The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth

There is a new Women in Buddhism book out now called, “Seeds of Virtue, Seeds of Change, a collection of Zen Teachings” edited by Jikyo Cheryl Wolfer.  I think there are 27 Women Zen Teachers contributing.  Some of them have big names like Jan Chozen Bays, Eijun Linda Ruth Cutts,  Joan Halifax, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, Pat Enkyo O’hara, all women who have been published and many lead a large Zen center.  There are also many teachers who share their beautiful dharma that we may not have heard of.  My lineage has quite a few represented.  My transmission teacher Joen Snyder-O’Neal with a story that sounds just like her, intimate and heart-felt.  From Minnesota, there is Myo-O Habermas-Scher,  Hoko Karnegis, and my contribution.  In Katagiri-Roshi lineage, we can add Teijo Munnich and Meiren Val Szymanski.  And more!

Just having started reading through the book,  even the first piece, “The Authentic Tea Bowl before Birth” by Wendy Egyoku Nakao, stuck with me.  It is an exposition of the koan by the same name.

What really struck me was how we work with dukkha or our suffering.  Often I have heard that the role of the Zen Teacher is not actually “to teach” or to “try and fix people’s problems” or to “help”.  But rather to encourage and allow the practitioners who come to see them to receive their karma, to befriend their particular suffering, and to use the principles of buddhism to work within those conditions.  To, by our practice, turn samsara into nirvana in each moment of our lives.  As soon as you “fix” one problem, the next arises.  And, of course, in the end, as Buddha said, There is old age, illness and death.  Our practice becomes a journey of seeing from a different point of view, moment by moment, for the rest of our life.  It is not a destination or a particular manifested form.  It is acknowledging the mystery in “things as they are.”

In Egyoku’s piece and in the koan, the precious, ancient tea bowl is shattered by the “wild women.” 

                        Moon-Heart, a Zen student, was serving tea to her special guest, Abbess Eko of a nearby temple and Mushin, a dharma heir of the Abbess, stopped by. Mushin was a “wild women” and carried a bone instead of the usual ceremonial stick.

                        In the midst of appreciating the exquisite bowl, Mushin smashed the bowl with her bone and shattered it into pieces.  “Now, said the wild women, “Look at the Authentic Tea Bowl that exists before birth?”

                        Moon-Heart blanched, gasped and nearly fainted.  The Abbess of the temple said calmly, “I gave you this tea bowl, but now, I would like you to give it back to me.  Before you do, gather the pieces, glue them, and fill the cracks with gold.  Then have a box made for it.  On the cover of the box, write the name of the bowl, which I now give as “The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth.”  I will reverently pass this bowl on to my Dharma descendants.

                        Now I ask you:  What is the Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth?

Egyoku writes about the koan:  page 9
                        In Shattering – whether it is an individual or a community – there is a great possibility for truth telling in all of its myriad dimensions.  Don’t squander it!  To see this opportunity is to see into the beating heart of this koan.

                        It is a Japanese custom that cracked or broken pottery is glued back together and the cracks filled with gold leaf.  What is this gold of one’s life?  Do we hide our cracks and scars and try to render them invisible?  This koan challenges us:  these are the very attributes that express our uniqueness as a Dharma vessel.  When our self-centered agenda is forgotten and grasping stops, Buddha’s light shine through.  This is poignantly expressed in the words of Leonard Cohen’s song: “ Ring the bell that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”  When the bowl is shattered, when things fall apart, Look!”

                        We are called forth to live in full accord with what has been revealed, with life as it is.  The liberating openness of not-knowing is precisely the wholeness of life all together.  This wholeness calls us to bear witness:  What is this piece?  What is that piece?  Meeting this piece, meeting that piece, we practice the great wisdom of inclusion.  Each of us, individually and communally, continually gathers the pieces and affirms the wholeness of life.  Each of us, individually and communally, continually grows new hands and eyes, grows in wisdom, grows in love.  Each of us, individually and communally, is the gold in the cracks.  All of our thoughts, words and actions, may they be loving actions serving the wholeness of life.

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