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September 25, 2017

Remembrance of Hilary Parsons and Lin Zenki

by Diane Miller and Basya Petnick

Hilary Parsons
Shin Ke Rei Gen
Deep River―Spiritual Source
January 1, 1949 – August 19, 2017

Lin Zenki
Kan Shin Zen Ki
Generous Heart―The Whole Works
October 28, 1951 – August 28, 2017

Hilary Parsons and Lin Zenki were passionate women. They were lovers―loving each other, their community of friends, and their lives in practice. They were also fighters―New Age warriors fighting for social justice as nurses, political activists, and as practitioners.

Hilary’s practice began with martial arts and then evolved when she became a student of Ruth Dennison. Lin’s practice began in her college years with Francis Cook at UC Riverside. It was the night shift on an oncology ward where Hilary and Lin’s relationship began and so did their joint devotion to the dharma. They lived and practiced together at San Francisco Zen Center for many years.

Their nursing careers followed the course of the AIDS epidemic. Lin was one of the first nurses to care for patients with this mystery disease. She, along with other UCSF nurses, were recognized in And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, a book by Randy Shilts that was made into a film. Lin later worked with HIV prevention programs for heroin addicts. But as her health weakened and she could no longer do hands–on nursing care, Lin transitioned to a case management program for patients with complex medical problems. However, taking her difficulties in stride, she kept working and learning and earned her MSN in nursing from Holy Names University.

Hilary was an HIV hospice nurse in the San Francisco Department of Health’s home care program, who was frequently acknowledged for both her skill and devotion to her patients. The director of health once commented that what he learned about nursing care as a young resident he learned from Hilary. She was also a union activist, fighting for her fellow nurses with the same fierce advocacy she gave her patients. For both Lin and Hilary nursing was their path of practice.

After many active years, their lives and their life together changed dramatically when Lin became severely disabled and stopped working. Hilary, however, continued to work as a caregiver for several years. In 2012, they retired and moved to a continuing care community in Washington State, taking up their new life close to old dharma friends from their residential practice days at Zen Center. Their early retirement years were a balance of rest and engagement, but in time, each in her own way saw their world get smaller because of fatigue, illness, and pain.

This year―2017―was a turning. It seemed Lin could not ever be comfortable. She developed sores that didn’t heal. She was growing more dependent. Hilary had fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue those last few years and then was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer in March. But as hard as that last year was they were able to return to their SFZC sangha. The online class and study group taught by David Zimmerman brought them back home. The pains were still there but the practice zeal had returned.

Hilary’s cancer was dreadful, even though in the end she didn’t label it that at all. Twenty minutes before Hilary died she wrote: I have generally found these last 2.5 months were not so difficult and have had many happy moments and unexpected intimacies and a great deal of kindness coming my way. People are so different. It’s hard to really understand. Her keen mind was alert and investigating and synthesizing until her very last exhalation. She died suddenly. A clot unexpectedly took her life in the midst of her preparations to leave the hospital and return to her life with Lin.

The days after Hilary’s death Lin suffered so. Her dying began with Hilary’s death. But for a brief moment she found her priest voice at Hilary’s memorial. She chanted “Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom” in a voice that came from the very core of her being. She gave the eulogy, and she touched the hand of each friend with a gift of one of her handmade malas as a token of the day. In truth, she was saying goodbye. Several hours after the memorial she was in the emergency room. When she could talk she said she was entering a karmic river and she was ready. She died soon after.

―Diane Miller

While it sometimes happens that when a partner in a very close partnership dies, the surviving partner might not live long, the interval between Hilary Parsons’ death and Lin Zenki’s death was merely nine days. Those who knew them were deeply shocked.

Hilary and Lin lived in Zen Center’s big brick Julia Morgan building at 300 Page Street for about ten years―mid-eighties to mid-nineties. Lin came to Zen Center on a Harley Davidson, a gift she bought herself when her first marriage ended. Hilary came to stay about two years later.

My heart and mind are flooded with memories: Tenshin Anderson Roshi ordained Lin. I remember her priest ordination ceremony. I remember Lin’s first bald head. I remember her trying to find a path in her new life of “clouds and water.” It wasn’t easy.

Both Lin and Hilary were students seriously engaged in study and practice. Hilary had great organizational skills and was highly verbal and communicative. She was a work leader for whom the floor had to literally shine. And shine it did. The building was immaculate and welcoming through the power of her dedication, and the courtyard gardens a work of art. When she was Ino, she was the kind of Ino who knew every word of every chant and every movement of every ceremony and where every student was at every hour of the day. Forget about cutting zazen or skipping out on a period of sesshin. She would notice immediately. She would hunt you down and want to know, “Why aren’t you in the zendo?” Her words were a genuine question, not an accusation: Really, why aren’t you there?

I can see them both and each in my mind’s eye. I see Hilary with her short, straight red hair striding through the halls in her lay sitting robes and her heavy white sneakers, which she had to wear instead of sandals because she had foot problems. She was the only woman in the universe who could actually look good in an outfit like that―somehow it suited her.

I see Lin in the years before her ordination serving as doan (timekeeper) for zazen, gracefully opening and closing the curtain to the zendo, her every bell for sitting and service ringing out perfect and true. She never missed. She generously taught many other students how to perform in this and other practice roles.

I can’t remember why Lin became angry with one of her teachers and returned her priest robes. I can’t remember the reason but I remember the robes; I remember seeing Lin’s perfectly folded and beautifully hand-sewn robes (she was a genius at design and handcrafts) on a shelf in the abbots’ study, now looking like a pile of corpse-like cloth. It was a sad day and we―all the resident practitioners―felt it.

Lin and Hilary were women of much data, knowledge, wisdom, and many opinions. They were quick to laugh―each had a great sense of humor―but they were also quick to anger and express their objections to anything they thought was unfair or wrong. They changed teachers several times. They spoke out when others did not. They defended themselves, one another, and anyone else they thought had been treated unfairly.

They often had dinner at a large round table in the dining room and were joined, especially in the days of the AIDS epidemic, by those seeking help with information about HIV/AIDS, new treatments, referrals, and homecare. They would spend hours listening and talking with those who sought their help. They were always available for anyone in genuine need.

Lin had sciatica during the months she was shuso (head student). I sat next to her during the seven-day sesshin that concluded her shuso practice period, and I felt her breathe through the pain of each and every moment of every sitting period. On the last day when we returned to the zendo after a break, someone had placed beautiful leaves on Lin’s cushion, a recognition of her immense effort.

After hearing the news of both of their deaths, I contacted Gaelyn Godwin, one of our dharma sisters, who is now the head teacher at the Houston Zen Center and told her that Lin and Hilary had both died. She was shocked and sad as we all are in this time of a great and sudden loss.

After a moment’s reflection, Gaelyn said, “Lin and Hilary were such strong women―their strength made us strong.”

Brown leaves on a black cushion
The true sound of a bell
A gleaming entrance way
  Our deep thanks
  Our sad hearts
The white-light call to wakefulness
Our continuing sangha strength

―Basya Petnick

7 Comments

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  1. Michael Leinen / Sep 27 2017

    Thank you so much for such a nice history of my cousin and her partner. I was very young when Lin left the family. I’m happy that she found happiness in her life with Hilary. It’s always been a family mystery of what happened to Lin. I know it wasn’t easy being a part of our family. I know some family members were resentful of her decision to leave but I kind of understood. Now that I’m older I understand better. I wish I had a chance to know her but that wasn’t to be. To her new family, her real family, I thank you so much for taking her into your hearts and making her a part of your life. I hope she was happy. You have my deepest and sincerest sympathies for your loss of both Hilary and Lin and I can wish you nothing but happiness in your future.

    • Basya / Sep 29 2017

      Thank you, Michael, for writing. It means so much to me–and I would guess to others as well–to hear from someone in her family and to know you know of her passing.

      With sympathy,
      Basya

  2. Renshin Bunce / Sep 28 2017

    Before I was a Zen student, I practiced Vipassana. My first long retreat — five days? seven days? — was with Ruth Dennison in Joshua Tree. Hillary was the Ino and Lin was the Tenzo (though they didn’t use those titles). Sitting for most of the day and night in silence and living in a dorm with a bunch of other women with outhouses and group showers was so hard for me that by the end of the week I broke down completely. While the rest of the group was in the meditation hall, I went into the kitchen, sobbing. Lin was there, baking us biscuits for breakfast. She received me without judgment and let me cry into her shoulder. We talked for a while. She said it would be all right if I left the retreat early but then said some of the most useful words I’ve ever heard. Lin said “It would be a shame if enlightenment came and you weren’t on your cushion to greet it.” I went back to the zendo, of course, and finished the retreat, and one thing led to another and I am still sitting on that cushion just in case. After that I saw Hillary and Lin when they visited Zen Center for events, and always felt such a rush of gratitude to them. May they continue on their joined path with joy forever.

  3. Greg Yates / Sep 28 2017

    Hillary was a tremendous inspiration to me when she was ino at the San Francisco zen center. She inhabited that position as thoroughly as I’ve seen anyone inhabit anything. Her competence was monumental and I felt completely cared for, as I think pretty much everyone did. When her term of service ended I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a hard act to follow,” but of course it wasn’t an act at all – it was Hillary. Safe travels, Lin and Hillary.

  4. Wanda Hennig / Sep 29 2017

    Thank you, Diane and Basya, for writing and sharing this. I am sitting at my laptop in Durban, South Africa. And as I read the stories you share, of some of what has passed since I last had contact with Lin and Hilary and of their passing, mixed with the sadness, memories come flooding back. Not that they are ever very distant, the memories of my days, months, three-and-a-half years I spent as a Zen student, living at SFZC in the early nineties. Memories of both of you. Of other relevant people who so impacted my life and continue to. And, of course, memories of Lin and Hilary. Fond ones. Funny ones. Warm ones. Hilary was Ino when I moved in. Before I moved in, I thought I should do a Zen workshop as I had practiced in South Africa before I came to San Fran and done some Zen retreats, but I didn’t know what I was doing. There was a Saturday “intro to Zen” workshop so I signed up. Hilary was running it. She talked about practice leaders: that a Zen student should have one of these. Who and how?—I asked her? She suggested Paul (Haller); that I should phone and make an appointment and ask him. Which I did. Through this, Paul became my practice leader and (via Paul’s support at a difficult time), I moved into SFZC (city center) not all that much later. Yes, fond memories of Hilary as Ino. Kind and warm and so committed … And wise. And of Lin. Making calls from Lin’s room to my daughter back in South Africa who had got herself (and me) into a pickle and left home and “found the Lord.” Various things. They seem like a lifetime ago, but so vivid. Later, Lin offering to officiate and making up a wonderful marriage “vows contract” when I “tied the knot” at SFZC. And Hilary making things so super for the Halloween Day ceremony at one of the rooms upstairs on the first floor. And funny memories of conversations and altercations at the monthly (bi-monthly?) Sunday night house meetings. Hilary and Lin and Hekizan. So many memories. I saw Hilary and Lin just a couple of times after they moved out and I moved out. They came once, I believe, to Sonoma when I was there. By then they were both back working in the community and Lin had handed back her robes. Deep gratitude to Lin and Hilary. And love, always. And to SFZC and the others, some still here, who continue to impact my life. And love to both of you, Diane and Basya xxx

  5. Tracy Cramer / Sep 29 2017

    Hilary was the work leader and later the ino when I was a resident at City Center around 1994 and 1995. I remember her as warm, firm, caring, direct, no-nonsense and pink cheeked. :D

    I have a feeling/memory of her taking care of the residents, visitors and the building in the same way that she took care of Lin.

    Thank you Diane, Basya, Michael and Renshin for telling us so much about her and Lin.

    I will chant for them.

    Tracy Frank Cramer
    Austin, Texas

  6. Nadine Lau / Oct 3 2017

    I remember Hilary and Lin in the 1990’s as ‘Zen Center’. Through their daily practice and sitting in the dining room for tea, dinner, snacks discussing the ins and outs of a practice I learned and developed a Zen Center sense of practice in the building. They were a pair of gems that radiated a daily Zen practice in balance with their uprightness in both work and moral ethics with a strong sense of justice. When Hilary was work leader, caretaker of Julia Morgan’s historical residential womens’ building, she would at times discuss the lobby floor wax process, a highly precise process of cleaning the wax off, precise wax application, then allowing the wax to cure and dry with 1 or 2 coats of wax, and then finish with a light buff for a higher shine. Hilary’s meticulous detail planning reached far into every aspect of her practice and every staff position she held at Zen Center. And that would at times include me. Lin and Hilary would find the ‘trust me the only job/chore I think you are perfect to do’ which would often be it’s Practice. Lin and Hilary were both true partners, they looked out for the other and made sure the other were alright and comfy. “You OK Lin?” “Yes, Hilary”

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