Tea and Right Livelihood

By James Norwood Pratt


Powdered tea and bamboo whisk

Book review for TEA TIME magazine
Baisao: The Old Tea Seller translated and edited by Norman Waddell (Counterpoint: 2008) $24

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken..."

Said Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." That's how I felt upon discovering Baisao. Even in translation he is a great poet and saint and hero of tea and lucky are we who are finally allowed to taste his wares.

Baisao, third son of a scholarly physician, was born near Nagasaki in 1675. He entered a Buddhist monastery at age 11 and was almost 50 when his master died and he was asked to take his place as abbot. Declining on grounds it would hinder his religious practice, he left the hypocrisies, large and small, of organized religion to take up the life of a wandering monk. It was to prove a life lived against the grain of rigid and enforced conformity in Japan. Moving to Kyoto, the country's former capital and still its cultural center, Baisao re-invented himself as a "tea seller" except that he never charged for his tea. As a monk Baisao was prevented from selling or buying or working for a living but there was no rule against preparing tea for all comers for free. "I only wish I could give you the tea for less," he would laugh, but those who wished could leave a coin in his empty bamboo tube and these donations sufficed to keep him alive for, as he said, "enough is plenty."

Along with the man in the street, Baisao quickly won the respect of Kyoto's leading priests, scholars and poets. They no doubt enjoyed his happy, enlightened nature, but they also came to read—and copy down—his deeply witty and arresting poems which adorned the humble portable tea stall he called his "pavilion on the pathway to Immortality."

This place of mine, so poor
I'm often even out of water;
But I offer you an elixir
To change your very marrow.
You'll find me in the pines,
By the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas,
Come take a drink—who knows?
You may reach Buddhahood yourself.

Imagine having tea with such a man! And it was not only the man but the tea itself which helped make him famous. Baisao's master had been a student of Ingen, the Chinese Zen master who brought the first teapot to Japan when he fled into exile. Before this the isolated Japanese made tea by whipping powdered leaf in water, one bowl at a time. Baisao's Chinese-style loose leaf tea thrown directly into a teapot and briefly steeped, was a delicious novelty. "Those who came to partake of his tea marveled at its exquisite sweetness," wrote a friend. Baisao, his tea and tea friends (including the tea grower in Uji who in 1738 perfected the steaming method by which sencha is still manufactured today) made tea history by popularizing the teapot and loose leaf tea—sencha-- in Japan. Eventually Baisao's friends collected and printed his short writings they had preserved over the course of his long tea-selling life. He had already burned his portable tea stall and utensils to keep them, he said, from "falling into vulgar hands" and one month after receiving the book in 1763 he passed away peacefully, leaving us his spirit in these poems, memoirs and few letters. They trace Baisao's spiritual journey over a long tea-inspired life. Thanks to Norman Waddell we can now read this great soul for the first time in English and Baisao can take his rightful place on our bookshelves and in our hearts to remind us from now on:

Life's greatest joy
Is to be free from care