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The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto

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Poet, Zen Buddhist priest, renowned thinker, and seller of tea — Baisao was all of these things, as well as being a bit of an eccentric. Known to carry large wicker baskets filled with tea utensils through the streets and surrounding hills of Japan's capital, Baisao set up shop wherever he ended up and brewed tea for those who came to enjoy the scenery with him. Establishi Poet, Zen Buddhist priest, renowned thinker, and seller of tea — Baisao was all of these things, as well as being a bit of an eccentric. Known to carry large wicker baskets filled with tea utensils through the streets and surrounding hills of Japan's capital, Baisao set up shop wherever he ended up and brewed tea for those who came to enjoy the scenery with him. Establishing a quiet, simple life, Baisao spent his final years composing poetry, brewing tea, and teaching Zen, in the process becoming a well-loved figure. These poems, memoirs, and letters tell us more about this endearing person and trace his long life's profound spiritual journey. This comprehensive translation includes nearly all of Baisao's writings, giving us a deep look at this remarkable man.


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Poet, Zen Buddhist priest, renowned thinker, and seller of tea — Baisao was all of these things, as well as being a bit of an eccentric. Known to carry large wicker baskets filled with tea utensils through the streets and surrounding hills of Japan's capital, Baisao set up shop wherever he ended up and brewed tea for those who came to enjoy the scenery with him. Establishi Poet, Zen Buddhist priest, renowned thinker, and seller of tea — Baisao was all of these things, as well as being a bit of an eccentric. Known to carry large wicker baskets filled with tea utensils through the streets and surrounding hills of Japan's capital, Baisao set up shop wherever he ended up and brewed tea for those who came to enjoy the scenery with him. Establishing a quiet, simple life, Baisao spent his final years composing poetry, brewing tea, and teaching Zen, in the process becoming a well-loved figure. These poems, memoirs, and letters tell us more about this endearing person and trace his long life's profound spiritual journey. This comprehensive translation includes nearly all of Baisao's writings, giving us a deep look at this remarkable man.

30 review for The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Bashō I had heard of, but I had never heard of Baisaō (売茶翁, "old tea seller") before I added this book to my to-read list. I wish I had heard of him earlier, though. Meditations on nature and frogs in ponds are beautiful, but I definitely find drinking tea and complaining about money more relatable. The first half of the book is a biography of Baisaō, constructed from the somewhat sketchy details left behind. A monk from a young age, Gekkai Genshō (as his Buddhist name ran) served in a temple fo Bashō I had heard of, but I had never heard of Baisaō (売茶翁, "old tea seller") before I added this book to my to-read list. I wish I had heard of him earlier, though. Meditations on nature and frogs in ponds are beautiful, but I definitely find drinking tea and complaining about money more relatable. The first half of the book is a biography of Baisaō, constructed from the somewhat sketchy details left behind. A monk from a young age, Gekkai Genshō (as his Buddhist name ran) served in a temple for a long time but refused the abbotship when the old abbot died. Instead, he took to wandering around Kyoto's many nature areas selling tea and dispensing poetry to friends and passersby. Though "sell" here isn't quite the right word. He didn't charge for it explicitly. He made the tea, and he was a monk, and he left a hollow bamboo tube out for people to put offerings into, and everyone understood their place in the cycle. It was still too much for the temple authorities, though, as monks weren't supposed to engage in trade, so he left the monkhood, abandoned his former name and took the lay name Kō Yūgai, and continued selling tea for years until his eventual death. The biography isn't the main reason to read the book, though. While I did find it interesting, Baisaō was a poet and it's his poetry that we're here for. As with all poetry, it's hard to tell how much is lost or added in the translation (and the original Japanese isn't provided, even though as 江戸文字 I'm positive I wouldn't be able to read it), but the material here is an insight into someone with a good attitude about being a destitute, itinerant tea seller. For example:What's the tea seller got in his basket? bottomless tea cups? a two-spouted pot? He pokes around town for a small bit of rice working very hard for next to nothing-- blinkered old drudge just plodding ahead... Bah!There's a lot more of that type. Baisaō continually refers to himself as a crank, an ignoramous, wretched, an old man...he's certainly got the monk humility down. And a healthy(?) attitude about growing older. That's not the only subject of his poems, though. A lot of them were written for friends, or as payment for people who gave him a particularly large donation, or occasionally on the subject of nature. My favorite was about setting up shop by an iris pond near Sanjūsangendō:An iris pond in flower before the ancient hall, I sell tea this evening by the water's edge; it is steeped in the cup with the moon and stars one sip, you wake forever form your worldly sleep.That one is a bit more profound. Though I admit, part of my love probably comes from having been to Kyoto, so I can call up an image of Sanjūsangendō and its grounds, and an old man selling tea by the water's edge. I never lived in Kyoto but I visited it several times, and maybe it's being to bring up memories of the Kamogawa and Arashiyama and Shōgo-in and all the other places mentioned within that makes me appreciate Baisaō's poetry so much. Well, that and I'm well on my way to becoming an old crank myself, though one who drinks tea instead of selling it. And my poetry is much worse.

  2. 4 out of 5

    B. Asma

    A book which definitely gives a different sense of a time and place to the modern reader and to one who might be unfamiliar with Buddhism. Baisao is a Zen priest turned layman, doing the outrageous by earning a living. Moreover, his humble choice is to simmer tea from the pure waters of a stream in the teapot over the enamel brazier to serve passersby for a donation or none at all outside his dwelling on one of the scenic thoroughfares of eighteenth-century Kyoto. Normally, Baisao would have con A book which definitely gives a different sense of a time and place to the modern reader and to one who might be unfamiliar with Buddhism. Baisao is a Zen priest turned layman, doing the outrageous by earning a living. Moreover, his humble choice is to simmer tea from the pure waters of a stream in the teapot over the enamel brazier to serve passersby for a donation or none at all outside his dwelling on one of the scenic thoroughfares of eighteenth-century Kyoto. Normally, Baisao would have continued to live in a Buddhist temple or have made frequent pilgrimages to China but thought that the Way was found elsewhere. There is frequent mention about the exchanges between China and Japan in the Edo period and about the historical figures of Buddhism, whose verses or wisdom continued to inspire Baisao and his educated friends. There are descriptions of nature's lushness and purity prevalent then around the cultured city. Finally, there is the history of tea, in particular the sencha, which is harvested in the bud and briefly steamed to preserve the green color and sweeter flavor in contrast to powdered, brown matcha.

  3. 4 out of 5

    tomlinton

    Of course it's full of Baisa's poetry But I thought it more interesting as a history Somehow the zen just seems obscure and the message repetitive Maybe the author doesn't understand anymore than I do Would you like a cup of tea though? Or maybe two or three or four Baisao will stake you to as much as seven and it won't cost you but a penny donation each Just drop them in the bamboo tube there Go slow because when he gets to twenty he's going to collect his stuff and go Even if you're not ready Anybody though k Of course it's full of Baisa's poetry But I thought it more interesting as a history Somehow the zen just seems obscure and the message repetitive Maybe the author doesn't understand anymore than I do Would you like a cup of tea though? Or maybe two or three or four Baisao will stake you to as much as seven and it won't cost you but a penny donation each Just drop them in the bamboo tube there Go slow because when he gets to twenty he's going to collect his stuff and go Even if you're not ready Anybody though know where I can get a kindle copy of Ban Kokei's Eccentric Figures of Recent Times? 18th C Baisao in Kyoto is one of them

  4. 4 out of 5

    Pamela Hamon

    This well-researched and referenced book chronicles the off-beat and fascinating life of Baisao (The Old Tea Seller) through excerpts from letters, poems, prose, and accounts of others living around Kyoto in the 18th century. This book is separated in to two parts. The first covers the life of Baisao from his early teenage years entering monastic life through his separation from serving as a formal Zen monk to his life wandering around the Kyoto area offering simmered tea and Zen wisdom on a don This well-researched and referenced book chronicles the off-beat and fascinating life of Baisao (The Old Tea Seller) through excerpts from letters, poems, prose, and accounts of others living around Kyoto in the 18th century. This book is separated in to two parts. The first covers the life of Baisao from his early teenage years entering monastic life through his separation from serving as a formal Zen monk to his life wandering around the Kyoto area offering simmered tea and Zen wisdom on a donation basis. The second part is a translation of the Baisao Gego, a collection of Baisao's Zen and tea poetry. This book is best appreciated after having having some familiarity with other historical texts on tea, Buddhism, or even Japanese history. However, those who have not delved into those subjects will still come away with a better understanding of Baisao and a deeper appreciation for the struggles within Zen Buddhism sects in Japan during Baisao's time. Allegories, allusions, and tea and/or Buddhism references within the poetry and prose quoted are well referenced ion extensive footnotes. Readers can delve as deep in to the notes and footnotes as desired to learn about Kyoto-area characters and persons of interest, Buddhist sutras and texts, and tea lore.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    This is a wonderful book. The biographic study of Baisaō is worth reading, and even more wonderful is the analysis through his poems. This book is a must-read for anyone into tea, and more specifically, for anyone interested in the development of Japanese tea and Sencha.

  6. 5 out of 5

    John Pappas

    Part of this book is a translation of the short Chinese-styled poems and prose by Baisao as well as a biographical sketch by one of his contemporaries. The author, in the first half of the book, creates a tapestry of Baisao’s life from various primary sources including letters to friends and students, official documents and the works of Baisao himself. Interspersed with paintings and calligraphy from Baisao and his contemporaries, a full view of this character from 18th century Kyoto emerges. In Part of this book is a translation of the short Chinese-styled poems and prose by Baisao as well as a biographical sketch by one of his contemporaries. The author, in the first half of the book, creates a tapestry of Baisao’s life from various primary sources including letters to friends and students, official documents and the works of Baisao himself. Interspersed with paintings and calligraphy from Baisao and his contemporaries, a full view of this character from 18th century Kyoto emerges. In a time when Japanese Zen was becoming more and more dogmatic as well as state-sanctioned – Baisao’s wit and home-spun but learned wisdom must have been a delightful change from the rigid monasteries of the day. The first part of this book traces Baisao’s transformation from novice to monk and then from master to impoverished old tea seller. After a long stint as an Zen monk in a temple in southern Japan, Baisao left for Kyoto, a city he visited in his youth, to live the actual practice of Zen. Zen as it exists for the great Ch’an masters of the past; free from the confines of temple bureaucracy and stale dogma. Adopting the dress of a Chinese sage (a Crane Cloak), he opened a small tea shop (aptly labeled Tsusen-tei – “the shop that conveys you to Sagehood”) and eventually adopted a lay-lifestyle of making a meager living (largely donations to keep from starving) through the sale of tea and occasional calligraphy. An enigmatic character of the time, Baisao had strong opinions of Zen practice and its place in 18th century Japanese society. Rather than conform to the limits set by monastic rules, Baisao lived a life that was largely scorned during the time period – A tea-seller (I liken it to living as a hot-dog vendor in Philly). But rather than the mindless hawking of hot flavored water, the old tea seller intuitively weaves his Zen koan training into every cup brewed and verse set to paper. Far beyond the tea-mongers or tea-aficionados of the day – Baisao takes the enjoyment of a cup of tea into a realm of mental fortitude and soulful clarity. Tea will never provide the enlightenment but an enlightened man can surely pour you a cup, providing a small moment of satori that drifts off as the cup reaches its end. Baisao lived the life of a nonconformist who embraced a working life of poverty rather than a monk’s life of begging or temple work. He shrugged off the robes of the priest as just another attachment. He became a destination himself, just like the scenic temples and groves that he set up his brazier and banner. He spanned the purgatory that lies between monk and layperson, practitioner and vagrant. His colorful life straddled the gray area that exists in our practice. His verse moves simply and crisply without subjecting itself to needless explanation or expression. It is simple and direct but forces the reader to think and ponder – linked to the koans he trained with – Baisao’s verse requires us to ponder to gain wisdom. I moved this morning to the center of town waist deep in worldly dust but free of worldly ties. I wash my robe and bowl in the Kamo’s pure stream the moon a perfect disc rippling its watery mind. Baisao lived a simple life in a remarkable way. For a generation of practitioners who struggle with the application of Zen practice into the daily grind of 9-5 workloads and pressing family matters, Baisao provides with a simple remedy that I gleamed from his words. Don’t press Zen into your life or try to mold it. Drop a few leaves of it into your daily life and let it simmer. The movement and turbulence will not cease, nor will it ever, but the flavor will be much more wonderful and the taste subtle. Cheers, my friends! We all balance on the fringe of practice. Baisao provides us with the fuel to move past rigor and dogma and seamlessly blend our life and our living together. It is one thing to be able to label and describe that tea you are sipping (or beer you are guzzling), it is a completely different thing to savor that drink wordlessly…thoughtlessly.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Elsa

    OK, I confess, I thought I was going to be reading about Basho (haiku), as opposed to Baisao (not haiku). They were both Zen monks, retired, who wandered around writing haiku and not haiku. I was pleasantly surprised. Baisao was a really interesting guy and he had a way with words. He retired from the priesthood and became a wandering tea seller which, at that time, was a pretty awful way of life and one almost unthinkable for a man of his education and social class. He wrote some brilliant poet OK, I confess, I thought I was going to be reading about Basho (haiku), as opposed to Baisao (not haiku). They were both Zen monks, retired, who wandered around writing haiku and not haiku. I was pleasantly surprised. Baisao was a really interesting guy and he had a way with words. He retired from the priesthood and became a wandering tea seller which, at that time, was a pretty awful way of life and one almost unthinkable for a man of his education and social class. He wrote some brilliant poetry though, much of it about tea, with a strong zen influence, humor and a keen eye.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ed

    Matsuo Bashō was a 17th century Japanese Zen priest and poet. He left the monastery and began selling tea from a portable tea stand in Kyoto and dispensed tea and wisdom to all who could hear. For those who love tea and those who love Zen and those who just love humanity, this collection of stories is heartening.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    THIS WAS A REALLY INTERESTING READ ABOUT AN HISTORIC CHARACTER THAT WAS UNKNOWN TO ME. I JUST CAME UPON IT IN A BOOKSTORE IN SEATTLE & TOOK A CHANCE. THERE IS A LOT OF REPETITON IN POEMS & IN ACCOUNTS OF BAISAO'S LIFE, BUT IT JUST ADDS TO THE CHARM OF BAISAO. I CAN'T IMAGINE ANYONE IN THE US, NOW, LIVING A LIFE OF FUGALITY AS HE DID. I'M PLEASED TO HAVE THIS AS A PART OF MY POETRY COLLECTION. THIS WAS A REALLY INTERESTING READ ABOUT AN HISTORIC CHARACTER THAT WAS UNKNOWN TO ME. I JUST CAME UPON IT IN A BOOKSTORE IN SEATTLE & TOOK A CHANCE. THERE IS A LOT OF REPETITON IN POEMS & IN ACCOUNTS OF BAISAO'S LIFE, BUT IT JUST ADDS TO THE CHARM OF BAISAO. I CAN'T IMAGINE ANYONE IN THE US, NOW, LIVING A LIFE OF FUGALITY AS HE DID. I'M PLEASED TO HAVE THIS AS A PART OF MY POETRY COLLECTION.

  10. 5 out of 5

    J Reynolds

    This was an amazing book, both in biography and aesthetics. Absolutely loved it and have thought of it many times since. I would buy this in hard back and read it again and again. I would also give this as a gift and feel proud to do so. Beautiful book in so many ways. Simplicity done right.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Sucks Kindle version is pathetic. Cant increase font size. Would love my money back on this one. Thanks amazon for being super lazy.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Janet

    I had never heard of Baisao before I picked up this book. I love the poems and the Zen spirituality as well as the tea lore and history. I find this guy inspiring.

  13. 4 out of 5

    David

  14. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Marcialis

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gail

  17. 5 out of 5

    Tom Plaskon

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mujin Karuna 法师无尽卡鲁纳

  19. 5 out of 5

    Edward Wright

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kelly M.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sukaina

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ricky Barnes

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jan Kapoor

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dean Isensee

  25. 5 out of 5

    Allan

  26. 4 out of 5

    Marc Manley

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Wade

  28. 5 out of 5

    David

  29. 4 out of 5

    Pat Ferris

  30. 4 out of 5

    Don Drolet

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