Daowu and Jianyuan went to a house to offer condolences. Jianyuan struck the coffin with his hand and asked, “Alive or dead?”Daowu said, “I’m not saying alive, I’m not saying dead.” Jianyuan asked, “Why won’t you say?”Daowu said, “I’m not saying! I’m not saying!”

~ Case 55, Blue Cliff Record

Tommy Issan Dorsey Roshi’s was a former sailor, drag queen, heroin addict, and Zen teacher. Last week, Ken shared with us at Portola Camp many stories of his life and passing and how he profoundly touched those around him. ‘Issan was completely himself in a whole other dimension,’ offered Ken, ‘He had complete acceptance and freedom and even joy’ in his impending death from complications with AIDS. After getting the diagnosis he was to die within days, he asked Ken to make spaghetti sauce for the 50~60 people who were expected to visit him each day. A bodhisattva in high heels.

Twenty five years ago last week, Ken Ireland was attending to Issan Dorsey Roshi in the days before that teacher’s passing. One of his students, who was helping him to the toilet said, ’Issan, I am gonna miss you.’ Issan responded in his lilting voice: ‘Oh honey, I will miss you too. Are you going somewhere?’

Ken received the above koan soon after Issan’s death, and has been working on it ever since. ‘At some point, perhaps after my mother’s death, I felt very different about the question. All the stories about a good death, resolving things; I don’t want to negate them, but at some point it seemed to me they do not matter so much. The question is not really one of dead or alive. It is not like there is an answer. It is more like ‘I don’t know’.

Ken and Gregory Wood tell more Issan stories here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFtyElBtab0