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
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
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
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
Biography Date: March, 2004
Buddhist | AIDS | California | San Francisco