Author/Paintings: Wu De (Aaron Fisher)
Have a cup
In finally finding the old master, the student bowed and asked to be allowed to study Zen, The master passed him a bowl of tea in acquiescence.
Each day they rose before dawn and climbed the lonely trail through the pines behind the temple. They would sit for some time in the pre-dawn hush. Only when the sun had crossed the back of the hill and sprinkled its splendor upon the evergreen bows would the old master draw water from the ancient spring there - an honor not for the novice hand. Then, just as Lis master had done before him, he would bow before the old tea bush at the crest of the hill, long ago named "Bearded Immortal", and politely ask for a small offering. The student would watch most carefully at that point, for his master had said that the secret way of processing the tea was all and everything in this lineage, and everything the temple stood for. When it was ready, the master would return to his seat and bow to the tea and teaware once more. The preparation was simple, but also with a grace that betrayed years of mastery, if you looked closely at the weathered hands.
Sometimes, when they were finished, the student was allowed a question or two, though the answer sometimes took months to grasp. One such morning, years after he had come to these distant hills, he asked the old sage, "Where is the gateway to enter Zen?"
The old master paused, as he always did - as if listening for the answer. And this time, he did indeed cock his ear up as though hearing some bird language such sages as he had once known. The student followed his example.
"Don't you hear it?" the master whispered: "The wind soughing the pines."
There was no wind that day, and the student heard nothing. His face slackened in disappointment, Noticing, the master said, "If you don't understand Zen, at least understand your breath." The student then closed his eyes and observed the touch of his breath as it came and went through his nostrils, and in that way was calmed - forgetting his question.
Over time, the gateway to Zen became the only unopened door in his practice. Most of their life was, therefore, held in routine, and peacefully so. But every few months the student would again ask where the "doorless gate" was; and always the answer was the same: "the wind soughing the pines." Sometime, the wind actually would sing its way through the evergreen boughs. and the student and master would both smile in glee, But when the moment passed, the student somehow knew that wasn't it. He was still looking, even if patiently. In the meantime, he'd heard it enough times for his master's admonishments to ring out unspoken in his head: "then understand your breath!" And he'd close his eyes and focus on his breathing once more.
Some years later, the old Zenji couldn't climb the hill without the arm of his student. One such morning, the student was surprised to find that when the old master reached the hilltop, he sat in the student's seat and asked him to prepare the tea that day. He had never done this, but had watched for so long that it had all become second-nature. He gathered the water with just the same gesture he had seen his master using, rolling the gourd over into the kettle. He noticed that his own hands had also weathered and creviced, and in the spring water saw reflected silver threads embroidering his once black beard. His master joined him in prayer before the old Bearded Immortal, and together they roasted and dried the tea in the ancient way.
He sat in his master's seat by the old stone table and rest the kettle upon the coals. Holding it was like holding the hand of your father at homecoming from a long journey - the worn wooden handle seemingly carved to mould his own hand. He relaxed, closed his eyes and waited for the water to boil. He now understood his breath enough to settle into it, while at the same time listening attentively for the sound of the water awakening the kettle.
And then it happened!
From out the silence of the mountain, the kettle began to sing and the student heard the "wind soughing the pines." He was a student no more; he'd crossed the gate. A Zen smile brightened his face and he opened his eyes to share this with his master. Surely his master would see his enlightenment. But to his great surprise, his old master was gone - vanished!
Instead, a young monk walked over, sat down and bowed. He asked to be allowed to study Zen.
While the next iron teapot is steeping
Zen and tea are the same because Zen and life are the same. The world around you, all you see and hear, is the sacred. And you needn't go to the beauty of the pines to see it - the same sound is in your manmade kettle. The passage to Zen is without door; and what, imagine, is a gate without its doors or lintels on the side? Such a portal would be endless and embrace your whole life. You have but to walk through it, this very moment. And through the gate, the heart opens and Zen becomes who you are. Each moment is then religious. and the most ordinary sip of daily tea is a hallowed ceremony.
There is an old story of a Zen master and his student who were meditating deep in the forest. The disciple paused and asked his master where the gateway to Zen lay. "Listen," said the master, "Do you hear that distant stream?" The novice cocked his neck and strained: Sure enough, just beyond the wind's arpeggio of leaf-bells and past the birdsong there was the sibilant drone of a distant river. When the master saw that his student had indeed heard the river-song, he said: "Enter Zen through there." The student then asked,"What would you have said if I hadn't heard the stream, Master ?" The old monk grinned, "Enter Zen through there!"
Oftentimes we confuse the whirlwind of experience and situations around us for who we are. And yet our " true face" watches from the center of this, unmovable. Do you identify with the experience or the one who experiences? Is it not your ability to perceive that defines you? Are you not the consciousness that reads these words, rather than the words themselves? If so, you know then that the one who hears, not the sound, is your Zen; and the sound itself is but the trail that leads up the hill, passed the pines, to the gate.
Searching for "Zen" in beliefs, traditions or meditation postures, we pass by Reality as it is in this moment. We want a special sound, not this sound - heavenly music perhaps. We want visionary sights, not cars and buildings. But Zen is the one who sees and hears, not the sounds and sights; and when we rest in that space, all that unfolds within it is sacred. Seeing and then being our true selves is "kensho".
Are you denying your life now because there is a hint of fulfillment in the future? If so, you don't understand Zen. You'd better work on understanding your breath. Otherwise, even if your dreamed-of future arises and all the circumstances of your life fall into place just as you had imagined, you'd just rush passed that experience as you did this one and all the others between—on your way to somewhere else. Are you on your way to somewhere else? Won't you pause for a moment? Please, come in. Take off your shoes. Have a cup of tea.
There really is nowhere else for us to be, and nothing else to be done. Take a break. Have a cup of tea. If you have nothing to do, then nothing remains undone. Only those who have identified completely with activity, rather than the one who acts, are busy getting this and that done; and when you're busy trying to get things done there is always much more that is left undone.
Zen masters have always meant to communicate this identification with pure consciousness, able to contain any sound or sight, smell or touch. Do you get it? It isn't really all that complicated: there is you and then there is what you experience; there is an awareness - an ability to hear or the "sense of hearing" and then there is the sound. But you can't just understand the idea; it's misguided.
You can argue with it, finding flaws. You can compare it to other Zen books and lectures and point out discrepancies,You have to really listen. You have to get in the water, not just understand what swimming is about. The tea is in the preparation, in other words. Make some tea. Zen really is that simple.
On the other hand, it is sometimes possible for words to point this Way out. After all, what are words but symbols we see or sounds we hear—air passing through our vocal chords, passing through the air and vibrating the eardrums? Other times, however, words get all bunched up in the head and clog the mind up. Attached to meanings and concepts, we then roll in thoughts and lose our ground: the awareness capable of thought - the one who thinks.
It is a paradox that these moments lost in activity, of the world or of the mind, are also just a part of Reality as it is. Still, there is some unmentionable quality missing from the life lived completely within the content, and a sparkle in the eyes of the one who is in constant contact with her true self - the one with kensho - that is missing from the eyes bent upon Worldly sights.
Some Zen masters spoke in absurdities, and the students would then ponder them until their minds got so tangled they fell apart. The words weren't ever important, they'd then realize. The pith of Zen is passed on nonverbally - usually by living around the master for years, until the water of his life steeps into yours and such little things as the soft way he smoothes his robe, or perhaps turns over the gourd of water, speak volumes more than any scripture ever could. My master has transmitted his Zen to me through drinking tea together by gaiwan, and that time is more valuable than any particular teaching I can remember.
Hundreds of years ago, as today, so much could be shared between master and student when they drank tea together, especially in quiet. If it is done skillfully or with love, a kiss can tell a lover more than a thousand love letters.
In tea, there are a thousand opportunities to pass through the gateless gate to Zen. As your water warms up, relax and breathe deeply. Close your eyes. Understand your breath, noticing the way it touches your nostrils. As you calm down, try to rest in an awakened space, listening quietly and patiently for the first stirring of the kettle. Let it happen naturally. There is no need to do anything, not even wait. It will boil when it wants to, and the sound will be your invitation - a chance for kensho to arise. Do you hear the wind soughing the pines?