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Cups of Tea

February 29, 2012

There was once a wise and respected master of the Way. She lived under a small outcropping on the shady side of a large hill with her cot and a small fire-pit. By this time she was growing old and rarely left her abode. As such, she had grown accustomed to receiving visitors who came up from the nearby towns or from the highway to learn from her or merely see what all the fuss was about. Often these were adventurers, warriors, bards, lords, or students. Today, there were all of these, and more.

The first to visit the master was the student – this story is one you surely know; the student is arrogant and ostentatious, going on and on about what he knows and demanding specific answers. He does this all the while the master goes about preparing tea. As the water slowly comes to boil, the student talks and the master listens and says nothing. When the water boils, the master lightly lifts the kettle and pours herself a cup of tea. She lets off a bit before the top and begins pouring water into the student’s cup. All the while she is doing this, the student continues talking. With the student’s cup, the master does not let off before or even at the top but instead allows the water to flow over the cup and onto the table, then onto the student’s pants.

The student leaps up angrily and cries, “What are you doing, old woman?! Can’t you see my cup is full?!”

The master, as you know, continues pouring and says, “Your mind is like this cup. It is already full and will surely spill over if I add anything.”

With that, the student leaves in a huff, bumping shoulders with the next guest – a young lord.

The lord was here discreetly, as his land was discontent with his rule, and he had come to seek advice from the master. The lord sat down across the low table from the master and bowed respectfully. The master began preparing new cups of tea.

The lord said, “Master, the people are discontent and restless. The year has been hard on their crops and there is no enemy to fight, and our peace is threatened by their hunger. But I have no way to magick food into being. I fear they will rise up and I will be deposed, perhaps executed, for my soldiers are also hungry. What can be done?”

The master regarded the lord for a moment and said nothing but began pouring tea. She filled her cup as she had done before, then moved to fill the lord’s. But the lord stuck out his hand over the cup and shook his head, saying, “No, thank you, Master. I don’t have the time. I must hear your advice and return to my duties.”

The master said, “Your thoughts are like a cup of tea that has been steeped for too long. Filled with worry and speculation, your mind has grown bitter and overpowered your senses.”

The lord barely hesitated before saying, “Then must I empty my cup?”

The master shook her head and bade the lord wait. The master took the kettle and emptied its contents onto the ground, then washed it out and refilled it with water and a little bit of tea. They sat in silence while it came to boil. It had barely done so when the master poured the lord a cup of tea.

The lord sipped it politely and frowned. “This tea isn’t ready yet. It is much too light!”

The master said, “All the tea in this kettle is the same – if you want tea right now, you must drink it as it is.”

The lord considered this and suddenly cried, “Oh! Master, you are saying that I must eat lightly in accordance with the rest of my people. If they starve, than I shall starve, and I will be as one of them!” Before the master could respond, the lord offered profuse thanks and left the tent. The master chuckled to herself and began to put away her tea set, humming all the while. She was almost finished when a soldier stepped into the tent and bowed low.

“Master, I have come to this place in service of my lord, whom you have just finished seeing. When we arrived, he was distraught with worry, but he returned content. I have been granted permission to come take counsel with you so as to also be contented.”

The master smiled and asked the soldier if he cared for any tea. The soldier was thirsty after walking under the sun all day and gladly accepted, taking a seat as the master began preparing more tea. The soldier thought about what would content him as he waited, but was unable to decide, for the tea was quite soon ready (as the kettle was already very warm and the fire still lit). The master poured them both cups of tea and sipped heartily on her own.

At length, the soldier said, “Thank you for the tea, Master. I am quite embarrassed, as I came to ask for your help but I’m not sure what I need.”

“Well, what is wrong?”

The soldier looked confused. “I am not sure. But I’m not happy. My family is poor and struggles to eat. To feed them, I must spend all my days away from home fighting other men, whose lives are probably like my own.” The soldier was upset by this admission and said no more.

The master said, “What do you mean you don’t know why you’re unhappy? Have you not just told me? Because you are poor and away from your family, forced to fight other poor men away from their families?”

The soldier said, “I suppose that is why I am unhappy. But how can I find happiness?” The master said nothing, and they sipped on in silence.

When they had finished, the master asked, “Did your cup of tea satisfy?”

The soldier answered, “Yes, I am warmed.”

“You were thirsty and drank to be satisfied. Is that not happiness?”

The soldier looked at his cup. “So all I need to be contented is a full cup of tea?”

The master added, “The answer is always right before you.”

From outside, a voice called to the soldier. The soldier stood up and said, “Thank you for your advice, Master, and also for the tea. I shall try to be more mindful of the moment.” The soldier then left and became a civil servant and advocated amongst nobles for the rights of the poor.

An hour or so later, as the sun was beginning to wane, a bright-eyed man with a suǒnà poked a head into the woven flaps that hung about the outcropping. “Master? Ma – oh, my apologies!” The man bowed and backed out, as the master had been napping on her cot. The man was about to set off when the master’s voice sounded, “Come in, come in! I was only napping and I would love to hear a tune. Perhaps over tea?”

“I would be delighted!” The visitor came inside and introduced himself as a traveling musician. He explained, “I was once apprenticed to a court official and was taught to read and write, music and literature and history. But one year my eyesight started to fail and, though I am not entirely blind, my master feared losing his investment and so, rather than shame him, I left to earn my living as a beggar, traveling and playing music at inns and houses for a room and some food.”

The master replied, “Well, I should not like to deprive you of your livelihood. I have only some bread and lentils, but I can make you some soup, or at least toasted bread. Will that do for a song?”

The musician said, “I would not have you spare bread on my account, for there is an inn not an hour from here. All I wish from you is a cup of your tea. As my eyesight has waned, my sense of taste has grown.” The musician smiled and said, “Tasting and collecting teas has become something of a hobby for me.” He hesitated and added, “If I like your tea, may I ask you for a small helping that I can take with me?”

The master smiled in return and said, “Of course! Here, have a seat and we shall have tea presently. In the meantime, play me a song! I haven’t had the privilege of live music in many months.” And so the musician played and the master brewed. When the tea was done, they sat together and sipped for many minutes in silence.

At last, the musician tilted the cup up and set it down, smacking his lips. “That was wonderful – not over-brewed, nor under, and grew in flavor as I supped. I would be honored if you would part with a couple servings. I’ll even throw in another song!”

The master laughed and said, “I welcome more music, though I shall give you this box of tea regardless. Tea is all I have in plenty, and I am happy to share it with a fellow tea-lover.” With that the musician began playing again. When he had finished, the master bowed and gave the musician a box of her freshest tea. When the musician had left, the master continued to hum his tunes.

It was just shy of night when the master was visited again, this time by a well-worn adventurer clothed in hide and carrying a bow, a quiver, and a pack. The master heard the man before she saw him, as his horse clopped loudly over stones and neighed as he dismounted.

“Master, may I come in?” The master replied affirmatively and the man pushed aside the flap and stepped inside. His voice was gruff and his face grown with stubble. He sat down across from the master and warmed his hands over the fire. He noticed she was eating. “I hope I’m not intruding, master.”

The master smiled and shook her head. “Not at all. Would you care for some bread or soup?” The adventurer shook his head. “Perhaps some tea? I’m about to have some myself.” The adventurer shook his head again.

He said, “Actually, I would rather hear a story.”

“A story?”

“Well, you’re a famous sage. Surely you’ve led an exciting life. I will trade a tale of my own for one from your past.”

The master considered the offer a moment. She didn’t often tell such stories, but she was still in a good mood after the music. She smiled and accepted.

She began, “I was fourteen years old and living at Huàshān with my master and his other pupils. I had recently returned from a visit to the city with one of the older pupils. He had met with some friends he’d once known there and they introduced me to the plant ma.” She smiled sheepishly. “Anyways, I took some back with me to Huàshān. One night soon after, I was returning from a meditation hovel that looked over the grand valley, having smoked some and looked out at the stars. I was very much afraid of waking my master and was trying to walk quietly. But, as I rounded the last corner, I came face-to-face with him!” She paused and laughed.

“I wager you paid for that one, huh?”

The master shook her head emphatically, still laughing. “No, no – there was a moment where we both looked at each other. Then I realized… he was drunk!” The adventurer laughed loudly and slapped his knee with a light fist.

“I’ll be damned! A drunk sage!” He laughed and then added, “Though, I suppose it figures for a Daoist. I can’t rightly see Confucius throwing them back at the tavern.”

The master chuckled and added, “You know what he said? Or, slurred, really… He said, ‘I’m an illusion, too. Remember that!’” She let her smile turn serious. She said, “I don’t think he knew what he was saying at the time, but I was riding a wave of clarity and I could feel the truth in it.” She repeated, “I’m an illusion, too.” They sat in silence for a few moments.

At length, the adventurer said, “I grew up in Běijīng in a wealthy family and was sent off to a renowned school at an early age. When I got there, I found the kids repugnant and the teachers resigned. I was only able to tolerate it one month before I left and decided to become an outlaw. I recruited some of my old friends and we set off to find our fortunes in Xīnjiāng. When we began, there were four of us, and our journey lasted three years. By the time we got there, our number was only two, though our numbers had ranged over the months from alone to one of nearly twenty. We had many encounters and adventures, one of us died, and one left.” He paused and considered his story. “If you will allow me a few moments more of set-up.” The master nodded assuredly.

The adventurer went on, “Well, my friend and I got to Xīnjiāng in early Spring, fugitives and nearly starving. We were soon captured and forced into military service – and this was when the rebellions were just heating up. Anyways, so two days into the military life, we get ambushed in a mountain pass – of course. I kid you not: we were joking about an ambush only moments before the first arrow flew.” He paused again, and looked troubled. The master waited patiently and sipped her tea. The adventurer glanced at his and then went on, “They came at us half-naked, though it was near freezing outside, their bodies painted like tigers, and their leader in the skin of a white tiger. It wasn’t even a skirmish, it was a bath of blood. My friend didn’t make it.”

“How did you survive?”

“They left a few of us alive, gave us the option to spread the tale or join or die. I voted to spread the tale. It turned out the man was called White Tiger – he was one of the rebel warlord’s Tiger Generals. I was pressed back into service and fought with the army for upwards of half-a-year before I was captured again. This time, I was given no option and was taken, along with maybe forty others, with the army as it marched. As it happened, the army was led by White Tiger, and I despaired, for I felt surely I would either die at his hand or remain captive forever, for his command was legend amongst the army, as he had beaten us at every turn.

“We came to a modest village and soon word spread amongst us prisoners of an impending attack by the imperial cavalry.” The adventurer paused and his eyes were distant. “They attacked like phantoms from the morning fog…. ” He looked at the master. “We were camped outside the village, but they attacked the village. Those that got away reached our camp first, bloodied and in shocked. Then, as the rebels labored to formation, the screams and sounds of fighting reached us. It was… there was this boy, this little boy, that wandered past our makeshift prison. He was covered in blood and dirt, completely alone and terrified. We saw him before the guards did, but once they saw him, they went to him… but he collapsed before they got there.” The adventurer went on, slowly, afraid of the words that were coming, painful as the memory was, but resigned to the fact that they were. “Right before he did, before he collapsed, he looked at me.”

The adventurer closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “I changed sides – right then and there. I had no love for the government anyways, or the people in it. But then I found a hatred for them, and my life suddenly seemed purposeful. I had been searching, wandering – aimlessly – and it was at once past.” The adventurer trailed off and allowed a few moments of silence.

The master said, “The rebels were defeated though.”

“Yes, we were. I joined the White Tiger and fought in his ranks, eventually by his side, for nearly six years. Towards the end of our cause, I was wounded in battle and lost consciousness on the battlefield. I awoke to this woman – radiant, immediately intoxicating, with laughter like the lotus – and I fell in love. But, of course, I had to return to the fight.” He put away the thought of her and went on, “We were betrayed not a month later. White Tiger was assassinated, we were attacked and the whole outfit routed. Scattered, we never really re-banded, and without White Tiger, the rebellion faltered and pittered out. I went back to find my lady love… ”


“I’ve been looking for her ever since.”

There was a long silence. The master asked, “What brought you to me?”

The adventurer shrugged. “Nothing in particular. The only way I can get through each day is to cherish things as they come. An old sage once told me something to that effect, and I have made it a point to visit the wise whenever my path takes me by one.”

“But I have not given you any pithy proverb.”

“But you have! You told me what your master told you. ‘Even I am an illusion.’”

The master smiled, “Ah, in the suspense of your tale, I had forgotten.”

The adventurer smiled back and stood, saying, “Now, it is late and I must make my way to the inn, for lips are loosest there and no more than at this time of night. I shall ask, as I am fated to, each patron if they’ve seen her. Thank you very much for sharing your story and listening to mine.”

He turned to go and the master asked, “Are you certain you don’t wish to warm yourself with tea before you go?”

The adventurer turned back and said, “Well, I don’t much care for tea – I had enough of it as a boy – but I do fancy a taste.” He picked up his cup, took a healthy sip and swilled it about his mouth. He swallowed and said, “It reminds me of flowers.” With that, a bow, and another thanks, he was gone.

By this time, the master was growing tired, for night had fallen and her stomach was full. She had begun to deconstruct the fire, had already poured her last cup and put away the tea set, when a strangely-accented voice broke the silence from outside.

“Master? Are you home?”

The master replied, “Yes, I am here. Who are you that calls on an old woman before bed?”

In stepped a white man, balding and gripping a long walking staff. “One who would learn from you.” He paused and ventured, “I know the hour is late, but I have been traveling all day. I do not ask for food or shelter, only for your assurances that you will be here in the morning.”

The old woman smiled and said, “Yes, yes, I’m liable to be here a long time – probably until I croak!” She chuckled. “Would you care for some tea?”

He smiled and shook his head. “No, thanks. I have never quite become accustomed to your teas. I prefer my own, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course. What brings a man of the West out this far?”

The man sat down and took his staff across his lap. “I am a seeker after the Way. I have been traveling for some time and I have met many teachers and saints and sages. I have come merely to talk with you and hear your teachings and thoughts on the Way. I want to hear about your way.”

The master was weary from the day and recalled the student that had visited earlier. “You aren’t a philosopher, are you? I have talked to many philosophers and they are almost always foolish.”

The white man laughed. “I know the feeling – from both sides. They are not the true philosophers, anyhow. But – no, I am not one of them.”

“You are a seeker, yes?”

“More than anything else. I like to sample Ways, if you will. I have learned much from nearly all the wise ones I’ve met thusfar.” He gestured to the tea cups. “If Ways were teas, I’d be a tea-taster.”

“Looking for the perfect tea?” The master was about to declare it a fool’s errand –

“A fool’s errand, that is. No, I sample them, let their flavor waft through my senses, then I take them to heart and move on. Understanding the flavor is enough.”

The master smiled happily, awake again. “A fellow student! I am most honored. Come! You may use my kettle – let us talk!”

The two of them, rendered equals by their search, sat across from each other, sipping their own teas, and discussed the meanderings of the Way long into the night.


From → Short Stories

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