Ever Present

Five dharma teachers recall formative teachers of their own who have passed away, but in their ways, remain.

By Renshin Bunce

Renshin Bunce with her teacher, Steve Stücky. Photo by Linda Galijian.

Who He Was

By Renshin Bunce

I’d been working as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor for nearly a decade when my teacher Steve Stücky was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. After he died, I told him he needn’t have gone to so much trouble to teach me what grief really is; both of my parents had died, and many hospice patients whom I’d grown close to had, too. But there had been nothing like this.

I was seventy years old, single with no children. I had been in a teacher–student relationship with Steve for twenty years and realized that no one would ever know me again as completely as he had. Nor would I be able to develop such trust. There just wasn’t, and isn’t, time. So Steve’s death was also a death of possibility for me. My solace was in knowing how lucky I’d been to meet him and be his student. 

Friends asked if I shouldn’t take time off work in those first few months: Wasn’t being around death every day too much? But my work kept me going. It meant that my life had some purpose, that the teachings Steve had so gently spooned into my heart were being used. If I sometimes had to pull over to the side of the road and scream between visits, I never let patients or coworkers know about it.

My grief over Steve’s death led me to an understanding that I’ve shared with many people since. A few months into the loss, I saw my life as if there had been a giant earthquake. All of the elements were still there, but they’d been tossed up in the air and landed in a different relationship to each other, and to me, than they’d had before. There was a hole where Steve had been. My job was to understand this new shape for my life and live it fully.

I was already a part of Norman Fischer’s Everyday Zen group when Steve was diagnosed, and it was crucial that I had sangha in place to support me through that first year as I learned to bear the unbearable. Though we were always in silence when we came together, there was a sense of being seen and known and loved in those rooms that I wouldn’t find anywhere else. 

I’d only finished sewing my everyday brown transmission rakusu when Steve was already too ill to write his name and mine on its back. I’ve worn it for ten years now with a blank silk. It is a complete statement.

Steve showed me love that extends far beyond any one person. Because he taught me so completely, although I lost his presence, I never lost him. I can no longer enter a room and do my bows and arrange my robes and lay out a question to him, but still, when I find myself in a muddle, I can ask myself what Steve would say. I know the answer, and it’s simple. 

Be kind. Be generous. Say yes. Be who you are.

Here In this Moment

By Bobby Rhodes

Being teacherless is not a state that I have ever found myself in.

In 1972, I was living at our Zen center with my teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, and a few other students. After living there for several months, our teacher told us he needed to go to LA for a few weeks. When one of us mentioned that they would really miss him while he was gone, he immediately replied that actually there is no coming or going and that if we each kept returning to “This Moment,” he would be right there with us. When I heard him say that, it made a profound impact on my relationship to him and to everyone! 

As the years passed, he would be away much more than he was around, and pretty much left the teaching and the running of things up to his students. For better or worse, that is what we had to do. I would often lament, mostly to myself, that our sangha would attract many more students if he would just stay in one place. Now I know that my lamenting was short-sighted and that he’d given us a tremendous gift by just being himself, teaching in the ways that were true to himself. He was not one to be able to sit still, and he used that karma by choosing to be a missionary. He was a firestarter and it was up to us to catch those sparks and tend to our own fires, which of course were the same fire. We had to stoke its flames with our own individual gifts, our Vow and Direction.

He was a firestarter and it was up to us to catch those sparks and tend to our own fires, which of course were the same fire.

In 2004, after Zen Master Seung Sahn left his body (he called it his rental car), I flew to Korea to be at his funeral and cremation. The day of the ceremony I woke up early and walked around a large courtyard where a huge portrait of him was hanging high above me. There was piped-in chanting of the mantra Na Mu Amitabul  sounding throughout the area. I had a private moment of opening up to the loss of his presence, knowing that the “rental car” had been turned in. The tears were sad and deeply felt: what a gift he had been. For me, no one could have delivered the Zen teachings more generously, more understandably. 

It’s been almost twenty years, and as corny as it sounds, I truly feel like he’s never left. One moment of clear mind, this moment, and there he is. There is the Buddha, the flame, all the infinite gifts this universe has to offer.  

Joy Was the Sign of His Life

By Alan Senauke

In the early 1990s, while I was at Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I heard about an African American monk who had founded the Metta Vihara hospice in a poor section of Richmond, California. This was a home for people with HIV/AIDS, many of whom were addicts or previously incarcerated—those who often fell off the edges of society. I went numerous times to visit and talk with him, and we became better acquainted as kalyanamitta, spiritual friends. This was Bhante Suhita Dharma’s lifelong practice, just to walk alongside those whose lives were marked by suffering. 

In 2005, he joined the staff of BPF as the prison program coordinator and codirector of the Coming Home Project, helping former prisoners find stability in a world beyond the prison walls. For a time he was my downstairs neighbor at Berkeley Zen Center, living his quiet monk’s way in our community.

Born in Texas and raised in the Bay Area, he entered a Trappist monastery at the age of fifteen as Brother Anthony. Turning toward Buddhism without ever rejecting his Catholic monastic roots, Bhante was the first African American to receive full ordination in Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions.

The Most Venerable Suhita Dharma Mahathero was a monk for fifty-eight years. Unexpectedly, he entered final nirvana on December 28, 2013, at Chua Dieu Phap Temple in San Gabriel, California. It is hard to describe someone who embodies formlessness, cloudlike.  This is not to say that he was ever less than human or, for that matter, more than human. Though trained in the practices and rituals of numerous monastic practices, Bhante Suhita radiated a simple, warm light. When I was with him, the joy he experienced as a young Trappist was always close at hand. I saw that same joy on his fellow monks’ faces when he spoke with them. That joy remained the sign of his life. Bhante, wherever you are, I wish for you and all beings, “Blessings of the Triple Gem.”

From Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers by Hozan Alan Senauke © 2023 by Alan Senauke. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

Already Entangled

By Cynthia Kear

Birth. Death. Dharma transmission.

Something was decidedly different that morning. I sat in the Buddha Hall waiting for the dharma talk to begin. Instead of the usual black zafu and zabuton placed on a low platform where the teacher normally sat, there was a chair. A chair? I had never seen that before.  

As bells announced the teacher’s arrival, a fiftyish woman appeared, followed by her attendant. Short and compact, she had neither a shaved nor closely shorn head. Her thick gray hair flipped loosely against the line of her jaw. She entered with a hobbled, limping cadence. At the bowing mat, bringing hands together in gassho, twisted, gnarled fingers met twisted, gnarled fingers. Having seen other priests do full and fluid prostrations, I puzzled as she stood stock still then bowed deeply from the waist. Once. Twice. Thrice. Witnessing her bow, inelegant by comparison but suffused with tangible effort, something inexpressible took hold of my heart. Tears came to my eyes. While I had watched others bow, I felt her bow. In that moment I received my first teaching from her: body-to-body practice, the undeniable experience of no separation that accompanies an intensely embodied presence.

When she spoke, she was simultaneously wise, compassionate, self-revealing, and riotously funny. It was the second teaching I’d receive from her: the coexistence of suffering and delight. While I would come to see the scars of multiple surgeries and understand the persistent pain that lodged in her every joint, on this day that was all obscured by priest robes. Still the undeniable reality: a body constricted with pain, but a heart/mind that was fluid and free. Nonduality in Technicolor.

Darlene Cohen, dharma name Great Spirit Manifesting Dharma, was a much-loved, charismatic, and important teacher in the Suzuki Roshi lineage. She always showed up, resolutely present with her crippling rheumatoid arthritis, staff of vow firmly in her hands, manifesting dharma in innovative, practical ways. She met timid spirits and hungry ghosts alike with a concentrated presence that was palpable.  

Eight years from that first encounter, Darlene left her physical form on January 12, 2011, twenty-six days after giving me dharma transmission.  

To be formally dharma transmitted is a powerful, ineffable experience, both culmination and commencement. To be born from someone’s death is indescribably wrenching: entering a deeper realm of connection and vow with one who is leaving imminently. Darlene was diminishing by the moment due to ovarian cancer, molecule after molecule floating toward the veil. I was awed, honored, and stupefied by this intense collision of birth and death. My back was strong with the gift she was imparting, and the confidence and generosity it represented, yet my front was ripped open with heartbreak. In those fragile, tenuous days, I was held steady by her fierce, unswerving commitment to spend the last morsels of life giving transmission. Despite needing to be propped up at critical moments, despite being so weakened that the traditional ceremonial space ultimately dwindled into fabric strewn over her bedridden, emaciated body, she practiced all the way through. Great Spirit.

At the end of our first dokusan (private practice discussion) when I had asked her to be my teacher, my hand on the doorknob about to leave, she said, “We will become most intimate.” After completing dharma transmission, my hand on a doorknob again, from her recumbent position, she said, “We shall always be entangled.” 

Birth. Death. No birth. No death. All transmission. Intimate and entangled. So has it been, so shall it always be. To you, Dear Teacher, nine bows.  

Lama Yeshe, Zurich, 1978. Photo by Ueli Minder.

A Teacher’s Wise Love

By Jan Willis

If you had never done it but wanted to learn to create oil paintings or build a house, you’d know that, first, you’d need a good teacher. And more so if you wanted to embark upon the path to awakening. A kind-hearted, qualified teacher would be essential for such an important venture.

In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that, before offering teaching to his first five followers, the Buddha said to them, ehi passika, “Come and see for yourself.” Such an invitation was intended to suggest that one’s own experience would attest to the path’s veracity. My teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, would remind us of this essential point in simpler, but endearing terms: “Check-up, dear,” he would say. “Check-up.” 

He showered me with compassion and built up my confidence at every turn. He showed me that I could accomplish hard things. Most importantly, he helped me re-envision myself as worthy, intelligent, strong, and loveable. Nothing can replace a gift like that!

The measure of a teacher’s qualifications is not the number of degrees they have or even the experience they claim to have had. The measure of a teacher’s good qualities and “credentials” is how the student, looking back, honestly judges how much they have grown and developed by taking to heart the teacher’s instructions and advice. If the student can see that they have themselves changed and developed for the better because of following the teacher’s instructions, then that teacher may properly be called one’s “root guru” (Tib. t’sa wa’i bla ma).

When I first met my root guru, Lama Yeshe, I was a young Black woman from the Jim Crow South, weighed down with shame, low self-esteem, and a negative view of my own self-worth, or even possibilities. Clinging to this erroneous view of my own potential, I desperately needed his compassion and loving-kindness, but I could not ask for it.    

One day, shortly after I had arrived at his residence in Kopan, outside Kathmandu, Lama Yeshe looked at me piercingly and said, “Yes, dear. Pride and humility, in conflict, is difficult, dear.” With that statement—tenderly and lovingly offered—I knew that he understood me deeply, and could, and would, help me.

As I look back over the fifteen years that I was Lama Yeshe’s student (he passed away in 1984), I can see that he showered me with compassion and built up my confidence at every turn. Through setting various trials and tests for me, and through constantly encouraging me—“Oh, that’s so simple, dear!”—he showed me that I could indeed accomplish hard things. Most importantly, he helped me to re-envision myself as worthy, intelligent, strong, and loveable. Nothing can replace a gift like that!

Today, almost forty years since Lama Yeshe’s passing, my house is filled with photos of him, smiling his incredibly sweet smiles back at me. Though he is no longer here in the flesh, he has never left me. I think of him and of the many blessings he has bestowed on me always. I feel his presence, reminding me of the abundant kindness that is possible, and attainable, for all of us; and the lesson that we all possess buddhanature, the potential for awakening.

In my classroom teaching I’ve tried to model Lama Yeshe’s patience, compassion, and joy—though I know I’ve often fallen short. I think of the well-known quote that runs, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” The Buddha said something similar, noting that “All beings desire happiness and all wish to avoid suffering. In this regard we are all exactly alike.” Yet, despite our common wish to be happy and to avoid suffering, we usually go about seeking happiness in ways that, most often, result only in more suffering. I try to teach my students this. 

I also try to encourage them to envision standing in another’s shoes, so they won’t generate negative judgments about others so easily. Until we gain liberating wisdom, we are all in the same samsaric boat, regardless of outward appearances. And we all have the potential to become buddhas, and to take joy in our commonalities rather than our differences. As a favorite writer of mine, James Baldwin, noted, our shared job should be “to find the terms of our connection, without which we will perish.” 

Lastly, as verse 183 of the Dhammapada teaches us, we human beings are to “Do no harm. Practice virtue. Discipline the mind. This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.” I try as much as possible to encourage my students to do this. Using the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I say to them, “Be kind, as much as is possible. And if you cannot be kind, at least try not to cause harm, to yourselves, or to others.”

I have been blessed in this life to meet with a wise and loving teacher. For me, and I hope for my students as well, it has made all the difference. It is now up to us to utilize tested methods to help us benefit ourselves, others, and this precious planet on which we live and depend. Together, to work toward a future where hatred and prejudice is always overcome by love. 

Renshin Bunce

Renshin Bunce

Renshin Bunce is a Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. Her forthcoming book is Love and Fear: Stories from a Decade as a Hospice Chaplain.