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Memories of Mitsu Suzuki

By David Chadwick

1-28-13

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I called Mitsu Suzuki Okusan. She wasn’t called Sensei till after her husband’s death. I called her husband Roshi. She called him Hojo-san which abbots of temples in Japan are called, mainly within the temple.

Took a walk with her over the hog back in the second year we had Tassajara. She was fifty-three. We went past the spot where her husbands’ ashes site would be. Down on the other side she took a sip of water from the creek using her hand. She looked so feminine. A flash of attraction.

Talking with Okusan and Roshi by the large oak tree that used to be above the steps down to the zendo. It was early summer in 1971. It was some student’s birthday. I asked them when their birthdays were and if they remembered. They’d both forgotten the others’. I asked about their wedding anniversary. Some time in December. Never occurred to them. I scolded them and they laughed. It didn’t occur to me that these weren’t important dates to most Japanese, especially older ones. A few decades later I asked again and she couldn’t remember the date of their anniversary.

Okusan came to me in the hall of Sokoji asking if I could drive Roshi to Tassajara. I said yes. She seemed in a hurry. She helped him load his bag and get into his seat, made sure his seat belt was on, and handed him a small box with rice balls. “Good,” she said. “You drive careful. Baker-san toooo fast.”

Took her to a theater down the street from Sokoji that was showing a samurai film. It was violent, sometimes gory, blood splashing onto the camera lens and dripping down. She wasn’t fazed, enjoyed it, giggled sometimes.

Okusan would often say about her husband, “Good priest, bad husband.” She told me how she was very ill when he first came to America. She said he left her behind to die. After he left they figured out what was wrong with her, something to do with her throat. Maybe there’s a scar. She said she refused to come join him here for several years, that it took her time to forgive him. I didn’t know then that they’d only married shortly before. (See Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber)

If I was living in the Page Street building or just visiting, Okusan would ask me to bring her my robes so she could do repairs. She’d sometimes clean them as well. If I was wearing them she’d arrange them properly saying, “Good monk.”

Sometimes I’d see her in the morning and she’d scold me playfully for obviously having a hangover. She’d call me her grandson though she’s the same age as my mother.

Soon after Roshi died she called me to her room and gave me an obi and zagu that were his. She put the obi around me and poked my stomach.

Roshi gave a lecture once at Tassajara where he went on and on about how Okusan had gotten enlightened. He laughed a lot and kept saying he never thought she’d get enlightened. He explained what led to this. Roshi frequently had to do funerals for members of the Japanese congregation. He’d have to leave Tassajara quite a bit to do them. It was an elderly congregation. If he were absolutely not available, Katagiri Sensei would officiate. An important member of the temple had died and neither Suzuki or Katagiri were available, an unusual situation. Chino Sensei was in Japan. She couldn’t get hold of Rev. Ueno in Monterey. No one in LA could come. She had to find a priest but there was none. Roshi said Okusan became extremely distraught. Then she gave up. And then Roshi said, she got enlightened. And he laughed more. (See Excerpts from Crooked Cucumber)

 

She’d wash her long, thick, black hair and go up on the roof of the City Center to dry it. She’d take a daily walk in the halls swinging her arms.

Several Japanese priests have commented to me in interviews on how close and unique the relationship was between Roshi and Okusan. See interviews with Taizan Maezumi and Ryuho Yamada.

One day I arrived from Tassajara and Okusan was standing by the door. I picked her up and hugged her. Later she told me that I must have cracked some ribs, that it took a long time for her to heal. After that she always greeted me with outstretched protective hands and, “No hugs.”

I was living in Japan in the late eighties and early nineties and sometimes visited Rinsoin in Yaizu. Once I mentioned that Mitsu was planning on returning to Japan before long and asked if she’d live at Rinsoin. Hoitsu’s wife Chitose said definitely not, that she was too headstrong. Mitsu did return and moved in with her daughter Harumi in Shizuoka next to Yaizu. In 1994 I spent some time in Yaizu doing interviews for Crooked Cucumber, visited with Mitsu at her daughter’s home. She told me she didn’t want to speak English anymore. I said in Japanese that I’d rather speak my poor Japanese. That put her at ease. She came to Rinsoin to join in a dinner with some old students of Suzuki Shunryu’s. Hoitsu’s wife and daughters served us dressed in kimono, traditional and obsequious. Mitsu, in her 80th year, joined in on the conversation as an equal, arguing at times, something that I’ve rarely heard at such occasions from men or women. In 2003 I walked from the train station to visit Mitsu in Shizuoka, about a mile. We spent an hour together drinking tea. She showed me photographs and gave me an envelope with a 10,000 yen bill, about $100, for the trip. She walked me half way back to the station holding on to me. She was 89.

I had tea from time to time with Okusan, but I don’t recall doing tea ceremony with her. Many students had a close relationship with her as tea students or as fellow students of Udea Sensei. Mitsu is often called Suzuki Sensei because she was a tea teacher.

I remember Okusan sitting zazen with us at Sokoji and at Page Street by the door so she could get up to go pee during the period. I remember her putting out damp towels for students to step on before entering the Sokoji zendo, especially the barefoot ones. She took care of Roshi, often more than he wanted, but always well. I remember her standing outside the founder’s hall at the City Center when we’d have the monthly memorials for Suzuki Roshi. Sometimes she’d cry. She took care of all of us. She took her husband’s teaching and practice to heart. Good wife. Good student. Good teacher.