When we’d finished, Steve volunteered to wash up. He tended to everything, from the dirty pots to the delicate china bowls. Somehow, even doing ordinary chores at Ta Tsung’s house became an opportunity for the practice of mindfulness, and Steve took to the job with earnest enthusiasm.
The spoons we had eaten with were of the plastic picnic variety and had seen much use but, like so many other things in the old Chinaman’s house, had been saved for reuse from some ancient time past. While Steve was handling one of these spoons, it ceased to be a spoon—that is, it broke. This became a miraculous koan.
At first Steve was mortified, as if he had destroyed a priceless treasure. He looked around for a trash receptacle in which to discard the spoonless plastic before he was discovered holding it. There wasn’t one outside, so he looked in one room, then the other, and came to the conclusion that while Ta Tsung had a compost pile for food scraps and his own excrement, and scraps of paper and wood were used for fuel, he seemed not to have a garbage bin. There was no category of things designated as “to be thrown away,” and no such place as “away” for them to be thrown.
Looking back on it now, I find it extraordinary that Ta Tsung managed to remain almost completely unknown. With all the spiritual turmoil of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, surely he could have attracted a following. But then, he would not have been who he was. Another story, circa 1968, as told by Gene:
Carson and Steve and I had discovered Ta Tsung independently, but we were soon traveling“en famille”to go get wisdom from him. Some of us—Henry and Carson, I believe—had already started to learn meditation from an itinerant guru named Adano Ley. Adano traveled the South in an aqua and magenta jumpsuit and had some kind of connection with Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, though the nature of this connection wasn’t entirely clear. Adano hinted that all sorts of magical miracles followed him about, and this was really impressive to those of us who were nineteen.
Someone decided that it would be just great if we took Ta Tsung along to meet this jumpsuit-clad guru. We told him that there was a free vegetarian dinner and some kind of ceremony following. So Chip Burson made the rounds picking us up, wives and girlfriends and Ta Tsung all crammed in the back of his Willys’s bread truck, and we trundled down the mountain to Manchester.
The dinner was uneventful. Ta Tsung nodded politely whenever someone asked him what he thought about the evening, always taking a bite of food when asked about Adano Ley. At some point in the evening, apples and aluminum foil were passed out. Each person in attendance wrapped their apple in the foil, and Adano Ley conducted a guided meditation, the purpose of which as I understand it was to direct the bad karma of each person into his or her apple. The apple was to be placed on a shelf for a week or so, and only then examined. A really rotten apple must have meant a lot of bad karma, or an effective meditation, or something like that.
The trip back up the mountain had everyone in inspired silence, a continuation of the impressive experience of earlier that evening, until a rude “CRUNCH!” from the back of the truck broke the silence. I looked at Ta Tsung, who was grinning like an idiot, a large chunk of apple held between his dentures. Not being one to waste anything, he folded the tinfoil into his sleeve and continued eating. Without even a second thought, I unwrapped my apple, gave the foil to Ta Tsung, and started eating mine, too.
As Carson Graves said later, “In any case, this was the beginning of the end of our interest in gurus, and also served to increase our respect for Ta Tsung, who never made any claims for himself whatsoever.”
So who was Ta Tsung? And what was he doing all those years in rural Tennessee? A story Gene tells is likely to be as good an answer as we’re going to get:
One day in early May, I was driving down the street in Monteagle when I spied Ta Tsung sitting on the stone wall under a big oak tree in front of the Methodist Church. He had a small easel and his ink brushes and other paraphernalia, and I guessed that he was painting from life.
It turned out that it was only another one of his Chinese landscapes, with great mountains, cataracts, and flowing streams. About two-thirds of the way down from the top was a small clearing in a pine forest where a hermit, diminutive in the grandeur of the landscape, was sweeping his hut. He had a smile on his face and a glow about his head.
“What’s that about?” I asked Ta Tsung.
“This person just have enlightenment sweeping hut.”
“What happens next?”
Author's Note: For many years I struggled with holding up Ta Tsung as an example—wanting to share my experience with others, but knowing with a fierce certainty that he would have offered a curt dismissal to anyone seeking to emulate him. As I matured, in my practice and in my life, I began to see that Ta Tsung is simply an example of an individuated life, of someone who became himself.
This is the lifelong work that follows a profound experience of insight. While we students of Zen sometimes talk about kensho, or satori, as some kind of ultimate experience, it is nothing more or less than opening the gate to the garden. - Michael Sierchio
Michael Sierchio is a Zen student and software consultant who lives in Berkeley, California. He is currently writing a book about Ta Tsung. Images courtesy Michael Sierchio.