BG 142: Buddha in a Cup of Tea

Episode Description:

This week, we’re joined by Kenneth Cohen, a well-known qi-gong master. Along with his training in the Taoist qi-gong and tai chi chuan, Kenneth has a strong connection to the Zen tradition and to the Japanese tea ceremony.

In this episode, he shares with us some of the history of tea (the camellia sinensis plant), its long-standing relationship to the Buddhist tradition, his own training with Japanese tea master Millie Johnstone, and the wonderful profundity of drinking a simple cup of tea.

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Vince: Hello, Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn, and I’m in the studio today with a very special guest, Kenneth Cohen ( Kenneth, thanks so much for taking the time to drive down from the mountain and join us here.

Kenneth: Thanks, it’s good to be here.

Vince: Cool. So, just a little bit of your personal background to frame the conversation we’re going to be having, which is on tea. The profundity of tea; as it relates to Buddhism, and as it relates to meditation, as it relates to Chinese culture, Japanese culture, which are all very interesting topics. We’re going to talk a little bit about that, but first just to explain kind of your background. You’re a long time Qi-Gong and Tai Chi practitioner, you started 40 years ago. Some people probably seen your books, The Way of Qi-Gong and you also have a long history in the Zen tradition, and of course in the Taoist tradition. And you started your practice in tea in the early 70s, right in 1973 and

Kenneth: That’s right…

Vince: And the Japanese Tea ceremony.

Kenneth: At first.

Vince: At first, and then later you branched off into Chinese tea culture as well.

Kenneth: Uh-huh.

Vince: Yeah, so I was wondering if you could start maybe with a little bit of your personal story or history with tea and in particular how it relates to some of your religious practice and your mystical practice.

Kenneth: Well, having been involved in Tai Chi and Qi-Gong for so long, and tea is just part of the culture. You are doing martial arts as I also have done most of my life, it’s very common before the class starts or at the end that you drink some tea. There are some good reasons for that, it’s not only that tea inspires a quality of wakefulness with tranquility, but also just in terms of its physiologic effect, it helps the chi, the life force, to flow more smoothly. In fact, tea, as you know, is green colored.

Now we’re talking about tea that is Camellia sinensis, the leaves of that plant. It’s the camellia flower basically, and it’s related to the camellia flower, but it’s the leaves of the plant. I’m not speaking about tea as any brand of herbal infusion. It’s a little bit confusing in English, because if you say cha in Chinese or Japanese, same pronunciation, you know what you’re talking about. You know what plant you’re talking about. If you say the in French, you know it’s different from the tisanes, an herbal infusion. But in English, we tend to use the word tea somewhat indiscriminately, to mean any infusion of herbs in water. So I’m not speaking about chamomile tea or peppermint tea but rather the actual tea plant. And whether you’re drinking green or white tea or oolong or black, or as the Chinese call hong cha, red tea, because the leaf actually turns from green towards red, or pu’erh, it’s all the same plant. It’s a matter of where and how it’s grown, how carefully it’s harvested, the hand picking of the leaf, whether you’re drinking tea from a single estate or if they’re mixed with and blended with teas of various estates. All that will change the flavor and the degree of oxidation of the leaf as it goes from green towards red. But again, green tea, oolong tea, black tea, It’s all the same plant, despite the variation in flavor.

So that’s my interest of what we’re talking about today. And it is certainly deeply connected with Buddhism right from the start and in Chinese culture. Many people have seen the wonderful paintings, Sumi painings, ink paintings of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China. He came into China around the 5th century. He was either Indian or perhaps even a Persian monk, we’re actually not quite sure. But he was a strong Buddhist practitioner, settled in the famous Shaolin temple. And they say he faced a wall, a wall of a cave for nine years. Now we need to remember, however, that as in reading the Zhuangzi, or any of the ancient Taoist texts, Chinese love to exaggerate to make a point. So we’re not really to take this so literally, and I think many Zen Buddhists I have spoken to would not assume that someone in fact sat in a cave those full nine years.

Vince: Right.

Kenneth: Hope no one considers it blaphemous for me to say this, but Bodhidharma, according to legend, he sat in the cave and one day he fell asleep. Well, he was so furious at himself for falling asleep during his nine-year vigil that when he woke up, he snatched a knife and cut off his own eyelids. The eyelids fell to the ground, and arose as the first tea plant of China. So ever since that time, tea has been used to keep the meditate.

Frankly I don’t think this is a very appetizing story. I probably shouldn’t have told it. It doesn’t make me want to drink tea, but again if you look at those wonderful paintings – Japanese Sumi paintings of Bodhidharma, you’ll notice the big eyes. Well, look more closely. The eyes are big because often there’s no eyelids. So it relates to that story.

In fact, however, tea is much older than that, we don’t know how old tea is in China, but there are – there’s a mention of tea in the Shi Jing, The Classic of Poetry. And there, in some poems dated to about the 7th or 8th century B.C. we see references to a plant called tu, t-u. Which, probably, is a varietal of the Chinese character used to represent tea today, and it may in fact be a longer leaf, larger leaf tea, perhaps more closely related to present day pu’erh teas.

Pu’erh is a, basically similar to a black tea – that is the leaf is fully oxidized, so it turns from green to red, but then it’s also aged – used to be aged in caves, now it’s aged in rooms that are temperature and humidity controlled, but it used to be aged in caves, so it has a very, kind-of, peaty quality, and it’s very possible that tu, the reference to tea in the book of poetry, again 7th or 8th century B.C. is referring to pu’erh tea, and and in fact, we know that pu’erh tea, which comes from Yunnan, is certainly representative of some of the most ancient forms of tea in the world because we can trace all of tea, anywhere in the world–whether you’re talking about Indian tea or British tea or today you’ve got tea in Kenya and other countries, tea all comes from Yunnan province in western China, near the border of Tibet. Because every tea you can find anywhere, and again I’m talking about the true tea leaf, not an herbal infusion, any tea you find anywhere in the world, you can find in Yunnan province. So, it probably spread out from there across the, the silk trade routes and over mountain passes to Tibet and into interior China, and so on.

So, tea has, it has, I mean, it’s an incredible history in China, you’ve got the connection with Bodhidharma, with meditation in general, and tea as a basis for ritual practices, including Buddhist rituals, especially in the middle Buddhist history in China. When tea came to Japan at first it was also deeply associated with Buddhism, there’s still the connection there, but it was somewhat secularized through people like Ikkyu, the so-called worldly monk, who felt that tea was rather more a celebration of beauty in the ordinary and didn’t necessarily require that one be a Buddhist, that’s why you got Japanese tea bowls with Christian crosses on it. I mean, you’ve got Christian missionaries that are coming into Japan around the same time the Japanese tea ceremony was beginning. So, it doesn’t necessarily belong to any religion, but it was certainly developed within the Buddhist context in Japan. But, then again, tea is also connected with other aspects of Chinese culture. Lao-Tsu, the Old Boy – isn’t that a great name? That’s what it means Lao-Tsu, you see, lao is old, Tsu – child. The Old Child.

Which is one of the goals of the Taoist practice, and to a certain degree of Buddhist practice because, at least if you’re speaking about Chinese Buddhism or Japanese Buddhism, it seems to me to be about fifty-percent Daoism. Well, Lao-Tsu was originally a librarian in the Zhou dynasty court in around the 4th century B.C., and he was disturbed by all of the intrigue and corruption and violence and decided to leave China and as he was leaving the pass to go out of the borders of China, he was stopped by essentially a customs official – his name was [Yin Xi], who asked Lao-Tsu, see he was a man of great wisdom, you could just tell from his aura, from his presence, and he asked Lao-Tsu if he would tell him his philosophy of life.

Well, Lao-Tsu immediately said – the famous lines, [in Chinese], and so on and so forth, you know “The Dao that can be spoken is not the Dao. The name that can be named is not the name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth. The named is the Mother of all things,” and so forth. And when Laozi was finishing his kind of spontaneous Taoist sermon, which [Yin Xi] the customs official, border guard was writing down every word, according to the legend, then when he finished, [Yin Xi] offered him the first cup of ceremonial tea. So there is also the connection between Daoism and tea, and of course Chinese medicine. Most people today, uh, actually, even though the connection with Buddhism is so wonderful, and I have a special interest in that, most people today drink tea because of the health benefits.

Vince: Right.

Kenneth: And they say that [Shen Neng], the Divine Farmer, a, figure of high antiquity – no one, uh, knows his age or even the age of the legend, they say that he created the first text of Chinese herbal medicine, even the text was written much later, but it was a tribute to him. They said that he wrote this text by tasting each plant himself and sensing, feeling the effect it had on his body. However, to prevent the potentially toxic plants from killing him, he would drink an infusion of the leaves of Camellia sinensis of the tea plant. So, he used tea as a detoxifier.

Now, I’m not recommending that listeners try that. I don’t think tea is that strong to be a detoxifier, but there’s some basis to that because we know, from even the most recent scientific evidence, the effect against bacterial infections. I mean, look at the work that was done against viruses including the flu virus. Everybody is worried now about swine flu and so forth. Well, there was a very good research performed at the State University of New York–I think, it was at Syracuse–on the effect of tea, especially certain chemicals in tea on deactivating the flu virus. It even prevents bacteria, potentially, in food from causing tooth decay. [xx] University did some wonderful studies on the effect of tea on preventing dental cavities. So, tea is a fantastic medicine going way back to the divine farmer, Shennong, and, as I said, high antiquity in China, but corroborated today by the most recent, really cutting edge scientific research.

Vince: Yes, and just to kind of backtrack and go back to your introduction to tea. I was wondering… you’d mentioned to me earlier, before we started speaking, that you actually studied with a Japanese tea ceremony expert who’s kind of one of a kind and that you’re one of the few people to study with her.

Kenneth: Yes. I was, basically, her only apprentice. So, how did I begin formally studying tea? Why would one spend time studying tea? But before I even tell you the story, let me share an anecdote with you. Sen no Rikyu, one of the greatest aesthetic geniuses of all time, from Japan, he was once asked by one of his students who had been teaching Japanese tea ceremony, a ritual choreography of preparing a drinking tea, was asked by one of his students, “Master, could you tell me what is the basic reason for the study?” The student had been training with him for 10 years.

Rikyu looked at the student and said, “The reason for tea ceremony, or Cha-no-yu as it’s called in Japanese, first, you boiled the water, then you prepare the tea, and then you drink it, and that’s all.” (laughs) The student, I think, was quite upset to hear that this is the reason he’d spent 10 years to study just to boil the water, prepare the tea, drink it, and that’s all. Rikyu, seeing his expression, said, “Show me someone who truly understands these things, then I will become that person’s disciple.”

So, the challenge of tea, like the challenge of anything in life, whether you’re sitting and watching your breath or preparing a delicious dinner for your family, the challenge of tea is how to do everything with our whole being, undivided. So, we’re not going over the shopping list while we’re whisking up the green tea so that our whole body, mind, and spirit participates and savors the beauty of that moment. That’s a lifetime of training, and it doesn’t matter how we get there. You can get there through just sitting and watching your breath. You can get there through chanting. You can get there through watching clouds passing over the mountain-top, through writing poetry, through improvising music. But the essence of it is that presence, that state of being.

So, I had the good fortune to train with an extraordinary master of Japanese tea ceremony, and here’s how that happened. I was a very close friend of Alan Watts. I think, you know, who he is. Of course, he helped introduced Buddhism to the West, wrote many, many books still in print, he’s a wonderful speaker, and really, quite a serious, and not serious Buddhist practitioner. Anyway, during that summer that I spent with him in 1973, he died in November of ’73, I asked him before I left California, where I had been one of five scholarship students that he had chosen to do private training with him towards the end of his life, asked him if there was someone back in New York. For some reason, I felt drawn to going back to New York. I had no idea, at that time, why. I mean, here I was, I already had five years of Tai Chi training and Qigong training, I was already speaking Chinese, I’d done Chinese language academically at a couple of different universities. It’s kind of I’m on my way in my life work, but something was drawing me back to, of all places, New York City, where I was born rather than staying in beautiful, sunny California.

I asked Alan, in one of my last meetings with him, it’s just three months it turned up, before he died, I said, “Alan, there’s someone back in New York, who you know, who I think I’m supposed to know. I’m wondering who this is?” Alan looked at me and he said, “I know who it is. It’s Millie Johnstone. She will become your spiritual grandmother. She’s one of the great masters of Japanese tea ceremony. You should look up Millie Johnstone.

I go back to New York at the end of that summer, and for some reason, I waited or hesitated to call her. Maybe I felt a little bit awkward just calling this great tea master out of the blue and say, “Hi, Alan Watts gave me an introduction.” But when Alan died in November of ‘73, that day, I called Millie Johnstone. I said, “Millie, I’m a friend of Alan Watts. I spent the last summer with him. He gave me your name and number, and maybe you might not know that he just passed on.” Her immediate reaction was, “Oh, come over here right now, dear. Let’s have a cup of tea.” She was in her 70’s at the time.

Well, that cup of tea ended up being three times a week at her home, training in Japanese tea ceremony, and then with the more formal [xx] tea school. Millie had a certain quality in her tea that was quite unusual, and when she would walk into the tea room with the various utensils for – again, this is Japanese tea ceremony – you felt that, at that first bow, it was only Buddha bowing to Buddha. There was no high, no low, not even a need for the so-called humble entrance that everybody crawls through in a conventional tea room in Japan that symbolically and actually reduces everyone to the same size.

When Millie bowed, the rug was pulled off from under you. There was no longer a floor, no longer a ceiling; there was just emptiness, just presence. How did Millie come to that place in tea? When she was in her, I believe it’s in her 30’s, many years earlier, some 40 years before I met her. Her husband, at the time, owned a zoo near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. One day, around sunset, when Millie was at home with her family and her six-year-old son was playing in the backyard, a wolf in captivity in that zoo escaped the cage and not been properly shot. The wolf wondered three miles down the road to Millie’s house, went to the backyard, attacked and killed her six-year-old son. This is a true story, a tragic story.

I should tell you, by the way, that there’s virtually no record of wolves attacking people in the wild in North America. But, wolves, like other animals in captivity, lose their natural instincts, so this is truly a horrible tragedy. Millie told me, both personally, and later, in the book she wrote about her experiences, a book called “Brother Wolf,” which was published by the Zen Center of Los Angeles, she told me that she left everything she knew of her life, her husband, her home, and went on a search for meaning.

She said that two things restored her soul. One was meeting an old Franciscan monk in Gubbio, Italy, who told her the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, a wolf that attacked children, and St. Francis tamed this wolf with his love. She said when she heard that story, something inside of her settled, and then the second thing was Japanese tea ceremony, because in tea, she was at a place beyond birth and death. As Alan Watts used to say to me, “You never die because you are never born, you’ve just forgotten who you are.”

So, again, when I met Millie, shortly after Alan Watts had passed, and first saw her come into the tea room, when she presented me tea ceremony, first time I ever saw a full, formal Japanese tea ceremony, I felt that I also entered that beautiful place in which the most ordinary activity, such as holding a tea bowl, or sipping the tea, or hearing the sound of water dripping from the hishaku, the water ladle, becomes a revelation of the deepest mysteries. Nothing more beautiful, more powerful than that. A wedding, the birth of a child, a cup of tea.

The extraordinary experiences I had in Millie’s tea room, aside from learning the actual practice–that is how to hold the tea bowl, how to whisk the tea, how to wipe the dust from the lacquer tea caddy, the Natsumi, aside from those intricacies of detail, there was a deeper teaching that I would call the spirit of tea, and that’s whats become… I’m so grateful to Millie, that’s become so much a part of my life, and the way I think about or feel who I am, the way I relate to others.

Let me close this section with one anecdote typical of so many experiences I had in Millie’s tea room. Her apartment was across the street from the United Nations, and, because of her standing in the tea community, often guests of the American Government who were interested in anything to do with Japan, or people who had some dealings with the Japanese Embassy, they came over to Millie’s tea room. And one time we had two very distinguished guests. They were ambassadors from two South American countries, and they came at the end of my tea lessons, so Millie suggested that I remain and she would serve tea to the three of us. So I’m sitting there on the guest’s tatami, on the guest’s mat, with our two distinguished guests. They were both dressed in business suits, which is fine; you don’t have to wear a kimono, and just as Millie comes in with the last of the utensils and begins to clean the tea utensils and wash out the bowl and do the various things that are needed in order to prepare the tea, as she was beginning, there was a horrible sound just above us. Remember, she was in an apartment building, and evidently some workers were just at that moment beginning to replace a window, two stories up, and there was a sound of a lot of machinery on the outside, even with the windows closed in Millie’s tea room, we could barely hear each other, let alone the sound of the boiling water, which should make a sound like Matsukaze, like the wind in the pines.

So I was wondering what was Millie going to do. Well, she stands up. I’d never seen anyone stand up once a tea ceremony begins; you sit there until the guests are finished drinking tea. Millie stands up and starts to walk out of the tea room, and she says “I’ll be right back.” She leaves the tea room. I’m sitting there quietly with the guests; none of us know quite what is going on, and about two to three minutes later the noise stops. And a few minutes after that, Millie comes back to the tea room, we bow together, and she says to us “we have some unexpected guests for tea,” and she’s followed by the workers. So they came and joined the two ambassadors and myself to have some tea. That’s very much in the spirit of tea, that there’s no… as I said earlier, it’s only Buddha bowing to Buddha, there’s no distinction, and yet we’re not one.

Vince: Nice. That’s a great story. So, I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit about the way you’ve started to see tea as it relates to your spiritual practice and your spiritual unfoldment. And you were showing me a beautiful poem before we started that I thought in some ways really captures it poetically, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to share a little bit of that with us, and maybe we could talk about some of the themes there.

Kenneth: Sure, I’m happy to do that, and in terms of tea and spiritual development, I mean, whether you’re just preparing tea for yourself in the morning, taking a teaspoon of leaves, fresh leaves, I hope putting it in your cup and pouring hot water over and wait for the leaves to sink to the bottom, and they release their wonderful aroma and flavor and color into the water. Whether you’re doing a complex Japanese Tea Ceremony or drinking tea Chinese-Gung Fu style as they call it. Gung Fu is more than martial arts, it means any dedicated activity where you put the leaves in a beautiful little ceramic pot, and there’s a special way to prepare tea to get the full experience of the flavor. No matter how, even if you’re using a tea bag!

Just to slow down, and pay attention, and treat that as your meditation. It’s a wonderful experience because you have the meditation and you have the effect of the flavor and aroma of the tea. So, tea to me is Buddhist practice, it’s not a path towards it. So, here’s a poem I wrote for a Tea Talk and Tea Tasting that I offered, actually here in Boulder, Colorado, this year, and I wanted to start my talk a little bit differently. I don’t script my presentations. I like to just relate to the people who are actually there and to the moment. So, I decided a day or two before my Tea Talk that I would write a poem about my understanding of the connection between Buddhism and tea, and I would read that at the start of my presentation. So I’d like to share it with you now. This is called “The Buddha in a Cup of Tea.” Again, it’s original work, a poem that I’ve written:

The Buddha in a Cup of Tea
©2009 Kenneth S. Cohen

Too worldly for a monastery,
I find Buddha in a cup of tea:
Up with the sunrise,
I sit alone in my cabin,
Mind washed by simmering water
Sound, like wind in the pines.
This is my solitary quest,
Buddha under the Bodhi Tree
Meditated for seven days,
Until a beautiful sunrise
Made him give up
The futility of revealing
What was never hidden.
I prefer a simple cup of tea,
Seven minutes to boil water,
Much easier than seven days.
Complete, unexcelled Enlightenment:
Of course, only if
You are paying attention!

The Four Noble Truths
First, suffering exists:
Why else would we drink tea?
A daily taste of paradise in the everyday.
Second truth: suffering caused by tanha–
“Self-centeredness, grasping, and greed;”
Drink tea and be ego-free;
Self dissolves in service to the holy leaf;
Guests arrive and Buddha meets Buddha.
Third truth: suffering can cease
The tea cup is a raft between
Nirvana and Samsara,
Neither shore more holy than the other.
Fourth truth: there is a way to end suffering,
The Noble Eightfold Path:
Right view: the beautiful leaves, the color of the brew.
Right intention: prepare a delicious cup and enjoy.
Right speech: no yesterday or tomorrow in the tearoom.
Right conduct: spontaneous morality needs no rules.
Right livelihood: honest, forthright, a good example.
Right effort: delight in details: gong fu cha!
Right mindfulness: care for another cup?
Right concentration: nothing but tea, yet tea includes all.

All of this called
The Middle Way,
No extremes:
Neither asceticism nor hedonism
Greedy people make insipid tea.
The overly patient brew it
Too dark and bitter.

Elaborating on obvious truths
Tea Buddha also teaches
Anatta—no self,
How can I know I,
Since I’m the one doing the knowing?
I am not I, and tea is not tea!
And anicca, impermanence,
The same guests, like the same moment
Never return—one time, one meeting.
Tea changes: white, green, oolong, red, pu erh.
Today’s Long Jing is different from yesterday’s.
And tathata—suchness, the beingness of Tea:
What is tea? Just this, just this, just this…


Kenneth Cohen