A SPECIAL SUZURI STONE
 

硯の破格

 

 

"Tsurezure-gusa", a story by Yoshida Kenkou begins with, "As I had nothing else to do, I ground an ink-cake on the suzuri and ....".

 

            Reading those lines a few days ago, I couldn't help but remember my own connection to that type of ink block, made of carved stone, which has been used in Japan for countless generations.  In Japanese it is known as 'suzuri' .  In contemporary Japan the ballpoint pen has more or less replaced the need for ink preparation. And there are even capped 'brush-pens' filled with ink that imitate the original writing brush.

 

            In Japan, ages-old traditions continue, and I'm sure that many people still have, and use, their ink stone, at least on special occasions.  The 'suzuri' is usually made of a particular type of flint stone from specific regions of the country, one of which is Nagano, high in the Japanese 'Alps'.  The companion to the suzuri is the block, or 'cake', of dried ink called 'sumi'  .  It is a dark, compacted, soot-like material that is rubbed, along with water, on a hollowed out section of the ink stone.  It always has a remarkably pleasant scent.  Then there is the brush or 'fude'  .  The 'fude' most often has a handle of waxy-smooth bamboo and hair of certain animals, some purported to be much finer for writing than others.  The fourth element is the ‘binsen’  便箋, or paper.  The grades and varieties of paper are limitless.  One of the most common, and beautiful, is made from the mulberry tree.   That very same tree, which in spring and summer furnishes leaves that the silk worm utilizes as food in preparation for spinning its marvelous cocoon. The 'kami', or gods, seem to have furnished the Japanese people with extraordinarily unique gifts.  Or perhaps those same Shinto gods merely explained how best to take advantage of what was readily available.

 

These four elements; stone, ink, brush and paper, are combined semantically into a single unit, and are known collectively in Japanese as 'Bunbo-shi-ho' -文房四宝, "The Four Writing Treasures".  Each forming an integral part of the totality.

 

 

I had just recently returned from a government assignment in Japan when I began attending classes at a university in the Southern California community where I lived.  Shortly after sitting down in the first class of the day, an elective class on Comparative Religion, a young oriental fellow sat down in the seat next to me.  Soon the young fellow sitting next to me quietly asked the meaning of several terms the professor had written on the blackboard.  That small incident, even to the musical sound of his soft voice, is permanently etched in memory.

 

As a result of his questions we soon became friends and I began to help him with his English since he was newly arrived in the US from Japan. I explained that I just come back from Japan and would like to continue with my study of the language, so we then made a deal.  I would help him with his study of English if he could coach me with my Japanese. I had known Hiroshi Maezumi for several weeks before I discovered that not only was he a student, but also a Zen Buddhist priest attached to the Zensuji Soto Temple there in Los Angeles.  And he was most impressed to discover that I had spent a year one to Zen’s most famous monasteries.

 

 I recall with complete clarity the evening that Maezumi-san presented me with a beautiful, carved suzuri and showed me how to carefully, almost meditatively move the sumi ink-stick gently back and forth. He also explained that the ink was not to be prepared in a quick 'let's-get-it-over-with' fashion.  It was to be done slowly, deliberately, with relaxed concentration.  Putting a part of oneself into the process. The water was poured from a small container into the ink-stone.  It had been collected the previous evening during an unusual October shower, and slowly turned from crystal clear to gray to deep, midnight black as my hand slowly worked the ink block back and forth.  He explained that ordinary tap water was certainly acceptable, but water from a bubbling spring or collected from the sky seemed more appropriate.  An intimacy with nature.

 

Glancing up at the single rosy-red autumn camellia, 'tsubaki', in the cobalt blue vase on the low table-desk, I became aware that it too, was an integral part of this process.  There was the hint of an earthy sweetness in the air. Then I realized I was inhaling the woodsy fragrance of the flower as well as the pleasing  natural perfume of the ink.  These two scents combined and they seemed to enter into and become a part of my very being.  He next taught me how to hold the brush, load it with ink and then make that first simple stroke.  It was nothing more than a single horizontal line, but it was magical.

 

More than all the vocabulary words and Japanese phrases I had learned in the preceding years in Japan, it was that first line that captured my spirit, and would forge yet another link to Japan and its culture.  That simple line was 'ichi', or 'one', and it was a beginning.  It was a new beginning, and one that would know no end.  For I had also discovered that writing, whether in Japanese, English, or any other language, can be a profound experience.   It can serve as a means of tapping into deeper layers of the self.   

 

 That marvelous event occurred many years ago.  In the intervening years we both traveled a lot, but  never lost contact.  I also never failed to carefully pack my suzuri before leaving for some distant part of the globe.

 

            Maezumi-san died unexpectedly of a heart attack several years ago.  He had gone back to Japan for a short visit.  And stayed.

 

The morning after the letter arrived informing me of his having entered into another realm of existence, I went out into my Mexican garden. It was early, just before the sun had made its appearance. In the rosy, fragrant dawn I collected countless droplets of crystalline dew from flowers, leaves and blades of grass.  Then, mixed with water from a nearby steam, as well as several unbidden tears, I prepared the ink. 

 

I then wrote my dear departed friend a note of appreciation for his many gifts, not the least of which had been his presence in my life. With the passage of the years I have become cognizant that every person who enters our lives comes bearing a gift, if we are but willing to accept it and hopefully we will have one to offer in exchange.  And the supreme gift of all is our own friendship and love, a priceless treasure that we have in abundance.

 

Now, when I take out that special suzuri and begin to prepare the sumi ink for writing or a sumie painting, I am aware that his spirit is still a part of that unique stone, and I know that the ever present spirit of  Maezumi-san continues to gently, lovingly, guide the fude in my hand.