Zen Tea and the Fabric of the Universe

How a garden-viewing visit to a Kyoto temple was transformed into a meaningful but fleeting moment with a nervous Zen priest over a bowl of matcha tea, where we learned how to reach for the thread of a fabric we can't always see.

Zuihoin isn't the first temple we've visited today. My guests and I have already seen two other small temples within the larger Daitokuji Zen complex in northern Kyoto.  Those previous stops were wonderful, but as we make our way through the courtyard up to the temple entrance, one of the guests stammers out a comment about what we're seeing. "This one. This one is..." He smiles and admires the vertical spires of the expertly trimmed cedars, contrasting with the low, billowing branches of a nearby plum tree, its branches heavy with ripening fruit. "This is stunning."

And he should know. Back home, this guest is heavily involved with the design and upkeep of one of America's finest Japanese gardens. He and his wife requested a custom tour of Zen gardens, so naturally I suggested the collection of small landscapes hidden away in the sprawling Daitokuji complex. Kyoto is often said to be a city of layers, some of which are not always visible or accessible to the casual observer. Daitokuji remains a section of the city where the cultural canvas runs thicker than much of Kyoto, a thickly stitched layer hiding rich cultural treasures and spectacular design elements.

"How did they trim this plum tree?! I've been trying to get ours like this forever! This is it!" His excitement is infectious. This garden aficionado has been to Japan before, but seeing some of Kyoto's best gardens today is a dream finally come true. All the pictures he's seen, and all the techniques he's heard about from his Japanese gardener friends, they're all unfolding before his eyes. Finally.

We enter the dark corridors of the temple and remove our shoes. The cool, smooth wood of the monk's living quarters on our feet is refreshing on an unseasonably warm May morning. As we turn the corner, the main garden enters into view and stands out from the others we've seen already today. The dynamism of the chunky waves raked into the gravel are mesmerizing. It's hard to know if the viewer is supposed to focus on the movement inherent in the patterns, or instead center your thoughts on the unnatural frozen stillness. Our gaze drifts to the central island, a rocky mountain peak towering over the ocean of gravel. A few comments about the design pass between the three of us, and then silence falls. Appropriate, reflective silence.

A young monk passes nearby, nodding in deference to no one in particular, the floorboards squeaking beneath his shuffling white socks. A pause, and then the sound of a wooden door sliding open, the tinkering of cups and tea tools, a light muttering as something slips from his hand. Door sliding closed. Shuffling footsteps. Squeaks. Silence. Alone again with the garden, feeling like no one in particular.

The guests have noticed that the monk was carrying a tea tray. "Can we have tea here?" they ask. Matcha tea is available at most of the temples in Daitokuji, and I had been waiting for one that felt right for today. My guests have decided for me.

Zuihoin is a temple with a strong aesthetic connection to the world of tea. There's a wonderful tea room here in the back of the temple that I've always admired. It's a long rectangular hall divided into smaller chambers by walls that only reach partially into the space, creating unique rooms that shrink in size until reaching the end. It's almost like an optical illusion, challenging your sense of perception as the room becomes more compact, but offers more for your eyes to take in. The wooden beams and earthen walls become more rustic the further you enter, giving a sense of gradually becoming closer to nature. The innermost chamber is dripping in the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Other tea rooms in separate buildings are spread throughout the back garden area, tantalizingly off-limits to us. But this one fascinating room is sufficient to satisfy our thirst for natural aesthetics and unique spaces.

We're not having tea in this magnificent room, though. We circle back to the entry hall to inquire about tea, and are led to a small square chamber nearby. The windows and doors are closed tight, creating a somewhat stifling sensation as we settle on the thin cushions laid out for us on the worn tatami flooring. Daitokuji's temples are all about small spaces, but rarely do you feel such confinement. This space feels removed from the rest of the building, the whole complex, the entire world. The tea ceremony exists in its own realm apart from all else, both physically and mentally. When you block out all else, you're free to focus solely on the tea and the experience.

We've been waiting a minute or so with heightened expectations. The door slides open and an elderly priest sticks his head inside the room. "Ah!" Shock and delight. "Foreigners! And they want tea... from me, and old man?" whispered under his breath. Confusion and excitement on his face.

Within that moment, a fragment of enlightenment is within reach. The fabric of the universe ripples and flutters for a second, blown by the priest's words and complex reaction to the three unexpected guests in his tea room. Only a single thread dangles down towards us from a larger cloth of understanding, but this moment is sharp and meaningful. The priest's genuine humility and excited apprehension, contrasted with his status and the complex relationship between tourist and local, created something special we were not meant to witness. His sudden exclamation in Japanese was not for us to hear, much less understand. We learn something about him that we were not expecting, which in turn allows us to discover something about ourselves through our reflexive reaction. Can existence really be so simple and complex at the same time? A moment of clarity when the hidden seems knowable and our true self is laid bare to us. A tangled piece of thread sitting atop the trash heap of the universe.

Or something like that. You often hear that Zen moments like this are impossible to fully explain, and they are absolutely impossible to explain.

The wrinkled face smiles and disappears. The three of us turn to each other in the silent dark box of a room. Do we need to say something to each other? We smile. Nothing is spoken. That's best for this moment. Should we be appreciating the still silence or the tension of what's to come? Where is the rocky mountain peak towering over the moment to direct our gaze? Gone. Everything reduced to a single point in this silent box of a room. Confusion, but content confusion.

The priest returns. He's nervous. Probably about the language barrier. He settles down and offers us some traditional sweets from a rustic jar. We pass the vessel around, admiring the thick glaze dripping down the sides. Greyish-brown on brownish-grey, the design is camouflaged from the senses until your fingers contrast the smooth glaze with the rough ceramic. The crumbly brown sweets are surprisingly tasty. The usual "do you understand Japanese?" conversation occurs. "Yes, some." "Oh, what a relief!" He leans back farther into his squatting seiza position and relaxes a bit. We do, too.

In the span of less than 30 seconds, the outside world has been forgotten. He points to a scroll hanging on the wall with thick characters painted in a careful style. 「一期一会」Ichi go, ichi e  His long explanation of these words is halting, unsure if I'm following. Thankfully this phrase is one I already know. "One moment, one meeting," I tell my guests. This moment will only occur once. You can never recapture it. We could have tea in this same room with the same priest for another thousand years and it would never be the same meeting as we are having right now. Appreciate this moment and let it teach you something about yourself. One of the guests' eyes are getting misty, the other is lost in thought staring at the scroll. The edge of the universal fabric unravels just a little bit more.

The tea ceremony proceeds. Not much of a ceremony at all, the priest keeps it light, chatting throughout, partially to us, partially to himself. Water dribbling from the wooden ladle, earthenware tea bowls clinking, the quiet whisking of the matcha tea, the shuffling of his soot-black robe on the floor and he stretches slowly to reach for a utensil he left unceremoniously out of reach. A hint of doyagao (personal triumphant satisfaction) on this face as he finishes the last bowl for these rare foreign guests. He performs the ceremonial steps for the xth time in his long life, but it's the first time we witness them. Casual and meaningful at the same time, existing in this cramped, windowless space for this moment only.

A bit of a Zen lecture follows as he serves the tea. I don't process all of his Japanese. Zen discourse in English is hard enough. I follow bits and pieces, nodding when I catch something, doing my best to keep up. The priest knows it's not all being understood, but he goes on, just content to speak with someone who is making an attempt at listening. He tries to draw in my guests by asking them what they know about Zen and offering some simple explanations. One of his phrases stands out: "The cloth of the universe." These are words that I've used before when trying to explain Buddhism to guests! (someday I'll share my analogy of how sock puppets and blankets symbolize western thought and Buddhism) His face lights up at my recognition. He continues on, fingertips absentmindedly rubbing together as if following a thread. "Reach for it!" he commands with a smile. "You never know when the universe will dangle a thread of understanding in front of you. Pull on it! Unravel the fabric that covers your perception of how things really are!" He's excited. We are too.

We drink the tea, certainly delicious but nothing special. It doesn't need to be. It hasn't been about what is in the bowl, but the process of how the whole experience unfolded on a personal level. By the end of our short meeting with this old man in black, we're all friends. Very little else mattered during those five minutes in isolation from the outside world.

The meaning of a short Zen tea experience became clear that day: A bowl of tea can be the catalyst to experience something that has the potential to expand your understanding of everything. All three of us felt it that day in Zuihoin Temple crammed in a tiny room with a nervous but friendly monk.

And it's a shame that this special moment will never happen again. Ichi go, ichi e  But here's the catch: There will be another moment. And that moment will be completely different in wonderful - and potentially enlightening - ways. Just keep feeling for that universal thread unraveling between your fingers, giving it a little tug when the moment presents itself. Maybe one day you'll hear the universe reply, "They want something... from me?"