Years ago I was in Japan working with NTT (their version of AT&T) and I made time to explore a little of this delightful country. One of the stops on my must-see list was Kyoto, once the imperial capital of japan, and home of the Zen temple of Ryoan-ji renowned for it’s dry landscape rock garden. It was here that I was kindly offered the worst tea I ever had.
It wasn’t like I was expecting to come away with a life-changing experience. Maybe just some peaceful memory or interesting insight. I was sitting by the ticket booth on a wooden bench waiting for my turn to enter the temple when a few of the staff shuffled up an silently offered me a cup of tea while I waited. Tea at the Zen gardens — how perfect! Probably the leaves were picked this very morning by monks on the verge of attaining enlightenment. Of course, I bowed in appreciation as I accepted the small cup and prepared myself for a… well, some sort of minor spiritual moment. I half closed my eyes and became more aware of the warmth of the sun, the chirps of frolicking birds, and the scuffing sound of shuffling feet in the gravel. And when I was completely psyched and fully present with this gift, I raised the cup to my lips.
My first thought was that I was savoring the flavor of a nose bleed. Salty and warm with hints of grass — or was it leaves? Blech! I subtly twisted around with puckered face looking for somewhere to subtly spit the slug into a plant or something. But then I imagined that someone — probably a venerated spiritual master — might witness the event and hold it against me somehow. So, instead, I reluctantly swallowed it and chased by a quick gasp for air. Was this a joke? Surely this must be the locals having fun with the tourists.
From the corners of my eyes, I stealthily surveyed the faces of the other victims around me expecting to see similar reactions. Idiots! They were all falling for the trick and pretending to enjoy the foul brew. I continued to suspiciously scan the pleasant expressions of nearby visitors sipping from their cups and sharing conversation in various foreign tongues. It was then that I overheard one woman speaking in English with a German accent exclaim to her companion: “It’s a pretty good soup!”
What?! Of all the stupid things… And to demonstrate just how stupid, I took another reaffirming sample from my cup while mentally preparing to resist a freshly primed gag reflex. “I’ll be damned.” This time the worst tea I ever had revealed the flavor of a mild but comforting vegetable broth. I recalled the bouillon my mom offered me as a child when I wasn’t feeling well. I took another quiet sip, and then another, as the the warmth of the sun, the chirps of frolicking birds, and the scuffing sound of shuffling feet in the gravel returned.
It was my turn to enter the temple.