How I got into Cha Dao (The Way of Tea) and why it resonates with me
May I pour you a bowl of tea?
Join me - I'll put on a fresh kettle. This kettle doesn't whistle, so sit a while and let's chat until the water voices its delight to join us at the table.
Or do you prefer to sit in silence? That is how Wu De, the tea sage at the Global Tea Hut teaches us the ceremonial rites of Cha Dao, the "Way of Tea". Our silence is a stillness, a gentle exhale from the high octane racetrack of our daily lives. Our presence a collective sigh of mutual being. Together, here, now.
Care for another bowl as I tell you about my first?
A chance encounter in snow-tipped mountains
The exuberant morning sun softened the freshly fallen snow in early December 2018 as I entered the portal atrium to a temple space known as the Star House. The air was crisp and mischievously inviting, a surreal mix of frigid warmth that I've only felt in early Colorado winters.
As I quietly tucked away my shoes and hung my coat, I could feel all the creatures in the mountains expectedly holding their breath. The moment felt pregnant with potentiality, and it was making me sweat beads of nerves.
What was I doing here? On a whim, my wife's friend invited us to a ceremonial tea serving with a character named Wu De. The brochure was uninspiringly esoteric, and vaguely spiritual fluff aside, it basically said we’ll sit quietly, in one spot, and 3 hours. Sure didn’t sound like my cup of tea.
That’s probably because it was far from what I knew. In my parent’s Ruso-Jewish home, tea is a boisterous and LOUD affair. Commotion is commonplace. Dishes clank as we refill the bottomless trough of snacks. Intense-sounding syllables and wildly gesticulating arms joust through a tournament of conversation. An orchestrated cacophony of motion buzzes in the kitchen as hosts and guests dance around the sweet nectar of desserts. Post-dinner tea is vibrant and ALIVE. It’s often my favorite part of family gatherings.
But a tea that is quiet and still? What do you mean “tea meditation”? None of it made sense to me.
Yet there I was. And for good reason.
Wu De poured our first bowl, and my life swirled hard left after my first sip.
A meditation in motion on service
There was something astonishingly gripping in the entire scene. I counted 40 people sitting in a circle, each on a humble bag of buckwheat, and all our attention focused on one man at the front. All he was doing was pouring us tea, the exact same motions done over and over. And I was riveted.
Each of his movements had the forceful precision of a martial artist with the gentle grace of a trained dancer. His essence exuded such warmth and care that I could feel my self-conscious narratives melt instantly in a moment of his soft gaze. His very being was embracing me as a dear old friend, from 30 feet away, and we hadn't even exchanged a single word. What sorcery is this?
I don't remember what tea we drank, or how it tasted. I don't remember the color of the bowls or the bolsters. But I do remember being mesmerized at Wu De's repetitive ritual of humble service. Hot water meet leaves, helpers pass out bowls, sip, return bowls, repeat. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I will never forget how he made me feel”.
It struck me that his tea service felt a lot like meditation, but he wasn't sitting still. And where most silent meditations seem to individuate and isolate, this one connected. In the short conversation after the silent service, Wu De introduced us to the philosophy of Cha Dao. To the honoring service that infused every observable and ineffable quality I experienced. Telling us how he did the trick far from ruined the mystery - it inspired me to begin my own study.
Like a virtuosic magician, Wu De enchanted me with his Tea spell. And I wanted to learn my own.
A connector, a teacher, a sensual delight
That was my first taste of ambrosia, but far from my last. For the last 2 years, I’ve religiously poured over the Global Tea Hut magazine as a reclusive acolyte studying the Way of Tea. I started humbly with a small set of bowls, a kettle, and a simple morning tea meditation practice. The more I sat, the more I wanted to sit again. The more I practiced alone, the more I wanted to one day serve others.
Here are a few of the reasons why:
- Tea is a nexus in the mandala of life. It connects the rain of the heavens with the soil of the earth. It connects the power of fire with the fluidity of water. It connects the ancients to the present, and the present to the ones yet to come. It connects the natural world to the intimate core of my being. And, right now, it connects me to you.
- Tea is a relentlessly compassionate teacher. When I am sloppy in my practice, it is felt. When I am not present as I pour, it is tasted. When I sit with neglect and irreverence, it is seen clearly in my bowl. And when I am still and aligned, the difference is palatably palpable.
Every time, without fail, Tea patiently waits to meet me where I’m at that day. She gently reflects what is just as she reminds me of what can be. She points me back to my path. So I bow quietly, listen, and steep myself into a better human.
- Tea is a stunningly sensual gift of delight. The fanciful flavors from sweet honey to sun-ripened plums to rich forest floor and so much more. The sensational scents from distant misty mountains to bucolic valley vistas. The tantalizing tints from the subtlest hint of green to brilliant burgundies sparkling in the sun's rays. The wondrous warmth as the bowl heats my fingertips moments before it lights my fire from within.
Perhaps your interest is piqued and you care to know more about “living teas” - the only kind of tea I’d ever offer your lips. Or perhaps you are intrigued by the Zen philosophies that inform this ceremonial lineage. Maybe your curiosity veers toward the practical and you care to learn the energetic and flavor impact of cast iron vs. hand-hammered silver vs. sculpted clay kettles. I will happily share what I have learned, and we can be wondrous beginners together.
But the truth is, none of that really matters. The greatest joy is this one chance to have this one encounter with you. It’s just tea, after all.
So, will you stay for a while and have another bowl?
I've rambled long enough and our kettle is gasping for another drink. Shall I put on another and brew up a second pot?
Or maybe you'd like to pour for me next time.