Ch'an Newsletter - No. 7 July 1980

Tea Words

Spoken by Shih-fu Sheng-yen during the tea break of the Special Ch'an Class, July 13, 1980

Some people like drinking strong tea, some like weak tea and some prefer to drink water. Strong tea stimulates and excites people. Weak tea quenches their thirst. Water is drunk only to replenish the needed supply of water. Strong tea is like the scorching summer sun and loud thunder at the same time. Weak tea is like the autumn moon. Water is no sun, no moon and no rain, and it is neither nighttime nor daytime, but there is extreme clarity and brightness. Most people need to drink strong tea to counteract their sleepiness or exhaustion. But nevertheless, the average person only drinks weak, or diluted, tea. And those who drink water only are very few.

In the Ch'an Meditation Hall, the actual drinking of tea is symbolic. The most important thing is listening to the Master's words. In fact, this talk by the Shih-fu (Master) is called "Tea Words". These words can be compared to the different strengths of tea, for the method the Shih-fu uses to instruct the students varies according to their levels of practice. Some methods are poisonously strong, some are lighter or more ordinary, and some have absolutely no meaning at all.

Strong tea has a bitter taste, so it is called "bitter tea". Those who have just begun the practice are not qualified to drink this tea. After they have practiced for a while, they realize that the practice is beneficial, but they are not clear on the method and they don't know how to settle down their minds, so at this point they need to drink bitter tea. Like being baked by a scorching sun or being startled by thunder, it gives them no opportunity for laziness. They wouldn't dare fall asleep or indulge in a roaming or scattered mind. They give rise to a mind of angry determination to keep on practicing hard. This is why the Lin Chi sect used the two methods of beating and shouting. This can only be used on people who are already practicing hard. If these methods were to be used on those who aren't applying themselves to the practice, they may be scared away, or think it is very strange.

There are two kinds of people who may be given weak tea. Type one : Those who are first starting out in the practice are very thirsty. They really desire to get into the practice, but they are not yet ready to drink the bitter tea. So the Shih-fu will use more polite speech to comfort or encourage them, causing them to feel happy and willing to try and practice. Type two : Those who, after drinking bitter tea and not getting much result subsequently, may be in danger of losing their resolve or falling back on the path, are given weak tea to drink. This weak tea is a convenient means. It is as if you are telling someone who has just started out on a journey, "There is a place over there by the horizon that is really idyllic, with trees, birds and a beautiful landscape. You must go there. You still haven't gotten there yet, but you are not far away. If you just keep on going you will definitely make it." There is a story in a Sutra which goes like this :

    A man goading an ox who was pulling a cart, cursed him saying,"You are so stupid and useless! Why can't you walk any faster with such a light load? Don't you see all the oxen in front of us speeding along? What's wrong with you?" Whereupon the ox stopped dead in his tracks and refused to move, thinking, "Since I am useless, why should I move?" So the man, very upset, asked the other men in front, "How do you get your oxen to go so fast?" They replied that they deceive their animals, saying sweet words to them, like: "You are so good and energetic. Without you, I would be nowhere. A while back you scaled the hill like it was nothing. Now that the road is flat, you should really be able to speed along." So the oxen are very happy and go faster and faster.

It is obvious that all animals and humans, too, need to be comforted and encouraged with the words of weak tea.

Water has a taste. But it is a "tasteless" taste. Water can be given only to those who have practiced extremely well, but have not yet entered the door of Ch'an. They can imagine the taste of the weak and strong tea that they have already drunk and are attached to flavor. They have too much thinking and cannot put it down. They also cannot put their method down, and may be attached to a certain "goal", for instance, a desire to get enlightened. They are burdened by their experience and intellectualisms. Therefore the Shih-fu uses a flavorless method. For example, Ch'ao Chou used phrases that had no meaning or taste, such as : "The 10,000 dharmas return to one. Where does the one return?" "When I was in Ch'ing Chou I made a robe weighing seven pounds." "What did Bodhidharma bring from the West?" "In the garden there are cypress trees." These are examples of "water". It is able to induce the practitioner to get rid of all attachments, throw everything away and reach the highest goal of enlightenment. But there are also cases of people who can suddenly put down all their attachments while drinking strong tea. It works by giving them a shock. One can even attain this by drinking weak tea, but in this situation it can only be a very gradual enlightenment process.

I ask you: Are there any of you who have had the experience of drinking water? That is, there is no sun, no moon and no rain, but it is also neither night nor day. (A few people raised their hands.) But was this situation crystal clear? (Those who raised their hands said it was rather hazy.) Actually we are normally like this. We very rarely think about whether the sun is out or not. But it is rare to be clear about it. This clarity means a condition of brightness where these things all exist, but there is no discriminating function of the mind. So subjectively, they no longer exist. If a person in this state is out in the burning sun, he wouldn't consider that he is in the sun, but it is still very clear.

When drinking strong or weak tea, there is still mind. Drinking water is no-mind. But strong tea can cause you to reach the goal of no-mind.

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