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Zen and The Art of Tea: An Interview with David Schiller

David Schiller, author of 'The Book of Zen' sat down with us to answer some questions about his bestselling book, his creative process, and how the art of tea and the art of zen intersect.

"Like zen, the art of tea aims at simplification. It consists simply of boiling water, preparing tea, and drinking it. Its spirit conjures up harmony, reverence, purity, tranquility, poverty, solitariness; and it has deeply influenced the arts of flower arranging, pottery, and architecture." -The Little Book of Zen 

Where did the inspiration for The Little Book of Zen come from?

It started with a lifelong fascination with Zen and Buddhism, a love for language, visits to a nearby Zen monastery, the practice of meditation, and an omnivorous amount of reading about the subject. (Among Zen’s many paradoxes is that it’s a tradition that says words are no substitute for experience, and yet millions of words have been written about it, including from many of the ancient masters themselves.) And something deeper. It just feels true. This is my way of sharing that.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome while creating this project?

Raising a toddler!

What kind of environment do you find allows you to generate your best, most authentic work?

I have learned over the years that I don’t need too special of an environment to work: many years ago I worked for a company that had outgrown its space, and my “office” was actually a box of things that I carried to whatever desk was empty that day. And even when I lived in a home that had a lovely office I could call my own, I spent most of my days happily working at the kitchen table. Ultimately, I find that all I need is to be near a window that can be opened and for my space to be relatively quiet.

Now that the book is out in the world, what do you hope to achieve with people using it?

The book was created with the idea that a reader could turn to any page, at random, and find a quote, a thought, a short essay, a drawing that makes them pause and think and maybe nudge them into a moment of calm or clarity. Or surprise! It’s also to show that Zen is the product of a long, rich and, in the monastic sense, very serious tradition whose truths—that we need to cut through our illusions and delusions and live in the moment as present, compassionate beings connected to everyone and everything—are universal, yet whose methods are distinct. Some, like meditation, we can adopt fairly easily, with wonderful results. Others, like koan practice—answering a question like What is the sound of one hand clapping?—require a lifetime commitment of working with a Zen master. So, I wanted to give a taste of that, to show that Zen is more than a synonym for mindfulness. And there are a few practical goals, too: how to meditate, how to walk, how to see with intention, how to breathe. 

How can something as simple as tea help people find calmness in their day-to-day life?

I think because of just that—it’s simple. It is a simple cup of simple pleasure. And if we take just a little care and pay attention to the moments around it—preparing the pot or mug, heating the water, the brewing, inhaling the steam, that first sip—we can find ourselves almost imperceptibly in a calming state. 

How do you create space in your life for Zen? Do you have any daily rituals that help you maintain inner peace?

The answer to the first question is in the framing of the second: daily rituals. I have several. Yoga, every morning. Cooking, which I find creates a strong feeling of attention and mindfulness. (I don’t recommend letting yourself get distracted while playing with sharp knives or high flames!) And a practice I picked up from a Dutch artist and author, Frederick Franck, who wrote several beautiful, wise books on Zen and seeing. He argued for the validity of drawing as a form of meditation. And it is. I try to draw every day. 

Especially in Japanese Zen traditions, tea and tea ceremonies play a major part in focusing on the present moment. What do you think about those connections?

I love them. Why shouldn’t we find beauty, presence, mindfulness, even holiness, in the simple act of brewing a cup of tea? This is the power of ritual—taking us out of our natural inclination to drift and keeping us focused.

Ayurvedic principles are often used in tea blends to promote a sense of balance - physically and mentally. In your opinion, how does physical wellbeing play into finding inner peace?

It’s critical. It’s so hard, when you’re not feeling well physically, to think of anything except how you’re feeling, causing the kind of worry and distraction that makes it almost impossible to find or achieve a sense of inner peace. I think that anything that adversely affects our balance stirs up something like turmoil. But the good part of this is how it can steer you toward finding a more stable, peaceful place. We can use it as motivation because we can see how clearly one affects the other. When Zen started to appear in the West, one of the “problems” it was used to address was dualism, this typical Western conceptual split between mind and body. Slowly these ideas have merged into the larger wellness movement. We no longer think we can get by without paying as much attention to our bodies as to our minds.

David Schiller is an author of eclectic interests whose books include The Little Book of Zen, The Little Book of Prayers, Seeing Your Way to Mindfulness and Guitar. He is also an artist whose drawings can be found in recent books, including his own Little Book of Zen and the cookbook, Gazoz, and on Instagram @openyouri. He lives with his family in New York City.