Read an Excerpt
Introduction by Norman Fischer
In the summer of 2010, I went with a group of close students and friends on pilgrimage to Japan. We spent a week at Rinso-in, the original temple of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center and of our Zen practice lineage in America. Author of the most widely read of all Zen books, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi was a beloved spiritual master. He was also Mitsu Suzuki’s husband. Her years with him, and all that they brought to her life, certainly fed the silent depths whose waters gave rise to the exquisite poems that make up this book.
Rinso-in is a relatively small temple in Yaizu, formerly a fishing village, now a port city on the Pacific Ocean. In style and feeling, it is a far cry from the large Japanese Zen training monasteries, famous (if not mythological) for their tough practice. The students and friends I broughtmany of whom were Zen priestshad all practiced Zen with me for many years in the United States. I myself have never trained in Japan, and do not emphasize Japanese ways in my teaching. But I wanted my closest students to experience the feeling and flavor of the Zen that Suzuki Roshi expressed, the simple life of caring for a temple and its members that he had lived at Rinso-in, and that his son and successor, Hoitsu Suzuki, still lived.
We spent the week sitting in Rinso-in’s small zendo, chanting in its Buddha Hall, cleaning around the temple, and watching Chitose, Hoitsu Roshi’s wife, and their son Shungo, who is also a priest, and his wife Kumi, take care of the many tasks necessary to serve a local community of farmers and small business people. The busy, if also essentially peaceful, life flowed all around us as we foreigners sat zazen, talked, drank tea, cooked our meals and cleaned around the temple.
Mitsu Suzuki lives, with her daughter a 15-minute drive distance from Rinso-in. We phoned to wish her well, not expecting to see her. At 96 (her age in 2010) she deserved by now some peace and quiet, and we had been told that she was no longer receiving visitors, especially people from her San Francisco days, because the effort to speak and listen in English was becoming too difficult. But when one of our group who had been a close tea ceremony student of hers spoke to her on the phone, she said she wanted to come to meet us. We were surprised and delighted.
Okusan, as we had been used to calling her, arrived at the temple with a burst of energy. She bustled straight past us into the Buddha Hall where she immediately made prostrations and said quiet concentrated prayers, her head bowed, her prayer beads in her hand. She then got up without assistance and said loudly in English, beaming, “Welcome home!” We were touched by this, thinking she referred to usthat, as students inspired by Suzuki Roshi, his temple was in some way our real home. But later we realized she was saying this to herself“Welcome home Mitsu, to the place where your heart is kept.”
We sat for a long while having tea and cookies. She spoke English astonishingly well, as we sat on the tatami floor, she on a little chair, to preserve her knees, she said. She was like a queen holding court, self-contained and dignified, still able to hold her trim tiny body, as she had always done, energetically upright, with elegant hand gestures accompanying her words. She had brought photo albums of Suzuki Roshi in the old days. “Here,” she shows us, “is Suzuki Roshi at the moment of leaving Rinso-in for the last time,” Hoitsu behind him, the two priests, father and son, enjoying a private joke long gone by now.
She had also brought a copy of Love Haiku, an anthology by edited and translated by Patricia Donegan, in which two of her haiku appeared. Then she recited another haiku in Japanese, which had recently won a prize.
To kindness -
After a while she tired of English she went on energetically in Japanese, with one of our group translating. When asked how she kept so fit in body and mind, she replied, “I walk around the neighborhood every day for an hour. I make sure to say hello to those who live alone.” She mentioned in particular the school next door for children who “can’t go to school”she visits them every day, bringing small gifts and good cheer and the businessmen’s boardinghouse on the other side, where many men come and go, staying only for a day or two.
At the end of her visit, a traditional children’s song about spring bubbled up from her memory. She continued to sing as she strode out of our sight to her waiting car and driver, her crisp white hippari and matching white pants hardly making a sound as she glided away. Her sudden absence left the room somehow sadly empty though the group of us filled it well enough. For years in America teaching tea ceremony and Japanese ways was her practice. Now, apparently, it is kindness.
The long life of Mitsu Suzuki (her 100th birthday will be April 24, 2014) is an unrepeatable marvel. Spanning the changes and disasters of one of the most spectacular centuries in historyone in which East and West have been struggling to meet and understand one anotherthe winds of time have blown her back and forth across the ocean. Beneath her sweetness, one senses the stoic toughness she possesses not so much because she was raised to it, but because it was required of her. She was born in Shizuoka City in 1914, at the height of Japanese militarism and competition with the West. Her mother died when she was eleven, leaving Mitsu the woman of the household. At nineteen, dissatisfied with the conventionality and coldness she found in Japanese Buddhism, she converted to Christianity, becoming a member of the local Methodist Church. In 1936, at twenty-two, she married Masaharu Matsuno, a naval pilot. When war broke out in 1937 between China and Japan, Masaharu went off, with Mitsu seven months pregnant. He was killed just two weeks after seeing the first photographs of his daughter.
After the war Mitsu trained as a schoolteacher, and when her daughter was three, began teaching at a local kindergarten. When the Pacific War began (the war Americans know as World War II) and American pilots began flying their interminable and devastating raids over Japan, Mitsu and the other teachers would take their students into bunkers every day as bombs rained down on the city. On the night of June 16, 1945, just three months before Japan surrendered, the entire city of Shizuoka was burned to the ground.
Mitsu, like almost all Japanese of her generation, had been brought up to believeand had experienced the factthat Americans wanted to kill her and her countrymen. How strange, marvelous and probably disturbing then that by the early 1960s she would find herself living permanently in the United States, the new wife of a Soto Zen priest stationed in San Francisco. A working Japanese Christian single mother would not have been able to imagine such a thing in 1940. Yet it happened.
After the War the schools of Japan were in terrible shape, most of them closed, their facilities destroyed. Civic leaders everywhere rushed to take care of this problem as fast as they could. In Yaizu, Shunryu Suzuki was keen to reopen the historically important kindergarten attached to Rinso-in. He had been told of Mitsu by a mutual friend and was determined to hire her to run the school, though she insisted she would not leave Shizuoka, and that, in any case, how could a Christian woman run a Buddhist school? But Shunryu was extremely persistent. He kept reappearing in Shizuoka again and again to ask Mitsu to simply come visit the school. Finally she agreed. One visit was enough to convince her to take the job. As for the Christian problem? “Well at least you have some religion,” he told her.
Shunryu visited the school daily, leading the children in chanting and Buddhist lessons. He and Mitsu became close colleagues and friendstwo strong, opinionated, and charismatic people, with lively senses of humor. Then tragedy befell the Suzuki family: Shunryu’s wife was killed by a mentally ill priest whom he’d allowed to stay at the temple during one of his absences. He was left with three young children. He needed a wife. The Rinso-in community (including Shunryu’s mother-in-law) quickly agreed that Mitsu was the only possible choice.
They were married in the fall of 1958. He was fifty-four, she was forty-four. Within the year he had been invited to become abbot of Soko-ji temple in San Francisco, fulfilling his lifelong dream of going to America to teach Zen to Westerners. His short-term appointments to Soko-ji kept being renewed, and the longer he remained in America the more young Western students began to come to practice zazennot necessarily what the temple members were interested in. Eventually Shunryu turned over Rinso-in to Hoitsu, resigned his post at Soko-ji, and threw his lot in entirely with the young Western students. By 1961 Mitsu had came to join him. She remained for thirty-two yearsreturning home in 1994, twenty-three years after Shunryu’s death. During those years Mitsu Suzuki becameby the account of the many American students who studied teaand, yes, in an informal way, Zen with heran accomplished spiritual master. She inspired affection and respect and was a second mother to many. In her quiet yet forceful and definite way, she expressed and embodied Zen spirit and continuity with the founder. She continued to live in the small apartment in the temple building, where she taught tea, cooked, cleaned, tended altars, and received guests. She was an anchor. As long as Okusan remained, as long as she went on day by day quietly expressing her life in engagement and sympathy with the community things would be OK.
Suzuki Roshi had died too soon. Even the most developed students he left behind were young and green, full of idealism and Zen theory and moxie, but not enough maturity. They had not lived through the sorts of challenges that Okusan and her husband had experienced during their years in Japan, and so had no basis for appreciating Zen as the religion it actually isa powerful consolation and source of strength in times of suffering and instability. Okusan’s presence expressed this strength and depth during the long years of Zen Center’s rocky coming of age. She held down the fort, shored up the foundations. When that work was done, the maturity of the Center established, she went home.
More than anything else, what Okusan taught in America was what Japan lacked after the War and perhaps still lacksconfidence in the depth of the Japanese way as formed by the culture’s long encounter with the Buddhist teachings. Although she had studied tea casually as a child, it wasn’t until she came to America that she began to study in earnest. Her practice of writing haiku also began in America, during the time when Suzuki Roshi first fell ill. How strange then that the powerful expression of her life, her essential Japanesenesssthat elusive and almost ineffable feeling that unites tragedy, toughness, delicacy, beauty and simplicitywas oddly never fully expressed in her until it came out in America, possibly as a way of coping with the strangeness, or maybe the pain, of living so many years of her life among the people who had burned her country nearly to the groundincomprehensible people in many ways completely oblivious to who she was and what she had lived throughyet who, at the same time, perhaps understood and appreciated her more than anyone else ever had. Only in America did Mitsu Suzuki finally find and express her Japanese heart.
I bow to my ballpoint pen
and throw it out -
Nothing could be more Japanese than haiku. As far as I know, nothing like it exists in any other language, though because of haiku’s unique charm it has been exported into English and many other languages. It developed from renga, the linked verse form that was popular among the leisure classes in the earliest literate times in Japan. Renga was a sort of poetry parlor game. The first poet would write a provocative seventeen syllable line. The next poet would cap the line with a second line of fourteen syllables, and a third would add another seventeen syllable line, tying together as subtly and as surprisingly as possible the implied intentions of the first twoand trying to surpass them. A fourth poet, with all this in mind, would add another lineand so on, long into the night, until a lengthy linked group poem had been produced, the more word play, literary and social jokes the better. By the mid-fourteenth century poets had begun writing terse free-standing poems called hokku, which consisted only of the first seventeen syllable renga line. This form later came to be called haiku and eventually developed a flavor independent of its origins. No longer social and sophisticated in tone, it became a unique form of religious or contemplative poetry. The essential Japanese aesthetic, inspired by Zenimpermanence, the fleeting sadness and beauty of life, embeddedness in nature, a stoic sense of the humbleness of the human amid the vastness of the cosmos, simplicity, under- or unstated emotionbecame the special province of haiku. By the seventeenth century, with Basho, haiku was fully developed as a form, with many variations.
In the early twentieth century, American poet Ezra Pound, among others, took up Chinese and Japanese poetry as an antidote to the conventional rhetoric that was smothering poetry in English. For Pound, Japanese poetry’s emotional economy and, especially, its emphasis on the concrete image, was the answer. He called this “imagism,” and with it he revolutionized American poetry. Under Pound’s influence, interest in haiku in America spread, with many poets, and others writers as disparate as Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright, taking up the form and making it self-consciously American. (“Snow in my shoe/Abandoned/Sparrow's nest” Jack Kerouac, Book of Haikus, Penguin Books, 2003). These days there are haiku clubs all over the United States, Japan, and in many other places. Haiku itself has become once again, like renga, a group undertaking.
I mention all this because I believe that the poems in A White Tea Bowl come from and contribute to this hybrid international form we call haikuwhich in turn comes from the spread and hybridization of Japanese culture and religion. Mitsu Suzuki’s life embodies the Japanese spirit. Its circumstances dictated that she embrace and express that spirit so she could offer it to the American Zen students whom she lived among and nurtured for much of her adult life. But living in the United States, in the midst of the cultural ferment of the 1960s and beyond, in San Francisco, the epicenter of it all, how could she not also absorb its spirit? And how could that spirit not bleed into her writing? The quiet poems of A White Tea Bowl, like those of Mitsu’s previous collection, Temple Dusk, express in a subtle way impossible to define, the heart of a Zen life lived with loving integrity in turbulent times.
New Year’s cards from friends
of my life