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.
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.”