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Mitsu Suzuki interviewed by DC in Japan, April 1994. [In Japanese--translated by Kyoko Furuhashi and Shizuko Takatsuka.]

Go to Mitsu Suzuki Main Page


Sokoji is 60 years old this year.

When I asked Richard Baker what he liked about Shunryu, he said he liked Shunryu because he was "yokuganai" (disinterested, indifferent to worldly gain, unselfish) and never criticized other religions, saying he hadn't studied other religions.

He first turned down the request to go to America as he had about 400 danka to look after.

At the service of the third anniversary of Shunryu's death, tears ran down my cheeks because I was so happy to see all these people practicing well, having overcome the sadness of his death three years ago. They loved him dearly and cried so hard when he died. Soon after the service was over, David came around to my room and said, "Why are you weeping I don't weep. I would weep if I hadn't met Suzuki-roshi in my life. But I have, so I don't weep." I told him I was weeping because I was happy.

It was rather that America was fit for Shunryu than that he was fit for America. He said Americans absorbed Zen much more quickly than Japanese did because Americans realize the reality of life and death quite clearly, while death is a taboo to Japanese. The question of life and death is the core of Buddhism, you see. Japanese believe in impurity around death. On the other hand, Americans know what is living will die, with no exception. Doctors tell you if you have cancer in the States.

For the first few years I kept telling him he should go back to Japan soon as he was sickly. We thought we would return to Japan in 10 years. But at the meeting at Sokoji, Americans said to him that they had been "borrowing" a small corner of a temple for Japanese, to do zazen. So they wanted him to stay and continue teaching them, especially his being still young enough to do so. Just at that time a danka of Sokoji(George Hagiwara) [I think Claude maybe with the help of Silas found it.--DC] found this building was on sale. All of us walked for about 20 (15) blocks to have a look at it. He liked the building straight-away. The building of Sokoji originally had no windows [in their room] or yard. Shunryu had a window made on the third story. He would take off his clothes to take the sun by that window. However, this building we went to see had a row of windows facing the street [in the rooms that would be theirs]. The morning sun shone into the rooms. Also, he had an eye for architecture, so he was very impressed by the architecture as well. It turned out that the building was famous architecturally.

Hojo-san founded the kindergarten in Showa 24. At that time I was Christian and working at a home for war bereaved families. It was founded by the prefecture office. They had already planned a matron's room for me as early as when jichinsai (ceremony for purifying the building site, based on a popular Shinto belief) was held.

I stayed home until my daughter Harumi turned 3 as I thought I should be with her until the age of 3. The father of Harumi had been killed in war. At that time the government was offering a free certificate course for war widows to become kindergarten or school teachers. The prefecture office asked me if I'd like to take that course. I talked to my mother-in-law about it. I got married at 23 and widowed at 24. I thought I should learn some occupational skill; there were very few women who had jobs in those days. Most of the war widows were doing work like sewing. I had always wanted to become a kindergarten teacher since I was little, so I applied for that course in Nara. I lived at my relative's home in Nara to take the course. My mother-in-law took care of Harumi. There was a dormitory for widows studying that course and a nursery for children of these women. While I was there I was asked to become the matron of the home for war bereaved families and the head of the staff of the teachers of the nursery school attached to the home. The school I was studying at then asked me why I should work at such a place, losing my eligibility for a pension and an allowance. But money meant nothing to me. I said to them I couldn't wish for better if I could work for those families. We never know how long we have got to live, so I wasn't concerned about a pension or an allowance.

My mother-in-law passed away in the year after the war ended.

The kindergarten in Yaizu reopened in Showa 24 [1949]. They grew potatoes in the playground during the war. First, goroso [old priest] of Sekigata was going to run the kindergarten, but he was too old to undertake it. The Buddhist Association of Yaizu turned down the request as well. And then Rinsoin was asked to do it, so Hojo took charge of it. But in the beginning daughters of danka families of Rinsoin worked there and none of them had had the training to be a teacher. Zen'an Aoshima, who originally founded the kindergarten, was already 80 or so then, too old to be the principal.

Shunryu asked one of the members of Rinsoin's zazen group for lay people, Mr. Isobe[ There's Isobe again], if he knew anyone suitable to be the head of the teachers of the kindergarten. He said to Shunryu that only likely person was me, but he doubted if the prefecture office would let me go. Then Shunryu started to come to see me ever so frequently. He came with a black hat on and a black umbrella. The first time I saw him was like this. He and my friend Tsureko-san (Yano-san's wife) were having bento in the wide corridor in the nursery. I had never met this strange monk with a flimsy hat on before. I asked Tsuneko-san "What's up" and said jokingly "Is that monk here to look for someone to become his wife" She said, "Oh, no. This hojo-sama already has a fine wife." And I said, "Oh, excuse me. What is it you want of me then"

I had decided I was going to spend all my life there so I would say yes to his request to be the head teacher of his kindergarten. But he kept coming to ask me.

I abhorred Yaizu. It smelled fishy. I knew no one here. But he was extremely persistent. (Hojo-san mo kuitsuku to hanasarai.)

One day he said, "There are some people you would like in Yaizu which you say you detest. So come and see them once."

His wife came to see me too. She brought quite a few things she had bought for me. The family I was taken to determined my fate. (Tsurete ikarete uchi ga un no tsuki.)

I gave in and went to Yaizu. I was taken to the home of one of the intellectuals in Yaizu, the Ozawa family. The eldest brother was a physician trained in the States. The middle brother was an army surgeon. The youngest brother was an otolaryngolgist. The were good friends of Shunryu. I was taken to the home of the youngest of the Ozawa brothers. His wife came from Kyoto and taught the koto. I told them I had been looking after children of war widows, doing things like changing diapers of babies, so I wouldn't be eligible to be the head teacher at such a prestigious kindergarten with a long history. Then Mr. Ozawa said to me, "I've never expected you to be a great teacher and do the brilliant work there (as you seem to think we expect you to)." I was flushed with shame.

I said to them, "Oh, I'd only have to stand there doing nothing, then" To which he said, "Yes. You only have to stand there, doing nothing."

I couldn't say no to such a simple request.

The wife of Mr. Ozawa still comes to zazenkai. She is in her eighties. I told her that I decided to come to Yaizu because of her husband's words: just stand there.

Mr. Isobe went to the prefecture office to ask them for permission for me to leave the home. I got a woman I knew to take my position at the home. Harumi and I moved to Rinsoin. After a while we moved to the upstairs room of the Tonaka family's house. And then to the branch kindergarten when it was opened in Nishimachi. Then it was decided that Shunryu was going to the States. He was told to stay there for three years. Dankas thought it was alright to have him gone if it was only for 3 years. But, over there he met those hippies. A number of them came in succession from the East Coast to the West Coast to meet him. They were barefoot and long-haired. They were people who were reading books by Daisetsu T. Suzuki. They came because they heard there was a Japanese monk who they could sit zazen with in San Francisco. Then Shunryu realized he'd have to stay in the States longer than three years. He started sending me letters that said how kindly his woman students were treating him[ more on this - she once said that the reason she came was that he said this sort of thing].

He married me because an unmarried priest would not be accepted to become the abbot of Sokoji. We got married just before he left for the States. There had always been troubles with unmarried abbots at Sokoji. I thought I could look after the temple, Shunryu's family, and the kindergarten by myself if it was only for 3 years.

I asked my mother-in-law for advice about those letters which said a lot about women students of his. She said I should go to help him complete his work there, as he had been working so hard for it for the last two years, and we should come back as soon as the work was over. I found someone to take my position at the kindergarten while I was away. But I was told by the president of the PTA that I could not come back since playing two roles was not acceptable. It was hard for me to leave the kindergarten. I was still in my 40's then. And I "went out for wool and came home shorn." (Miiratori ga miira ni nara.) I went to help him finish his work there as quickly as possible so that he could come back to Rinsoin soon, but we ended up staying there for the rest of our lives.

Hoitsu was there before Shunryu died and he said to me I could go back to Japan as I had come to the States to take care of him. But there were all those people crying so hard over his death and holding onto his coffin at the crematory. I thought I should stay there until the tears on those people would dry. The students lost their teacher in one and a half years after they moved into the Zen Center at Page Street. It was 1971. I came back to Rinsoin for the first anniversary of Shunryu's death. After the service, we had the wedding ceremony for Otohiro and his wife.

Maira[Where is she?--DC], who was a disciple of Shunryu's and also a tea student of mine, went to Japan for a year to find a new teacher. I told her she wouldn't be able to find one in such a short time. She came back in a year and said to me I was right.

Hoitsu said I was free to come back to Rinsoin but people of Zen Center turned Shunryu's study into a tea room with four and a half tatami mats for me[which room?]. I started teaching tea ceremony and it became impossible for me to leave.

Soon after I arrived in the States, I was recommended by Shunryu to learn tea ceremony. After I paid a visit to Shinsho Hanayama's home, his wife, from whom I was going to study tea, phoned me and scolded me saying, "How could a wife of a Zen monk not have learned tea!"

At the ceremony of the anniversary of his death each year in the Buddha Hall, they said something to him. They asked me to do so as well, so I said I'd always be honest, or I'd not be able to be with you after I died. Honesty was very important to him. He was a monk through and through.

While Hojo gives brilliant dharma talks, easy to understand and absorb, he said very little about Buddhism. One day I asked him to tell me what Buddhism was all about in a few words because I knew very little of Buddhism, being a Christian.

He said, "Well, accept what is there as it is and help/let it be its best." (Arumono wa arugamama ni ukeirete yori yoku ikashiteikukoto.)

Another day I asked him what was gained from zazen, as I wouldn't like to do zazen for no purpose, although I knew one shouldn't ask such a question. He said, "The practice of zazen makes you capable of dealing with the situation when something happens in the best way, on the spot."

These two things were all he said to me about Buddhism. He wouldn't sit around after dinner. I asked him to have a chat with me. He said he had no time for such a thing. I asked him what it was that he thought about all the time. He said, "Zen in America."

When we were living at Sokoji I complained to him about something about the dankas and then he told me, "Go and clean the bathroom." And that worked! I felt so fresh after cleaning it. Eiheiji teaches monks a clever thing. "Samu (monastic work) first!"

One teaching I got from Kishizawa-roshi. One day I told him, "I feel refreshed when I come out of your sanmon (temple gate), having listened to your talk. But in a month I come again muddy all over. Isn't it bad to repeat this pattern" Then he said, "After walking in fog, koromo doesn't get dry easily. After being caught in a shower, koromo gets dry easily. Either is fine. I'm still walking in fog. That's all for my talk today."

I was born in the Inomiya cho of Shizuoka City.

Shunryu signed and sent all checks he received to the treasurer of Zen Center saying we didn't need them. I had agreed I would accept [her part of] the royalty on "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" after I returned to Japan. That's the only money I received from Zen Center. I wanted to carry on Shunryu's way of living. I thought he wouldn't let me sit by him in the Pure Land if I didn't live like he had. When he wanted to plant a flower in Zen Center he bought one with his pocket money. This way of living won him the trust of people at Zen Center. That's the act of "fuse" - to act without expecting rewards.

In one of the talks I've been invited to give since I came back to Japan I told the old Buddhist women there "wagan aigo" (kind face, compassionate words) is a good example of "fuse" you can do even when you are old, weak, and poor. Everyone has something to offer. Buddha traveled widely bare footed and in his poor clothes until his death to teach Buddhism.

Buddhist priests teach Buddhism. It's all "fuse." I knew no one in the area where I now live (Hirano), so I greet everyone and every animal (cats and dogs) I see, like, "Good morning. Fine day, isn't it" This is my "fuse." It makes people's minds amiable. I now have two good friends there.

I was a Christian, a Methodist. I told Shunryu I wouldn't be good for his Buddhist kindergarten. Then he firmly said, "Better than someone with no religious mind." In the beginning I was told to go to Kishizawa roshi's talks. I sat in the front row among seventy to eighty-year-old people who came from all over the country to listen to his talk. I listened intensively as I was there at the time for which my wage was paid. He was teaching Shushogi but I couldn't understand at that time.

Shunryu didn't teach me Buddhism much, but his words "Accept what is there as it is and help or let it be its best" have been helping me really well. For example, I tried that attitude with the teachers of the kindergarten. I praised them rather than criticized them. They still treat me like a family member.

It took me and my son-in-law six months to get along with each other well after being away from here for thirty years. We Japanese don't have a custom to say "thank you" to each other as much as people in other countries. If we want other people to say "hello," we have to say it first many, many times.

There was one time when Shunryu was in the wrong, all things considered. I can't remember what we quarreled about, though. I pressed him hard to apologize to me, so he said, "Sorry." That was the only time he apologized to me. Japanese men seldom say words of gratitude or apology to women, especially to their wives. [what did he do that was wrong?--she couldn't remember.]

I had been planning to return to Japan for good after my 77th birthday for which my daughter-in-law, Yasuko, was organizing a party in Japan. I got a new teacher to take over my tea class. When Hoitsu came to San Francisco in June, he said he had been told by Tenshin, a present abbot of Zen Center, at the airport, that although I had said I should go back to Japan as my incense had been burnt up, the fragrance of an incense must linger on even after it had burnt itself out. They took a clever measure ahead of me. I thought it was not good for Zen Center to have me stay there so long after Shunryu's death as it should not cling to Shunryu's image forever and should change its color to the new abbot's. But Hoitsu said I'd still be a help to Zen Center, so I decided to hold out there for one more year or two.

They had a book of my haiku poems published for my 77th birthday, too. It was translated into English by Tanahashi-sensei. They even sent me the royalty on the book recently. It's a collection of 180 poems accompanied by some comments by the students about their experiences with me. There was also a picture of Hojo and myself in it. 3000 copies were printed. I didn't pay a penny to get it published, you see. It must be selling because the author is a wife of Shunryu.

When we were having a diner at Greens, a person from England approached me and asked if I was Suzuki's wife. When I said "yes," they were very happy. When they read ZMBM, there was a story [in Huston Smith's introduction] - "When a student asked what enlightenment was, Hojo-san was unatteita. Then I said, "Oh this person hasn't had enlightenment, so he wouldn't be able to answer to it." This was a true story.

I was treated tremendously kindly by people of Zen Center. It's like I'm undergoing ascetic training here in Japan, having to learn to do things on my own.

 

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