Wednesday, February 1, 2017

February's Further readings


Meditation and Tea, developing a Beginners Mind

By Jing Ren


A cup full of expectationsFinally, after having been at the center in Taiwan for a couple of weeks during my first visit, it was time to drink Tea in the Gong Fu Tea room!
The next day our dear Tea brother Greg Went would have to head home, and to honor the occasion Wu De had asked Greg what Tea he would like to be served that night and Greg had said that he would love to drink some aged Yencha together.
In the weeks prior to the Gong Fu Tea session I had been walking past the Gong Fu Tea room already many times. And often, very curiously, I would peak through the window frame and imagine how it would be to drink Tea in that magical space. It looked so exquisite and beautiful! In it was a round glass table top, floating above a big round hollowed out stone, serving as a basin for a little fish pond. The table was surrounded by ancient looking stone stools. And all that seated on a little island surrounded by white pebbles all around. I wouldn’t have been able to count the times that I wondered: “when will we finally drink tea there?!” But this evening it was going to happen!
The charcoal was lighted up, the kettles were silently filled with spring water, an antique teapot was brought in along with some Ming dynasty cups. We sat down on the stone stools around the little table. The kettle was placed above the lively burning charcoal, and we sat silently awaiting the whispers of ‘the wind soughing through the pines’.
After the kettle came to a boil, the cups and pot were rinsed and the tea was gently placed in the teapot and rinsed afterwards. After the initial shower water flowed into the pot to start the first steeping while swirls of steam were rising up, filling the room with a heavenly scent already. After the second shower of the teapot, and the cups were emptied of the hot water, Wu De started to pour the first steeping. I almost couldn’t hold it any longer! Within a few seconds I was going to take the first sip. And I was certain that from that moment on I would find myself in a completely different world altogether. I was surely going to sour through the sky on the back of a dragon, through vast valleys and misty mountains, all the way up into the heavens, where I would be given the gift of eternal bliss.
The cups were served out, and my hands moved slowly towards it. Gently, but slightly nervous I lifted up the cup and brought it towards my lips. With eagerness, slight impatience and full of expectation I took the first sip. I waited… but nothing happened! I took a second sip… sip, sip, sip. The cup was empty, but no single dragon or misty mountain to be seen! Very soon thereafter the second round of cups was poured and served out. I lifted up the cup again and took a first sip, took a second sip… sip, sip, sip. The cup was once again empty and yet still no dragon!

Emptying the cupI thought: “Okey, I must be doing something wrong here! All right, let’s breathe… let’s breathe… What did Wu De say the other day about ‘beginner’s mind’ again? Off course! how will I ever experience something profound and true if I come in with these huge expectations… this is not what Tea is about! Tea is Tea, Truth is Truth. As it is, not as you would like it to be.” I breathed in deeply another time, closed my eyes, relaxed, and with all my heart tried to say to the Tea: “okey, I set down all my expectations, I am open, please teach me whatever you want me to be thought.”
The next cup came, I lifted it up again, but this time without any expectations, fully conscious I took the first sip. Straight away I felt the tea splashing up to my upper pallet like I never have felt before, I felt its aroma rising up into my nasal cavity and beyond, and a gentle wave of subtle sensations flowed down my body slowly. Right then and there I knew I had arrived! I didn’t arrive in the magical fairytale with dragons and misty mountains, but I arrived in the present… Which is, when we are able to embrace it, the best place to be after all!

A cup filled with Wisdom
I am still very grateful for having had that experience. Not because I reached some blissful state for a moment, but because I was able to set down my expectations and return to a beginner’s mind. To be open and receptive towards what was happening in that moment. And to be humble and ready to be taught. Tea has helped me very much with my meditation practice. But not only for the more obvious reasons such as that she wakes me up in the morning or makes me less sleepy during my meditations. Tea has also been a bridge for me, connecting my time at the cushion to my daily life. She has also helped me to create empty, tidy and clean spaces, which support me in keeping my mind clear as well and motivate me to use those space for where they are intended for: meditation, prayer and ceremony. Having a space fully dedicated to this truly has been of big support for me and my practice!
But perhaps most important of all, tea has helped me to develop, relearn and renew my capacity for sustaining a beginners mind. It is with this mind that can I experience every bowl, cup or breath like it’s the first and only one. And it actually is! Like these pages often remind us: there is ever only one bowl of tea like this one, and it will never be the same again.
But how did this experience, how does Tea help me in developing my capacity to manifest a beginners mind? Without a beginners mind, there is no Tea. There is no experience, no connection or communication possible with Her when we are not able to observe objectively what is going on inside and around. The Tea that I ‘experienced’ in the moments prior to the tea session, or during the first two cups was really only an idea, an illusion. It was a desire to experience something which was not there and will not ever be. Wanting such an experience is taking the Zen out of our Tea. Tea without Zen can still be enjoyable, and nice way to spend your time, but it does not lead to more freedom, it is not a path or spiritual practice. But when we come to her with an empty and open mind, we do have the opportunity to really meet, learn and grow. 

In that sense Tea and the whole practice surrounding it can be a helpful tool to gauge our capacity to be open and receptive. It is like a mudra that prevents us from falling asleep during our sitting meditation, she warns us when we lose ‘it’, and she rewards us when we are present. It comes back in all that we do surrounding Tea. Whether we light charcoal, fill up the kettle, setup Chaqi, or serve Tea. When we are not resting in a beginner mind it won’t be half as good as it would be when we do rest in the present. I invite you to observe the times when you feel that the Chaqi you just made or the Tea you just served was the best you ever did. In what space was your mind resting when you were doing this? How open and receptive were you really?
The capacity for manifesting a beginners mind doesn’t come naturally though! Our brains, minds and bodies are designed to react and respond faster than we can be aware of it. The first step in noticing that we react to anything, is to notice the reaction itself. And in the beginning we usually only notice it after most of the harm has already been done. That is why Dietists that incorporate mindfulness in their treatment usually advise patients to put that which they are craving for, outside of their direct reach. In the hope that by the time they reached their ‘fix’, they have ‘come to senses’ already and can stay away from it. When we stay away from it one time, it will be easier to stay away from it a second time and so on. The pathway that is literally wired inside our brain will start to weaken, until a whole new pathway will develop: that of our more wholesome response. 

This is what we do when we are practicing sitting meditation as well. Weather we focus on our breathing, sensations or on nothing at all, we train our mind to focus. We wander away, we notice we wandered away and we come back, and this a thousand times. Our capacity to concentrate will help us to notice our reactions. And we can start to learn how to react in a more skillful and appropriate way.

The Zen in our cup and the cup in our ZenThis is where all comes full circle: through meditation we learn our minds to concentrate and be present onto what IS, and we can utilize this concentration to serve Tea like we have never served before. When we are not concentrated and present She will tell us, as well as our charcoal arrangement and our Chaqi. She will help us to catch ourselves when we have turned on our ‘automatic pilot’, and in a kind and gentle way bring us back to the present. This capacity to ‘catch’ ourselves can than serve to be like a drop in a lake causing ripples of awareness to spread out further and further into other activities of our daily lives. And on the cushion we can recognize they ways of our reactive mind again and slowly unwind by not nourishing the tendency to react. In this way our meditation and tea practice strengthen each other to form an endless spiraling road upwards, helping us to be more free from our reactions, attachments, delusions and illusions. So that we have more time left to truly enjoy the cup were sipping. May we all learn to drink Tea with a beginners mind, and learn to love every sip like it’s our first, last and only one!


Five Basics of Tea Brewing


1. Separate The Table and Center Yourself




By Wu De

We’ve received some requests to return to the basics, exploring the foundations of all tea brewing from a practical level. Returning to the practical foundation of tea brewing is important for us all. Every now and again we have to renew our contract with the most essential principles in order to make sure that the ground on which we build our mastery is strong. Though these principles apply to bowl tea as well, they are primary in gongfu brewing. Over the next five issues, we plan to explore the Five Basics of Tea Brewing one by one, adding depth for the more experienced brewers and covering the foundations for those of you who are new to Tea.
At the center, we often teach that “repeat” is a dirty word. It is much better to say, “renew”. The Sanskrit word for wisdom is “prajna”. “Pra” means “before” and “jna” is “knowledge” so prajna is that which is before knowledge—the “beginner’s mind” as it is often translated. When we think we know something, we shoot ourselves in the feet, crippling our ability to learn from the lessons all around us. The enlightened mind is humble, open and receptive. There is an old Chinese saying that “everything which is not me is my master”. When we dismiss things as “basic” we interrupt our learning, our humility and heart growth. We get in our own way. Our heads prevent our hearts from being fully present, from realizing that this lesson that is returning in our lives is a chance to renew our contracts with positive support. We miss the chance to deepen and refine our relationship to the foundation of our art and practice. This applies to Tea as much as to life.
We also often have the bad habit of assuming that mastery is an extravagant, difficult skill. Real mastery is in the simple. Advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. In life, it matters little that we achieve exalted spiritual states if we cannot be happy in the simplest ways; if we cannot connect to this moment fully, it doesn’t matter what satori we had in the past. And if we cannot connect heart to heart with the people, places and things around us, all the wisdom cultivated in meditation or at seminars is lost on us. We must brew tea with heart to master this art!
There is a great Tea story that expresses this: A man once walked across Japan because he heard that the great Zen master Rikyu was accepting students. After some time, he was allowed to study tea with the old master. He worked hard and progressed. After about a year of study, he asked Rikyu: “Master, now that I have been here a year, would you initiate me into the essence of Cha Dao?” The master smiled, “Of course, I would have done that on the day you arrived… “The essence of Cha Dao is this: draw the water, lay the coals, boil the water and steep the tea!” The man scoffed, “That’s it! I could have realized that at home.” Rikyu looked at him in askance, shaking his finger. “The day you can do that, I will walk across Japan and lay my head at your feet and call you master!”
With the right spirit of heart—knowing that the path from the mind to the hand travels through the heart—and a beginners mind, let us then return to the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, starting with the first: Separate the tea space in half and do everything on the left side with the left hand, and everything on the right with that hand.
A lot of the basics of tea brewing arise out of the need for fluency and remaining centered while brewing tea. Lefties are usually more centered, having grown up in a right-handed world. The rest of us, however, are often off balance in our daily lives. Our right hand is usually much stronger than the left, and we go about our day as though the left hand is some kind of evolutionary vestige, like the tailbone.  Through Tea, we return to balance. We should be able to do every movement proficiently with both hands. This brings our whole body to the center, and the movements will then flow from our heart. We will be more present, more engaged and brew from the core of our being—the “dan tian”, as it is called in Chinese. This is the navel-point we breathe from when we are relaxed and focused. Using both hands will bring tea brewing to that space.
Being energetically and physically front and center to your tea and your guests promotes mindfulness. This simple aspect of tea brewing cannot be overestimated. There is a profound change in brewing with both hands, without swiveling from the center of your space. It changes the way you handle each implement, promotes dexterity and availability to your guests.
In Asia, it is rude to turn your back on your guests when brewing tea. When you reach over the center with either hand, you will invariably lose your center to your tea implements and turn your back on some of your guests. This is a minor reason for this principle, but it is important. By staying upright and facing the center, you will find concentration easier. You will also find it easier to connect to your guests, whether energetically if it is a silent tea session or in heartfelt conversation if you choose to have a discourse over your tea. Staying oriented towards the center honors your guests, showing that you are fully present to the moment.
The simple, most practical and maybe most important reason for dividing the table and doing all movements with the corresponding hand relates to protecting your teaware. In decades of tea brewing, the number one reason I have seen teapots, cups or other implements knocked over or broken (by beginners and advanced brewers alike) is reaching across the table with the opposite hand. If you reach over your pot and cups with the left hand to get something from the right side of the table, when you return to a centered position, the pot and all your teaware are now in a blind spot. Tea brewers are encouraged to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothes, and if your sleeves are long, it will be easy for you to catch them on your tea cloth, tea tray or even the pot and knock something over. It happens a lot! If you try reaching across in this manner, you will see just how blind you are to the placement of things on your tea table.
You will have to practice using both hands in tea brewing if you are to achieve gongfu, which you know by now means “mastery”. This will mean that many times you have to pass things from one hand to the other. Make a habit of this. It is always amazing to see this unfold in Japanese or Chinese tea ceremonies, as it inspires clarity, purity of movement and mindfulness/presence in host and guest alike. In Japanese tea rooms, for example, there is often a sliding door that the host goes in and out of to bring supplies from the back room. If you have the chance to attend a ceremony, or watch a video of one, you will notice that the host opens the door halfway with the left hand and then finishes opening it with the right. She then goes out and closes the door in the same way.


This month, try putting your hands together in a good Namaste over your heart. Then extend your hands together to the center of the table and commit to do everything left of that line with the left hand and everything on the right with the right hand. There are, of course, many deeper levels to this practice that we haven’t covered here (like the movement of Qi in the body). We encourage you to renew this practice even if you are a seasoned brewer! As always, we are excited to hear your insights.

2. Circle Towards The Center

 


Last month we began a new series of articles on the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, remembering that the simple and the advanced are just spirals on the same circle. Advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. There is never a time when we graduate from the basics or leave them behind. They are always the foundation of our practice, and it is therefore important to return to them every now and again to renew and refine our understanding. Only in continually checking that the foundation is secure can we safely add another story to the building. In fact, it is smart to thoroughly check the groundwork every time one considers adding another floor— to make sure the structure is sound and can hold the added weight! More often than not, the best tea sessions are held on the ground floor anyway. Though these five pillars of tea brewing are applicable to all tea practices and brewing methods, they are paramount to gongfu tea. The only difference is that other brewing styles, like leaves in a bowl, end at the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, while gongfu tea, on the other hand, builds on them—exploring more refined techniques and sensitivity as well. Still, they are as important for a gongfu practice as for any tea practice. 

Last month we explored the need to separate the tea space down the middle and do everything on the right side with the right hand, and everything on the left with that hand. This keeps us centered to our guests and to the tea space. It also promotes a more balanced tea brewing, involving both hands and arms, and stemming from the core. Breathing in and out from the center of our being and bringing the tea movements from that space adds a lot of dimension to all tea, most especially gongfu tea, where the movements are more involved and refined. There is a kind of Qi Gong to tea brewing, and bringing the energy up the legs and out through the arms via our center is important to the alchemy of tea brewing, especially as spiritual cultivation. We also talked about not turning our backs to our guests, as well as the practicality of protecting our teaware by not reaching across the table with the opposite hand, thereby putting our teapot in our blind spot when we come back to front and center. That is the most common way I have seen teapots get knocked over these many years! Now we can begin to explore the second basic, which is very much based on the first. A lot of movements in tea brewing are circular— not all, but definitely the majority, especially in gongfu tea. The second Basic of Tea Brewing is: in circular movements, all movements of the left hand are clockwise and all movements of the right hand are counter-clockwise. 

This aspect of tea brewing is almost completely to do with the ergonomics of our bodies. Another, perhaps simpler way of remembering how to do circular movements with each hand is towards the center. We move our hands in circles towards the center because it is smoother, cleaner and much more comfortable. When we move either of the arms in outward circles our elbows clack against our bodies and the circular motions become awkward and forced. It is very difficult to move in this way, uncomfortable and far less fluent then spinning towards the center. The second, deeper reason for moving towards the center when making circular motions pertains to energy (Qi). When we move in this way, the Qi in our bodies flows differently—from the center (dan tian) towards the kettle or pot. If you are more sensitive, you will feel this just by sitting in a chair and spinning your hands in circles towards the center. The difference in energy flow is obvious. Try placing your elbows out and holding something as heavy as a kettle and/or pot in each hand (it’s not a good idea to practice fast with teaware, especially at first). Next, spin your hands in outward circles and then switch to circles that come in towards the center—clockwise for the left hand and counter-clockwise for the right. Do you notice the difference in smoothness on a gross level? And can you feel the energetic difference? Does the energy from your breath, from your core, move out your arms in a different way? Is it any wonder that movements in Qi Gong and Tai Chi also often follow this pattern?

The next experiment is, of course, to see what effects this has on your gongfu brewing. We suggest an experiment with just two cups and a kettle. Bring the water to a boil and lay out two identical gongfu cups. For this experiment, some wider, more open cups may be better. They will make pouring easier, and the water will also cool down quicker. Since it is coming right from the kettle, the water may be hotter than you are used to. Like with most gongfu tea experiments, it is best to use simple porcelain cups—plain white if possible… Hold the kettle in your off-hand. Hold it with your index finger running down the handle, which offers more control and guidance. Using the index finger as a guide—gently pointing down towards the spout-facing curve of the handle— will allow for more support and precision in pouring. Remember what we have discussed in previous issues about placing the water as opposed to pouring it into the cups. That will be especially important in this experiment. Place the water into the first cup in gentle circles that spin outwards, away from the center. Then, place the water in the second cup in circular motions that move in the correct direction according to the Five Basics of Tea Brewing— towards the center. Try to only pour on the walls of the cup, so that the water flows gently down into each cup.

Even if your cups are wider, and therefore cool down faster, you still may need to wait a bit for them to cool down if you are sensitive to hot water. Otherwise, you might burn your mouth. It is actually never a good idea to blow on tea, as it distorts the energy, flavor and aroma. For the purpose of this experiment, that is especially important. When the water is cool enough, hold each cup in one hand and try drinking from each one in turn. Do you notice a difference in the smoothness and consistency of the water? Is one more or less structured? No matter what your results with the water experiment, you can try practicing gongfu tea by pouring water from the kettle or tea from the teapot in outward and inward-facing circles. See which direction feels more natural and fluent, and what, if any, effect it has on your tea. In fact, you can repeat the above experiment with tea, pouring from the teapot into two cups—one for each direction of circular motion. If you do so, be sure to use your elbow more, allowing the circular movement, and thus the pouring, to come from there.


3. Kettle in the Off-hand


Over the last two months we have been discussing the Five Basics of Tea Brewing. Strengthening the roots of any practice helps strengthen the tree. The deeper the roots are, the richer the nutrients and the more lush the crown. It is therefore important to return now and again to our beginnings and refine our foundation. This also helps to keep us humble, so that we remember where we’ve come from and how much we’ve grown. Often times, when you look back at the basics from years of practice, you find that you see so many new facets to them that you hadn’t noticed when you first started. With an open, beginner’s mind we can continue to grow and expand our gongfu, no matter how far we’ve come in our Tea journey. 

Though these Five Basics of Tea Brewing are applicable to all tea practices and brewing methods, they are paramount to gongfu tea. The only difference is that other brewing styles, like leaves in a bowl, end at the Five Basics of Tea Brewing, while gongfu tea, on the other hand, builds on them—exploring more refined techniques and sensitivity as well. Still, they are as important for a gongfu practice as for any tea practice.

So far, we’ve talked about separating the tea table down the middle and doing everything on the right side with the right hand and vice versa. This helps us stay balanced, front and center, which is very important energetically. It is also rude in Asian cultures to turn one’s back on guests. The most important aspect of this principle, though, is that it protects our teaware. In decades of tea brewing, the number one reason I have seen for teaware getting knocked over and/or broken is due to reaching across the table with the opposite hand, which leaves the teapot in a blind spot that you can easily hit when you return to an upright posture.

Then, last month we talked about all the circular movements in tea brewing, and there are many, like filling the pot with water or pouring the tea into the cups, etc. All of the circular movements done with the left hand should be clockwise, and with the right hand, counter-clockwise. An easier way to remember this is that the circular movements are towards the center. This is to do with the ergonomics of our body and the natural energy flow from our center to our wrists/hands. Hopefully you tried the experiment last month and are ready to move on to the third basic.

The third Basic of Tea Brewing is to do with the kettle: always put the kettle on the off-hand side and use the off-hand to handle the kettle. This means that if you are right-handed, the kettle should be on your left side, and that you should always use your left hand to pour water. If you are left-handed, then the kettle goes on the right side. There are many reasons why this is an important basic of all tea brewing. If you have made a habit of picking up the kettle with the strong hand, you will want to break it as soon as possible.

The first practical reason why we hold the kettle in our off-hand is something we talked about briefly when we discussed the first Basic of Tea Brewing, which is that it is important that our tea brewing be balanced. Studies have shown that people are often much more efficient and stronger with the hand they use more often, especially right-handed people (lefties are more ambidextrous). In fact, many of us live life as though our off-hand were some kind of evolutionary vestige like the tail bone, rarely using it to do anything at all. Occasionally our off-hand lends a bit of support to our activities, but rarely do we choose to balance our day-to-day actions in a centered way that is in harmony with the activity itself. One insightful practice you might try is to spend a Saturday doing everything with two hands, seeing what understanding arises as a result. Some students have tried spending a whole day doing every little thing with two hands, and have realized how mindlessly many activities are done, and just how off-keel their bodies are, along with many other insights…

Brewing tea should be balanced from the center of the body, the “dan tian, 丹田”. When we breathe and move from our core, the energy comes form our heart-center and changes the whole way we relate to the tea-brewing process. By using our off-hand to manipulate the heaviest object in brewing, we help strengthen it and bring more balance to both sides of our body. In that way, energy (Qi) begins to flow evenly through both arms and the brewing is motivated differently

The most important reason for using the off-hand to hold the kettle, though, has to do with fluency. Smoothness and fluency in brewing are the most relevant factors of gongfu tea, which is why this basic is the one that is most applicable to a gongfu brewing methodology. The others relate equally to all types of tea brewing. But as you progress in gongfu tea, you find that smoothness and fluency really influence the quality of the cup. Remember our discussions of the poem, which preserves the methodology of this tradition? The final line of the poem is “everything is finished in one breath.” If you recall, this is the most difficult line to translate because it literally translates to “everything is finished in one Qi.” While this line does relate to breath, it also refers to the fact that everything should be done in one energy—in one movement, without hesitation or discord. Everything should flow smoothly, in other words.

Almost everyone inherently knows that the pot should be in the strong hand—even if it is an Yixing pot which can be used by either hand. This is energetically important. If you also put the kettle in the strong hand, the brewing itself becomes clunky, with many stops and starts. To brew in this way, you have to pick the kettle up and fill the pot, set the kettle down and then pick up the pot with that same hand. There is an awkward pause between each movement, and the left side of the body is uninvolved (or the right side for lefties). When you use the off-hand to handle the kettle there is much greater fluency. You can pick up the kettle with the off-hand and remove the lid from the pot with the strong hand. Then you fill the pot and at the instant the off-hand is returning the kettle, the strong hand has already lifted the pot to start pouring into the cups. This is much smoother and without hesitation. It is all one movement, in other words. The real importance of this basic is based in such smooth, graceful fluency: If fluency in tea brewing matters to you, then the kettle should be held by the off-hand.

Whether you have been using the off-hand or not, this month’s experiment involves using both. Try using two identical cups and do two different steepings back to back: one in which the kettle is in the off-hand and another holding it in the strong hand. Steep the tea quickly both times so that both cups are relatively the same temperature. Try to notice the difference in the smoothness and fluency of the process itself. Then, after the two steepings, try the two cups of tea side by side. Are they different? Is one smoother? Can you recognize the difference in them? 

4. Settle the Heart First 


In the last three issues we’ve discussed the Five Basics of Tea Brewing. We keep returning to our foundation, no matter how far we have traveled, checking its strength and refining its power and beauty. Remember, advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. The basics are like your shoes: they always travel with you, and no matter how far you hike, you have to keep them in good condition. It doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or a seasoned hiker; well-maintained shoes are your best friends, preventing injury and, as any hiker knows, are the difference between a pleasant and unpleasant journey. Just as a wise hiker always takes great care of their shoes, so too a Chajin always hones her basics, knowing that Cha Dao is founded on simplicity. The beginning of the enso is also its end... 

So far, we’ve talked about separating the tea table down the middle and doing everything on the right side with the right hand and vice versa. This helps us stay balanced, front and center, which is very important energetically. It is also rude in Asian cultures to turn one’s back on guests. The most important aspect of this principle, though, is that it protects our teaware. Then we talked about all the circular movements in tea brewing, and there are many, like filling the pot with water or pouring the tea into the cups, etc. All of the circular movements done with the left hand should be clockwise, and with the right hand, counter-clockwise. This is to do with the ergonomics of our body and the natural energy flow from our center to our wrists/hands. 

The third Basic of Tea Brewing is to do with the kettle: always put the kettle on the off-hand side and use the off-hand to handle the kettle. There are many reasons why this is an important basic of all tea brewing. The first practical reason why we hold the kettle in our off-hand is that it is important that our tea brewing be balanced. But the most important reason for using the off-hand to hold the kettle, though, has to do with fluency. Smoothness and fluency in brewing are the most relevant factors of gongfu tea, which is why this basic is the one that is most applicable to a gongfu brewing methodology. When you use the off-hand to handle the kettle there is much greater fluency. You can pick up the kettle with the off-hand and remove the lid from the pot with the strong hand. Then you fill the pot and at the instant the off-hand is returning the kettle, the strong hand has already lifted the pot to start pouring into the cups. This is much smoother and without hesitation. It is all one movement, in other words. 

This month we turn to the fourth Basic of Tea Brewing, and in doing so take our list inwards: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pick up the kettle until your heart is still. (That’s right, ten ‘evers’!) The time it takes the water to boil has always been a time for meditation. In traditional times, Chajin called the sound boiling water makes “the wind soughing the pines”. If you use a metal kettle, you may also share in this sentiment. There are Zen poems that sentimentalize this meditation, saying “the wind in the pines summoned me back from my meditation.” Nothing will improve your tea brewing more than a still heart, a heart free from obstructions. The path from the mind to the hand is through the heart. And if you are talking, out loud or in your mind, nothing with mastery, quietude or grace will follow. Instead, you may leave a trail of broken teaware behind you. In order to achieve mastery of gongfu tea, concentration and focus will be needed.

There is a tradition dating back hundreds of years in China that one shouldn’t talk while pouring the tea, lest the words pollute the tea. The pours have always been an opportunity for pauses, even in business meetings or casual conversations over tea. In that way, both the host and the guest gather themselves and reflect on the discussion, weighing their responses properly. Then we speak from the heart, and we learn the art of listening well. 

There is no more important advice than to take the time to center yourself before you start each brew. Clear your heart and mind. This could happen through meditation, breathing, a prayer or my favorite, which is to connect the kettle to the pot—with one in each hand—while breathing deeply to calm the mind and center one’s energy in the heart. As I do this, I can feel when the connection between the water and Tea is clear, through my heart. When the line is clear and the connection is strong and without any interference or static—only then do I raise the kettle. This requires some patience. But remember that there is no hurry. Tea is always about slowing down! There is never any reason to rush, and nothing good will come from it (and talking while you pour, whether outside or in the form of internal dialogue, also results in more broken teaware over time). If you are to prepare tea masterfully, it must be from the place in you that meets the Universe. 

When you are resting deep and centered, the tea brewing happens all its own—in a wu wei, to use a pun… Therefore, the more you cultivate yourself, through meditation and other practices, the better tea you’ll make. Tea brewing is not something you do, in other words, but rather something you are. 
This month, try to make a greater effort to take a pause before each brew to clear your heart. Live without walls of the mind for a second and put yourself into the tea brewing process, as opposed to standing outside and “doing” it. Connect the kettle’s handle to the button of your pot and see if you can feel the flow of energy and communication between the tea and the water/heat. It will be easier to feel after the first steeping, as they have already met—there is water in the leaves and pot, in other words. See if you can recognize when the connection is not clear—when it is bumpy/static as opposed to a smooth flow. What happens when you brew tea with your mind? If you find clarity within and pour from there, how is the tea different? What is the difference in the preparation itself? Where do the guiding principles come from when you aren’t there? When there is no sense of ‘I’ as subject who is ‘preparing tea’ as verb, who/what is preparing the tea? Where do the movements come from? And where do they go when they are done? 


5. Stay with The Tea


Over the last four issues, we’ve discussed the Five Basics of Tea Brewing in great detail, renewing parts of them each issue to keep them fresh, and to continue practicing them. Remember, advanced techniques are basic techniques mastered. We can’t repeat that enough. It is a mistake to think that the master has grown out of the basics. Many people think that the amazing concert pianist just showed up and performed, living the easy life. But most master musicians practice hours a day, and often scales are included in that practice. Without strong roots, a tree will never grow tall. In this final month of the basics, review each one and take note of the ways you’ve grown over time, as well as the areas you could still improve.

So far, we’ve talked about separating the tea table down the middle and doing everything on the right side with the right hand and vice versa. This helps us stay balanced, front and center, which is very important energetically. It is also rude in Asian cultures to turn one’s back on guests. The most important aspect of this principle, though, is that it protects our teaware. In decades of tea brewing, the number one reason I have seen for teaware getting knocked over and/or broken is due to reaching across the table with the opposite hand, which leaves the teapot in a blind spot that you can easily hit when you return to an upright posture.

Then we talked about all the circular movements in tea brewing, and there are many, like filling the pot with water or pouring the tea into the cups, etc. All of the circular movements done with the left hand should be clockwise, and with the right hand, counter-clockwise. An easier way to remember this is that the circular movements are towards the center. This is to do with the ergonomics of our body and the natural energy flow from our center to our wrists/hands.

The third Basic of Tea Brewing is to do with the kettle: always put the kettle on the off-hand side and use the off-hand to handle the kettle. This means that if you are righthanded, the kettle should be on your left side, and that you should always use your left hand to pour water. If you are left-handed, then the kettle goes on the other side. There are many reasons why this is an important basic of all tea brewing. The most important reason for using the off-hand to hold the kettle, though, has to do with fluency. Smoothness and fluency in brewing are the most relevant factors of gongfu tea, which is why this basic is the one that is most applicable to a gongfu brewing methodology. When you use the off-hand to handle the kettle there is much greater fluency. You can pick up the kettle with the off-hand and remove the lid from the pot with the strong hand. Then you fill the pot and at the instant the off-hand is returning the kettle, the strong hand has already lifted the pot to start pouring into the cups. This is much smoother and without hesitation. It is all one movement, in other words.

Last month we turned to the fourth Basic of Tea Brewing, and in doing so took our list inwards: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pick up the kettle until your heart is still. (That’s right, ten ‘evers’!) The time it takes the water to boil has always been a time for meditation. In traditional times, Chajin called the sound boiling water makes “the wind soughing the pines”. If you use a metal kettle, you may also share in this sentiment. Nothing will improve your tea brewing more than a still heart, a heart free from obstructions. And if you are talking, out loud or in your mind, nothing with mastery, quietude or grace will follow. Instead, you may leave a trail of broken teaware behind you. In order to achieve mastery of gongfu tea, concentration and focus will be needed.

This month we turn to the last of the Five Basics of Tea Brewing: Stay with the tea. Quieting the mind while the water is boiling, and finding the Stillness within before raising the kettle and initiating the brewing process is important, but it would all be lost if you start chatting immediately after picking the kettle up. This last principal is about putting all your attention, concentration and one-pointedness of mind (samadhi) into the brewing process. All your attention, heart and focus should be on the pouring, steeping, decanting and serving the tea to the guests. Not a drop of attention should be spilled—by distracting thoughts, conversations, etc. Traditionally, it was thought to be rude in Chinese culture to talk while pouring the tea, as the mind of those words would then be in the cup. Even businessmen discussing deals or scholar-artists debating the merits of a particular poem would pause in their conversations to pour their tea. This also inspires better listening, which means better conversations.

Only when the cups or bowls have been handed out to all your guests can you withdraw your attention from the process. The master brewer becomes the brewing, as with any other art. In order to become the process, you will have to completely immerse yourself in it. The shogun Hideyoshi complimented the great tea master Rikyu, saying that when he prepared tea he was like the greatest of samurai warriors in a martial contest: there is nowhere to penetrate. His concentration was so complete, in other words, that there was no possibility of disturbance. I have seen a fly land on a master while brewing, and watched with amazement as the process went on totally undisturbed. My favorite picture of my master shows him at peace while some tea steeps, though he is surrounded by dozens of noisy guests taking photos and talking. Stay with the tea.

For some time, this will mean that you can’t talk during the actual brewing. This doesn’t matter in a silent session. (Or does it? What about internal dialogue?) But in those where we are connecting to others through heartfelt conversation, relaxed dialogue, etc. you will find that over time these pauses are not awkward, but desirable. If the conversation drifts into topics that promote a loss of presence, you, as the host, can change the topic back to awakening things. And you always have the perfect subject to discuss: the tea! Bring the guests back to the tea. Ask them about its flavor or aroma. Ask them about the bowl or cup. Invite them to notice the simple wonders in this moment, here and now. Invite them to be present. 

To be with the tea from the raising of the kettle to the distribution of the cups or bowls, completely focused and absorbed in what you are doing will improve your tea, not to mention bring a mindfulness to the art of tea that promotes cultivation, discipline—gongfu! 



Tea and meditation as Tools

By Andrus



10 days.  At the very end, 24 straight hours without a pause.  I had finally given myself over completely to meditation.  I didn't deviate even a fraction from the timetable.  Of course, I thought I was going to lose it in there, more than a few times.  In a certain sense, I did lose it; how much was hardly a foregone conclusion.  But now in a few moments, I'd be talking amongst my brothers and sisters, certainly finding some time for tea and bringing everything back down to normal.  As that time arrived, normal was a little harder to find than I expected.  Tears poured from my eyes over insignificant details, confusion about what had transpired in my private cell continued to arise and pass.  When the chance for tea appeared, a pure and beautiful synchronicity that felt like a reward after such a long journey, it simply reminded me that the consequence for working that hard as a meditator meant that tea would hardly alter the landscape.  Far from normalizing me, far from giving me the effect I thought was appropriate for this day, tea amplified the fact that I wasn't going to be able to stop the awareness of a meditator anytime soon.  Normal wasn't coming.  Certainly tea was still being gentle to me, as it always is, but gentle in the sense that it wasn't going to do anything at all to bother what was already clearly the case.  Its assistance to me was no assistance.  It would not leave me with more, or less.  It was not inert, nor active.  That's when things started to get unpleasant.  I started to experience the kind of physical symptoms one might get if they drank strong tea on an empty stomach.  Yet this sensation started a little too deep in the guts to be the result of a couple of small, half-filled mugs worth.  As the nausea built itself up over a number of hours, unrelenting regardless of my attempts to manage it, I knew it was about something significant.  But what?  I wouldn't get a chance to pinpoint the what, not that day anyway.  And in the two weeks that have passed since the retreat, still no definitive answer.  Something about holding two opposites together at once, maybe.

I can't even remember the trigger that stopped it, but as if a magician waved his wand over my face and teleported me to another dimension: there I was, without stomach pain, everything completely normal and yet very very not ok at the exact same time, hunky-dory and yet absolutely meaningless.  In this new world, I tried to find my trusty toolkit of meditative techniques but it was no where to be found.  As I walked around, lay down, used the restroom, talked to people, sat with crossed or stretched out legs, I observed my body and found nothing unusual whatsoever going on.  Nothing pleasant, nothing painful, and yet some kind of dreadful void extending infinitely far into the distance from me was present.  I observed my mind, throwing things into this void that might bounce back to me with a label of "meaningful", but nothing would.  Anything at all I thought about would vanish into this black hole.  Knowing concurrently that everything was fine and also that somehow this mental and physical horror show would last forever, I decided it was time to have an interview with the teacher.

I will spare you the details of this private encounter with my preceptor.  We both recognized that I had gone all in, something very deep had come up from way down within, and now I was in the midst of a nightmare of sorts.  What a strange nightmare!  To be aware that one is having a nightmare while awake and yet to be perfectly ok with it...  I acted so strangely in front of this man to whom, during the retreat, I had shown such dutiful respect.  Leaving his physical presence and walking out the door into the late night with the horrifying prospect of laying in bed surely unable to sleep mirrored back to me where I was on the path: gone.

I had planted a seed of sanity before the retreat began.  Fortuitously, I had gifted my preceptor a bowl and a bag of Sun Moon Lake upon his doorstep before I headed over to the meditation hall for roll call.  He had said he wanted an alternative to coffee and I could think of no better substitute.  And so I had left these tools for him with instructions and gone into the retreat, wondering if this kindness would come back to me cleanly.  Laying down in my bed, tossing and turning, resisting anything resembling meditation, I recalled that during our strange discombobulated late night interview, he suggested that I stop by his residence in the morning before leaving.  As I struggled again and again to face the void head on, the hope of morning tea kept me sane.  Once the sun appeared in the sky and I walked through his door to find the simple chaxi of two placemats on the dining table, I wondered if the peak of the nightmare had now passed. 

The teacher, filled with enthusiasm, certainly remembering the night before and surely aware that I might have had a long night, asked if it would be ok to ask me questions about tea.  I told him with absolute certainty that day or night, rain or shine, whatever the circumstances might be, I would love to talk about tea.  As I spoke these familiar words, the meaningless void still present for me, I wondered if the old me, the guy before this confounding retreat began, was the one answering.  Luckily, the guy who could recognize normal let me know that I did still love tea!  He had so many questions!  How much tea, what temperature water, how many steepings, how to hold the bowl, what to do while drinking it - beginner's mind hard and fast at work!  In the midst of all this, he took a moment to thank me, a deep bow of thanks, for introducing him to something so obvious he would have never come up with it himself: leaves in a bowl.  He said that he knew the first second the bowl hit his hand that this was how tea should be!  Leaves in a bowl!  He couldn't believe it!  And somehow, neither could I!  The same miracle had happened to me, of course.  And so the session was: questions about tea, me giving my expert opinion about the question, concurrently thinking that I had gone mad, me asking a meditation question trying to find my way back home, getting an expert answer that didn't quite satisfy me, and then onto another wide-eyed question about tea.  After this sequence played out a few times, I noticed my anxiety calming down in stages.  Each question and answer period seemed another notch down in intensity.  Let it be known that I walked into that session certain that I wouldn't be able to drive home to my family that day.  Slowly and surely, that fear dissipated.  Some bowls in, I recognized that the tea was so good, so healing, so important, so real.  And about that same time, I saw that my teacher's questions were the same: so good, so healing, so important, so real.

There's one question in particular that has stuck with me that I would like to share with you, one that has become quite serious for me.  In the middle of the session, after we had drunk a few bowls, my teacher noticed that we only had 5 more minutes before he had to conduct that morning's group sit.  He gave me the option of attending and I said, without outer but filled with inner trepidation, that I would like to attend.  Because we were mid-session, he asked what would be the best option for putting the session on hold.  Would we take the time to clean everything up, dump out the tea leaves, and start again when we returned?  Or would we leave the bowls as they are and refresh the leaves with water to continue where we left off?  Both options had merit, but the one I chose was a fusion of the two, of sorts.  Instead of leaving the bowls willy-nilly on the table, I put them together in the center and explained that this simple symbolic gesture was our way of cleaning up without cleaning up, which would allow us to start again without starting again.  (To be honest, those are my words now, after much reflection on this special moment that this special time for healing gave me.)  And with that, we left tea to meditate.

The moment I sat down on my cushion in the hall, away from the tea bowls and the immediate presence of my preceptor, the nightmare re-awoke in full force!  Again, I will spare you the personal details.  You can trust that the inner storm was fierce!  Yet once the long hour was over, I walked back to my teacher's residence and straight away we were back to beginner's mind tea questions, again with the backdrop of "I am permanently crazy and there's no way out of here yet I am totally normal" - a tea session of a lifetime.  And then, it was over.  Before I knew it, I'd be taking a few deep breaths and be on my way back to my family for Christmas.  A road trip to end all road trips, to be sure!

So here I am, at home.  I am having my epic New Year's Eve tea session, as usual.  Except somehow, this time, no one is here.  My wife and kids are asleep, my friends and family all but non-existent.  Still, I grab a tea from the top shelf just for this occasion.  Man, the chaxi is too nice for just me!  I am drinking the last of the '77 shou, the year I was born, and the bowl is packed stout.  Three bowls in, I remember my preceptor's question again: do we leave the tea there while we meditate or ....  Hey, that's not what he asked, was it?  The truth of the scripture is in the words used to write the sutras and at the same time, it is not there.  I leave the cup on the coaster, the shakuhachi music playing from the stereo, the kettle firmly on the alcohol burner and close my eyes.  I find myself craving silence.  The deep-in-the-guts nausea appears.  I feel the spark of a fire on my big toe and some tingling at the top of my head.  Is tea the truth?  Is tea meaningless?  Is tea real?  Is tea meditation?  Is meditation tea?

I will end with the following commentary:

A marathon cannot be completed without a pace.
Continuity of practice is the secret of success.
The simple only appears when the complex is exhausted.
Tea and meditation are tools.  Maybe someday you'll find a use for them.  




Tea and Meditation

Well over a year ago, in early September 2015, I listened to an episode of the Rich Roll podcast and was quickly drawn into the conversation. The guest was a man named Wu De. I was captivated by the simplicity, vulnerability, humor, calmness and the earthy wisdom in their conversation. My favorite quote of Wu De’s from that podcast is: “If you don’t have the ability to celebrate what you have now, nothing you get—and I mean nothing; nothing material, nothing experiential, no amount information, no amount of experience, no amount of material possessions—is going to teach you how to celebrate.”

That podcast was one of the top podcasts of 2015 for me. At the time, I was a novice to the art of tea, though tea would soon become a daily sacred moment and a way to cultivate empty space through the ancient ritualistic way of preparing, serving and drinking the simple plant for me. Two friends and co-workers, who had already been involved in the Tea and Zen world in greater depth, introduced me to tea ceremonies and the power of drinking living tea at work during a break. I really enjoyed the mindfulness part of the tea ceremonies, from the serving process to emptying the bowl/cup sip by sip, whenever I took part of one in the events hosted by people who had studied with Wu De. It was an extension of and a new perspective into my mediation practice, reminding me of a great quote by Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “To be mindful is to be fully present with whatever we are doing. If you are drinking tea, just drink your tea. Do not drink your worries, your projects, your regrets. When you hold your cup, you may like to breathe in, to bring your mind back to your body, stop your thinking, and become fully present. In that moment, you become real and the cup of tea becomes real. In this state of true presence and freedom you enjoy simply drinking your tea.”

When my friend Rivo walked into work in early spring of this year and announced, “Hey, you know this Wu De guy from the Rich Roll podcast last year is coming to Europe for a retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees in October and we should go,” I did not have to think for too long. I was all in! I paid the reservation and before I knew it, it was October and we were on our way from Tallinn to Barcelona, and from there a 300 km Taxi ride to Casa Cuadrau in the small village of Vió to drink tea, meditate, hike in the mountains and just be.
I have been on a fair share of different retreats over the years and this was one of the first ones I signed up for with very little expectations. Rivo and Signe took care of all the flight planning, hotel bookings, etc. I was simply curious to see and hear the man from that podcast a year earlier, create space in my mind and see the Spanish mountains. I never expected when signing up for it that I really needed a break! With work and my son Tristan’s new school routine, life had just gotten a little too busy, and this was the perfect opportunity to cultivate more space between my thoughts.
The retreat itself drew people from all over the world, from Panama to Canada. And they were amazing people. I am so grateful for the chance to have shared these seven days with them! Our days were quite simple: We got up before six in the morning and went to bed after nine in the evening. There were five to seven meditation sessions, tea sessions, bowl tea brewing classes and also evening discourses, where Wu De shared his knowledge related to tea and Zen, answered questions shared his life wisdom, which has comes through perspectives from different walks of life.
Through my yoga practice, I have met “mystic” yogis, who at times give the impression that they have all the answers and are somewhat superhuman. What impressed me about Wu De is his humanity. He struck me as a human who is not trying to be some overly spiritual being from out of the world that the rest of us operate in daily. He was clear about his knowledge and sincerely honest, also admitting when he didn’t have answers. The experience reminded me of an Alan Watts lecture where he described his first encounter with Zen masters in Japan and was surprised to find that they were as human as he was, with their up and down moments.
I am clearly not the right person to discuss the philosophy of Zen. All the books I have read and lectures I have heard on it have only allowed me to scratch the surface. Zen is something that you cannot put into words anyway. It is not a dogma, religion or a set of beliefs, rather it is something you have to experience. It is about the transformation of consciousness, the way you experience your own existence. Wu De said: “Zen means that if you are looking about for certain states of mind or miraculous teachers, take a break and have some tea.”
Over the years, I have learned that no retreat, course or training offers true value or growth if you do not make changes after getting back into your daily routine. All the high spirits and awe fade and without new habits and an adapted mindset, nothing but the memory remains.
The retreat reminded me that there is great power in daily sacred moments. And we can choose to notice these moments or not. We can also cultivate an ability to recognize these moments as part of our daily routines. It is now close to two months since the trip to Spain, so it is a good time to look back and see what I still find important, sharing my thoughts from the perspective of some distance. Here are some of the key ideas from the retreat that I’ve taken to heart:

Creating space: I keep realizing that creating space is one of the most important things in my life. I usually rediscover it, when there is not a lot of space—neither in my mind nor in my physical world. When we create space in our mind, we create peace and balance. Also when we create space in our physical world, there is more space in our mind. Creating space also creates freedom. Retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink once said that discipline is freedom. Real freedom comes in the form of discipline. I’m beginning to understand this more and more. Having no discipline is not freedom. Having discipline allows for freedom, creating space, and with that, we open doors to the beneficial experiences we don’t even know about yet.

Being mindful: It really surprised me when Wu De said that mindfulness is not the most important aspect of self-cultivation. It is respect, or a better word for it is “reverence.” If we have respect, then we are also mindful of the people around us, events, places and even things. Simply put, this is about honoring and respecting the guest and the occasion. If we do that, then we are also mindful. Mindfulness, respect and reverence tie into one of the fundamental understandings of Zen: Doing things for the good of all beings. After long conversations, Wu De would often say: “Do the right thing. Don’t be a jerk.” That hit me very hard at times, and I acknowledged my own jerk-like behavior in certain situations in life.

No Big Deal Me: It is a short phrase that I heard many times during the retreat. It is about becoming aware that there is more than the “I” and the “self.” Life is not always and only about you! Often our internal dialogue takes us down that road. We all do the self-talk, but it is really not healthy. I used to do it and still do at times (about myself and others), and I have been with people who continuously do it. Tune it down! Stop it altogether! A complaining mind is a draining mind.
Same goes for frozen or rigid opinions. Drop them and have no expectations. I know it is hard, but we focus on being open instead. Be present. With too much “I” in the picture, you cannot be at peace. Less self, more happiness! That does not mean you should not take care of yourself. You are the change. Your habits and actions make the change and these should be more about the greater good, not entirely your own well being.

Growth: Growth is in the valleys, not the peaks. Suffering is productive and discomfort is always there—embrace it. As a Zen saying goes: “The obstacle is the path.” I have it on my door, clearly visible when leaving the house in the morning, to remind me that obstacle is the source for growth. Don’t orientate towards your comfort zone! Obstacles, discomfort and suffering build wisdom, empathy, understanding, compassion and knowledge. Staying in the comfort zone for too long is nothing but stagnation. Face what is coming with courage, take risks and don’t choose what is easy. Be ready to make sacrifices. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes—have faith!

Creating your life: Look at life as it is, not how you want it to be (remember: expectations). That does not mean passiveness, accepting everything or doing nothing. How you relate to issues that life puts in front of you is the only issue. You can always change your perspective. Embrace life and cultivate a beginner’s mind! Kids are masters at this. Be curious. Don’t stop wondering. Learn, always. “Advanced skills are basic skills mastered.” Is another thing Wu De told us more than once.
All too often we are tempted to linger in the past, reliving old experiences. Experience is happening now! Too much rumination and you will miss it! If you want change, then you need to change. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Walk with a light step and start simple. Don’t take life too seriously. Life is not something you have to figure out, it is a big paradox. Meaning can be found in every action without always seeing the full picture. Stop living in delusion! Live so you have no regrets— time is precious!

Being in the present moment: This is simple, you either are in the present moment or you are not. Simple but difficult!