Zendo Without Walls

Drakka (standing) demonstrates acupressure to relieve anxiety during a Langton Garden meditation session.

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For an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Jana Drakka is stressed out.

“How do I live as a monk out here? I can’t beg as a monk would traditionally,” Drakka said recently outside the Royan, a single room occupancy hotel on Valencia Street where she does grief counseling.

“Japanese monks are supported by the community. The Catholic Church takes care of their nuns.” She paused to consider that luxury. “I have to make a meditative effort to not worry about rent.”

It’s an odd place to arrive for someone who has spent the last several years helping San Francisco’s down-and-out find peace. But it’s also a state of mind that keeps her connected with the hundreds of SRO residents she ministers to in the Mission District and Tenderloin.

“Because she’s been close to the edge she can identify with people,” said Blanche Hartman, Drakka’s Soto Zen teacher who is 83 and has lived at Zen City Center and Tassajara, the monastery’s rural mountain retreat, since 1972. “So people feel respected.”

Drakka insists that the Za-zen meditation is what keeps her together through stints of homelessness and hunger.

The monk holds one of her weekly meditation sessions in a community garden at Langton and Howard Streets. Drakka runs this and several other groups for free.

A chicken hutch leans against a building at one end of the garden, and Drakka’s students sit around a picnic table at the other. A patchwork of plots, many tended by SRO residents, surround them.

The Langton garden group can attract anywhere from two to twenty students.

The Langton garden group can attract anywhere from two to twenty students.

Traffic on Howard Street roars by and a few pedestrians holler to friends in the group. All regular students of Drakka’s, they sit for a ten-minute sitting meditation. She sits among them, her long, narrow face still and smiling slightly, her unwavering eyes focused downwards.

Afterwards, Pam Walker, who has lived in the Mission Hotel since 1999, said, “I love this noise. The enclosed feeling, but you’re still part of the world outside.”

Drakka calls her life among SRO tenants and homeless – offering them meditation, stress support, and sometimes just an open ear – her “Zendo without walls.”

The monk works two days a week as “grief/stress support” within Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and provides one-on-one counseling for both staff and clients. Call it non-religious, but she admits her work is basically Zen philosophy and meditation in disguise.

“I’ve never found anyone who can’t find a bit of peace from this,” says 57-year-old Drakka.

“Learning not to react to your anger is important in an SRO,” says Bill Williams, Drakka’s student who lives in the Royan, explained. Williams has devoted part of his room to create his own zendo. He has a mat, a bell and a few Buddhist statues.  Meditation, he says, reminds him to “live in joy, even among the troubled.”

Drakka found her own peace – or at least Zen Buddhism, when she moved to California almost 20 years ago. Her 37 years before arriving in San Francisco were a series of lifestyle incarnations.

Since age 7, Drakka wanted to know more about the “life of the spirit,” she says. Born as Elizabeth Anne Potts to a working class family in Falkirk, Scotland, the monk has lived as a grade school teacher, a Wiccan Priestess, and a psychic reader. Among other sorts of healing and drugs, she said, she has tried communal dreaming, distance healing, chromo-therapy, acid and ecstasy.

Like many of her clients now, Drakka too was homeless. That was in 1993. She had just left an abusive relationship with a female lover, and she applied for a slot in Zen Center. “Few people come to practice because they’re happy,” she says smiling.

At first Drakka was a bit taken aback by the Center’s beautiful Julia Morgan building, which seemed “very wealthy” to her. She guesses that she was the first and only student at Zen Center living on government assistance.

Ordained as a Soto Zen monk in 2001, she lived in the San Francisco Zen Center for 15 years, doing housework and community outreach in addition to her studies. One time when Zen Center didn’t have work for her, Drakka posed in the nude as an artist’s model. Then in 2004 she found her true passion.

The Mission Neighborhood Resource Center wanted someone to teach meditation to the homeless. Within a couple weeks, she ended up with six meditation groups with homeless and in SROs.

She would have continued living at the Zen Center, but she began to run into problems there.

When the Zen Center asked her to train a group of beginning monks to assist with the homeless meditation program, Drakka pushed back. “How do you train people to be alright with homeless?” She refused.

Shortly after, she was moved from her small courtyard room into a guest room, “and when you get that guest room,” says Drakka, “you know that’s it.”

Linda Gallion, head of Tassajara reservations at the Zen Center, was there when Drakka left. “When Jana started working with the homeless population it was so clear that was her calling.” The Zen Center model, she adds, is such that “we don’t keep people in the same position. It didn’t make sense for her to switch to another position.”

“It wasn’t really my choice to leave,” says the monk. Nonetheless, Drakka asked the Zen Center for financial help to “take dharma out onto the street,” and the center gave her $10,000. They also made her sign a contract saying she wouldn’t ask for money again.

She moved out of the monastery in March 2008, working full-time as a sort of unorthodox chaplain on the streets and in SRO hotels.

“As a monk, it’s hard to start your own thing,” she insists. “But until we all get into the community and spread the teaching in useful ways, how are people going to know what Buddhist monks do?”

The most difficult of her duties, she says, are the memorial services in the Tenderloin Housing Clinic’s 16 hotels in the Tenderloin and Mission District. There are more than 500 SRO hotels in San Francisco, 50 in the Mission District alone. Drakka has performed hundreds of memorials.

“It’s been long enough I’m starting to bury people I know.”

Four case managers have left the Tenderloin Housing Clinic over the past few months, and subsequently there have been four deaths. Drakka can’t help but make a connection.

“They’re like family, although it’s sort of not supposed to be that way,” Drakka said as she recently prepared for a memorial in the back windowless room of the Royan, in her opinion one of the better-run SROs.

She placed an incense bowl, a candle, and flowers from the corner bodega on a small table at the front of the room. Metal chairs were folded out across the linoleum in short, neat rows.

Drakka sorted through a faded black folder containing the Kaddish, and various non-denominational prayers.  “Sometimes only two people come. We’ll see,” she said, pulling out Psalm 23. “Reyna was a Baptist.”

Over a dozen people showed up. Drakka lead the room in hearty voice through three verses of Amazing Grace. After inviting those present to drop a bit of incense onto burning charcoal, mourners stood one by one, remembering Reyna’s cooking and love of bingo. “She gave a lot more than she ever got back,” said one mourner. Through prayer, Drakka sent Reyna off, “into deep silence, carried away by the great ocean of birth and death.

At another memorial a few days later in the Harland Hotel, only three people came to pay their respects. Residents buzzed in and out of the heavy front door. And the case manager, who had misinformed Drakka that the service was for a woman, remained in his office. “It’s a sign that things there are falling apart,” Drakka said, nodding toward the closed door.

Later, walking through the Tenderloin and rolling a cigarette, Drakka talked about her own loneliness. “I know very few people who live life this way. There’s no support system out here. That’s why so few people do it,” she said. “Nobody knows why you’ve got no hair. Nobody knows what I’m wearing and nobody could care less.” She gestured to her long black robes.

“It’s tough because she’s trying to minister to people who can’t support her,” said Hartman, “Yet they really need someone to work with them.”

“She’s there for the people who have no one else,” said Williams, a meditation student who lives in the Royan.

Meanwhile Drakka continues to look for ways to support her nonprofit, Jana Drakka Community Services. “Today I connected with a detox center for homeless,” she wrote on her Facebook page recently. “They want my services but I have no funding. I offered one morning per week…a donation of any amount is most welcome. Bows.”

“I’m keeping going,” she insists at one of our last meetings in a Tenderloin diner. “I know about despair. But I can’t stop because of that. It’s not within my control in a way. I never decided to do this, I have to.”

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14 Comments

  1. jlastow

    zen monk banned from zen center, seen rolling a cigarette in mission.

    i hope she finds peace.

  2. BlackDust

    Great story. Drakka continue this important work!

  3. dan

    Interesting article. And useful, I think, as people cope with their situations. Too often, they turn to drugs and alcohol for a solution. This is a nice alternate path.

  4. Ellen

    Sounds like Drakka is doing very valuable work that deserves support. I’m unclear on why the Zen Center, which provides many programs for the affluent (Green Gulch, Greens, Tassajara) can’t support this ministry to the poor. Perhaps there is a difference in vision, sensiblilities, and some interpersonal conflicts between Drakka and the Zen establishment. As noble as her calling is, there is no moral superiority in either affluence or poverty.

  5. Red Bornand

    As one of Jana’s nearest and dearest friends I have great concerns as to how she was represented in this article. Certainly her quotes are authentic, yet the context in which they were expressed hardly do justice to the selflessness she expresses daily. It is easy to stand on the side of the road and comment…it is far more difficult to actually walk with ones teacher.

    With peace

  6. Red Bornand

    p.s. Jana Drakka is the least stressed out person I have EVER encountered!!!

  7. Jill

    How does practicing Zen help this poor woman out of the emotional and financial wasteland that is her life? I am one step away from living as she is. No one should have to live this way.
    I care about you Jana. I wish I could help you.

  8. ….firstly…a big thank you to Nina Goodby for caring enough about life on the streets of our city to write this article…
    some of the responses concerned me…so a few foot notes…don’t worry, I’ve never been happier…the article was written as I was setting up the non-profit…stressful?! sure!
    San Francisco Zen Center is a great place to learn meditation …open to all and offering many scholarships…there is no dis-harmony here as I’m there every Wednesday offering practice discussion and then being priest for evening zazen…this April I received another ordination there..
    The Tenderloin Housing Clinic works ceaselessly to improve the lives of folks formerly homeless…without exception the staff give of themselves completely from a place of deep caring…
    May we all live in peace, Jana

  9. Maureen

    Rev. Jana:
    Have you met Rev. River Sims? He runs a non profit ministry similar to yours in the Tenderloin. Perhaps he could offer moral support and ideas that you would find helpful. Contact info is on his website: http://www.temenos.org/

  10. Thank you Maureen…yes I know River Sims…perhaps you are concerned about this quote from me..which was in reference to the fact that there are few monks living a monastic life outside of a temple or monastery..“I know very few people who live life this way. There’s no support system out here. That’s why so few people do it”
    For the last sixteen years I have had the great pleasure to work with fellow priests from many faiths advocating for and celebrating with our community.
    Join us Dec.21st opposite City Hall at 5pm for our annual memorial for those who died homeless on our streets. Bows Rev.Jana

  11. marine

    Meditation with Jana is incredibly peaceful and brings warm in heart. I really admire your work and wish much more persons in the world do your actions. Thank you Jana.

  12. Namaste’, Jana!

    I, too, help the homeless and live very much like them. (The first words out of a puzzled Tarot reader’s mouth last week were, “It’s not clear, but you don’t seem to have a fixed home right now.”)

    It gets dicey now and then – I haven’t enough money to do laundry today – but it always works out.

    The key is to have faith. Faith is the ability to not panic. 🙂

    “Nothing wastes a body like worry, and one who has any faith in God(dess) should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

    So hang in there, dear! Nothing will go as you want it to but everything will work out perfectly. It always does.

    The Barking Unicorn
    d. b. a. David Hakala

    “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it,” said the Buddha.

    Mine is to help you.

  13. I think the commenter Ellen and I have similar curiosities about the move to the guest room and out the door, followed by the agreement not to support the work financially any further. At first read both seem, heartless, I guess, for lack of a better word. But Jana’s response indicates maybe it’s more like sending one’s child out into the world to find their own direction?

  14. Mr. Nam

    Now I feel very bad. I was in her area a couple months ago and had every intention of meeting up with her but my email never got replied (I sent her an email to an address that I got from one of her Social Work website). May be next time…

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