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Exemplars of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (continued)

Mitsu Suzuki

An exemplar of the Avalokiteshvara archetype in my personal experience is Mitsu Suzuki, the widow of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Mrs. Suzuki, who in 1961 moved to San Francisco to be with her husband at his Japanese-American temple, is herself an important figure in the still-short history of American Zen. For more than twenty years after her husband died in 1971, Mrs. Suzuki stayed on, living at the Zen Center he had established with his American meditation students. America remained a strange country to her and English a difficult language. But she amiably remained as a quiet presence and much-loved guide and example to several generations of Zen students.

Mrs. Suzuki would never have thought of trying to impose her views or opinions. She kindly and clearly embodied simple principles of compassion and generosity, even through difficulties that embroiled the Zen Center community. Her example helped many of us stay focused on the real work during stressful times. She always remained cheerful. I recall her daily vigorous walking exercises down the halls of the residence building, widely swinging her arms and smiling at the bemused students as they passed.

Mrs. Suzuki has a keen sense of the Japanese aesthetic, a contemplative sensibility that is inextricably linked to Zen practice, which she expresses as a fine haiku poet. Some of her haiku, which have appeared in Japanese journals, have also been translated and published in English. These short poems are concentrated distillations of immediate experience. They might be seen as descriptions of Avalokiteshvara, simply but carefully observing the sounds and doings of her world and herself.

Disturbing matters continue
I hear bird songs

Clear winter day
sound of waves
solitary life.

Clear winter day
sound of waves
solitary life.

Mrs. Suzuki expresses the strict side of Zen compassion. Suzuki Roshi had suggested she take up tea practice, and it became a vehicle for her to share the background of his teaching after he was gone. Mrs. Suzuki used tea and the sensitive handling of its traditional utensils as skillful means, frequently demonstrating "tough love" in her sharp-tongued criticism of students' lack of attentiveness to the details of the form. Her lessons helped many Zen students expand their sense of presence and learn to care for their everyday surroundings.

In addition to tea, Mrs. Suzuki taught some students the Japanese way of sewing formal tea ceremony garments. One student recalls Mrs. Suzuki's hands as "small and very well kept. When she picks something up, even if it's as seemingly insignificant as a pin, her hands and the object seem to know each other. The way a pin or a piece of fabric is held becomes a teaching in such hands."

AUDIO The compassion of Avalokiteshvara is manifested in our world by many common people. Random acts of kindness are performed quietly in response to everyday situations. One of my early memories, from when I was about three years old and traveling with my family, is of a man I didn't know, perhaps a professional associate of my father's. He noticed that my shoes were untied and bent down and tied them for me. Something about this simple action touched me such that I still recall the kindness.

Other Avalokiteshvaras?

Can you think of other public figures who embody Avaloktishvara's qualities?

Bodhisattvas are not limited to a few famous or saintly people. Can you think of people you know personally or who you have encountered who embody Avalokiteshvara's qualities?

Avalokiteshvara and you

In considering these exemplars of the Avalokiteshvara archetype, we may get a better sense of the compassion aspects of our own spiritual work and life.

As you go about your day, notice how many times you see Avalokiteshvara manifested in small gestures of kindness and cheerfulness in yourself. Can you identify the gentle, responsive, empathetic, or helpful qualities of compassion in yourself?