On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the era 宝暦 Hōreki (October 1751-June 1764), an old, hollow-cheeked man passed quietly into death. What he left to the world were primarily words scrawled on pieces of paper and memories collected by his closest friends. His only worldly belongings of any value, of which he had carried for years on his own back, had already been set ablaze by his own hand years before. Dying with the name 高遊外 Ko Yūgai, the man who died this day centuries ago was none other than the famed master of 煎茶 sencha, 売茶翁 Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, 1675–1763).
A former monk of the 黄檗 Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, Baisaō would become famous for traveling around the hills of Kyōto selling tea, and imparting mindful (if not often gruff and self-effacing) reflections upon those whom he would share tea with. Breaking from the time-honored tradition of whisked powdered tea (抹茶 matcha) that had become a mainstay of Japan’s elite during the Edo period (1603-1868), Baisaō brewed sencha, a new style of whole leaf green tea that came to Japan through the influence of Ming China (1368-1644).
Baisaō lived much of his life in abject poverty, never asking for money in exchange for the many cups of tea he poured or the calligraphy he wrote. Considered an eccentric for his unorthodox way of asceticism, he attracted the attention of Kyōto artists, writers, poets and aesthetes, all of whom were drawn to his simple lifestyle spent in appreciation of tea. Despite his popularity, Baisaō refused to establish a formal school of tea in his own lifetime, preferring to leave no trace.
Upon his retirement from selling tea, he famously burned his belongings. In the poem he offered to the remembrance of his bamboo basket named 僊窠 Senka (“Den of the Sages”), he mused “After the world-ending kalpa fires consume all things, Won’t the emerald hills still soar into the white clouds? With these words I commit you to the flames.”
Following his death, Baisaō’s tea practice would become the foundation upon which later practitioners of 煎茶道 senchadō (“Way of sencha) would emulate. Over time, his influence led to the popularization of sencha, both as a more accessible form of tea and as an alternative to the formalism of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony).
Baisaō wrote of himself “Years ago old Tu-chan predicted I’d be a great Dharma vessel, sixty-nine years come and gone, time it takes to crook a finger, wouldn’t he laugh to see me now, a rancid old crock peddling roadside tea.”
As I spend the morning in meditation on this, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I decide to commemorate the life of Baisaō in a way he may (or may not) have deemed fit. With a small clay kettle coming to a simmering boil atop a small brazier, I ready my teaware. An old sencha set I found years ago when I, much like Baisaō, had been living a life of chosen poverty in San Francisco. The tiny 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) and 湯冷まし yuzamashi (water cooling vessel) sitting before me.
Five small cups, turned upside-down, waiting to be cleansed.
A small celadon sweets caddy in the shape of a gourd as a tea container. A cut piece of bamboo inscribed with a poem to measure tea leaves. Hammered plates of copper to rest tea cups upon.
Pouring a small amount of boiled water into the yuzamashi, I let the water cool and warm the uneven shape of the ceramic tea object before I empty it out into the hōhin and then into the cups.
A small amount of tea is measured out from the celadon jar into the open void of the bamboo scoop. The leaves of this particular 冠茶 kabusecha (a partially shade-grown style of green tea) are a deep emerald.
Tilting the scoop downward, I let the leaves slide into the warmth of the open and empty hōhin.
The heat from the ceramic begins to activate the aroma of tea, which now, alongside the gentle scent of incense, begins to waft throughout the room.
Slowly I pour cooled water over the leaves and set the lid atop the tea vessel to steep the tea. Within a few seconds I begin decanting, pouring the tea into each cup.
Once emptied, I place the hōhin back down, lifting the lid off to allow the tea to breathe.
With a single mind, enjoying the moment at hand, I set each cup atop their copper rest. As I sit and sip the refreshing tea from the tiny earthenware cup, enjoying its lush flavors and long finish, I give pause and meditate on the life of this old master, on his will to leave no trace, and of the ripples he set into motion which are still felt today. As Baisaō said himself, “I offer a taste of my one cup tea, a Dharma transmission worked out on my own.”
If you would like to learn more about Baisaō, I highly recommend Norman Waddell’s 2008 book “The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto”. Throughout this article I’ve sourced information and translations from this wonderful text.