Zenkei Blanche Hartman studied Nyoho-e, the practice of sewing Zen ceremonial robes, with Kasai Joshin Sensei, in the lineage of Sawaki Kodo Roshi. She taught this unique form of Zen practice to hundreds of students at Zen Center, and played an important role in establishing the practice in North America.
To celebrate and honor Blanche, we have established a memorial fund in her name. The fund will be used to support the renovation of a new sewing room at City Center. Blanche could be found regularly in the City Center Sewing Room helping students to sew their rakusu or okesa, as well as passing on the practice to other sewing teachers who followed in her footsteps.
The new sewing room will be named in her memory: Inconceivable Joy Sewing Room: In Memory of Zenkei Blanche Hartman.
If you would like to support this fund in memory of Blanche, you may donate online. Or you may send your check made out to San Francisco Zen Center by mail to:
Zenkei Blanche Hartman Memorial Fund
Attn: Nancy Petrin, Director of Development
300 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
For more information, please contact Nancy Petrin via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our memories of Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who died at the age of 90, are deep and numerous. Here we offer a small selection of the vast array of photographs that we have assembled over the years: formal portraits, casual snapshots, and intimate family heirlooms. If you see a photo you recognize, please let us know so we can credit the photographer. If you have a photo that you would like to add to our collection, please leave a comment below.
For the last three days, through the weekend, many people have been sitting with Blanche’s body in the Buddha Hall at City Center. Day and night, members of her family, residents, and students who traveled from all over the country to be here sat quietly with their friend, mother, teacher. At 7:30 am this morning, the body was taken to the crematorium. More than 50 people stood in the hallway and on the sidewalk to bid her farewell. As the vehicle moved away, some bowed in the traditional farewell gassho and some waved their hands and said, “Bye, Blanche!” The cremation will be a private ceremony on Tuesday morning at 11 am; everyone is invited to attend the full memorial service in early July, approximately 49 days after her death. For the next 49 days, there will be a memorial service at City Center every seven days on Fridays.
Shunbo Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Roshi, a widely respected Zen teacher, former Abbess, and Senior Dharma Teacher of San Francisco Zen Center, died on Friday, May 13, in San Francisco. She was one of the first women to lead a Zen training temple outside of Asia. Her Zen teaching focused on simplicity, curiosity, patience, love, and compassion, and she sought to make the Zen community open and accessible to everyone.
She was born Blanche Loeb Gelders in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1926, the daughter of Joseph and Esther Frank Gelders. Blanche spent her young childhood in Tuscaloosa, where her parents taught Physics and English at the University of Alabama. The Gelders family hosted a steady stream of students and professors who filled the household with vibrant conversation, much of which focused on the injustice and inequality displayed in Depression-era Alabama. When Blanche was in elementary school, her parents’ increasingly vocal stances on political issues cost them their jobs at the university.
For the remainder of her childhood, Blanche’s family lived primarily in the Birmingham area, where Joe Gelders became a full-time labor organizer and civil rights activist. These were lonely years for Blanche, who experienced exclusion and harassment from her peers because of her parents’ work. Her family was threatened many times, and, when Blanche was ten years old, her father was severely beaten and nearly died. Though the Gelders family was Jewish, Blanche attended Catholic schools during the Depression, while the public schools were closed for lack of funds. She often spoke of one teacher, a nun, who provided a special comfort and inspiration to her at that time.
When Blanche was seventeen, her family moved to Davis, California, where her father was stationed during World War II. Blanche, who had been fascinated by mechanics since she was a small child, was delighted to work as an airplane mechanic for the Army. She continued to work on and appreciate vehicles for the rest of her life.
After the war, Blanche married Louis Hartman, with whom she had four children. The Hartmans lived in Berkeley, and continued to be involved with social justice and political organizing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. When Lou, a San Francisco radio personality, was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the House Unamerican Activities Committee, Blanche completed her chemistry degree at the University of California at Berkeley and supported the family as a chemist for the State of California.
In the late 1960s, Blanche was part of a group of mothers supporting student protests at San Francisco State University. As a chain of mothers locked arms at a demonstration, to shield the students from a force of riot police, Blanche met the eyes of one young police officer. She felt his fear, and all at once she experienced a strong feeling of identity with this young man on “the other side.” Soon after, she discovered Zen practice.
Blanche and Lou practiced Zen first at Berkeley Zendo with Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, then at San Francisco Zen Center with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, and Zentatsu Richard Baker Roshi. In 1972, they moved from Berkeley to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, beginning a lifelong commitment to Zen practice, which led them to Green Gulch Farm and San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center. Blanche was ordained by Zentatsu Roshi in 1977, receiving the name Shunbo Zenkei, “Spring Full Moon, Inconceivable Joy.” She received dharma transmission from Sojun Roshi in 1988, and in 1996, she became the first woman to serve as Abbess of San Francisco Zen Center.
Blanche studied Nyoho-e, the practice of sewing Zen ceremonial robes, with Kasai Joshin Sensei, in the lineage of Sawaki Kodo Roshi. She taught this unique form of Zen practice to hundreds of students at Zen Center, and played an important role in establishing the practice in North America.
Blanche was a central and stabilizing figure at Zen Center for more than 40 years. She helped guide the organization through turbulent times, and her patient dedication to Zen practice inspired generations of students to persevere. Her teaching will continue through her many dharma heirs and students, who transmit her love and compassion every day at practice centers around the world, and through her recently published book, Seeds for a Boundless Life, edited by her student Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.
Blanche was preceded in death by her husband of 63 years, Lou Hartman, and her sister, Marge Frantz. She is survived by a large and loving extended family, including her four children, Joe Hartman, Earl Hartman, Trudy Briskin, and Mitzi Levine, and their spouses, as well as eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and her Zen students and sangha.
Rebecca Hartman Huenink
Thank you for letting me know of Blanche’s passing.
It was a great gift for me to know her for half a century.
I greatly admired Blanche and will always love her.
Not knowing that she was dying, I prayed for her last night.
Now, I lit a candle and incense and chanted for her.
The next three days, I will sit with you, though 6,000 miles away.
With a deep bow to Blanche and to all at SFZC,
Your brother David
The body of Zenkei Blanche Hartman will rest in the Buddha Hall at City Center, 300 Page Street, CA 94192, for three days. You are warmly invited to come and sit with her during this time; many people are sitting quietly in the Buddha Hall today. It’s best to come between 7 am and 9 pm, but do let us know if you need to come at another time.
As further arrangements are made for her funeral arrangements, we will post the information here.
Those who took part in the service were as follows:
Celebrant: Tenshin Reb Anderson
Jisha: Meiya Wender
Inkin 1: Anshin Rosalie Curtis
Inkin 2: Jisan Tova Green
Kokyo: Shosan Victoria Austin
Doan: Allison Tait
Fukudo: Kim Koei Hart
Acting ino: Michael McCord
The order of service was as follows:
Opening statement: Tenshin Reb Anderson
Offerings: Food, sweet water, and tea
Tea Ceremony: Nakagawa Sensei, assisted by Marilyn McCann
Chanting of the Ten Names of Budha
Maka Hannya Haramita Shin Gyo
Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra
Statements of Appreciation:
Otohiro Suzuki family
Central Abbess Eijun Linda Cutts
Abiding Abbess Furyu Schroeder
Abbot Sojun Weitsman (read by Abiding Abbot Rinso Ed Sattizahn)
Abbot Zentatsu Baker (read by Sally Baker)
Former Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman (read by Steve Weintraub)
Abbot Jakusho Kwong (read by Peter Van der Sterre)
Mitsu Suzuki Sensei’s Haiku (read by Peter Coyote)
Dai Hi Shin Dharani
Assembly Invited to Offer Flower Petals
Reception in Dining Hall
On Saturday, February 27, at 3 pm, there will be a ceremony in memory of Mitsu Suzuki Sensei in the Buddha Hall at City Center (the event will also be Live Streamed). All are invited; please respond to email@example.com if you plan to attend. (Street parking near City Center is very limited. Please carpool or take public transit if possible.)
My first encounter with Mrs. Suzuki (Okusan)—and with Zen Center—was when a friend wanted to show me Tassajara, and we arrived in the middle of Suzuki Roshi’s memorial service at his ashes site. There was a small Japanese woman who was crying and crying. Little did I know then how important she was to become to me.
When I began to study Japanese tea ceremony with Okusan in 1977, I didn’t realize that she hadn’t been a tea teacher for so long. She was learning how to do that, as we were learning this terribly complex form of mindfulness called chanoyu, in the Omotosenke way (that being one of the schools of tea ceremony).
I remember her saying, “You Americans do everything backwards.” We turned the bowl the wrong way, squeezed out the cleaning cloth the wrong way, and we just had trouble with basics like sitting seiza on our knees. I forgot a pencil to take notes for my second lesson. Whatever she said, I never did that again. Okusan took extensive notes and I still have mine from the Seventies, and I use them, as I have continued with this amazing ceremonial form. However, for a time at Zen Center, it was not felt right to take notes, but just to remember everything spontaneously.
For many years, I was tea partners with Tom Girodot, Heiki-san. In the early years, Okusan would always make an offering in front of Suzuki Roshi’s picture and say something to him. This was on top of a bureau which was in the tea room. We never had the proper sliding doors, so we imagined them and pulled and pushed in various ways—often “backwards.”
I had a feeling that if I thought of something else (other than what I was doing), Okusan would know and clear her throat and I’d come back to, say, entering a tea room. She would not let us get away with any wrong moves.
There were certain times the headmaster of the Omotosenke school would come to San Francisco. We would be selected to perform for him. At one such event, just as I was about to enter to make the tea, Okusan was adjusting my hair. I went on to drop the water ladle onto the tatami as I was walking in. I had to go back and wash it. I’ve rarely been so embarrassed. This sort of mistake reflects on your teacher. However, as we were “backward” Americans, it might have been a bit more forgivable.
Okusan came to my marriage with Jack Weller, a student of Suzuki Roshi. I also made memorial tea with Okusan after my father died. And I was studying with her when I was pregnant (but not due for six weeks), and felt “gas pains”—which was our son, Daniel, deciding to come out early on that day. She loved babies and children, including our Daniel, and would hug and cuddle them. She came to the children’s tea we then had every month and introduced the children to making an offering of the sound of the bell.
Our tea group would go out to dinner in Japantown after a special tea gathering. After a bit of sake, I remember Okusan starting to sing songs that she used to teach her kindergarten class. We would try to join in. She loved to sing. She loved people and loved telling stories.
It was an honor to be invited to have tea in her small kitchen. She knew everything that went on at Zen Center and was a mother to us all. Especially, she had opinions about the right behavior of priest’s wives and priests—which differed a bit from the prevailing San Francisco culture of the Seventies and Eighties.
I remember that Okusan had certain days for certain events. Tuesday was tea teaching day, another was for going to Japantown, and another for cleaning, etc. Every so often I would be honored to drive her to an appointment, and I remember doing a special car cleaning first.
After Okusan had an operation, I remember her walking up and down the Zen Center hallways and on the roof. She loved to walk, and in Shizuoka where she lived with her daughter. When Jack and I visited and she was in her 90s; she took us on a walk past an elementary school and many neighbors with whom she had become friends. We went down to the sea and back along a river—not a short walk.
I am honored to have studied tea with Suzuki Sensei for the 16 years I did. She was such an inspiration and a vital spark for so many people. May we carry her spirit with us.