|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
in Crooked Cucumber
Mitsu Suzuki in Crooked Cucumber
From the Introduction p.xiv
On a mild Tuesday afternoon in August of 1993 I had an appointment with Shunryu Suzuki's widow of almost twenty-two years, Mitsu Suzuki. Walking up the central steps to the second floor of the San Francisco Zen Center's three-story redbrick building, I passed the founder's alcove, dedicated to Shunryu Suzuki. It is dominated by an almost life-size statue of him carved by an old Japanese sculptor out of a blond cypress stump from the Bolinas Lagoon. "Hi Roshi, 'bye Roshi," I muttered, bowing quickly as I went by.
Mitsu Suzuki-sensei was the person on my mind. We had been close, but I hadn't seen her much in recent years. Soon she would move back across the Pacific for good. I was a little nervous. I needed to talk to her, and although there wouldn't be much time, I didn't want to rush. What I sought was her blessing.
"Come in, David," she said in her sweet, high voice from the kitchen door at the end of the hall. I stepped inside and there she was, looking strikingly young for the last year of her seventh decade. "No hugs," she said quickly, holding her hands out to ward me off, then rubbing her ribs. About fifteen years earlier I had been a bit too exuberant in expressing my affection, and my hug must have bruised some ribs. I bowed, tipping my body as Japanese do (without joining hands), and said something polite in Japanese.
She stood almost a foot below me. Her face was round and childlike as ever, her hair long, straight, and black, with just a bit of grey here and there. She wore homemade loose pants and a blouse printed with chrysanthemums, the same material on top and bottom, an earthy brown and soft blue. The tiny kitchen was filled with knickknacks as always, the wall covered with art, photos, a calendar. After some polite chitchat about family members and about a book I'd written, I brought up the purpose of my visit.
"Some publisher may be interested in . . . it has been suggested to me that I . . . might . . . um . . . write some on Suzuki-roshi. Collect the oral history - stories about Suzuki-roshi, people's memories."
"Oh, thank you for writing about Hojo-san," she said, with the pitch ascending on the thank. Hojo-san is what she always called her husband. Hojo is the abbot of a temple; san is a polite form of address.
"So you really think it's okay for me to do a book on Suzuki-roshi?"
"Oh, yes, yes," she said emphatically. "Tell many funny stories."
"Umm . . . funny stories, yes . . . but not just funny. Serious and sad ones too, everything, right?"
"Yes, but people like the funny stories. Mainly you should tell funny stories. That will be good. Hojo-san liked funny stories. Everyone will be very happy to read them."
"There may be some people who don't think I should do the book."
She sat back down across the table from me and looked directly at me. "When I speak now, it is Suzuki-roshi's voice coming through my mouth and he says, 'Please write a book about me and thank you very much for writing a book about me.' Those are his words. I speak for him."
It was time to go. She offered me a green metallic frog that fit in the palm of my hand. "Here, take this," she said. "It belonged to Hojo-san. He would be happy for you to have it. He loved frogs very much," she said, drawing out the first syllable of very. "I'm giving everything away. When I go back to Japan I go like the cicada. It leaves its shell behind. I will do that too."
"I want to come visit you there and ask you about Hojo-san."
"No, no, no," she said adamantly. "No more English. I will leave my poor English behind me."
"Then I will speak in my poor Japanese," I said, in my poor Japanese.
"Okay, please come visit then. But keep your voice small when you do. Your voice is too big."
"Okay," I said in a tiny voice and passed her at the door, assuring her as she instinctively cringed that I wasn't going to hug her.
"Remember," she said, "tell many funny stories." Then, "Why would anyone not want you to do a book on Hojo-san?"
"Various reasons. You know he didn't want anything like that. It would be impossible not to misrepresent him. And you know what Noiri-roshi said over twenty years ago?" Noiri was a colleague of Suzuki's, a strict and traditional priest, now old and revered.
"No, what did Noiri-san say?"
"That Suzuki-roshi was one of the greatest Japanese of this century and that no one should write about him who doesn't know all of his samadhis [deep states of meditation]." "
Good!" she said clapping, with delight in her voice. "There's your first funny story!"
from Ch. 7 – the Occupation, p. 125
Mitsu Matsuno was head of a residential kindergarten for the children of war widows in Shizuoka, the capital of the prefecture about thirty miles from Yaizu. On one side of the school was a dorm for the children and on the other side were their mothers. Mitsu lived with her twelve-year-old daughter, Harumi, in a room on the children's side. She was an intelligent, energetic woman with a round face and fair complexion. On a simmering summer day in 1949 she was returning to work when she unexpectedly discovered an old friend sitting on the hallway floor, eating a box lunch with a handsome monk in his mid-forties. "What brings you here, Tsuneko-san?" she asked.
"I've come to introduce you to this monk."
"And is this esteemed monk looking for a wife?" she teased, without the sort of respect women customarily showed to priests.
"No, no, Hojo-san has a fine wife," Tsuneko managed to say as she bent over laughing.
"Is that so?" Mitsu continued. "Then what is it you want of me?"
"He has opened a kindergarten and hasn't found a head teacher to manage it. My father recommended you, so we came here. I'm sorry we didn't let you know beforehand."
"I risked my life to get the children here into bomb shelters time after time during the war. The whole city burned down but we lived. After all I've done to keep it open in these difficult times, you want me to leave? I can't do that. I've resolved to spend the rest of my life here."
Shunryu had expedited the reopening of a Buddhist kindergarten in Yaizu that had been closed during the last year of the war and used by the army. It had been empty for three years, and neighbors were growing potatoes in the playground. Originally Shunryu had asked the Yaizu Buddhist Council to get the kindergarten reopened. They agreed it was a good idea and asked him to please take care of it. Called Tokiwa Kindergarten, it was the oldest such school in the prefecture. The priest who had founded it in 1924, Aoshima Zen'an, was now eighty and the abbot of a small neighboring branch temple of Rinso-in. Shunryu had known his kindergarten and sympathized with Zen'an's philosophy of Buddhist education; his emphasis wasn't on curriculum as much as on attitude—strict yet gentle.
Before Japan was defeated in the war and completely surrendered, the Japanese people thought that their moral code was absolutely right and straightforward and that if they just observed it they would not make any mistakes. Unfortunately, that moral code had been set up at the beginning of the Meiji Era. After losing the war they lost confidence in their morality and didn't know what to do. But morality should not be so difficult to find. I said to them, "You have children. If you think of how to raise them, you will naturally know your moral code."
Shunryu encouraged Zen'an to get the school going again and agreed to become involved, as Zen'an was too old to do the legwork. All over Japan priests were opening preschools, and Shunryu was glad to take part in this trend. It was another way to help reinvigorate his community, which was still weary and recuperating from the war.
Zen'an advised Shunryu about education and about getting the school reopened. Shunryu visited other Buddhist kindergartens, subscribed to a magazine on Buddhist education, gathered support from businessmen including godfather Amano, formed a board, and sought out teachers from among the daughters of the danka of Rinso-in and his young women students. He saw to the restoration of the building, dealt with the local government, got it licensed, and put the word out. It opened on May 5, Children's Day, 1949, with all classes full and Zen'an as principal.
Soon after it opened Zen'an died, and Shunryu needed to find a qualified principal. Shunryu's well-connected friend Isobe in Shizuoka told him about Mitsu, and got his daughter Tsuneko to make the connection. But Mitsu turned him down. Shunryu was struck with her straightforwardness and decided not to give up on her.
Mitsu saw Shunryu walking up to her school on the sidewalk, clattering in his wooden geta with white socks, shading himself from the sun with a black bamboo monk's hat and a monk's large black lacquered paper umbrella. That funny priest is back, she thought, looking at him. After Shunryu greeted her, she said, "I hate the idea of moving second only to dying."
A few days later he came again and she told him not to wear that strange flapping hat because it looked like a witch's hat and scared the children. He returned next time without the hat and she said she was too busy to see him. He kept coming every few days.
One day she told Shunryu, "I think you don't know that I'm a Christian. It would be inappropriate for me to run a Buddhist school."
"That's better than having no religion at all," he answered firmly.
"Go find a good Buddhist principal," she said.
On another visit she said, "I don't know anyone in Yaizu, but I think it is an ugly city full of fishermen—it even smells like fish. I've never wanted to go back there."
"My temple has no fishermen. The members there all smell like farmers, bureaucrats, and businessmen."
Every few days he'd show up and each time she'd rebuke him in one way or another. He even sent Chie over with fruit wrapped in colorful cloth. After a couple of months and a lot of train trips, Shunryu said to Mitsu, "There are some people I'd like you to meet in Yaizu, that city you detest so much. Why don't you just come once to visit?"
Shunryu met Mitsu at her school the next day and escorted her to a large home where a doctor named Ozawa lived with his family. He and his wife greeted Mitsu and served tea. Mitsu found them to be sophisticated and gracious. They were intellectuals; his wife taught koto (a stringed instrument), which Mitsu too had studied. It worried her: they would be hard to turn down. The doctor implored her to come take over the school.
She explained her responsibilities in Shizuoka. "Isobe will take care of that," the doctor said, referring to the man who had originally recommended her to Shunryu. "He has clout at the prefectural office."
She protested that she was unqualified to run this historically prominent school.
He gave her a piercing glance and said, "You don't have to be so brilliant. All you'd have to do is show up and stand there."
Mitsu felt as if a bolt of lightning had struck her, simultaneously burning away her feelings of conceit and unworthiness. "Then I only need to be there, standing and doing nothing? That's all?"
"Yes, that's right. Just stand there and do nothing."
"I'll do it then," she said.
Mitsu found a replacement for her former position, went right to work as the acting principal at Tokiwa, and moved into Rinso-in with her daughter Harumi. She started to attend temple services and soon found out that Shunryu was well thought of by his congregation. She admired Chie and got along with Chie's mother, Kinu, called Obaa-san, grandmother. She took Obaa-san on as a sort of new mother, as hers had died when she was eleven and her mother-in-law had died just after the war. After a month she and her daughter moved in with the family of a master plasterer who was a friend of Shunryu's. On January 1, 1950, she was installed in her new position at the Tokiwa Kindergarten, and she did a great deal more than just stand there.
Mitsu was born to Kaemon and Toki Sakai in Shizuoka on April 23, 1914. She was so vocal that people joked she had been born of her mother's mouth. She loved storytelling and drama. Her father worked at city hall and her family was Buddhist, members of Jodo Shin-shu, the True Pure Land sect, which emphasized faith and gratitude. She went to a Methodist school and converted. She felt that she had been hardened by the early loss of her mother and that Christianity would help her to develop a warmer personality. In 1936 she married a navy pilot, Masaharu Matsuno, a kind man who had the sort of character she wished she had. After only nine months of marriage, he had to go to fight in China in a war that neither had anticipated.
He flew fifty-eight bombing missions to Nanking. She wrote him letters saying, "Please remember people in China are no different from me. They are families waiting for the safe return of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who have gone to war. So please don't drop bombs on towns. Please try to drop them on places like rice fields only to startle the snails." Masaharu died there, leaving her with a daughter he'd never met. Mitsu called her Harumi, a combination of their two names.
Every morning except Sunday, Shunryu pedaled down the road on his bicycle to the Tokiwa Kindergarten, not far from the center of town. He would lead the teachers in a circumambulation of the building and then go to the playroom, where a Buddha statue was enshrined at an altar. There he would offer incense and lead the teachers, each holding a text, in a recitation of the Shushogi (The Meaning of Practice and Enlightenment), a modern compilation from Dogen's writings. After that he would say a few words of encouragement. Then the children would arrive, Chie bringing Otohiro, who was now five.
One day when he was eleven, Shunryu's son Hoitsu went to a ceremony at the school and heard his father speak.
All beings have buddha nature and all life is precious. We are nurturing Buddha's children and we should do so with Buddha's compassionate mind. We shouldn't see some as sharp and others as dull. By treating all children without discrimination, we enable them to see all beings as equal. We should perceive things with our fundamental eye, not only with the consciousness that makes the distinctions of daily life. That is the eye of wisdom—to appreciate things and people "as they are" and live our lives fully in the universe that is "as it is."
On her first day at work, Shunryu asked Mitsu to attend Kishizawa's lectures as part of her job. That she was Christian didn't matter, he said, she had a religious mind, which his teaching would penetrate. Kishizawa was teaching at a university in Kobe, but he still returned to his temple to give talks once a month. When he gave a dharma talk on Dogen's Shobogenzo at his temple, monks would come from all over. At his talks for laypeople nearly everyone would be in their sixties or seventies. Mitsu was just thirty-five. She would sit in the front row and listen carefully. His talks were often on the Shushogi, which she wanted to understand because they chanted it at school. She couldn't understand much, but Shunryu told her not to worry: "Just sit there with your ears on your head."
One day she said to Kishizawa, "I feel refreshed when I walk out through the temple gate after your lecture, but when I return I feel muddy all over again. Isn't it bad to repeat this pattern?"
Kishizawa answered, "After walking in the fog my robe doesn't dry easily. After getting caught in a shower it does. Either is fine. I'm still walking in fog. That's all for my talk today."
Mitsu joined the zazenkai of the kindergarten teachers. One day after zazen and Shunryu's brief talk, she asked a bold question. "Hojo-san, I know I shouldn't ask this, but could you please tell me what is gained from zazen? I don't want to do it for no reason."
A practical question called for a practical answer: "The practice of zazen makes you capable of dealing with a situation in the best way, on the spot."
Another time Mitsu told Shunryu that she was having trouble understanding Kishizawa's lectures and asked if he could tell her in a few words what Buddhism was all about.
"Mmmmm," he murmured breathing out slowly. "Accept what is as it is and help it to be its best."
Mitsu applied that attitude with the teachers in the kindergarten, praising rather than criticizing them. Soon she noticed that they were treating her like family. She now considered herself a Buddhist, but didn't mention it to Shunryu.
Ch.8 – Family and Death, p. 152
Now Shunryu had two kindergartens to tend to, and Mitsu was principal of both. In April of 1954 he had opened a branch of the Tokiwa Kindergarten near the train station. In a brand-new building with living quarters for Mitsu, a second kindergarten had been created by popular request. He would see Mitsu in the mornings when he went to greet the kindergartens' teachers.
Ch.9 – An Opening, p. 156
"Wife?" Obaa-san was taken by surprise.
Shunryu explained that he had to find a woman to marry. The temple in America had requested that a married priest be sent, and Gido had told them that's what they were getting. Shunryu had applied for a visa as a married man, so now he needed to get married. He asked Obaa-san for a suggestion as to who his bride should be. "You can only marry Mitsu," she said.
"Oh, of course," he answered.
It wasn't the first time her name had come up. A year after his wife died, some of the danka had suggested he find a new wife, and Kinu Obaa-san had said then that it could only be Mitsu. Rumors spread, but the couple kept putting off the decision, until finally they dropped the matter, each saying it was because of the other's stubbornness.
Of course. Mitsu.
They had been a team for years, and there was affection between them. She was tough enough to stand up to him, and he could accept her independence. Their eccentricities seemed to match well, and it was thought that neither of them should be with an ordinary person. It wouldn't be fair. They were perfect for each other.
Obaa-san talked with Mitsu, who accepted without hesitation. She said there was no thought about whether she wanted to or not, that Obaa-san had asked her and she would do it. On the other hand, Mitsu was a strong-willed woman who wasn't easy to push around. And Shunryu, though even smaller than she, was a handsome man.
Amano had his hands full. The danka were divided. Some supported Shunryu's plan to go to America and understood how important it was to him. Others didn't mind as long as there were priests to conduct the ceremonies. But most were against it, and some were absolutely opposed. Why did he want to go there and abandon us? There were those who said he was leaving because of shame over his wife's murder, which was known throughout Japan via the Zen grapevine. There was gossip in Yaizu that he was escaping criticism from the danka for being away and socializing too much. But the real problem was that the danka did not want Shunryu to leave because he was popular, and it was also a matter of principle. "This is where he should be! This is his duty!" members said in meetings. Some thought he should just go for one year. Amano said that three years would go by quickly, and there were good priests who would cover his duties.
There was another problem. Just as Shunryu had sprung on them that he was marrying Chie right after they had accepted him as abbot back in 1936, Amano told the board that Shunryu wanted to get married again. A number of danka strongly objected to Shunryu's marrying Mitsu. But after another round of discussions, Amano persuaded them to go along with Shunryu's request.
In early December Yasuko got married. A week later Shunryu and Mitsu were married in a private ceremony. They had a small party in the evening to celebrate. Yasuko's husband moved into the temple with her. They agreed to stay till Shunryu came back. Obaa-san would need her help.
Mitsu continued to live at the school. She and Shunryu maintained their normal work schedules except for necessary preparations. She wouldn't go with him right away. He wanted to get situated first and prepare for her and Otohiro. He really wasn't thinking much about them. He assumed it would work out. There was a lot to do, and the day of departure was only months away.
Meanwhile, Mitsu had become ill. Her energy was low and she had a bad cough. She had been to several doctors, but they didn't know what it was. She didn't want Shunryu to go to America until she was better or at least until they knew what was wrong with her. She thought she might die. Shunryu visited her frequently but wouldn't postpone his trip. Her medical problem was chronic, and she still didn't know what it was. At the going-away banquet for Shunryu she kept her complaints to herself.
That night at Haneda airport, Yasuko and her husband; Hoitsu and Otohiro; Mitsu and her daughter Harumi; Godfather Amano; and members of the High Grass Mountain Group all bid farewell to Shunryu Suzuki.
Ch.10 – A New Leaf, p.185
Although students and congregation members helped in their spare time, Suzuki expressed frustration at all he had to do. He told Kato he wished his wife, Mitsu, could join him. He'd always had women to help him run a temple. He wrote asking Mitsu to come, but she refused, saying she was needed at the two kindergartens and would wait for him to return to Japan when his three-year stint in America was up. Mitsu was no longer ill. A doctor had finally diagnosed her with thyroiditis, and a simple operation had corrected her problem, but she was still angry at her husband for abandoning her when she was sick.
Ch.11 – Bowing, p. 203
The band in the basement started to play a familiar melody, one of Suzuki's favorites and one of Japan's most cherished: "Sakura," cherry blossoms. It was a favorite of Mitsu's too—a sweet, sad, simple yet elegant tune. They were playing it over and over. What was Mitsu doing now so far away in Japan? She too would be sleeping alone at the kindergarten. She was still angry at him for not postponing his trip to America, leaving her there to die.
Every week when the boys' band played this song, he thought of Mitsu. Rain blew against the windowpanes. Suzuki sat in a hard wooden chair in the kitchen, looking into the darkness toward the balcony over the auditorium, tears running down his cheeks.
Ch.12 – Sangha – p.212
Suzuki's daughter, Yasuko, and her younger brother, Hoitsu, watched the Montana Maru slowly pull out of Yokohama harbor. On board were Mitsu and Otohiro, off to America. Otohiro cried hard and waved goodbye from the deck.
George Hagiwara, Suzuki's good friend in the Sokoji congregation, had set the move in motion late in 1960. Hagiwara was visiting relatives in Japan, and, at Suzuki's urging, he made a special trip to Yaizu to implore Mitsu to go to America. He told her that Suzuki wanted to stay longer than originally planned. So many people were coming to study with him that he felt he couldn't accomplish his mission in just three years. He needed her help.
Kinu Obaa-san also urged Mitsu to go, saying that Shunryu had been living abroad for two years alone, managing everything by himself. It was important work, and she wanted him to succeed. Mitsu succumbed to the pressure, swallowed her pride, and agreed to go.
Obaa-san insisted that Suzuki's youngest son go too. Otohiro was seventeen, almost through high school, and she couldn't be responsible for him anymore. Knowing that he might not be back for a long time, Otohiro visited his sister Omi at the mental institution to say goodbye. She had been there for six years; it would probably be her permanent home. He had come only a few times through the years, and she was happy to see him. She had gained a lot of weight.
Once Mitsu had agreed to go, Suzuki wrote to her, "I've bought you a bed with the very best mattress. Also I got you an American ironing board and fancy new iron. They stand up here to do their ironing. These are the only things I have bought you. It's not much, I know. But I am eagerly awaiting your arrival with Otohiro, whom I also miss very much."
On June 14, 1961, Mitsu and Otohiro were met by Suzuki and a small entourage from the congregation at Pier 41 in San Francisco. Like Suzuki when he'd first arrived, Mitsu and Otohiro were shocked at the austerity of their living quarters. The rooms were clean, but there was only space enough to sleep. Otohiro slept in the attic chamber across the landing from his parents' room. Suzuki had squeezed Mitsu's new bed next to his own. Later she confided to a student that he did not invite her to his bed for six months. She felt that this was because he had been so affected by the attentions of other women.
It wasn't just the urgings of Obaa-san and Hagiwara that had changed Mitsu's mind. In his recent letters Suzuki had told her how kindly some of the women students were treating him. He hinted that advances had been made, though not from his close women students. It would be easier to resist them if she were there, he wrote. One woman had hidden in the building and approached him after he'd locked up. She wouldn't leave, and he finally had to call a senior student to come help him.
There was a very helpful woman named Alice who sometimes cooked for Suzuki and urged him to try a health food diet that included carrot juice. She noticed that his teeth were bad, took up a collection, and took him to a dentist to get a set of false teeth. She did his laundry and bought him some long johns. He liked them and would continue to wear them to bed and even under his robes when it was cold. She didn't go to zazen much but became a fixture in the kitchen, drinking tea with Suzuki and his students and saying, "Please, Sensei, tell me about Zen. I'm really trying hard to understand." As soon as Mitsu arrived, Alice disappeared and went to India to look for another guru.
The congregation and the zazen students welcomed the new Suzukis. They brought gifts and showed them around town. A Sokoji couple, the Katsuyamas, invited them to dinner on a Tuesday night, and soon it became an established custom. Suzuki took his wife and son to Mimatsu, a cheap, old-fashioned Japanese restaurant with high wooden booths, where he frequently went. Three members of the Sokoji congregation owned it. He showed them Honnami's fine handicraft store and a Japanese confectionery, where they ate green manju sweets and drank tea. George Hagiwara took them all to the Japanese Tea Garden. It was almost as if Mitsu and Otohiro had gone to another Japanese city.
Otohiro was painfully shy and felt lost. He dreaded finishing high school in America and begged not to be made to go. Maybe he could get a job, he said. He had never done well in school in Japan, and he didn't know any English. His father said he would learn. The worst part was that he had to be a junior again. Suzuki organized a group for older teenage boys, both Japanese and Japanese-Americans, not just temple members. About twenty-five of them met once a week. Otohiro made some friends. After a few months he moved into a small apartment across the street that Sokoji maintained for guests.
If you live together, there is not much need to speak to each other. You will understand.
Mitsu and Shunryu had never lived together before, but they quickly adapted to life together. Her responsibility, as she saw it, was to take care of her husband first, then the members, the zazen students, and the building. She was as industrious as he was. On her first morning, after breakfast, she made pickles while her husband melted down old candles into new ones. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry, received visitors, and met with the women's group. Beyond the call of duty she sat zazen with her husband's students, taking the front seat next to the kitchen door on the women's side. She enlivened Sokoji; there was a lot more talk with her around. And she was no pushover for Suzuki. They were old friends, and he was used to relating to her on a fairly equal basis, considering the traditional culture they came from. Sometimes students would hear them get into squabbles—a new side to their master!
Mitsu took to her new life at Sokoji with admirable ease. She said it was just like her job in Japan, where there had always been people visiting and hanging out at the school, except now there were Caucasians as well as Japanese. She started to pick up English right away—just enough. With her outgoing personality it was probably easier for her to move into the role of temple wife in San Francisco than it would have been in Japan.
Everybody took to calling Mitsu Okusan, which means "Mrs."—a traditional address for the wife of the house. A lot of people thought it was her name. Okusan was friendly with the zazen students and especially got along with Betty, Della, and Jean. But she objected to the fact that many of the younger ones were often unkempt and had dirty feet.
"Don't complain," Suzuki told her. "They are good Zen students and you should respect them. In fact, you should wash their feet."
Okusan took him seriously and started to put out carefully folded damp towels at the doorway to the zendo. She would show the students how to wipe their feet before they stepped on the tatami.
"Clean feet, clean feet," she would say in her sweet, musical voice. The students accepted her right away, and feet were cleaner.
Not that Suzuki himself was a good fiscal manager. Soon after Mitsu arrived, the treasurer of the congregation told her that her husband hadn't been cashing his paychecks. First the treasurer had to explain what checks were; there was no such thing in Japan. She caught on quickly. After some searching, Okusan found the checks when they fell out of a book in the office. From then on they went to her. What had he been living on, she wondered?
Another example of her husband's impracticality led Okusan to insist that she do the grocery shopping. He would sometimes drop by the market on his way home to purchase vegetables, especially his favorite, sweet potatoes. The problem was that he would choose the oldest, most wilted and damaged vegetables. She would ask how in the world he could pay money for such produce. He'd say he felt sorry for them. She had even found him on the street picking up Chinese cabbage that had fallen off of the delivery truck—echoes of his father.
With Okusan there, time with Suzuki became more precious. He wasn't as available as before to go out to movies and dinner, although the pleasant morning teatime continued after service, and people still dropped by to say hello or ask questions. Even though Okusan was friendly and enjoyed being with the students, she was always encouraging her husband to go back to Japan. She thought he was too weak and prone to illness to stay.
Ch.13 – Journeys, p.234
At ten in the evening Grahame kneeled before Suzuki on the altar in the dimly lit zendo. Only his wife, Pauline, and Okusan were there to observe. It didn't take long. Grahame didn't even know what was happening. Suzuki didn't explain anything. Grahame didn't receive robes or get his head shaved—Suzuki just waved a razor over his head and chanted in Japanese.
Suzuki had on his rimless glasses and had been reading and making notes for hours. (He kept them tied to him so he wouldn't lose them.)
"Hojo-san," Okusan said, "why do you work so hard preparing for lecture? It's raining, and the last night it rained only two people came. I hope that ten come tonight."
"One or ten, there's no difference!" he barked at her.
"Very well, I won't worry about it anymore."
In early Indian Buddhism public speaking had been dubbed one of the Five Fears. One day Suzuki casually mentioned that he'd like Katagiri to give the talk the following Wednesday evening—in English. Suzuki learned quickly and seemed to do everything well (in contrast to the youthful Crooked Cucumber). Katagiri was the opposite. He labored over every new task and learned at a snail's pace. He was enthusiastic and tried hard, but nothing was easy—especially English. He worked night and day in a pitiable state of dread, preparing for his first talk. On that Wednesday night Suzuki further terrified him by showing up with Okusan to hear him. Suzuki introduced him, since some people came only to lectures and didn't know who he was.
Uphill and around the corner from Sokoji was the BCA, Buddhist Churches of America, headquarters for Jodo Shin Buddhism in the United States. BCA had a much larger and wealthier congregation than Sokoji. Suzuki had come to be close with their chief priest, Bishop Hanayama, and his wife, who was Okusan's tea ceremony teacher. She was also a judge for the granting of recognition to calligraphy instructors in Japan. In keeping with the Japanese cultural admonition to study for life, Suzuki became her student. One afternoon early in 1964, following his calligraphy class, Suzuki dropped by the temple's Buddhist bookstore, perhaps the only bookstore in America specializing in Buddhist books, in both Japanese and English. Behind the counter was a twenty-three-year-old Jodo Shin priest, Koshin Ogui. Suzuki stayed and talked for a while.
Before long Ogui was a frequent addition to the Sokoji zendo as well as to the kitchen, where he often joined Suzuki and Okusan for afternoon tea breaks or dinner.
There was a going-away party for Okusan and Phillip in late March of 1964. They were off to Japan, she to visit for a few months, and he to Eiheiji for a year.
Ogui, the Jodo Shin priest, had continued to sit zazen at Sokoji and developed a unique relationship with Suzuki. They were like buddies, and Ogui saw a side of Suzuki not often exposed to the congregation members, who were older and fairly proper, or to the Zen students, with whom Suzuki maintained some formal reserve. If a samurai movie was being shown in Sokoji's auditorium, Suzuki might ask Ogui to watch with him from the balcony. Sometimes they'd get to laughing so loud that Okusan would come out and tell them to be quiet so the paying moviegoers below could hear.
Ogui noticed the eccentric way that Suzuki would relate to possessions. Suzuki had almost nothing of his own and seemed to want almost nothing. He said that everything he had was borrowed from the world for as long as he needed it, even his glasses, which he was grateful to be able to use for a while for his "tired old eyes." Sometimes he'd play with ownership. A student asked Suzuki what was the right thing to do with a twenty-dollar bill she'd found on the sidewalk. "Here, I'll take it," said Suzuki, and picked it out of her hand. On occasion he would sneak food offerings from the altar and give them to Ogui. One time Okusan caught him slipping a large bottle of soy sauce to Ogui. She demanded he return it, at least until the Obon festival was over, or else the donors would notice and feel slighted. It was not yet his to take.
Okusan said her husband had no greed except for fine old pottery, and Ogui could attest to that. Mrs. Sekino invited the Suzukis and Ogui to dinner. At one point when Mrs. Sekino and Okusan went into the kitchen, Suzuki reached into his sleeve and took out an incense burner. It was Korean, ceramic, with a translucent, pale green celadon glaze. He placed it on the bookshelf. Questioned by Ogui, he explained, "It was so beautiful I had to borrow it. I've enjoyed it enough, so it's time to return it."
Ch.14 – Taking Root, p.254
She [Toni] wrote about that in her journal, which Suzuki would read every week and comment on. Often there were questions about what was called "family practice." That week Suzuki wrote in her journal, "No one knows what is wrong love and what is true love. Have faith in me and yourself and let's have dinner together all four of us. But wait—I must first ask my tigress!" (Okusan was born in the year of the tiger. "He's a dragon," she would say. "When we fight, he's up in the clouds while I'm growling on the ground.")
Once Toni and Tony took the Suzukis to Yosemite—one of the Suzukis' rare vacations. Suzuki stood up through the sun-roof of the Volkswagen as they drove toward the mountains, his sleeves fluttering in the wind. They visited the great waterfall, Yosemite Falls. Standing below it, Suzuki jumped from rock to rock, and then all of a sudden he was atop a huge boulder. No one knew how he'd gotten there. It had frightened Okusan. On the following Thursday morning at the Los Altos zendo, he talked about his experience at Yosemite.
Okusan had other ideas. Suzuki was planning to go to Japan to turn over his temple to his son, but she wanted him to stay there and retire. He'd accomplished what he'd come to do in America, she said, and he wasn't healthy enough to do more. He had a persistent cough and was subject to catching the flu. If he wanted to live long, he should rest. He ignored her. To Suzuki it was all just beginning.
It was October of 1966. Suzuki had been in Japan since August 25. Okusan had stayed in America to help Katagiri tend to Sokoji.
Ch.16 – The City, p.309
On January 14, 1967, Ginsberg and Suzuki met again. Some students had brought Suzuki to the Human-Be-In in Golden Gate Park, where tens of thousands of hippies, fellow travelers, and the curious gathered to celebrate, dance, get high, and enjoy the sunshine. As usual, Okusan had tried to stop him, saying he should rest, but it was a free Saturday afternoon and some students were begging him to go, so he did. Suzuki was welcomed on the platform, where he sat with Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, and the poet Michael McClure, among others
An enthusiastic new arrival told Suzuki-roshi he wanted to move into the temple to be closer to him. "That would be good," Suzuki said, "but it would make the other students jealous. So why don't you come to the temple before morning zazen and we'll clean together?"
The next morning he joined Suzuki at 4:15, and they cleaned the zendo and halls and bathrooms till 4:45, when people began to arrive for zazen. They vacuumed, mopped, and dusted.
One morning as they were cleaning Suzuki excused himself. Suddenly there came a sound of knocking and then a voice calling in Japanese. Suzuki was in the bathroom by his office, brushing what teeth he had left. He went out to the stairway to see what the racket was. He and the student tried to locate the source of the ever-increasing pounding and yelling. Suzuki opened the door to the basement.
There was Okusan, full of fury, screaming at him. She'd been locked in all night. The women's club had met the night before, and they had gone around and locked up too thoroughly before they left. She'd been taking a bath, while Suzuki was upstairs reading. Finally he'd gone to sleep not noticing that she wasn't back. He even got up in the middle of the night to pee as always, not noticing that she wasn't in her bed and her sandals weren't at the door. She yelled at him machine-gun fashion.
Suzuki realized what had happened and began to laugh. He laughed so hard that foam from the toothpaste ran down from his mouth onto his kimono. The new student got out of there.
In 1960 Suzuki had enthusiastically supported the decision of a student named Barton Stone to join a yearlong peace march from San Francisco to Moscow. In 1964, in response to a letter from Barton, Suzuki visited him twice in prison, where he was serving a year for trying to obstruct nuclear testing in the Pacific. Later, when Barton got out of jail and visited Suzuki at Sokoji, Okusan showed him a newspaper clipping from Japan with a photo of her husband marching with other Buddhist priests. There were banners and a large crowd. She said it was a march against nuclear testing in the Pacific.
Hundreds of people came to Richard's going-away party. Lou Harrison's Chinese music ensemble played, followed by Mel Weitsman's recorder trio, and then there was dancing to a rhythm-and-blues band. Richard and Virginia stood for a while talking to Suzuki and Okusan. After clowning around, pretending to dance like the students, the Suzukis went home early.
After she [Trudy Dixon] had undergone five difficult days of recovery, Mike brought Suzuki and Okusan to visit her. She said the sight of them was like seeing the sun rise for the first time.
Katagiri offered to stay on, but he was told that if he planned to continue working with the Zen students, the congregation didn't want him, so he resigned [from Sokoji] with Suzuki. Okusan was distraught, but George Hagiwara told her it was all for the best and not to worry.
On November 15, 1969, students helped Suzuki and Okusan carry their few possessions to the waiting cars, and they said goodbye to the home they'd lived in, he for ten and a half years. An official stepping-down ceremony would take place later, but on this day he offered incense at Sokoji's altars, bowed to the building from the sidewalk, and rode away. Okusan was sobbing, feeling rejected. They had tried so hard to take good care of Sokoji and the congregation.
Ch.17 – One and Many, p. 337
Okusan came down to Tassajara from San Francisco. She stayed in a one-room cabin with tatami and shoji screens next to her husband's. There she practiced tea ceremony. Suzuki talked about her in a lecture. He said she was always trying to teach him not to be so introverted and thoughtless with her. He used the American phrase, "Can't live with her, can't live without her."
During the spring practice period Suzuki had declared in a lecture that Okusan had experienced some sort of breakthrough. Some students took this to mean that she'd attained permanent, perfect, cosmic consciousness, and others thought it meant she'd had an epiphany.
"Really," he said, "she got enlightened. I never thought it would happen," and he kept laughing and explaining. He said that her enlightenment came about because she couldn't find a priest to do a funeral for a member of the Sokoji congregation. Suzuki was always having to leave Tassajara to do funerals; many members wanted him for their funeral even if another priest was available.
This is the most important thing that Zen priests do, as far as Japanese laypeople are concerned.
On his way from Tassajara to Sokoji, Suzuki asked the student driving him, Jane Runk, to make numerous stops. She didn't know he had to do a funeral and he had forgotten all about it. They went to the beach, to shops, and had an unusually carefree time. Meanwhile, Okusan was frantically searching for another priest. Katagiri was at Los Altos. Kobun was in Japan. Her sense of responsibility was so strong that she practically had a nervous breakdown. Then she realized that the world would keep turning if there were no priest. In an instant she gave up, let it go, decided just to do her best. Bang. Something happened.
Suzuki and Okusan came downstairs and joined the handful of students. He looked at the book with comic amazement. Okusan was irritated at the picture on the back cover, a black-and-white close-up of Suzuki's head and shoulders, a picture taken at Tassajara shortly before he shaved his head and face (done once every five days, on four-and-nine days, in a Zen monastery). He wore his stark black Japanese work clothes, his ever-changing face settled into a penetrating, clear gaze, a pleasant hint of a smile, those black eyes with crow's-feet like bookends, the slightly raised eyebrow adding a suggestion.
"In Japan we would never do this," she said. "Why not a nice formal picture of Hojo-san in his best robes?" People teased her, and she gave up.
"The most important point for both of you [Bob Halpern and me]," Suzuki said, "is not to sit more but to develop patience. I had the same problem." Then he said, laughing, "To develop patience you need patience." He raised his left eyebrow and softly said, "The main thing is not to fight." Then he called in Okusan, and they measured us for robes, while laughing and teasing us.
Suzuki left for Japan in August 1970, planning to stay for four months. Aside from performing Richard's transmission ceremony and visiting with family and old friends, he wanted to look for places where he could send students.
Okusan convinced him to leave a month early so he could join her and some friends from the Sokoji congregation for a pottery tour on the southern island of Kyushu. She had to beg him repeatedly to go to Kyushu and not to bring any disciples with him. She knew it would be the only real vacation of their lives. Just before they were to leave, he got ill and asked her to go without him. She pleaded, saying he wouldn't have to do anything but rest. And so they went.
In old-fashioned Japanese style, Okusan carried his and her luggage, and he carried only a handkerchief. In the hot muggy early autumn they went from town to town and kiln to kiln. He kept up as well as he could. In the evenings she massaged him and applied acupuncture. He got worse; the second week of the tour she stayed with him at hotels while the others were out sightseeing. After the tour, back at Rinso-in, he finally recovered.
While still in Yaizu Suzuki went to see his family doctor. Suzuki said he felt fine, but Dr. Ozawa said his liver was weak.
"See," Okusan said, responding to this news, "you should let Richard take over Zen Center. Stay here. I'll go to San Francisco to get your stuff and come back to take care of you."
"No," he said. "It's time for us to return. I want to celebrate the New Year with my students at Page Street."
Ch.18 – The Driver, p.364
On March 12 Suzuki flew to Portland to visit a group associated with Zen Center. Okusan worried about his health and asked Reb Anderson to accompany him.
Suzuki gave a lecture on the evening of the first day in Portland. Late the next morning, as Reb was carrying the stick, he saw Suzuki bent over on his cushion. Reb went up to him, and Suzuki said, "I have a terrible pain." He was immediately taken back to the house where they were staying. The next morning he was still sick and coughing up bitter bile. Suzuki managed to endure the flight back to San Francisco, and Yvonne and Okusan met him with a wheelchair. Though he could hardly walk, he refused it, stubbornly and uncharacteristically saying, "No, I am a Zen master."
One day Dianne got off early from her job with only one thing on her mind. She was going to visit Suzuki at Mt. Zion Hospital, where he was recovering from his operation. Okusan had said no students should visit him, but that wasn't fair, thought Dianne. She owed him a visit—and a dime.
The previous summer, Suzuki had visited her in the hospital in Monterey when she had an abscess removed from her fallopian tube. Okusan was with him. After greeting Dianne and telling her to get well right away, Okusan went over to the window to leave her husband and his student alone and also to make sure they didn't visit too long. Dianne didn't say anything; she just looked at him. He leaned over and said, "I'll give you a dime to see your scar."
Now he was in the hospital and she wanted to support him.
When she reached the door of his room, some Japanese people were just leaving. Okusan looked harshly at her.
Suzuki told Okusan, "I want her to come over here by me. You go away."
[DC note: Dianne, now Daya, and Mitsu were close friends till Mitsu returned to Japan]
A few days later Okusan brought her husband mail and messages. Among the get-well cards and notes was a letter from Katagiri stating his intention to resign soon. This was a completely unexpected blow, and it saddened Suzuki tremendously.
Suzuki couldn't move out of his bed. He was so helpless, and now with Katagiri's impending resignation he felt even more so. Okusan could see what a disaster it was for him and worried that this news alone would kill him.
Back at Page Street Suzuki did not get back his energy as everyone had hoped. He spent a lot of time in April recuperating in his bed. In May he began to get out. He gave a lecture one evening and went to the dining room for the regular question-and-answer period, told the students he was feeling fine, even opened up his robe and showed them his scar.
Suzuki's youngest son, Otohiro, was back from Vietnam. After a couple of years of depression and recovery, he went to work for Japan Airlines. On Memorial Day he picked up his father and Okusan at Page Street and took them to the annual ceremony at the cemetery at Colma. There Suzuki found Katagiri, and they stood talking at the edge of the crowd. Suzuki asked what his plans were after Zen Center. Katagiri said he didn't have any idea. Suzuki was surprised at this. He and Okusan had assumed that Katagiri had been invited to lead another group. "Please don't leave," he said. Katagiri didn't say anything.
Earlier, Louise Pryor had been present when Suzuki, Okusan, and an assistant priest named Ryogen Yoshimura were discussing her husband Dan Welch's future.
At Tassajara, Okusan and her husband spent an evening writing haiku, a rare moment together. She was staying in the Japanese-style cabin next to his, teaching and doing tea ceremony with students. She had started both haiku and tea ceremony while in the States—both at the prompting of her husband. "They are the only things he ever gave me," she said.
Along the creek
we look for tea-room flowers
Summer 1971, Tassajara: Hojo and I stay in Tassajara during the month of August. Dharma talk evening after evening. There's blood and sweat. Hojo and I write haiku together.
from Temple Dusk by Mitsu Suzuki
Suzuki was a regular dynamo that summer. He was following the whole schedule—zazen, service, silent breakfast with oryoki bowls, seeing students for dokusan, giving lectures almost every night. He worked in his garden in the mornings and afternoons with one or two students at a time. He didn't spend much time preparing for lectures, tending to find what he wanted to say when he sat down on his cushion. Instead, in the hottest part of the day after a nap and in the evening after dinner, he wrote with a brush in sumi ink on the white backing of rakusus for fifty-five students who were to receive lay ordination in late August in San Francisco. On each rakusu he wrote the four-stanza robe chant, the date, his name with red ink seal, and the four-character Buddhist name he'd chosen for the student. Okusan
was trying without much luck to get him to rest more.
Working alone, Suzuki leaned into a large stone in his garden, turning it slightly while his attendant, Niels, stood by the bridge looking down the road past the zendo. Suddenly Niels whistled—the sign that Okusan was on her way back from the baths. Then Niels took Suzuki's place wrestling with the stone while Suzuki went to sit in the shade on the bench by his cabin, taking on the appearance of a supervisor. She eyed them with suspicion. The next day she sneaked back before her bath and caught him working with Niels.
"Hojo-san!" she yelled at him in Japanese. "Working out here in your garden on a hot August day with a shovel taller than you are! You are cutting your life short!"
"If I don't cut my life short, my students will not grow."
"Then go ahead and cut it short, if that's what you want!" she scolded, wagging a finger.
"Stop that racket!" he said, returning to his task.
Okusan had reason to be upset. She knew and he knew he had not recovered from his operation. His urine was brown and so was his Japanese underwear. She'd wash it right away so his cabin cleaner, Maggie Kress, would not see it. But she would show Maggie his perspiration-soaked, robelike undershirt, wring it out and say, "Look, he's sweating blood. He must rest more," as if Maggie might be able to control him.
Once at morning tea Suzuki was discussing the menu with senior students. At the request of the head cook, he agreed to demonstrate how he made udon, thick Japanese noodles. Before long he had a whole batch of people mixing rice flour and water and rolling dough while cooling breezes came through the screened windows.
Some people worked the flour into dough on the long sycamore worktable, others kneaded away on bread boards on the tile floor, while Suzuki kept adding more flour. Okusan came into this chaos, and they snapped at each other in Japanese till he pushed her out of the kitchen, laughing and undaunted. More people joined in—some preparing lunch, one making bread for guests, another washing pots in the corner, another passing around cups of tea and coffee. Suzuki kept adding more flour and water to give the new arrivals work to do.
"Who's running Tassajara?" asked one of the officers. "We have a guest season going on."
"You go run it!" laughed Suzuki.
After some hours, as the dough was being rolled out thin and cut into strips, Okusan returned, fuming. Suzuki waved goodbye, all smiles, as she dragged him out the door. What had started as a meal for a dozen older students ended up as dinner for sixty people, with seconds and thirds, two nights in a row.
"Why don't you ever talk to me?" Okusan said one evening, exasperated. "What are you always thinking about?"
"Buddhism in America," he answered.
"Why can't you be like other husbands and tell me you love me?"
He looked at her. "Honey, honey, honey," he said.
"That's already too much," she said and went back to her cabin.
Yvonne came to Tassajara to drive Suzuki to a doctor's appointment in San Francisco. Okusan came along. As Yvonne was now president of Zen Center, she mentioned Jean Ross's recent resignation from the board. Zen Center had gotten too big and institutional for Jean, who felt she didn't get enough support for her little Carmel zendo. But the main reason she had quit the board was because Richard, who was living in Japan, still seemed to be running things at Zen Center in absentia. Jean had always admired Richard's energy and intelligence; indeed, it was she who had nominated him for president back in 1965, but everything had gotten to be too much for her. Suzuki nodded, not saying much.
He asked Yvonne how her children were doing. He talked about his family and expressed regret. "My focus was always on being a priest. It might have been better if I'd never gotten married. I have been a very bad family man. A bad father and a bad husband."
"Oh yes, veeeery bad husband," said Okusan. "Gooood priest, but baaaaad husband." She often said that.
Yvonne had driven in from the city to pick up the Suzukis. She accompanied Okusan to get her things. Niels and Maggie went with Suzuki into his cabin to do the last bit of packing. Suzuki untied his work clothes and let them drop to the tatami. In the subdued light he stood in the middle of his room in his white underwear, exhausted, almost unable to move. Suddenly he looked sickly and weak, his skin yellow. It seemed to have just happened, as if he'd used himself all up. He could hardly dress himself. He walked slowly with Niels to the baths and then to the zendo to offer incense, something he always did when arriving or departing.
Dan, the director, brought Yvonne's Volvo over the little bridge, and they loaded the back. A dozen students stood around silently. Suzuki came back from the zendo and smiled at them. He looked so weak. Okusan helped him into the back of the car as Dan, his wife, Louise, and Angie Runyon got in. Maggie was standing at the side, crying. He kept bowing, and everyone was bowing back. Faintly he said through the open window that he was sorry to leave and would try to be back soon. People said, "Yes, come back soon." Yvonne drove off with Suzuki still smiling. The Volvo slowly crossed the wooden bridge over the small creek, passed the narrow stretch below the upper garden and above the stone kitchen and zendo, curved up the dirt road past the shop and the screened junkyard, drove under the roof of the gatehouse and up the bumpy road in a cloud of dust, Tassajara disappearing behind.
Ch.19 – Final Season – Autumn, p.388
Suzuki was very ill. His skin was yellow; the doctor said he had hepatitis. Okusan was taking care of him with assistance from Yvonne, who also kept him abreast of Zen Center matters. They were very careful to avoid infection and didn't share any food with him, as had been their habit. Aside from attending an occasional zazen, the last time he'd done anything in public was the lay ordination for fifty-five students at the end of August.
A young monk named Ryuho Yamada arrived from Japan in late September. Over tea, Okusan learned that he knew the healing arts of shiatsu (pressure-point massage) and acupuncture. She asked him to give her a treatment, and he passed the test.
"Ryuho-san, if you continue to live in America, and you want to be a success in America, you have to be majime. If you are not majime you will not be appreciated." Suzuki was sitting up in bed, talking in Japanese to the new monk. Okusan had told him the same thing. "Just be majime and you'll have nothing to worry about."
Majime is usually translated as "serious," but it includes the qualities of sincerity and enthusiasm. In Japan, Ryuho knew he could easily get by as a priest with canned majime; there were centuries of tradition and the cloud of vagueness to hide in. But in America the students were straightforward, and everything was clear. He loved the communal aspects of Zen Center: the natural food, women and men living together on an equal basis. Even Suzuki's wife was willful and would tangle with him.
On October 10, 1971, Shunryu Suzuki called his Bay Area disciples together. They were asked to wear their robes. At ten o'clock they entered the apartment and gathered around his bed, joining his team of caregivers—Ryuho sitting on the floor, Okusan by the door, looking tired, and Yvonne at the bedside fussing with Suzuki over an office cassette recorder. Mel had driven in from Berkeley and Bill from Mill Valley. Also present were Silas, Reb, Lew, and Angie, all of whom lived in the building. Claude came from his home in San Francisco. Everyone was quiet. There was a feeling of tense anticipation.
The day before, when Yvonne had gone to the hospital to pick up Suzuki, she'd found him sitting on the edge of his bed with legs dangling below his hospital gown. Okusan was in the hall saying goodbye to some visitors. The nurse had just brought his lunch, and he patted the bed and motioned to Yvonne to come over. She knew something was up. He slowly mouthed the words, "I have cancer," with a big grin on his face.
Almost every day some old-timer would enter Suzuki's room and stay for half an hour—Betty, Della, Jean, Mike Dixon, and others. Suzuki had asked Phillip to come as much as possible, and he would drive in every few days from Santa Rosa. Okusan told Phillip that Suzuki said to let him in any time he came. Phillip said he'd break down the door if he couldn't get in.
Suzuki told Claude that he wanted to give transmission to a number of his disciples before he died. Especially, he emphasized, he must complete Bill Kwong's transmission ceremony. But there were others. He was thinking of giving transmission to six to twelve disciples. He wanted to ask Noiri-roshi to come over from Japan to work with these students for several months in preparation for the ceremony. Claude asked what would be the difference between Richard's transmission and these, and Suzuki said, "They will be the same as Richard's—no difference."
Claude conferred with a few people, and they all agreed that Suzuki was too ill to do this. Okusan was also opposed to her husband's plan. Noiri needed a special diet, and she'd have to take care of them both, which would be too much for her. Suzuki made it clear how much he wanted to do it, but Okusan told him to leave it to Richard, who was coming back and could carry out Suzuki's wishes. She and Claude agreed; and after they told Suzuki how they felt, he gave up and didn't mention it again—not even to Richard.
Suzuki asked Okusan to go back to Japan after he'd passed his authority to Richard in the Mountain Seat Ceremony. He said he wanted to do saitokudo, reordination. She knew that he wanted to spend the remaining time with his students and to let them take care of him, to be as close to them as possible. He'd read a book Katagiri had given him by Kodo Sawaki, with an introduction by Katagiri's second teacher, Eko Hashimoto. It stressed that priests should practice celibacy and not live with women. It didn't seem very practical to Okusan.
She said, "I'd comply with your wish if you were getting well, but I couldn't possibly leave you in this condition. Who would cook rice gruel and other Japanese food for you? You need someone who can understand your needs by a single wink."
She wrote to Hoitsu immediately, and he wrote right back, urging her to stay with her husband by all means, or they'd just have to send someone else from the family to take care of him. Hoitsu sent a similar letter to his father. So Suzuki gave up on that idea too. One by one he had to let go of his wishes.
When he had enough energy to walk down the stairs to the basement, Suzuki still went to zazen occasionally. Afterward he couldn't get back up. He wanted to make it on his own but couldn't. Sometimes Reb and Peter would make a chair out of their arms, and he'd sit and enjoy the ride. He made it fun. He was very sweet about such dependence. His life was not in his own hands anymore.
"How could someone with your intuition choose to marry someone as difficult as me?" Okusan asked.
"Because you are ridiculously honest," he said.
"What should I do when you die?" she asked him.
"Stay here," he said. "Don't go back at all." He said everyone would be happy if she stayed, that her ten years in America would make it hard for her to adjust to Rinso-in. But how could she be helpful at Zen Center? she wanted to know.
"You are fair in your dealings with people. It will work out naturally."
"Should I become a nun?"
"Oh, that would be best."
"I'm too old for that. Maybe I'll be a monk in my next life."
That got him laughing, which started him coughing. Okusan helped him over onto all fours so she could pound his back. He stopped coughing. "You're lucky you have someone to take care of you to the last moment," she said in a teasing voice.
Suzuki raised a hand in a faint gassho. Then he farted loudly. "That's for you," he said.
Nirvana is seeing one thing through to the end.
Knowing that their father could pass away at any time, Suzuki's daughter Yasuko and son Hoitsu arrived for the first time in the States with godfather Amano, to say their farewells. They were shocked to see him so jaundiced and weak. They stood at his bed saying a few polite phrases, not knowing what to do. But Suzuki was more open and easygoing than in the old days, and before long they were talking comfortably with him and among themselves. Okusan was making noodles in the cramped kitchen. Then Phillip, a familiar face, came to visit.
After I'd put on my robes I went to his room. Okusan led me into the bedroom and directed me to a chair next to his bed. Suzuki looked up and smiled. We bowed.
"Would you like to go back to Japan with me?" Hoitsu asked.
"I will crawl if necessary," his father answered.
Hoitsu was surprised to hear his father say that. Since his third year in America it had seemed that he would never return. Seeing his two eldest children and Amano must have awakened a nostalgia for his homeland. The ceremony was a week off. They could bring Suzuki back with them right after that. Hoitsu talked to Okusan, Yasuko, and Amano; with help from Okusan, he talked to Suzuki's doctor, who said Suzuki could do it. Hoitsu went to tell his father.
"Master, the doctor said you can come back with us."
Suzuki looked up at Hoitsu and laughed. "Isn't it obvious there's no way I could leave here? Can't you people even take a joke?"
"You were just telling us what we wanted to hear," Hoitsu said.
"Yes, of course. I will become American soil."
"Father," Suzuki said to him, "there is one more important job I
need to do as a monk. Please see it and report it to the membership at Rinso-in. Tell them what I have done since I left them and came here."
"Father, please fulfill Hojo's wishes," said Okusan.
Finally Amano agreed to stay.
It was more difficult every day for Suzuki to talk, but he could do it, especially with Okusan, with whom he could communicate with much less effort. "I won't interfere with Zen Center at all once I have handed it over to Richard. It's entirely up to him whether it will be ruined or not," Suzuki said to his wife. He even told her and Richard that he didn't want any more Japanese priests to come to Zen Center as teachers. "From now on, they should come as students."
The assembled crowd was utterly hushed when the spine-chilling sound of intermittent thuds and jangling bells jolted everyone to attention. Suzuki was walking with the staff Alan Watts had given him. Affixed to the top was a bronze headpiece with rings. At his sides were Hoitsu and Okusan. They helped him down the stairs and past those seated and standing along the way, to the double doors of the buddha hall. With each step he struck the floor with his staff, as if continuing to plant the dharma in America.
Suzuki was still troubled by Katagiri's intention to leave. He wanted him to remain a senior dharma teacher for the whole community. "Maybe Katagiri can still help," he said to Okusan as he went to sleep.
Suzuki gave Amano his mala bracelet with the skull-shaped beads. He told Okusan to roll up a scroll for Yasuko and to give Hoitsu the staff with the bronze rings he'd carried in the ceremony. The clanger on top of the staff was the last item he wanted to return to Rinso-in, of those he had borrowed when he'd left in 1959.
A hospital bed was put in a second-floor room overlooking the courtyard. There Suzuki could have a sense of the rhythm of the building and some time in the sunlight. The buddha hall was right below; during morning service he'd listen to the sounds of chanting, drums, and bells coming through the window and the open door. Okusan would wash his face, and he'd have a glass of orange juice—that was his service. He was too weak to get out of bed.
Ryuho would get lost looking at Suzuki's face as he gave him shiatsu treatments. It was spacy and changing, he said, and it didn't look Japanese. He could obviously die at any time—Okusan and the doctor said so, too. His skin was dark, almost the color of the brown okesa robe. But to Ryuho the light of his eyes was powerful.
Yvonne was there every day, staying with him while Okusan cooked, did laundry, and cleaned. They took turns caring for him and massaging his back, legs, arms—wherever he'd indicate. Yvonne would be sitting by his bed and a skinny arm would come out from the covers and go into the air. She'd rub it for a while; then he'd pull it back under the covers. Later the other arm would appear. She and Okusan massaged and moved him enough so that he hadn't gotten any bedsores. He never complained and always appreciated the attention he received.
There was a bottle of painkillers on the table. He refused them, as after the gallbladder operation. He had tried them once because his doctor told him to, but he didn't like the state of mind that resulted, so he asked Yvonne to take them away. Still, he told Richard that sometimes he felt like he was being tortured.
Within a week of the ceremony, Suzuki had almost completely stopped talking. Then he stopped eating. His body was soft and weak and thin, the size of an eight-year-old child. It had always had a childlike quality, but with great strength and energy, the power to move large stones. Now it was a dark, dying child's body. Okusan told Ryuho not to bother coming anymore. Either Okusan or Yvonne stayed close by. They still massaged him gently, but to Yvonne it seemed that mainly they were just breathing together. She felt there was almost nothing they needed to do. Just leave him alone, be with him, and respond to his few requests. They wiped his face. When he stopped drinking, they kept his lips and mouth moist with a washcloth.
Richard came every day. Sometimes he would talk to Suzuki with Okusan's help. She said he could hardly hear now. "Where will I meet you?" Richard asked, standing in gassho at the foot of the bed. Suzuki's hands came out from under the covers in gassho. Then, with index finger extended, he drew a circle in the air, bowed into it, and returned his hands under the covers. Richard bowed in return.
On the evening of December 3, Suzuki was moved from the hospital bed overlooking the courtyard to his own bed in his apartment. "Tomorrow," he told Okusan in a hoarse whisper, "I must talk to Richard about Silas."
Okusan went into the tatami room and spread out the futon. For the first time she didn't put on her pajamas, but left her clothes on and lay down exhausted to sleep.
Suzuki's son Otohiro had been there for a couple of days and said he would stay till the end, which he knew was near. He slept on Okusan's bed, up against his father's in the small room. At about two in the morning Otohiro shook Okusan awake. "Mother! Mother! Father wants a bath."
"No no no." She went in and told her husband to go back to sleep. He repeated that he wanted a bath. The thought of it made Okusan anxious. He hadn't been in a tub for a long time.
"It's okay," he said.
Otohiro wasn't going to argue. He knew the old man would be stubborn to the end. Okusan went into the bathroom and started to fill the tub. Otohiro carried him into the bathroom slowly and placed him in the tub. Suzuki started gasping for air, breathing fast. "It's all over," he said between short breaths.
"Calm down, calm down," Otohiro spoke soothingly in his ear holding him. "Breathe slowly, breathe slowly." Otohiro breathed loudly and slowly, and his father's breath slowed down till they were both breathing together at the same slow rate.
Suzuki asked for the bar of scented soap that Della had given him. He never used anything scented, but he took it and slowly made a good lather, and they helped him to clean himself thoroughly. Then he took a long, relaxed bath.
Afterward Suzuki lay on the bed and sighed. Slowly and faintly he spoke. "Ahhhh, what a good feeling," he said, with a wisp of pleasure on his face. "Don't wake me in the morning."
"Maybe you're thirsty," said Okusan. "Would you like some orange juice or ice cream?"
"Orange juice." He drank some orange juice, closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
Okusan went back to her futon and Otohiro lay down next to his father in the bed. Before long it was four and he heard the wake-up bell—a handbell run through the halls to get people up for zazen. It was not just any day's zazen, but December 4, the first day of a five-day sesshin that would culminate on Buddha's Enlightenment Day, the eighth of December. Over a hundred people were participating. Otohiro could hear people opening and closing doors carefully, running water in the bathroom across the hall. Then came the sharp sound of the wooden han being hit, indicating that the new abbot, Zentatsu Baker-roshi (as Suzuki said to call him), was on his way to offer incense at various altars. The last altar was the one in the zendo, where he would open the sesshin and begin the first period of zazen.
The sound of a bell could be heard faintly coming from the distant zendo. Otohiro felt his father move slightly. Suzuki's hand reached over and clutched his arm.
"Get Baker," came a thin whisper.
Otohiro jumped out of bed and ran into the tatami room. "Mother! Something's happening with father! He said to get Baker!"
Without a word Okusan leapt up and went quickly down to the zendo.
Richard had just sat down on his cushion and straightened his robes when Okusan opened the side door. Lew was sitting in the space nearest her. "Get Zentatsu!" she whispered urgently.
Richard took long strides to the zendo door and then dashed up the stairway to Suzuki's room. Okusan and Otohiro left Suzuki alone with Richard. He was still conscious, and with the last strength of his life he just barely reached his hand out to his beloved disciple. Half sitting, half kneeling by the bed, Richard held his hand and touched his forehead to Suzuki's. They rested that way for a few moments, then Richard felt the man most dear to him slip away, let go of his life. Slowly, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi faded away—so gently that Richard could not tell when he died; he just knew it had happened.
Richard let go of Suzuki's hand. He waited a moment and felt for a pulse. Then he went outside to Okusan and Otohiro. Richard had his hand on his heart. He spoke in Japanese, his voice cracking, as he told them, "Suzuki-roshi's life has ended."
Epilogue, p. 413
In the spring of 1972 Mitsu Suzuki went to Tassajara for her husband's ashes ceremony. She wore his zoris, because he had said he wanted to go back there one more time. Having decided not to return to Japan "until the tears of his students have dried," she stayed, living in the City Center, writing haiku and teaching tea ceremony for twenty-two more years. In the fall of 1993 she returned to live with her daughter in Shizuoka City, not far from Rinso-in.
After her husband's death, Mitsu Suzuki wrote to Yasumasa Amada, who sent out her letter with one of his own to the members of the group. Amada said farewell for everyone. "What we would like to say to you, Shunryu-san, is: you were our teacher, our big brother, our friend; you taught us human nature and you taught us compassion. With deepest respect we say to you, Well done, Hojo-san! Well done!"
Endless thanks to Mitsu Suzuki for numerous interviews with me and others and for personally asking people to help me
[Thanks to] Kyoko Furuhashi for translating her own interviews and to her and Shizuko Takatsuka for translating my Japan interviews of 1993 and Kaz Tanahashi's interviews with Mitsu Suzuki;
Kaz Tanahashi's interviews with Mitsu Suzuki
[didn't mention my own interviews]
Suzuki, Mitsu. Temple Dusk. Parallax Press, 1992.
Home | What Was New | Contest | Digressions | Links | Jacket Notes | Book Reviews | Reader's Comments
Author's Notes | Bibliography | Author Events | About the Author | Errata |
Interviews | Suzuki Stories | Photos | Suzuki Lectures | Archives Project | Sangha News | Contact Me
This site designed by
The Empty Wig
Original site designed by Sheryl B.