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MatchaFor the Westerner who might wish to enter Zen practice, one of the most accessible points of entry is the way of words. Over the centuries Zen teachers have warned against reliance on language, likening it to a finger pointing to the moon, but they have also offered pithy sayings, ranging from the most intelligible to the most arcane. “Not always so,”  Suzuki Roshi observed. “Only don’t know,” the Korean master Seung Sahn declared. “Live as if you were dead,” exhorted the seventeenth-century Rinzai master Shido Bunan. Taken to heart, any one of these sayings might initiate the newcomer into the practice of Zen. For my own part, however, I have found the Japanese motto ichigo ichie to be one of the most helpful, both for the novice and the seasoned practitioner.

Pronounced each-ee-go each-ee-ay and translated as “one time, one meeting,” this motto is closely associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Ichigo ichie enjoins the host and guests in the tea hut to regard their gathering as unprecedented and unrepeatable. Though governed by custom and tradition, each meeting is unique. It will not occur again.

Ichigo ichie is said to have originated with Ii Naosuke, tea master and chief administrator of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Every morning, Naosuke, who had many enemies and feared assassination, made himself a bowl of tea, pronouncing it ichigo ichie: unprecedented and unrepeatable. In 1860 Naosuke was indeed assassinated, but the phrase he coined survived him, becoming a motto for students of the Way of Tea.*

“One time, one meeting” is also a motto for students of Zen meditation, but in Zen practice the context extends well beyond the drinking of tea. For in Zen training we learn to regard all encounters as unprecedented and unrepeatable, however similar they appear. In her essay “There Are No Repetitions,” the Rinzai priest and concert pianist Maurine Stuart puts the matter this way:

We are always at the beginning. It is always the very first time. When I play the piano I often come to a repeat sign. Can that passage be repeated? If I am teaching a piano student and we see a repeat sign, I tell the student that there are no repeats. We return to the beginning of a certain passage, but it’s never the same. It’s always fresh.**

At first glance, these assertions may seem to defy common sense. Would that the menus of certain restaurants might be unrepeatable! Would that our waiter, putting our food on the table, might say something other than “there you go.” Would that Garrison Keillor’s tone of voice might vary even a little, or the village siren play a new tune. Same old, same old, we complain. Been there, done that.

To the Zen practitioner, however, such dismissals only mask an underlying reality. The menu may not change, but other conditions will, and no two meals will ever be the same. By marshaling such phrases as “same old, same old,” we strengthen our preconceptions and bolster our sense of security, but we also erect a verbal screen between ourselves and the world before us.

To pierce that screen is the task of the Zen practitioner. And to return to the ground of being, where we may experience the world afresh, is a central aim of Zen discipline. Sitting still without thought of attainment, we relinquish our preconceptions and renew our attention to whatever is occurring, right here, right now: the flow of our breath, the rumble of a truck, the thought of an errand left undone. In so doing, we free ourselves from our habitual patterns of thought and feeling, our sometimes painful attachments to the past. And we allow the things of this world to reveal themselves as they truly are: vibrant, unprecedented, and unrepeatable.


*See Eido Tai Shimano and Kogetsu Tani,  Zen Word,  Zen Calligraphy (Shambhala, 1995), 35.

**Maurine Stuart, Subtle Sound (Shambhala, 1996), 16.

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