Life Stripped to the Bone and Baisao, the Old Tea Seller

I’m back from a sweet vacation, mostly lounging in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan. This was an especially timely trip because I start a new job on Monday (working with teenagers on the edge as usual).

I am a great lover of Lake Superior and deeply enjoyed the Maha Lake from this new perspective. The Keweenaw is largely and wonderfully uninhabited so we had miles of beautiful sand beaches with few other humanoids in sight. 

And Bodhi enjoyed it repeatedly from one of his favorite perspectives: 

For vacation reading, I brought (Kindled for the first time and loved it) The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and we Survived by Clive Finlayson (compelling deconstruction of most of what I’d read about pre-history with some disturbing implications for the present – like how this is all likely to crash as if we didn’t know that already), and  Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (it really is a great! story). 

I was chewing on a blog post about these when I dug into my third treat, Baisao, the Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto by Norman Waddell. This read was so powerful for me that it trumped anything I might say about the first two books … for now.

So The Old Tea Seller (at long last) is the subject of this post.

I hadn’t heard of Baisao and only discovered Waddell’s book thanks to Amazon’s profiling of me.

Here’s Baisao’s story in brief (Waddell offers a lengthy and generously footnoted biography): kid becomes monk at ten, has a really good teacher in the Okaku school of Zen, trains extensively in Soto and Rinzai as well, serves as monastery superintendent for fourteen years and when his teacher is about to die, declines the abbot spot, recommends his younger dharma brother, goes wandering and eventually becomes a lowly tea seller in Kyoto for about the last 30 years of his long life, impacts many by living Zen in an unconventional life style.

Baisao also wrote poetry, a bunch of which is preserved.

I count myself among those who have been deeply impacted by the taste of this character’s Zen – gentle, self-deprecating, flowing, and wonderfully clear. Altogether, the record of Baisao is an inspirational sutra with depth and quality comparable to Dogen and Hakuin.

He seems to have had an affinity for the Blue Cliff Record so if you’re into that, especially if you’ve had the opportunity to work through it, I think you’ll find Baisao’s subtle references on various cases quite stunning. I did.

Here’s a sampling of his poems: 

Three Verses on Tea-Selling Life (what follows is the third in this series)

Seventy years of Zen
got me nowhere at all
my black robe became a shaggy crank,
now I have no business with sacred or profane
just simmer tea for folks 
and hold starvation back. 

Composed in a Dream the 30th Day of 10th Month the 3rd Year of Kampo

Pain and poverty
poverty and pain
life stripped to the bone
absolute nothingness 
only one thing left
a bright cold moon
in the midnight window
illumining a Zen mind
on its homeward way.

Three Verses of Self-Praise (here’s just the first part of the first one)

Ahh! this stone-blind jackass
with his strange kink in the brain
he turned monk early in life
served his master, practiced,
wandered to a hundred places 
seeking the Essential Crossing.
Deafened by shouts
beaten with sticks
he had a hard time of it
weathering all that snow and frost
still couldn’t even save himself; 
big-headed, brazen-faced 
made a great fool of himself.
Growing old he found his place 
became an old tea seller
begged pennies for his rice.

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