The tea ceremony, like all ceremonies, is a distillation of what we find valuable. We experience ceremonies all the time: weddings, birthday parties, graduations, funerals. These look different around the world according to different cultural traditions, but the essence of ceremony is the same: here is the best version of something, and the most important aspects of it. A wedding celebrates love, family, wealth, and status. A funeral often centers a certain religion and its particular dogmas about afterlife, as well as the life and achievements of the deceased. Ceremonies might be thought of as containers. The ritual and actions create a particular environment in which we more tangibly experience the values and ideologies which are being celebrated.
So what does the tea ceremony celebrate?
Different traditions of plant medicines will point to different values, but a few broader themes remain consistent. This is by no means an exhaustive study of those themes -- such an undertaking would require many lifetimes of study and practice. But for those of us who use and enjoy tea as a practice every day, it behooves us to give more mindful attention to the rich depth of contemplation and embodiment available if we care to peek beneath the surface.
Presence and Simplicity
More than anything else, ceremonies are acts of contemplation. They call our complete awareness to the principles which are being celebrated. In tea ceremony, that presence is a value in itself, and one which is sorely lacking in our modern world. We set down other distractions while brewing and drinking, and allow our awareness to rest on the senses, taste and smell especially. This is what makes tea such a potent tool for meditation: it is a full-body experience, not an intellectual exercise. We are dropped precisely into here and now with every bowl, and we appreciate the tranquility and clarity that come in moments of simplicity.
While we tea nerds enjoy exploring the details of teaware and technique, these can easily detract from the essence of the practice. At our very core, all we have is leaves and water. We are not here to collect the finest wares or the rarest teas, to parse out every flavor note and brew the most precisely, but rather to enjoy and appreciate these gifts. There is nothing to achieve with tea practice. Being present for it is the entire point, and often the most challenging thing to do.
Brewing tea need not be treated as a mystical or transcendent act. Fundamentally it is a practice of physical nourishment. We know inherently that mornings flow more smoothly and deep conversations are best facilitated with a warm drink. Even when we are physically separated, each of us drinking tea solo throughout our days, we are linked by the practice. When we have the joy of serving and sharing tea with others, we recognize the unique privilege of such community.
Tea's origins as a medicinal plant (long before it became a beverage for enjoyment) remind us of times when healing was also facilitated in community: when an illness swept through a small group and the resident medicine person was called not only to treat the individual but also to cast the illness out of the community, often through dance, song, prayer, and other rituals. Gathering for tea ceremony reminds us of the deep healing and nourishment which are possible simply through mutual support and mindful presence.
Communion also includes Nature which provided the tea, the farmers and stewards who brought it to our table, and the artists who made the wares we use for service. Our interconnectedness is made tangible in many ways.
In our tradition we say that we learn not to brew tea but to serve tea, and this takes many forms. First, we are serving the tea itself. We do our best to honor the leaf and all the people and Natural forces that brought it into existence. We treat the tea with respect and brew it as best we can.
We are serving our guests. We give thought to their experience and their needs. We are acting as medicine person with each bowl of nourishment. It is not about what we ourselves are trying to give or convey, but what is best for them. This also takes the form of cleaning the teaware in front of our guests: we show them that each item is fresh and new for them, and we humble ourselves to the (very important) role of dishwasher!
Fundamentally we recognize that the tea ceremony is not about us, even though we sit on the serving side of the table. This is very difficult these days! The performative aesthetics of social media tempt us to turn every sit into a photoshoot. We become envious of some influencer's clothes, teaware, beautiful sunlit studios, their austere and reverent expressions. But the energy of serving tea ceremony is giving, not taking. We've all been around someone who tends to create an energetic vortex (or black hole) with their strong presence. Instead of calling undue attention to ourselves, we instead try to "get out of the way" of the tea. It is the tea that does the teaching; we are the humble channels for it.
As mentioned above, these are only a few of the broader themes of the tea ceremony, which vary from place to place and time to time. We could easily talk about beauty, craftsmanship, seasonality, medicine, and much more which is embodied in this practice. But these three concepts are incredibly rich and worth returning to again and again, offering endless reflections.
- Am I truly aware and present in the moment when brewing tea? What are everyday barriers to presence that arise in this activity and in others?
- Do I feel connected to others when brewing tea, even when alone? Do I resist the vulnerability and connection that comes with sharing?
- Do I embody a role of service when brewing tea? How does it feel to humble myself around others? How does it feel to serve myself, offering myself this powerful nourishment?
The Way of Tea is a lifelong path because there is always more insight coming from it. We are always beginners, because we've never lived this particular moment before. The simplest of rituals and practices continue to open up more deeply, if we are aware and receptive. There is no achieving in tea practice, only growing to love it more and more.
Written by Rachel E. Maley, leader of Living Tea and creator of Still Life Meditation.