A monk arrived at the monastery.

Zhaozhou asked if he had been there before, and the monk said he had.

Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”

Another monk arrived and Zhaozhou asked the same question but this monk said he had not been before.

Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”

The monastery director asked Zhaozhou, “Never mind the monk who has been here before, why did you tell the second monk to have a cup of tea?”

Zhaozhou said, “Director!”

”Yes, master?” the director anwered.

Zhaozhou said, “Have a cup of tea.”B98A09CD-5E10-488C-8FD2-3AE2726F444C

This Zen story of the great master Zhaozhou is what practioners call a Koan, that is, a public case, through which disciples can learn the meaning of Buddhism. They are often brief and a bit mysterious, like this one.

The story is set in the context of Buddhist monasticism, in which disciples might be greeted with monastic rules and books of doctrine designed to help them  move from the world into the sacred sphere of the monastery.

The greeting offered by Zhaozhou dramatises his conviction that true enlightenment is an experience rather than words. No amount of doctrine however profound is a substitute for the life-changing experience of enlightenment. So these new disciples are immediately plunged into the shared life of the monks.

But there is more to it than that. Buddhism emphasises that the separate people and things that make up our world are wonderful but ultimately without independent existence, and only arise in partnership with each other. When these things and people are experienced as “empty and marvellous” there are no longer any holy things or people, nor any worldly things or people, so drinking tea can be as holy as any religious ceremony. The director who wants a doctrinal explanation is reminded of the experience of shared life with Zhaozhou ( he hears his call and answers it, without thinking) and with a cup of tea shared with his brothers. 32B67D5E-7EA0-48FD-9E1C-54940C459559

The great contemporary Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh of Plum Village Community in France calls this “interbeing”: enlightened people cease to regard themselves as individual existences, and find fullfilment in a communal life which includes the natural world and its creatures as well as other human beings. He has suggested links between this enlightement and the teaching of Jesus. Certainly the teaching contained in chapters 14 and 15 of John’s gospel, which emphasises the mutual indwelling of Father, Son, Spirit and believers, sets out a Christian version of interbeing, which can only be real when it is experience rather than words.

But Zhaozhou’s command to have tea reminds me also of Jesus’ prayer for daily bread and his practice of eating not only with his disciples, but also with wrongdoers and outcasts. The interbeing advocated by Jesus does not rest on the illusory nature of independent existence, but rather on the transformative nature of life shared with God and one’s neighbour, the interbeing that is characterised by Jesus’ blessings of the poor, the gentle, the grieved, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted for the cause of justice. Broken bread and poured out wine are made by Jesus to stand as a repeated acted parable of the truth of his interbeing with his followers. 7F5E0B19-CF90-4C8D-BD76-830AD7418C1D

Zhaozhou would have expected his disciples to find that when their illusory separate selves were broken down in the experience of shared identity with everyone and everything in the  universe, they would experience the “great compassion” which flows from knowing that others are parts of us, and we of them. He was tireless in finding ever new ways of cutting through the religious cackle of Buddhism to insist on the experience of enlightenment, just as Jesus cut through the careful requirements of Pharisaism, to insist on the immediate presence of God’s kingdom. The difficult riddling nature of Zen stories and practice prompts me to recognise similar elements in the life and teaching of Jesus.

But of course this blog is all words, perhaps too many. I can already hear old Zhaozhou saying, “Michael!”

”Yes master,” I reply.

”Have a cup of tea,” he says.



1 Comment

  1. Magnificent! A profound understanding in every word you wrote here. The challenge for us followers of Christ is precisely to move beyond words and into an experience of the oneness in the Trinity and the oneness Christ opened to us. This is a brilliant post, one of your very best! I will definitely use your insights and the Zahaozhou koan in one or more sermons. Thank you, you made my day.


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