Posted on in Features by Donna Fellman


How many processes in life invite us to pause, look within and around, enjoy, and give thanks? Tea has been the occasion for celebrating marriage, for honoring the aging process, for acknowledging the changing of the seasons, and for joining in fellowship and peace. Enjoying tea is one of these ordinary and yet extraordinary activities that everyone can participate in. Whether it is experienced formally, as in the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, or informally, when a friend drops over unannounced, tea is a way to share one’s time, thoughts, and heart with another person.

What are your experiences with tea? Quiet times at home on a wintry night, a relieving break from a hard day’s work, cooling off a hot summer afternoon with icecold tea, or simply the memorable occasions with friends glad to be together and share life? Whatever it is that draws us to tea, we can acknowledge that tea is a remarkable vehicle for bringing balance and wholeness, ritual and ceremony into our lives.

Cultivating the Tea Lifestyle

Everything about tea inspires careful attention, from the methods of cultivation to the moment when we inhale the “breath of tea,” with its unique and exotic aroma. As health practitioners and daily tea drinkers, we know how tea has benefited and improved our own lives. We feel we are missing something when we don’t stop for our everyday ritual of tea drinking. We miss both the simple earthiness and grounding that the vegetative tea drink bestows on us and the simple connection to the natural five elements of life that are found in tea: water (to make the tea), fire (heat), air (wind that feeds fire), earth (leaf), and metal (pot). The tea experience offers a harmonious balance of forces in an immediate way that brings a quality to life we don’t want to do without.

Why tea here now? Tea embodies solitude and time for quieting the mind; a time for slowness, introspection, and contemplation; a time to look within and get to know oneself and one’s world; a time for remembering all of the Zen monks, Taoist sages, and tea masters who have guided our way to “being” rather than “doing.”

Tea encapsulates hospitality, sociability, and the opening of our hearts and homes to share a cup of tea with a friend or an unexpected guest. Tea relaxes us and loosens our tongue, allowing our natural generosity and good nature to come forth.

Finally, tea symbolizes sensitivity, inviting us to become aware of all our senses. It draws us in to notice its aroma, the sounds and touch of water, and the magnificent color of its liquor. As we learn to awaken our senses and to understand the spirit of tea at its essence, we can fully experience the wholeness and interconnectedness of all life.

Manifesting Tea

Manifesting means bringing these qualities into everyday life and sharing them with others—for example, transferring the calm you feel after taking a break for tea and putting it into the stress of a difficult decision-making process at work, which will in turn enable you to offer peaceful, thoughtful insights and creative solutions. It means drawing on the sensitivity you derive from the tea aesthetic and listening with awareness to your spouse and children when you return home from a long day at work. It means using the respect you learned from kneeling and bowing in the tearoom to recycle, reuse, and be mindful of the earth’s resources. It means being inspired by the hospitality experience of the tea ceremony to give some of your time and energy to another.

Making Tea as a Metaphor for Life

When we endeavor to master the art of making a proper cup of tea, or anything else, we find that what we really master is our own self. The tea, the water, and the teapot remain essentially the same. But we change: patience replaces frustration and anxiety. Confidence grows and awkwardness dissolves. We become calm and centered. Cup after cup, day after day—practice, as they say, makes perfect. If we can apply ourselves and succeed in making a proper cup of tea, then we can take that knowledge and use it to cook a meal, plant a garden, or play an instrument. What part of our life wouldn’t be improved by using the mastery of our self that we’ve gained by learning to make a wonderful cup of tea?

As we develop an appreciation for a good cup of tea, we cultivate a taste for quality and authenticity that expands beyond our taste for tea. For whatever we master in one area of our lives can be transferred to another area. As we make a good cup of tea, we learn much more than technique; we gain an essential understanding of how to approach anything we do.

The secret of mastery comes from developing the capacity within ourselves to do even one simple thing so completely that we glean wisdom from that process that is applicable to all areas of our life. If we approach making our humble cup of tea as a means to live consciously, then making a cup of tea can be instrumental in having and becoming what we desire most. Through this one simple act, we can influence the outcome of a day and effect the unfolding of our own destiny.

The Origin of Tea

Tea has been, and is, many things to many people. It was drunk by the ancient Chinese sages to increase longevity, it was communally shared by Zen monks to honor Buddha and maintain alertness in meditation, it was sipped by Asian royalty to promote health, and it was incorporated in contests testing memory and concentration. What began as the drink of royalty came to be considered a necessity for people from all walks of life. It is a way to socialize, to take a break from work, or to retreat in reverie. Legends and stories about tea’s origins and value to humankind have been handed down throughout the years.

Though botanists claim that the tea plant is indigenous to several countries, it was without question the Chinese who were the first to drink and value its extraordinary qualities. More than 5,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong, also known as the Divine Cultivator and the father of Chinese herbalism, purportedly took his first sip. “Tea gives one vigor of body, continuity of mind, and determination of purpose,” he wrote, and he used tea as an antidote to the toxins he ingested during the process of tasting and cataloguing all of China’s medicinal plants. The first reference to the cultivation of tea appeared in 350, in an updated edition of the Erh Ya, a Chinese dictionary. This entry explained that a beverage was made by boiling the leaves and was used as a cure for digestive and nervous disorders, and as a salve to help rheumatic pain.

As Taoism emerged in China, it focused on the development of recipes that would create a magic elixir of immortality. Tea was often used in these formulas, and although it had been a powerful antidote for the Divine Cultivator, it was not able to counteract the poisonous qualities of mercury and lead that were often mixed with it. However, it was at this point that tea became recognized for its ability to energize and balance mind and body.

The taking of tea in a contemplative fashion, quietly and in a relaxed manner amid beautiful surroundings, has been an important ritual ever since Emperor Nong took his first sip in his palatial herb garden. During the Tang Dynasty in China (618–907), tea drinking came into favor with the royal families and upper classes, who preferred to enjoy their new pastime out of doors, while listening to harmonious music, composing poetry, and painting beautiful landscapes.

Separated from the regular tasks and work of daily living, the ritual of tea lent itself to aesthetic and scholarly pursuits. It was an endeavor of being, a time for introspection. Amid this aura of “tea high,” poets and tea votaries such as Lu Tung wrote their prolific praise of tea and its wondrous effects. The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu, published in 780, came to be regarded as the definitive volume on all aspects of tea, and Lu Yu soon became the patron saint of tea, revered and celebrated for his knowledge of all things tea.

Tea made its way to Japan, where it also grew in popularity through the centuries. So far as we know, one of the earliest Japanese texts explicitly prescribing the use of tea as a medicine was written by a monk who had returned from studying Buddhism in China. So impressed was he with the effects of Chinese tea that he brought tea seeds to Japan and enthusiastically cultivated them.

In the subsequent historical period in Japan, there was within the Zen priesthood a growing interest and promotion of tea drinking. One such priest, Juko (1423–1502), was credited as a founder of chanoyu—the Japanese tea ceremony.

Chanoyu—the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Chanoyu is a ritual that draws from the wisdom of ancient Taoism, Shintoism, Zen Buddhism, and the Chinese and Japanese cultures. Zen came to Japan from monks who studied in Ch’an, China. Ch’an, or Zen, developed from Taoism. Taoism was based on “The Great Tao,” the unnamable, unknowable way. The Japanese tea practitioners adopted this term and aptly called the ceremony “The Way of Tea.” The Zen founders of the Japanese tea ceremony that is practiced today drew from their roots the “conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life,” writes Okakura in The Book of Tea. It was Zen and the idea of wabi, or simplicity in everyday life, that encouraged a conservation of resources, as well as an effort to see the whole universe within any one thing and to experience natural beauty.

In chanoyu, the degree of awareness that’s applied to every task and movement is not something we typically see in our usual way of doing and thinking. Chanoyu teaches us to move slowly, treating every utensil as a prized possession, and helps the body to absorb these movements through artful, focused repetition. When the whisk for whipping the tea into a frothy foam is to be set down on the mat, it is placed just so, as we move from our center with our hands, arms, and even each finger in a certain manner. We breathe, keeping our head straight, allowing our shoulders to be relaxed, and not forgetting that the tea is being made for a special guest.

When asked, every practitioner of chanoyu may give a different reason for “doing tea.” It could be because this practice develops mindfulness, the ability to focus and stay present, to learn to engage our mind, hands, and heart in a unified purpose. It could be because it helps us to move with grace and intention, or because it offers the opportunity to exercise our mind and body at once. But whatever the reason we come to this practice, it is the way that the practice becomes a part of us beyond the tearoom—a thought here, a gesture there—that keeps us practicing tea.

Once we have made chanoyu part of our lives, we begin to notice that there are little things that we do differently, like setting the lid of the cooking pot down on the counter carefully. Or not knocking into the furniture as we vacuum. We may enter a room and pause to notice the surroundings, and we may set our shoes together by the door rather than kick them off in a pile. Where once we were careless, now we are careful; where we were distracted, now we are focused; where we were unaware, now we are sensitive; where we were frantic, now we are calm. Where we once took things for granted, a sense of awe for the simple pleasures at hand fills us with joy. We’re not constantly making and drinking tea, but tea consciousness begins to steep into the fiber of our muscles and our being. The way of tea becomes a way of life.

Designing Your Own Tea Ritual

In a tea ceremony, all comes alive. It is the intersection of meditation, movement, and art. When we enter a space designated for tea, the magic of the tea muse enters us, and soon, without any prior training, we reenact the behaviors of a noble lineage of tea practitioners. We don the symbolic robe infused with the knowledge of a transcendent state. In this atmosphere, we can become part of the tea mystique and be more than we ever dreamed we were—exquisitely poised and possessed of fluid motion. A tea ritual broadens our horizons, stretches our minds, extends our limits, and strengthens our capacities.

Traditional tea ceremonies are to tea what ballet is to a dancer: they are the formal body of knowledge that provides a foundation of techniques and cultivates a taste for quality. Some exposure to traditional arts often gives us a structure in which we can develop; from there, we can go on to discover our personal creativity. As with other arts, when we are developing our own tea ceremony, we do not need to stick to a prescribed form; we can adapt that form to bring forth our hearts’ innermost longing.

Your own tea ritual might include:

  • » A brief walk outside, where you refresh yourself by breathing deeply and leaving behind other concerns
  • » A ceremonial purification
  • » A short meditation to help you pause, slow down, and center yourself before making the tea
  • » Formal acknowledgment for what you are doing, such as bowing or saying a prayer
  • » The intention to handle all objects with great care, as if each one were a sacred object
  • » The use of your senses as you prepare the tea, watch carefully, smell freely, taste fully, listen attentively, and touch respectfully
  • » A willingness to enjoy all the steps of tea preparation so that you can become absorbed in what you are doing
  • » A full recognition of each guest’s presence
  • » Time to allow the quiet and peace to permeate your being, and the tea to awaken and relax you at the same time
  • » Sit in an upright position, center yourself, become aware of your breath, close your eyes, be present, settle in, and then begin drinking the tea, as a host or a guest.

The Spirit of Tea

Tea has enhanced our own lives in many ways. It has refined our way of moving, teaching us to carry ourselves with grace, dignity, and precision—helping us to develop a newfound sense of our bodies. We tread gently, aware of our personal impact upon the world and respectful of all that we encounter along the way. Learning to make tea becomes an exquisite and personal art.

It’s also a way of being and doing that can inform our entire lifestyle. It allows us to do whatever we do well, take time to pause and reflect, and contemplate our actions deeply. Tea does not tell us what to do, or what to reflect on, or what actions to take. It only encourages us to pursue our endeavors mindfully, thoughtfully, with integrity and consideration—all the qualities that we learned through making a cup of tea well also apply to doing anything well. The spirit of tea invokes a sense of caring and attention, a feeling for excellence that can have a positive influence in every part of our lives.

Based on the book Tea Here Now: Rituals, Remedies & Meditations, NewWorldLibrary.com

Donna Fellman is the founder of the Tea Education Alliance, and Lhasha Tizer teaches tea and meditation classes at Miraval.

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