27 August, 2009

The Value of Words

Zazen and tea are beginning to make a lot more sense. I am coming to understand, not just comprehend, that zazen and tea cannot be approached intellectually.

The intellect has to take a back seat

I have read many times that you can't read about Zen - usually in classical Zen books. Having read such a thing many times, I felt that it made sense, and that I could comprehend the meaning of such warnings. I felt that I could intellectually grasp what the author meant. That's a type I error. The actual text itself was warning me not to try to grasp its warning intellectually.

However hard I attempted to fit what I had read into my zazen, it didn't work. Though I could feel, in some limited way, that the words had the scent of truth to them, they didn't describe my experience. They were someone else's words.

This is because I was approaching problem upside-down. I can't go from reading words -- someone else's words -- to a subsequent experience of my own. Instead, the experience has to come first, and then the words become a shared discourse between two people who want to share similar experiences.

That way, the words are obvious, because we have some sense of the greater experience to which they refer. The words are an expression of our own experience. They are no longer just the words of some other person, but have become partially our own, because they describe our own experience.

As in Zen, so it is with tea. "Cha Chan Yi Wei", as the name of Nada's 2008 cake has it: "Tea, Zen, One Taste."

Does mean that words are useless without our own experience? Should we stop reading Dogen? Should we stop reading about tea?

No - there is virtue in words, and they can lead us to discover experiences for ourselves. They are signposts, as long as we treat them as such, and not confuse them for something more permanent.

So, I long ago stopped worrying about things that I don't know for myself. I stopped trying to remember all those words used to describe the flavour of tea from Nannuoshan, for example, and instead let it all go. I drink Nannuo tea, and have my own understanding of it, however limited. From that understanding, I share with others by seeing that their words describe something similar.

Zen relentlessly emphasises that we cannot force such understanding to appear just from reading the words of others - it has to come from our own experience.

Am I a Zen master, or a tea master, or any other kind of master?

No. (Zen cautions us that the terms "Zen master" and "tea master" are shunned by those who practice either art.)

Not being a Zen master, nor being a tea master, does this make my words valueless? Does it make your words valueless?

No. All of us have experiences along the way, and our words describe those experiences in ourselves, and speak to those same experiences in others.

In many ways, the experiences of the beginner are just as valuable, if not moreso, than those of one further down the path. The title of one of my favourite books is "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." Such words describing experiences of sincerity from a beginner can be the most true of all, because they describe the most profound experiences, uncoloured by intellectual clutter.

You can't understand the smell of a flower from looking at pictures of flowers

There is value to words, but don't approach the problem of zazen or tea in an upside-down way.

So, drink more tea, and do more zazen.


Rich said...

"In many ways, the experiences of the beginner are just as valuable, if not moreso, than those of one further down the path."

Absolutely. Beginners offer fresh perspective and also remind veterans of their own initial passion and interest.

I was recently told about some tea masters that have popped up offering specialized training and certifications. Does mastery occur when one is recognized by others, when one claims the title for oneself, or when one can surpass the desire to be/have and achieve innate "mastery?"

Kim Christian said...

One of Rikyu's famous 100 poems is that the further you go the way the more it is important to go back to the beginning.

I also think that it is dangerous
to read too much about tea (and zen) because if you've read how e.g. banzhang "should" taste your mind(and tastebuds) is blurred for
YOUR OWN experience.

Hobbes said...

Dear RTea,

If he's called a "tea master", he must be good!

Dear Dr. Kim,

I'm guilty of it, too. My oldest articles talk about certain mountains as if I had a really firm grasp of their characteristic terroire. Even today, I am learning the nuances that make up each area, because they can vary so dramatically. If I am still learning today, how much moreso was I learning when I started writing here? How can one make definitive statements about aging after drinking just ten cakes? Such was my innocence.

I think it's important to appreciate that we change as much as the tea.

I read the words of tea-authors in a different way, now, in the same way that I read Zen authors differently. I am no longer seeking information, so much as seeking the spirit with which the article was written. I'm not sure how much more can be learned from someone else's description of tea, or Zen. Even if they're Dogen.



Bret said...

After all this introspection, are we the better for it? For me? No. I pick up right where I left off. Buying and hoarding, brewing and gulping. A never ending cycle. I,m not too into the Zen thing, if that isnt obvious. Jeez, I,m such a westerner. Now, where the hell did I leave my Bulang? Gotta be around here somewhere.

Hobbes said...

Zen is all about saying "Ah, bugger it" and abandoning analysis - the spirit behind your words is "very Zen". :)



andrew said...


"The thoughts & words of the buddhas and ancestors are like family style tea and rice."

Ordinary, delicious, and nurturing.

Words are as close as hands and feet, fingers and toes. However, we believe words to have "meaning," an essence behind them that makes them distinct from our hands and feet, fingers and toes. But, it has been written: "The abstract is no more and no less real than the concrete." And, "The true inside of the inside is not having inside or outside," which is to say, "to dig to the core of the core is to discover the invalidity of such distinctions and also to discover that, seen from inside, the surface is deep."

In celebration of all things, I will enjoy, or as Bret wrote brilliantly, brew and gulp some Jin Zai Mao Feng and sit in zazen of the fading summer.(残暑の坐禅)

Bret said...

P.S. I guess I could (for a moment) allow myself a dose of self aggrandizement, a.k.a. Gee! look at the progress Ive made. And say that one of the most valuable lessons Ive learned is to not have pre-concieved ideas about what any given tea should taste like. If it doesnt taste as expected should it be lumped into the category of "another dissappointment" No! I remember once buying a premium cake that was pretty much an Albatross in the eyes of the majority of bloggers. And initially I chimed in with them. One of those things where the leaf didnt look like it,s supposed to, maybe it,s a blend instead of what it was sold as. But one day having a fairly mindless session with this tea (busy with other things at the same time) I found myself thinking how good this tea was. Thats when I understood that you are missing out when you let your own thoughts determine your perceptions. I wasnt thinking about this is such and such tea and everbody said blah, blah, blah. I just enjoyed it for what it was, and it was good. There, now that Ive patted myself on the back I feel better. I like the idea of being on a "path" but the reality is that the only path that I,m on is the one leading to and from my mail box where the next batch of tea is expected.

Matt said...



Scotto said...

This is all too deep for me. I'm going to have a cup of tea.

Hey, that rhymes!

speakfreely said...

From the perspective of yoga (and meditation indistinguishable from zazen in all but superficial ways) being in the moment automatically puts you in beginner's mind. Without the past as a reference we are beginners, eternally. The mind, particularly it's deductive reasoning, can take you anywhere at all, rarely closer to understanding things as they are, unless rigorously checked against empirical measures, as in the scientific method. But there is another way of knowing that doesn't have much to do with intellectual comprehension. How do you get there (or, more accurately, BE there)? One of my favorite yogis calls it following a "feeling-tone", and that's about as good a description as I know, possibly also as good a "definition" of Zen as any? One quiets the mind and the feeling-tone comes in like the tide.

Bret said...

A re-write as my original comment lacked focus.

Be it Zen, Yoga or Naugualism I think they are really all reaching for the same thing. To desire "enlightenment" or to "be there" is an oxymoron in and of itself. To desire is to have a preconceived idea (an agenda)as to what that "enlightenment / be there" is. You would be starting off on the wrong foot from the get go because your projecting your preconceived idea of what enlightenment / being there is. Ego and the internal dialogue a.k.a. "The Black Cloud Cohorts" haha, are monsters. They are the ones standing in the way of enlightenment. To pursue enlightenment is like chasing a cat, your never going to catch it. So whats a guy to do? Sit back, relax. Stop the internal dialogue! It,s not going to like it one bit, you have been a faithful companion for so long. It,s been there to prop you up and tell you things you wanted to hear, it was there to help justify your words and actions when deep down inside you knew you were wrong. By stopping the internal dialogue you make it a posibility for enlightenment to take place. Before you know it you,ll look down to find that elusive kitty sitting right there in your lap. Now, wasnt all that running around blathering on about enlightenment silly? Enlightenment isnt "doing" it,s "not doing"
I know, I know! Your thinking this guy is a FREAKIN NUT!

Hobbes said...

Thanks for the above, everyone. Let's let the big man have the last word:

"Think the thought of non-thinking."
-- Dogen

Anonymous said...

I can't comment on "enlightenment" as others have here, but I can say that I approve of the sense of humility told of here. Zen master? Or tea master? Not so but instead an understanding of the limitations of the words of the experienced to share with others. --Spirituality of Tea