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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
13 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY “ONE TIME, ONE MEETING” When we truly understand that nothing is ever the same twice, says Ben Howard, we experience the world as vibrant and fresh. Over the centuries Zen teachers have warned against reliance on language, likening it to a finger pointing to the moon, but they have also offered pithy sayings, ranging from the most intelligible to the most arcane. “Not always so,” Suzuki Roshi observed. “Only don’t know,” the Korean master Seung Sahn declared. “Live as if you were dead,” exhorted the seventeenth-century Rinzai mas- ter Shido Bunan. Taken to heart, any one of these sayings might initiate the newcomer into the practice of Zen. For my own part, how- ever, I have found the Japanese motto ichigo ichie to be one of the most helpful. Pronounced each-ee-go each-ee -ay and translated as “one time, one meeting,” this motto is closely associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Ichigo ichie enjoins the host and guests in the tea hut to regard their gathering as unprecedented and unrepeatable. Though governed by custom and tradition, each meet- ing is unique. It will not occur again. Ichigo ichie is said to have originated with Ii Naosuke, tea master and chief administra- tor of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Every morn- ing, Naosuke, who had many enemies and feared assassination, made himself a bowl of tea, pronouncing it ichigo ichie: unprec- edented and unrepeatable. In 1860 Naosuke was indeed assassinated, but the phrase he coined survived him, becoming a motto for students of the Way of Tea. “One time, one meeting” is also a motto for students of Zen meditation, but in Zen practice the context extends well beyond the drinking of tea. For in Zen training we learn to regard all encounters as unprecedented and unrepeatable, however similar they appear. In her essay “There Are No Repetitions,” the Rinzai priest and concert pianist Maurine Stuart puts the matter this way: We are always at the beginning. It is always the very first time. When I play the piano I often come to a repeat sign. Can that passage be repeated? If I am teaching a piano student and we see a repeat sign, I tell the student that there are no repeats. We return to the begin- ning of a certain passage, but it’s never the same. It’s always fresh. At first glance, these assertions may seem to defy common sense. Would that the menus of certain restaurants might be unrepeatable! Would that our waiter, putting our food on the table, might say something other than “there you go.” Would that Garrison Keillor’s tone of voice might vary even a little, or the village siren play a new tune. Same old, same old, we complain. Been there, done that. FIRST THOUGHTS ILLUSTRATIONS by ERIC HANSON