Tag Archives: zen

A Memory of Tea with Master Pu Yu

master pu yu smallPu Yu (普雨法師) was the 133rd head master of Yungquan (“Bubbling Spring”) Temple on Gu Shan (“Drum Mountain”) in Fuzhou, China. Established in the Tang dynasty, this monastery has over 1,200 years of history. I formally became his disciple in the late 1970s, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, due to the long suppression of religion in China, the temple had few monks and hardly any visitors. As a result, I was able to enjoy quite a bit of time with Master Pu Yu during my stay.

Once I visited him in his private room while he was making tea, and he handed me a cup of steaming brew. The cups in the monastery were bigger than the tea cups usually seen in homes. It was a Song dynasty design, with a soft celadon glaze. I bowed, accepted it with both hands, and carefully took the first sip.

This was a special oolong tea known as “rock tea,” which has a bittersweet taste but a robust aroma with a hint of smoke in its flavor. While we had tea, I asked, “Master, what exactly is Zen mind?”

He smiled, but went on talking about tea.

After a while, when I had nearly finished my cup, I was about to repeat my question. He looked at my nearly empty cup, looked at me directly, and said very quietly, “So, do you remember?”

I was puzzled.

After a short moment, I asked, “Remember? Remember what?”

“Didn’t you just ask me about Zen mind?” he replied.

I tried to figure out what he meant, but was still confused.

“Do you remember the very moment you took the first sip?” he asked, looking right into my eyes.

After pausing briefly, he continued, “Do you remember that moment? Before you could tell whether the tea was hot or warm? Before you could differentiate smell from taste? Before you could tell what kind of tea it was? Do you remember that moment?”

As soon as I heard Master Pu Yu’s words, I understood: that moment is the state of Zen mind.

I looked at him and smiled in silence. He nodded and smiled back. It was but a brief moment; yet I have retained this memory for decades.

The foundation of Zen teaching is this: no matter where we are or what we are doing, we must fully live at that moment.

So, do you remember?

On Following a Spiritual Path

莲花 lotus (1)We often hear people say that they want to be on a spiritual path. Often they are people who have achieved worldly success but do not feel fulfilled. Or they may be people who are struggling, and hope to escape from the burdens and frustration of ordinary life.

This commonly involves following a spiritual or religious teaching, studying, meditating, praying, attending various “spiritual “retreats, practicing yoga, qigong ,or energy healing, turning vegetarian and so on.

Such practices do help to provide some peace of mind. But people who follow them are often not clear about the fundamental reason for their dissatisfaction, pain and suffering. But without understanding the cause, it is often hard to find a complete cure.

From the point of view of yin-yang theory, the problem stems from the lack of yin-yang balance in one’s life. According to yin yang theory, the ideal state of living is yin yang balance.  Looking outward is yang, looking inward is yin.

Most people follow an outward-looking path, pursuing knowledge, wealth, fame, physical pleasure, something tangible and visible.  It is much less common to turn inward toward things that are less tangible:  a life of reflection, tranquility, warm-heartedness, and compassion.

The core of any spiritual path is turning inward to create yin-yang balance. In other words, turning away from looking for answers from the “outer” world, the world of things, of possessions, of social recognition and attainment.

We are frustrated by life to the extent that we expect the world of outer attachments to be completely satisfactory, to be the only thing we need for happiness. It doesn’t matter whether we are hoping to find happiness in pleasure, in ownership, in control, or in recognition from others: hidden underneath this expectation is the idea that only what is part of the outer world can make our lives worth living. In addition, it means that we are often depending on other people’s approval.

To be on a spiritual path is to turn inward, regardless of the specific practice. It is not a matter of doing something out of the ordinary.  Many regard being on the spiritual path as following some particular lama, guru or spiritual leader and making spirituality as part of their public image, without actually turning inward for reflection, as so many celebrities do. This is spiritual vanity. This is still a pursuit of turning outward.  A spiritual path is not a matter of running away from the outer world.  The key is to pursue inward search to balance outward pursuits.  The key is to balance the yang and yin attitudes.

Human life is human life: it is always necessary to deal in some ways with all its inevitable features. There is no way for people to live without being human. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha tells his disciples that there is nothing to attain, that all methods of trying to reach Buddhahood are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, and a shadow.

When a Buddhist follower asked a Zen master, “What can we do, since we still need eat and sleep?” The master’s answer was, “When it’s time to eat, eat; when it’s time to sleep, sleep.” There is no other way of living.

Taoist teaching tells people to “follow nature”.  The Tao Te Ching says, “Mankind follows Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows Nature. The term “Nature” means “the way thing are” on any level of existence.  Reflected in the physical world, the characteristics of nature are easy, simple, and economical.  When we live in an easy, simple, and economical way, we are walking on a spiritual path. To be on a spiritual path is to turn away from leading lives that are complicated, difficult and wasteful in body, energy, and mind.

While we are living in this human world, we play roles; we serve functions, as parents, children, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, doctors, workers, businessmen, engineers and so on. What we do is the path we are on.

To be on a spiritual path is to do these things in a spiritual way: in other words, in a way that connects inward, rather than just grasps outward.  We are always on a path.  To walk with attention that deepens into the heart and wisdom is what makes that path spiritual.  When we do this, the path becomes easy, simple, and economical.  That is what it means to be on a spiritual path.