Books on Refuge: Sanctuary, Street Zen & Contemplative Caregiving

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Reviews

Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness and Belonging, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel; Street Zen: the Life and Work of Issan Dorsey, 2020 reissue, by David Schneider; Contemplative Caregiving: Finding Healing, Compassion & Spiritual Growth Through End-of-Life Care, by John Eric Baugher

Home and homeleaving, taking refuge and building a sanctuary—these phrases resonate with our sense of place and belonging. Written decades apart, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness and Belonging, and the 2020 reissue of 1997’s Street Zen: the life and work of Issan Dorsey, take us to the heart of homeleaving, spiritual inquiry and taking refuge. A third book, Contemplative Caregiving by educator John Eric Baugher, takes up the practice of spiritual care that both Issan and Zenju teach as refuge.

Both Zenju and Issan are ordained priests and empowered Soto Zen teachers from the Bay area. The contemporary Zenju weaves several ancestral threads into her writing and teaching, and Issan passed away from AIDS in 1990. Both teach through the revolutionary act of creating sanctuary for beings whose bodies are historically pushed to the margins. They lead by example, creating refuge through the words and actions of their lived experience.

Both teachers came up through the Shunryu Suzuki lineage of the San Francisco Zen Center. Shunryu’s life work was to bring Zen practice and Dogen’s teachings from Japan and seed them in the fertile ground of America, with all its diversity and sincere engagement of zazen as both exotic and enlivening. Blanche Zenke Hartman, the lineage teacher of Zenju, had decades earlier offered a poem at Issan’s installation as abbot at the Hartford Street Zendo and Maitri Hospice, both of which he founded. Zenke Hartman herself was a trailblazer in American Zen, becoming the first woman to take on the leadership role of abbess for the SF Zen Center, and would later teach and transmit her lineage to Zenju Manuel before passing away in 2016.

Zenju, a native of California, traces her ancestry through her parent’s Louisiana upbringing as descendants of African slaves, claiming ancestry in African spiritual traditions as well as indigenous American ones. Through these ancestral streams, she says, is a heart connection to the lineage of Buddhist dharma ancestors. Through her affinity with Zen practice, she navigated her practice and training in spaces where her blackness was always “other.” The yearning to belong, she writes, is met by the finding of ones true home within the heart, the awakened and responsive heart, which is our inheritance, our birthright as Buddhas. The journey is one of homelessness and searching to learn the intuitive wisdom of belonging to ones own life, lineage and heart. She writes, “Ancestors, I’m home, as close to the earth where your bones have settled. I climbed the clouds and saw your faces alight from resting. You remain in the very place the sea delivered you. I walk in your honor; your stories are now unburied, your spirits alive.”

Decades earlier, Tommy Issan Dorsey’s search for belonging took him from a middle-class 1950s American home into a life of wandering as a drag performer, living a life of glamour, criminality and hard drug usage. After decades of battering to his body and mind, Tommy found a kind of refuge in the rising wave of psychadelic free-love and “out” gay culture of San Francisco where he encountered (and helped to lead) a range of spiritual happenings which included a great deal of LSD. A copy of the Heart Sutra from the then-tiny Zen Center, Sokoji Temple, fell into his hands, and he set off to find the source of this resonant teaching. At the Zen Center he met hippies and beatnicks who, like him, were searching for mystical experiences and to help wean themselves off excessive LSD. He was home.

Issan’s first Zen teacher was Suzuki-roshi, with whom he had a strong heart connection. When he took the precepts Suzuki gave him the dharma name Issan Dainei, “One Mountain, Great Peace.” After nearly 20 years of practice (and soon before he died) he was fully transmitted by Shunryu’s dharma heir Baker Roshi. For Issan, his dharma vow was to manifest the place and the community for a strong Zen practice in the gay community just as it was spiraling into the cataclysmic era of AIDS. He was the founder and teacher of The Hartford Street Zen Center and adjoining Maitri Hospice for homeless people with AIDS (Maitri is now an independent 501c3 hospice). Hartford Street Zendo as a Soto Zen temple for the LGBTQ+ community, friends and allies in the Castro district, nourishing practitioners in mindfulness, Zen practice, recovery and community.

Another entry point to offering refuge in this spirit is Contemplative Caregiving: Finding Healing, Compassion & Spiritual Growth through End-of-Life Care. Practitioner John Eric Baugher, PhD., shares his lifelong journey into transformation through the vow of service. Through confronting his own early losses he embarked on a by-the-seat-of-your-pants life of learning, first as a volunteer (so zealous he put his marriage at risk), and then helping other volunteers navigate their own good intentions, helping many provide compassionate end-of-life care. The medicine, he says, is to listen with openness to the stories being offered, to witness and feel deeply the “spiritual pain” that medical caregivers and family often miss or avoid. This book provides stories of people discovering how to simply be a human being in relationship to everything that is happening as someone else is moving toward the end of life. To enter this refuge of “not knowing” and discover the deep well of our innate spiritual lives is one of the greatest offerings we can give.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, through Zen Buddhist teaching and other ancestral lineages, finds refuge on her way to creating sanctuary for others based on practice, caring and belonging. She offers her public teachings on-line, through her writings, and occasional public teaching.

Tensho David Schneider began Zen practice in 1970 and was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977. He currently resides in Cologne, Germany.

John Eric Baugher, PhD, is an interfaith hospital chaplain providing support to patients, family and staff members facing health care crises, and in proviate practice to those seeking to transform experiences of grief into possibilities form growing in wisdom and compassion.

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