Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Living with Tea Medicine - The Eighth Session: Water


Last post we started gathering the first of the three materials necessary for brewing healing, medicinal tea: leaves. Now let's turn our attention to the second: water. Like the sages of yore described in this chapter of Tea Medicine, "fulfilling the alchemy of Tea" with magical waters, gourds, and urns, we too are going to need our own toolkit. We can add as little or as much magic as we wish. I'll describe my own tools to start.
First things first, we are going to need to find a good, clean source of spring water. For many of us, this is simply unattainable around the geography in which we might find ourselves. For my part, I live in a suburban area within driving distance of mountains. Using resources online, albeit with some struggle, I have been able to find three sources so far, all a little under two hours away. Every experience I have had traveling to these places has been rewarding and challenging for me, but the spectacular difference these waters make on my tea brewing makes it worth it, and for some teas in my view, necessary. So with a map to the potential sources and a car with ample room for bottles, I at least know where I am going.
From a local water shop, I purchased as many 5 gallon water bottles as my car can transport. I opted for glass carboys, as I have found with all things Tea, hand-crafted tea stuffs (including tea, of course!) made from natural materials win out every time. Anytime I have the option to avoid plastic, I take it! My (gas guzzling, air polluting) SUV can fit 16 bottles, but driving up and down a mountain with that many unprotected glass bottles could be disastrous. I found a company online that makes padded covers for carboys of all sizes. On one water gathering trip, on the last turn on the way back home, one of the bottles smacked into another one, causing all the water to pour out all over the car. Not Zen! With the cover in place, at least glass didn't fly everywhere. I have learned since to pack blankets between the bottles for extra protection as well as using bungee cords to secure the water bottles from bumping into each other. I use plastic lids for the bottles while traveling. Once home, I switch over to corks so the water can "breathe". I store them away from light in my (less than ideal) garage.
In use, I fill up a glass dispenser in my tea room before each session. I find that I am often serving tea without the aid of another and so for my purposes, I do use a spout conveniently located next to me for filling kettles without having to get up and greatly disturb the session. Preferably, I would keep my water in a clay or stoneware vessel that does not allow light in. I would also employ a scoop and skim water from the top to fill the kettle. As it is, the water I use does not generally have too much time to settle before it is served to guests, so I don't mind this compromise so much.
Another tool I use in the gathering of mountain spring water is intention. I start my trips with the strong intention that the water I gather will be used to serve the best tea I can to my guests and that my effort will help them all find their way to Tea. Setting off in this way makes it easy to stay present and conscious of the reason for my mission, and less guilty for expending the energy of a polluting car to make the trip.
Gathering water from far away places can make for a long day, but I always try my best to have the energy to unload the car at the end of the trip and have a tea session with the newly retrieved water. These sessions are a great reward to cap off all the hard work of the journey.
There are certain teas that, when brewed with filtered tap water, have the tendency to make my guests and I nauseous. I found that once I switched to brewing these teas with spring water, the tendency towards nausea went away almost immediately. Teas that before made me sick now rest on shelves as potent tea medicine. Because of this experience, I view gathering mountain spring water as indispensable for brewing medicinal tea.

A Life of Tea Practice: Water


One of the marvels of water is its ability to transmit Nature to us. The art of brewing tea is a testament to this! But what about the effect of human energy on the water? Above all other factors surrounding making and serving tea, the one I am most in awe of is the effect of the brewer on the tea. That water, somehow, can contain that which the brewer contains and be able to transmit these contents to another... There are no words.
Here's another experiment to add to Wu De's homework in Tea Medicine. Take a few months to become acquainted with a given tea. Commune with this tea on a regular basis, maybe even daily. As we serve tea to ourselves, we will find ourselves in various states of mind. See if you can discern the effect the mind you are carrying has on the tea on any given day. Pay attention to the thoughts you carry into the session and then what you get out of the session through its duration. After many days of this, you should be able to understand the qualities that the tea leaves impart to the water and that which perhaps you yourself are adding through your participation. Then, find another tea person in your life that you can share this same tea with and have them brew it and serve it to you. You may know someone who exhibits a unique air of wisdom about them; in that case, have tea with this person. Otherwise, pick anyone! Whoever you find, I can almost guarantee you will be floored by what you find another human does to the same basic leaves and water you've grown accustomed to.

Ask Yourself: How do I relate to the water within me? And without myself? Are they the same?


Asking these questions to myself is a very sad exercise. We are living in a world where we can't drink the water readily available to us coming from the tap, or the river, or the lake. Ubiquitous access to potable tap water around the world is a marvel of human engineering, yet chemicals unsafe for human consumption abound in all of it. I personally have the luxury of employing advanced filtration systems to my tap in order to safely bathe and drink the water I have available to my family, but what I have purchased and installed is far beyond the capacity that most can afford. My personal commitment to making sure that the water I contain within and the water that surrounds me in my daily life is free from pollutants is very strong, so I felt utterly compelled to invest in cleaning my tap water after educating myself to the various dangers (horrors?) contained within the water provided to me through municipal systems. I am glad that there is no longer a noticeable chlorine smell in the water we bathe and brush our teeth with, for sure! But I certainly feel saddened about all the hoops I've had to jump through to protect my family and doubly sad about the number of people in this world who have no recourse to this kind of technology.
What humanity at large is doing to our water supply on Earth is a hellish version of the story of the Japanese chajin burying precious spring water at the source of the Yodo river for the benefit of all. The number of atrocities committed daily that pollute our water sources far outweigh, by a staggering magnitude, acts of kind protection such as these. I myself, a person committed to clean water, am complicit in this very act of water pollution just by owning and operating a car.
Even if there were to be a large shift in consciousness at the local level about our municipal water and a demand for change, the political will required to change our ecosystems back to a quality where the water that falls from the sky is the very same water that we can safely drink goes far beyond the level of a city. We can't separate water at the local level from the environment at the global level. The air above my town doesn't have a border protecting it from the millions of people in the surrounding area contributing to the air pollution that makes it way into the water supply. Water is an orchestra of factors that cannot be separated from one another. I can strive to keep the water within myself as clean as I can and it still can't ever be clean unless we all commit to being clean within and without across the planet. I don't see this happening in my lifetime.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

March's Further Readings

Liu An tea

By Luo Yingyin (羅英銀)

If you ask tea lovers what comes to mind when they think of Liu An tea, you’re likely to hear many different answers. Taiwanese people might answer that it’s a smooth, refined tea with a distinctive fragrance reminiscent of ginseng; a tea that brings a leisurely, unhurried feeling to the drinker. Other people might say that in Guangdong in years gone by, wealthy families would all be well stocked with An tea – the older and richer the tea, the more highly-prized it was. Still others may recall scenes from 1930s Cantonese movies where the characters would open bamboo baskets and brew some aged An tea. Some people know Liu An as the preferred drink of high-society people in Hong Kong as an accompaniment to smoking cigars—according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Liu An tea dispels the excess internal heat produced by cigar-smoking. Others may remember that in the past, the restaurants of Hong Kong mostly served two kinds of black tea—loose leaf Yunnanese puerh and Liu An.

Many Chajin in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan have a deep attachment to old Liu An tea, thanks to its delicate, sweet, smooth flavor and its fragrant steam that warms you all the way through.

Past meets future: the revival of Liu An
Liu An tea has several uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It used to be added to medicines as a “guiding herb” to enhance efficacy, as well as drunk for its intrinsic health effects. It’s considered a “cool-warm” food in TCM—this means that Liu An, particularly when aged, is good for dispelling dampness and excess internal heat. Because of this, it’s very popular with tea drinkers in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and South-East Asia. Like puerh, Liu An is best when aged; tea merchants and individual tea drinkers usually buy some Liu An and then store it away to age, so they are able to witness the tea’s aging process. In the past, Liu An was quite popular; however, during the Sino-Japanese war, traditional Liu An trade routes were interrupted—this, together with the chaos of wartime, meant that Luxi Village in Qimen was forced to stop producing Liu An tea in the mid 1930s. The last shipment of Liu An produced there was unable to be exported until 1947. It fetched a high price on the market when it was finally sold to Singapore tea merchants.

From that time on, Liu An tea was no longer produced in Qimen for over half a century. Many Chajin from the older generation in Hong Kong and Taiwan longed to rediscover its flavor. Around ten years ago, the second large-scale tea expo was held in Taiwan, and the organizers arranged to open a bamboo basket of “Three Labels” Sun Yishun (三張票孫義順), one of the most well-known original brands of Liu An. We went along to the tasting with the aim of exploring and reporting on Liu An’s fascinating journey through history, and recording the unique charm of this old tea. A few years earlier, in 1983, some representatives of the China Tea Fund in Hong Kong sent a basket of Liu An tea to the Anhui Province Tea Company, accompanied by a letter. In the letter they sent their greetings on behalf of all the old friends of Tea in southern China and South-East Asia who missed this special tea that had been gone for several decades, and expressed their hope that Liu An might be given a new beginning.    

There were quite a few twists and turns before production was finally re-established. Because the tea is named “Liu An”, the Anhui provincial government first thought that this tea variety was originally produced in Liu An City (also pronounced “Lu’an”), so the basket of tea took a wrong turn and ended up there. It wasn’t until further enquiry that they realized it actually originated in Luxi in Qimen, so finally, in 1984, the well-travelled basket of tea made it back to Qimen, and Liu An manufacturing began once more.  

The origins of Liu An: researching Sun Yishun
There were a number of people involved in researching the original manufacturing techniques used to produce that basket of Sun Yishun tea. Among them was Wang Shoukang (汪壽康), a descendant of the original tea merchant Sun Yishun who established the brand, as well as two staff from the Luxi Village administrative office, Wang Zhenxiang (汪鎮響) and Wang Shengping (汪昇平). These three, along with various representatives of the provincial and county-level tea businesses, formed a group of about seven or eight people in total. They all gave careful consideration to the manufacturing techniques, sending several batches of samples to Hong Kong for quality approval throughout the process. Finally, four years later in 1988, they were satisfied that the quality was consistent, and Hong Kong tea merchants came flocking to place orders for the newly available Liu An.

Riding on the success of this foray into Liu An manufacturing, the local Luxi Village government decided to open a tea factory to produce red tea, so they funded the establishment of the Jiangnan Spring (江南春) Tea Factory with Wang Zhenxiang as factory director. The next year, Wang Shengping contracted the factory to make Liu An tea. After some time the factory ceased production for several years due to unstable sales. A few years later, in 1997, the market for Liu An picked up again and Wang Shoukang, the descendant of Sun Yishun, invited Wang Zhenxiang to partner in opening a new Liu An tea factory, again with the investment of Luxi Village. They registered their business under the old Sun Yishun brand name, and so continued the legacy of Wang Shoukang’s forebears. Wang Shoukang himself passed away the following year, and since Wang Zhenxiang was a legally appointed representative, the company was able to keep operating under the Sun Yishun name—and so the name has survived to this day.  

Today in the Luxi Village area there are four main manufacturers producing Liu An tea. As well as Jiangnan Spring and Sun Yishun, another company was established in 2004 as an offshoot from the Sun Yishun tea factory, and called their brand “Luxi Sun Yishun—Lu An Tang” (蘆溪孫義順─蘆安堂). More recently, in 2015, Wang Guofeng (汪國峰), then-mayor of Luxi Village and former business partner of Wang Zhenxiang, established a fourth brand and named it the “Sun Yishun Tea Brand” (孫義順茶號). The combined output of these four Liu An manufacturers is modest in volume—they produce around eighty tons of Liu An per year. There are also a handful of other tea factories in Luxi that are officially listed but have either shut down or never started production in the first place.

You may be wondering: why do almost all of these factories in Luxi have the “Sun Yishun” name as part of their brands? In the early years of the Republic there were all sorts of Liu An brand names, including Zheng Ai Ji Yishun, Kangyang Chunzheng Yishun and Qimen Wang Bai Tang An Tea House, among others. But, because of the reputation of the Sun Yishun An tea brand at the time, there were many imitators. Later, Liu An production in Anhui Province was forcibly brought to a halt by political unrest, but this didn’t quell the demand for the tea. To satisfy this market demand, a new tea company named Can Zhao Sun Yishun set up in the relatively peaceful Hong Kong and Macau area and began to produce a tea called “Macau Bamboo Rain Hat Liu An.” This tea was supplied to the market in the neighboring regions and in nearby South-East Asia. So it was that the Sun Yishun name became synonymous with quality Liu An tea.

“Dispelling the clouds”: recreating the Liu An manufacturing process
How it is that the production of a certain tea variety can stop entirely for over half a century? Aside from the political and social background and the changing economy, it was largely because of the complex methods required to produce Liu An. The whole process takes over eight months and the leaves go through five stages of firing; on top of that, the finished tea must then be stored for three years before it’s ready to sell. So the first barrier that hindered the production of Liu An was the detailed knowledge needed to make it; the second barrier was the large amount of time and labor required; and the third was the cost involved in securing storage space for three whole years.

The Liu An manufacturing process is quite complex compared to other black teas. On top of this, certain steps must be carried out at particular times of year, measured by traditional Chinese solar terms. The tea picking occurs in Guyu, or “Grain Rain,” in late April to early May; and one of the final steps is leaving the tea leaves out overnight to absorb the dew during the Bailu, or “White Dew,” solar term. The main steps in the process occur in spring and include picking, spreading the tea leaves, pan-firing, rolling, and drying until the leaves are about 70% dry (as the tea is not dried completely, it’s sometimes called “soft stem” tea). After this, the tea leaves are piled into large bamboo baskets to a depth of around 10 centimeters, and undergo about an hour of “heaping” before being dried a second time. The leaves are then chopped, mixed, sifted and sorted into grades.

Once Liqiu, the “Start of Autumn” solar term, arrives in mid-August, it’s time to take out the tea leaves and arrange them ready for the next step. On a clear evening sometime in mid-September once Bailu or “White Dew” begins, the tea leaves are placed onto bamboo drying frames and baked briefly over a high flame to enhance the fragrance of the tea. The leaves are then arranged on a bamboo mat and placed outdoors ready for the most important step in the Liu An process: the “night dew” or yelu (夜露) step. The leaves mustn’t be spread too thickly, and should be turned over once or twice during the night to fully absorb the dew. When the small water droplets of the dew meet the tea leaves, the moisture causes the tea to oxidize further. One can well imagine that this contributes to Liu An tea’s refined, delicate, smooth flavor, with a fragrant note reminiscent of ginseng. This is also why old-time cigar smokers in Hong Kong liked to drink Liu An, as the cooling properties of the tea help dispel excess internal heat.
 
The next day, after being nourished by the night dew, the tea is prepared for compressing. A wooden frame is placed over a hot pan, and on top of that is laid a bamboo mat and then a cotton cloth. The tea is placed on top of this to steam for a few minutes, then, while the leaves are still hot from the steam, they are packed into small bamboo baskets lined with bamboo leaves.

The little baskets of tea are placed in pairs, then three pairs are strung together into a row with bamboo strips. Row upon row of baskets are placed neatly onto racks in a tall drying kiln and covered with a cotton quilt, then dried over wood charcoal that is laid at the bottom of the kiln. The purpose of the quilt is to absorb the steam from the tea leaves and to make the hot air in the kiln circulate. The leaves generally need to dry like this for about two days, until the quilt is warm and dry to the touch. This is the most crucial step in determining whether or not the batch of Liu An tea will turn out to be a success. 

From picking to drying, the whole process takes several months and involves five different firings: kill-green, drying, high-heat firing to enhance the fragrance, steaming and charcoal drying. The traditional “night dew” method is also an integral part of the process, and is known for its use in processing other food products too, such as old-style soy sauce. It plays an important role in preserving and flavoring the product.

Unravelling a mystery: where does the “An” name come from?
Nearly 30 years have passed since production of this tea was revived, and the market has gradually caught wind of its unique fragrance. But as for its name, many tea drinkers are still confused: An tea? Liu An tea? Lu’an tea? Is there a difference? For starters, the two spellings in English, “Lu’an” and “Liu An,” reflect two alternate pronunciations of the character in Chinese (which is the number six). In the case of 六安, the city in Anhui Province, it is traditionally pronounced lu, whereas the standard Mandarin pronunciation is liu. So you may see both versions used for the name of the tea.

So, pronunciation aside, where did this name come from? According to records, a tea variety by the name of Liu An had been produced in two parts of Anhui Province since the Han Dynasty, namely the Liu An (or Lu’an) prefecture, and Huoshan County. By the time of the Tang Dynasty this tea had gained some reputation, and was known by such names as Huo Tea, Xian Ya (“Immortal Buds”), and Rui Cao Kui. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty that it began to be known as “Liu An”; at that time it was also classified as a “tribute” tea, that would be gifted to officials and the royal household. The Qing Dynasty Liu An Records contain the following passage: “In the whole realm there are ten provinces and counties that produce tea, but Lu’an is the only tea that often crosses the thresholds of government officials.” There’s also a line of a poem describing a bustling scene in the capital city that goes: “The shop fronts are decked out in splendorous gold; the merchants compete to see Lu’an tea sold.” Liu An tea also appears in Chapter 14 of the famous literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber. The Liu An tea that all of these examples refer to is in fact a green tea, which genuinely originated in Liu An itself.  

So, the Liu An tea we’ve just discussed in the previous paragraph is in fact a different variety from the Qimen An tea that is this month’s focus, and is distinct in terms of both origin and production methods. One is produced in Huoshan, the other in Qimen. One is a green tea, and one is a black tea. Their markets are different too: the first is supplied to the local market, whereas the second is shipped south to Guangzhou and supplied to Hong Kong, Macau and the overseas Chinese population.

How, then, did a black tea produced in Qimen’s Luxi Village come to be known as Liu An tea? Before Qimen red tea began to appear during the reign of the Qing emperor Guangxu, a variety called An tea was produced in great quantities throughout the whole of Qimen. By the early days of the Republic of China there were over 50 different tea producers in the area, and each company had their own tea label. In this case, the word “label” is used quite literally—each tea would have a small slip of paper inside the packaging much like the ones one finds in puerh tea today, explaining the origins of the tea and confirming its authenticity. The Sun Yishun brand that is still so well-known today was one of the biggest tea producers during the early Republic. Their tea labels from that era read as follows: “This tea is genuine Anhui Sun Yishun An brand tea; made with only the most delicate and tender spring buds, picked in Lu’an before the rains, carefully selected and processed, with no expense spared…” The Qimen Museum also has a tea label on display from the Hu Ju Chun brand—on the back, in small characters, it reads: “While fine tea is produced in many parts of China, this Anhui Sun Yishun An tea is truly one of a kind, with naturally unique qualities…” So, as more and more tea with labels such as these crossed oceans, it’s not hard to see how tea drinkers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia came to know An tea as “old Liu An.”

Where, then, does the “An” part of the name come from? The characterin Chinese means “peace” (as well as a few related meanings), and features in a number of place names. This has given rise to several theories as to how the tea got its name. The first theory is that, since it was largely sold in the southern province of Guangdong, the tea was simply named after Anhui Province where it was produced. As the labels in Sun Yishun put it, the tea was “shipped to Foshan Village and Guangfeng for sale…”. The second and more common theory is that it was named after the original Liu An tea, the green tea variety from Liu An that we discussed earlier. A third theory has to do with production methods. Hu Haochuan (胡浩川), who was head of the Qimen Tea Factory during the early Republic, writes in his Qimen Tea Manufacturing that the majority of tea produced in Qimen was red tea, though there was also a small amount of green tea being made. Because the production methods used imitated those of the original Liu An tea, it became known as An tea. Yet a fourth theory is based on one literal meaning of the character an (), “to calm or pacify”: the tea is known in Chinese medicine for its ability to soothe the organs of the body and balance the six different types of Qi.

So, whether it originally referred to a green tea from Anhui or the An tea that we know for its soothing properties, the mysterious Liu An name made a place for itself in the hearts of Chajin in Hong Kong and Taiwan, thanks to the tea labels that traveled with it across the seas. As it is picked and processed to the rhythm of the seasons, the fragrance of An tea has once again begun to waft out across the green forests and blue skies of Anhui’s Luxi Village. It’s a tea that has waited patiently over the years for its forgotten charm to be revived and once again carried on the wind to the tea drinkers of the world.



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!