Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Lesson From Shofuku-ji Temple In Fukuoka, Japan

One was beaming with excitement and full of expectation walking up to the gate of Shofuku-ji Temple. Founded in 1195 it was one of the first Zen temples in Japan. Eisai had brought back tea seeds and Zen after returning from deep study under Zen master Xuan Huaichang on Tiantai Mountain in China.

He then founded the Rinzai School of Zen and his tea seeds were planted near Kyoto, in present day Uji. Eisai wrote the famous classic Japanese Tea book, “How To Stay Healthy by Drinking Tea” and was partly responsible for turning the Samurai class onto the philosophies of Zen and tea.

As one approached the thatched-topped brick wall surrounding the front temple grounds and walked through the front gate one's mind was at ease. Then one was immediately confronted by a large monolithic stele that reached toward the bright blue sky above. It stood there noble but natural, in the shade of an old tree. On this old stele had the inscription of the great Zen Tea Master Eisai. Although one could not read the engraved classical Chinese characters, one's mind was at peace.

After marveling at the sight of the engraved calligraphy, one looked around. It was empty. The whole temple grounds were empty. The complete stillness was broken by the chants, not of praying monks, but of pre-school children that shared a chain-link fence with the temple grounds. They laughed, ran, and played, full of innocence and joy. One watched them for a while before approaching the only building which was locked by thick, jail-like, wood bars that ran vertically from the top of the door frame to the bottom. This building, the main hall, was also surrounded by wood fencing. One glared past all of this and caught a shadowy glimpse of three Sakyamuni Buddha statues, but, in all truth, one couldn't even really see the Buddha.

One then proceeded to the rear of the grounds in search of someone or something more to this temple. Something more than its empty peace and stillness. Nothing. Wait, up on the tiled rooftop of an adjacent hall, it was a large crow, its jet black feathers contrasted by the large piece of persimmon fruit that hung from its beak. One watched the crow eat the juicy persimmon marveling at its swift, stately movements as it happily and slowly finished off this snack. The crow seemed to savor this seasonal delicacy.

Then coming from the hall one spotted a middle aged monk. One bowed, then waved him over. He smiled and came over.

One inquired, “When does the temple open?”

The happy monk replied, “It's open.”

In this moment, one experienced a profound awakening. The sound of children playing, a crow eating, stillness, and nothingness- this was the true meaning of Zen.

Sometimes when we drink tea we carry the burden of some preconceived notion of what this or that tea should taste like or we look for something, something special within our cups, when, actually, what we are truly looking for is always there, waiting to be discovered.



Tuo Cha Tea said...

Dear Matt, I like this story very much, thank you for sharing it.

Matt said...

Thank you for reading it.