Tag Archives: Taoism

ON RITUAL: A Sip of Tea

The Japanese Tea Ceremony
Chado
In an earlier post I wrote about how rituals could easily lose their juice on the one hand, or be gateways to an incarnate beauty on the other. I spoke of the Catholic Mass and its climax in the Consecration. Today, I would like to reflect upon the Japanese Tea Ceremony since I think that the analogy between the Tea Ceremony and the Catholic Mass is particularly apt. Truth to tell, most Americans and many Japanese find the tea ceremony a crashing bore. One finds oneself kneeling uncomfortably while watching an unsmiling and perhaps nervous young woman whisk tea into a bilious froth. Being asked to eat an over-the-top sweet while feeling large and clumsy in one’s ignorance of the proper ritual can be a nerve-racking experience. “What’s all the fuss about?” is a perfectly good question.

Imagine how partial and mechanical it would be to isolate the five minutes of the consecration from its context within the Catholic Mass. Even more profoundly, it would be a jarring dislocation to view the consecration outside of the encompassing rich spirituality of its tradition and of the masters of that tradition. The same is true of the Tea Ceremony. What most of us witness is a small slice cut from the rich texture of the complete ceremony and its ancient tradition.

Before outlining a few of the values inherent in the Tea Ceremony, I’d like to share a couple of my experiences in Kyoto, where I lived for many years. I was once invited to participate in a formal Tea Ceremony at one of the venerable villas in the Higashiyama district, close to the Silver Pavilion. There were 7 guests, six of whom were Tea Masters from various parts of Japan. I was clearly the odd man out. The ceremony itself was offered by two famous Masters from the Urasenke School founded by Sen No Rikyu (about whom I will speak later). I had to memorize four pages of movements and formulas so as not to embarrass my host. The Ceremony lasted for four hours!

The guests first gathered in the garden while we had a chance to get to know each other. We then had formal tea (thick tea) in the main tea room, while the Masters explained the origin and history of the cup from which we drank. This was one of the most important elements of the ceremony. The cup was crafted by a famous potter over four hundred years ago, and had graced many famous tea ceremonies. The feeling of an amazing history living today in this very cup was inexpressible. We next adjourned to a porch overlooking a beautiful Zen garden framed by the borrowed landscape of the Eastern Hills. Here we were served an elaborately simple kaiseki meal of exquisite quality. Finally, we moved to a more simple tea room for an informal tea gathering (thin tea), and shared the recognition that we had been blessed with a rare experience.

On another occasion, my elder son and I spent an afternoon visiting the Daitoku-ji Zen temple on the North side of Kyoto. This was the temple at which Sen no Rikyu lived for most of his life. We wandered into a sub-temple and found the Zen Master giving a lecture laced with great humor to a group of high school students. Luckily my son’s Japanese is much better than mine, so he was able to tell me what was going on. After the students had left, we struck up a conversation with the Sensei, and told him that we were both practitioners of meditation. He got very excited, and brought us into the meditation hall of the monastery where we spent a fascinating hour learning rather esoteric breathing techniques. The man’s enthusiasm was contagious. As we were leaving, he asked us to stop by in the morning for more conversation and some tea. We of course agreed. The next morning he brought us into his study, and we sat on the tatami floor while he chatted away. He picked up a brush and wrote in flowering calligraphy “Cool stream flows over green moss.” He handed it to me with a wink, and said in English, “Japanese air conditioning.” He then continued chatting and joking as he prepared a cup of tea, and he was well into the preparation before I realized that he was perfectly performing the formal motions of the tea ceremony. I have never seen anything like it. D.T. Suzuki says in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, “Tea is Tea only when Tea is No-tea.” Even more than at the formal ceremony described above, I learned that morning what all the fuss was about.

Like the rituals found in every culture, the tea ceremony is a dance of prescribed grace. Each gesture is practiced over and over so that its precision has the flow of nature. Second, the tea ceremony is a form of worship, not of transcendental gods but of the sheer wonder of existence in the here and now. In his Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo puts it this way: “Tea…is a religion of the art of life. It is a worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane (1956, 9. 33). It was a time set apart when like minded souls would “meet to drink from the common spring of art appreciation.” Finally, chanoyu, the tea ceremony itself, can be understood and appreciated only within the broader context of Chado, the Way of Tea, and this more broadly still within the context of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Chazen ichimi: Tea and Zen are One
The Japanese monk Eisai visited China in the late twelfth century of the common era. He returned home in 1191 with two imports of profound significance for Japanese culture: Zen Buddhism and the green tea that Chinese monks drank as an aid to meditation. (Even today, the green tea drunk in Japan carries a terrific wallop of caffeine.) Over the years, the drinking of tea ranged from monastic ritual to opulent tea-tasting competitions in great villas. It was, however, the great Tea Master Sen No Rikyu (1521-1591) who established the art of Tea as a celebration and an embodiment of the Taoist and Buddhist values that lie at the heart of Zen. Under Rikyu’s guidance, wabi-sabi, the feeling of rustic and elegant simplicity, became the soul of tea. And from this ground of wabi-sabi, Sen No Rikyu taught, spring the great flowers of the Tea Ceremony: Harmony, or gentleness of spirit (wa), Reverence (kei), Purity (sei), and Tranquility (jaku). These characteristics are the essence of Chado, and they are the essence of Zen.

Zen and the Tao
Zen is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese Ch’an, which in turn is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit Dhyana, or meditation. When Buddhism made its way into China from India, it took root in the fertile soil of Taoism. In many of his books, Alan Watts says that Zen is as much–or more–Taoism than Buddhism, and there is some truth in this assertion. I hesitate to write about the Tao, since Lao Tzu, the most famous voice of Taoism, states at the beginning of his book that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”   The minute one begins to talk about the Tao, the Tao is lost.  There is a central insight of Taoism, however, that relates directly to our discussion of ritual. This is the notion of “wu-wei,” not-doing, or non-action. In verse 43 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says:

The softest thing in the universe (water)
overcomes the hardest thing in the universe (rock).
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words, and work without doing
are understood by very few.

A Sip of Tea
Dhyana-Ch’an-Zen Buddhism is redolent with the spirit of wu-wei.  It is this spirit that flows through, and is embodied by, the great Zen arts, each of which is manifested within a particular ritual. To become a student of these arts–tea, poetry, ikebana (living flowers), or sumi-e painting–is to devote oneself to a path that leads to an awakened mind, a peaceful spirit, and a compassionate heart. At their best, they embody the Taoist ideal of Wu Wei, as did the Sensei at Daitoku-ji. In the act of painting, or poetry, or the pouring of tea, the ego falls away, and the one pouring is the pouring. In that instant, time and eternity, the subject and the object, the pourer and the pouring, merge into non-dualistic unity.

Thus, the very same ritual can be a shoddy, empty waste of time, or the sacred embodiment of egoless love. It depends upon the intention, attention, and the attainment of the practitioner. Simply going through the motions because they are the “right” thing to do is dehumanizing. But to bring loving dedication to one’s practice is to approach the tranquil realms of the Tao. Okakura Kakuzo captures this with eloquent simplicity: “…Let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

Libra and the Equinox

libra 2

September 23, 2014.  What an auspicious day, when the Autumnal Equinox, with its perfect balance of night and day, opens to the balanced scales of Libra.   As we move into cooler weather, it seems a good time to practice cooling the mind a bit, and nurturing the evenness of soul that brings peace of mind. Balance, harmony, and inner peace are all summed up, I think, in the Buddhist virtue of equanimity (upeksha in Sanskrit).  I think of this as “making friends with life.”

Meditation and yoga are wonderful practices for stilling the turbulence of the mind, and evening out some of the more extreme reactive swings from high to low.  I also think that some wise perspective helps.  This morning,  I would like to reflect upon three interwoven facets of  living a balanced life.

The first is to remember that this dappled world of our’s is indeed a play of light and darkness.  The second verse of the Tao Te Ching states this clearly:

“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.  All can know good as good only because there is evil.  Therefore having and not having arise together. Difficult and easy compliment each other. Long and short contrast each other; high and low rest upon each other; voice and sound harmonize each other; front and back follow each other.”

The realization of our dappled world leads to a second aspect of equanimity: a reflection on the alternating rhythms of life itself, as outlined in the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

Recognizing this flow of life, then, leads to a third aspect of inner harmony: “taking it as it comes” as the TM folks used to say.  There is a story from Ancient China that illustrates this beautifully:

A poor farmer had all of his meager wealth in one magnificent stallion, but one stormy night the horse escaped from its corral.  The next day, all the neighbors came around to commiserate with the farmer’s terrible misfortune.   “Let’s wait and see,” is all he said.  Two days later, the stallion returned with four heathy mares in tow.  Now the neighbors were loud in their rejoicing.  “Let’s wait and see,” said the farmer.  The next day, the farmer’s adolescent son was trying to ride one of the new horses, and he fell and broke his leg.  The neighbors were desolate, but again the farmer said, “Let’s wait and see.”    And the following day, the army came through the village to draft all the young men to fight in a vicious war, but the farmer’s son was spared because of his leg.

This story, of course, could go on and on, but the point is clear.  Embracing the “time to mourn” not only balances, but engenders the “time to dance.”  As I look back on the passages of my life, I see them as just that: passages leading to more ample and brighter vistas.   As a young man, however, there was no way I could “just wait and see.”  A horrible loss or a shameful failing–the thin line between success and failure in life–seemed all consuming and all-encompassing.  Even now, on the far side of middle age, distrustful anxiety is sometimes a temptation.  It seems so easy to talk about love and trust, but then to live distrustfully, as though life were dangerous and vicious.  Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”  What is it we truly believe?

We are, however, not alone in this human schoolroom. We are continually given lessons.  We come to see the suffering that our fearful actions bring to ourselves and others, by experiencing the pain of our own mistakes,  And with time, we come to learn, not through pain and suffering, but through light and love and wisdom. We follow the tracks left by wise women and men over the centuries.  We are warmed and supported by the love of family and friends, and we are surrounded by the lessons of Nature’s recurrent equanimity–as long as we pay attention.  In this lovely poem dedicated to the sun, Mary Oliver celebrates the play of light and darkness, while warning of the danger of turning away from life’s graceful balance:

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

 

 

THREE SHADOWS OF PEACEFUL WORDS

Words of Peace are everywhere. Yet their bright promise seems eclipsed in a vale of shadows that rob them of traction. Perhaps it would be helpful to look directly at the shadows in an attempt to discern what obstructions are blocking the light. On reflection, I can think of three shadows that dim the brightness of peaceful words.

The Shadow of idealism
The first is this: The devastation and human suffering visited upon so many innocent people make sweet and inspiring words seem nothing more than the sentimental idealism of a “bleeding heart liberal.” I am indeed a liberal, and my heart bleeds at the sight of the blind aggression and social injustice that inflicts pain on ordinary men, women and children. Too often, however, the words of Peace are in fact merely sentimental, serving to ameliorate the guilt of the privileged class or of the intellectual left, while having little impact upon the course of one’s life or the betterment of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most disappointed in white liberals who consoled themselves with the right words, but had little follow through. How sad it is that words of love are so often anemic, while words drenched in hatred fairly burst upon the world in violent action.

It should be noted that idealism is not restricted to liberals. A few years ago, in a New York Times op-ed column, Bill Keller worried about the idealism of the Right, the Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz variety, which led us charging into Iraq to annihilate the evildoers. Idealism on either extreme tends to espouse beliefs that are global, righteous, and sure. Both tend to be rigid, clinging to a worldview that hovers in some sort of Platonic heaven. The Left, however, often speaks moving yet impotent words, often dithering under the circumspection of a watered-down version of post-modern epistemology. The Extreme Right plows ahead, applying its visions to the real world like a carpenter with his ruler.

I find myself on the Left, wanting to use words like “grace” and “transformation” and “Love,” but sometimes feeling effete and ineffective. Thich Nhat Hahn has said that “words sometimes get sick, and we have to heal them…we have to use language more carefully.” Those of us who are dedicated to peace need to find a way to add vigor to our words and grit to our dreams, so that our beliefs do not evaporate in the mists of self-justifying Idealism.

The Shadow of Verbal Inundation
This leads to the second shadow that seems to be leaching the brightness from inspiring words: we seem to be drowning in them. The academic field of conflict resolution has performed impressively over the past fifty years in analyzing the causes of conflict, the various points of intervention, and the techniques of mediation and negotiation most likely to de-escalate tensions before violence erupts. Beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have been examined. The dynamics of intercultural communication, the varieties of conflict of interest, and the depth of identity needs have all been schematized. I am sure that all who hear or read these words are quite familiar with this literature. But for all the ink that has flowed into our books, the flow of blood continues at flood tide.

Albert Camus called the 20th century the “century of fear.” So far, the 21st century seems equally mired in the destructive loop of fear that engenders hatred that engenders violence that engenders fear, ad infinitum. War has one end, and only one end: and that is to kill people. Since World War II over 130 million people have died in over 150 wars. Violence seeks to end conflict by breaking the bodies and spirits of those on the other side. It is always a failure of imagination, a failure of intelligence, a failure of love. Camus longs for the day when words will be found more powerful than munitions. I believe in Camus’ dream, and to serve it, I believe we must do our very best to find the words today which will empower the actions of tomorrow.

The Shadow of the Known
The third shadow is this: everybody already knows all the important stuff. Teachers from Moses to Plato, from Jesus to Rumi—hundreds of enlightened women and men—all have taught love and wisdom as opposed to hatred and violence. Lord knows this is nothing new, and I wonder what I can possibly add. Lao Tzu says in verse 70 of the Tao Te Ching: “My teachings are very easy to understand, and very easy to practice, yet so few in this world understand, and so few are able to practice.”

I have always thought that the Ten Commandments were not all that astounding a revelation: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t kill each other: all common sense behaviors for a viable society, and all incredibly rare, even today. Pope John Paul II uttered clear words against the war between the US and Iraq, yet a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust showed that a full 66% of American Catholics supported the war, only 14% of US Catholic priests spoke out against the war, and that support for the war was highest among those who are most regular in church attendance. These are the some of the same folks who nod approvingly at the inspiring words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do good to them that hurt you; turn the other cheek; love your enemies,” but of course these words would sound ludicrous delivered from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Or would they? Would it not be wonderful to hear a President read these words of Lao Tzu in verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching:

Weapons are the tools of violence;
All decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
A decent man will avoid them
Except in the direst necessity.
And, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
How can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
But human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
And delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
With sorrow and with great compassion,
As if he were attending a funeral.

Let me give one further example of clear words of perennial Wisdom: in the Dhammapada, the Buddha says: “in this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred; hatred is appeased by love. This is an ancient law.”

Tomorrow I will reflect upon these ancient laws, and humbly add more words in an attempt to understand the elusive enigma of Peace.