Baisao, The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th-century Kyoto

Norman Waddell

Setting Up Shop
at Tsuten Bridge

Sitting under the covered bridge
my twelve old teachers with me
I simmer a pot of the Uji spring1
on the bedrock beside the stream;
The sound you hear is not a lute2
the strain is from another realm,
when you leave it will have washed
away the dust of the mundane world.

Setting Up Shop by Tsuten Bridge
I’ve packed my tools of trade
among the fallen yellow leaves
stoking the brazier with pine cones
summoning a soft pine wind;
I’m not concealing secret arts
to speed you on to Sagehood
once you transcend the flavor
you’ll savor its true rich taste.


from Three Verses
on a Tea-Selling Life

I’m not Buddhist or Taoist
not a Confucianist either
I’m a brownfaced whitehaired
hard up old man.
people think I just prowl
the streets peddling tea,
I’ve got the whole universe
in this tea caddy of mine.

Seventy years of Zen
got me nowhere at all
shed my black robe
became a shaggy crank,
now I have no business
with sacred or profane
just simmer tea for folks
and hold starvation back.

"Baisao on Footbridge" by Ito Jakuchu

“Baisao on Footbridge”
by Ito Jakuchu

[I]n the fourth month of 1724 the priest Gekkai Gensho, then in his late forties, left the Zen temple in the castle town of ­Hasuike on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, where he had served for thirty-eight years, and set out for the capital at ­Kyoto, some five hundred miles distant.

After a decade or so which he apparently spent wandering around the Kyoto/Osaka region, he took up residence in a small dwelling on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto, earning a living at the age of sixty by selling a new type of tea known as sencha, made by infusing leaves in a teapot. He called his shop Tsusen-tei, “the shop that conveys you to Sagehood,” a name that by extension became one of his own sobriquets as well.

He soon became a familiar figure around the capital, known simply by the sobriquet he had adopted, Baisao, “the Old Tea Seller.” (Long before Gekkai appeared on the scene and adopted his new name, the term baisao had been used in a generic sense to describe the itinerant tea peddlers who roamed the streets of the capital selling an inferior grade of powdered tea.) His shop was frequented by ordinary citizens as well as by many of those at the center of the city’s artistic, literary, and intellectual life.

In addition to selling tea at his place of residence, ­Baisao was soon taking his shop outdoors. Shouldering his tea equipment, balanced in large portable bamboo-wicker baskets on the ends of a carrying pole, he could set up for business wherever he wished, choosing sites among the many celebrated scenic locales in Kyoto and the surrounding hills.

Baisao did not charge a fixed price for his tea, relying instead on donations left by customers. Although these alms usually were enough to buy the small amount of rice he needed to sustain himself and were occasionally supplemented by gifts of staples such as miso and shoyu, his poems describe times of great extremity when, foodless and penniless, he was reduced to begging.

For the first ten years of his residence in Kyoto, ­Baisao remained a priest, going against Buddhist regulations pointedly forbidding clerics to earn their own living. When at the age of sixty-seven circumstances arose that obliged him to leave the priesthood, forfeit his Buddhist names, and revert to lay status, he adopted the secular name Ko Yugai, which he and his friends often shortened to Layman Yugai.

In the seventh month of 1763, Baisao passed away peacefully at the age of eighty-eight. Shortly before, his friends had put in his hands a copy of the Baisao Gego (“Verses and Prose by the Old Tea Seller”), a collection of Chinese writings he had composed in the course of his tea-selling life, which they had prepared and printed.

Tea has an ancient history dating from the time of Shen-nung [mythical Good Ruler of ancient China]. Lu Yü’s Classic of Tea (Japanese, Cha-ching) and Lu T’ung’s “Tea Song” (Cha-ka) were written during the T’ang dynasty, and led to the spread of tea drinking throughout the country. Gentlemen of taste and culture who wrote odes or other rhymed verses or prose invariably praised the virtues of tea.

In our own country, from long in the past, such things have been rare. On the eighth of the fourth month in the first year of the Tempyo era [729], Emperor Shomu invited a hundred Buddhist priests to his palace where for a period of four days lectures were delivered on the Larger Prajna-paramita Sutra; on the second day a tea ceremony was held for the priests. In the first year of the Konin era [810], the Emperor Saga held a ceremony that for the first time had as its purpose the tasting and enjoyment of tea.

An old record preserved at Mount Baibi [Togano-o] states that “Emperor Saga proceeded to the Bonshaku-ji in the province of Omi, where he drank a cup of tea when he was suffering from the effects of sake drinking. This marks the beginning of tea drinking in Japan.” Tea drinking goes back to ancient times in our country. It is said that hikicha (ground tea) was served at court banquets in the Imperial Palace. It appears that this was a powdered tea.

Powdered tea was also consumed in China in ancient times. Later, brick tea and simmered tea were also consumed. In recent times people drink mostly infused (ch’ung) tea, what the Classic of Tea calls yen tea, or p’ao tea, in which tea leaves are put into a bowl and hot water is poured over them. The leaves used in ch’ung tea and p’ao tea are processed differently from today’s ­sencha.

Nonetheless, there were still few people in Japan with a real appreciation for tea. In the second year of Kenkyu [1191], when Zen master Eisai (also known as Myoan) of Kennin-ji returned to Japan from his second trip to China in search of the Dharma, he brought back some seeds of the tea plan.

Eisai had obtained seeds of a superior quality, and he designated precisely where they should be planted. It is said that the tea seeds were from Gu-chou. Whether true or not, I do not know.
He first planted some of the seeds at Mount Seburi in Chikuzen Province on the island of Kyushu.

He then presented some to Myoe Shonin of Mount Togano-o.

According to a temple legend at Mount Togano-o, Master Eisai presented the tea seeds in a small pot. The pot is still preserved in the temple. It is called “Little Persimmon of the Han [Dynasty].”
Myoe planted the seeds at his temple, made tea from the leaves, and took great pleasure in drinking it.…
According to a temple legend at Togano-o, Myoe Shonin was the first to produce sencha or simmered tea, this marking the beginning of sencha drinking in our country. In the sixth year of Kenkyu (1195), Master Eisai planted tea shoots in the back gardens of the Shofuku-ji Zen temple that he had established in Hakata.

It would appear, then, that the first tea plantings were at Mount Seburi, the second at Togano-o, and the third at Shofuku-ji. In spite of this, Japanese have long hailed Togano-o, not Mount Seburi, as the site of the first tea planting in Japan. It is a case of a place gaining fame because a superior man had appeared, and of a man becoming widely known because of the fame a place had achieved.

From these beginnings, tea spread throughout Japan, and many people developed a strong love of tea and tea drinking. Hence, on exploring the early history of tea drinking, we find that Eisai and Myoe occupy the same position in our country as Lu Yü and Lu T’ung did in T’ang Chin.

Portrait of Baisao

Baisao’s Tea

[A]t a time when the word “tea” for most Japanese still meant powdered matcha, Baisao was serving a new variety that came to be known in Japan as sencha, a word that translates literally as “simmered tea.” The term was used to refer to loose-leaf teas in general, and could indicate the tea itself, the method of preparing it—simmering or steeping—and, later, the elegant pastime of drinking it (the “Way of Sencha”). In the form in which it was introduced by Chinese Obaku priests in the latter half of the seventeenth century, the tea was a loose-leaf variety, brown in color when infused, brewed in specially designed teapots and accompanied by an elegant tea aesthetic that had evolved in Ming dynasty literati circles based on ideals espoused by the T’ang dynasty tea “immortals” Lu Yü and Lu T’ung. In the context of Baisao’s life and times, sencha refers most often to the loose-leaf tea that Japanese in the mid-eighteenth century were adapting to their own tastes and sensibilities, and to the “philosophy,” grounded in Zen experience, underlying the drinking of sencha, which is seen in Baisao’s writings.
There is nothing in the records to tell us precisely what kind of tea Baisao served at his shop. References in his verse and letters reveal only that he used more than one type. He writes of brewing “Chinese” loose-leaf tea “sent from home”—his native province of Hizen—which could mean either an imported or a homegrown Chinese-style variety. In more than one verse, he writes of using a loose-leaf tea from Omi province (present-day Shiga prefecture). There are even allusions to a superior Chinese “brick” tea, and to a scented Chinese flower tea as well.

For the most part, however, Baisao’s teas seem to have been loose-leaf varieties, and although he may have used imported Chinese leaves on occasion, he probably relied most heavily on the early versions of sencha that Japanese growers were producing around the time he starting selling tea in Kyoto, but about which very little is known. When the process for making this Japanese sencha was perfected a few years later, the results were leaves that could be easily infused in a teapot, and produced a tea with a beautiful jade-green color (Chinese leaf tea was brownish) and a wonderfully sweet-tasting flavor. It is this so-called Japanese green tea that Baisao is credited with having introduced to citizens of the capital.


from Tasting Some New Tea from Ekkei

It doesn’t take seven cups like Master Lu says3
My guests get old Chao-chou’s one cup tea;4
And whoever can grasp the taste in that cup
Whether stranger or friend, knows my true mind.
Sake fuels the vital spirits, works like courage,
Tea works benevolently, purifying the soul.
Courageous feats that put the world in your debt
Couldn’t match the benefit benevolence brings.
A tea unsurpassed for color, flavor, and scent,
Attributes that Buddhists refer to as “dusts,”5
But only through them is the true taste known,
They are the Dharma body. Primal suchness.


Setting Up Shop Under the Pine Trees
Before the Great Buddha at Hoko-ji6

Brewing tea in a cluster of pines
customers one after another
imbibing for a single sen
one cupful of the spring;
Friends, please don’t smile
at my humble existence,
being poor doesn’t hurt you,
you do that on your own.
from Twelve Impromptu Poems

Set up shop this time
on the banks of the Kamo7
customers, sitting idly
forget host and guest
they drink a cup of tea
their long sleep ends
awakened, they realize
they’re the same as before.

I emulate old Chao-chou
“Have a cup of tea!”
the shelf’s been stocked for ages
yet no one comes to buy.
If you were to stop here
and take one good sip,
the old mental craving
would instantly cease.

Going far away to China
to seek the sacred shoots
Old Eisai brought them back
sowed them in our land.
Uji tea has a taste infused
with Nature’s own essence
a pity folks only prattle
about its color and scent.

from Three Poems on Choosing a Dwelling

Making the busy streets my home
right down in the heart of things
only one friend shares my poverty
this single scrawny wooden staff;
Having learned the ways of silence
amid the noise of urban life
taking things as they come to me
now everywhere I am is true.8


1. “Uji spring”: spring-picked tea buds from the Uji fields.
2. The sound is the “pine wind,” water or tea simmering in the teapot.
3. In his “Tea Song,” Lu T’ung states that after drinking six cups of tea one’s “dried up bowels are thoroughly cleansed, leaving only five thousand volumes inside” (a scholar was said to have thousands of books in his stomach); after seven cups, the drinker flies up to join the immortal spirits.
4. Old Chao is Zen master Chao-chou.
5. According to the Buddhist theory of cognition, the Six “Dusts” (color or form, smell, taste, sound, touch, and objects of consciousness), perceived by the Six Roots (the five senses and the consciousness), are the cause of the afflicting passions (klesha) that create the state of illusion and suffering. According to the Mahayana principle of nonduality, when one grasps the fundamental truth of the Buddha Dharma, one realizes that the passions are in and of themselves enlightenment, or the Buddha-body (Dharmakaya) itself.
6. The Great Buddha—the text has Shana-den, Shana being an abbreviated form of Birushana (Sanskrit, Vairochana) Buddha. It was an enormous bronze figure constructed at Hoko-ji in 1588 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in imitation of the Great Buddha at Todai-ji in Nara.

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Norman Waddell

Author's Bio

Norman Waddell is a professor of international studies at Otani University in Kyoto, Japan