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The Old Tea Seller: Baisaō; Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto


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by Norman Waddell
Counterpoint, 2008
176 pp plus Notes, Bibliography and Glossary/Index
reviewed by Vladimir K.

Sometimes it seems that eccentricity is an essential characteristic of Zen masters. Zen literature is littered with stories of eccentric characters and baffling actions. One of my favourites is the story of Shūhō Myōchō (1282-1338) who had a breakthrough in 1308 and then spent 20 years under Gojō Bridge in Kyoto living with beggars. Eventually Emperor Hanazono (r. 1308-1318) wanted him to begin teaching and so he went to the bridge with a basket full of melons (apparently Myōchō’s favourite food) and said to the beggars “Step up and take this melon without using your feet.” A beggar replied, “Give me a melon without using your hands,” and the emperor knew which of the beggars was the Zen master.  Shūhō (later titled as Daitō Kokushi ) went on to becomea National Teacher and construct one of the great temples of Medieval Japan, Daitokuji.[1] Of course, whether the story is true historically or not is another question. Thomas Cleary has translated an entire collection of strange, eccentric behaviour of Zen masters, including the old tea seller, so there are many stories about these characters. Oddly enough, although Cleary has an entry on the old tea seller, he does not actually name him.[2] Perhaps this reflects how little was available in English about this marvellous eccentric until now.

book coverNorman Waddell’s new book has finally made available to English readers the whole story of Baisaō, the Old Tea Seller, and what an interesting story it is. The book is aimed at a general readership and is essentially in two parts: the life of Baisaō and an extensive translation of his poetry and other texts. Letters of Baisaō are scattered throughout the bibliography, as are some of his poems, giving an insight into not only his thoughts, but also his trials and tribulations. There is also an extensive section of Notes to the biography but, as Waddell himself says, these “can be read with the text, afterwards, or disregarded entirely.” (p xi)

Baisaō was born in 1675 in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. As the son of one of the intellectual elites of the area, he received an extensive education and when he was eleven, became a Buddhist priest in the Ōbaku sect, taking on the name Gekkai Genshō. In 1687 he travelled with his master, Kerin Dōryū, to Mampuku-ji, the headquarters of Ōbaku Zen and on this trip he first tasted the delights of the capital, Kyoto. One of the places the two Zen monks visited was Kōzan-ji, on the outskirts of Kyoto, where the first tea gardens in Japan were planted.

Like many Zen monks, Baisaō travelled extensively around Japan, spending various periods at his own temple, Ryūshin-ji, and when his master died, the abbotship went to a younger priest. When Baisaō was asked why he did not get the position, he humbly  replied “because I have no wisdom or virtue”. (p 13) Although he was asked a number of times to take over the temple, he refused and at the age of forty-nine he set off for the capital, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Kyoto in the latter half of the eighteenth century was a remarkable city which Waddell brings to life. While the rest of Japan, including the capital city, Edo (modern Tokyo), suffered under the conservative rule of the Tokugawa shogunate which demanded discipline and stifled self-expression, Kyoto was far more liberal, allowing creativity and the arts to flourish. Writers, artists and scholars flocked to the city, breaking with the stultifying conservatism of the era. Surrounded on three sides by tree-covered hills of great beauty and with a population of some half a million, Kyoto was the second largest (and one of the most beautiful) cities on earth. It was in this atmosphere of exciting creativity that Baisaō settled.

At a time when Buddhist monks were viewed with some disdain, Baisaō stood out for his impressive skills as a poet and calligrapher with an extensive knowledge of Chinese literature, skills highly prized in Kyoto. Baisaō was held in high esteem by all who came in contact with him for his generosity, gentleness and his seemingly carefree life which rejected the established Buddhist hierarchy. Over time, he became one of the best known characters in a city full of eccentrics and artists. There were so many unconventional characters in Kyoto at this time that in 1788 a book was published, Eccentric Figures of Recent Times,where Baisaō played a prominent part.

At the age of sixty, Baisaō set up a small shop or perhaps just a stall (he called it a “snail dwelling” (p 20)) on a heavily travelled bridge which crossed Kyoto’s Kamo River. At that time, itinerant tea sellers were from the lowest ranks of society and sold an inferior powdered tea. Baisaō, however, introduced sencha, a loose-leaf tea which was simmered in a pot and was considered a much higher grade of tea; a tea which with “one sip, you wake forever from your worldly sleep.” (p 41) Today we call this tea Japanese green tea. In fact, he did not actually sell his tea as he accepted only donations, saying “The price for this tea is anything from a hundred in gold to a half sen. If you want to drink free, that’s all right too. I’m only sorry I can’t let you have it for less.” (p 33) Later, he gave up his little ‘shop’ and wandered Kyoto and the surrounding hills carrying his tea making implements on a bamboo carrying pole and setting up business wherever the landscape attracted him. He took on the sobriquet, Baisaō, the Old Tea Seller.

Baisaō’s latter years were full of difficulty as old age and infirmity overtook him. The cold winters of Kyoto proved especially difficult for an old man with little money. Hunger and cold were companions. Although he was acknowledged as a Zen master, it was only in his latter years that he took on a small handful of students. Throughout his long life he continued writing poetry and creating highly-prized calligraphy. Just before he died at the ripe age of eighty-eight, his friends managed to present him with a printed collection of his writings, Baisaō Gego (“Verses and Prose by the Old Tea Seller”), confirming his importance in the cultural life of eighteenth century Kyoto.

Norman Waddell has brought us an important Japanese Zen poet who has been too long neglected. The biography is detailed and informative but Waddell has gone further and has translated all of Baisaō’s published verse (including some taken from holograph manuscript) and prose, as well as many of Baisaō’s letters and verse. Unlike the first half of the book, which has end notes to help the reader, the second half, which has the translations of Baisaō’s writings, includes footnotes to help the reader negotiate some of the more obscure references with which modern Western readers may not be familiar. Scattered throughout the first section are letters and poems by Baisaō as well as delightful small reproductions of paintings of Baisaō, some with inscriptions by the Old Tea Seller and some examples of his calligraphy. Unfortunately, the reproductions do not do justice to the originals as they are too small to truly appreciate their beauty. But this is a small quibble with what is otherwise a fine book. With this work, Waddell has raised this previously unappreciated Zen poet to his rightful place alongside better known poets such as Bashō and Ryōkan. This book will stand as the definitive work on Baisaō for many years.

see Dumoulin, 1990, pp186-189
see Cleary, 1993, pp 3-4

Cleary, Thomas, 1993, Zen Antics Shambhala, Boston
Dumoulin, Heinrich, 1990, Zen Buddhism, Volume 2: A History (Japan), Japan, trans. J.W. Heisig & P. Knitter, Macmillan, New York