“In the early ‘50s, Paul Reps, who was in his forties, had traveled to Japan en route to visit a respected Zen master in Korea. He went to the passport office to apply for his visa and was politely informed that his request was denied due to the conflict that had just broken out. Reps walked away, and sat down quietly in the waiting area. He reached into his bag, pulled out his thermos, and poured a cup of tea. Drinking his tea, he pulled out a brush and paper upon which he wrote a picture poem. The clerk read the poem, and it brought tears to his eyes. He smiled, bowed with respect, and stamped Reps’ passport for passage to Korea. Reps’ Haiku read: “drinking a bowl of green tea, I stop the war”.” (from a post in “Better Listen” by Steve Stein)
Moving toward mindfulness
I heard this story during a two-week meditation retreat I just attended. Voluntarily cut off from news and media, I knew the war in Ukraine was brewing. I wondered if the teacher mentioned the story in her evening talk not only to help us double our attentiveness in the moment, but also inform us indirectly that a war had broken out (it had at that point). The next day outside, on my slow, deliberate walk while minding my breath, a pair of neighborhood walkers greeted me with the words: “I won’t walk with you, too slow, like the Ukrainian army”. I knew then that the war had broken out; I could do nothing about it. Back in my hermitage, I watched the water boil for my daily tea, watched my hand lift the kettle, and pour the hot water in the thermos with the tea. I waited, mindful of the urge in my body to multi-task, while making the perfect cup of tea. I poured the tea in a glass. The green color lit up as the light shone through the glass. I sat and sipped the tea, feeling the sensations as the liquid moved down my throat, the bitter taste on my tongue, the wetness of my lips.
Between sits and meditative walks, I made many cups of tea. My concentration grew, my awareness of what was going on in my body/heart/mind increased. Tranquility set in as I loved my body on the cushion. Happiness coursed through me as I moved while walking with open sense doors (eyes, ears, skin). I took in the brilliant sunlight, listened to birdsong, watched the sagebrush hold its own as the snow covered it and the sun uncovered it with its warmth. Discomforts in my body and deep fears in my mind fell away, one sit at a time, one step at a time. In the 2nd week when the teacher guided us to not only love ourselves, but send loving kindness to others, gratitude and warmth I wanted to share filled me.
When I watched the first Newshour after the retreat ended, I sat there and cried. My heart was open, I couldn’t shield myself from the suffering I saw. The many cups of tea I drank didn’t stop the war.
What was the meaning of Paul Reps’ Haiku? He didn’t stop the Korean war by practicing with his Zen master. Why did the haiku bring tears to the clerk’s eyes? As my mindfulness increased not only when I practiced on the cushion but also when I walked, when I made tea, when I ate, when I turned over to go to sleep (even in my dreams), I let go of the accumulated tension of months of prior stress, I uncovered self love, and love for everyone else. I became an aware human being that felt kindness toward others. I stopped the war inside myself and between myself and others. Paul Reps’ haiku told the clerk, I practice mindfulness, and by doing so I create peace. The Japanese clerk understood this as tea ceremony and practicing mindfulness was part of his cultural heritage.
Fear and Power
Putin doesn’t practice mindfulness to improve himself as a human being. Putin pays attention to the inner voice of desire for increased power, and his fear of losing that power. As Trump said in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word— fear”. During the retreat, I watched fear rise in my mind over an issue that is brewing in my life; I wanted to fight, argue and plan what I would do. Committed to being in retreat, I could do nothing but watch the fear and notice the sensations it caused in my body. As I watched with acceptance, the sensations changed. The image of myself as a girl emerged, a girl taught to be afraid of authorities. I wanted to embrace this little girl and tell her that now is not then. The fear released; stiffness in my back (frozen in fear) let go, and I could move on to the next sensation, and the next and the next.
The Moral Balance
My mindfulness work doesn’t stop the war. But it changes how I interact with others. Everyone’s mindfulness changes the world as we know it, one act at a time. Your patience with the grocery clerk, the smile you give to the harassed ticket collector in the subway, the words of understanding you offer to the customer service agent at Amazon — mine thanked me, and I could hear him breathe easier as I didn’t get angry when he couldn’t solve my problem that instant —-, it all adds up.
As the world comes together to support the victims of Putin’s greed for power, it shows us and him that his actions hang in a moral balance with the rest of the world. As the words from an ancient Buddhists chant say: “May the noble and the not noble have karma as their true property”. Putin will face his karma some day.