A Zen Experience

As I write I am far away from home, in the history-rich city of Kyoto, where the lives of Japanese citizens unfold without the slightest nod, it seems, to what is happening in the United States.  It is refreshing to walk these incredibly clean streets and not feel the vibration of discord that surrounded me at home, to feel separated from the roiling political discord consuming Americans of all sizes and shapes as they make a choice for president.  My daughter and I are on this trip to commemorate our 50th and 70th birthdays respectively, to explore a new landscape and culture, and take pictures of a world where beauty, the aesthetics of daily life, is everywhere.

Yesterday we sat in a tea ceremony at Daitoku-ji temple and we listened to the head monk give a short “zen talk.”  What filled the teahouse that morning was love.  He talked about caring for our bodies and treating them with respect, and about being one with the natural world around us… about the magic of the deep inhale and deep exhale and the straight back!  We are nature and nature is us.  As he talked in Japanese his clear face became animated, he laughed like the Dalai Lama, his voice rose theatrically and then fell, and I could sense the energy moving through his body.  I listened to the Japanese and to the translation offered by our guide, but in a way I didn’t really need the English.  The love of the Buddha’s teachings and of this precious human incarnation was spilling out into the tearoom, wrapping itself around us.  The present moment felt fuller and fuller as he continued talking.  His bald head shone and the beautiful beige silk rakusu hanging down his chest shone brightly against the black robes.  I could see beauty wherever I looked.

We learned the tea ritual, did the requisite bowing and rotating of the tea bowl, then drinking the dense bright green matcha.  While I may not have learned each specific nuance, I got the ritual.  It is about respect and love of what is beautiful and true.  The next time I am called upon to participate, I will carry some of what I learned here.  And a cup of that powdered green potion will never be the same again…

As the master left the little room I realized there were many questions I had wanted to ask him.  I wanted to know about the sewing of his rakusu, about his temple and his students, about his family and the path of being a monk, about just how you whisk the tea to get that foamy top, and the practice of koans, which had always sparked my curiosity.  So much to understand and never enough time, because just as those questions are arising the moment is fleeting.  And then it is gone.  Here now and then gone for good…  Which is why you return again and again to listen and to learn.

My serious daughter gave me me a big warm hug as we prepared to make our way out of the temple.  There was a beautiful spontaneous warmth there and no need to explain.  She had been infused with a zen priest’s love of the truth.  This was a new gift for her, and it made me feel joyous that it happened.  She and I have practiced in different traditions for some time now, but in that cool and beautiful morning air at the temple, we were united by the zen master dressed in black.

Love is what we need, and it comes to us in the most impermanent moments.  Let’s move more slowly now so that we don’t miss any of these gifts — the gift of a perfectly manicured tree leaning one of its branches delicately over your head, the soft warm gray stones to walk on, a small child twirling about in her bright colored kimono, the giant white chrysanthemum greeting you outside the temple, brilliant steaming green tea, and the smile that bursts suddenly from the face of someone we love.

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