Thank you for letting me know of Blanche’s passing.
It was a great gift for me to know her for half a century.
I greatly admired Blanche and will always love her.
Not knowing that she was dying, I prayed for her last night.
Now, I lit a candle and incense and chanted for her.
The next three days, I will sit with you, though 6,000 miles away.
With a deep bow to Blanche and to all at SFZC,
Your brother David
The body of Zenkei Blanche Hartman will rest in the Buddha Hall at City Center, 300 Page Street, CA 94192, for three days. You are warmly invited to come and sit with her during this time; many people are sitting quietly in the Buddha Hall today. It’s best to come between 7 am and 9 pm, but do let us know if you need to come at another time.
As further arrangements are made for her funeral arrangements, we will post the information here.
Those who took part in the service were as follows:
Celebrant: Tenshin Reb Anderson
Jisha: Meiya Wender
Inkin 1: Anshin Rosalie Curtis
Inkin 2: Jisan Tova Green
Kokyo: Shosan Victoria Austin
Doan: Allison Tait
Fukudo: Kim Koei Hart
Acting ino: Michael McCord
The order of service was as follows:
Opening statement: Tenshin Reb Anderson
Offerings: Food, sweet water, and tea
Tea Ceremony: Nakagawa Sensei, assisted by Marilyn McCann
Chanting of the Ten Names of Budha
Maka Hannya Haramita Shin Gyo
Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra
Statements of Appreciation:
Otohiro Suzuki family
Central Abbess Eijun Linda Cutts
Abiding Abbess Furyu Schroeder
Abbot Sojun Weitsman (read by Abiding Abbot Rinso Ed Sattizahn)
Abbot Zentatsu Baker (read by Sally Baker)
Former Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman (read by Steve Weintraub)
Abbot Jakusho Kwong (read by Peter Van der Sterre)
Mitsu Suzuki Sensei’s Haiku (read by Peter Coyote)
Dai Hi Shin Dharani
Assembly Invited to Offer Flower Petals
Reception in Dining Hall
On Saturday, February 27, at 3 pm, there will be a ceremony in memory of Mitsu Suzuki Sensei in the Buddha Hall at City Center (the event will also be Live Streamed). All are invited; please respond to email@example.com if you plan to attend. (Street parking near City Center is very limited. Please carpool or take public transit if possible.)
My first encounter with Mrs. Suzuki (Okusan)—and with Zen Center—was when a friend wanted to show me Tassajara, and we arrived in the middle of Suzuki Roshi’s memorial service at his ashes site. There was a small Japanese woman who was crying and crying. Little did I know then how important she was to become to me.
When I began to study Japanese tea ceremony with Okusan in 1977, I didn’t realize that she hadn’t been a tea teacher for so long. She was learning how to do that, as we were learning this terribly complex form of mindfulness called chanoyu, in the Omotosenke way (that being one of the schools of tea ceremony).
I remember her saying, “You Americans do everything backwards.” We turned the bowl the wrong way, squeezed out the cleaning cloth the wrong way, and we just had trouble with basics like sitting seiza on our knees. I forgot a pencil to take notes for my second lesson. Whatever she said, I never did that again. Okusan took extensive notes and I still have mine from the Seventies, and I use them, as I have continued with this amazing ceremonial form. However, for a time at Zen Center, it was not felt right to take notes, but just to remember everything spontaneously.
For many years, I was tea partners with Tom Girodot, Heiki-san. In the early years, Okusan would always make an offering in front of Suzuki Roshi’s picture and say something to him. This was on top of a bureau which was in the tea room. We never had the proper sliding doors, so we imagined them and pulled and pushed in various ways—often “backwards.”
I had a feeling that if I thought of something else (other than what I was doing), Okusan would know and clear her throat and I’d come back to, say, entering a tea room. She would not let us get away with any wrong moves.
There were certain times the headmaster of the Omotosenke school would come to San Francisco. We would be selected to perform for him. At one such event, just as I was about to enter to make the tea, Okusan was adjusting my hair. I went on to drop the water ladle onto the tatami as I was walking in. I had to go back and wash it. I’ve rarely been so embarrassed. This sort of mistake reflects on your teacher. However, as we were “backward” Americans, it might have been a bit more forgivable.
Okusan came to my marriage with Jack Weller, a student of Suzuki Roshi. I also made memorial tea with Okusan after my father died. And I was studying with her when I was pregnant (but not due for six weeks), and felt “gas pains”—which was our son, Daniel, deciding to come out early on that day. She loved babies and children, including our Daniel, and would hug and cuddle them. She came to the children’s tea we then had every month and introduced the children to making an offering of the sound of the bell.
Our tea group would go out to dinner in Japantown after a special tea gathering. After a bit of sake, I remember Okusan starting to sing songs that she used to teach her kindergarten class. We would try to join in. She loved to sing. She loved people and loved telling stories.
It was an honor to be invited to have tea in her small kitchen. She knew everything that went on at Zen Center and was a mother to us all. Especially, she had opinions about the right behavior of priest’s wives and priests—which differed a bit from the prevailing San Francisco culture of the Seventies and Eighties.
I remember that Okusan had certain days for certain events. Tuesday was tea teaching day, another was for going to Japantown, and another for cleaning, etc. Every so often I would be honored to drive her to an appointment, and I remember doing a special car cleaning first.
After Okusan had an operation, I remember her walking up and down the Zen Center hallways and on the roof. She loved to walk, and in Shizuoka where she lived with her daughter. When Jack and I visited and she was in her 90s; she took us on a walk past an elementary school and many neighbors with whom she had become friends. We went down to the sea and back along a river—not a short walk.
I am honored to have studied tea with Suzuki Sensei for the 16 years I did. She was such an inspiration and a vital spark for so many people. May we carry her spirit with us.
In the summer of 2010, I went with a group of close students and friends on pilgrimage to Japan. We spent a week at Rinso-in, the original temple of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center and of our Zen practice lineage in America. Author of the most widely read of all Zen books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi was a beloved spiritual master. He was also Mitsu Suzuki’s husband. Her years with him, and all that they brought to her life, certainly fed the silent depths whose waters gave rise to the exquisite poems featured here.
Rinso-in is a relatively small temple in Yaizu, formerly a fishing village, now a port city on the Pacific Ocean. In style and feeling, it is a far cry from the large Japanese Zen training monasteries, famous (if not legendary) for their tough practice. The students and friends I brought—many of whom were Zen priests—had all practiced Zen with me for many years in the United States. I myself have never trained in Japan and do not emphasize Japanese ways in my teaching. But I wanted my closest students to experience the feeling and flavor of the Zen that Suzuki Roshi expressed, the simple life of caring for a temple and its members that he had lived at Rinso-in, and that his son and successor, Hoitsu Suzuki, still lived.
We spent the week sitting in Rinso-in’s small zendo, chanting in its Buddha Hall, cleaning around the temple, and watching Chitose, Hoitsu Roshi’s wife, their son Shungo, who is also a priest, and his wife Kumi, take care of the many tasks necessary to serve a local community of farmers and small-business people. The busy, if also essentially peaceful, life flowed all around us as we foreigners sat zazen, talked, drank tea, cooked our meals, and cleaned around the temple.
Mitsu Suzuki lives with her daughter a fifteen-minute drive from Rinso-in. We phoned to wish her well, not expecting to see her. At ninety-six (her age in 2010) she deserved by now some peace and quiet, and we had been told that she was no longer receiving visitors, especially people from her San Francisco days, because the effort to speak and listen in English was becoming too difficult. But when one of our group who had been a close tea ceremony student spoke to her on the phone, she said she wanted to come to meet us. We were surprised and delighted.
Okusan, as we had been used to calling her, arrived at the temple with a burst of energy. She bustled straight past us into the Buddha Hall, where she immediately made prostrations and said quiet, concentrated prayers, her head bowed, her prayer beads in her hand. She then got up without assistance and, beaming, said loudly in English, “Welcome home!” We were touched by this, thinking she referred to us—that, as students inspired by Suzuki Roshi, his temple was in some way our real home. But later we realized she was saying this to herself—“Welcome home, Mitsu, to the place where your heart is kept.”
We sat for a long while having tea and cookies. She spoke English astonishingly well, as we sat on the tatami floor, she on a little chair, to preserve her knees, she said. She was like a queen holding court, self-contained and dignified, still able to hold her trim, tiny body as she had always done, energetically upright, with elegant hand gestures accompanying her words. She had brought photo albums of Suzuki Roshi in the old days. “Here,” she showed us, “is Suzuki Roshi at the moment of leaving Rinso-in for the last time.” Hoitsu was behind him: the two priests, father and son, were enjoying a private joke long gone by now.
She had also brought a copy of Love Haiku, an anthology edited and translated by Patricia Donegan, in which two of her haiku appeared. Then she recited another haiku in Japanese, which had recently won a prize.
After a while, when she tired of English, she went on energetically in Japanese, with one of our group translating. When asked how she kept so fit in body and mind, she replied, “I walk around the neighborhood every day for an hour. I make sure to say hello to those who live alone.” She mentioned in particular the school next door for children who “can’t go to school”—she visits them every day, bringing small gifts and good cheer—and the businessmen’s boardinghouse on the other side, where many men come and go, staying only for a day or two.
At the end of her visit, a traditional children’s song about spring bubbled up from her memory. She continued to sing as she strode out of our sight to her waiting car and driver, her crisp white hippari and matching white pants hardly making a sound as she glided away. Her sudden absence left the room somehow sadly empty, though the group of us filled it well enough. For years in America, teaching tea ceremony and Japanese ways was her practice. Now, apparently, it was kindness.
The long life of Mitsu Suzuki (she turned one hundred on April 23, 2014) is an unrepeatable marvel. Spanning the changes and disasters of one of the most spectacular centuries in history—one in which East and West have been struggling to meet and understand one another—the winds of time have blown her back and forth across the ocean. Beneath her sweetness, one senses the stoic toughness she possesses not so much because she was raised to it but because it was required of her.
She was born in Shizuoka City in 1914, at the height of Japanese militarism and competition with the West. Her mother died when she was eleven, leaving Mitsu the woman of the household. At nineteen, dissatisfied with the conventionality and coldness she found in Japanese Buddhism, she converted to Christianity, becoming a member of the local Methodist Church. In 1936, at twenty-two, she married Masaharu Matsuno, a naval pilot. When war broke out in 1937 between China and Japan, Masaharu went off, with Mitsu seven months pregnant. He was killed just two weeks after seeing the first photographs of his daughter.
After the war, Mitsu trained as a schoolteacher, and when her daughter was three, began teaching at a local kindergarten. When the Pacific War began (the war Americans know as World War II) and American pilots began flying their interminable and devastating raids over Japan, Mitsu and the other teachers would take their students into bunkers every day as bombs rained down on the city. On the night of June 16, 1945, just three months before Japan surrendered, the entire city of Shizuoka was burned to the ground.
Mitsu, like almost all Japanese of her generation, had been brought up to believe—and had experienced it as a fact—that Americans wanted to kill her and her countrymen. How strange, marvelous, and probably disturbing then that by the early 1960s she would find herself living in the United States, the new wife of a Soto Zen priest stationed in San Francisco. A working Japanese Christian single mother would not have been able to imagine such a thing in 1940. Yet it happened.
After the war, the schools of Japan were in terrible shape, most of them closed, their facilities destroyed. Civic leaders everywhere rushed to take care of this problem as fast as they could. In Yaizu, Shunryu Suzuki was keen to reopen the historically important kindergarten attached to Rinso-in. He had been told of Mitsu by a mutual friend and was determined to hire her to run the school, though she insisted she would not leave Shizuoka, and that, in any case, how could a Christian woman run a Buddhist school? But Shunryu was extremely persistent. He kept reappearing in Shizuoka again and again to ask Mitsu to simply come visit the school. Finally she agreed. One visit was enough to convince her to take the job. As for the Christian problem? “Well, at least you have some religion,” he told her.
Shunryu visited the school daily, leading the children in chanting and Buddhist lessons. He and Mitsu became close colleagues and friends—two strong, opinionated, and charismatic people, with lively senses of humor. Then tragedy befell the Suzuki family: Shunryu’s wife was killed by a mentally ill priest whom he’d allowed to stay at the temple during one of his absences. He was left with three young children. He needed a wife. The Rinso-in community (including Shunryu’s mother-in-law) quickly agreed that Mitsu was the only possible choice.
The two were married in the fall of 1958. He was fifty-four, she was forty-four. Within the year, he had been invited to become abbot of Sokoji temple in San Francisco, fulfilling his lifelong dream of going to America to teach Zen to Westerners. His short-term appointments to Sokoji kept being renewed, and the longer he remained in America, the more young Western students began to come to practice zazen—not necessarily what the temple members were interested in. Eventually Shunryu turned over Rinso-in to Hoitsu, resigned his post at Sokoji, and threw in his lot entirely with the young Western students. By 1961 Mitsu had come to join him. She remained for thirty-two years— returning home in 1994, twenty-three years after Shunryu’s death. During those years Mitsu Suzuki became—by the account of the many American students who studied tea and, yes, in an informal way, Zen with her—an accomplished spiritual master. She inspired affection and respect and was a second mother to many. In her quiet yet forceful and definite way, she expressed and embodied Zen spirit and continuity with the founder. She continued to live in the small apartment in the temple building, where she taught tea, cooked, cleaned, tended altars, and received guests. She was an anchor. As long as Okusan remained, as long as she went on day by day quietly expressing her life in engagement and sympathy with the community, things would be OK.
Suzuki Roshi died too soon. Even the most developed students he left behind were young and green, full of idealism and Zen theory and moxie but not enough maturity. They had not lived through the sorts of challenges that Okusan and her husband had experienced during their years in Japan and so had no basis for appreciating Zen as the religion it actually is—a powerful consolation and source of strength in times of suffering and instability. Okusan’s presence expressed this strength and depth during the long years of Zen Center’s rocky coming of age. She held down the fort, shored up the foundations. When that work was done, the maturity of the center established, she went home.
More than anything else, what Okusan taught in America was what Japan lacked after the war and perhaps still lacks—confidence in the depth of the Japanese way as formed by the culture’s long encounter with the Buddhist teachings. Although she had studied tea casually as a child, it wasn’t until she came to America that she began to study in earnest. Her practice of writing haiku also began in America, during the time when Suzuki Roshi first fell ill. How strange then that the powerful expression of her life, her essential Japaneseness—that elusive and almost ineffable feeling that unites tragedy, toughness, delicacy, beauty, and simplicity—was oddly never fully expressed in her until it came out in America, possibly as a way of coping with the strangeness, or maybe the pain, of living so many years among the people who had burned her country nearly to the ground—incomprehensible people, in many ways completely oblivious to who she was and what she had lived through—yet who, at the same time, perhaps understood and appreciated her more than anyone else ever had. Only in America did Mitsu Suzuki finally find and express her Japanese heart.
I bow to my ballpoint pen
and throw it out—
Text from A White Tea Bowl: 100 Haiku from 100 Years of Life by Mitsu Suzuki. © 2014 by San Francisco Zen Center. Reprinted with permission of Rodmell Press. Author photo © 2014 by Mitsue Nagase.
The following statements were placed on the altar at Mitsu Suzuki Sensei’s funeral at Rinso-in on January 14.
SENIOR DHARMA TEACHER TENSHIN REB ANDERSON
Oh, wondrous teacher-mother-bodhisattva, shibo bosatsu, you lived a great and difficult life indeed. And you appreciated and taught what we can learn through difficulties.
In the midst of life and death and war, you cared for and nurtured your own children and the children of many other families. Then a great day came for us when you came to America where you cared for and nurtured Zen students.
You supported and protected Suzuki Shunryu Roshi so he could teach us the Buddha way. At the same time you supported and cared for us young Zen students so we could study with him and you gently showed us the good ways to be with a teacher.
After Suzuki Roshi entered nirvana you stayed with us for many years and continued to help us care for the Bodhisattva path.
Hot water, green tea, and homemade pickles; you were like a subtle fragrance that perfumed the halls and gardens of Sokoji and City Center.
Now we are filled with gratitude and appreciation for your life with us and our life with you. We wholeheartedly pray the Dharma doors of peace and ease open wide for you.
Tenshin Reb Anderson
Fourth Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center
SENIOR DHARMA TEACHER SHUNBO ZENKEI BLANCHE HARTMAN
Suzuki Sensei was an inspiration to me, and to all of us.
After coming to the U.S., Shunryu Suzuki Roshi gave Okusan a book on Tea (Chado) and suggested that she study Chado, which she did. She came to understand that he was preparing her to be a teacher in her own right. Teaching Tea was a way for her to enter a teacher-student relationship, and it was a good way for some people to enter Zen practice.
She also demonstrated to us how to care for a temple, how to make daikon pickles, how to keep flowers fresh on the altar, the natural beauty of a single flower, how to enter a relationship with birds, plants, altars, and how to care for tatami mats.
My memory is not sufficient to share all the subtle ways that she wove the attitude of Chado into her daily activity.
Okusan was an inspiration to me . . . to all of us.
With a deep, deep bow of gratitude,
ABIDING ABBESS FURYU DOSHIN NANCY SCHROEDER
Dear teacher and beloved temple wife . . . Okusan.
You came to America to support the tiny sprout of Zen practice as the companion to our founding teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. He left before the sprout had grown very large. But you stayed and stayed, not only with your adopted temple family in America, but in your home in Japan, for longer than any of us could possibly have imagined. 102 years of giving love and wisdom to us all. Truly a World-Honored One. Now you have gone to rest. I told Suzuki Roshi in the Kaisando at Tassajara that you had were on your way. I have a happy feeling that he was already there to welcome you.
A thousand bows of gratitude from your loyal tea student of long ago,
Abiding Abbess Furyu Doshin
Green Dragon Temple
A young monk performs
Hanging kettle sways slightly
I was so pleased to be asked to speak today on this wonderful occasion of Suzuki’s Sensei’s 100th year of life, and to join all of you in celebrating the publication of her 100 haiku collection called A White Tea Bowl. A deep bow of congratulations to Sensei (Okusan), and a deep bow to Kate McCandless and Kaz Tanahashi-san for this beautiful tribute to her life and her art.
When I first heard the title of her collection of poems, I thought to myself, I’ve never seen a white tea bowl. and then I thought how very much I’d like to see one.
Tea ceremony has that effect on those of us who practice tea together. We love to see, touch, and talk about the objects that have been brought into the tea room for that day. And to hear what are called the transmission stories: stories about how and when this object was made, what kind of clay or glaze was used, who the artist was, who acquired the object, and who is taking care of it now.
It’s these stories that empower these objects, which reveals to us their aura and establishes the strength of their presence. For example, there’s the tea bowl itself, the chawan, such as the one given to my teacher by her mother over 70 years ago when she was just a little girl, or the one memorialized by Suzuki Sensei in the haiku written for her husband after he had died:
I pour sencha into the
White porcelain tea bowl
And then the tea scoop (chashaku), some of them carved by Suzuki Roshi’s son, Hoitsu Suzuki. The tea whisk (chasen) and the lovely tea caddy (natsume), inside of which is a little mountain formed by my teacher from the powdered green tea.
And eventually we talk about the items in the alcove of the tea room called the tokonoma, such as a lovely woven flower basket that Suzuki Roshi had repaired for their good friends here in America, Mr. and Mrs. Nakagawa—very good friends indeed, who were kind enough to accept into their home Suzuki Sensei’s students when she returned to Japan in 1994.
Hanging above the basket, the scroll often written by a famous Zen teacher in celebration of the season, the incense container. . . and then so much more.
Week after week, year after year, as a guest, you enter the tearoom sliding on our knees, and then bowing to one another again and again as we watch the rebuilding of the charcoal fire, offering of handmade sweets, mixing the thick green tea, then more sweets, then thin green tea. Until you can’t take another bite of anything. You are completely full and utterly content. . . another of those rare and transitory delights. And then, finally, we slide out the door and back out into the world behind the screens.
Tea is all about feelings, as far as I can tell. Those exquisite feelings that come from being with old friends, from learning new things, from honoring age-old craft, but, most of all, from the dance. It’s the dance I think that gets you hooked on tea. Starting with your own tiny toes wrapped inside those tight white tabi.
And now it’s your turn to be the one making tea. Once your guests are seated and ready, you open the door, bow, stand, and enter the room to take your place by the fire and the hot iron kettle: chanoyu means “hot water for tea”.
You take a few breaths and then you completely let go. Because there is utterly no way to remember what you are supposed to do next. You have to rely on your body—the body which has been carefully taught over many years of repetition this pattern of intricate and exquisitely linked movements of your eyes and hands. If you miss one step you will quickly discover that there’s no place left to go as you become frozen in your tracks.
Tea is in fact a very tightly woven net of highly visible consequences from which there are only a very few elegant ways to escape. Mostly your fellow students giggle when you drop the whisk or forget when to add the water.
My favorite story about making big mistakes is the one that occurred in front of a large audience. The woman who was performing the tea ceremony over there in Japan was quite old and venerable. There is the particularly challenging seasonal form that involves unhooking the kettle of water which is hanging from a iron chain above the fire on its thick layer of ash, and moving it up a few links, and then, having done a few things with the fire, moving the kettle back down again.
There’s a saying in tea that you should lift heavy things as if they are light and light things as if they are heavy. So this old woman lifted the heavy kettle skillfully—however, she couldn’t really see so well and missed the hooking onto the link up above.
The kettle fell into the fire and a great cloud of ashes rose up in all directions. Without changing the expression on her face she reached down, lifted the kettle, hooked it correctly, and continued making tea. That’s what I call supreme emotional intelligence.
So once those of us of somewhat lesser intelligence have become frozen during tea, kindly—or not—your teacher will remind your body of what it needs to do next. I can still hear Suzuki Sensei’s voice ringing in my ears, “Fu-san, many times I’ve told you…little front, side-o, side-o,” referring to the placement of your fingers on the tea bowl, one of the most basic and simplest of instructions.
“Fu-san . . .”
“Hai! Sumimasen [forgive me].”
If all goes well, which it rarely does, it will take about 40 minutes to navigate the minute instructions required to produce three tiny sips of bright green tea. All the while your knees are on the mats, at levels of discomfort that it’s hard to imagine one would ever voluntarily be willing to bear . . . and yet, for unknown reasons, you stay there until you’re done. It’s especially at times like that when the famous saying written on the scroll comes to life: “Tea and zen are one.” Staying until you are done.
It’s all about feelings. Feelings that lead you to know how wonderful it is to be alive. To be standing, walking, eating and visiting with a friend. Feelings that are all too easy to forget. And so we practice them again and again . . . practice having feelings. All kinds of feelings.
These instructions on how a make a bowl of tea have been kept alive through centuries, for the most part in Kyoto, by a huge consortium of tea practitioners, tea growers, craftsmen and patrons.
Personally I have decided, after nearly 30 years of studying tea, that the entire enterprise is designed to challenge and thereby to re-educate our neuronal pathways: the pathways of form, feelings, perception, impulses, and consciousness. The very five heaps that make up, in the Buddha’s teaching, what we call the self . . . the illusory self. And although not truly there, it’s the only thing we’ve got that can be educated.
When I first decided to ask Suzuki Sensei if I could study tea with her, my motives were less than pure. I had no idea what tea was nor was I particularly interested in finding out. I wanted to get close to Suzuki Roshi, who had already died, and whose memory and reputation at Zen Center was the living basis for the community. Everyone was grieving who had known him. And there was his wife who had known him best of all. I wanted to hear her speak about her husband.
Which she rarely did. She didn’t have to. Suzuki Roshi, as with the Buddhas before him, wasn’t gone—he was embodied in those who had loved him. He still is. And so is she. That’s how it works. You love your teachers for all the things they have given to you through their selfless practice. Lifting heavy things as if they are light and light things as if they are heavy. I love Suzuki Sensei because she was my teacher. And the parts of myself I love best have come to me from people like her.
All of us can think back on those people who opened us up to the light of the world. Of course our parents gave us the initial boost with language, walking, and hopefully cleaning our rooms. Then we went off to school.
My first real teacher from the big world outside of home was Mr. Brown in the third grade. He took our class out beyond the asphalt playground into the fields of weeds behind the chain linked fence. And then he turned over a big rock. Wow! There were so many tiny little creepy things moving quickly away from the light. It was so disorienting to experience the world as more than what it seemed . . . more than human, out of control, and deeply mysterious. Thank you, Mr. Brown; thank you, Suzuki Sensei; thank you, Reb; thank you, everybody, for disorienting me again and again.
There are a few well-known stories about the practice of tea, some from within the tea tradition itself and others from Zen. The roots of tea and Zen have been entwined from their earliest beginnings in China. In fact, it’s rumored that the tea plant itself grew from the eyelids of Bodhidharma when he tore them off and cast them to the ground in his determination to stay awake while sitting upright in his cavern. That’s why those Daruma dolls have those big unblinking eyes. Something to scare the little kids.
It may be, more factually, that the drinking of powdered green tea, called matcha, entered Japan from the Song Dynasty in China at the end of the 12th century with the Buddhist monks who had gone there to study Zen. At first it was used to overcome drowsiness during long periods of meditation and also as a cure-all medicine, being fully loaded with both caffeine and vitamin C. Eventually tea took hold within Japanese culture as not only an medicinal drink but as a tasty beverage, and as a consequence the numbers of tea plantations, and the comparisons among them, increased to become one of the major industries in Japan.
Within a few hundred years the making of tea, the value of the tea utensils, and the writing of poetry all converged as warrior, merchant and upper-class sport.
Around the 15th century the practice of making the tea in front of the guests, rather than having it brought in from another room, became the cultural norm. This act of making a bowl of tea in front of others is called the temae. It’s the temae that we study in our classes each week.
Of the many stories about the tradition of tea, I particularly like the ones about Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century tea master who perfected the tea ceremony and raised it to the level of an art. Sen no Rikyu reestablished the practice of tea, in all of its aspects, in keeping with its earlier monastic forms. Under Rikyu, the temae, the utensils, the tea-garden landscaping and tea-house architecture were all governed by such aesthetic ideals as wabi (meaning deliberate simplicity in daily living) and sabi (appreciation of the old and faded) —thereby the saying that “Tea and Zen are one.”
So one day, Rikyu was invited by a tea grower, a farmer, to come for tea. The tea grower was very fond of the tea ceremony and practiced as often as time allowed. Rikyu arrived at the old man’s tea house, bringing with him one of his promising young disciples as second guest. Being very nervous, his hands visibly shaking, the grower made a number of obvious mistakes. And yet at the finish Rikyu said to him in all sincerity, “This tea you have made is the finest.”
On the way home, the disciple asked Rikyu how he could have made such a comment given the amateur performance by that man. Rikyu replied, “He made tea for me with his whole heart.”
When I think about Suzuki Sensei, wholeheartedness is certain the dominant quality through which she lived her life. Whether she was teaching us tea, doing her daily exercises up and down the hall, singing children’s songs at top of her lungs, or carefully bowing each time she past in front of the Kaisando upstairs and each time she past by one of us, she was wholehearted.
And she still is. When Meiya and I went to Japan last fall we were so blessed to be taken to see her in her home in Yaizu where she now lives with her daughter, and nearby, her great grandchild. She spend nearly two hours with us showing us the photo albums Zen Center had given her years ago full of pictures of all of us. She pointed to the tea kettle sitting in the corner, smiled at me and said, ”There’s your old friend, Fu-san.”
I think she knew very well that Zen Center needed her to stay here for a while until the shinmei, the new growth, had a chance to strengthen and to flower. Her presence and example were a through-line from temple life she had known in Japan to our sincere efforts to ground our own culture’s practice in Suzuki Roshi’s simple and profound teachings.
She took so many of us under her wing personally—and yet it wasn’t really personal. She wasn’t my friend or parent. She was my teacher. She had dharma to offer, as had her husband, his son and now their grandson who have each taken the long plane ride to come here to America and to teach.
I think we are learning. I feel we are and I trust that we are. And yet, it seems best if we’re never quite sure. There is so much for each of us to learn—among them, how to be good hosts and good guests, a profound social form which among all the world’s cultures, the tea ceremony may know best. It’s also what Zen practice may know best: that host and guest are not two and yet they are not the same either. There is something in that relationship that each needs to learn from the other—by taking turns. By altering our points of view.
Here’s another very good story, this one from the Zen tradition about a tea gathering of two Zen monks and a local samurai lord by the name of Sendai.
The monk, named Tetsugyu, had invited Lord Sendai to tea when his dharma brother Cho-on dropped by for a visit. Lord Sendai invited Cho-on to join them for tea. Tetsugyu had chosen an especially precious antique tea bowl that Lord Sendai had given him, which he set down on the tatami mat as he began to make tea. After drinking the tea, Lord Sendai followed the tradition of admiring the bowl, after which he passed it to Cho-on so he might do the same.
Cho-on suddenly reached out with his ceremonial stick and smashed the tea bowl. “Now look at the authentic tea bowl that exists before birth,” Cho-on said.
Tetsugyu turned pale and nearly fainted, but Lord Sendai remained upright and present, saying to Tetsugyu, “I gave you that tea bowl but I would like you to give it back to me now. Before you give it back, please have it glued together and have a box made for it. On the box I ask that you write the name of the bowl, which I now give as ‘The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth.’ I will reverently pass it on to my descendants.”
This story is about tradition, and whether or not we are holding on to a tradition without understanding its essential meaning. For the Zen student, the essential meaning of things is that they don’t exist. That their fundamental characteristic is a lack of inherent existence. So do we break the tea bowl, like “whatever”, or, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, do we try to possess it? “My precious.”
The essential meaning is that there is no essential meaning referring to something other than itself. While making tea, make tea. While eating lunch, eat lunch. While washing the dog, wash the dog. So simple and yet almost no one can pull it off—pull off the veil of concepts through which we continuously evaluate and view the world: “That’s my lovely tea bowl!” “Today I’ll be having soup for lunch.” “What dog?”
Practice is not a matter of time or some duration of time. It is always exactly what is happening right now. It is always in the form of you yourself as both host and guest of the present moment. Whether you are walking, kneeling, serving, or receiving the offering. The practices of awareness arise as boundless stream when you and world appear inseparably together. Nothing to hold on to, nothing to break, no one to protect or to hate.
How about you? Would you like a bowl of tea?
The last time I made tea for Suzuki Sensei before she returned to Japan I was having a pretty hard time. Mostly because I kept crying. When I finally finished whisking and looked into the tea bowl, there were tiny lumps floating on the surface. I bowed and told Sensei I was so sorry about the lumps. When I looked up, she was smiling at me and then she said, “Fu-san, enjoy the lumps”.
First calligraphy of the year—
I write “Beginner’s Mind”
From a talk given at City Center, on April 26, 2014
The funeral for Daigan at Green Gulch Farm on Sunday, June 7, 2015, was led by his teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer, as well as Tenshin Reb Anderson and Furyu Nancy Schroeder. Pages from the program are shown below, along with a photo of the altar spread with several of Daigan’s priestly effects and remembrances. One of Daigan’s poems, poignantly appropriate to the occasion, was included in the program. read more…