STREET ZEN by David Schneider


The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey
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 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)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-87773-914-5
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1993