Zazen in a Teacup

From the BZC May Newsletter, by Emme Blong:

Over the last several years I’ve developed a deep appreciation for tea. Mostly Chinese teas, starting with Sheng (raw) and Shu (ripe) Puerhs, varieties of white teas, and more recently the world of oolongs. Most Monday mornings – our day off at Ancestral Heart Zen Temple – I take a couple of hours to devote to appreciation of tea, often with other residents, comparing the qualities, aromas and tastes that we perceive, where they appear in the mouth or the tongue, when they show up, when they dissipate, what impressions or other associations they bring about, and how these all change throughout the long gongfu-style brewing sessions. Early Summer Apricots? Mushroom funk? Fresh petrichor? Minerality or ocean brine? It is incredible what you can find. The various senses, flavors, aromas, and associations can combine in such a way as to produce an immersive narrative: walking alongside sea cliffs on a perfect sunny day, fresh grass tender underfoot as perfumed air swirls around, and stopping for shade under a lone fruit tree – and then, amidst this narrative, you remember that this is all just tea – Camellia sinensis – with nothing added or mixed in. The flavors and associations are all mental projections: dances between the tongue, the mind, past experiences, and the tea. The scene is an illusion, and yet that illusion is real, and so very delicious to explore, especially with others.

I have been enjoying the class that Jefre Cantu and Ian Case have been teaching on the Samdhinirmocana Sutra – a foundational Mahayana sutra that outlines Yogacara theory of mind – and it struck me that tea practice is just what the sutra is pointing to. In the sutra, various bodhisattvas clarify the relationship between mind and phenomena in dialogue with the Buddha, and while the Ultimate is essentially “of one taste”, it is apprehended through phenomena, which are relationships between senses, mind, experiential “seeds”, and objects. Studying (and enjoying!) the playful illusions that tea conjures up helps me to study and accept the energies, qualities, and feeling of all activity, without believing in their essential realness. They are all real, yet all play. The fear, rage, joy, the ineffable quality of poignancy that arise in zazen that can seem to demand attention and energy – they can all be appreciated and then let go of on the cushion just like the apricot, fresh grass, and ocean breeze of the tea cup.

As the weather warms, Saturday programming is back in person at Boundless Mind Temple at Christ Church, Cobble Hill, and Ancestral Heart is again accepting short- and long-term stays, perhaps we can enjoy the study and play of tea and being together soon!

Emme Blong
Shissui at Ancestral Heart Zen Temple


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