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Book Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

 

The Old Tea Seller
Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto
Baisao, Norman Waddell
Counterpoint 05/08 Hardcover $24.00
ISBN: 9781582434131


This delightful and exquisite volume contains the poems, memoirs, and letters of Baisao (1675 - 1763) whose life was divided into a period of religious training until he was 32, a sojourn ending in his 57th year during which he served as a temple supervisor and later as an abbot at Ryushin-ji in Hasuike, and a final period in Kyoto when he was a tea seller. Norman Waddell has done a marvelous job pulling all of this material together. He has also translated works by Dogen, D. T. Suzuki, and many others.

Baisao chose to live unconventionally in his elder years. But he models a very early form of what we would call an urban spirituality of being present:

Making the busy streets my home
right down in the heart of things
only one friend shares my poverty
this single scrawny wooden staff.
Having learned the ways of silence
within the noise of urban life
I take life as it comes to me
and everywhere I am is true.

In his shop, he sold tea "that conveys you to Sagehood" and later carried large wicker baskets filled with tea utensils through the streets of Kyoto. Many artists and other creative people were impressed by Baisao's austerity and his firmness of character. The poet seemed to have achieved his own brand of idiosyncratic contentment as revealed in this poem titled "Impromptu."

Rambling free beyond the world
enjoying the natural shapes of things
a shaggy eight-year-old duffer
scraping out a living selling tea.
He escapes starvation, barely,
thanks to a section of bamboo,
a tiny house with a window hole
provides all the shelter he needs.
Outside, carts and horses pass
annulling both noise and quiet
inside, easy talk at the stove
banishes notions of host and guest.
He lives under a row of tall pines
beside a temple of guardian sages
where the pine breeze sweeps clear
the dust of fame and profit.

Baisao makes a good case for a simple but elegant life of attention, beauty, and contentment that honors old age and the impermanence of life.

 

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Reviews and database copyright 1970 2012
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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