Revisiting the death of Issan Tommy Dorsey Roshi

in News
July 11, 2019

Ken Ireland is a Zen Buddhist who worked alongside our founder, Issan Dorsey, to set up Maitri. Here, shared with his permission, are some of his thoughts shared with the community on the 20th anniversary of Issan’s death.

Welcome!


One bright afternoon, Isaan was walking down Hartford St. towards 18th with Steve Allen and Jerry Berg. They were headed to the hamburger place that used to be right next to Moby Dick’s, close to the corner. That might not be important unless you want to know if Issan loved hamburgers—he did—but you have to know that Steve is a Zen priest, a close friend of Issan, his dharma heir, and the first Executive Director of Maitri. Jerry Berg was an early supporter of the hospice, a successful lawyer and prominent leader in the gay community.


As they walked, Steve and Jerry were talking about possible legal structures for the hospice while Issan lagged behind. He noticed a bottle lying on the sidewalk and bent to pick it up. Yes, any rumors that he was an incarnation of Mr. (or Miss.) Clean are well founded. But when he noticed that the bottle was rather beautiful and might be worth keeping, he took out the rag that he kept neatly folded in his monk’s handbag, and began to polish it. Suddenly, a Geni appeared! It had to be a Buddhist Geni, a Bodhidharma look-a-like, with a shaved head, droopy ears and a bright robe. The Geni looked at Issan and Issan looked back, a staring match of wonderment. Steve and Jerry turned around to see what Issan was holding Issan up and stopped dead in their tracks.

The geni spoke the time honored script of genies: “Because you have freed me after many lifetimes of being cramped-up in that god damned bottle, you, yeah, I guess all three of you, get one wish. It’s just one so you’d better make it good.”


Steve didn’t hesitate: he knew his Buddhism and asked to be released from his karma and enter Buddhahood, or nirvana, or the Pure Land, right there and then. Just as he was about to raise his palms in ghasso, the traditional gesture of respect—poof, he was gone.


Jerry thought to himself, that was powerful magic. I’m going for it. I’m not getting any younger so how about a great life in a heaven modeled after Palm Springs—but without the humidity—endless pool parties, rafts of handsome men, an eternal nosh that never made you fat? As he smiled and waved good-bye—poof, he disappeared too.


The Geni turned to Issan who was left standing alone—it might have been wonderment on his face, maybe just a bit puzzled. The Geni said, “OK, honey, it’s your turn, what does your little heart desire?


Issan didn’t hesitate, “Get those two numb-nut girls back here. We have a hospice to run.”

You can read the rest of Ken’s thoughts here.

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