Some people like strong tea, some like weak tea and some prefer water. Strong tea stimulates and excites; weak tea quenches thirst, and water replenishes the body’s fluids. Strong tea is like the scorching summer sun and loud thunder at the same time; weak tea is like the autumn moon; water is neither sun, nor moon, nor rain but it has extreme clarity and brightness. Some people drink strong tea to combat sleepiness or tiredness, most people prefer weak tea, and those who drink only water are few.
Drinking tea in the meditation hall can be a ritual, but it is most important to listen to the master’s words. In fact, a talk like this is called “tea words.” These words are like different strengths of tea, as the methods we teach vary according to a student’s level of experience. Some methods are poisonously strong, some are lighter, and some have no particular meaning.
Strong tea is called “bitter tea.” Those who have just begun to practice are not ready to drink this tea. After they have gained some benefit from practice but are still not clear how to settle their mind, they should drink bitter tea. Like being baked by a hot sun or startled by thunder, this bitter tea gives them no chance to get lazy. They wouldn’t dare fall asleep or indulge in scattered mind. This bitter tea will arouse them to “angry determination” to practice hard. This is why masters of the Linji sect used to beat and shout. Such methods are bitter tea to be given only to people who are already practicing hard. If a master beat or shouted at students who are not diligent, they may think it is very strange or even get scared away.
One type of student who may be given weak tea is beginners who thirst for practice but are not ready for bitter tea. To them I will speak words of comfort and encouragement to make them feel happy to practice. The other type is those who have drunk bitter tea but are in danger of losing their resolve to practice. To them I will give weak tea as an expedient means. It’s like telling someone just setting out on a journey, “There s a place over the horizon that is really idyllic, with trees, birds, and a beautiful landscape. If you just keep on going you will definitely get there.”
One of the sutras tells about a man who yells at his ox, saying, “You are stupid and useless! Why can’t you go faster with such a light load? Don’t you see all the other oxen in front of us speeding along?” Whereupon the ox stopped dead in its tracks and refused to move, thinking, “Since I am useless, why should I move?” So the man, very upset, asked the other men in front, “How do you get your ox to go so fast?” They replied that they deceive their animals, saying sweet words to them, like, “You are so good and energetic. Without you, I would be nowhere. Awhile back you climbed that hill like it was nothing. Now that the road is flat, you should really be able to speed along.” So the oxen are very happy to go fast. Like humans, animals also need to be comforted and encouraged.
Water has “tasteless” taste; it should be given only to those who have practiced extremely well but have not yet entered the door of Chan, that is to say, have not had some realization. They have already drunk bitter and weak tea and are attached to the flavor, meaning they tend to think too much and cannot stop their minds. They also cannot put their method down and may be attached to a goal of getting enlightened. They are burdened by their experience and intellect. To them I will give a flavorless method. For example, Master Zhaozhou of the Tang dynasty used phrases that seemed to have no meaning, such as: “The 10,000 dharmas return to one; where does the one return to?” Or, “When I was in Qingzhou I made a robe weighing seven pounds.” Or, “What did Bodhidharma bring from the West?” Or, “In the garden there are cypress trees.” These are examples of “water” words that are can induce a practitioner to give up all attachments, throw everything away, and reach the highest goal of enlightenment. But there are also people who can suddenly put down all their attachments with bitter tea. It works by giving them a shock. One can even attain this by drinking weak tea, but in that case, it can only be a very gradual enlightenment.
Who here has had the taste of water, where there is no sun, no moon and no rain, neither night nor day? Yes, but was it crystal-clear? When it is crystal-clear it has brightness in which all things all exist, but there is no discriminating mind, no taste. So subjectively, in this state, the person does not exist. If a person in this state is out in the burning sun, he wouldn’t consider that he is in the sun, but everything is still very clear. With bitter or weak tea, the mind is still there, but crystal-clear water is like the state of no-mind. Bitter and weak tea can help you towards no-mind, but eventually one needs to drink clear water.