Great teacher, Archarya Zenkei Blanche Hartman, died last night. I am grateful to have sat with her body this morning in the Buddha Hall at Zen Center. She lay to the Buddha’s right. She was surrounded by long- stemmed yellow flowers. Her brown okesa was perfectly draped around her.
What I noticed the most were her hands. A long mala was gracefully arranged around her hands. I could imagine her fingers moving the beads. Did she repeat a mantra? Did she touch a new bead with each breath? I could imagine her chest – now completely still – gently going up and down. Millions of breaths in 90 years.
I thought of her hands that had touched and rescued thousands of rakusus. If you made a mistake in the sewing room, and thought you would have to take out a row of stitches, she would re-do the stitch and tie a knot from 2 or 3 millimeters of thread. I watched this miracle with amazement. I was fascinated with her patience and care – a lesson in itself, especially for someone like me.
I saw her slender gold wedding band and thought of her life’s devotion and love for her husband Lou. I remember sitting with Lou’s body at Zen Hospice. When I left, I could see Blanche sitting on the front stairs of Zen Center. I crossed the street. I have not been one of her close disciples, so I was moved when she stood up and embraced me.
I saw the brown marks of old age on her hands. I saw the bruises from needle sticks and all the medical work done on her body.
So this was Blanche Hartman, a woman who was born, who matured into a great beauty, who loved her husband, was the abbess of Zen Center, and who had children and grandchildren and maybe even great grandchildren. She was born and she died.
I have no idea what happens after death. I may even be a heretic, because I really insist that I don’t know and won’t guess. But I felt that Blanche Hartman, as a person, was gone.
I did, however, have a sense what “beyond the duality of birth and death” might mean. Her life was entirely in the stream of practice. She was a portal for hundreds (thousands?) who entered Zen Center and who were awakened to the aspiration to free all beings. She ordained lay practitioners and priests, gave dharma transmission, and for the most part, sent them off into the world to do the work of the Buddha. She was the mother of bodhisattvas. What a magnificent life!
I think of her sitting zazen for years and years. I wonder, was she trying to know herself, or drop away body and mind, as some people suggest is the purpose of zazen? As I looked at her body, I thought that she practiced zazen purely out of devotion to the practice. I think that she sat zazen for the sake of zazen. And along the way, brought thousands to the dharma.
So this is how she is beyond the duality of birth and death. Her body, her mind, her heart are part of the lineage, the unbroken flow of practice through Suzuki Roshi and the ancestors.
This is the undying transmission.
Thank you, Blanche, for your beautiful life.