Saturday, June 9, 2012

Making a cup of green tea

Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war. - Paul Reps

This line was reportedly a written statement by the poet while trying to get into post-WWII Japan to visit a Buddhist temple. The story goes that he was turned down by the immigration officer since only military advisers were allowed into the country during this period of fragile reconstruction. On the back of a piece of his rejection paper, he wrote those words and handed it to the officer. 

The officer slowly read the note. He responded by stamping his passport and paperwork to allow him into Japan. The  the official told him that more keepers of the ritual would be needed to help in the rebuilding of the country.

After stumbling upon the story in one of Peter Levine’s books on Buddhist approaches to death, I wrote the quote on a recipe card and propped it up on the kitchen window sill. Whenever I see it, I am reminded of how powerful rituals can be in the healing process.

In an era of globalization and hyper-fast lifestyles, these words strike me as  important   - and a koan. I understand a koan to be a philosophical puzzle with paired ideas that do not make logical sense. One frequently cited example of a koan is: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

How on God’s green earth does one person clap with one hand or by making a cup of tea to stop the war?

I don’t know but I think the tea ritual has something to do with hospitality. Serving others with a pure heart has the potential to nurture the sacred within. In making the tea, I am involved in wanting something for the other person. 

I’d like to think it is a positive action. Goodness knows I've witnessed and experienced "giving" that didn't feel so wonderful.

Sometimes I think it is a placeholder to keep me from doing harm. Maybe no one wants the tea and I am avoiding the war. 

Except, the koan says that the action stops the war. Perhaps loving action diverts war energy. Compassion in a respectful way leads to something nurturing or nourishing.

I wonder what the poet would have written if he was trying to enter British colonized India and just wrote tea. What spiritually/culturally relevant practice would have connected with an Indian officer in such a warm way?

In a time when all cultures seem to be afflicted by commercialism and globalism resulting in a loss of the sacred, will groups be able to maintain their long-held traditions of hospitality with the stranger that are ingrained in their rituals and stories? Will they lose their rituals used to create sacred relationships? In times of trouble, how will we know what to do? Who has the time for this? Do I?

A friend who hosts family members on a regular basis had a month-long stint of having the family in her home. I sent an e-mail asking how it was to play the Domestic Goddess. Her reaction wasn't exactly a happy one. 

To so many of us, this is a place of feeling abused, neglected, and taken for granted. I know that place. As a girl, I avoided housework and opted to hang out with my dad doing farm work. There was no glory or fun, as far as I could tell, cooking and cleaning.

Becoming a mother s-l-o-w-l-y changed that. And now, as a grandmother, there is something comforting about those tasks. 

At this point in my life, cooking and cleaning, caring for the dog, etc. are part of my meditation practice. It's not that I always love doing these things, but I love how these acts help create a nurturing space or are opportunities to open my heart up and stay in the present moment. The phone rings, it is a friend struggling with depression. Or, someone is lost and seeks direction. A community group seeks a meeting space. Come on in and have a cup of tea. 

Actually, my personal style at home is to tell everyone where the cups and tea are and they can fix what they like. So, I probably have a long way to go in understanding the depth of this practice. 

How does one create a rhythm carrying out ordinary acts of home life and taking that energy out in the world? Is there a difference?

The trick for me is not to try to save the world by "fixing" anyone or by rushing around and then feeling angry. These are huge habitual behaviors for me to work on.

This koan keeps drawing out more questions. But like a jewel, this koan is keeps drawing me in to its beauty. I invite you to share your understanding of this little gem.


  1. I continue to live my daily ordinary life, regardless.

  2. Correction: Paul Reps was trying to get into Japan after the Korean War, according to Stephen Levine.