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.
In the summer of 2010, I went with a group of close students and friends on pilgrimage to Japan. We spent a week at Rinso-in, the original temple of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center and of our Zen practice lineage in America. Author of the most widely read of all Zen books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi was a beloved spiritual master. He was also Mitsu Suzuki’s husband. Her years with him, and all that they brought to her life, certainly fed the silent depths whose waters gave rise to the exquisite poems featured here.
Rinso-in is a relatively small temple in Yaizu, formerly a fishing village, now a port city on the Pacific Ocean. In style and feeling, it is a far cry from the large Japanese Zen training monasteries, famous (if not legendary) for their tough practice. The students and friends I brought—many of whom were Zen priests—had all practiced Zen with me for many years in the United States. I myself have never trained in Japan and do not emphasize Japanese ways in my teaching. But I wanted my closest students to experience the feeling and flavor of the Zen that Suzuki Roshi expressed, the simple life of caring for a temple and its members that he had lived at Rinso-in, and that his son and successor, Hoitsu Suzuki, still lived.
We spent the week sitting in Rinso-in’s small zendo, chanting in its Buddha Hall, cleaning around the temple, and watching Chitose, Hoitsu Roshi’s wife, their son Shungo, who is also a priest, and his wife Kumi, take care of the many tasks necessary to serve a local community of farmers and small-business people. The busy, if also essentially peaceful, life flowed all around us as we foreigners sat zazen, talked, drank tea, cooked our meals, and cleaned around the temple.
Mitsu Suzuki lives with her daughter a fifteen-minute drive from Rinso-in. We phoned to wish her well, not expecting to see her. At ninety-six (her age in 2010) she deserved by now some peace and quiet, and we had been told that she was no longer receiving visitors, especially people from her San Francisco days, because the effort to speak and listen in English was becoming too difficult. But when one of our group who had been a close tea ceremony student spoke to her on the phone, she said she wanted to come to meet us. We were surprised and delighted.
Okusan, as we had been used to calling her, arrived at the temple with a burst of energy. She bustled straight past us into the Buddha Hall, where she immediately made prostrations and said quiet, concentrated prayers, her head bowed, her prayer beads in her hand. She then got up without assistance and, beaming, said loudly in English, “Welcome home!” We were touched by this, thinking she referred to us—that, as students inspired by Suzuki Roshi, his temple was in some way our real home. But later we realized she was saying this to herself—“Welcome home, Mitsu, to the place where your heart is kept.”
We sat for a long while having tea and cookies. She spoke English astonishingly well, as we sat on the tatami floor, she on a little chair, to preserve her knees, she said. She was like a queen holding court, self-contained and dignified, still able to hold her trim, tiny body as she had always done, energetically upright, with elegant hand gestures accompanying her words. She had brought photo albums of Suzuki Roshi in the old days. “Here,” she showed us, “is Suzuki Roshi at the moment of leaving Rinso-in for the last time.” Hoitsu was behind him: the two priests, father and son, were enjoying a private joke long gone by now.
She had also brought a copy of Love Haiku, an anthology edited and translated by Patricia Donegan, in which two of her haiku appeared. Then she recited another haiku in Japanese, which had recently won a prize.
After a while, when she tired of English, she went on energetically in Japanese, with one of our group translating. When asked how she kept so fit in body and mind, she replied, “I walk around the neighborhood every day for an hour. I make sure to say hello to those who live alone.” She mentioned in particular the school next door for children who “can’t go to school”—she visits them every day, bringing small gifts and good cheer—and the businessmen’s boardinghouse on the other side, where many men come and go, staying only for a day or two.
At the end of her visit, a traditional children’s song about spring bubbled up from her memory. She continued to sing as she strode out of our sight to her waiting car and driver, her crisp white hippari and matching white pants hardly making a sound as she glided away. Her sudden absence left the room somehow sadly empty, though the group of us filled it well enough. For years in America, teaching tea ceremony and Japanese ways was her practice. Now, apparently, it was kindness.
The long life of Mitsu Suzuki (she turned one hundred on April 23, 2014) is an unrepeatable marvel. Spanning the changes and disasters of one of the most spectacular centuries in history—one in which East and West have been struggling to meet and understand one another—the winds of time have blown her back and forth across the ocean. Beneath her sweetness, one senses the stoic toughness she possesses not so much because she was raised to it but because it was required of her.
She was born in Shizuoka City in 1914, at the height of Japanese militarism and competition with the West. Her mother died when she was eleven, leaving Mitsu the woman of the household. At nineteen, dissatisfied with the conventionality and coldness she found in Japanese Buddhism, she converted to Christianity, becoming a member of the local Methodist Church. In 1936, at twenty-two, she married Masaharu Matsuno, a naval pilot. When war broke out in 1937 between China and Japan, Masaharu went off, with Mitsu seven months pregnant. He was killed just two weeks after seeing the first photographs of his daughter.
After the war, Mitsu trained as a schoolteacher, and when her daughter was three, began teaching at a local kindergarten. When the Pacific War began (the war Americans know as World War II) and American pilots began flying their interminable and devastating raids over Japan, Mitsu and the other teachers would take their students into bunkers every day as bombs rained down on the city. On the night of June 16, 1945, just three months before Japan surrendered, the entire city of Shizuoka was burned to the ground.
Mitsu, like almost all Japanese of her generation, had been brought up to believe—and had experienced it as a fact—that Americans wanted to kill her and her countrymen. How strange, marvelous, and probably disturbing then that by the early 1960s she would find herself living in the United States, the new wife of a Soto Zen priest stationed in San Francisco. A working Japanese Christian single mother would not have been able to imagine such a thing in 1940. Yet it happened.
After the war, the schools of Japan were in terrible shape, most of them closed, their facilities destroyed. Civic leaders everywhere rushed to take care of this problem as fast as they could. In Yaizu, Shunryu Suzuki was keen to reopen the historically important kindergarten attached to Rinso-in. He had been told of Mitsu by a mutual friend and was determined to hire her to run the school, though she insisted she would not leave Shizuoka, and that, in any case, how could a Christian woman run a Buddhist school? But Shunryu was extremely persistent. He kept reappearing in Shizuoka again and again to ask Mitsu to simply come visit the school. Finally she agreed. One visit was enough to convince her to take the job. As for the Christian problem? “Well, at least you have some religion,” he told her.
Shunryu visited the school daily, leading the children in chanting and Buddhist lessons. He and Mitsu became close colleagues and friends—two strong, opinionated, and charismatic people, with lively senses of humor. Then tragedy befell the Suzuki family: Shunryu’s wife was killed by a mentally ill priest whom he’d allowed to stay at the temple during one of his absences. He was left with three young children. He needed a wife. The Rinso-in community (including Shunryu’s mother-in-law) quickly agreed that Mitsu was the only possible choice.
The two were married in the fall of 1958. He was fifty-four, she was forty-four. Within the year, he had been invited to become abbot of Sokoji temple in San Francisco, fulfilling his lifelong dream of going to America to teach Zen to Westerners. His short-term appointments to Sokoji kept being renewed, and the longer he remained in America, the more young Western students began to come to practice zazen—not necessarily what the temple members were interested in. Eventually Shunryu turned over Rinso-in to Hoitsu, resigned his post at Sokoji, and threw in his lot entirely with the young Western students. By 1961 Mitsu had come to join him. She remained for thirty-two years— returning home in 1994, twenty-three years after Shunryu’s death. During those years Mitsu Suzuki became—by the account of the many American students who studied tea and, yes, in an informal way, Zen with her—an accomplished spiritual master. She inspired affection and respect and was a second mother to many. In her quiet yet forceful and definite way, she expressed and embodied Zen spirit and continuity with the founder. She continued to live in the small apartment in the temple building, where she taught tea, cooked, cleaned, tended altars, and received guests. She was an anchor. As long as Okusan remained, as long as she went on day by day quietly expressing her life in engagement and sympathy with the community, things would be OK.
Suzuki Roshi died too soon. Even the most developed students he left behind were young and green, full of idealism and Zen theory and moxie but not enough maturity. They had not lived through the sorts of challenges that Okusan and her husband had experienced during their years in Japan and so had no basis for appreciating Zen as the religion it actually is—a powerful consolation and source of strength in times of suffering and instability. Okusan’s presence expressed this strength and depth during the long years of Zen Center’s rocky coming of age. She held down the fort, shored up the foundations. When that work was done, the maturity of the center established, she went home.
More than anything else, what Okusan taught in America was what Japan lacked after the war and perhaps still lacks—confidence in the depth of the Japanese way as formed by the culture’s long encounter with the Buddhist teachings. Although she had studied tea casually as a child, it wasn’t until she came to America that she began to study in earnest. Her practice of writing haiku also began in America, during the time when Suzuki Roshi first fell ill. How strange then that the powerful expression of her life, her essential Japaneseness—that elusive and almost ineffable feeling that unites tragedy, toughness, delicacy, beauty, and simplicity—was oddly never fully expressed in her until it came out in America, possibly as a way of coping with the strangeness, or maybe the pain, of living so many years among the people who had burned her country nearly to the ground—incomprehensible people, in many ways completely oblivious to who she was and what she had lived through—yet who, at the same time, perhaps understood and appreciated her more than anyone else ever had. Only in America did Mitsu Suzuki finally find and express her Japanese heart.
I bow to my ballpoint pen
and throw it out—
Text from A White Tea Bowl: 100 Haiku from 100 Years of Life by Mitsu Suzuki. © 2014 by San Francisco Zen Center. Reprinted with permission of Rodmell Press. Author photo © 2014 by Mitsue Nagase.