Practicing Kindness: Mitsu Suzuki’s A White Tea Bowl

First published in Kyoto Journal 86, July 2016, pages 223–225. Newly added here is the end of the first paragraph, starting with “It follows” to the end of that paragraph, and page citations in parentheses. Originally written in March of 2015. See also Dripping Rain: Learning Haiku from Shunryu Suzuki.

A White Tea Bowl by Mitsu Suzuki. Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Translated by Kate McCandless. Berkeley, California: Rodmell Press, 2014, 192 pages, $14.95 (paperback).

It feels almost voyeuristic to read the highly personal and Zen-oriented poems and remembrances in Mitsu Suzuki’s
A White Tea Bowl (Berkeley, California: Rodmell Press, 2014). It’s a collection of 100 haiku put together by her friends to honour the poet’s 100 years of life. She was, of course, the wife of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of what is perhaps the preeminent book about Zen in English, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970). He was an early missionary for Zen in the United States, coming from Japan in 1959. Suzuki Roshi established the San Francisco Zen Center, the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara, and Green Gulch Farm Zen Center (at which I have had the privilege of teaching haiku myself). After her husband died in 1971, Mitsu Suzuki stayed on at the Zen Center for more than twenty years, teaching tea ceremony. Mitsu had taken up haiku in 1970 on the advice of her husband, and A White Tea Bowl presents 100 poems selected from 4,000 written after she returned to Japan in October of 1993. It follows her 1992 haiku book, Temple Dusk, a reading of which I had the pleasure to attend at Forest Books in San Francisco’s Mission District, run by Gregory A. Wood (one of the book’s translators, with Kazuaki Tanahashi), where haiku poet Ebba Story worked and where the Haiku Poets of Northern California sometimes had events.
        What makes the reading of A White Tea Bowl feel voyeuristic is the fact that the book is obviously a labour of love by those who knew her, with many poems about Zen and tea practice, plus reminiscences by seven of her former students, including actor Peter Coyote. They tell private stories that bring this diminutive but respected woman to life. We learn of her commitment to tea, her unwavering yet subtly taught standards, and her playful sense of humour. The stories and poems stem from a clearly close-knit community, and one may wonder if the book is targeted mostly at that community.
        Fortunately, it isn’t. Norman Fischer’s introduction opens this world to all readers, whether they are interested in haiku, in Zen practice, or the San Francisco Zen Center and its founder in particular. He gives us the outline of her life, how she met and married her husband, how she followed him to America, and how she supported him in his desire to bring Zen to the West—and extended that vision in her own way. As Yvonne Rand writes in her reminiscence, Mitsu Suzuki, when she came to be with her husband at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1961, “took her place as a clear-minded wife who stood in her own shoes and asserted herself vigorously and authoritatively, to a degree unusual for a woman in Japanese culture” (141).
        The book’s real pleasure, naturally, is the poems themselves, augmented by notes about Zen and other cultural references, which the reader can discover at the end. The poems are presented one to a page, in Japanese and romaji, with capable and smooth-reading translations by Kate McCandless that take account of the two-part structure and seasonal references in most of these haiku. Here is the first poem, from the first of the collection’s five sections:

                Valley temple bell—
                with the last ring
                a new century     (17)

We can wonder if she means the new century that began with the new millennium, or her own new century, even if the poem was written before her 100th birthday on April 23, 2014. There are also moments of keen observation:

                A young monk performs
                tea ceremony—
                hanging kettle sways slightly     (20)

Many poems reflect her Zen monastery life:

                During sesshin—
                white magnolia blossoms
                just outside the zendo     (28)

We find moments that bring her husband and his Zen teachings to mind, as in these examples:

                His portrait smiles—
                a single
                camellia blossom     (38)

                First calligraphy of the year—
                today again
                I write “beginner’s mind”      (37)

We can see her joy at life, yet also touches of sadness and loneliness:

                Good morning!
                I greet one tree after another—
                valley path     (46)

                No one left
                to give me a call—
                drizzling autumn sky     (51)

                Winter night—
                longing for company
                anyone at all     (57)

Yet she finds her own redemptions:

                Walking this path—
                I choose one patch of sunlight
                after another     (59)

She is delighted by her life and those around her:

                New Year’s cards from friends—
                colored patterns
                of my life     (63)

                Clear autumn day—
                airmail letter in my hand
                walking stick feels light     (81)

Yet she is always grounded in reality:

                Fresh green woods—
                everyone returns
                to the great earth     (69)

                Pleasure of organizing
                small drawers—
                year’s end     (83)

                White rose-mallow
                watching over the place
                where we put out the garbage     (95)

Her poems are distinctly Japanese, even though she first took up haiku in America:

                Rooted in my native place
                I bow to Mount Fuji—
                first view of the New Year     (105)

As Norman Fischer writes in the introduction, “For years in America, teaching tea ceremony and Japanese ways was her practice. Now [back in Japan], apparently, it was kindness” (4). And she speaks such truth in her haiku:

                To be of benefit to others
                my heart’s firm vow—
                cold winter morning     (122)

                No limit
                to kindness—
                winter violets     (107)

She recognizes how she is energized:

                Learning from haiku
                sustained by haiku—
                this path of dew     (108)

And she reveres nature—and her reaction to it, even when her reaction is unstated:

                Like a breath
                held—
                fallen camellia     (113)

                Grasshopper jumps out
                in front of my walking stick
                distant Fuji     (117)

Death is not far away, even while she has much to remember:

                I prepare clothing
                for my journey to the Pure Land—
                flower petals floating on water     (114)

                Birth and death
                not holding on to even one thing—
                autumn brightness     (119)

                On many years’ ash—
                I light the charcoal
                for tea ceremony     (120)

Mitsu Suzuki  died in her homeland on 9 January 2016, at the age of 101. Throughout her life, and through all of her poems, she was grateful. Readers of A White Tea Bowl, too, should be grateful for the opportunity to see into her shimmering and understated world.

                I bow to my ballpoint pen
                and throw it out—
                year’s end     (124)