they have the capacity to soften us and to dissolve the barriers we put up between ourselves and others.

On Cape Breton Island, where I live in Nova Scotia, the lakes get so hard in the winter that people can drive trucks and cars on them. Alexander Graham Bell flew one of the early airplanes off that ice. It's that solid. Our habits and patterns can feel just as frozen as that ice. But when spring comes, the ice melts. The quality of water has never really disappeared, even in the deepest depths of winter. It just changed form. The ice melts, and the essential fluid, living quality of water is there.

The essential good heart and open mind of bodhicitta is like that. It is here even if we're experiencing it as so solid we could land an airplane on it.

When I'm emotionally in midwinter and nothing I do seems to melt my frozen heart and mind, it helps me to remember that no matter how hard the ice, the water of bodhicitta hasn't really gone anywhere. It's always right here. At those moments, I'm just experiencing bodhicitta in its most solid, immovable form.

At that point I often realize that I prefer the inherent fluidity of situations to the frozenness I habitually impose on them. So I work on melting that hardness by generating more warmth, more open heart. A good way for any of us to do this is to think of a person toward whom we feel appreciation or love or gratitude. In other words, we connect with the warmth that we already have. If we can't think of a person, we can think of a pet, or even a plant. Sometimes we have to search a bit. But as Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, "Everybody loves something. Even if it's just tortillas." The point is to touch in to the good heart that we already have and nurture it.

At other times we can think of a person or situation that automatically evokes compassion. Compassion is our capacity to care about others and our wish to alleviate their pain. It is based not on pity or professional warmth, but on the acknowledgment that we are all in this together. Compassion is a relationship between equals. So in any moment of hardness, we can connect with the compassion we already have—for laboratory animals, abused children, our friends, our relatives, for anyone anywhere—and let it open our heart and mind in what otherwise might feel like an impossibly frozen situation.

Love and compassion are like the weak spots in the walls of ego. They are like a naturally occuring opening. And they are the opening we take. If we connect with even one moment of good heart or compassion and cherish it, our ability to open will gradually expand. Beginning to tune into even the minutest feelings of compassion or appreciation or gratitude softens us. It allows us to touch in with the noble heart of bodhicitta on the spot.

When I was a child there was a comic-strip character named Popeye. At times he was really, really weak and at those vulnerable moments, the big bully Bluto was always standing there ready to reduce poor Popeye to dust. But old Popeye would get out his can of spinach, open it up, and gulp it down. He'd just pour the spinach into his mouth and then—wham! Full of confidence and strength, he could relate with all the demons. That's what happens when we use our emotions to touch in with our noble heart. Bodhicitta, it's like spiritual spinach. But please don't quote me on this!

Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You. 

Everybody Loves Something, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.

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When the Spirit Moves You Print

When the Spirit Moves You


"I walked further and further away from father and son," says bell hooks. "But my steps always drew me closer to holy spirit."

In the town I grew up in on hot summer nights when nature was in still repose, it was possible to wander down a narrow unpaved street following the sounds of a tent meeting. It was possible to hear the sounds of voices moved by spirits—voices caught in moments of divine rapture.

As children of a more conservative faith, we were not allowed to attend Pentecostal meetings. I went once. My best friend's family were all "holy rollers," as they were often called, and I was allowed to attend with her, even though I was given strict instructions to maintain myself. In other words I was not to allow myself to surrender to the call of divine rapture. I was not to be moved by unseen spirits.

The spirits were there in the tent that night. I could hear and feel them. To my friend who had always attended holiness meetings, there was nothing special or exciting about watching worshippers shout or speak in tongues. But I was mesmerized. Awed to be a witness to mystery. I only saw and heard it once yet the expressions of religious ecstasy and shared rapture stirred my soul. I came away believing more deeply than ever before in a mystical force in the universe—a force that had the power to call us, to touch us with divine spirit.

Baptized as a girl in the church of my upbringing in the "name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit," I soon became enthralled by the mystical dimensions of religious life. On my way to becoming feminist thinker, writer, and cultural critic I walked further and further away from father and son, but my steps always drew me closer to holy spirit. Its presence could never be rejected or denied. Everywhere I turned in nature I could see and feel the mystery—the wonder of that which could not be accounted for by human reason.

Spirituality has always been the foundation of my experience as a writer. Most writers know that our visions often emerge from places that are mysterious—far removed from who we are and what we think we know. Faced with this reality again and again as we work with words, we can only acknowledge the presence of an unseen force.

Encountering this force was my earliest understanding of what was meant by the evocation of "grace." In my home church we would sing "grace woke me up this morning, grace started me on my way." This grace was understood as a recognition of the presence of mystery. We trust from childhood on that we can sleep and wake, that we can rise, that our open eyes will see. For many of us this trust is our covenant with godliness—our appreciation of that mystery of holiness.

In Buddhist practice when we learn to be mindfully aware of our actions in everyday life we are essentially learning to practice spiritual vigilance in such a way that we can actually hear the sounds of mystery. Once our daily actions are infused with a sense of the sacred, we hear the rhythms of grace. Like a silent chant those rhythms help steady the mind and bring us peace. If we are listening and moving with these rhythms every action we take—rising out of bed, cleaning ourselves, preparing meals and so forth—reveals to us the sacredness of all life.

Writing has been for me one of the ways to encounter the divine. As a discipline of mind and heart, working with words has become a spiritual practice. Steeped in Christian faith, throughout my young adulthood I would fall on my knees to pray for the "right words"—for an integrity of mind and heart that would lead me to right livelihood in my work with words. Oftentimes I would repeat a prayer that would include the scriptural admonition to "let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable."

Initially, even though I prayed for divine guidance about my work, I was not really wholeheartedly willing to follow a path that was not in tune with my desires. Ultimately, the conditions of my surrender were not complex: my desires often simply did not work. When I gave myself over to the writing I felt called to do, I experienced fulfillment.

bell hooks is Distinguished Professor in Residence at Berea College in Kentucky. She is the author of Wounds of Passion.

When the Spirit Moves You, bell hooks, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.

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A Nation Behind Bars Print
Shambhala Sun | March 1998

A Nation Behind Bars

By: "However the crime rate may fall, the prisons will always be filled. We are constructing ugly, brutal environments to house our own children and grandchildren."

In April of this year, my wife Sita and I led dharma workshops in eleven maximum-security prisons in and around Huntsville, Texas. As the prison van drove us from unit to unit, our jaws dropped at what we saw: thousands of square miles-probably an area as big as Rhode Island-with nothing in sight but razor wire, guard towers and windowless prison buildings. The distances between some of the units took a half-hour or forty-five minute drive without ever leaving state prison land. It was eerie to contemplate how we had come to the point where a state devotes such an enormous area to lock up its own citizens.
And Texas is not alone. Prisons are now the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. economy. In 1994, Governor Lowry of Washington quipped that at the current rate of increased incarceration and prison construction, "Everyone in the state of Washington will either be in or working in a prison by the year 2056." During the twenty-five years that I have been working in prisons, the national budget for building and operating prisons has gone from $500 million to $31 billion per year. The number of institutions has quadrupled. The inmate population has risen from 187,000 to 1.4 million. One out of every fifty children in the United States now has a parent in prison. More young black males are now in prison than in college. Our own mailing list has grown from a few dozen dharma seekers to over 30,000.
These facts and figures-and the horrific human suffering they represent-are overwhelming. And that's actually part of the problem: our prison situation is so outrageous, it is easier to avoid thinking about it than to struggle toward a solution. But there is no way to be uninvolved. If you pay taxes, you are involved. If you have locks on your doors, you are involved. If you vote for politicans who boast of their hatred toward criminals and their intention to be crueler to them if elected, you are involved.
And if you have children, you are deeply, dangerously involved. Whom do you think all those new prisons are going to hold?

Believe me, however the crime rate may fall, the prisons will always be filled. A whole "prison-industrial complex" has arisen to replace the military-industrial complex of the cold war. An enormous economy is at stake, involving thousands of jobs. We are constructing ugly, brutal environments to house our own children and grandchildren.
Is there really nothing better we can do about this? Of course there is. First, we can strengthen our personal practice so that compassion and clear-thinking don't fly out the window when we are confronted by crime. If we are victims of a crime, we can insist on meeting the perpetrator, insist on keeping it a human interaction rather than one which is sanitized and depersonalized by the state. We can press for a restorative approach in the trial and sentencing æ one which emphasizes responsibility, restitution and healing rather than retribution.
We can take seriously the ageless teachings which remind us to see everyone as our mother, everyone as having buddhanature. Even with the most despicable of criminals, we can strive to remember that our happiness and liberation are interdependent with theirs; that they are as much the beneficiaries of all the bodhisattvas' vows as we are.
If we belong to any church or sangha, we can make sure that its membership includes at least the percentage of ex-cons, recovering addicts, etc., that exists in the general population. We can make sure our congregation or sangha is available to prisoners in our locale, and get to know them while they're locked up, so we can responsibly welcome them into our community when they are released. As John Prine put it in a song, "Everybody wants to feel wanted."
We can speak up in our workplace and at home when someone calls criminals "scumbags" or "animals," or cheers at news of an execution. We must find that no more tolerable than allowing words like "nigger" or "faggot" in our presence.
We can educate ourselves so that we can help dispel the popular media myths about crime and criminals. For example, do you assume we need all those new prisons across the continent because there are so many violent and dangerous criminals? The truth is, more than 70% of prisoners are doing time for nonviolent offenses. Without building a single new prison, we have plenty of room for truly dangerous offenders. But by throwing in seventy nonviolent offenders-most of them scared to death, just wanting to get out alive-with thirty violent ones, what percentage do you suppose will be nonviolent by the time they are released? I know many young men and women who have been encouraged by prison mentors to attack and/or kill a fellow prisoner the first week after they arrive, so that they can earn a reputation that will keep them reasonably safe from predation.
In the current climate, your darling little baby could go through a rebellious or dysfunctional period during adolescence and suddenly be faced with such dilemmas. One young friend of mine is doing time for fraudulently using his dad's credit card. The state of Michigan has kept him nearly five years now for that heinous crime, and a few months ago he was brutally raped by a prison guard who had already been reported for similar conduct with two other young inmates. The guard has finally been fired but still walks the streets free as a bird, while the young men, all nonviolent offenders, remain locked up.
Another myth is that corrections professionals endorse our lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key national attitude. The truth: U.S. Senator Paul Simon surveyed prison wardens across the nation and found that 85% of them advocate more prevention programs and increased use of alternatives to prison. They believe the majority of inmates would do better in programs that didn't rip them away from their families and communities. Even without such a survey, common sense would say the same thing. We must return to that common sense and not be talked out of it by political fear-mongering.
It's a wonderful challenge to apply dharma teachings to such a serious social problem. And it's a great thrill and deep inspiration to get to know people who are striving for wisdom and compassion even in such circumstances. The old stories are true; the teachings work. We don't have to avert our eyes from this mess. We can help to transform it-and ourselves-instead.

    A Nation Behind Bars, Bo Lozoff, Shambhala Sun, March 1998.

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