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Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey Paperback – June 7, 2000
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From Library Journal
Issan Dorsey once described himself as a "faggot speed-freak cross dresser," a description that only hints at the outrageousness of his life of substance abuse, prostitution, and female impersonation before embracing Zen in late-Sixties San Francisco. Author Schneider, himself a Zen practitioner and friend of Dorsey, presents an evenhanded account of Dorsey's extraordinary life and death. Dorsey is probably best remembered for his work with the gay community in San Francisco and the establishment of the Maitri hospice for people with AIDS, where he died of the disease in 1990. This work is not an introduction to Zen, but for anyone with an interest in the subject the book raises important questions. It gives a clear handling of the paradox that was Dorsey and the great compassion that he embodied. Recommended for public libraries.
- Mark Woodhouse, Elmira Coll. Lib., N. Y.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Kirkus Reviews
Religious history rings with tales of converted libertines- -Saul, St. Augustine, Thomas Merton among them. Now, thanks to this wonderfully uplifting biography by freelance journalist Schneider, to that list can be added Issan Dorsey--the thieving, doping, female-impersonating gay hooker who became abbot of one of the nation's top Zen monasteries. Born Thomas Dorsey, Jr., in 1933, the future abbot bloomed into his homosexuality as a teenager and moved to San Francisco, where he developed a nightclub drag-queen act--and a world-class drug habit to go with it. Here, we learn much about Dorsey's life from his own mouth--Schneider interviewed Dorsey extensively, as well as his friends, for this account: ``I loved barbiturates...I'd take them by mouth, or melt them down and shoot them. If I had tracks, I'd just put makeup on them,'' says Dorsey, who hit bottom in the early 60's in Chicago while living and robbing with a hooker/stripper/thief named Bang Bang La Toure. When Dorsey moved back to San Francisco, though, he encountered LSD--and spun into a psychedelic, then spiritual, direction, eventually landing on a balcony overlooking meditators at the city's Zen Center. Dorsey decided to join them--and never looked back, devoting himself to two Zen masters, including the controversial Richard Baker (Schneider examines the Baker-Dorsey relationship as a provocative case study in the master-disciple dynamic). In time, Dorsey became abbot of the Castro district's Hartford Street Zen Center, and it's clear from the numerous testimonies here that his earlier life instilled in him an astonishing tolerance and compassion for all--a trait that inspired him to open the city's celebrated Maitri Hospice, for AIDS patients. Never fully embracing celibacy, Dorsey himself contracted AIDS, dying in 1990. Not hagiographic--Schneider emphasizes that Dorsey remained mercurial until the end--but, still, angels weep as the abbot, his body ravaged but his dignity aglow, breathes his final breath. (Eight pages of photographs--some seen) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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So what if he was a drag-queen in Chicago? So what if he was gay? He was an inspiring Zen teacher and a compassionate leader during San Francisco's AIDS crisis, turning part of Hartford Street Zen Center into a hospice for dying AIDS victims. Naturally, this caused tension in the community, and that is documented in Street Zen. But Zen is not some musty practice of "don't bother me, I'm meditating." It is a way of living, a way characterized by compassion, and there is no doubt that Issan Dorsey was full to the brim with compassion.
The other reviews, and some of the comments, seem to feel the need to either justify Dorsey's homosexuality or to wave it away, as if it was somehow not appropriate for a Zen teacher to be gay. Well, I am a straight man who has been sitting Zen for 45 years, and I don't care whether Issan was gay, straight, queer, bisexual, or just plain confused about it all. That is NOT what matters. What matters is that Issan is the kind of man I would have loved to have hung out with, a teacher I would have been proud to study with, and a human being I admire.
Most books on Zen are, let us be frank, a bit boring. Buddhism is complicated and very counter-intuitive; explaining it is cumbersome and sometimes tedious. Street Zen is neither. It is a romp; it is a comic portrait of a sterling figure in American Zen; it is an expression of joy in a sometimes gray world.
Having finished this book I have to say that I am left seriously questioning Sunseri's criticism of the book. It is a wonderful story and a tender account of a remarkable person. Having read this book and appreciating the care given to speak to the myriad parts of Issan Dorsey's (full) life story, I have to wonder if Sunseri isn't speaking from a place of internalized homophobia. Nowhere did I find the "sensationalizing" of homosexuality that Sunseri and Harper Leah (?) mention.
In fact, I am now left to believe that Sunseri and Leah would prefer a completely sex-free, queer-free reading of Dorsey's life.
If the book had sensational parts, that's because parts of Issan Dorsey's life were sensational and outrageous. That's not heterosexist bias dear ones. Heterosexist bias would be to "clean up" those stories and de-queer Dorsey. Fortunately Schneider doesn't suffer from any such prudery.
A closer reading of Sunseri's reviews show what is clearly a bitter bias towards anything involving the entire Soto Zen community. Sunseri states that quite vividly in his review of Robert Winson's "Dirty Laundry."
Fortunately, I don't suffer from that bias. I approached this book wanting to know more about this intriguing person, Issan Dorsey, who, by all accounts, wasn't afraid to embrace the totality of his life's existence and who has left a legacy of caring for others in need.
Do not miss this book if you're interested in a truly remarkable story of a Gay pioneer and spiritual elder. It is not the complete story. But it is one of the stories and it deserves to be read. Perhaps members of the Hartford Zen Center complaining about the lack of Issan's "teachings" in the book could get off their zazen pillows and publish them. I'm sure they have more access to it than anyone.
Isaan-- and it is difficult for me to call him by any other name although I never knew him personally but wish I did-- is a beautiful example of someone who after turning his life around did no harm and certainly left this planet a much better place. He apparently was totally nonjudgmental, a kind soul who opened his heart and hospice to anyone who needed him. One moving passage among many has to do with Issan's Mountain Seat Ceremony. As the procession starts to the Mountain Seat where he will become an abbott, upon hearing a bell, he detours the procession from its designated route and stops to help a very sick man in the hospice who has fallen out of bed back into bed.
Tensho David Schneider interviewed many people for this book, including Isaan. He uses the actual words in quotations of those persons he interviewed for most of the book with little commentary of his own. This technique brings a refreshing freshness and immediacy to the narrative and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions about Issan. We get to see large portions of Isaan's lectures as well, one of the great things about the book. Just one example from 24 March 1990: "'I think most people aren't lucky enough to live in these insights until the impact of death. . . . There's an idea of time. We don't have time. We don't have time to take care of each other, it's time-consuming to spend time with someone who's dying, and take care of them. Particularly with AIDS, and cancer I think, because it's slow. There is a lot of caretaking to be done.'" The account of Issan's final hospital stay and death made my eyes tear up and of course is all too familiar to those of us who lost so many we loved to AIDS and a reminder to all of us that we must never forget them.
I heard about STREET ZEN when in a chat with the owner of Forest Books in San Francisco, I asked the owner Gregory Wood to recommend a book to me that I simply had to read. (I may have said a book that I should not die without reading.) I am grateful for his urging me to read this book. I would probably never have read of such a wonderful human being otherwise.