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Issan Dorsey

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Issan Dorsey, founder of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco, was born Tommy Dorsey in Santa Barbara, California, in 1933. The oldest of ten children in a Catholic family, he contemplated studying for the priesthood. Instead he joined the U.S. Navy from which he was later expelled for homosexual conduct.

In the 1950s Dorsey was a performer in drag shows in San Francisco's North Beach. His billing was "Tommy Dee, the boy who looks like the girl next door." In the 1960s he became part of the San Francisco hippie movement and founded a commune. Regular and extreme use of alcohol and drugs became part of his lifestyle punctuated by numerous overdoses and arrests.

Tommy underwent a major life transformation in the late 1960s when he began exploring Buddhism and sitting zazen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971), founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. He was eventually ordained as a Buddhist priest by Richard Baker, Suzuki Roshi's successor, and given the name Issan. Dorsey creatively integrated his Zen training into his unorthodox personality and lifestyle. Kobai Scott Whitney (see below) remembers that: "Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, 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."

As someone who lived on the fringes of social respectability, Issan providing a welcoming presence and guide to a wide variety of persons coming to the Zen Center. His deep spirit of compassion led him to respond to the needs of persons he observed around him. He worked on founding a soup kitchen in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. Although initially skeptical of organizing a gay Buddhist group, Issan was one of the key founders of the Hartford Street Zen Center in the heart of the Castro District in 1981.

When the AIDS pandemic broke out in San Francisco, Dorsey brought a young man dying of AIDS to live at the Hartford Street Center. This resulted in the founding of Maitri in 1987, which grew to be a model hospice for persons dying of AIDS. Issan Dorsey died of AIDS-related complications at Maitri on September 6, 1990. The Maitri web site honors its founder with this tribute: "From drug-addled drag queen to Zen master, Issan’s life reflected his innate ability to 'charm people senseless.' He left a group of followers devoted to deal with whatever came to the door – 'We started the hospice because death came to the door.'"

The web site of the Hartford Street Zen Center offers this tribute to Dorsey: "Issan came to the San Francisco Zen Center after a long career as a party boy: drag queen, drug and alcohol enthusiast, commune organizer. His rich, generous and loving nature made him, eventually, into a significant, remarkably unusual and dearly loved landmark with Buddhism in America."

A biography of Issan Dorsey, Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey by David Schneider was published by Shambhala Publications in 1993.

Much of the information for this biographical statement was taken from "The Lone Mountain Path: The Example of Issan Dorsey" by Kobai Scott Whitney, published in The Shambhala Sun, March 1998.

Created: 3/4/2004 12:43:27 PM

Modified: 3/4/2004 3:38:16 PM

Biography: March, 2004