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Jul 22
Scene and Heard
Remembering Sensei Seiko Nakashima

Sensei at conclusion of 2008 Ikenobo Show; photo by Ira Abrams

Sensei at conclusion of 2008 Ikenobo Show; photo by Ira Abrams

Warrior Tribute
written by Ira Abrams

Ikebana and tea-ceremony master Dr. Seiko Nakashima, whom I (and hundreds of others) called “Sensei,” passed away on July 8 at the age of 87. A number of Shambhalians in Chicago (and some elsewhere) were among the many students of Sensei Nakashima.

Sensei Nakashima was born Seiko Kanbayashi in Hokkaido, Japan. In 1950 she married Takao Nakashima, a Japanese-American, and she moved back with him to Hilo, Hawaii, ultimately ending up in Chicago. Mr. Nakashima passed away in 2004, and was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Sensei’s body will be buried alongside her husband’s.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who was an artist and an eccentric, Sensei revered professionalism. It defined both her “day job” as a highly-regarded microbiologist and her teaching and practice of traditional Japanese arts. She possessed the highest credentials in both the ancient Ikenobo school of Ikebana and the Urasenke school of tea ceremony. She also practiced and taught calligraphy and classical dance. In 2006, when the Emperor of Japan declared Sensei a national treasure and awarded her the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, he commended her for her accomplishments in promoting Japanese culture, and also — as she often pointed out — in scientific research.

Shambhala, and in particular its founder, Chogyam Trungpa, also earned Sensei’s great affection and admiration — though perhaps for different reasons. At one point in the late 1970s or early 1980s, while in Chicago, Chogyam Trungpa accompanied by his son (then the Sawang), visited Sensei and tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade her to move to Colorado to teach tea ceremony to the members of the Shambhala community. She was tempted, she said, but she had a husband and other issues to consider.

Nevertheless, Sensei was delighted by the Vidyadhara and liked to recount the story for me, always exclaiming in her characteristically exuberant manner how “CHARming” Trungpa Rinpoche was, and how “HANDsome” was the son. I was a mediocre student and Sensei would often encourage me to leave my flowers alone before the other students were done so we could chat about Shambhala or about teaching adolescents (my profession).

In the last year that I studied with her, after the death of her husband and just before health issues caused her to limit her teaching activity, Sensei liked to joke regularly that maybe it wasn’t too late to take up the offer and move to Boulder or Shambhala Mountain Center.

When a person has spent many decades being addressed as “Sensei”, the inexpressible heart-meaning of her life is something that has to be pieced together from the testimonies of a great variety of people, each of whom who had a significant but utterly unique relationship with her. It is the accumulation of deeply significant gestures, words, and silences — sometimes pointedly delivered, sometimes only casually observed — that allow us to glimpse the qualities and the principles of a great teacher’s life. At the risk of focusing only on my own, partial understanding of Sensei, I want to offer the story of my first meeting with her. I hope that others will add to this story to create a more complete picture.

Certainly by the time I began studying with her, when Sensei was in her mid seventies and struggling with chronic pain and injuries, she took on students only if they were willing to make a serious commitment. Kyphotic and slight, she was nevertheless capable of making large, healthy men and women cower in fear. Similarly, her joy was like the sun and it was hard not to want to make her happy, no matter the cost or difficulty involved.

She knew us well, and she taught each person something different, in a different way. My own experience of Sensei was not based on my skills as a flower arranger (which were minimal to begin with and progressed very little in four years) but more often on a shared interest in the implications of flower arranging for life.

Our conversations could thus be fairly abstract, and I often had to guess at what we were discussing because Sensei’s English, while it could be perfectly clear when she wanted it to be, was often strange and indefinite when she had other ideas in mind.

The variable quality of Sensei’s English was a subject of much discussion among the students in my Ikebana class. It created a bond among us, for one thing because we wanted very much to understand her instructions and explanations exactly. We would whisper and compare notes when things got complicated. However, past a certain point, it was not possible to get clarification from Sensei about a word or phrase that no one could make out or plausibly infer. Quite often we were left shrugging our shoulders as Sensei moved on to the next topic. In some cases, it didn’t matter, but often it was a key term or step that couldn’t be discerned. Oddly, however, her difficulty, or apparent difficulty, in saying things clearly in these cases brought us together and engendered a sense of humility that I have rarely seen in contemplative traditions.

Sometimes, it seemed that she deployed seemingly broken English precisely in order to force her students to get over the idea that instructions would ultimately make things alright and to get them to work things out on their own. Or, as she did in my first lesson, she sometimes used incomprehensibility in order to test her students. Although you could never be quite sure.

I first met Sensei when I joined an advanced Ikebana group class that she had, for some reason, decided I should attend. I had spoken with her by phone a few weeks before and, having heard that she did not accept many new students, I had mentioned a few things that I felt would enhance the case for taking me on as a student. I had told her of my study of Buddhism and my prior familiarity with Ikebana through Shambhala — at that time I did not know of her connection to the sangha. Sensei said little on the phone, but told me to come to the class.

Her practice in group lessons was to start by lecturing about a particular arrangement. She would give its history and significance and create, or have a senior student create, a demonstration arrangement. Then, giving each of us a similar but not identical bunch of flowers and other materials wrapped in Japanese newspaper, she watched and helped us to create arrangements of our own embodying the same principles. At the end of class, each student’s arrangement would receive a public “correction” from Sensei.

The day of my first appearance, Sensei seemed particularly interested in involving me in the class. She asked me several questions during her lecture, in which she continually repeated the phrase “and so.” Or so, at least, I thought. The other students, as far as I could see, were trying hard to figure out amongst themselves what she was saying. Oddly, although I was new and I could not make out much of her lecture, she seemed to be asking me to help her explain whatever it was that she was saying “and so” to.

Finally, Sensei drew a large circle on her white-board and exclaimed, louder than before, “And so!” I still failed to see that she was discussing the ubiquitous Japanese character known as the “Enso”. But Sensei continued to try to draw me into a discussion about the unfathomable topic of her lecture. Finally, she seemed to asked me quite forcefully, “Why are you here?” — pointing at me and at the base of the circle on the board to emphasize the “here”.

I felt I must have disappointed Sensei deeply and I tried to give an earnest, humble answer. “To learn flower arranging,” I offered weakly.

“No!” she thundered. Only to demand again, “And so? And so?”

Finally, seeming to giving up on my inability give a better answer for why I was there, she said, with hardly a trace of a Japanese accent, “Enso. This means you are here to find out why you are here. For no other reason.” It dawned on me much later that Sensei, in that first class, had most likely been trying to get me to draw upon my ostensible Buddhist knowledge in order to help her communicate the meaning of the Enso to the rest of the students. Ironically, despite the seemingly slapstick quality of this first encounter, it proved to be prophetic. I was there to find out why I was there, not to learn flower arranging or to act and speak like somebody’s idea of a Buddhist.

But the lesson did not end there. As my first class progressed, I grew bold despite my initial failure to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the Buddhist concepts I had boasted of studying. At a certain point, I commented that I had been lucky in the flowers I had been given, because the leaves in my arrangement looked fresh while those of my neighbor looked like they had been eaten by bugs. Sensei, who was standing near my table when I said this, turned to my arrangement and began tearing the leaves, one by one, until they were all damaged. “The plants always die,” she said. “You learn this by practicing Ikebana. They grow, they get old, and they die. This is the way of life.”

I knew by the end of that first class that I was not going to be either a star arranger or the class expert on Buddhism; but I had learned just enough humility to know that I was going to stick around to find out why I was there.

was born Seiko Kanbayashi in Hokkaido, Japan. In 1950 she married Takao Nakashima, a Japanese-American, and she moved back with him to Hilo, Hawaii, ultimately ending up in Chicago. Mr. Nakashima passed away in 2004, and was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Sensei’s body will be buried alongside her husband’s.

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3 responses to “ Remembering Sensei Seiko Nakashima ”
  1. Gabrielle Edison
    Aug 5, 2014

    Ira, a delightful, heartfelt, humorous tribute to your Sensei who seems to have been a brilliant and genuine master, teacher, artist. I think I would have liked to have met her, and to have been completely intimidated and humbled by her. Thank you!

  2. In the mid ’80’s I had the immense good fortune to study intensively with Nakashima Sensei for several years. While my study was Cha-no-yu (tea ceremony), Sensei included a good deal of Ikebana intended for use in tea ceremony. Even some formal arrangements to my amazement. Most of my lessons were private; Sensei was so deeply generous she would teach me whenever I was able to come to Chicago after my other work there was done. Her house was almost as wonderfully eclectic as she, it being designed by a senior student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

    I especially remember two trips with her. I was the guest in a demonstration of Cha at an exhibition of Japanese meditative arts at an Indiana university. One of Sensei Nakashima’s senior Japanese students served me tea. That lady’s husband was an expert calligrapher who did a demonstration on the spot of changing styles over the centuries. Emboldened by the beauty of the work I naively asked him if he wasn’t planning to keep the calligraphies, could I please keep one I particularly loved. He immediately said yes! But said that one wasn’t good enough and did another one for me on the spot! It says Buddha Way in 16th century style and is almost 5 foot tall framed. Shortly thereafter Sensei quietly told me what I had boldly and innocently done, the man was famous in Japan and such a calligraphy was worth thousands! I am honored to display it as I was honored to have studied with Sensei.

    Nakashima Sensei once allowed me (or rather commanded me) to host her to come teach a workshop in Elkhart, Indiana where I was studying flutemaking. Of course I was overwhelmingly delighted! We took a trip to an Amish town and restaurant where we enjoyed the comparisons between their rustic simplicity and dignity to elements greatly valued in traditional Japanese aesthetics like Cha-no-yu and Ikebana. Amish spirituality is at the core of their choice of aesthetics just as our spirituality informs our buddhist expressions into a way of life.

    Nakashima Sensei, you have inspired me and deepened my love and understanding of the art of life in a cup of tea and the flowering of culture. I mourn your loss and celebrate your life. I bow down to you with happy-sad tears.

  3. My condolences to her students and friends. Thank you for this wonderful tribute. It is impressive to hear of her honours, and Trungpa RInpoche’s invitation. I hope and wish that Nakashima Sensei’s students spread the essence of what she taught.

    If I live long enough I would like to study Ikenobo and formal rikka – maybe one of her students will teach me some day? :)

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