Tag Archives: Zen

ON RITUAL: A Sip of Tea

The Japanese Tea Ceremony
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.”

Sacred Arrow Haiku

byudo center Kyoto City Budo Center

Whenever I went into central Kyoto, the martial arts center was one of my favorite stops, especially the range for Kyudo–the Art of Archery.

Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen and the Art of Archery was my very first introduction to Zen Buddhism, and I can still feel the excitement I felt as I read the book in the Spring of 1968.  I don’t think it is accurate to call the Zen arts in general, and the Art of Archery in particular, “religious.” The use of the word “religious” is problematic when applied to Japanese culture.  For most Westerners, the word carries the connotation of rigid dogma, exclusivity, and strict moralism.  None of these characteristics applies consistently to Buddhism or Shinto, which from the Nara period (8th century CE) have been marked with a syncretism only occasionally marred by feuds or Nationalistic cooptation. During the six years I taught in a Japanese University, I had a fascinating time explaining why Westerners took Religion so seriously.

Still, as with all things Zen, there is a marvelous ritual and spirituality in the Art of Archery. Practitioners wear special dress and approach the line with reverential short steps. They first kneel sideways to the targets, and, as in the tea ceremony, every movement is prescribed, from the stringing of the bow, to taking aim, to releasing the arrow:

kyudo kneeling

Here is another picture from the Kyoto Center:

girls kyudo

On every visit, I was transported by the grace and beauty of the Art.  It was truly a marvelous dance.  I was also amazed at the distance to the small target:


One day as I was enjoying the artistry of the archers, I noticed a man who seemed about my age (at the time, 72), moving with exceptional grace and apparent lack of control, who hit on or near the bullseye every time.  It was a privilege to watch him, and I felt his centered concentration seep into my own mind and heart.  When he finished, I approached him to offer my gratitude and appreciation.  He was most gracious in return–but then he said “Nansai desuka? (how old are you?)” Nanajunisai desu (72) I answered.”  He smiled.  “Kodomo (a child!)” he said. Pointing to his nose, he said “Kyujunisai desu (I am 92).”   I was swept away by the wonder of artistic mastery and the relativity of age:

grace smoothly flowing

his back straight as an arrow

old man disappears

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

Monkey Reaching for the Moon #2: Grasping The Branch


Some folks have asked just what is the branch the monkey is holding on to. Let’s start to approximate some insights by refreshing our memories of Hakuin’s poetic interpretation:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’s let go the branch and
Disappears in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
with dazzling pureness.

It seems to me that the monkey’s grasp on the branch symbolizes the attachment that the Buddha taught was at the root of all human suffering. I’d like to look at three facets of this attachment.

First, the Buddha taught that human suffering is caused by attachment to wanting life to be the way we want it to be or think it should be. This causes us to resist life as it is, which in fact sets us in opposition to life. In his Handbook Epictetus says that we will drive ourselves crazy trying to control what can’t be controlled, and what can’t be controlled is everything outside our own minds. Our attitudes, beliefs and values are under our control, he says, and this is where we need to focus our energy and attention. What happens to us is never the cause of suffering. What we think about what happens to us causes our suffering.

This fundamental attachment, then, is actually to our own ideas. This is perhaps the most difficult prison from which to escape, the prison of Plato’s Cave which is of course the Cave of our own minds. The difficulty lies in the fact that our minds create the world we live in, and to change our basic beliefs is to transform the world as well. That is easier said than done. The old cliche about the devil you know is relevant here. Like the monkey, I hold onto the conditioned ideas that bring me security with ferocious rigor. Yet as the Dhammapada teaches in its first lines: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure (negative) mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. … Speak or act with a pure (positive) mind, and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.”

The second facet of attachment is a corollary of the first. The mind is something like the static lens of a camera. It freezes the world and other people so that I can be secure in my (supposed) knowledge of how things are. But, really, this is like trying to capture a river in a water glass. The world and the people in it are constantly flowing, and in order to see this we need to relax the grip we have on old ideas. When we think we know something or someone, we stop looking closely. This casual taking for granted is especially easy to do, and a fundamental cause of suffering, when that someone is an intimate member of our chosen or natural family. When you live with a person for years on end, it is tempting to think that we know them like a book. What a tragic misconception this is.

The third facet of attachment is a further corollary. Not only does the mind freeze the world and other people, it also freezes my idea of who I am. This is Ahamkara in Yoga Psychology, the I-Maker. When I latch onto the ideas of who I think I am (John the Good, Cool Philosophy Professor), my words and actions emanate from that Cave of ideas, and I am neither Good nor Cool. This is what Lao Tsu is getting at, I think, in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “A truly good man is not aware of his goodness, and is therefore good. A foolish man tries to be good, and is therefore not good.” If I am good because of some idea of rightness that I think allows others and myself to see me as good, that “goodness” is actually flowing from Ego, and what I do (in music, or teaching, or intimacy) might be Right, but it is never very Good. Continue reading

Monkey Reaching for the Moon #3: The Pool


Let us again refresh Hakuin’s poem that has been serving as a theme for this series of essays:

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

If the ideas in the previous post concerning the branch of attachment seem at all cogent, it is because I have spent so much of my life clinging to that damn branch! My experience of the pool, however, is much more tenuous and fleeting. Rather than talking about its nature (which might be impossible), perhaps I can describe some of its cooling springs.

The first spring is that of presence. Many teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle, are making a big thing of this right now, and well they should! Many of us are rarely where we are or when we are. We are often somewhere and sometime else–in the past or future. We live in daydreams or sporting the bumper sticker “I’d rather be…anywhere else.” Life in the pool, then, is not so much grasping or striving, but embracing the marvels of life as it is here and now. Some of my students think that this is totally unrealistic. How can one live without preferences or plans and desires for a brighter future? Tolle clarifies this beautifully: ” Your life’s journey has an outer and an inner purpose. The outer purpose is to arrive at your goal or destination, to accomplish what you set out to do, to achieve this or that, which, of course, implies future. But if your destination, or the steps you are going to take in the future, take up so much of your attention that they become more important to you than the step you are taking now, then you completely miss the journey’s inner purpose, which has nothing to do with where you are going or what you are doing, but everything to do with how.” (This can be found on pg. 88 in the Power of Now.)

The how also points to another fascinating conundrum that my students raise. Doesn’t lack of attachment engender a lack of caring? If I am not attached to this post–where it will go or who will read it–can I really be said to care about it? I would suggest that the more I am attached to the protective and defensive needs of my ego, the less I am able to care for the people and things in my life.  Milton Meyeroff wrote a lovely small book, On Caring, in 1971.  He says that to care for another person or thing or idea is to support and to rejoice in its growth, while maintaining respect for its own inner nature and agenda.  True caring, that is, entails relinquishing control over the timing and direction of the other’s growth–a difficult trick, indeed, for parents. This idea, however, is similar to the Taoist teaching of wu-wei, that implies a life of graceful activity without a self-inflating sense of authorship or control.

This question, I think, raises complex issues involving the object of my caring, and the motivation that fuels it.  Surely, there are healthy ways to care for oneself, and destructive ways to care for others.  Clinging attachment to oneself or another, however, engendered by a fearful dependency, does seem to diminish the ability truly to care.  Examples abound: the more I am attached to winning a game, the less I care about the wonder and the joy of the game itself, and my playing suffers.  The more I am attached to my righteous ideas of Peace, the less peacefully i work for peace.  It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that I cannot nurture a more peaceful world by injecting it with more hostility and little regard for the humanity of my ‘enemies.’  Finally, the more needy attachment I have for my significant other, the less I can love and care for her.  If we monkeys can let go of our dependent attachment to our own ideas and the needs they engender, then our egos could at least occasionally disappear into the pool of caring.  That, after all, is where we long to be.

Another refreshing spring in the pool of enlightenment is attention: looking and listening. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard has a marvelous passage on the dynamics of recognizing our own uncertainties: “We don’t know what’s going on here…We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise” (pg. 9l). I spoke above of taking everything and everyone for granted as a tragic misconception. My wife and I do our best to pay attention to each other. We take great care to look at each other freshly every morning. What is she thinking and feeling today? Have her dreams evolved? Who is she right now? In order to relate to the woman across the table, I need to look and listen to her, and not to rest in the complacency of my set ideas of her. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but more important than words can say. Continue reading