Baisao – The Old Tea Seller in Kyoto

In the year 1724, a zen monk left his temple on the Japanese Island Kyushu, heading for Kyoto. He eventually settled in Kyoto by the river Kamo, and made a living for himself by selling a new type of tea, sencha. He named himself Baisao – the old tea seller. He sold tea at his residence but also set up a portable simple business at different famous scenic sites around Kyoto, he could go anywhere he wanted, at any time. Just imagine him during hanami in spring, when people gather to picnick under the blossoming cherry trees, he would be there to sell his tea under the flowers. In the warm summer nights he would stand by the river Kamo watching people passing by on their evening strolls. In autumn he would be near the most beautiful red maple trees; always there to offer a cup of tea. He did not care how much, if at all, he was paid for his tea; he placed a bamboo container for donations. According to the poems he wrote, it seems he starved at times. In old age backpain made him unable to carry his tea shop outdoors. But it is evident that his tea was more than tea; it was the taste of nature’s own essence he offered.

“The price for this tea is anything from a hundred in gold to half sen. If you want to drink free, that is all right too. I am only sorry you cannot have it for less” was inscribed on his bamboo tube he used for collecting offerings (translation from Baisao by Norman Waddell).

Baisao lived in Kyoto at a flourishing and exciting time of the capital, and his tea guests were both ordinary citizens as well as leading poets, writers, painters, calligraphers and scholars of the Edo period. In a way he became a tea rebel, he abondoned the rituals of the highly formalistic Japanese tea ceremony, with powdered tea – matcha – whisked into perfection. Instead he preferred to drink tea in a very simple and natural way, sencha. It was made by steeping whole tea-leaves in hot water in a teapot. He also abandoned the rules of the temple and lived freely and spontaneously, and yet in complete harmony with his Buddhist practice. Just like the nun Rengetsu later did (see a previous blog) when she also found tea and art as a way of making a living in Kyoto after she had left her life in the temple.

Tea, Zen and Tao is of one taste. Though the different ways we drink and experience tea seem to be many and varied, there is only one true taste: the essence of our own nature.


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