An old woman in Yunnan, a lay chan follower -as Zen is called- in China, ran a teahouse along the main road. She was famous for imparting edifying lessons of wisdom to the monks who stopped at her inn. Many of them preferred to avoid her: only the most daring, or the true seekers of Truth had the courage to stop there. One day a bonze, eager to teach her a lesson, tried to challenge her.
“You who know all about the chan, tell me one thing: What do you think is the fundamental meaning of Bodhidharma’s message?”
Without a word the woman fetched a teapot and offered her guest a bowl of tea.
“Here is my answer”, she said finally, her gaze laughing.
The monk widened his eyes, visibly puzzled.
“don’t you understand?”
“Yet it is simple: the thousand flavours of the tea leaf are diffused in the water.”
The bonzo’s eyes continued to look at her questioningly.
“Truth is transmitted from one heart to another, beyond words!”
And the defeated monk set off again, pondering the lesson he had received.
The fame of the teahouse owner had spread so much that the superiors of the surrounding monasteries became jealous. Indeed, the innkeeper’s original wisdom lessons promoted her chan master, whose followers were growing while the brethren of competing schools were dwindling. At one point, one of them decided to send his two most erudite disciples there to try to ridicule the eccentric tea lady. The woman placed a single steaming bowl in front of the two.
“I have prepared for you a rare tea, of a quality worthy of a prince’s table. The one of you who possesses a miraculous power, drink it!”
The brothers looked at each other quizzically, each aspiring to be more humble than the other. Meanwhile the tea was getting cold. The old woman returned and said:
“Then see my extraordinary power.”
And she emptied the bowl, enjoying the aroma with delight.
“But what power have you manifested?” one of the monks ventured to ask.
“That of the present moment. If I drink I do it with all my being, without thinking of anything else!”
– – –
From Tales of the Zen Sages, Pascal Fauliot