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One morning a few weeks ago, my new kyusu arrived at my door. A kyusu is a Japanese teapot with a hollow side handle and an interior mesh filter. Handcrafted in the Tokoname tradition, this particular kyusu is dark brown and evokes a quiet, earthy atmosphere. Concentric circles in the lid and body impart a simple, classical feeling. To prepare this new tool for use, I filled it with boiling water, emptied it, and left it in the dish drainer to dry. By nightfall, it had taken its place on the counter among my small collection of kyusus, looking pristine and ready for service.

That look was not to last. The following afternoon, as I was reading in my study and my wife was working in the kitchen, I heard a crash, followed by a few words of Yiddish and the improbable prediction, “He’s going to kill me!” As it happened, as Robin was innocently opening the cupboard above the counter to fetch a box of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a jar of cream of tartar came tumbling out. As if guided by radar, this little missile landed squarely on my new kyusu, breaking its hollow handle into several pieces. With a seasoned ceramist’s expertise, Robin repaired the handle, leaving barely visible lines where the fractures had occurred. No matter: having traveled safely all the way from Japan and spending less than forty-eight hours in our home, this exquisite object was already broken.

To the Western mind, this little mishap might be deemed uncommon. A freak accident, we might call it. From the vantage point of Zen teachings, however, the incident may be unfortunate but is hardly out of the ordinary. “Your cup is already broken,” an old Zen teaching implores us to remember. This enigmatic pronouncement, which is neither as pessimistic nor as fatalistic as it sounds, carries two distinct meanings. The first is practical and readily accessible, the second metaphysical and more reclusive. Together they lend depth and weight to a memorable saying. And for those who take that saying to heart, its import can be both illuminating and liberating.

At the practical level, “Your cup is already broken” is a vivid expression of the truth of impermanence. All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are subject to change, the one exception being impermanence itself. More subtly, this fundamental principle holds that even apparently stable things are constantly changing, whether we realize it or not. Each moment of our lives is a death and a birth. In time, both you and your cup will “break,” figuratively if not literally. Clay will return to clay. Our treasured possessions may outlast us, but if we imagine that either they or our own mortal coils are made to last forever, we are indulging in fantasy. And by doing so, we may be causing suffering, both to ourselves and to others. “We suffer not because things are impermanent,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often observed, “but because we expect them to be permanent when they are not.”

At a deeper level, “Your cup is already broken” points toward a hidden dimension of everyday experience, known in Zen as the “absolute” dimension. According to Zen teachings in general and the Heart Sutra in particular, the things of this world are not what they seem. This teak table where I’m writing appears to be separate and solid. If I should bang my knee on its leg, its solidity will be painfully confirmed. But for all its apparent solidity, this aging table, which was once a hardwood tree, is a dynamic nexus of forces, causes, and conditions, akin to a whirlpool, in a universe where everything is interconnected, and everything is changing. In Zen parlance, the table is “empty of a separate self.” To say that it is already broken is to acknowledge that it consists of its constituent parts, which will sooner or later disperse and be transformed into something else. Firewood, perhaps, and eventually ashes. And we are the same.

In Western culture, the experience of impermanence is typically met with sorrow or regret, if not profound grief and a broken heart. It is elegized rather than celebrated. Where the loss of loved ones is concerned, such a response is altogether natural and appropriate. But in other, less extreme situations, fully acknowledging the reality of impermanence can liberate us from the illusion of permanence. It can free us from obsessive attachment, even as it prompts us to cherish what we presently have. “The trouble,” Jack Kornfield once remarked, “is you think you have time.”  To that delusive and all-too-common notion, “Your cup is already broken” gives the lie. At the same time, this gentle reminder invites us to contemplate the wholeness of life and death, permanence and impermanence, and to live our lives accordingly.

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Photo: Tomisen Sensuji Kyusu

 

 

 

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