Women who ran tea houses in China appear often in Zen koans and stories. The tea lady often holds the role of the trickster, cleverly disguised as not-a-teacher, magically making certainty disappear.
There was a woman who ran a tea shop near where the Zen master Hakuin lived. She knew a lot about tea, he told his students, and her understanding of Zen was very good too. Many of them wondered about this and went to the village to see for themselves. Whenever the woman saw them coming, she could tell immediately whether they had come for the tea or for the Zen. Those wanting tea she served graciously. For the others, she hid until they came to her door and then she attacked them with a fire poker. Only one in ten managed to escape the beating.
I used to live in Seattle and one of my favorite places to go hang around was the International District. That’s what other cities call “Chinatown”. One day, some years ago, I wandered into a tea shop with some of my family on Chinese New Year’s Day and we ended up staying and tasting a number of different teas while the rain bedraggled the New Year’s dragons outside. It was a good time, and unexpected.
A couple of weeks ago I was back in Seattle for a few days visiting my daughter and step-daughter, and made a pilgrimage to the I-district. After lunch I found that the same tea store from years before was next door to the dumpling place, so I decided to drop in *briefly* and buy some tea leaves. It was a quiet time of day and there was no one there except the owner, a Chinese woman about my age. I asked for some black tea and she suggested a few I might like and asked if I wanted to try them. I told her I only had a few minutes, but sure, tasting would be good.
Tea tasting involves a small pot and tiny cups and lots of hot water on a slate slab that has a pond of tea in the middle of it. The leaves are measured out and rinsed once and then brewed many times in the small pot. Each cup tastes unique because what was in the last pot is different from what’s in the next pot. Each pouring washes something away and reveals something new. The tasting is a chance to be educated about the tea, narrated by the host. No one else was there that afternoon, though. So, although we started talking about tea, a very earthy tasting old Pu-er, our conversation started to ramble. I noticed that I really wanted to ask her whether it was a good life for her, because I realized this person sitting in front of me was an actual tea lady, out of the legends. Encouraged by all the tea, I asked, “Is it a good life?”, and then I told her about tea ladies and the old stories. She told me that she enjoyed keeping the shop, but didn’t really teach anything, she just learned a lot from the people who came in and talked to her. All different professions, she said, professors at the University, doctors, business people.
She asked me what I did and I told her. I said I’m a sculptor, that’s an easy one, so I said it first, but it’s a little embarrassing to me to say that I teach Zen. People usually shift uncomfortably in their seats. She was a good person to tell such a thing to, though. So I told her about about koans and she told me a few things she knew, like that there’s a word, a verb, for what a teacher and a student do with a koan. She said it was on the tip of her tongue, couldn’t remember it, and she had to call a friend for an animated discussion. The word, it turns out, sounds like “Chan-chan”. It’s a verb. To koan. Very cool. (Chan is Zen in Chinese, so maybe Zen-Zen?) We spent a lot of time with our phones trying to get our translations sorted out.
Then she asked me for a koan for herself and I told her one, a long story koan, about a person who is transformed into a fox for 500 lives. I wanted to give her a koan that would be short and pithy and what she might expect a koan to be, but this was the koan that presented itself, so that’s what I gave her. She took it in, very quietly, and kind of withdrew into herself for a minute. And then changed the subject to something less intense, like tea.
Then she asked me about unhappiness and we had a good time talking about our families. And we talked about the fox a little bit, too.
Suddenly the door jingled and a man stepped in. He was tidy, but with the dark sun burned skin and shiny dirt-polished clothes that people have when they live on the streets. “Do you have any work, like moving boxes? Because I really need a job, I need to make some money…” And my friend the tea lady said, “That’s a great idea!” and told him a place where he could get picked up for day work. He asked, kind of shyly, if that was tea we were drinking, and she said yes, would he like to join us? He came into the back of the shop and sat down on the gold brocade chair and drank a few cups of the Pu-er and told us how he really liked strong bitter teas. I believe what he was trying to say was the tea we were drinking tasted strong and bitter to him, but she took him at his word and brought out another tea, called “Bitter Tea” and made us some of that to taste. It was indeed remarkably bitter, bracingly bitter. After a few cups of that he said he had to go look for work and she made him a large paper to-go cup for the road, telling him that it was good for the liver and for alcohol and hangovers, too, and he could use the tea leaves all day.
So the man who had been turned into a fox for 500 lives came for a visit, and the tea lady gave him a hot cup of tea and ideas for a bit of employment. He came in right then, on cue. I think life may always be like that, full of magical events, it’s just that it takes something for me to be able to notice, perhaps it requires a tear in the fabric of what I had expected. People can do that for me, just by being people. Tea ladies are everywhere.
After sitting and talking together for an hour and a half I realized I really had to go. It had been a lovely afternoon. I brought home some of the Pu-er. I’m drinking it now.
Poem by Lu Yu in the 8th century CE (on the wall at Seattle’s Best Tea Company)
To honor tea I blocked my gate with leafy boughs
lest the noisy crowd disturb me
and I took my translucent cup to prepare the tea and savor it in solitude.
The first cup moistened my lips and throat,
the second banished my loneliness,
the third lifted the heaviness that oppressed my mind from so much study,
the fourth brought a light perspiration that dispersed through my pores all of
the fifth purified me,
the sixth opened the kingdom of the immortals to me.
The seventh, oh that I could drink more
I perceived nothing more than the soft breath that swelled my sleeve
transported by that sweet breeze, I attained the heavens.
1. What do you know about the way the tea lady knew tea? What’s your Zen?
2. Who are the people you’ve met who have seemed wise without trying to be wise?
3. What’s something you do that opens up the world to you, that makes the world feel kind or spacious or wonderful?