Book Bits

Mitsu Suzuki on Teaching Tea Ceremony

Mitsu Suzuki was the wife of Shunryu Suzuki who accompanied him when he moved to the United States from Japan in the 1960s. After her husband passed away in 1971, Mitsu stayed on at San Francisco Zen Center where she taught tea ceremony and haiku poetry for another two decades. This excerpt is from a talk she gave to students at Zen Center a couple of years before she left to go back to Japan. In the talk, she describes her life in America and goes on to say what she learned and what she was able to transmit in her efforts to teach tea ceremony to American students, especially with regards to the relationship of host and guest.


I could not really teach tea ceremony in a formal way—I didn’t have the correct tea utensils or formal tea room. And I didn’t have enough knowledge myself to teach formal tea ceremony. But because I was studying Zen, I wanted my students to grasp the heart of Zen. That is, in a very narrow space, a one mat room or two mat room, you establish a universe. Here there is harmony between host and guest. The host is always thoughtful of the guest, thinking how to create and serve delicious tea to the guest. The guest, instead of trying to look for the host’s mistake, watches and wishes for the host to make delicious tea. So there is a real warm harmony; this is the spirit of tea ceremony. In this country, people tend to think of their own matters and not worry about others’ business. I wanted people here to learn this spirit of harmony. 

I’m very fortunate that my students are all Zen students. They probably understand the spirit of tea more than other Americans. Among tea teachers, even in Japan, few people want to study Zen, which is very strange because tea ceremony started from Zen practice. Dogen Zenji said, “Dignified bearing is itself Buddha Dharma.” He taught that everything we do in our daily life—how we converse with each other and how we take meals, go to the bathroom, how we use water—all is Zen. Tea ceremony is just like that: however and wherever you meet someone else, being fully thoughtful of the other is most important. That is the mastery of tea ceremony. 

My students have been studying, maybe harder than Japanese students, although they have many difficulties like pain in their legs sitting seiza. Because of his age, Issan (Issan Dorsey, late Abbot Of Hartford Street Zen Center) would often forget the movements. I would just hit his hand to correct him, asking him what was next. He would say, “I don’t know.” So I would say “I’ve told you this a million times—please say you forgot, not that you don’t know!” A Japanese student who spilled tea would say, “Oh, I’m extremely sorry, my mistake.” Here I would just clean up for my students. They wouldn’t even say thank you. They might have thought that this was some accident, not their mistake. I was often shocked with their reactions. If I asked them to say they were sorry, they would look puzzled, wondering why I’m asking them this. 

One real challenge is that people here are not really trained from childhood in precise physical movements like using right hand or left hand. In American education you don’t need to learn this. All movements in tea ceremony involve right and left. But my students are really open for suggestions and instructions, and they have been following my instructions in a faithful way. 


Mitsu Suzuki (1914-2016)
From – Wind Bell: Teachings from the San Francisco Zen Center 1968-2001


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