Koan commentary.

To err is human, we are told. But what happens next is a good measure of practice.

When Minister Wang went to Shokei temple they were making tea. Ro Joza, lifting the kettle to bring it to Myosho [the head monk], happened to overturn it. Seeing this, the minister asked, “What’s under the tea stove?”

Ro said, “The God of the Hearth.”

The minister said, “If it is the god of the hearth, why has it upset the kettle?”

Ro said, “A thousand days of government service and only one accident.” The minister shook out his sleeves and left the room.

Myosho said, “Ro Joza, you have long eaten the food of Shokei temple, but still you wander about the countryside gathering charred wood.”

Ro said, “What about you?”

Myosho said, “That is where the devil gets the better of you.”

[Setcho comments, “At the time I would just have kicked over the tea stove.”]

Blue Cliff Record. No. 48: “Turning Over the Teakettle”

In this koan there are three Figures,
 and we know little about any of them. 
Minister Wang was the Governor of the
 district, Ro Joza was a senior monk, and Myosho was the Vice Abbot of the temple. All three were descendants in the Rinzai lineage of Tokusan (Chi: Deshan). Ro Joza must have been a senior monk because he was assigned the very important role of serving tea to the Governor. And Myosho, as the Vice Abbot of the temple, was of course even more senior.

The context of the tea ceremony is meaningful in this koan. According to Sekida-roshi in his book of commentaries, Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, having the Governor come to the monastery for a tea ceremony would have been a momentous occasion. As was the Chinese custom, the participants would have been sitting on chairs or stools, and perhaps the kettle had to be fetched from the hearth in the corner of the room and placed on the table. At a tea ceremony, whether in China or Japan, the host’s first consideration is the comfort of the guest. The guest, in turn, is expected to be attentive to his host so that together they create a harmonious atmosphere. Sekida-roshi writes, “Their concentration is such that even the slightest mishap is rare. If by any chance a minor accident happens, it is dealt with quietly, and may even enhance the composed spirit in which the ceremony is conducted. Everything is done with seeming nonchalance, but in reality with collected serenity.”

And then Ro Joza spilled the tea kettle, right in front of the Governor.

This case counters the notion of koans as just arcane stories of ancient masters dueling in confounding utterances. It addresses one of the most ordinary of worldly challenges: how to deal with our mistakes. Every day we all make mistakes of some kind, so we get a lot of practice in managing them. More than that, this koan asks us to consider how we handle ourselves when our carelessness, our misjudgments, or just our forgetfulness are exposed to another.

In today’s story the Governor, upon seeing Ro Joza’s mishap, asked him, “What’s under the tea stove?” Now, what is he really asking here? This is the first point of the koan. Sekida-roshi writes, “According to ancient folklore there were gods or spirits in many parts of the house: in the kitchen, the hearth, the fireplace, the bathroom, the lavatory, the central pillar of the house, the well, and even the corners of the garden,” and these gods were very much revered. The housekeeper would present offerings to them. The effect of this was that the people in the house would feel compelled to carry themselves mindfully. They would have been raised to “watch out under your feet,” a Zen saying meaning to maintain your aplomb, your balance, your center.

In reply to the Governor’s question, Ro Joza said, “The god of the hearth.” Of all the responses we might come up with after committing an error and having it pointed out to us, probably the commonest is to blame it on someone or something else—what in psychology is called externalizing. This is the go-to response of many children. (One of our members tells of a toddler he knew, Andrea, who always blamed her mistakes on her younger brother, Gregory. And once when Andrea pooped in her pants, she tearfully cried, “Gregory did it!”) In adults we might expect a higher level of moral development, but often don’t find it. Blaming others is especially on display among politicians and others working in the public sector, whose mistakes more easily become public. If they don’t blame their colleagues or political opponents, they cite circumstances or bad timing. Rarely do we hear someone take full ownership of the mistake, and even then it has strategy behind it. Compare these reactions to the words of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch himself: “In abandoning errors, wisdom will inevitably arise. But defending one’s defects reveals an ignoble mind.”

But who among us has never done this? It’s painful to accept blame! It’s bruising to our pride—our self-image. Our reflex is to dodge the blame, avoid the pain, as Ro Joza did. To do so, though, is to bind ourselves to the mistake. To move beyond it, we need only acknowledge our responsibility in it.

Best of all is to apologize. That’s the silver bullet—the way to put the mistake behind us in an instant. For instance, I believe that if President Clinton could only have acknowledged, early on, his sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky and then apologized for it, millions of us would have been ready to move on. He could have spared himself—and the whole country—months of misery. (Presumably his lawyers advised against it to lessen his legal liability.)

Ro Joza’s response wasn’t enough for the Governor, who then pressed him: “If it’s the god of the hearth, why has it upset the kettle?” He wasn’t going to let Ro Joza get away with that.

Then Ro Joza protested, “A thousand days of government service and only one accident.” (This is an allusion to another, famous governor, who in his years of service allegedly made only one mistake in his official functions.) It’s not hard to grasp the spirit of that remark: “Hey, accidents happen. No one’s perfect, after all.” But how did he say it? This is for the student in dokusan to show.

In response to this comment by Ro Joza, the governor shook out his sleeves and left the room. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an action can be worth a thousand pictures.

At that point, Myosho, the Vice Abbot, stepped forward and said, “Ro Joza, you have long eaten the food of Shokei temple, but still you wander about the countryside gathering charred wood.” Much of koan work, especially with this kind with extended dialogue, is just trusting your intuition. Don’t look too closely at the wording, but try to get a sense of what’s being conveyed.

And then Ro Joza: “What about you?” Those were his words, but again, what is he really saying? And Myosho’s rejoinder: “That’s where the devil gets the better of you.”

This koan always reminds me of a painful experience of my own, when I had been on staff at the Center for a couple years. It happened at a sesshin where I was assigned as a server in the opening tea ceremony—and with the added honor of being in the pair of servers who went up the center aisle and served Roshi Kapleau himself. After first pouring his tea (without a mishap—whew!), we served each person in turn, down the aisle and then back up. The last person whose cup I was to pour was the one seated right next to Roshi. I had calculated how much tea to pour, but upon reaching the last guy (Pat Simons, I remember; these things get burned into your memory), I saw that he might end up with less than everyone else. So I tipped the kettle all the way over. The lid clattered out onto the floor—right in front of Roshi. The last of the tea splashed onto the floor as well, accompanied by a strained outbreath of disgust from Roshi. I was mortified, and hara-kiri was not hard to imagine at the time.

Naturally we can’t avoid making any mistakes at all, but we can minimize them through mindfulness. That’s what we’re really brewing in a tea ceremony: mindfulness. It’s a way of refining our attention, and that’s why so few mistakes, apparently, are made, at least in these big ceremonies. But then, should we make a mistake, that’s where our real mettle is tested. Our kettle mettle. How to wisely manage our mistakes is a critical part of Zen practice.

There are two obvious extremes in responding to mistakes. The first is to be cavalier, as in, “Oh, whatever. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s not the end of the world.” This can be a defensive stance, a compensation for the feeling of shame. But trying to sweep the mistake under the rug by dismissing it as unimportant is a missed opportunity for working on oneself.

The more common response among people in Zen training here, it seems, is to get into a tizzy over it and keep working it in one’s mind. In the West we don’t face the elaborate, high-stakes code of etiquette that people in Asia have to navigate day in and day out, but what we do have is a tendency to be self-judgmental. We tend to beat up on ourselves. I think of the comic actor Chris Farley, whose character on SNL would blurt out something foolish and then slap his forehead—hard. Among Zen students this reaction, internally, is more common than just skating past a mistake.

Even when there are extenuating circumstances to consider in the case of a mistake, do we really need to defend ourselves? In this koan, a mouse may have suddenly darted across the floor, naturally diverting the monk’s attention. But still, the fact that this monk was so quick to point his finger at the supposed “god of the hearth” does not reflect well on him. It would be a rare situation in which one has no share of responsibility at all. And even when there are secondary causes and conditions in addition to one’s own actions (or inactions), someone who has seen into the interdependence of phenomena would not jump to place the blame elsewhere. Thus the famous words of Hui Neng: “When others are wrong, I too am responsible. When I am wrong, I alone am to blame.” Such a statement could only come from someone with the profound understanding that ultimately it is all one’s Self.

In traditional Japanese Zen monastic training the student is tested on this, and sometimes in a severe way. To see how you would respond, you might be scolded even for things that clearly were not your responsibility. While I was in Japan I heard a story about a young monk who was given instructions to “go get a bucket of hot water.” He scurried off, did as he was told, but then was confronted by his supervisor: “Why did you bring hot water?” When he answered, “Because you told me to,” his supervisor slugged him. It was a test, to see how the monk would respond to a harsh rebuke for something that they both knew was not his fault. Now, this is not the kind of treatment you’d ever see here, but it does have the potential, with a resilient enough monk at the right time, to checkmate the mind of right and wrong. Then you’re liberated from the net of fault-finding. The game is up.

Having to contend with these scoldings is a great way to scour away one’s attachment to self and one’s attachment to right and wrong. We can find a space, a realm that is beyond right and wrong even when we’re at the receiving end of these common mistakes. And that realm is simply to let go of it in the mind. Not to go on chewing over the memory of what just happened. And then we’re free! We’ve learned not to do it that way or not to forget, and then go on. No teacher wants you to go on chewing over your mistakes. A teacher or supervisor wants you to get the point that that was a mistake and you have to be more mindful in the future, but then drop it right away. Drop it.

A famous passage by a master speaking of this realm that is beyond right and wrong goes as follows: “Don’t be overjoyed at the right. Don’t be distressed over the wrong. For the ancient masters, things are like flowers and blossoms. Peach blossoms are red, plum blossoms are white, and roses are pink. Though I asked the spring breeze why they are so, it knows nothing.” This realm of no-mind is where the legendary 20th-century Chan master Hsu Yun must have been dwelling during the tea ceremony at which he experienced enlightenment. As his tea was being poured, the cup was dropped, and when it broke, his mind awakened.

In dealing with their mistakes, those in residential training here face a test known to everyone who has spent much time in communal living. From time to time one of the residents will leave just a trace amount of food in a container of leftovers so as not to have to wash the container. Or neglect to clean the lint filter in the clothes dryer. Or leave one of the vehicles with the gas tank almost empty. Then, at one of the daily staff meetings, comes the test: “Who left the…?” Will the culprit admit it? If so, he or she passes the test. What’s more, their admission reveals more about their character—their integrity and honesty—than whatever the infraction did. It eclipses the mistake.

Nowhere do we learn to let go of our failures better than in our zazen, because they’re happening every few seconds. We keep dropping the practice. That’s where we really develop this ability to let go, and we learn the price we pay for clinging to thoughts of our own or others’ failures. So when we make a mistake, right there is the chance to avoid the two extremes of beating up on oneself, which is pointless, and dodging the responsibility for it. In sesshin, especially, when our mishaps or inattentiveness—in the kitchen, in the dining room, in the zendo—loom large, right there is the opportunity to transcend the trap of self and other.

At the end of the case Zen master Setcho gets the last say: “At the time I would have just have kicked over the tea stove.” Now that would really have made a mess! So what does he mean? Just leaping free of the net of right and wrong, good and bad, my fault, his fault, her fault, their fault.

Miles Davis once said. “Don’t worry about mistakes. There are none.” We need to see so-called mistakes as even themselves not somehow outside of the Way. It’s not like there’s the Dharma, our Buddha nature, and then there are these mistakes that somehow creep in, that we have to expel. Everything is it, even the mistakes. In the Mumonkan we read, “The failure is wonderful indeed.” It is perfect in its own way. It is exactly what needs to happen. We can never exclude anything from the truth.

We have this this most exalted method of freeing ourselves from the bondage of “right and wrong,” “good and bad,” “failure and success”: zazen. T.S. Eliot wrote, “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit proceeds unless restored by that refining fire wherein you must move and measure like a dancer.” The forge. The blast furnace of zazen. It removes these impurities from the mind. It enables us to move through our daily life with grace and buoyancy. / / /


Roshi Bodhin KjolhedeKoan commentary by Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede