The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth

There’s an old Zen story from Japan called “The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth.”
Here, in a nutshell, is the story:

A Zen student is serving tea to a special guest, someone of importance like a Lord or an Abbess. A second person – in one version a “wild woman” who was also the abbess’s Dharma sister – stops by uninvited and joins them for tea. The special guest is handed her tea in a beautiful ancient bowl she herself had given the Zen student. The wild woman shatters the bowl with her teaching stick, which is actually a bone. She says, “Look! The Authentic Tea Bowl that exists before birth!”

The student is a bit freaked out. The abbess (or Lord) says, “Please collect the pieces and put them back together, filling the cracks with gold (this is a custom in Japan) and give the bowl back to me in a box that says “The Authentic Tea Bowl before Birth” on top. I will pass it on to my Dharma descendants.

I’ve read versions of this story in commentaries by two contemporary American Zen teachers – Reb Anderson and Egyoku Nakao. Reb mentions the Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth in his book “Being Upright” commenting as follows:

These are two extreme ways to relate to an authentic tradition: holding on and breaking. One monk was shocked when the form he was holding was broken. Although Cho-on demonstrated the vitality that can only be realized by going beyond the form, he did not understand how to care for the form and bring it forth in practice. Finally, Lord Sendai put it all back together and even went beyond breaking the form. Going beyond form is transmitted by a form. This is what is especially transmitted in Zen.

In my experience, form is central to Reb Anderson’s teaching and this comment is consistent with that focus. So you could consider this to be a story about form. “Form” in Zen, taken most literally, describes the ritualized acts, movements, objects, and procedures that are employed in formal practice: like bowing, service, the posture of zazen, and their constituent elements. Many people have strong reactions to Zen forms, both positive and negative. For some, they are beautiful, elegant, and inviting, a spiritual choreography and a practical way for the body to enter Zen practice. For others they are stiff, foreign, and even alienating, evoking charged feelings about “high church.” One way or another, most American Zen students do react.

I used to find the rituals and formalities of Zen extremely irritating. This was partly from being raised without any formal religious training and partly from being raised to be suspicious of religion overall, period. I didn’t want any part of the formalities. Even though I now appreciate ways some forms of practice can support loosening the ego’s hold on things, I still don’t love them. I struggle a bit with ways the forms sometimes seem to be treated as holy or sacred. The poet Robert Pinsky used the term “the sanctimonious Buddha-goo.” I think I know what he means. But whatever your inclinations, if you’re going to stick with Zen practice it’s important to be able to co-exist peacefully with Zen forms.

The Authentic Tea Bowl story told by Egyoku Wendy Nakao, Abbess of L.A. Zen Center, appears as the first chapter in “Seeds of Virtue, Seeds of Change,” a collection of Zen teachings by women Zen teachers. In Egyoku’s telling, the characters are female. This may be her poetic invention or it could be another ancient version of the story. It doesn’t matter to me. Either way, her comments are detailed and deep and I wish to acknowledge that Egyoku’s very thoughtful commentary has informed some of my own reflections on the story.

What is the authentic tea bowl before birth? Besides a teaching about form, the story is also about our relationship to what we consider precious. Ancient tea bowls are objects of veneration in Japan, so it’s a good symbol for what’s precious. Of course, not only things are precious. Ideas are precious. People are precious. Ideas about people. Memories. Hopes. Places. Affiliations. Achievements. It’s illuminating to reflect on what’s precious to you. Some of it’s obvious. My wife, my kids, grandkids, daughters in law. Old friends are really precious to me. Also some material things which I care about, usually sentimentally, but sometimes just because I love a really comfortable pair of shoes. Foolish? Maybe, but part of the picture none the less.

Sometimes I discover that I held something as precious that I was unaware of. Such discoveries can be painful. I lose something, something’s “broken,” and it hurts and I realize, “Oh, that was precious to me! Ouch!” So another way to talk about “precious” is in terms of attachments Frankly, I think the notion of having no attachments is a fiction. It’s sometimes held up as an ultimate aim of practice. Robots have no attachments (I’m barely resisting a vacuum cleaner joke here), but humans do. Some people construct Zen identities and wear robes all the time and look dour and seem kind of like robots. Perhaps this is in order to convey the appearance of having no attachments. Or maybe no emotions.

In any case, I don’t believe humans can live without attachments. One of my teachers, Fukushima Roshi, made a distinction between good attachments and bad attachments. The idea of getting rid of all attachments isn’t quite right. On the other hand, being awake to your attachments is a good idea. I believe that’s a big part of we’re doing in practice – watching, watching, watching, noticing, noticing, noticing. And just the act of patient, persistent noticing loosens the bonds of some attachments. It’s a Zen version of “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

So the Authentic Tea Bowl story is about what’s revealed and what happens when something treasured is shattered. We also treasure what we consider to be our self. The business of the self, or more properly of the no-self, is important Zen business. Zen teaches that everything is changing all the time in relationship with everything else. Everything depends on everything else and in that sense, there isn’t really such a thing as a permanent, fixed, separate self. This is the basic meaning of no-self. It’s not that you’re not you. Of course, you’re you. You’re not me, you’re not Vladimir Putin, and you’re not the cushion you’re sitting on. But you exist in relationship with me and Vladimir Putin and the cushion and everything else and everything is moving and so are you. You have no other existence in this moment. And so it goes moment by moment.

So what happens when the wild woman in the story comes with her bone teaching stick and breaks the tea bowl-self into pieces? This happens in big ways and small. The wild woman comes as mistakes I don’t like making, comes as failures I dreaded or didn’t expect. She comes as feedback from people who matter to me that I am behaving badly. The wild woman lurks. And when she strikes with her bone, I may have the space and capacity to experience that something deeper is broken. The constructed self is broken and I glimpse something else, the unconstructed self. In traditional Zen practice, this realization comes with the experience of satori-enlightenment, which is a kind of shattering experience in which the Zen person comes face to face with her Buddha Nature.

When this happens, you may see all the pieces which made up the tea bowl, the self as the object to which you gave birth. And you put yourself back together with a new understanding as to the nature of what you call the self, of it’s fragility as well as its function. And you can keep it in a box – which is to say you can remember – the self as object, which is simultaneously the authentic self before birth. It is the self before you give birth to ideas about who you need to be or are supposed to be or owe it to your parents to be, and so forth ad infinitum. Once you have this insight, you understand that you do have a self in this world, and that it is a construction that exists simultaneously and alongside no-self.

When the dream is broken and you have a glimpse of your own impermanence, when you see your self before birth as it were, and you’re able to continue anyway, to forge ahead, there’s a way in which the self is even more beautiful, more precious, than it was before in it’s superficially unbroken appearance. It’s always been marked with impermanence, but now this impermanence, the contingency of the self, is known to you. Now, it’s your authentic self, which is just a way of saying yourself beyond birth. This is one meaning of putting the broken and repaired tea bowl back together with gold, to carry in a box with it’s label to be passed on to the abbess’s dharma descendants.

Finally, it’s interesting to think of all the characters in stories like this as yourself. This is a way I have been taught to think about dreams – that all the characters in my dreams are me. Dreams are stories our unconscious writes. Often, in a Zen story, there’s a wise character (Zen master) and a less wise character (monk). In this case there are three characters. The wise and powerful one, the tender novice, and the wild woman. Each of us is these three characters at one time or another, so one question might be with whom do you identify in this story? Do you favor one mode over another? Are you able to access your abbess composure and wisdom? Can you be the novice? Can you find your wild woman at the appropriate moment? How do you think of your wild woman? Is she intuition’s agent? Is she anger’s agent? It’s useful to know if you have a default posture where you settle and to understand that no one posture is appropriate in all situations. Give the tea bowl, serve the tea, break the tea bowl, mend the tea bowl. Carry on. It’s a good story.