spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
PictureZenkei Blanche Hartman (Google image)
I did not go to to pay my respects when I learned that Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Senior Dharma Teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, passed on May 13. But I did send my condolence to Rev. Keiryu Liên Shutt, who received dharma transmission from Blanche and who was my teacher at that time. Responding to my email, Liên included this thought: “May I be able to transmit her loving kindness in any small measure.” The “I” in the email was Liên but could just as easily have referred to me. 

Blanche was one of the first women to lead a Zen training temple outside of Asia and was revered and loved for her kindness, wisdom and service. She was the chief sewing instructor for the formal robes to be worn by those becoming priests and lay leaders, an important part of Zen practice. She instructed me when I was Liên’s student and tried to assist Liên in sewing consistent and even seams on her robes prior to receiving dharma transmission from Blanche. In this official ceremony wherein one becomes a priest, Liên would follow in Blanche’s lineage from Shunryu Suzuki, and I would assist with ritual tasks.

It is partly because Blanche has died and a lot because of Liên’s deep loss and her expressed wish to transmit loving kindness that I cry while meditating. And I also know some shed tears are tears of regret for my short and imperfect career as a Zen student in San Francisco. It’s silly to blame Liên for my failure to do better in the Zen tradition, but I do think she imagined me, her first student, farther along, more highly developed given my age and less reactive than I actually was. I can’t explain not following her instructions, so that unlike Lien’s other students I would not qualify to sew my rakasu, the traditional Japanese garment worn around the neck by those who have completed the precepts class to become lay ordained.

Blanche would not be instructing me while other students, who followed directions and didn’t miss classes or fail to do the homework and successfully completed the precept class, would get those instructions on piecing together strips of cloth into a brick-like patterned bib in preparation for their jukai or ordination ceremony. I’d like to think if I were again to choose a Zen path I would not argue with my teacher, but graciously take instruction. It is true that in the years since Liên and I agreed that I should not be her student, I have become more curious about and less resistant to other people’s points of view. Perhaps accepting people and things as they are will continue to be a lesson and gradually the judgmental self will settle down, and I will be less defended and more willing to have an “Oh?” attitude rather than try to foment an opinion and defend it.

 In a 2001 Dharma talk reprinted this month in the Buddhist magazine “Lion’s Roar,” Blanche  said that when we see that life is impermanent, we may wonder, “Well, if my life is a gift, how shall I use it, how shall I give it back, how shall I express my appreciation for it, or completely live this life which is wonderful and evanescent?” I hear Liên’s words as a skillful answer to Blanche’s question. “… transmit her loving kindness in any small measure.”

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