There was once a famous Chinese master named Zhao Zhou. He was so famous that he had visitors all the time who would come seeking the meaning of enlightenment. One day two young seekers knocked on his door begging for words of wisdom. Zhao Zhou welcomed them into his small hut and told them to sit down at a table where an old monk was already sitting. “Please tell me the meaning of Buddha,” the first student asked. Zhao Zhou replied, “Drink some tea!” The second student then asked, “What is truth?” and Zhao Zhou excitedly replied, “Drink some tea!” The old monk sitting there was quite perplexed about this interaction and wondered to himself, “Why does he tell them to both drink tea instead of answering their questions?” Zhao Zhou, being a great Zen master, read the monk’s mind and said to him, “You drink tea too!”

Kaijō: those things we do habitually in our daily life.

Japanese Tea Garden by Dong Kingman painted in 1967Everything I know about and expect from a proper tea service was imprinted on me as a child going to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Neat little round bowls were filled with slightly bitter, overly brewed jasmine green tea and presented on small wooden trays with a few rice crackers to be ceremoniously consumed with great solemnity while enjoying a quiet moment with family. Of course if you have been to the Tea Garden recently you know this kind of quiet interlude can only happen weekdays on a foggy afternoon in the middle of winter.

Years later my Tai Chi teacher always served Red Zinger® tea after the weekly class. Tea in her living room with my fellow students was an event I always looked forward to. Later when I was attending college I sat for a time at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. At SMZC there were regularly scheduled work practice days (samu) and in exchange for our labors the center served breakfast in traditional three bowl oryoki style. I believe, for I was never sure, the large bowl contained a porridge of corn meal and a few raisins, the middle size bowl contained green tea, and the small bowl held a salty pickle slice that, along with a splash of tea, was used to clean the bowls prior to being consumed with the tea and bits of porridge that remained after eating. It was all very formal, filled with tradition, practiced in silence, and satisfied my love of ritual perhaps born of a childhood informed by Catholicism.

So my early tea service experiences were generally formal affairs with lots of value as centering rituals in my life. But how does this tie into my experience of partaking of tea in the 21st century? For that answer, please, join me for tea.

Chaios (CHī•äs): Tea taken with a dollop of chaos

Over the last several years I have visited a number of meditation groups and these Sangha’s all handled their tea service in the same way as the group I attended regularly in Ventura California. There the custom was to set up the tea and cookies in a sort of buffet style and people would pick the kind of tea they wanted and a treat to go with it, then sit and listen to the dharma talk, and or take part in the open discussion.

Tea drinking at the Salem Zen Center seems to be inclusive of both styles. Here the tea ceremony has a formal side in that it is taken in silence at our individual seats and it also has an informal side. As Sensei writes in her teacher’s blog (fourth post down), “Each week we have tea. Each week different folks jump up to serve. At SZC we have no one formally assigned to serve the tea. It’s just dependent on someone standing up. I totally love this. It’s rather lively. Serving tea can be rather humbling. There’s no instruction on how to do it. We each learn by taking a risk and working cooperatively.”

Working cooperatively, in silence, with a rotating group of folks makes for a new experience every week. Typically, four people will serve tea to 25ish people as quickly as possible and the result is not just humbling but is often a tad chaotic. For those being served it is an opportunity to immerse themselves in an activity as mundane as eating a cookie with a cup of tea. For those serving it is an opportunity to maintain a non-abiding mind in the midst of all the weirdness that arises when you are trying to silently work with a group, leave no teacup unfilled, drop of tea spilled, or person completely missed (including the servers themselves). After tea the same people clear things up and we have our dharma talk and sharing time. It doesn’t always go smoothly but it strengthens the Sangha each time an individual stands up and avows their own sense of community by offering to serve tea. (More about tea at SZC found here.)

chinese-almond-biscuits-15286_lThich Nhat Hanh writes, “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Serving or drinking tea,or coffee for that matter, alone or with friends are things we do every day. They are simple acts that can be performed without our slightest attention. But when I look back on a lifetime of ritual around the serving and drinking tea I see that the more I am observant of these ordinary activities the more it helps me to be mindful of what is going on both within and without. The simple act of having tea can help me regain that still point that might otherwise be lost in the background noise of daily life. A quiet cup of tea is not about finding a place of great stillness outside of one’s daily life, it is about finding the stillness already in one’s life. As Shunryu Suzuki once noted,”The practice of rituals is the practice of stillness.”

As always, thank you for taking the time to read this. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a like.

Now, “volunteers for tea?”