Thunder – Tempest In A Cup

Author/paintings: Wu De (Aaron Fisher)

Have a cup

Two young monks were on a pilgrimage, as their ilk was wont lo do when in youth they still believed in smirching for that which cannot be founds After a long retreat in the mountains, they were passing through a small village. As they walked, they discussed their individual attainments during the long period of silence, occasionally debating the meanings in reference to various scriptures they’d read or sermons they’d heard. Seeing a small teashop at the end of the village, they decided to warm themselves before continuing onwards.

The shop was very simple inside: a single, old wooden table with a bench and a few stools around it, a bamboo alcove and an old scroll with a single word brushed powerfully across it: “all”. The shop was very clean, if plain. The proprietor was an old man, and judging by the small size and emptiness of the place, he lived alone. something unspeakable sparkled in his eyes—that playful charm that only glimmers in eyes that have seen enough of this world to know.

The two monks sat down and the old man prepared them some bowls of tea. They continued their conversation about states of consciousness, now turning to the various masters they had so far encountered on this voyage and their degree of enlightenment. The old man smiled, pouring them some dark liquor that swirled with steam as it flowed from a worn pot older than any of the deep wrinkles creasing his brow. He also poured another for the simple village woman who sat meditatively on one of the comer stools listening to all the monks The old man poured a second bowl. As soon as the pot was put back down, the old village woman clucked her tongue and the two monks glanced over. They noticed her simple clothes, worn by labor, and yet how beautiful and unpretentious was her smile.

“Masters and enlightenments”, she chuckled and glanced down at the steaming bowl of liquor before her, sighing, “Let the Fully Enlightened One, Master of the Ten-Thousand Things, second to none, Buddha of All Ages and Realms, Warden of the Cosmos and Endless Tao—Let this one, and this one alone take the next sip, in all humesty—for Kuan Yin’s sake!”

The two monks paused in askance. Was she crazy, their eyes seemed to wonder. Who could possibly take such a sip! They glanced at their tea, at each other and waited for the woman.

The old woman grinned, lifted her bowl and drained it in a single draught. She rose from her seat, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, sighed in contention and left two agape monks where they sat in the shop.

While the next pot is steeping

There is a tradition, grown in Buddhism and steeped in Taoism, which has come to be called “Zen”. But is it this tradition that is passed on from master to student, down through the ages to our own? If not, then what is transmitted? Don’t you see how difficult it becomes to even say “Zen”? It makes you want to set the book down, bite your tongue and reach for the kettle. If you say Zen is conveyed, what is it that is handed 0n by the master? not a robe and bowl? Further-more , by who is it passed on and to whom? On the other hand, if you say nothing is passed on in the learning of Zen, why did Mahakashyapa smile in under-standing when the Buddha held up the flower on Vul-cure Peak? Why did Bodhidharma bother coming to China? And what did his robe and bowl, handled down to each successive patriarch represent?

Must we then be left adrift, wondering if Zen Is some otherworldly mystery only reachable by the greatest of saints? Most definitely not! The same Truth hovering between that mythological flower-smile is here right now in this very place where you are! The meaning of the bowl and robe—Bodhidharma’s marrow — is steaming before you now! And you—yes you!—can drink of it this very day. There’s no need to travel the globe searching for a master; no need to study difficult, old books, learn ancient tongue-twisted languages or jump through esoteric rings towards some inner sanctum. It’s sitting right in front of you now—in that very cup! Isn’t this what Bodhidharma brought from India to China? And if not, what?

The ancients repeated again and again that true Zen was beyond all discourse—beyond even the Buddha himself, of whom we are reminded to “kill if we see him coming”. The satori that reeks of satori is not true satori, just as the worst miso bean paste stinks of miso, while the best has no odor. Likewise, a wayfarer can stink of Zen, and a tea practitioner can stink of tea without being a true person of tea. Those who stink of Zen need to drink more tea—a good master would tell them: “Have a cup of tea!” And the tea people (Chajin) all hung up on collecting expensive pots, cups and teas they hoard, and don’t drink, definitely need to find the Zen in their tea—to them the master also says, “Have a cup of tea!” (maybe with a smack on the face). In defining “Zen”, which can only be successfully achieved by actually living and breathing Zen — walking the Path—you ultimately reach the insurmountable cliff wherein the Truth is carved: to understand the essence of Zen, you must be Zenless,

The life you are living couldn’t be any more red or true than it already is, no matter what ideas or beliefs you impose upon it. You may laugh when this realization really sinks in, A monk once asked Zhao Zhou what happens after all of one s possessions are given up,

and the old master exclaimed, “Abandon!” “I already have nothing!” protested the young monk.

then, carry around as much of a burden as you like!” was the rejoinder.

The young monk really hadn’t yet given up all his possessions, because he was still carrying around Zen, and the philosophy of “abandoning” itself. If you say the word “nothing”, then something still remains!

We scramble around, like young novices, traveling around from teacher to teacher and mountain to mountain-searching for an experience of Reality (big R). A master might be saintly, but if we find in her a single flaw—even if it was just a rumor of a flaw that happened decades ago—she is dethroned, and we move on to the next, searching for that supernatural master made of cloud, with a voice of thunder. All the while, that same Reality (again, big R) wasn’t changed an iota by our quest. It was, in fact, the space that contained our whole voyage. Any number of teachers and lessons pass us by every single day. In arguing whose teacher or tradition is “real Zen”, what is it we can achieve? What satisfaction “I already have nothing protested the young monk.

“Well, then, carry around as much of a burden as you like!” was the rejoinder.

The young monk really hadn’t yet given up all his possessions, because he was still carrying around Zen, and the philosophy of “abandoning” itself. If you say the word “nothing”, then something still remains!

We scramble around, like young novices, traveling around from teacher to teacher and mountain to mountain —searching for an experience of Reality (big R). A master might be saintly, but if we find in her a single flaw—even if it was just a rumor of a flaw that happened decades ago—she is dethroned, and we move on to the next, searching for that supernatural master made of cloud, with a voice of thunder. All the while, that same Reality (again, big R) wasn’t changed an iota by our quest. It was, in feet, the space that contained our whole voyage. Any number of teachers and lessons pass us by every single day; In arguing whose teacher or tradition is “real Zen”, what is it we can achieve? What satisfaction can be had in proving that a certain teacher or authority is a phony? Aren’t we all phonics? Isn’t that the very point一the fact of the matter: that all our egoic I-sub-jects are delusion? My teacher always says: “Even if someone were genuinely ignorant, they’d still be the Buddha of ignorance, and could at least teach us that much. We should bow in gratitude. And actually, though it’s good to bow, who can really say who the ignorant one is?”

When you fold the world into categories of wise or not, pure or impure, Zen or not-Zen, you live amongst the tradition of “Zen Buddhism” only—missing the point on which it was founded. Perhaps we have been too long staring at golden buddhas to see that the village farmer is a thousand times more alive, and thus more powerful. There is an old Sufi saying that “Allah is just a sound, and no more powerful than any other sound”, which applies just as profoundly to the sound “Chan” or “Zen”.

There are many stories that express this truth amongst the vast library of Zen scrolls. The Tang Dynasty master Yao Shan was said to have practiced Buddhism. medicating and reciting suttas, observing the precepts painstakingly for many years. One day he reflected that he had to let go of the dharma to find purity, and without hesitation abandoned his tonsure, traveling south to study the Zen that’s brewed in tea, A contemporary of his. Master Xuan Chien, is said to have burned the Diamond Sutra before retreating within. At the height of winter, when the storm blows the coldest and you’re our of fuel you burn all the Buddhas to stay warm!

Zen masters have always likened die relationship between the wayfarers struggle with the World (Sam-sara) and her enlightenment (Nirvana) to climbing up a forty-foot pole with one’s bare hands and then jumping off. It is a great struggle to tame the mind, one exhausting hand after another climbing up the pole. But in the end, we have to jump off. The key to Zen is understanding the perspective the top of the pole offered — the difference between the one who has never climbed and the one who has just landed, though they both stand firmly on the ground of daily life. Nirvana and Samsara are one and the same or abysmally apart, depending upon where you happen to be standing just as all this Zen-talk is either insightful or the paragon of absurdity from different vantages.

Hui Ke, the second patriarch, cut off his arm and handed it to Bodhidharma so that he would teach him to pacify his mind. When Bodhidharma asked him to produce this unsettled mind, Hui Ke said he could not. “There” exclaimed Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!” Though Hui Ke has reached the profound realization that he originally had no mind一that he was a “Snowflake in the sun of the Tao” — we cannot discount the years of torment that led him to sacrifice a limb for this truth, searching so painfully and without regard to bodily comfort as all the sages have.

A Lot of people theorize Zen, and sometimes even argue traditions—this one over that. Which history is correct? Who was whose teacher and when? Even admitted to the secret sutra hall that has the answers to these and all the other facts, would you be different? This is collecting Zen, rather than practicing it—or better yet being it!

There is a famous Chinese story of a noble who loved dragons so much he collected everything dragon related: poems, books, paintings, sculptures and ceramics. He spent a fortune and filled his house with dragons. Artists heard about this and came from the corners of the kingdom to craft him dragons of wood, stone and metal. One an old dragon came to hear about him and was impressed. He felt honored. Though he rarely ever ventured to land of mortals, and even less allowed himself to be seen, he decided to pay the noble a visit. He transformed himself into a man and entered the village, He came to the noble’s house and was allowed to wait in his rooms, since he was out at that time picking up yet another dragon painting. Alone in che noble’s quarters, the dragon transformed back into his natural form. Curling up around the walls, he waited with his great head on his nobler returned, he heard of the visitor and rushed to sec him. When he opened the door, he screamed. Pale and deathly mad, he ran from the house and was never seen again.

Are you searching for spiritual thrills? Docs the Zen master in your mind look a certain way? If your teachers have to come with qualifications and pass enlightenment tests, you are walking by thousands of wise men and women everyday, and ordinary situations that offer not only a chance for growth, but the selfsame enlightenment you may think exists only on distant, paradisiacal shores. Self-complacency after some kind of attainment is the greatest obstacle in Zen. “Enlightenment is easy, but maintaining a forthright mind beyond this is difficult”, as they say. Are you too proud to humble yourself before the village woman and learn from her? If so, your cup is full and she has nowhere to pour her wisdom.

There was a famous Zenji in Japan named Daio Jomyo who spent twenty years living with beggars under a bridge, even though his enlightenment had been confirmed by his Chinese master, the revered Hsu Tang Chi Yu, His student Daito followed suit, spending some years as a cowherd. How many of us would walked right by such enlightened men? When you have ideas about what a sage looks like, you bump right into one and either apologize or maybe even scoff—”out of my way!” and on to somewhere else.

Do you think the Zen experience can be qualified? It may be that your life is passing by, and it is trying to teach you ail you need to know, and more importantly be. “This can’t be it!” you demand, and she again sighs and walks on一content that she’ll get another chance to try once again to show you your nature some other day. And that is why the real master always shows you her humanity. and in doing so shows you yours as well. The true Zen master is a person in every way, as was the Buddha himself. His humanity is complete, not left behind like used clothes. No part of a human life is to him. He has eradicated all taint, because he no longer sees the distinction between the tainted and pure. If you befriend your enemies you find lasting peace; whereas defeating them in battle only breeds more warfare.

Similarly, there are experiences to be had in meditation. In ancient India, yogis developed a system of nine “jhanas” or high states of consciousness reached through meditation. Even adept masters rarely passed the sixth. The Buddha studied with many such masters, and reached the peak—the ninth jhana—and as such these teachers had nothing else to show him, offering instead to let him remain on as the heir to their communities. He declined, knowing that the bliss found in these high states was temporary, and that the miraculous powers they bestowed—able to read minds or even walk on water—weren’t a solution to the dilemma of suffering through this human life. Even if he entered the ninth jhana and stayed there for the remainder of his days, his body would diminish, dissolving the mental state that was dependent upon such a body in the first place.

Meditative states are just scenery you pass by on your way. The vistas of your life are ever-changing. Sometimes you can see very far, and clearly so; while other times the tangled jungles of life’s matters block out the mountains and sky. But more growth is in such valleys than in the barren peaks. A master once sat before an earnest meditator polishing a brick. When the meditator finally asked him what he was doing, he said he was making a mirror. “You can polish that brick for a million years and it will never become a mirror!” exclaimed the meditator. The master replied: “Similarly, you can polish that ego for a million years and it will never become a buddha!”

The most valuable insight of the Zen tradition—the pinnacle of the religious experience,really— is its own self-consciousness: To be Zen, truly, is to be Zenless. Freed of itself, as a tradition, way,philosophy—let alone the rites or ritual the Buddha himself received so much enmity for casting aside centuries before Zen began一only freed of all this does the unburdened signpost of Zen clearly show the moon of enlightenment. in which it can revel in and exploit its own state of wisdom and sagehood, and thwarts any real progress towards its own dissolution—which is, in point of fact, the realization that the ego as the I-sub-ject never really existed at all, and true sagacity was there all along.

The famous Tang Dynasty monk Niu Tou Fa Jung meditated day and night in a cave amongst the mountains. While aspiring thus, it is said, people came from miles around to bring him offers of food, and even the birds and animals laid flowers and seeds at his doorstep everyday. And yet when Master Fa Jung finally attained the enlightenment he’d sought, the animals and people stopped offering him anything and he had to walk down eighty li to the nearest village to beg. Veneration and sagehood were only possible when he was a monk, a “sage”— a “holy man.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that the master doesn’t use the tradition, scriptures or rices, The old village woman probably prays at the temple during festivals, besides drinking the real tea of Zen when she’s free—and does so earnestly, She prays the way she drinks tea. Zen means that if you are looking about for certain states of mind or miraculous teachers, take a break and have some tea. The importance of all your arguments then evaporate in the empty, steaming bowl—recently drunk. “What was it I wanted to say?…Never mind”, the tea mind replies.

Don’t pass by your own divinity. It is in this sip. Don’t be afraid to raise the bowl—the way the monks were—for the All is right here flowing through this very moment. Reality is here. Nature is now, in this cup: sun and moonshine, mountain and river cultivated and brewed into this very liquor. Path? How can we travel from here to here? Any and all movement can only be away from home!

Even the villager knows that we’re all buddhas already. She’s connected, not arguing about how to get cannected—just tea, nothing more or less. Who is she to challenge Reality? Who are we to argue with the way things are? After all, even our most intrepid fantasies arc within minds that are contained by this world and all that is Real. Could anything, anywhere be more real than this bowl of tea?

Drink it. Be this moment, completely and without remainder. Be Zenless, expressing Zen. Without words or silence, you show the reality of your enlightenment by putting the mind aside and taking the next sip. You needn’t magical powers to do so, because it is already so incredibly magical that a being with eyes, hands and a mouth on some whirling rock in a corner of endless space is here and now drinking such deliciously aromatic tea! The Reality of that shouts aloud all the enlightenment of a buddhas, and beyond. The last line of Master Rikyu’s death poem, written moments before he committed ritual suicide, reads: “By my knife, all the buddhas and masters are slain.” And the village woman likes this poem. She quips, my sip of tea all the buddhas and masters are likewise slain!”

A tea tree preaches suttas: whispers that summon the wrinkled old hand. He plucks some leaves and dashes them into a bowl, covering it with steaming water: The bowl opens up and swallows the whole universe—the stars and all swirling around as you lift it up to sip. Then you are that one! And going beyond the beyond, the whole thing just wraps itself up neatly— returning from such celestial heights back to an ordinary bowl on the table when yon set it down.”Ahhh!” Your quenched thirst sighs.

You should wipe your sleeve and leave…

But again you wonder, “What, really and truly, is enlightenment?

“Three grams of tea.”

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