Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nakashima Sensei: May She Rest In Peace

Nakashima sensei (center)

It was during the fall of 1996. After several months of looking for a credible person to teach me about Japanese gardens, a store owner of a local bonsai store gave me the phone number of a lady, who did a presentation about Japanese gardens at the University of Illinois. Her name was Dr. Ikka Nakashima.

I vividly remember my first conversation with her on the phone. Her Japanese accent was difficult to understand at first, but I managed to understand most of what she said. I was disappointed to hear she no longer did Japanese garden presentations at the university. Instead, she taught Chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) and Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) at her house. When she detected my disappointment, she told me I could learn much about the gardens through Chanoyu.

Chanoyu and Chaniwa (tea garden) same spirt,” she told me several times. “Both are harmony,” she continued. “You come next week to see, I no charge tuition first time,okay?”

Without hesitation, I accepted her invitation and attended my first Chanoyu class that following week .

It took me a little more than an hour to reach her house in Chicago’s north side, but it seemed much shorter because of my combined excitement and anticipation. With my Zafu (Japanese Zen meditation cushion) under one arm and my Zabutan (meditation mat) rolled under the other, I pressed the doorbell. Nobody answered. After a minute or so, I pressed it again. Still nobody answered. I clenched my fist to knock on the door when suddenly, it slowly opened.

A short lady with dark black hair and very pale skin appeared as the door opened. She looked up at me with a big smile, bent forward and nodded. Awkwardly, I nodded in return.

“Hello Mrs. Nakashima,” I said. “I’m Rex, the one who talked with you on the phone last week.”
“Ahso, Hai,” she replied in Japanese. “Please come in Alex.”

“Did she not hear me correctly?” I thought.  It wasn’t until she repeated my name several times more that I realized she couldn’t pronounce the letter “R” with words that began with “R.”  Instead, she pronounced the letter “L” with a brief “Ah” in front of it, much like how Filipinos interchange their “F” and “P”s.

She looked at what I was holding under my arms and smiled. “You won’t need those,” she said. “Chanoyu is not zazen. Our meditation is not sitting. It is moving meditation,” she continued as she smiled.

She had me take my shoes off and instructed me to place them neatly against the wall facing outward so that I can easily slip back into them on my way out. We then entered the house and sat down as she gave me a brief introduction to Chanoyu. After about twenty minutes, her students began filtering in to attend class.

There were five people including myself that night. Four of us were the guests and the fifth person was the host. He was the person who performed the actual ceremony, which included the making and serving of tea.

Inside the tea room, us four guests sat on our knees next to each other as we watched the host carefully and gracefully prepare tea like I’ve never seen before. Every movement he made was precise and graceful. I knew right then that Chanoyu involved a great level of discipline. Unfortunately, just when I began experiencing the serenity of the ceremony, a million ants seemed to fill every crevice of my feet.

I was not used to sitting on my knees, so after only ten minutes, the discomfort associated with one’s legs falling asleep overtook me. Thankfully, I was allowed to sit cross legged for the remainder of that night. At the end of the evening, I was so impressed that I enrolled in her classes.

Two years into my training with her, she helped make it possible for me to travel to Kyoto, Japan to attend an intensive course on Japanese gardens geared specifically for international students. After returning from Japan, I continued with my Chanoyu training. After my third year of training, an opportunity to work for master gardener, Hoichi Kurisu, in Florida came my way. Naturally, I seized the opportunity and move my family to Florida.

With the new opportunity, also came the end of my Chanoyu training with Nakashima sensei. I kept touch with her through hand written letters and an occasional visit or phone call. Of the several people who made an impact in my life, she is definitely one I will never forget. Sadly, I learned today of her recent death.

She was more than a Chanoyu teacher to me, and I will always hold a special place in my heart for her. When we first met, I was still dealing with the fresh and heavy pains of losing my parents and sister. She was there to both comfort me and encourage me to move forward in life. She always referred to me as her “boy.” When she asked me how I was, she would say, “How’s my boy doing?” Even with others, I heard her refer to me as such.

She taught me about the importance of living what we believed through our actions, living each day in the present moment, choosing a path in life that serves others, selflessness, compassion, dedication, and discipline. She was a living example of someone who lived a life of vocation; a life that centered on helping others.

She will be missed, but never forgotten. Her spirit will continue to live on through the good things she passed onto me and many others. May eternal rest be granted upon her, and may perpetual light shine upon her forever.


  1. 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.

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  3. I too have a special place in my heart reserved for Sensei Nakashima. My experience with her is much the same as what others have written. She once asked me to give her nephew Saira a tour of Chicago. I would like to contact him.I lost touch with Ikka when I moved to India where I lived for 7 years. Whenever I returned to Chicago I would go to her house which was locked and leave a note. No one ever replied. I love and miss her.

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