In ancient China tea began as a medicine and was considered a drink of introspection–a cup of humanity. It was considered in the realm of poetry. The tea masters made their own cups and tea pots. Their calligraphy and red signature stamps were placed prominently on them. (The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo)
The first week I move into the Zen Center as the head student, which is called Shuso in Zen monasteries. Many welcome me by saying, “Greetings Shuso!” I breathe, smile and bow. It will take at least two weeks to move my whole body and soul into the silence of my heart. I know this.
Later the Tenzo or head of kitchen, and her staff prepares the dinner for sixty people. I am hoping for brown rice. In my room I hang up my kimono and jubon, inner layers of the robe ensemble and the koromo the outer layer. I lay my folded okesa, the large piece of cloth that goes over the left shoulder on my altar. I will be in the robes everyday, all day mostly, for the entire eleven weeks. No more secular clothes for now. And I will remain mostly bare foot. After all this is a an earth practice, a low to the ground experience.
The sitting soon follows. I awake at 4:10 am to ring the wake up bell (one of the jobs of the Shuso) and for the early morning teas with the Abbess, head teacher and her staff and the Benji who assists me during the eleven weeks. The Anja prepares the tea for us all. Usually it is green tea or white tea, from China, Korea, or Vietnam. There is a very special way in which the tea is prepared while we are sitting silently. I am fully robed, meditating while observing each step. The agarwood from the incense is prominent and eases all angst.
Tea time. A cup has been selected for each one of us by the Abbess to be used during the eleven weeks. Mine has hand painted bamboo. First hot water goes into tiny cups to warm them. I listen to the water being poured. The Anja washes the leaves in the teapot then pours that water in a bowl. I listen. Then he pours the hot water from the cups into the teapot with the tea leaves. Then adds some hot water. Just right. Not too much. Steep for one to two minutes. Then pour the tea into the small tiny cups that fit into the palms of both hands. With small tiny cups the tea will not get cold. We wait for the Abbess to bow and then we each take our tea cups. We cradle the gift with both hands and drink in the tranquility of the moment. I am not aware of what I have to do after the tea.
Next, I must go to the zendo (meditation hall) where we will sit zazen (a gateway to human life). The students and other teachers are waiting, facing the wall, meditating. As Shuso, I must offer incense in the hall by doing several bows on my bowing cloth in front of the altar. It is absolutely quiet. After the bows I go around the hall with my hands in gassho (palms together) and greet each person who is sitting facing the wall. They hear my bare feet making there way towards their row. There hands go up in gassho. It is all a matter of feeling without seeing or looking. Just trusting that the greeting is coming and that it is happening. Unseen. In the silence, in the breathing, intuition matters. Wake up!
During the eleven weeks there will be an hour of sitting and chanting in the morning and an hour in the evening. There will be several ceremonies and rituals. I will give Dharma talks for the public. The teachers will listen–both learning and seeing if in fact they hear the Dharma coming from my heart. I will also clean the bathrooms on the first floor as a reminder to my ego.
In between, I am to meet with students one by one in for tea. They come from everywhere in the world. They are curious about me, black skin, black robes. I am curious about them. What has brought them here?
The Benji brings the tea on the hour with treats. The student, the Benji and I all bow together in accepting her gifts. More green tea and homemade cookies. Apples and prunes for me. The students ask their questions about sitting meditation or about their lives. I listen with my heart. I share my experience walking the path for twenty-five years. They are surprised that a black woman has been on Buddha’s path for such a long time. I smile and straightened my robes. I am impressed that they are so willing to endure the eleven weeks of working to maintain the Zen Center, sitting, dealing with their inner worlds in silence while the challenges of living together mount each moment of the day and night. We are committed. We do not go home when the trouble arrives or when we dislike this or that. We sit with it. Is it me? Really?
The weeks accumulate and we are smiling more to each other even though we may not know each other any better, even though if we were out in the world we may not even acknowledge that our lives are interconnected. We are using each others’ life force to get past the tiredness, the angst, and usual worries. Our usual daily lives have been circumvented by our efforts at sitting and living the best we can as living beings.
Now that we have gotten into business as usual and we are used to the schedule in which we have figured out ways around it, the final days are near. A seven-day sesshin (silent retreat) arrives. The schedule has changed and we can no longer rely on the old schedule. The bells and signals are new. So, we get to test our intuitive capacity to survive as we did when we first arrived and were new. This time we will sit five to six hours a day, no student teas, no long periods of work. Just sitting and Dharma talks. I am invited to do two talks as Shuso. I’m ready but I have not written down a word.
The seven days of sitting (from 4:10 am through 8:30 pm) are tough but they do come to an end. In the end I am high on breath. I can see myself clearly. I can see others, clearly. This seeing is displayed in a culminating ceremony for the Shuso in which I sit before more than a hundred people (students, teachers, family and friends) and address their dharma questions. It is a Dharma inquiry for everyone collectively. I am exhausted by this time but this is good. There is not enough energy for fear or negative thinking. I am just there, breathing with the Dharma staff in one hand and a golden fan that has been gifted to me by the Abbess in the other hand.
Afterwards there is one big exhale that will continue for weeks I see. Gassho.