In 1724, the Japanese Zen Buddhist monk Gekkai Gensho left the temple where he had lived and served for nearly 40 years since he was a child. He was not yet 50 years old. He became a wandering monk who lived in the traditional manner—that is, from the charity of the lay community and, when times were tough, begging. At the age of 60 he quit wandering and began living in a small dwelling on the banks of the Kamo River in the town of Kyoto, some 500 miles from the temple where he had spent most of his life.
He opened a shop in that dwelling and began selling a new type of tea called sencha. He adopted the name Baisao, "the Old Tea Seller." In addition to selling tea from his shop, Baisao took his tea equipment in large, portable bamboo-wicker baskets balanced on the ends of a carrying pole to gathering spots in town and in the surrounding hills. He became a familiar and popular figure among the general populace, including many of the leading poets, writers, painters, calligraphers and scholars of the time, some of whom became his friends and remained so until he died at the age of 87 in 1763. Though he never took on the mantle of teacher or master, a visit to his tea shop and a conversation was considered a religious experience by many of his clientele.
Baisao was an accomplished poet, writer and thinker and has been described as "an inspirational and unconventional figure in a culturally rich time in Kyoto." Though selling quality tea to the general public might not seem radical behavior, Baisao was breaking the mold. In that time and place, most tea sellers were elderly men from the uneducated, lowest levels of Japanese society. Buddhist priests were among the best educated, most cultured citizens of the society, and it was unheard of for one of them to live such an itinerant life. More, he was violating a precept prohibiting members of the priesthood from earning a living. According to the precept, monks could only maintain purity of mind when they begged for food, a concept with which the Old Tea Seller reluctantly took issue.
Before continuing, because of today's political/social connotations in America with the word 'tea,' it is worth pointing out that Baisao's path in life was revolutionary, not reactionary, with mental clarity, not material acquisition, the goal. He not only made a meager living selling tea, but he did not charge a set fee, allowing his clients to pay what they felt his product and service was worth. If a client didn't pay, the tea was free.
In "A Statement of Views in Response to a Customer's Questions," Baisao explained his perspective after a customer called him out for violating the precept.
His answer included, "I am well aware of the objection you raise. ... Remember what Confucius replied upon once being asked to explain a desire he had expressed to go and live among the uncivilized tribes of the east. 'If men of superior attainment went and dwelt among such people,' he said, 'they would not remain uncivilized.'"
Baisao continued, quoting an old, Japanese verse:
"Though a contented mind brings physical
contentment with it,
Physical contentment also may occur when the
mind is ill at ease.
When the mind is truly at peace, wherever you are
Whether you live in a marketplace or in a mountain
That is, the mind at peace is more valuable than the spoils of the marketplace or the solitude of hermitages. Baisao saw that exaggerating the virtues of priesthood to obtain the devotion and charity of lay followers corrupted both. He wrote that the relationship caused priests "... to seek greedily in every way and at every opportunity to obtain donations from followers. When they are successful they toady to their new benefactors, wagging their tails and showing them more respect and devotion than they do their teachers or own parents.
"Donors, for their part, pride themselves on their virtue, and on the strength of a small donation fancy the recipient now owes them a deep debt of gratitude. They end up regarding the priest with contempt."
This dynamic, of course, encompasses a much wider range of circumstances and people than those involving religious institutions and donors.
Baisao, the Old Tea Seller, found a mind truly at peace by nothing more complicated (or complex) than selling a quality product to ordinary people in exchange for whatever those people felt it was worth to them. A key ingredient of the product was the mind at peace of the seller, which could not but have some small or large effect on the buyer, who, in some small or large way, could not help but pass on to others.
Like all true revolutionaries for the common good, the Old Tea Seller sold a timeless product that never loses its flavor, is always in demand and quenches a multitude of thirsts.