Issan Dorsey once described himself as a "faggot speed-freak cross dresser," a description that only hints at the outrageousness of his life of substance abuse, prostitution, and female impersonation before embracing Zen in late-Sixties San Francisco. ... Not long alderwards, he stopped using drugs and began to sit zazen with Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, the founder of San Frandsco Zen Center. Eventually he became a priest and took the name Issan. In the late 1980s, he rounded a homey and unpretentious hospice for people dying oF AIDS called Maitri, or "friendliness," in the Castro district. He died there of AIDS in 1990. ... Author Schneider, himself a Zen practitioner and friend of Dorsey, presents an evenhanded account of Dorsey's extraordinary life and death.
... The Life of Issan Dorsey is nothing short of remarkable. His story includes being a drag queen in San Francisco in the 1950's, to the worst excesses of drug and alcohol addiction, and finally the LSD experiences that set him on the path to Zen. In 1989, after twenty years of Zen practice, he became Abbot of San Francisco's Hartford Street Zen Centre, a place where he also founded the Maitri Hospice for AIDS patients. After caring for those who died from AIDS, the tables were turned and Issan himself passed away from the disease in 1990, surrounded by friends and supported by his Zen community.
Street Zen is a testament to the transformative power of Buddhist practice, and to a man who committed his later life to service in various forms. In many ways he was a shining example of compassion in action and the term ‘engaged’ Buddhism.