This is the story Blanche Hartman told me about how she first became engaged in Zen practice: “One day in 1969 I was at the house of my best friend, and we were just having coffee. She had a headache, and it was so bad she asked me, ‘Could you see that?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘That headache.’ I said, ‘I can’t see your headache.’ She said, ‘It was so bad, I thought you could see it.’ The next morning, she went to a doctor and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She went into a hospital for radiation treatment, went into a coma, and died. That was all within two or three weeks.
“I was 43, and she was about my age. We both had kids about the same age. And I thought, ‘I’m going to die! Me, personally. It’s not just later, when you get old. Oh, my God! How do you live if you know you’re going to die? Who knows that?’ So I started getting interested in a whole bunch of stuff I had never paid any attention to. Somebody told me about the Berkeley Zendo, and I went there for zazen instruction on July 3rd, 1969, and I started sitting every day after that. And I would sit there thinking, ‘What am I doing? I don’t know anybody else who does this. This is weird. What will my friends think?’ Finally I said, ‘It doesn’t matter. There’s somebody in there that wants to do it because she gets up at 5:00 every morning to go to the zendo to do it before she goes to work.’ Then Suzuki Roshi used to come over to Berkeley to give a talk on Monday mornings, and when I met him, I thought, ‘He knows. He knows what I need to know.’”
Shunryu Suzuki was the Japanese monk who established SFZC. He had been an obscure village priest in Japan with no particular stature within the Soto hierarchy, but, in 1959, he was sent to San Francisco to be the resident minister at Sokoji, the Soto mission which provided for the spiritual and cultural needs of about sixty families of Japanese descent. His duties were much as they had been in Japan, to carry out ritual activities, weddings, funerals, and memorial services. He was expected to chant sutras on behalf of the community and to conduct a weekly Sunday service. Zen might be the meditation sect of Buddhism, but, as far as Suzuki’s congregations in Japan and California were concerned, meditation was an activity for monks.
It was young people from the mainstream culture who—inspired by a combination of psychedelic drugs and their reading of Zen popularisers like Alan Watts—first sought out Suzuki as a Zen Master and meditation teacher. Traditional Zen training molds men of strong character, and so while Suzuki had been a relatively ordinary figure in Japan, he proved to be extraordinary figure in America. “‘He knows. He knows what I need to know,’” Blanche continues, her voice almost a whisper. “I don’t know why I felt that, but I definitely felt it. And that was a total gift for that question that had come up for me when Pat died.
“And I had had an experience at a student strike at San Francisco State College when my son was a student. I had an experience of a face-to-face encounter with a riot squad policeman, who I would have said—had anybody asked me—was the opposite of me, but I had an experience of identity. We were this close together, and we made eye contact, and I had this experience of identity with him. And it was sort of like, ‘What was that? Who understands that? What happened? And how can a riot squad policeman and me be identical?’ But it was clear, no question about this is the way it is. It was just, ‘How can I understand this? Who understands this?’ And I thought, Suzuki Roshi looked at me like that. He didn’t make a separation.”
The day I had lunch with Blanche and the other two abbots at SFZC, the atmosphere at the center seemed friendly and inviting. Several times people would come up to me and ask if I was enjoying my visit. This hadn’t always been the case however. Steve Stücky described hitch-hiking across the country to visit the center the first time. “I came to the door, knocked on it. Someone opened it a crack. ‘Whadda you want?’ And I said, I came here to practice Zen. And they said, ‘Well, did you make some arrangements?’ And I said, ‘No, I just came across the country here,’ and they said, ‘Wait a minute.’ And they closed the door!”
Blanche, who eventually became the first woman to serve as abbot at SFZC, lowered her head between her hands and shook it. That’s what it was often like in the early days, she admits, “My entire focus when I was abbess was to get people to smile at whoever they opened the door to.”
It was not a trivial thing. The first Zen centers in America were often austere and were all, without exception, male dominated. The rise of women to positions of authority within American Zen is one of the most significant factors in making it what it is today.
Blanche Hartman died in 2016 at the age of 90.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 24-35, 323
The Story of Zen: 358, 371
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