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Traditionally in China and Japan, drinking a cup of tea was an opportunity for contemplation, meditation, and an elevation of mind and spirit. Here, renowned translator William Scott Wilson distills what is singular and precious about this traditional tea culture, and he explores the fascinating connection between Zen and tea drinking. He unpacks the most common phrases from Zen and Chinese philosophy—usually found in Asia printed on hanging scrolls in tea rooms, restaurant alcoves, family rooms, and martial ...
Traditionally in China and Japan, drinking a cup of tea was an opportunity for contemplation, meditation, and an elevation of mind and spirit. Here, renowned translator William Scott Wilson distills what is singular and precious about this traditional tea culture, and he explores the fascinating connection between Zen and tea drinking. He unpacks the most common phrases from Zen and Chinese philosophy—usually found in Asia printed on hanging scrolls in tea rooms, restaurant alcoves, family rooms, and martial arts dojos—that have traditionally served as points of contemplation to encourage the appropriate atmosphere for drinking tea or silent meditation.
Part history, part philosophy, part inspirational guide, The One Taste of Truth will connect you to the distinctive pleasure of sipping tea and allowing it to transport your mind and thoughts. This beautifully written book will appeal to tea lovers and anyone interested in tea culture, Chinese philosophy, and Zen.
〇1En, or enso
This is the circle signifying the freedom, impartiality, and equality of the Buddha, in which nothing is lacking. It is the symbol of absolute or true reality, and therefore of enlightenment. The enso is a popular subject in Zen painting, and perhaps, more than in the calligraphic art itself, is said to demonstrate the painter’s state of mind. It is usually executed with a single brushstroke, with the end of the brushstroke often trailing to meet the beginning. In this way, the enso indicates that the world is at once both perfect and imperfect (absolute and relative), or perfectly imperfect: it is the slightly misshapen tea bowl from which we drink tea, said to be the flavor of Zen.
There is an interesting anecdote concerning an enso in the Piyenlu, the twelfth-century collection of Zen koans:
Nan-ch’uan, Kuei Tsung, and Ma Ku were traveling together to offer ceremonial salutations to the National Teacher Chung.1 When they reached the halfway point, Nan-ch’uan drew an enso on the ground and said, “If you can say [a word of Zen], we’ll keep going.” Kuei Tsung sat down in the middle of the enso. . . . Nan-ch’uan said, “If that’s it, we aren’t going any farther.” Kuei Tsung said, “Where is this man’s mind going?” [是什麻心行].
Piyenlu, case 69
Like Kuei Tsung, we may wonder what’s going on here, but it would seem that the man of Zen is neither totally within the enso nor outside of it.
Some commentators have speculated that the enso has its origin in the full moon, often a Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. But however one wishes to interpret the enso, it is considered to be an absolute test of the balance and spontaneity of the painter’s mind (or Mind), and the best or most interesting are often displayed not only in tea rooms and Zen temples, but in martial arts dojos as well. Indeed, the great swordsman and painter Miyamoto Musashi said in essence that the stroke of the sword and the stroke of the brush are the same: that with each stroke, the mind of the practitioner could be observed with certainty. This is reflected in the Chinese dictum
When the mind is correct, the brush will be also.
The same can be said for the ladling of the water, the movement of the whisk, and the taste of the tea.
Although the enso almost always appears by itself, it is sometimes accompanied by other Chinese characters, as in:
Eat this, and have a cup of tea.
This is no doubt the best-known Chinese character in Zen literature and calligraphy. Variously translated as “Emptiness,”
“the Void,” “Nonexistence,” or “the Origin of All Things,” it is etymologically related to the character for “dance,” the archaic form depicting a man or woman adorned ornamentally going through dance-like movements. Could this indicate the empty, receptive mental state reached by dancing shamans or shaman-esses? Or could it simply represent, as the folk etymology holds, a forest burned to nothingness?
In the third or fourth century, Lao Tzu, the old man who is said to have established Taoism as a philosophy, had this to say:
Thirty spokes make the nave of a wheel,
Yet it is the nonbeing [at the center of the wheel]
that is the wheel’s utility.
It is the kneaded clay that fashions a pot,
Yet it is the nonexistence [inside the pot]
that is the pot’s utility.
It is the chiseling out of windows and a door that make a room,
Yet it is the nonexistence [in the door and windows]
that is the room’s utility.
Therefore, it is by existence that we set the stage,
But by nonexistence that we have utility.
Mu has become known to students of Zen, and so to adherents of Tea and practitioners of the martial arts, through a koan in the Wumenkuan. The case goes as follows:
A monk asked Chao Chou, “Does a dog have [有] the Buddha-nature or not [無]?” Chao Chou said, “Mu.”
Wumenkuan, case 13
This koan has bedeviled Zen monks and students ever since the thirteenth century, when Wu-men, the monk who compiled the Wumenkuan, made it the first of the barriers Zen aspirants would have to solve (and this after beating his own head against a pillar while in his seventies as he tried to grasp it himself). It is interesting to us because, although mu in this case has most often been translated as “No,” or “It has not,” the meaning of the character is “Nonexistence,” which is the state of mind (無心, Mushin, or No-Mind) Buddhists are encouraged to attain.4 Wu-men went on to further explain the character in his commentary for the same case:
Clear out the knowledge and evil learning you’ve gotten up to now, and after some time, [your mind] will become quite ripe of itself. Your internal and external worlds will become one, and, in this way, you will be like a mute who has had a dream—you alone will be privy to your own self-knowledge. Quite suddenly, [your whole self] will take off, and you will astound Heaven and shake the Earth. It will be like grabbing away the great sword of the general Kuan Yu:5 when you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha; when you meet the ancestor,6 you kill the ancestor. Standing at the precipice of life and death, you will gain the Great Freedom; and, although [living through] the Six Ways7 and the Four Births,8 you will be in a state of easy and playful samadhi. So, just how do you put yourself into this shape? Use every last bit of your ordinary energy, and become one with this mu. If you do not quit in the interim, it will be like happily igniting a single candle of the Dharma.
This is followed by a verse:
The dog, the Buddha-nature.
The complete carry-along, the straight command.
If you involve yourself with Existence [有] and
Nonexistence [無] even for a second,
You are attending your own funeral.
Also, consider this story:
When the warrior Hosokawa Shigeyuki [1434–1511] retired as daimyo of Sanuki Province, he became a Zen priest. When Osen Kaisan [1429–93], a scholar-monk, visited Shigeyuki, the aging warrior told the monk that he wished to show him a landscape that he himself had painted on a recent trip to Kumano and other scenic spots on the Kii Peninsula. When the scroll was opened, there was nothing but a blank sheet of paper. The monk, struck by the emptiness of the painting, offered these words of praise:
Your brush is as tall as Mount Sumeru,
Black ink large enough to exhaust the great earth;
The white paper as vast as the void that swallows up all illusions.
A number of words and phrases used in Tea scrolls are centered on the concept of mu, all with varying nuances; at present, we may consider one more.
着 3Mujaku “Nonattachment”
This is to be detached not only from the passions and material objects of the world, but also from your own opinions,
concepts, and ideals. Whatever preconceived ideas you may have and cherish will only become blinders and get in the way when pure reality is right before your eyes. To be truly without attachment, you must throw both your mental and spiritual baggage overboard, and experience the world just as it is. Illustrating this is the famous story of the Zen master and the professor:
A rather self-important university professor visited the Zen master Nan-in,9 ostensibly to ask about Zen, but in truth to show off what he already knew about the subject. As was customary, tea was served. Nan-in poured tea into the professor’s cup, but when the cup was filled, continued pouring. When the astonished professor asked him to stop, protesting that the cup was already full, Nan-in said, “Your mind, too, is already full of your own ideas. I cannot tell you about Zen until you have become like an empty cup.”
The same truth applies to both Tea and the martial arts. In the Zencharoku, we read:
Originally, the Way of Tea was not in selecting the good utensils from the bad, nor in styles and forms of its preparation. It is simply that when you handle tea utensils, you practice the enlightening of your true nature, and enter the realm of samadhi. The practice of seeking your self-nature through Tea is nothing other than sweeping away all your various thoughts, and concentrating the mind one-pointedly.
In the same vein, Miyamoto Musashi constantly told his students not to be attached to certain weapons, the length of the sword, or one technique over another. He illustrated this point when he was attacked one day while whittling a bow; having nothing else at hand, he picked up one of the sticks he was carving and defeated the intruder with ease.
遊4Yu. “Enjoy yourself.”
Yu literally means “to play,” “to enjoy oneself in a leisurely fashion,” or “to go on a journey.” This term is inherited from Taoism and suggests that free and easy wandering is the way we should experience the world. The Kannon-kyo, the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, states:
Go through this world of illusion in free and easy wandering.
There is also this from the Chuang Tzu:
Lieh Tzu was good at going blithely about while riding on the wind, but after fifteen days would return to earth. He did not [have to be] particularly diligent in the search for good fortune, and though he was able to avoid walking on the ground, he had to depend on something. If he had only straightaway mounted Heaven and Earth, ridden the changes of the six ch’i, and so wandered carefree in the limitless, what would he have had to depend on then?
This is the attitude we must take in our hearts even in the midst of the rules and rites of drinking tea and practicing Zen. Indeed, the rules and rites themselves are said to allow us this freedom. Such free and easy wandering, it would seem, allows the student of Zen, the practitioner of Tea, the calligrapher, or the martial artist to work in a state such that he can “have manifestations everywhere while still remaining [himself].”10 And it is this concept of yu that allows us to see past the false impression of stuffiness: recall that a yujin (遊人) is a man given to wine, gambling, and women, and yugei sammai (遊芸三味) is indulging in drinking and gambling—often associated with both Tea and Zen.
夢5Mu, yume. “Dream.”
The archaic form of this Chinese character indicated the dark, or the dark of night, or the illusions that come in the dark. In the third-century b.c.e. philosophical work Hsun Tzu, it meant “empty knowledge.”
In the world of Tea and Zen, yume means “illusion,” or the “illusory nature of both the relative and the absolute worlds.” This is how we find it in the Chuang Tzu:
A long time ago, Chuang Chou had a dream in which he was a butterfly, happily fluttering about, pleased with himself, and following his own whims. He did not know that he was Chuang Chou. All of a sudden, he woke up and was quite manifestly Chuang Chou. [Then] he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Indeed, there is some distinction between Chuang Chou and the butterfly: it is called the Transmutation of Things.
One Taste of Truth third pass.indd 8 10/2/12 5:18 PM fundamentals 9
This same instability between illusion and reality is expressed in another story in the same book; its first sentence is also found on tea room scrolls:
He who drinks wine in his dream wakes to shed tears; but he who laments in his dream awakes to hunt in the fields. When someone is having a dream, he is not aware that it is a dream; but waking, he knows that it is a dream. While in a dream, you may try to divine what the dream means; but it is only after you awake that you know that it was a dream.
The Sanskrit root of the word Buddha means “to wake up.” This is the goal of both Zen and Tea. This is emphasized in the Zencharoku, which states, “[In this way], preparing tea reflects perfectly the intent of Zen, and has become a Way of enlightening people of their fundamental selves.”
Yume also brings to mind the poem ending the thirty-second chapter of the Diamond Sutra—again, found on scrolls in both tea rooms and Zen temples:
All fabricated dharmas are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows.
They are like the dew, and again like lightning, and should be meditated upon as such.
The haiku poet Basho also wrote a number of poems centered around the concept of the dream and illusion of this world. Two of the most famous are the following:
transient dreams under a summer moon.
all that remains of warriors’ dreams.
Finally, it remains to mention Takuan Soho, a Zen monk, calligrapher, painter, poet, gardener, and tea master. Takuan was adviser and instructor to both the shogun and the emperor, the sword master Yagyu Munenori, and, as legend has it, friend and teacher to the swordsman and artist Miyamoto Musashi. Takuan was unaffected by his fame and popularity, and at the approach of death he instructed his disciples, “Bury my body in the mountain behind the temple, cover it with dirt, and go home. Read no sutras, hold no ceremony. Receive no gifts from either monk or laity. Let the monks wear their robes, eat their meals, and carry on as on normal days.” Asked for a final poem as he lay dying, he wrote the Chinese character for “dream” (夢), threw away the brush, and passed away.
放6Ho, hanatsu. “Let it go.”
Hanatsu means “to let go,” “release,” or “set free.” From the subjective point of view, it means unclenching your hands. On scrolls, it often appears as a single character; but it appears just as often in a phrase from the Hsinhsinming, a treatise written by Sengtsan, the third Zen patriarch, toward the end of the sixth century c.e.:
Release this, and everything will be of-itself-so.11
The passage containing this phrase gives a fuller sense of its meaning:
The heart of the Way is vast with great margin;
It is neither difficult nor easy.
Small views [bring] fox-like doubts;12
Now rushing, now holding back.
With attachment we lose [a sense of] scale,
Inevitably entering a twisted road.13
Release this, and everything will be of-itself-so.
In the heart of things, there is no coming or going;
Trust your [true] character, and join with the Way:
Wandering playfully, cutting off all care.
Let it go, and it will be naturally what it is. Let go of your illusions and preconceived ideas, and everything will be natural of itself. It is the preconceived idea—any mental attachment as to what something is or isn’t, what it should or shouldn’t be—that will make the Tea Ceremony stiff, become a barrier to the practice of Zen, and mean defeat to the martial artist. With no baggage crowding our minds, we see clearly, the barrier between subject and object breaks down, and everything is of-itself-so (自然). Let it go: the grasping hand (or mind) can receive nothing; the teapot already full of stale tea can receive nothing new or fresh.
This concept was addressed by both the Zen priest Takuan and his student and friend the sword master Yagyu Munenori. Takuan, in his Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom, declared:
If my mind is treated like a tied-up cat, it will not be free and will probably not be able to function as it should. If the cat is well trained, the string is untied, and it is allowed to go wherever it pleases. Then, even if the two are together, the cat will not seize the sparrow. Acting along these lines is the meaning of “Engendering the mind with no place for it to abide.”
Letting go of my mind and ignoring it like the cat, though it may go where it pleases—this will be using the mind in the way of not having it stop.
If we put this in terms of your own martial art, the mind is not detained by the hand that brandishes the sword.
In The Life-Giving Sword, Yagyu Munenori wrote:
The priest Chung-feng said, “Maintain the mind that releases the mind.”
This saying has two levels of meaning.
The practice of the first is as follows: if you “release” the mind, do not allow it to become fixated when it reaches its destination, but unfailingly make it return. If you strike once with your sword, do not let your mind stop at that strike, but bring your mind back securely to yourself.
The deeper meaning is: in releasing the mind, you let it go where it wishes. “Releasing the mind” means letting it go and not letting it stop anywhere. “Maintain the mind that releases the mind” means exactly that, for if the mind is released and always brought back as if in a net, it will not be free. The mind that releases the mind is one that is let go and does not stop. If you maintain such a released mind, your movements will be free.
Silence, both verbal and mental. The absolute world of the mind from which attachment and confusion have been extracted. The absence of opinion.
One day during the end of the sixth century b.c.e., the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Awakened One, was about to preach to the congregation of monks, nuns, bodhisattvas, laypeople, kinnaras, garudas, and an assortment of other beings. Instead of speaking, however, the Buddha, in silence, held up a flower before the would-be listeners. No one in the assembly understood what the Buddha meant except for his disciple Mahakashyapa, who, in silence, simply smiled. This is said to be the first transmission of the lamp, the first “transmitting of mind through mind” (以心伝心), and it is the beginning of Zen.
Not long thereafter, the old man who is considered to be the father of Taoism and the great-grandfather of Zen began his classic, the Tao Te Ching, with this cautionary statement:
The Way that can be intelligently described is not the unchanging Way.
The name that can be said out loud is not the unchanging name.
Without opening your mouth to define things, you stand at the beginning of the universe.
Make definitions, and you are the measure of all creation.
Back in the world of Zen, in the eighth chapter of the Vimalakirti-nirdesa Sutra, a number of bodhisattvas had given their views of Emptiness. Manjusri, the bodhisattva associated with wisdom, said to the layman Vimalakirti,
“We have all given you our theories [on the nature of nondualism]; will you now say something on the Dharma Gate to Nonduality?”
At this, Vimalakirti was silent and said nothing.
Then Manjusri said, “Splendid! Splendid! Son of good family! This will surely bring the bodhisattvas into Nonduality! And this without sentences or phrases, without words, and without a movement of the mind.”
Vimalakirti’s response is described as
Ichimoku rai no gotoshi
A silence like thunder.
The message is clear: one cannot trust words for getting at the deepest truth; man-made constructs are confining and liable to miss the point. The Zen masters will often point out that “you are wrong as soon as you open your mouth,” and insist that you must understand reality as you would “hot” or “cold”— by sticking your hand into the fire or the tub of ice water.14 The most profound moments of Tea and the martial arts are also said to be transmitted in the same way. It is interesting that the archaic Chinese character for “silence” depicted a dog biting soundlessly, as if barking would detract from the bite.
Confucius also advocated “being silent and knowing distinctly” (黙而識之),15 and the concept of silence features in the I Ching and the Doctrine of the Mean as well. But nowhere does the distrust of words and theories loom as in Taoism and Zen. In Heaven’s Way, as in the tea room,
What is of-itself
Uses silence to mature things,
Uses peace to make them quiet,
Sees them off and greets them.
Lieh Tzu, chapter 6
如8Nyo, gotoshi “Like, thus, such as”
The official etymologies explain this kanji as “a woman [女] doing as she is told [口],” but given the matriarchal character of early societies in China and Japan and the fact that many shamans have, indeed, been shamanesses, the character may more likely have meant something like “as the woman says.”
However that may be, in Buddhism, 如 means the Absolute Reality, reality as it is and not as we might wish it to be, and indicates our acceptance of that reality. When one of the early Chinese Zen masters was asked what he could say as proof of his enlightenment, he simply responded, “Nuns are naturally women.” This is the gist of the poem:
In the scenery of spring, there is no high or low;
The flowering branches are, of themselves, some short some long.
意 9Nyo’i. “As you wish.”
This is literally “as [you] will,” or “according to [your] desire.” This is the enlightened person, for whom everything that happens is according to his desire—which is to say that his desires do not run counter to the reality of the way things are. He “wants” the flowers to be red and the grass green. Thus, when discussing wabi—a taste for the simple and quiet—the writer of the Zencharoku states:
You should understand wabi as that when you are not well-off, you have no thoughts about being so; though you are in want, no thoughts arise of lacking anything, and when things don’t go well, you do not have any feelings about their being that way.
Therefore, if you feel that you are not well-off when such is the case, or lament that you are in want when you do not have enough, or grumble that things are not going well when this is so, you are not a man of wabi tea; you are truly indigent at heart.
In the tea room, the arrangements may be imperfect, but they are perfectly so.
Related to this is the 如意球, the wish-fulfilling gem (Sanskrit, cintamani), the fabulous gem often carried by Bodhisattva Jizo, which can respond to every wish. But, again, this symbolizes the enlightened state of mind in which one wishes reality to be just as it is.
Originally, 如意 meant the short sword the bodhisattva Man-jusri wielded to cut through ignorance. Thus would one’s wishes be in accord with Reality.
然10 Zen, nen “Completely so”
On its own, 然 connotes a condition of doing something with such totality or such completeness that nothing remains. In other words, in doing something with 然, the action is executed with the entire person, whether pouring tea, sitting in meditation, or performing a martial arts technique. Originally, the Chinese character meant “to burn” or “a flame burning.” As a suffix, it is found in character compounds important to many of the Japanese arts. 寂然, jakunen, for example, means “peaceful and quiet,” mentally and spiritually.
In the Noh drama, 然 is the quality necessary for playing the essence of the person, god, or demon being portrayed. The actor does not aim for realism. Zeami, the father of Noh, wrote that “no matter what kind of character [you are portraying], you must first learn to become the thing itself.” You must take on the “true intent” of that character. To do this, you would need the quality of 然.
This quality of 然 can also be immediately understood by witnessing the recitation of the Shinto prayers called norito, in which the supplicant almost becomes the words (many of which are not comprehensible) that leave his mouth. If the supplicant himself is consumed by the norito, the gods may have no other choice than to act in his behalf.
Perhaps the most interesting character compound using 然 is自然, often translated as “nature” or “spontaneity,” but sometimes termed the “of-itself [自] so [然]” in English works on Zen and Taoism. The writer Stephen Mitchell has termed this the “self-immolating”—again with the idea of an entity being so completely itself that there is nothing left for anything that is not itself. As such, the term for “nature,” 自然, reveals one fundamental difference between Eastern religions, in which the world is self-generating, and the Western Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in which the world is created by an outside force (i.e., God). The term 自然, never far from the simple character 然, is found in early Taoist literature, a few examples of which should suffice to give a feeling for its intent.
He who acts on something, breaks it.
He who fetters something, loses it.
For this reason, the sage
Does not fabricate, and thus does not break;
Does not fetter, and thus does not lose. . . .
In this way, he assists the Ten Thousand Things to be of-themselves-so [自然].
But is not eager to concoct anything himself.
Tao Te Ching, chapter 64
The Way gives them life.
Their essential virtue gives them sustenance.
Color and shape give them form.
Energy gives them completion.
Therefore, the Ten Thousand Things
Respect the Way and treasure their own virtue.
Respecting the Way and treasuring their virtue:
No one commands them to do this;
It is always just of-itself-so [自然].
Tao Te Ching, chapter 51
The ancients lived abstractedly in the midst of chaos, along with the rest of the world, but were able to do so at ease and without greed. At that time, yin and yang were harmonious and peaceful, the gods and the demons created no trouble, the four seasons kept the correct pace, the Ten Thousand Things received no harm, and all beings reached their appropriate ages. Men had knowledge, but no occasion to use it. This was called Complete Unity [with the Tao]. At that time, they fabricated nothing, and their life was always one of spontaneity [自然].16
Chuang Tzu, chapter 16
When I asked again, the man without a name said, “Let your mind play along in simplicity [淡], let your ch’i mix with the vast and broad, follow along with the spontaneity [自然] of things, and do not get involved with self-importance. [If you will do these things], all under Heaven will be governed.
Chuang Tzu, chapter 7
会 11 Ichigo ichi’e “Each meeting a once-in-a-lifetime event”
This phrase is included among the fundamental concepts presented by ichigyomono because it is the guiding life not only of Tea but of Zen Buddhism and the martial arts as well. Ichigo refers to a person’s life, from birth to death—something never to be repeated—while ichi’e is a coming together or an assembly of people. The world is transient, and it is natural that whomever you meet, you will part from. Every meeting is special and unique, and will never happen again in the same way. Thus, you should put your entire body and spirit into the encounter, whether it be in the tea room, a chance meeting in the street, in martial conflict, or in your own solitary thought. The message extends to everyday behavior: one should pay attention to things and events as though none will ever be repeated. Let happiness as well as sorrow be complete, and experienced with attention and nonattachment. Master Matsubara Daido wrote:
Ichigo ichi’e is not something just concerned with others; it is a careful and meticulous mental stance you have toward everything, everything in existence. If you embrace this concept of ichigo ichi’e in your heart, you should independently have more responsibility and circumspection in your way of speaking, in your way of thinking, and even in your personal behavior. According to your understanding of ichigo ichi’e, you should become a deeper person altogether.
Zen no hon
The following story is often used to illustrate this all-important concept.
Dogen was on Mount Tientung in China, studying Zen, when one day he encountered an old monk who was working as tenzo [chief cook]. It was midsummer, and the sun was beating down hard. The tenzo was working vigorously, drying out some shiitake mushrooms. Dogen said, “This is awfully hard work, isn’t it? Why don’t you have a younger man do it?” The tenzo replied, “If another person does it, I won’t be able to do it myself.” “That’s so, but it’s so hot right now. Wouldn’t it be better to do it on a more pleasant day?” “And when would such a pleasant day be? Answer me that. Will there ever be another time like this one, right now?” Dogen could say nothing, and the tenzo worked on, sweating in silence.