Tea as Meditation

“If asked / the nature of Chanoyu [tea ceremony] / say it’s the sound / of windblown pines / in a painting.”

– Sen Sotan, translated by Dennis Hirota, Wind in the Pines

This Sunday Payton replaced our usual Dharma talk with a mindful tea ceremony and spoke about tea as a meditation practice.

Language can be a barrier, because it represents ideas and concepts, so the listener/reader can either agree or disagree, believe in or not believe in the ideas expressed. … But when I make tea, I can express my heart free of doctrine or philosophy. And while you could say you don’t want the bowl of tea I offer you, it would absurd to say that you don’t agree with or don’t believe in it. You don’t agree or disagree with a bowl of tea; you drink it! And that somehow makes it more real.

– Wu De, Global Tea Hut, February 2017

Some suggestions for the practice include taking the time to focus on the experiences one is having when participating in a ceremony, not the questions.

One of the oldest methods of making tea into a meditation is listening to the kettle. … While your kettle is heating up, close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Try focusing on the area below your nostrils and above your upper lip. When your mind wanders, don’t feel frustrated or rebuke yourself; just return to the breath. Slowly, your mind will begin to quiet down. Then, just as you find yourself settling into a stillness, you’ll begin to hear the kettle like “the soughing of the wind through the pines.”

– Wu De, Global Tea Hut, February 2017

Why tea? Because it lends itself to ritual and is at the same time a mundane activity. It is also a single beverage that exists in the experience of millions of people on this planet. It is perhaps one of the few unifying factors that lies between all countries and cultures. What is making tea? Simple! Heat water, infuse leaves, drink. And yet, when one cares to do so, it is possible to perform those actions with mindfulness, being aware of each step, each motion, fully in the present.

The Japanese have a saying, “Ichigo ichie,” which means “one encounter, one chance.” It means that this meeting of people in the tearoom is unique. It will never happen in this way again. Even if we have tea with the same people every day of our lives, each encounter is a unique, bright and shining moment that will never occur again.

– Wu De, The Way of Tea, Chapter 3

In one sense, tea is no different from any other familiar activity, but it can be used to create something special. After all, sitting is done without mindfulness many times each day, but when we sit to meditate, we tend to do so with a bit of ritual; a bell may be rung, a cushion may be used, or our hands may be placed just so. None of these things are necessary, of course, but they are aids to mindfulness. Such variation helps us remember that we are not performing an everyday activity. When making tea, through the use of particular tools, motions, or setting, one can also cultivate such a variation. Indeed, others have developed these variations into rituals and schools for hundreds of years.

Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.

– Shunryu Suzuki

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Finally, a legend about Rikyu, the father of Japanese Tea Ceremony,

A student of tea traveled many miles to meet Master Rikyu. … A few days later, after a particularly great tea session, the man asked the master, “Master, what is the inner essence of Cha Dao?” Rikyu smiled, “The highest truth of Cha Dao is this: gather water, lay the charcoal, heat the water and steep the tea.” The man was shocked… [and] decided to ask for clarification. “But, Master, that is too simple. It would seem anyone could do those things.” Rikyu scoffed; “The day you can do as I have said, I will travel all the way to your house, rest my head at your feet and become your disciple.”

… The idea is that you just gather water and just heat it, and then finally you just steep the tea. In other words, there are no other thoughts, no ideas and no ego…

– Wu De, Global Tea Hut, February 2017