Tea Stories: Reflections from the cups of the Tea Masters
It was in Buddhist temples that tea drinking particularly flourished and spread. Tea is invigorating, and there is a direct expression of clarity that it calls forth. Clarity, and even giddiness, or delight. Tea helps to invigorate long meditations. There are two types of obstacles to meditation that tea might lend help to for a meditator: boredom and breakthrough. In truth, these two obstacles can be related, they can even be one and the same. When you stop chasing thoughts, the habitual mind has nothing much to entertain itself with. For some people and during some times, this can manifest as tiredness, the mind just tries to shut down the senses. Tea helps to bring more attentiveness to a state of dullness. Likewise, the experience of breakthrough in a meditation can be like an experience on a kind of plateau where nothing seems to be going on and the sense of desolation can bring dullness or sluggishness. In these situations, tea can bring sharpness to persist until the threshold has been passed through.
Anything that we eat or drink becomes part of us. Not just part of our bodies, but also part of our mind, part of how we experience our lives. This is why eating and drinking meditations are practiced in Buddhist Temples. When we notice what is going on, when we notice what we are doing, we can bring intention to the path of meditation and change begins to work with us to bring us to an expression of completeness we have never experienced before. So as we look closely at the logistics of what is happening, we can find in the ritual of tea drinking the dance of the elements, the coming together of everything we know in our world as a celebration of abundance, clarity, joy and wonder.
Sugiki Fusai's student asked for something to remind him of his teacher's instructions. After some thought, Fusai took a piece of burning charcoal from the firepit, placed it in a small incense brazier, and handed it to his pupil, saying, "I have nothing else to offer you, but take this home, put it in your hearth and keep it burning by performing chanoyu morning and evening. If you can keep this up, you will understand all I have taught you." (The Tea Ceremony Tokyo: Kodansha Int'l. 1973 p. 92)
We are responsible for keeping the fire of gentle awareness burning everywhere in our lives. We are the ones who have inherited deep wonder from all of those who have taught us how to love and dream. This fire awakens the tea in our hearts and brings the power of infusion into the evanescence of our flowing experiences. When the fire finds the balanced bowl of our spaciousness and presence, our space and earth, we find the mystery of tea is no different than the mystery we are.
My real dwelling
has no pillars
and no roof either
so rain cannot soak it
and wind cannot blow it down!
(Ikkyu, Wild Ways, p.28)
In the Book of Tea written in 1600 by So Shuno, the author states that while a certain conservatism is necessary, the ceremony should not lack in originality or become stiff and static. (The Tea Ceremony p.90)
As formalized and stark as the Japanese style of Tea Ceremony appears, the Japanese tea ceremony depends not only on traditional art but creativity, hataraki, without which it becomes dull and prosaic. Hataraki is the flowing of the stream that bubbles and washes through us if we only abandon ourselves to feeling the flow.
In the Record of Yamanoue Soji in which this creativity is known as sakubun there are two sides to chanoyu: the observation of tradition and the employment of creativity. (The Tea Ceremony, p.15)
We are a ceaseless creative event. The ritual is never finally codified, never finished. We must bring everything we are to what we do, and when we do this, we become living poetry.
Takeno Joo, a monk of the 15th century, used to say preparing tea was an "unique opportunity of a lifetime," in praise of the art. (The Tea Ceremony, )
One story tells that tea was discovered in 2737 BCE by Shen-Nung, the legendary plant doctor who could test scores of poisons in his own body in a single day and find antidotes for each of them. The great doctor was boiling water to make his dinner when some tea leaves were blown into the kettle by the wind. He drank the infusion, felt refreshed and invigorated, and recognized the plant's sublime virtues.
Shen-Nung was a Taoist sage, though long before Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu had articulated Taoist philosophy. The ancient Taoist sages were plant people. Taoist emphasis on individuality and freedom contrasted with the Confucian ideals of heirarchy and duty (though Confucians might term them "harmony" and "tradition"). Confucianism was stronger in northern China, Taoism in the south, and the south was the land of tea. And it was in southern China that Taoism--with its emphasis on emptiness and the yin--was most assimilated into Buddhism as Ch'an (Zen in Japanese). P48-9
It is the balance of openness and the desire to see the wildness of the wilds reflected in the expression of the mind that brings the Taoist sages to the heart of harmony, to the heart of the mirror, where the outer and inner worlds reflect with endless perfection.
The Ch'an sect made tea drinking a part of their ritual. They offered tea to the Buddha, and shared tea from a passed cup. Pai-chang, the early T'ang teacher who instituted the distinctive nonheirarchical organizational structure that first defined Ch'an as an indepenedent sect, was said to have included rules regarding tea drinking. Pai-chang broke with Buddhist tradition and made farming and other work a regular part of monastic practice. "A day without work is a day without eating," Pai-chang (called Hyakujo in Japanese) also gave some thought to the law of cause and effect, and is perhaps best known for once giving a full Buddhist funeral for the body of a fox.
The wisdom of the knowledge of cause and effect is one of the foundations of Buddhist meditation. On the one hand, monasteries had great incentive in growing tea, as their consumption would cost money to supply. On the other hand, the process of working fields brings these lessons home in a practical and experiential way to anyone who is willing to participate in the expression of this earth's bounty. Tea farms at monasteries bring the teachings into the soil, and the results of bringing intention to what we do always yields a sweetness that is surprisingly palatable.
According to Taoists, tea relieves fatigue, delights the soul, strengthens the will, and repairs the eyesight. Tea was an essential ingredient in the Elixir of Immortality.
"In our common parlance we speak of the man "with no tea" in him, when he is insusceptible to the serio-comic interests of the personal drama. Again we stigmatize the untamed aesthete who, regardless of the mundane tragedy, runs riot in the springtide of emancipated emotions, as one "with too much tea" in him.
(Okakura Kakuzo, Book of Tea)
The idea that the serving tea could be a spiritual path in Japan came from the contact between a few key masters of the 14th century: Murata Shuko, Master Joshu and Master Ikkyu. Master Joshu, a Tea Master and Zen priest, was famous for his invariable response to three of his students questions with the reply, "Have a cup of tea." Murata Shuko was a student of the great poet and iconoclastic Zen master Ikkyu (1394-1481). Ikkyu encouraged Shuko's intrest in tea, believing that tea could be used as "skillful means" on the Buddhist path, and presented Shuko with a valuable scroll of calligraphy by the Ch'an master Yuan-wu as a certification of his attainment.
Once Ikkyu asked Shuko, "What is the essence of tea-drinking?"
Shuko said, "It is Eisai's Quiet Mind of Tea-drinking."
Ikkyu said, "What about Joshu's tea?"
Shuko was silent and at last Ikkyu served him a cup of tea.
As Shuko lifted the cup to his lips, Ikkyu shouted "Katsu!" and smashed it with his iron nyoi (a Buddhist ceremonial rod). Shuko bowed deeply.
Ikkyu spoke to him, "What are you like when you have no intention of taking tea?"
Without an answer, Shuko got up and walked toward the door.
"Stop." Ikkyu shouted, "What are you like when you've taken tea?"
"The willow is green," Shuko replied, "the rose is red."
Ikkyu then smiled broadly.
"The Present is the moving Infinity, the legitimate sphere of the relative. Relativity seeks Adjustment; adjustment is Art." Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea "Thus," as Dale Pendell writes, "the tarot card of tea is Temperance."
Temperance in the Rider Waite deck is symbolized by an angel, the Angel Gabriel, pouring liquid from one cup to another. The flow of any liquid can be understood as the expression of evanescence or impermanence, or as Pendell notes, "adjustment." A river and a waterfall all demonstrate this through the incessant and constant change present in their flowing.
Rain, hail, snow and ice:
but when they fall
they become the same water
of the valley stream.
(Ikkyu, Wild Ways, p. 115)
Likewise, tea in the Gong Fu style Chinese Tea Ceremony is poured from the "father" teapot to the teapot of the "son." This is the nature of transmission, and the expression of balance within the expression of movement. Where there is perception of movement there is an expression of duality, for nothing can move if there is nothing to perceive. If there is nothing to perceive, there is nothing to be distinguished, in such a state duality cannot exist. The enlightened expression of movement is the activity of compassion or love as the movement emanates from a state of ecstatic perfection to a state of embodied perfection.
Untrammeled and free for 30 years
Crazy cloud practices his own brand of Zen.
A hundred flavors of spice my simple fare:
Thin gruel and twig tea are part of the True
(Ikkyu In Thanks for a gift of shoyu, p. 35)
Ikkyu called himself "Crazy Cloud." In one sense, he is calling to mind his evanescence as a human being, as fall of thoughts plunging into the ages, as a sage proclaiming the evaporation of sages, bubbles, drips on wet pages. Crazy because the wind blows everywhere, blows us everywhere, these winds of changes. Wetness follows the light, sends us dancing across stages.
If chunks of rock
can serve as a memento
to the dead,
a better headstone
would be a tea mortar.
(Ikkyu, Wild Ways, p.107)
I watched a cloud
as I sang to the dakini of air
and mist of my prayer rose
to meet her lips.
I sang a song
to the dakini of space
and she dropped her skin like a gown
kissed my breath,
in the throat of my song.
In the book Chanoyu by Al Sadler, a story is told of a young upstart who came to the great Tea Master Rikyu, wanting to know the mysteries of tea. "You place the charcoal so that the water boils properly and you make the tea to bring out the proper taste. You arrange the flowers as they appear when they are growing. In summer, suggest coolness, in winter, coziness. There is no other secret than this." was his reply, and he continued,
Teas is nothing but this:
first boil water
then infuse the tea
drink it properly
there is nothing else to know.
"All that I know already!" the young man yelled with disgust, and after a pause, Rikyu replied, "Well if there is anyone who already knows this, I am delighted to learn it from him."
"Consider what Rikyu said as truth." said Rikyu's Zen Master, who had been sitting listening to the entire encounter, "Once the poet Po-chu-i excitedly quoted an adage to Su Wu: "Do not a single evil act, but practice every kind of virtue." Su Wu quickly replied, "This is a phrase known by every child of three in this country but even an 80 year-old philosopher like myself cannot carry it out."
The young man, considered these words in silence and was satisfied. (p. 102)
The great Tea Masters that have gone before, like the Buddha, have left us with echoes of their heartbeat's horizon. Those fortunate enough to see them face to face have tasted their tea in words and in silence, in the ineffable space of tasting what cannot be caught with words and phrases.
To leave behind
Is yet another kind of dream:
When I awaken I know that
There will be no one to read it.
(Ikkyu, Wild Ways, p. 127)