Baisao (also sometimes pronounced "Maisao", meaning "Old Man Tea-Seller", July 8, 1675 - August 24, 1763) was a Buddhist monk of the Obaku sect in the Edo-period. He was credited with reviving the practice of drinking green tea in Japan. His actual name (given at birth) was Motoaki SHIBAYAMA, and his childhood name was Kikuizumi. Gekkai was his priestly name, and he also went by the name "Koyugai" after his return to secular life.
He was born in Doen, part of Hasuike domain in Hizen province (Saga City in Saga Prefecture today). Baisao's father, Mokunoshin SHIBAYAMA, worked for the Nabejima clan of Hasuike domain as the lord's physician, while he was the third son born to his mother Miya.
He took the tonsure and entered the priesthood when he was eleven, studying Zen and becoming the disciple of the Zen priest Kerin at Ryushin-ji temple in Hizen province.
When he was thirteen, he visited Manpuku-ji temple in Uji City with his teacher Kerin, and was given a gatha (ritual Buddhist poem) by his mentor Kerin's own mentor, Dokutan Shokei. This was considered evidence that Dokutan recognized his genius and potential, even though Gekkai (that is, Baisao) was still young.
When he was twenty-two, he suffered from severe diarrhea, and that roused him to travel through Mutsu province; thereafter, he began visiting Buddhist teacher-guides all over the country. At one point he studied the Ritsu sect under the Buddhist priest Shindo. Moreover, he underwent an ascetic trial of hardship on the peak of Mt. Rai (Thunder Mountain) in Tsukushi province. Following these events, he returned to his teacher Kerin in Hizen province, serving him for the next fourteen years.
When he was 57, his mentor Kerin passed away, so he suddenly left and traveled to Kyoto, leaving Ryushin-ji temple in the hands of his disciple Daicho.
Reaching the age of 61, he built the Tsusentei retreat in Kyoto's Higashiyama district, and taking it upon himself to bear the burden of assembling the requisite tea utensils, he created a seated establishment, much like a regular tea-house, along the capital's main thoroughfare, where he would entertain guests with a conversation that fused elements of Zen with commoner culture as he served them green tea, and as they drank it, he would engage them in excellent dialogues and give lectures on different worldviews, people's ways of being and the tainted hearts of the worldly, encouraging them to continuously abandon their besmirched selves and embrace an ascetic life in order to gradually achieve a simple lifestyle of honorable poverty. By the advice of recording the content of his discussions and lectures by one of his closest customers, Daiten Kenjo, who was famous as an expert in Chinese poetry at Shokoku-ji temple, Baisao did begin to do so, but soon involved Daiten in and in the end, Daiten recorded these conversations. "Living here in the world of Buddhist disciples, right and wrong reside in the heart. They are not present in traces of one's deeds. Therefore, the idea of boasting about my Buddhist virtue, as shown by my monk's robe, or burning with the desire to receive alms from the people, these are foreign to my heart," he said, and in that way he was said to have entered into Baisao's daily life.
When Baisao was seventy, he returned to his native province under the law that one had to return once every ten years, and himself requested that he be allowed to return to secular life, obtaining permission to do so from the provincial authorities. At that point he took Takauji as his given name, and Yugai as his sobriquet. Thereafter, still called "Baisao" by everyone, he continued with his abrupt decision-making style, declaring that if his feelings on the matter one day changed, on that day he would immediately close the tea-house; naturally, he lived in great poverty, continuing his selling of green tea in order to be able to keep running his tea-house.
In 1755, having reached the age of eighty-one, Baisao stopped selling tea, and also incinerated his beloved tea utensils. At that time, he said "After I die, if these utensils suffered the shame of falling into some vulgar, worldly person's hands, you would surely resent me. That's why I've decided to destroy them by fire," leaving behind writings that showed his Zen dilemma due to having anthropomorphized his tea utensils to the point that his own spirit dwelt within them. Around that time, he had been afflicted with lower back pain, and added to the fact that he was of such advanced age, he seemed to have felt that the time of his own death was drawing near.
Thereafter, he made a living by selling his writing and calligraphy services. He died, at the age of 87, at the Gengenan hermitage located in the south of the Rengeoin temple.
The 113th abbot of Shokokuji, Daiten Kenjo, had been very close to Baisao, and so he wrote "Baisao den" ("The Life of Baisao"), whose first section was entitled "the gatha (Buddhist poems) of Baisao." His biography is also recorded in volume two of a later work, the "Kinsei kijin den" ("Lives of Unusual People in Recent Years").
There is a surviving portrait of Baisao, done by another of his intimate friends, Jyakuchu ITO; in the portrait, he as an old, thin man, depicted with a broad forehead and somewhat wavy white hair
He was also painted by such literati painters as IKE no Taiga and Buson YOSA. A wooden sculpture of his seated form survives at Manpuku-ji temple.
Baisao's actions were in sharp opposition to the typical behavior of Zen priests of his day, leading some to say he practiced the true way of Zen. Thanks to the 1671 ordinance compelling commoners to register with a Buddhist temple, Buddhist priests, including Zen priests, had a guaranteed steady source of income in alms, allowing them to enjoy lives of idleness and leisure. And although the way of tea, and especially Matcha (powdered green tea), remained one of Zen priests' most basic elements, to the fiercely critical and discerning eye of Baisao, it appeared to be a mere empty formality. This was said to be why he wanted to return to the basic essence and soul of tea, and devoted himself to spreading the custom of drinking green tea.