If anyone in Monteagle, Tennessee, took notice of a “Chinaman” walking down the street in 1965, dressed like a coolie, they would have dismissed the implausibility with one of two explanations: He worked as a cook at the Holiday Inn, or maybe he owned the shirt laundry in Tullahoma. Ta Tsung was in fact a Ch’an Buddhist monk who, in his endeavor to live apart, bought a cottage in Monteagle with the intention of meditating, painting, and growing vegetables.
The last time I saw Ta Tsung was in 1983, at a little temple in San Jose where he was staying with an old friend before returning to Hawaii to retire. A decade passed before I began to look for him again. When I would tell Ta Tsung stories to friends, inevitably they would ask, “Where is he now? Is he still living?” I could only shrug and say that I had no idea. It seemed strange to them that I had lost track of him. But all of his acquaintances, in fact, lost track of him.
For the historical record, I can tell what few facts I have been able to verify about his life. He was born in Shanghai, China, in 1907, and died in San Jose, California, in 1986 (of pneumonia and complications from a head injury sustained in a fall). After World War II he kept an orchard of many varieties of fruit trees in Zhejiang Province, near Ningbo. When this was nationalized, he headed for Hong Kong, where he worked as an accountant in a government-owned department store. In his forties, he took monastic vows. These would have been familiar to him, as he had been raised from the age of eleven in a monastery. His master was the venerable Ming Kuan. In a recent conversation with a monk in the same lineage, I heard him referred to for the first time as Dharma Master Ta Tsung. I wasn’t surprised. Those of us who knew him had expected as much. He emigrated to the United States in 1960, serving in temples in Hawaii and New York, and moved to Monteagle in 1965, just a few miles away from Sewanee, known more formally as the University of the South.
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