Words do not suffice to thank Zenkei Blanche Hartman, my elder dharma sister, for the gift of her life and teachings. The most recent, and greatest, was her invitation to walk with her as she prepared to die. Only weeks have passed since Blanche’s last breath ; I don’t even know yet what I have learned. It will take years to properly receive and absorb Blanche’s last gift to me.
In the words of Mary Oliver, Blanche wanted to greet death as “a bride married to amazement.” So when she fell and injured her hip in March of last year, Blanche took on the practice of treating hip surgery as the subject of curiosity rather than aversion. This would have been a difficult assignment for anyone, let alone a fairly recent widow coping at age 89 with disconcerting declines in physical and mental capacity. Nevertheless, Blanche took it on with the zest she had cultivated her whole life—as a mechanic, chemist, and biostatistician; a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; a teacher of Nyoho-e sewing who transmitted Sawaki Kodo Roshi’s style across the United States; a champion of cultural awareness and inclusivity in the Zen world; an internationally recognized Soto Zen priest; the first female abbess of San Francisco Zen Center; and the teacher and dharma grandmother of thousands.
Blanche herself did not measure her accomplishment by success in these roles. Her standard was the extent to which she could live a life of practice and service in the moment. This was her practice goal to meet her new challenge: the forced inactivity of recuperation.
Through 14 long months of painful physical therapy and declining health, Blanche’s practice shone brighter and brighter. Near her bedside, she asked us to post a smiling photo of her husband, Lou, who had passed away in January 2011, as well as the full moon ceremony of precept renewal, peace cranes, a photo of the Shunryu Suzuki Roshi statue in the Founder’s Hall at the San Francisco Zen Center, words from friends and students, and Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes.” No matter how many times in a week I visited, Blanche would greet me with a smile and say goodbye with a bow.
Again and again, Blanche told me her wishes for her death: No unnecessary interventions, and medical intervention only sufficient to allow her children to say goodbye. Renew precept vows at the moment of death. Recite the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo [the Ten Phrase Kannon Sutra] for her transition. Arrange her body in the Buddha Hall so that people could contemplate the great matter of birth and death by sitting with her for three days. Simple cremation service and a funeral on the 49th day after her death. Again and again, Blanche asked me to help her resolve any unfinished matters in her life.
I promised Blanche that I would help her give dharma transmission one last time, to Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. I asked the help of two of her other caregivers to turn her continuing care room into a hojo [teaching room], her chair into a teacher’s seat, and to dress and prepare her for the five-minute ceremony that starts the transmission process. During the following 10 months, we continued transmission preparations, both in Blanche’s room and at Beginner’s Mind Temple at the San Francisco Zen Center. I completed the ceremony on Blanche’s behalf on January 15, 2016.
On Sunday, May 8, we had planned a 90th birthday celebration at Blanche’s favorite Japanese restaurant. That morning, she felt too tired to go. Instead, she went to Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center, where tests showed that her organs were failing. The next night, Blanche said, “Tonight before we go to bed, let’s check our intentions.” When I said that I would use the good night verse Suzuki Roshi gave us, Blanche responded, “That’s a good one.” And so I recited:
This evening as I sleep
I vow with all beings
To still all things
And clear the mind of confusion
She began to follow her breath as in sesshin. As in the rest of her life, when it was necessary to respond to a question, she did. Then she immediately returned to meditative concentration.
That day, Blanche asked to see her teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, as well as her children. Once everyone was out of the room late at night, she breathed out, and did not breathe back in.
The hospital staff kindly gave us four hours to sit with Blanche’s body. In contrast to most deaths that Blanche and I have witnessed over many years, after her death there was no sense of lingering. She had done all that she needed to do and had left her body like we take off a winter coat when spring comes. At the end, as in all the years I have known her, her teaching and life were one.
Over the next three days, hundreds of people came to sit with Blanche’s body and pay their respects. All of them said what I feel: Blanche truly fulfilled the spiritual promise of her name: Spring Moon, Inconceivable Joy.
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