Joshu

‘The master questioned two new arrivals.
The master asked the first one, “Have you been here before?”
The monk said, “No, I haven’t.”
The master said, “Go have some tea.”
The master then asked the other monk, “Have you been here before?”
The monk said, “Yes I have.”
The master said, “Go have some tea.”
The head monk asked, “Setting aside the fact that you told the one who’d never been here before to go have some tea, why did you tell the one who had been here before to go have some tea?”
The master said, “Head monk!”
The head monk said, “Yes?”
The master said, “Go have some tea.”‘

‘Meal time. The fourth hour of the day.
Aimlessly working to kindle a fire and gazing at it from all sides.
Cake and cookies ran out last year,
Thinking of them today and vacantly swallowing my saliva.
Seldom having things together, incessantly sighing,
Among the many people there are no good men.
Those who come here just ask to have a cup of tea,
Not getting any, they go off spluttering in anger.’

(The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu)

The first of these stories is quite well known, and the rhythm of the exchange has that certain quality of the master upending expectation, teaching by encouraging the head monk to stop attempting to analyse the situation and just go and do the next thing. For some reason, recently I remembered this section of a longer poem, which goes through all hours of the day and night, seemingly a lament for the barrenness of the monastic experience, which turns into a celebration of clear seeing in spite of this paucity. I first heard this from Shohaku when we were studying on of Joshu’s koans; perhaps the trick is not to ask for the tea – then you get some.

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