"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha
Old Woman’s Miraculous Powers
Posted on July 30, 2013
Magu, Nanquan, and another monk were on pilgrimage. Along the way they met a woman who had a teashop. The woman prepared a pot of tea and brought three cups. She said to them, “Oh monks, let those of you with miraculous powers drink tea.”
The three looked at each other and the woman said, “Watch this decrepit old woman show her own miraculous powers.” Then she picked up the cups, poured the tea, and went out.
From: The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened WomenReflection on the Story
One can imagine the scene: three monks wait for the serving of their tea. They are tired, and thirsty, and also accustomed to receiving offerings. But then the woman who is serving them gives them a surprising challenge: “Let those of you with miraculous powers drink the tea.” Silence follows. The monks look at each other. What do I do now? Will the other monks claim powers? One is not supposed to, as a monk. But we can imagine that they would want to claim the powers, and certainly they would want to drink the tea. I can even imagine the old woman chuckling a little at their dismay. And then she offers her teaching and shows her miraculous powers: she simply pours the tea.
Our minds are always leaning out into the future, into the hope of being something more, something special. Someday, we hope, we will not be ordinary. In the world of meditation retreats, students can get quite lost seeking remarkable mind states, or holding on to altered states when they do appear, or wanting to be enlightened, or to be special in some way. I remember with considerable embarrassment an early nun’s retreat interview of my own, when I described many strange images that were arising during meditation. I asked my dear teacher Sudharma if I might be having past life memories….they were so exotic, so interesting! “No,” she said, “I think you’re just sleepy.” Somehow I felt as though I had failed.
Mindfulness is a practice of being present with the truth of this moment. When we take the time to do this, we see that every moment is deeply miraculous. Recently I saw a video of the earth turning below the space station. Clouds, continents, and oceans in white, green, brown, and blue passed below; it is astounding to be here on this planet, surrounded by stars and galaxies, hanging in the vastness of space.
At some retreats I teach in my home monastery, I occasionally find clusters of meditation students gathered around a small hole in the ground, gazing raptly. I join them for a bit, to discover a small, whiskered nose and bright eyes that appear now and then at the hole, take one look, and vanish. The students, in the heart of their long, silent retreat, watch for long, long minutes. A gopher watching meditators, meditators watching a gopher: how much more miraculous do we want?
“Only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant amazement,” said Patricia in the movie JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. The wise old woman of our story never saw that movie, but she seems to have known that within the very ordinary lies the miraculous. She understood that waking up to the present is actually the miracle. I notice that she is old, and I am reminded that the closer we get to our own dying, the more amazed we may be at being here at all.
You can pour tea! It is miraculous. The entire universe is present in this act. The sun, the rain, and the earth are in the tea leaves, in the fuel for the fire, in the muscles and neurons and blood cells involved in pouring. And on a grander scale, we know that all elements of our earth are derived from a supernova long, long ago.
There are many stories of people with miraculous powers who can walk through walls, walk on water, and travel through time. But perhaps as we practice, we come to appreciate more and more the readily available miracles. And perhaps we even come to a point in which we can walk through the walls of our own minds. Maybe our hearts can become so vast that we can hold with kindness even those who are difficult for us. Maybe we can see clearly what is true in our lives and not have to hide from it. And this might be enough.
So that is the last thing: this old woman knew that her powers were enough, just as they were, in that very moment. No leaning out for the next thing, the better thing, the more powerful thing, the more interesting thing. She didn’t even stick around to see or to hear the results of her teaching. She knew what was miraculous, and she did it. It was enough.
Just this. A cup of tea. Delicious! I hope the monks received this teaching…….and that they remembered to say “thank you!”