Temple Dusk: Zen Haiku
Mifsu Suzuki
Translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Gregory A. Wood
Parallax Press: Berkeley, 1992.
186 pp., $15.00 (paperback).

Mitsu Suzuki, familiar to American Zen practitioners as the widow of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is not only a tea teacher but also a haiku poet of the first order, as this latest collection of poems eloquently shows. Temple Dusk is a casual stroll through a mini­-mindfield—the terrain looks familiar yet it takes one off guard:

After planting lily bulbs 
I notice the color 
of the sky

Many of these poems have the quality of “objective heart”—a subtle poignancy where the ordinary becomes extraordinary:

Since my youngest days 
the same mole 
New Year’s mirror

Japanese Haiku seems the easiest of all poetic forms, yet it is the most difficult; one has to present the moment which stopped one’s mind in three short lines, bringing the reader back to his or her original most intimate mind. The art depends entirely on the poet’s own realization. Mrs. Suzuki’s haiku not only has clarity of mind but can also move the reader’s mind without warning. R.H. Blyth, the eminent translator, said that a good haiki reverberates a long time thereafter. Haiku can be a small quiet moment in which the afternoon light changes over the kitchen table:

Forgiving each other 
clear eye contact 
wisteria rain

Or this one:

In each 
bonsai tree 
clear night.

If Zen practice is to follow or­dinary mind as the way, then Mrs. Suzuki leads us further on the path; her poetry not only fulfills seventeenth-century haiku master Basho’s edict of oneness—to write about the pine, become one with the pine—but it does so without pretense. The poems have what the late Japanese haiku master Nakamura Sensei said was the highest principle of haiku: “Be honest with oneself and write what is there.” For these haiku are not the strictly obective haiku of Basho nor the finger-snapping variety of Kerouac, but fall in the lineage of Issa’s honesty and humanity, which quietly take one’s breath away:

Death make-up 
still solid 
white lotus blossom

The translators have done a su­perb job in conveying the emo­tional essence of the heightened moment in sparse language, which makes them seem almost effortless, as if they were being spoken for the very first time:

Gardenia’s 
whiteness remains 
the night is complete.

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