Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘During the Vietnam War, I was a political activist. I fought for peace. There was some contradiction. There wasn’t any peace in me. I hated the peope who disagreed with me. That was a kind of war within me. In 1968 I was just beginning to look at the way in which I was vigorously clinging to my opinions about things and denigrating others who had different opinions.

When there was a strike at San Francisco State University, the police came with their masks and clubs, started poking people. And without thinking, I ducked under the hands of people to get between the police and the students. I met this riot squad policeman face-to-face, with his mask on and everything. He was close enough to touch. I met this policeman’s eyes straight on, and I had this overwhelming experience of identification, of shared identity. This was the most transformative moment of my life – having this experience of shared identity with the riot squad policeman. It was a gift. Nothing had prepared me for it. I didn’t have any conceptual basis for understanding it. The total experience was real and incontrovertible.

My life as a political activist ended with that encounter, because there was no longer anything to fight against. The way I described it to my friends was, the policeman was trying to protect what he thought was right and good from all of the other people who were trying to destroy it – and I was doing the same thing. Since I had no basis for understanding the experience of shared identity with someone I had considered completely “other” (that is, the riot squad policeman), and because the experience had been so real and so powerful, I began to search for someone who would understand it. How could a riot squad policeman and I be identical? In my search I met Suzuki Roshi. The way he looked at me, I knew he understood. That’s how I came to be an ordained monastic.’ (Seeds For A Boundless Life)

I have been thinking a lot about this story in the last few weeks. Like other stories in the book, I heard Blanche tell it more than once. And, to be clear, I don’t think she is saying that there is nothing to protest – indeed, in her remaining years, she was a strong advocate for many just causes. She is making a point about how to approach difference. Tomorrow’s post also suggests a method.

Pride - Blanche on the truckBlanche on the truck for Pride.


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