Baisao and the Zen of Tea

BaisaoThe Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto by Norman Waddell, published by Counterpoint Press.

Part of this book is a translation of the short Chinese-styled poems and prose by Baisao as well as a biographical sketch by one of his contemporaries.  The author, in the first half of the book, creates a tapestry of Baisao’s life from various primary sources including letters to friends and students, official documents and the works of Baisao himself.  Interspersed with paintings and calligraphy from Baisao and his contemporaries, a full view of this character from 18th century Kyoto emerges.  In a time when Japanese Zen was becoming more and more dogmatic as well as state-sanctioned – Baisao’s wit and home-spun but learned wisdom must have been a delightful change from the rigid monasteries of the day.

The first part of this book traces Baisao’s transformation from novice to monk and then from master to impoverished old tea seller.  After a long stint as an Zen monk in a temple in southern Japan, Baisao left for Kyoto, a city he visited in his youth, to live the actual practice of Zen.  Zen as it exists for the great Ch’an masters of the past; free from the confines of temple bureaucracy and stale dogma.  Adopting the dress of a Chinese sage (a Crane Cloak), he opened a small tea shop (aptly labeled Tsusen-tei – “the shop that conveys you to Sagehood”) and eventually adopted a lay-lifestyle of making a meager living (largely donations to keep from starving) through the sale of tea and occasional calligraphy.

An enigmatic character of the time, Baisao had strong opinions of Zen practice and its place in 18th century Japanese society.  Rather than conform to the limits set by monastic rules, Baisao lived a life that was largely scorned during the time period – A tea-seller (I liken it to living as a hot-dog vendor in Philly).  But rather than the mindless hawking of hot flavored water, the old tea seller intuitively weaves his Zen koan training into every cup brewed and verse set to paper.  Far beyond the tea-mongers or tea-aficionados of the day – Baisao takes the enjoyment of a cup of tea into a realm of mental fortitude and soulful clarity.  Tea will never provide the enlightenment but an enlightened man can surely pour you a cup, providing a small moment of satori that drifts off as the cup reaches its end.

Baisao lived the life of a nonconformist who embraced a working life of poverty rather than a monk’s life of begging or temple work.  He shrugged off the robes of the priest as just another attachment.  He became a destination himself, just like the scenic temples and groves that he set up his brazier and banner.  He spanned the purgatory that lies between monk and layperson, practitioner and vagrant.  His colorful life straddled the gray area that exists in our practice.

His verse moves simply and crisply without subjecting itself to needless explanation or expression.  It is simple and direct but forces the reader to think and ponder – linked to the koans he trained with – Baisao’s verse requires us to ponder to gain wisdom.

I moved this morning
to the center of town
waist deep in worldly dust
but free of worldly ties.
I wash my robe and bowl
in the Kamo’s pure stream
the moon a perfect disc
rippling its watery mind.

Baisao lived a simple life in a remarkable way.  For a generation of practitioners who struggle with the application of Zen practice into the daily grind of 9-5 workloads and pressing family matters, Baisao provides with a simple remedy that I gleamed from his words.  Don’t press Zen into your life or try to mold it.  Drop a few leaves of it into your daily life and let it simmer.  The movement and turbulence will not cease, nor will it ever, but the flavor will be much more wonderful and the taste subtle.

Cheers, my friends!  We all balance on the fringe of practice.  Baisao provides us with the fuel to move past rigor and dogma and seamlessly blend our life and our living together.  It is one thing to be able to label and describe that tea you are sipping (or beer you are guzzling), it is a completely different thing to savor that drink wordlessly…thoughtlessly.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I was sent a copy of this book, for free, from the publisher to write about it. I probably would have gotten a copy of this book regardless; I would have ordered it from my public library and thus gotten it free anyway.  And I don’t think getting a free copy of the book from the publisher really changed my opinion of it, beyond a tiny feeling of obligation to say something — anything — about it on my blog. Regardless, however, it really is a very good book for the reasons outlined above. if I were to dislike this book, for whatever reason, I would have stated it and given an explanation why.  Now, if the publishers were to have provided me with a pony or llama, they would have gotten a better review (can you review a llama?).  Maybe even a smiley face.
*in the interest of even fuller disclosure, i should admit that I stole most of that above disclosure from the buddha is my dj’s disclosure.  I did not, nor was compensated in any way by either the buddha or his dj.
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11 thoughts on “Baisao and the Zen of Tea

  1. You said, “Tea will never provide the enlightenment but an enlightened man can surely pour you a cup…”

    Well said… great review… looking forward to the book.

  2. Now looky here, if every bookseller who put a book on their Staff Recommended shelf had to cite where the copy came from, there’d be no room for the review. I’m in the bookselling biz myself and we get so many Advance Reading Copies (ARCs, aka “galleys”) we end up throwing out 90% of them.

    It makes not a whit of difference if you get a promo copy, if you read it online, if you got it from the library, if you borrowed it from a friend (which would also be a “free” copy), etc., as long as you review honestly.

    • Thanks Ellen! I work at a library and we do get enough review copies to choke a horse. But as summed up here bloggers do need to provide some amount of transparency. I prefer to make it somewhat humorous so expect a new one at the bottom of any review of a book that I recieved free for review. As per the guidelines, a free book for review is considered an “in-kind” gift. Now, while this is probably not a huge deal when it comes to books, I assume that it is more so for awesomely expensive computer equipment (which if anyone wants me to review, feel free to send me a laptop, mine is broken).

      I don’t think this includes “advance copies” since they come out sometimes looking like a 7 year old wrote them.

      Thanks for commenting!

      John

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