Buddha from Alabama: A Brief Recalling of Roshi Blanche Hartman

Buddha from Alabama: A Brief Recalling of Roshi Blanche Hartman May 13, 2016

Blanche Hartman

I just received a note from my old friend Rod Mead-Sperry at Lion’s Roar.

The American Zen teacher Blanche Hartman, Zenkei Roshi, died early this morning, the 13th of May. She was ninety years old.

Images of Blanche just raced through my mind.

We started Zen practice at close to the same time, both of us with Mel Weitsman at what was then called the Berkeley Zendo. Neither of us recall meeting in those days, although we were both confident we actually sat together on any number of occasions. My connections to the Zen center were light, focused on coming to morning zazen for a year or so and not much more before moving on to study with Jiyu Kennett. She dug in, studying both with Mel and with his teacher Shunryu Suzuki. She would go on to become a leader at the San Francisco Zen Center complex, and a significant figure on the American Zen scene, certainly one of the most respect guides along the Zen way we here in North America have produced to date.

Blanche was born in 1926, in Birmingham, Alabama. While born into a Jewish family, she attended Catholic schools. In Birmingham of that day, probably a wise decision on the part of her parents. In her late teen years, her father who was in the military was transferred to California and she moved with her family. She earned a degree in chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley and worked in that field.

She met Lou Hartman and they married in 1947. Lou worked as a writer and producer and for a number of years in the mid 1950s as a radio personality hosting “This is San Francisco.” Both he and Blanche were active in the social causes of the day. Lou was blackballed from the industry in the notorious Red Scare years after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He died in 2011.

They would have four children together. And they followed each other into the Zen life, formally joining the Zen Center in 1969. They would end up living at all three of the centers. They were ordained together By Richard Baker Roshi in 1977. She received Dharma transmission from Weitsman Roshi in 1988. She would succeed Mel Weitsman as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, serving between 1996 and 2003.

She was a product of the principal adaptation of the Soto style of training to the West, and to my mind an exemplar of that way. The term “Zen center” was first applied to the institution that Suzuki Roshi led in San Francisco. It adapted and blended elements of monastic training and temple life, creating what I believe is a powerful model for Zen formation. And in many ways Blanche was, for me, proof of that style of training.

She continued a life long concern with the issues of social justice, and was a fierce advocate for women’s access to the full range of Zen training. She also was deeply interested in the traditions of sewing within Zen practice, studied it closely, and would become a beloved teacher of that particular discipline. (I post a video clip of this at the end of this reflection.)

Over the last two decades our paths would cross on occasion, most often in relation to the American Zen Teachers Association and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. She was kind to me, and ready with a word, as she thought appropriate. She thought I should be teaching full time, and came up with a couple of ideas about how I could afford to retire from my UU ministry early. While I never found them particularly practical, and felt more than she did that my UU ministry was Dharma work, I appreciated her caring and even thinking about it. And I came to think of her as a mentor, certainly as one of my Zen elders.

Endless bows.

For an interview with Blanche & Lou conducted by David Chadwick, go here.

For a Dharma talk, go here.

For a collection of audio recordings of her Dharma talks, go here.

For a link to purchase her book, go here.

For some more details about her last years, I recommend a visit to the Boundless Life site.

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