Wendy Egyoku Nakao Dharma Talk: Saying Goodbye


Saying Good-Bye to a Dharma Sister: Sensei Sandra Jishu Angyo Holmes (1941-1998)

by Wendy Egyoku Nakao

Early Saturday morning on March 21st, Daiken called to tell me that Sensei Jishu had died at 11:25 p.m. the night before on the first day of Spring. She was 57. I kept thinking that my generation of Dharma teachers is not supposed to die just yet.

Six days after moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and beloved pet dogs Muji and Shep, to establish a new home for the Zen Peacemaker Order, Jishu suffered a heart attack in the office of her home. Four days later, a second heart attack left her with limited options, which included a heart transplant. Later Roshi Bernie told us that Jishu was alert and full of questions about her condition. After awhile she said, “Perhaps one of my options is that I’ll be saying good-bye to all of you.” She died later that night in the arms of her husband, surrounded by friends in the Peacemaker Order.

The news of Jishu’s first heart attack had bolted through my body. When news of her death came, inertia set in. I simply could not think. It was several days before Roshi Bernie was able to speak, and the funeral date was not set until Monday. There was so much to do &emdash; plan a funeral now scheduled for that Saturday, unpack the boxes from the move to New York &emdash; but still it was hard to grasp that she had died. It was a few more days before I acted. Maggie Jifu Wolfe was midway through her Denkai (Precept Transmission) retreat, and I was determined to see her through it. Especially with the loss of a Dharma sister, I felt even more so the importance of completing Jifu’s transmission.

Very early Wednesday morning, after completing the Denkai ceremony on Tuesday night, Sensei Seisen and I left for Santa Fe. Upon arrival, we settled into our room at Upaya Center, knowing that the days ahead would be unrelenting. To see Roshi Bernie face-to-face was very sad. Soon Sensei Enkyo O’Hara arrived from New York, and together we all met with Roshi. He was devastated with grief. “I want you all to do the funeral,” he said. We had always looked to him for guidance; but now it was our turn. We had two days.

Roshi had sketched out a sequence for the services, and a good foundation had already been laid by Myonen, Genro, and Jiko. We planned a funeral that captured Jishu’s special spirit, that spoke to her accomplishments and position, and that included the wishes of her family. We set to work setting up altars, planning and rehearsing services, designing and printing programs, selecting an urn, figuring out how to carry her simple coffin. It was a stress-filled time, and everyone pulled together and worked as much as was needed until, by the scheduled time on Friday evening, we were ready to begin.

At 7:00 p.m. on Friday, March 27, Sensei Jishu was brought home. She was carried into her bedroom, the place where an Abbot’s funeral begins, accompanied by five solemn hits on the bell. She was laid upon her bed, surrounded by the women of the sangha, her mother, and Roshi Bernie.

During the last years of her life, Jishu had devoted considerable energies to the practice of women. She had come to feel that her own feminine energy was not a flickering flame, but rather of volcanic proportions. She asked women to write their personal and spiritual lineages on individual circles of fabric and had the circles sewn into a quilt. We call it the Matriarchs’ quilt and use it at all important ceremonies.

So it was appropriate that on her deathbed, Jishu was surrounded and tended to by women. We stood silently, then slowly unwrapped her shroud, which was still complete with name tags from the funeral home. Her body was luminous; just so beautiful. We listened to Tsultrim Allione offering a special practice in the living room, where the guests were gathered. Then when we heard the recitation of Dogen Zenji’s “Instructions on the Precepts,” we began to undress her and bathe her in the dimly lit bedroom.

Dharma Holder Joan Jiko Halifax had made the arrangements for the bathing of Jishu’s body: bowls of herbal-scented water with rose petals, clean white towels neatly rolled and folded, a neighbor with an angelic voice to sing, a nurse to guide us. The bed was big, so Senseis Enkyo and Seisen and I climbed on it.

Although this was the first time for all of us, we instinctively knew what to do. At one point I felt transported to a log cabin in an unknown place and time and that we had done this sacred ritual so many times before. Sometimes I wondered if Jishu was breathing. Her body was so alive! I felt that she was happy to rest in the bosom of women. Bathing and drying her; putting on Jishu her kimono, her priest’s robes, her besu (special socks), and finally, Roshi and I putting on her an okesa, an old worn and stained kesa that had been embroidered by Mrs. Yoshi Kuroda and worn by Baian Hakujun Honored One, the parents of Maezumi Roshi.


” I’m beginning to see how hard I’ve worked and how heroic my struggle has been to free myself of my conditioning that I’m inadequate, not worthwhile, unlikeable. How important it is to like myself first and have compassion for myself. To love and embrace that person who is trying so hard to be a full human being.”

&emdash; excerpt from Sensei Jishu’s Journals, August 9, 1992


Indelible for me are the images of Jishu’s mother combing her daughter’s hair; of Roshi Bernie standing beside his wife; of Eve bringing in Jishu’s dog Muji, whose cries and thumps on the front door let us know that he knew that Jishu had come home.

When we were done, we placed Jishu in a plain cardboard coffin secured earlier with duct tape and lined with the pamsula (discarded cloth) quilts she had inspired and loved. Then the men, led by Jitsudo Sensei and Jishu’s three brothers, came to carry her. Led by Rabbi Ani Shalom Sensei, the procession began from the bedroom, wound through the living room, pausing in seven places, and finally Jishu rested on a bier in the candlelit courtyard of her new home. Roshi Peter Muryo Matthiessen officiated at the evening tea offering. We retired to the living room, sharing our memories around the fireplace. At 11:00 p.m. those present sat in silence through the time of her death one week before.

On Saturday morning, after Roshi Genpo Merzel officiated at the offering of breakfast service, we processed Jishu to the hearse waiting outside, and began the drive to the funeral home. The chapel, set up the day before, was arranged with the pews in a rectangle with the bier and altar in the center.

The procession was solemn, beautiful and sad. Bells, cymbals, drum, conch, and chanting “Buddham Saranam Gacchami, Dhamman Saranam Gacchami, Sangham Saranam Gacchami” three times, then moving on, always stopping seven times. Jishu was followed by her disciples, Ken Tetsuji Byalin carrying her sanmotsu (transmission documents), Diane Soshin Shainberg carrying her Peacemaker okesa, followed by others carrying her bowls, staff, and hossu (wisk). Finally she was placed on a bier, which was draped in the Matriarchs’ quilt.

Sensei Jishu’s funeral service began with readings from her journals. After her death, Roshi Bernie began reading parts of her many journals, candid and inspiring documents of her struggle to overcome her demons and insecurities. A tape was played of a talk Jishu had given over ten years ago when Roshi had first asked her to engage in social action work. She wondered, “Can I ever become a fearless warrior?” Indeed she had practiced passionately, putting one foot in front of the other, through many, many difficulties.

Dharma Holder Jiko’s offering of tea and Dharma words was followed by an offering of candied ginger and Dharma words by Sensei Enkyo. After we chanted the “Identity of Relative and Absolute,” Alisa Glassman read telegrams and messages of condolence. Then for over an hour, person after person came forward and spoke their final words to Jishu: a newcomer who had met her, only now introducing himself; her mother and brothers expressing their love; an old dharma friend realizing how little he knew her; a dharma brother noting the things that kept them apart and how wasteful it now seemed. Roshi spoke last. “Sometimes,” he said, “she looks like she’s breathing.”

Then it was time to fill her casket with flowers. Sensei Enkyo had bought over 300 flowers, each day increasing the number because we had no idea how many we would need. It was perfect. Everyone came forward, filling the coffin and covering Jishu with flowers. And lastly, we covered her face with yellow asters until you could see her no more.

Now it was time for the Fire Ceremony. Our Master of Ceremonies, Daigu O’Keefe, asked me if I was ready. I nodded yes, although I thought, no. Her disciples Tetsuji and Soshin invited me to begin, and we walked over to Jishu. Using branches bound together for torches, Tetsuji mirrored my motions, symbolic of lighting the funeral pyre. Then speaking to Jishu covered with flowers, I offered my last words to her. We all began chanting the names of the Buddhas, and carried her to the crematorium.

Surrounded by all the guests, we placed Jishu in the oven, slid her all the way in, and closed the door. Upon my arrival in Santa Fe, Roshi Bernie had asked me to officiate at the lighting of the flames. His request left me a bit stunned. Still today I don’t know what to say about it. I tapped Michael, the funeral director, on the arm and asked him to tell me what to do. “Are you ready?” he asked softly. “Yes,” I said. “When you press the button, hold it down until the flames start,” he instructed. When I pressed the button, I felt that everyone’s finger was pressing the button, too. There was a wave of energy from everyone helping me to light the flames. We were of one heart.

After chanting the “Day of Reflection,” we returned to the chapel and sat in silence for a short time. Then we viewed a slide show of Jishu’s life, from infancy to now, put together by Peter Cunningham upon his arrival in Santa Fe a few days before. Some of us stayed behind and read chapters from the Lotus Sutra, a favorite text of Jishu’s. Then we took Roshi Bernie home.

In the afternoon we rested, ate lunch, and planted a New Mexico Plum tree for Jishu. That was a lot of fun &emdash; we were ready for lighter moments. Roshi Jakusho Kwong and Roshi Muryo feigned an argument about how best to plant the tree, and the rest of the experts enjoyed the spectacle. Mark Glassman hung Tibetan prayer flags, and then the word came that the cremation was done.


“. . . Only the wounded healer is able to heal. As long as we think that spiritual leaders need to be perfect, we live in poverty. I have a perfect teacher inside; there is no perfect teacher outside.”

&emdash; excerpt from Sensei Jishu’s Journal, January 29, 1998


Upon returning to the funeral home, we all gathered around the oven. The door was opened and everyone filed past, looking at the remains just as they lay in the hot oven. A few of us stayed behind, and Tetsuji, who was to have been Jishu’s first Shuso (Senior Priest) that week, instead raked her bones into a container from which it was transferred into large wooden trays prepared earlier. We carried her relics into the chapel and placed them before the urns. Everyone came forward, and two-by-two together we picked up each relic with wooden tongs and placed it in the urns. Overseeing this ritual was very intense for me, making sure nothing fell onto the floor, the nonstop chanting of the “Homage to the Relics,” settling the bones into the urns, until there was no more. The urns were carried to the altar and the lids put in place.

We processed the urns to the cars and a few of us stayed behind to reassemble the funeral home chapel. When we returned to the house, Roshi Bernie officiated over the placement of Jishu’s relics in the living room of her new home. We chanted the “Gate of Sweet Nectar” on Jishu’s behalf, as though she herself were making a special offering to all the hungry spirits. Perhaps Sensei Jishu would have been embarrassed and shocked at the fuss we made over her, but when it was over, there was a deep sense of completion. Her heroic struggle was over.