The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea

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9781611800265: The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea

Traditionally in China and Japan, drinking a cup of tea was an opportunity for contemplation, meditation, and an elevation of mind and spirit. Here, renowned translator William Scott Wilson distills what is singular and precious about this traditional tea culture, and he explores the fascinating connection between Zen and tea drinking. He unpacks the most common phrases from Zen and Chinese philosophy—usually found in Asia printed on hanging scrolls in tea rooms, restaurant alcoves, family rooms, and martial arts dojos—that have traditionally served as points of contemplation to encourage the appropriate atmosphere for drinking tea or silent meditation.

Part history, part philosophy, part inspirational guide, The One Taste of Truth will connect you to the distinctive pleasure of sipping tea and allowing it to transport your mind and thoughts. This beautifully written book will appeal to tea lovers and anyone interested in tea culture, Chinese philosophy, and Zen.

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About the Author:

William Scott Wilson is the foremost translator into English of traditional Japanese texts on samurai culture. He received BA degrees from Dartmouth College and the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, and an MA in Japanese literary studies from the University of Washington. His best-selling books include The Book of Five Rings, The Unfettered Mind, and The Lone Samurai, a biography of Miyamoto Musashi.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1
Fundamentals
〇1En, or enso
This is the circle signifying the freedom, impartiality, and equality of the Buddha, in which nothing is lacking. It is the symbol of absolute or true reality, and therefore of enlight­enment. The enso is a popular subject in Zen painting, and perhaps, more than in the calligraphic art itself, is said to dem­onstrate the painter’s state of mind. It is usually executed with a single brushstroke, with the end of the brushstroke often trail­ing to meet the beginning. In this way, the enso indicates that the world is at once both perfect and imperfect (absolute and relative), or perfectly imperfect: it is the slightly misshapen tea bowl from which we drink tea, said to be the flavor of Zen.
There is an interesting anecdote concerning an enso in the Piyenlu, the twelfth-century collection of Zen koans:
 
Nan-ch’uan, Kuei Tsung, and Ma Ku were traveling together to offer ceremonial salutations to the National Teacher Chung.1 When they reached the halfway point, Nan-ch’uan drew an enso on the ground and said, “If you can say [a word of Zen], we’ll keep going.” Kuei Tsung sat down in the middle of the enso. . . . Nan-ch’uan said, “If that’s it, we aren’t going any farther.” Kuei Tsung said, “Where is this man’s mind going?” [是什麻心行].
Piyenlu, case 69
Like Kuei Tsung, we may wonder what’s going on here, but it would seem that the man of Zen is neither totally within the enso nor outside of it.
 
Some commentators have speculated that the enso has its origin in the full moon, often a Buddhist symbol of enlighten­ment. But however one wishes to interpret the enso, it is con­sidered to be an absolute test of the balance and spontaneity of the painter’s mind (or Mind), and the best or most interesting are often displayed not only in tea rooms and Zen temples, but in martial arts dojos as well. Indeed, the great swordsman and painter Miyamoto Musashi said in essence that the stroke of the sword and the stroke of the brush are the same: that with each stroke, the mind of the practitioner could be observed with cer­tainty. This is reflected in the Chinese dictum
心正即筆正
When the mind is correct, the brush will be also.
 
The same can be said for the ladling of the water, the movement of the whisk, and the taste of the tea.
Although the enso almost always appears by itself, it is some­times accompanied by other Chinese characters, as in:
 
○是れ食ふて茶飲め
Eat this, and have a cup of tea.
無2Mu “Emptiness”
This is no doubt the best-known Chinese character in Zen lit­erature and calligraphy. Variously translated as “Emptiness,”  
“the Void,” “Nonexistence,” or “the Origin of All Things,” it is etymologically related to the character for “dance,” the archaic form depicting a man or woman adorned ornamentally going through dance-like movements. Could this indicate the empty, receptive mental state reached by dancing shamans or shaman-esses? Or could it simply represent, as the folk etymology holds, a forest burned to nothingness?
 
In the third or fourth century, Lao Tzu, the old man who is said to have established Taoism as a philosophy, had this to say:
 
Thirty spokes make the nave of a wheel,
Yet it is the nonbeing [at the center of the wheel]
that is the wheel’s utility.
It is the kneaded clay that fashions a pot,
Yet it is the nonexistence [inside the pot]
that is the pot’s utility.
It is the chiseling out of windows and a door that make a room,
Yet it is the nonexistence [in the door and windows]
that is the room’s utility.
Therefore, it is by existence that we set the stage,
But by nonexistence that we have utility.
 
Mu has become known to students of Zen, and so to adher­ents of Tea and practitioners of the martial arts, through a koan in the Wumenkuan. The case goes as follows:
 
A monk asked Chao Chou, “Does a dog have [有] the Buddha-nature or not [無]?” Chao Chou said, “Mu.”
Wumenkuan, case 13
 
This koan has bedeviled Zen monks and students ever since the thirteenth century, when Wu-men, the monk who com­piled the Wumenkuan, made it the first of the barriers Zen aspi­rants would have to solve (and this after beating his own head against a pillar while in his seventies as he tried to grasp it him­self). It is interesting to us because, although mu in this case has most often been translated as “No,” or “It has not,” the meaning of the character is “Nonexistence,” which is the state of mind (無心, Mushin, or No-Mind) Buddhists are encouraged to at­tain.4 Wu-men went on to further
explain the character in his commentary for the same case:
 
Clear out the knowledge and evil learning you’ve gotten up to now, and after some time, [your mind] will become quite ripe of itself. Your internal and external worlds will become one, and, in this way, you will be like a mute who has had a dream—you alone will be privy to your own self-knowledge. Quite suddenly, [your whole self] will take off, and you will astound Heaven and shake the Earth. It will be like grabbing away the great sword of the general Kuan Yu:5 when you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha; when you meet the ancestor,6 you kill the ances­tor. Standing at the precipice of life and death, you will gain the Great Freedom; and, although [living through] the Six Ways7 and the Four Births,8 you will be in a state of easy and playful sama­dhi. So, just how do you put yourself into this shape? Use every last bit of your ordinary energy, and become one with this mu. If you do not quit in the interim, it will be like happily igniting a single candle of the Dharma.
 
This is followed by a verse:
 
The dog, the Buddha-nature.
The complete carry-along, the straight command.
If you involve yourself with Existence [有] and
Nonexistence [無] even for a second,
You are attending your own funeral.
 
Also, consider this story:
 
When the warrior Hosokawa Shigeyuki [1434–1511] retired as daimyo of Sanuki Province, he became a Zen priest. When Osen Kaisan [1429–93], a scholar-monk, visited Shigeyuki, the aging warrior told the monk that he wished to show him a landscape that he himself had painted on a recent trip to Kumano and other scenic spots on the Kii Peninsula. When the scroll was opened, there was nothing but a blank sheet of paper. The monk, struck by the emptiness of the painting, offered these words of praise:
 
Your brush is as tall as Mount Sumeru,
Black ink large enough to exhaust the great earth;
The white paper as vast as the void that swallows up all illusions.
 
A number of words and phrases used in Tea scrolls are cen­tered on the concept of mu, all with varying nuances; at present, we may consider one more.

着 3Mujaku “Nonattachment”
This is to be detached not only from the passions and mate­rial objects of the world, but also from your own opinions,
 
 
concepts, and ideals. Whatever preconceived ideas you may have and cherish will only become blinders and get in the way when pure reality is right before your eyes. To be truly with­out attachment, you must throw both your mental and spiritual baggage overboard, and experience the world just as it is. Il­lustrating this is the famous story of the Zen master and the professor:
 
A rather self-important university professor visited the Zen mas­ter Nan-in,9 ostensibly to ask about Zen, but in truth to show off what he already knew about the subject. As was customary, tea was served. Nan-in poured tea into the professor’s cup, but when the cup was filled, continued pouring. When the aston­ished professor asked him to stop, protesting that the cup was already full, Nan-in said, “Your mind, too, is already full of your own ideas. I cannot tell you about Zen until you have become like an empty cup.”
 
The same truth applies to both Tea and the martial arts. In the Zencharoku, we read:
 
Originally, the Way of Tea was not in selecting the good utensils from the bad, nor in styles and forms of its preparation. It is sim­ply that when you handle tea utensils, you practice the enlight­ening of your true nature, and enter the realm of samadhi. The practice of seeking your self-nature through Tea is nothing other than sweeping away all your various thoughts, and concentrat­ing the mind one-pointedly.
 
In the same vein, Miyamoto Musashi constantly told his stu­dents not to be attached to certain weapons, the length of the sword, or one technique over another. He illustrated this point when he was attacked one day while whittling a bow; having nothing else at hand, he picked up one of the sticks he was carving and defeated the intruder with ease.
 
遊4Yu. “Enjoy yourself.”
Yu literally means “to play,” “to enjoy oneself in a leisurely fash­ion,” or “to go on a journey.” This term is inherited from Taoism and suggests that free and easy wandering is the way we should experience the world. The Kannon-kyo, the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra, states:
此の娑婆世界に遊ぶ
Go through this world of illusion in free and easy wandering.
 
There is also this from the Chuang Tzu:
Lieh Tzu was good at going blithely about while riding on the wind, but after fifteen days would return to earth. He did not [have to be] particularly diligent in the search for good fortune, and though he was able to avoid walking on the ground, he had to depend on something. If he had only straightaway mounted Heaven and Earth, ridden the changes of the six ch’i, and so wandered carefree in the limitless, what would he have had to depend on then?
 
This is the attitude we must take in our hearts even in the midst of the rules and rites of drinking tea and practicing Zen. Indeed, the rules and rites themselves are said to allow us this freedom. Such free and easy wandering, it would seem, allows the student of Zen, the practitioner of Tea, the calligrapher, or the martial artist to work in a state such that he can “have manifes­tations everywhere while still remaining [himself].”10 And it is this concept of yu that allows us to see past the false impression of stuffiness: recall that a yujin (遊人) is a man given to wine, gambling, and women, and yugei sammai (遊芸三味) is indulg­ing in drinking and gambling—often associated with both Tea and Zen.
 
 
夢5Mu, yume. “Dream.”
The archaic form of this Chinese character indicated the dark, or the dark of night, or the illusions that come in the dark. In the third-century b.c.e. philosophical work Hsun Tzu, it meant “empty knowledge.”
 
In the world of Tea and Zen, yume means “illusion,” or the “illusory nature of both the relative and the absolute worlds.” This is how we find it in the Chuang Tzu:
 
A long time ago, Chuang Chou had a dream in which he was a butterfly, happily fluttering about, pleased with himself, and following his own whims. He did not know that he was Chuang Chou. All of a sudden, he woke up and was quite manifestly Chuang Chou. [Then] he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Indeed, there is some distinction between Chuang Chou and the butterfly: it is called the Transmutation of Things.
One Taste of Truth third pass.indd 8 10/2/12 5:18 PM fundamentals 9
 
This same instability between illusion and reality is ex­pressed in another story in the same book; its first sentence is also found on tea room scrolls:
夢飲酒者旦哭泣、夢哭泣旦田猟
He who drinks wine in his dream wakes to shed tears; but he who laments in his dream awakes to hunt in the fields. When someone is having a dream, he is not aware that it is a dream; but waking, he knows that it is a dream. While in a dream, you may try to divine what the dream means; but it is only after you awake that you know that it was a dream.
 
The Sanskrit root of the word Buddha means “to wake up.” This is the goal of both Zen and Tea. This is emphasized in the Zencharoku, which states, “[In this way], preparing tea reflects perfectly the intent of Zen, and has become a Way of enlighten­ing people of their fundamental selves.”
 
Yume also brings to mind the poem ending the thirty-second chapter of the Diamond Sutra—again, found on scrolls in both tea rooms and Zen temples:
一切有為法、如夢幻泡影
如露亦如雷、応作如是観
All fabricated dharmas are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows.
They are like the dew, and again like lightning, and should be meditated upon as such.
 
The haiku poet Basho also wrote a number of poems cen­tered around the concept of the dream and illusion of this world. Two of the most famous are the following:
 
蛸壷やはかなき夢を夏の月
Octopus jars:
transient dreams
under a summer moon.
夏草やつわものどもが夢の跡
Summer grasses:
all that remains
of warriors’ dreams.
 
Finally, it remains to mention Takuan Soho, a Zen monk, cal­ligrapher, painter, poet, gardener, and tea master. Takuan was adviser and instructor to both the shogun and the emperor, the sword master Yagyu Munenori, and, as legend has it, friend and teacher to the swordsman and artist Miyamoto Musashi. Takuan was unaffected by his fame and popularity, and at the approach of death he instructed his disciples, “Bury my body in the mountain behind the temple, cover it with dirt, and go home. Read no sutras, hold no ceremony. Receive no gifts from either monk or laity. Let the monks wear their robes, eat their meals, and carry on as on normal days.” Asked for a final poem as he lay dying, he wrote the Chinese character for “dream” (夢), threw away the brush, and passed away.
 
放6Ho, hanatsu. “Let it go.”
Hanatsu means “to let go,” “release,” or “set free.” From the sub­jective point of view, it means unclenching your hands. On scrolls, it often appears as a single character; but it appears just as often in a phrase from the Hsinhsinming, a treatise written by Sengtsan, the third Zen patriarch, toward the end of the sixth century c.e.:
 
放之自然
Release this, and everything will be of-itself-so.11
 
The passage containing this phrase gives a fuller sense of its meaning:
 
The heart of the Way is vast with great margin;
It is neither difficult nor easy.
Small views [bring] fox-like doubts;12
Now rushing, now holding back.
With attachment we lose [a sense of] scale,
Inevitably entering a twisted road.13
Release this, and everything will be of-itself-so.
In the heart of things, there is no coming or going;
Trust your [true] character, and join with the Way:
Wandering playfully, cutting off all care.
 
Let it go, and it will be naturally what it is. Let go of your illu­sions and preconceived ideas, and everything will be natural of itself. It is the preconceived idea—any mental attachment as to what something is or isn’t, what it should or shouldn’t be—that will make the Tea Ceremony stiff, become a barrier to the prac­tice of Zen, and mean defeat to the martial artist. With no bag­gage crowding our minds, we see clearly, the barrier between subject and object breaks down, and everything is of-itself-so (自然). Let it go: the grasping hand (or mind) can receive no...

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