Naimah Hassan lived an inspiring life and faced her final illness and death with strength. Amongst many things, she is a beautiful example of the power of Dharma and the significance of sharing it with others. I am very glad to have been her friend.
I am going to share her life with you through the words of Steve and Kadam Holly, and with this last teaching that she gave from her nursing home bed.
By Steve Epstein
Every Tuesday night for many years Naimah Hassan taught a class she called “Reality Check” at Kadampa Meditation Center NYC. Naimah had been a student of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso for 21 years. She was also my wife of 37 years. The first date we had was on an Oct 25th — I went to Naimah’s apartment on Carmine Street and never left.
We started attending Buddhist classes shortly after 9/11. Living and working minutes from the World Trade Center, we were suffering shell shock and searching for some meaning in our lives. In a small room in an office building in Chelsea NY we began our healing process. The teacher was a guy with a strange first name (we believed at the time) — it was Kadam Morten; and Chakrasambara Buddhist Center was the name of the Center. Transform Your Life was the first book we read together and we attended classes Monday and Thursday nights. We found the teachings inspiring, but what really got us intrigued was the love and beaming expression on Kadam Morten’s face every time he spoke of his teacher Geshe Kelsang. I remember Hassan saying she’d never experienced anyone who loved a teacher the way Kadam Morten loved Geshe Kelsang.
In 2004 we attended our first festival in Toronto Canada. Vajrayogini entered into our lives and the journey really took off for us. We soon joined the Teacher Training Program and Naimah got deeper and deeper into the practice. She too was now beaming when she spoke of her teacher Geshe Kelsang.
Naimah was an award-winning schoolteacher for over 25 years in the NYC public school system. She was nominated for a Tony Award as best performance arts teacher in NYC. She taught theatre and improvisation to middle school children; but really she taught life skills and cleverly incorporated Dharma in ways suitable for public education students. She also performed around the world with me as a husband and wife comedy team known as Epstein & Hassan. Despite these accomplishments, the proudest moment of her life was when Kadam Morten asked her to teach a regular Tuesday night class at KMC NYC. You see for her, a Black girl turned Black woman from a small town in NY called Portchester with parents who were sharecroppers from South Carolina, this was mind blowing. She experienced the truth in the EVERYONE WELCOME! sign that was in the window.
She was very serious about transmitting the teachings in an honest way from her heart. In our apartment above our shrine are photos of the close lineage holders, Je Phabongkhapa and Trijang Rinpoche, and our root Guru Geshe Kelsang. Before teaching online during the Covid years, Naimah would prostrate before them; and told me how humbled she was in being allowed to teach in this lineage of Buddhist masters. Naimah was also serious about being a good example as a Black woman to other women of color. Naimah was always on the side of the oppressed but she never hated the oppressor. Instead, she wanted to guide them to Geshe-la’s teachings to purify their karma. A lesson she taught me that I’m still working on. She did believe in Geshe Kelsang’s teachings on universal compassion that people can be transformed.
Naimah passed away last month, on another October 25th. She had a very difficult six months at the end of her life, suffering greatly from cancer and kidney failure. She also had to deal with a healthcare system in the US that is broken and often very cruel. Hospitals and nursing homes are very understaffed and not very compassionate, especially with women of color. She spent the last 2 months unable to move at all. Despite the need to be fed, cleaned, and turned, she never once questioned “Why me?” She maintained a mind of faith, often telling me as I fell apart that she had Geshe-la in her heart. She also taught me the importance of having a mantra deep in your heart — it was often her refuge when situations were very difficult. We can always go to our mantra, no matter where we are or how awful things are around us.
From her nursing home bed, Naimah did three final Dharma talks that were filmed by Julie Stewart. Her joy in preparing these talks was so wonderful to me. Her bravery in allowing herself to be recorded was beyond inspiring. Death and pride teachings were coming in real time. One last talk on emptiness was planned, but she passed before it was recorded. She did tell Kadam Morten and me that she was going to talk on how life really is just a dream.
Lastly I want to talk about Sangha. As Kadam Morten often quoted Geshe Kelsang as saying: “You come for the Dharma; you stay for the Sangha”. The love and care Naimah received from Sangha has me crying as I type these words. Kadam Holly came from Canada and spent months sleeping on people’s couches so that she could be there with Naimah. In the last days of her life she was surrounded 24/7 by her Dakini sisters — Kadam Holly, Julie, Julia, Alex, Paige, Jennyrose, Alice, and Joan cared for her with kindness that was so inspiring; never a moment alone. All night, prayers and mantras were spoken. The minds of the hospital staff at Bellevue were blown — the example shown by Geshe-la’s students had doctors and nurses inquiring about Buddhism. Geshe-la would be so proud of the example they set. People notice Kadampas. At her death, Kadam Morten and her Dakini sisters directed her straight to the Pure Land with joy.
On one of Kadam Morten’s last visits to the nursing home — travelling by bicycle from Harlem to the Bronx — he told Naimah that she was a Jackie Robinson of modern Buddhism. Unknown to Kadam Morten was that Naimah loved Jackie Robinson; he was one of her greatest heroes. To her no one had broken the race ceilings with the courage and dignity of Jackie Robinson. Many ceilings have been broken, including having a Black president of the US; but Naimah was very stubborn on this issue. She loved being compared with Jackie Robinson, and hearing it from her direct teacher, the man who changed her life, was very precious. Naimah Hassan, a Black woman, joins in the lineage of Kadampa teachers to inspire for aeons. How wonderful. Naimah was a student, teacher, and emanation of her Spiritual Guide. She’s with him right now.
With a heart filled with gratitude, love Steve.
By Kadam Holly
A few weeks ago I said goodbye to my dear friend, Naimah Hassan, a beautiful, powerful being, artist, teacher, healer, Kadampa disciple, Vajrayogini practitioner, and Sangha family member.
When someone dies, it brings into sharp focus what was present in them that is now absent. Pretty quickly, however, we can see that all those gifts and treasures in a person, all those beautiful qualities, are not actually absent but are still very present, as long as we remember them and hold them in our hearts.
Towards the end of July this year, a few months after her kidneys failed and she almost died, Naimah was telling me about a workshop she was creating for a library called “Finding the Superhero Within”. Soon after that conversation she collapsed, ended up in the hospital, and a week later went into a coma-like state from which they could not wake her up. I wondered if that might have been my last conversation with her — it made me really contemplate her superheroine within and her superpowers …
There are several qualities that I deeply admire in Naimah and, especially because she’s no longer here in three dimensions, I’m going to rejoice in and feel happy about these qualities, wishing to carry them with me and deepen them over time. This way her gifts to me are not wasted, and the impact of her virtues can continue to ripple out through time and space.
The power of her sincerity as a disciple
From the moment I met her decades ago, Naimah struck me as a very sincere student looking for an authentic spiritual teacher. Her humility and sincerity continued throughout her life, and led her to a deep faith in Venerable Geshe-la and the Three Jewels, and in Vajrayogini, Tara, and Dorje Shugden. She really listened to the teachings and was always striving to practice them. The last six months were filled with a relentless series of health challenges for Naimah, and this practice and faith got her through. Her shrine at the nursing home was filled with many different images of Geshe-la, through which many practitioners and non-practitioners received many blessings. I so admire the beauty of her discipleship.
The power of her compassion and healing presence
As Geshe-la says in Living Meaningfully Dying Joyfully, “A qualified healer must develop the internal realization of compassion.” I think Naimah was well on her way to this. Compassion was Naimah’s most extraordinary gift, which I witnessed in her work and relationships with children and adults as well as in her experiences in the last few months of her life.
She was very empathic and seemed to know what you were going through, even before you did! She was especially gifted with kids, able to make a deep connection with each child — seeing their struggles and their gifts, creating an encouraging, inviting space for each individual’s unique expression and for their Buddha nature to manifest. She had such a powerful presence; she listened with her whole being. She really recognized people’s pure hearts and accepted their full humanity. People felt held and safe enough to be 100% themselves, tell their stories, and share their creativity, aspirations, and dreams with her. Naimah’s classes and workshops were deeply healing and transformational.
The hospitals and nursing homes where Naimah spent her last few months were often very noisy. People were upset, yelling for the nurses, sometimes shouting, blasting televisions, loud machines, loud-talking roommates, etc. Although sometimes Naimah was really tired and couldn’t sleep well with all the noise, I never saw her get fed up with or rejecting of the people who were making noise. She just clearly and immediately recognized this was the sound of their suffering … she didn’t move from her compassion.
The power of her effort
I call Naimah the Queen of Effort. Her practice was so steady, like a heartbeat, from the beginning. No matter what was going on, she always did her sadhana. She said, “You have to do the work.” She finally had the opportunity to do her Vajrayogini counting retreat in the first few months of 2020 and then Covid arrived. Because of her low kidney function she had to stay away from any possible exposure and was unable to do the concluding fire puja up at the temple, so she did her long sadhana every single day for more than a year. Just after she said to me, “I guess I’ll just do Quick Path to Great Bliss forever!”, they announced there would be an online fire puja with Gen-la Dekyong. In the last six months, Naimah’s Heart Jewel, Dakini Yoga, and Liberation from Sorrow prayers accompanied her in three hospitals, two nursing homes, and one dialysis center. On the days she was too sick to do all the prayers, she recited mantras – practicing and teaching right to the end.
The power of her patient acceptance
Naimah made so much sincere effort to maintain her health, her strength, and her precious human life for as long as possible. Things got more difficult as time went on, as she continued to lose strength and physical capacities and movement became more painful. We may have a sentimental idea of what our death will be like, but in reality leaving our body is not easy – our body doesn’t make it easy. However, she managed to be in the present, each day, doing her best to work with whatever challenges presented themselves with whatever capacities she currently had. It was hard for her to not see any improvement from her efforts, but she still made the effort with whatever strength she had. She didn’t give up; she just always did her best. She didn’t complain, or say “Why me?”
The power of her speech
Her powerful compassionate presence combined with her humility and sincerity, her steady effort over many years, and her deep faith in Geshe-la made her a powerful teacher with many devoted students. In between her first two hospital stays, she continued to teach her online class at KMC NYC. In her last month, when she could no longer get up, she videotaped four teachings from her hospital bed. Close to her death, it became difficult for her to speak, or form words, but she still made a huge effort to recite mantras along with us until she went fully inwards.
Naimah made a deep impression on the doctors – one of whom even joined us for the powa after Naimah had died.
The power of her Sangha
It was beautiful to be with Naimah throughout this experience, as well as part of a devoted Sangha team making prayers for Naimah which spanned the whole of her ordeal from her initial kidney failure in May to her passing away on October 25. In one of many extraordinary moments, in early August, Naimah fell into a coma-like state while at a nursing home, and a team of kind people began non-stop Tara prayers — after 5 days, she woke up on Tara Day. And in a stroke of luck, Kadam Lucy was able to tell Venerable Geshe-la this because she happened to bump into his assistant — and the message came back straightaway that Geshe-la was praying for her.
In the last few days of her life there was a team of Sangha with her round the clock, and many others in various places around the city and the world dedicating for her. We received much kindness and cooperation from the nurses, doctors, and aides at the hospital in Naimah’s last few days — this was one of the many ways in which peoples’ prayers for her manifested. Is a hospital just a noisy, tragic place filled with suffering, sadness, and loss? Or is it a place where continuous gentle kindnesses and sincere compassionate actions flow like rivers throughout the day and the night? I would say that, with Buddha’s blessings, it became a Lamrim Pure Land and a launchpad to Keajra.
I am going to allow myself to be sad about Naimah’s passing for one reason only … we have lost a very dynamic African American Kadampa Buddhist teacher. We do not have enough. We need many more. I pray that Naimah will inspire many more people of color to become Kadam Dharma teachers so that everyone at our Centers is truly and fully represented.
It was always easy to see Naimah as “the beautiful, powerful, lady of Dakini Land” but, in case we needed an extra sign, she passed away on October 25th, Dakini Day and Je Tsongkhapa’s birthday. I have great confidence that she has gone to prepare a place for all of us.
(Your own memories are most welcome too in the Comments below).