The Sixth Ancestor, in giving teaching to his disciple, Gyosho, once said, “Impermanence is, of course, buddhanature, and permanence is, in fact, the mind dividing up all things into good or bad.” —Eihei Dogen, Bussho
In 2010 the Empty Hand Zen Center of New Rochelle, New York, was preparing for our first dharma transmission when we learned that our candidate, Dennis Keegan, had been diagnosed with lymphoma. His prognosis was uncertain. Would there be a transmission or not?
The sangha moved ahead, and so did Dennis. He underwent chemotherapy; student volunteers sewed his okesa [the main robe; kasaya in Sanskrit] and rakusu [the miniature robe worn over the chest]. The lymphoma went into remission, and the transmission ceremonies were held on November 18 and 19. Dennis received the name “Myozan,” which means “subtle mountain.”
This was not the end of the story. And although Myozan Dennis Keegan died in his home on July 19, 2016, with his wife, Sarah, at his side, that wasn’t the end of the story, either.
The founding teacher of Empty Hand, Jion Susan Postal, had taken a roundabout path to Zen. She had gone from Gurdjieff to Tibetan Dzogchen and finally to Zen, initially working with Bernie Tetsugen Glassman in New York. In 1987 she became a student of Maurine Myo-on Stuart in Cambridge.
While still working with Tetsugan, Susan began leading a Zen sitting group at a Rye Meeting House, a Quaker organization in Rye, New York. Maurine later gave Susan priest ordination there in 1988. “The night of my ordination she informed me that she had terminal cancer—that we didn’t have much time,” Susan told an interviewer. “Her teaching was largely about my finding my own feet and not becoming dependent on her.” Maurine died in 1990.
For the rest of her life Susan would call Maurine her “heart” teacher, and she was determined to continue her studies with another heart teacher; not just any available roshi would do. At the same time, Maurine had encouraged Susan to take on more of a teacher’s role with the Rye Meeting House group, although she lacked official sanction to teach. Susan became a teacher looking for a teacher.
In 2000 Susan met Surei Darlene Cohen, of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s lineage. Darlene and her husband, Mei Ji Tony Patchell, were coleaders of the Russian River Zendo in California. Susan visited Darlene as often as she could; Darlene made several trips to the Rye Meeting House. “Deep heart-to-heart merging manifested,” Susan said.
By then Dennis had become a regular at the Rye Meeting House. Dennis had begun Buddhist practice with the Zen Studies Society of New York in 1979. In the years that followed he also explored Vipassana meditation and practiced with an Order of Interbeing group affiliated with Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1998, a friend from the Interbeing group asked him for a ride to the Rye Meeting House. Shortly after, Dennis became a student of Susan’s. He was ordained as a priest in 2002. Along with being a practice leader at Empty Hand, he met with the Moon Water sangha at his home in New Jersey.
The Rye Meeting House group purchased a red brick industrial building in downtown New Rochelle, New York, renovated it, and in 2006 when they moved in, the Empty Hand Zen Center was born. The zendo and a multipurpose room that served as a library and a dokusan [interview room] was on the first floor, an apartment for Susan on the second.
In 2008, Susan received transmission from Darlene in ceremonies at Russian River Zendo in California. Dennis was reordained as a priest in the Shunryu Suzuki lineage of Soto Zen, and Empty Hand became an affiliate of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Which brings us to Dennis’s transmission in November 2010. Dairyu Michael Wenger, Darlene’s transmission teacher, came from San Francisco to help facilitate the ceremony. Darlene herself could not come; she was fading quickly from cancer, and she died in February 2011.
“As long as we hope for a particular future outcome, we are in trouble, all tangled up in expectations. Letting go of hope actually frees us to fully engage in whatever is happening now. Abandon All Hope seems a wonderful front door sign.” – Jion Susan Postal
Susan and Dennis sometimes gave dharma talk duets. Susan usually began, presenting a koan or a fascicle of Dogen’s. Then she would turn the talk over to Dennis, who would present the text from his perspective. And the talk might end with dialogue between the two. Susan, who had degrees in anthropology, had a way of illuminating our most intimate human vulnerabilities and turning them into teachings. Dennis, a mathematician, was more analytical and relished nerdy details, such as what else might have been going on in Dogen’s life when he wrote a particular commentary.
Susan was drawn to mysticism; Dennis once said Susan was more into “woo” than he was. The two of them together presented a broader view of the dharma than one teacher alone.
Dennis’s respect for the works of Dogen was palpable. We students sometimes teased him that he channeled the founder of Soto Zen. In his classes on Dogen texts we usually spent so many hours on the first paragraph or two that we ran out of time for the rest.
In October 2011, Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery. Still, she led a strong three-day sesshin that fall, pushing herself with a walker. Dennis was there also, on crutches after a tumble from a ladder. “Rough seas; waves of difficulty for us both,” Susan wrote the sangha. “Dogen says it precisely—the light is reflected even in the breaking waves when the mind is clear. I don’t remember a sesshin with more intimacy and steadiness.”
The next couple of years were a roller coaster for the sangha. Susan’s health improved; Dennis had a relapse. Dennis finished a new round of chemotherapy; Susan suffered several complications. Catherine Spaeth, a recently ordained priest, moved into the upstairs apartment to help look after Susan and open the zendo in the morning. In spite of the frequent incapacitation of one teacher or another, Empty Hand continued—morning and evening zazen, frequent one-day retreats, and three-day retreats in spring and fall.
By November 2013 Susan was clearly struggling. When Catherine was called to San Francisco for training, some of us volunteered to come early each morning to open the zendo so that Susan could rest. This turned out to be futile, as she was always already up and preparing for service. One morning I found Susan outside tending to her container garden, barely visible in the dim dawn light.
In late December we learned that Susan’s fragile body was being overwhelmed by her illness; she had only weeks. From a hospital bed, she sent us a favorite quote, from Suzuki Kakuzen Roshi:
You must take death as the point of departure to understand healing. It is only then that you will see that you are already healed.
For a time, Susan came back to her apartment at Empty Hand. She saw many of us individually, saying her goodbyes and cheerfully explaining what to expect at her funeral. She died on February 7, 2014.
In Susan’s final days a “temp” teacher, Kyosho Valorie Beer, came from San Francisco to pitch in, and she stayed until May. For the next several months, other teachers, including Dairyu Michael Wenger and Hozan Alan Senauke of the Berkeley Zen Center, also came for extended visits. Kotatsu John Bailes made several trips from his zendo in Somerville, Massachusetts, to give talks.
“What I suggest to you this morning is that the ‘knowing’ of [Master] Donghsan, the ‘knowing‘ of [Master] Fazheng, can only arise when we’re willing to enter deeply into that reality of illness and death. Entertaining notions of enlightenment, realization, buddhanature, those kinds of notions can’t touch this knowing.” —Myozan Dennis Keegan
Dennis took on the role of head teacher of Empty Hand but insisted we find a replacement. This put students in the difficult and deeply weird position of hiring our new dharma teacher. Meanwhile, Dennis’s health remained iffy, and on occasion he gave talks and presided over classes and meetings through Skype rather than in person.
The search committee settled on Konin Melissa Cardenas of San Francisco as the new guiding teacher. On October 18, 2015, the sangha held stepping down and stepping up ceremonies to make the passing of the teacher torch official. Dennis spent less and less time at Empty Hand but remained in touch with many students.
Dennis died without a dharma heir, and he was Susan’s only dharma heir, so this particular line on the lineage charts will have no more branches. But Susan and Dennis were heart teachers to many of us. Their teachings and their vows live on.
So this is not the end of the story. The Empty Hand Zen Center is still in downtown New Rochelle, surrounded by businesses and apartment buildings and traffic. Now the sangha and guiding teacher Konin are engaged in memorials for Dennis. And practice continues, unceasingly.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.