Three years ago, just as winter as turning into spring, I stood with my friend Cookie Mueller on an elevated companion above the main reception room of a glittery New York nightclub. Cookie, who had been ill with AIDS for some time, and in fact had only six months to live, turned to me and said: “You know, getting this disease is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Knowing Cookie’s flair for the dramatic, I found this statement hard to credit. Now I know just what she meant. When I first became ill with AIDS, I experienced a marked contraction of energy and spirit. It was hard to imagine continuing any rigorous physical activity, including even my long-standing yoga practice, and I was tempted to slip into numbness. But through the good fortune of having excellent teachers, I perceived that I could literally breathe into my illness and be complete in my limitations. While dualistic thinking persuades us that health and illness are opposites, here was a dynamic physiological koan—or paradox—synthesizing seeming opposites by showing the perfect nature of illness—marking a shift from a horizontal view of the world (gathering experience) to a vertical one (going deeper).
So much of what formerly was abstract Zen practice now has concrete meaning. For example, I can say empirically that one-pointedness is the antidote to fear; that compassion is the natural outgrowth of embracing one’s own suffering; and that equanimity is healing.
Issan Dorsey, founder of the Hartford Street zendo and its adjunct AIDS hospice in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro—ground zero for the current epidemic—exemplified the way a Buddhist practitioner might die. When he met Zen master Shunryu Suzuki some thirty years ago, Issan was a barefoot junkie living on the streets of the Tenderloin. Right before his death, he was installed as abbot at Hartford Street, and left behind a flourishing hospice and Zen community, both animated, to a large degree, by his personal example of transformation.
The first time I visited Issan at the zendo, we had tea in his austere monk’s room. Hanging on one wall was a striking vintage photograph of a bosomy young woman in a sweater set and pearls. I questioned him about the picture. It was a portrait of Issan from a time when he performed a drag act called “The Boy Who Looks Like the Girl Who Lives Next Door.” The last time I saw Issan was at San Francisco General Hospital. We pushed our beds near each other and held hands while chemotherapy was administered to each of us. He was quite weak and his mind had begun to wander. I was anxious and the cumulative cocktail of drugs made me irritable and breathless. There was little to say, but Issan’s presence affected me profoundly.
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