Posts Tagged ‘tea ceremony’

Shundo Aoyama Roshi

If there is one commonly held value in our divided culture, it is the idea—and the ideal—of perfection. We would like to eat the perfectly cooked burger (or steak, or ratatouille). We would like to go on the perfect vacation. We desire perfect health, a perfect relationship, a perfect retirement, and even a perfect death, whatever that might be. That the goal of perfection, whether in work or love, is elusive and for many unattainable only heightens the intensity of the struggle.

To this familiar but often destructive system of values, Zen teachings offer a salutary alternative. In her book Zen Seeds, the Soto Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi (b. 1933) describes the characters on a hand-painted scroll hanging in a tea house. Some of the characters are misaligned, and one is missing. As Aoyama explains, when “ordinary people” practice calligraphy, they “go to great pains to achieve perfect alignment and would consider missing characters inexcusable.” But from the vantage point of classical Zen teachings, perfection is not necessarily a virtue. “When the line wavers,” wrote Zen master Murata Juko (1422-1502), founder of the tea ceremony, “and characters are omitted . . . the effect is superior.” And, in the words of Yoshida Kenko (1284-1310), “When everything is carefully regulated, it’s boring.” By contrast, imperfection can be a source of interest, truth, and beauty, whether the context be visual art, the natural world, or the conduct of everyday life. (more…)

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46. Chazen ichimi


Hohryu Kyusu

For at least eight centuries the practice of Zen has been closely linked to the consumption of green tea. In 1191 the Zen monk Eisai returned to Kyoto from his studies in China, bringing a bag of tea seeds, which he planted in the temple garden. In 1211 he wrote Kissa Yojoki (The Book of Tea), Japan’s first tea book, extolling the healthfulness of green tea. Ever since, Zen practitioners have used green tea to nurture their bodies, soothe their minds, and keep themselves awake during their long hours of sitting. “Chazen ichimi,” declared the sixteenth-century tea master Sen Sotan:  “Zen and the taste of tea are one and the same”.*

Over the past two decades, health-conscious Americans have also brought green tea into their daily lives, but where taste is concerned, the reviews have been decidedly mixed.  “Would you drink green tea,” a skeptical friend once asked, “if you didn’t know it was good for you?” And another, whose taste in beverages runs to single-malt Scotch and a good Merlot, reported that he tried green tea and it tasted like pasteboard. If that is the taste of Zen, so much the worse for Zen.

If you too have tried green tea and found it not to your liking, that may be the end of the matter. However, if you already drink green tea but would like to enjoy it more, you can do so by making a small investment in equipment and by following a few time-honored instructions. With patience, care, and a little practice, you might find yourself enjoying a delicious, authentic cup of Japanese green tea.

First of all, you will need fresh tea. What is available in the supermarket or even in specialty tea shops is often anything but fresh. It may have been languishing in a tea bag or bin for a very long time. I order tea directly from Hibiki-an (www.hibiki-an.com), a  family-owned firm in Kyoto, and it arrives in a few days, sealed in a foil-lined bag. When I open the bag, the aroma of the unbrewed tea is itself enticing.

Second, you will need a kyusu, an earthenware teapot designed expressly for brewing green tea. For the price of a coffeemaker you can buy a kyusu online, and it’s well worth the expense. The distinguishing features of the kyusu include its hollow side handle and its interior mesh filter, which covers the opening of the spout. In contrast to the familiar infuser, the latter feature allows the tea leaves to open and to float freely in the water, releasing their flavor.

Third, you will need the softest, purest water you can find. Hibiki-an recommends Evian, Rocky Mountain, and other bottled waters. Here in Western New York, I use Chemung Spring Water, and it has proved equal to the task.

Fourth, you will need to pay attention to the temperature and the brewing time. On most mornings I drink a refreshing Sencha tea, which is brewed at 176 degrees Fahrenheit for sixty to eighty seconds. Other teas require other temperatures and brewing times. At first, you will need to use a thermometer and to watch the time very carefully. Later on, you can dispense with the thermometer, and you can adjust the prescribed time to suit your taste.

To prepare two cups of Sencha tea, you will need a kyusu and three small teacups. To brew the tea, please follow these instructions:

–Boil the water, let it cool for a minute, and pour it into the kyusu.  When the water has cooled for another minute, pour it into two of the three cups. Drain any remaining water from the kyusu.

–Next, pour the water back and forth among the three cups. This process heats the cups and further cools the water. It also allows the water to oxygenate, which improves the flavor of the tea.

–Check the temperature. When it is around 176 degrees, add a tablespoon of loose Sencha tea to the heated kyusu and pour in just enough water to cover the leaves. Replace the lid, and wait for twenty seconds, letting the leaves absorb the water. Then add the rest of the water, and brew for a minute or slightly longer.

–Now pour the tea alternately into two of the cups, and offer one to your guest. Lifting your own cup with both hands, take time to inhale the aroma of the tea. Contemplate its provenance, its impermanence, and its beneficial influence on your mind and body. Then drink it slowly, with full attention, and enjoy the taste of Zen.


*For further information, see Barry Briggs’ weblog  Go Drink Tea at http://www.godrinktea.com/. See also D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton, 1993), pp. 269-314; Soshitsu Sen, Tea Life, Tea Mind (Weatherhill, 1979); and Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea (Stone Bridge Press, 2007).

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In the Rinzai Zen tradition, the first interview between student and teacher is an auspicious formal occasion. The required attire includes not only a robe but also the white booties known as tabi, which cover the feet and ankles. Tabi are fastened with hooks and eyes located on the inside of the ankle.  For Westerners they are difficult to manage, even on the best of days.

On the morning of my own first interview with Jiro Osho Fernando Afable at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a formal Rinzai monastery, I forgot all about my tabi. They were nestled like sleeping rabbits in the sleeves of my robe. As I prepared to leave for my interview, a senior monk noticed my oversight. He gestured sternly toward my feet, and I took his point.

Unfortunately, there are no chairs in a Japanese zendo. Rather than hunker on a cushion, I stood on one foot, then the other, as I struggled to put on my tabi. At one point, I hopped; at another, I nearly fell over. It must have taken me three minutes to marshal my partially hooked tabi into a semblance of order.  Meanwhile, the senior monk was summoning every bit of his Zen discipline to keep a straight face. I suspect that he told the story to his fellow monks later on.

Embarrassing though it was, my awkwardness was not unusual. Ceremonial forms abound in Japanese Zen, and to the uninitiated Westerner they often feel as alien as they are compelling. From the relatively simple protocol known as jukai, in which a lay practitioner “receives the precepts,” to the high theater of shitsugo, in which a seasoned priest receives the title of roshi, public ceremonies acknowledge the practitioner’s deepening insight. And even on ordinary days, when nothing special is being recognized, celebrated, or commemorated, a sense of ceremony permeates the zendo. It can be seen in the bows and heard in the bells. It can be smelled in the incense. For the Western lay practitioner, this pervasive atmosphere of ceremony presents a challenge to the skeptical mind as well as the reluctant body. How much Asian ceremony should be included in a Western lay practice? How much is essential?

In addressing those questions, it is important to remember that Asian ceremonial forms, as used in Zen, exist primarily to support the practice of mindfulness. Pressing the palms together and bowing to one’s teacher, for example, is a way of expressing gratitude and respect. But it is also a way of knowing that one is expressing gratitude and respect and a way of cultivating those states of mind. For those prepared to embrace them, the bows, chants, prostrations, and other elements of traditional Zen can become as integral to the practice as awareness of breath and posture.

For those who are not, however, there is another way of integrating a sense of ceremony into one’s daily life. It is well described by Brother Joseph Keenan (1932-1999), who taught religion at La Salle University and was also a master of the Japanese tea ceremony:

The making of a bed, the folding of laundry, walking down stairs, driving a car to work — instead of racing through these actions with the mind-set of simply getting them done, savor them as present moments which contain hidden riches, and do them in the most beautiful way. Do them not from egotistical motives of self-fulfillment, but rather as gifts to the world that express to those you meet that you really want to present the best to them. In this approach to life even in today’s world . . . the niggling details of the daily grind can become moments of joy, moments filled with sweet nectar to be savored rather than tension-filled tasks. With this sort of attention to mundane actions, you can open yourself and others to a greater awareness of what is around you in the here and now.*

Although Brother Keenan is speaking of the tea ceremony, his description applies equally to a committed lay practice. In such a practice, each mundane task becomes an occasion for ceremonial regard. Each is an end in itself, not a means to a practical end. Each is an act of giving.


* Brother Joseph Keenan, “Tea for All Nations: The Japanese Tea Ceremony”


See also http://www.phillytea.org/about.html

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In November, 1972, I accompanied Dan and Lillyan Rhodes to the University of Rochester to hear a reading by the poet Gary Snyder. A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, Daniel Rhodes was an internationally known potter, sculptor, and professor of ceramic art at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He was also a longtime friend of Gary Snyder.

Of the poems I heard that evening, one in particular made a lasting impression:


In the blue night

frost haze, the sky glows

with the moon

pine tree tops

bend snow-blue, fade

into sky, frost, starlight,

the creak of boots.

Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,

what do we know.*

As he read the last line of his poem, Snyder stressed the word “we.” What can we presume to know, he seemed to be asking, in the presence of the natural world’s nocturnal beauty? His tone was one of awe, tempered by disdain for human presumption.

Gary Snyder’s poem owes something to Ezra Pound, one of Snyder’s poetic mentors, who admonished us to “pull down [our] vanity”  and to “learn of the green world what can be [our] place.” Snyder’s lines also reflect his practical experience as logger and forest ranger, his empathic study of indigenous cultures, and his lifelong practice of Zen meditation.

In one well-known story from the lore of Zen, a monk sets out on a pilgrimage in his straw hat, robe, and sandals. Along the way he encounters a Zen master, who asks him where he’s going. “Around on pilgrimage,” the monk replies.

“What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”asks the master.

“I don’t know,” the monk confesses.

“Not knowing is the most intimate,” replies the master.

That story is conventionally interpreted as an illustration of “beginner’s mind.” By not presuming to know where he is going, the monk is opening himself to whatever he encounters. Void of expectations and preconceptions, he can meet the world directly.

That interpretation is plausible enough, but Gudo Nishijima, a contemporary Zen master, has a different take on the story. In Nishijima’s view, the monk’s response acknowledges the limitations of his perceptions. To be sure, we usually know our immediate destinations. In relative terms, we know where we are going. In ultimate terms, however, we really have no idea where we’re headed. By admitting as much, the monk remains in touch with ultimate reality, even as he lives in the relative world.

Thirty-six years ago, as I listened to Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,” I did not know that Dan Rhodes would retire and leave Alfred the next year—or that he would die of a heart attack in Nevada in 1989, at the age of seventy-eight. Nor did I know that Gary Snyder, Beat poet and author of  rugged lyric verse, would become an icon of the environmental movement, or that his progressive views on ecology, derived from the ancient principle of ahimsa (“non-harming”), would become moral imperatives in the early 21st century.

Gary Snyder is a man of wide erudition, with a deep respect for the natural and social sciences. In offering the teaching of not-knowing, he is not sanctioning an aggressive ignorance. Rather, he is urging an attitude of humility and reverence, lest we do further harm. Resonant at the time, his lines are even more urgent now.


*Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974). To hear Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,”  go to http://cdn3.libsyn.com/bubba/Gary_Snyder_Spiritual_Spice_14.mp3?nvb=20091124134834&nva=200911251.



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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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