The 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.