Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony, in it’s many forms, captured my interest a few years ago. It brings together a two aspects of my life. I love tea, and take a hobbyist’s interest in collection, proper storage, and correct brewing. And when I began to study and practice meditation, I found it in many iterations as a meditation form, from the dizzyingly elaborate Japanese tea ceremony to the simple sharing ceremony practiced at my Sangha’s retreat.

Two days ago, I was overjoyed to be permitted to attempt to perform a Taiwanese Gongfu Cha.

First, I watched the instructor and host run through the entire process twice. To the best of my memory (and with the aid of some notes):

First, boiling water was poured into a clay vessel with a lid and spout. Then, this was poured from the clay pot into a line of tall porcelain cups, lined up neatly with ornaments facing the guests. This “warmed” the pot and cups.

While the cups warmed, dry tea was poured into a wooden trough to measure the proper amount. A brass stylus was used to push the tea from the trough into the clay pot. This was covered with more boiling water, lid replaced, and left to sit for forty seconds (according to the tea variety we were using.)

During this forty seconds, the warming cups were emptied into a receptacle with a decorative, perforated lid. Each movement was graceful and deliberate, but not slow. Movements to the left of the host were performed with the left hand; on the right, with the right; the unused hand rested on the edge of the table. The cups were twisted slightly, the clay pot given one firm shake, to empty them completely. Each implement had it’s proper position on the table, to which it was returned after use.

After forty seconds, the pot of steeped tea was poured into a small, lidless pitcher, which gave it an opportunity to cool down slightly. From this pitcher, it was distributed among the tall cups once again, all in a row, and placed in front of the guests one by one with the slightest bow of the head, and the host served herself last.

The tall cups were used to breathe the scent of the tea, and then each guest poured it into a small bowl on a saucer. The tea was consumed from the bowl in three sips. We were encouraged to “chew” the tea in order to taste it properly.

After watching this twice, I took a seat as host and gave it a try.

Our host studied the tea ceremony for twenty years with several different teachers, and to my eyes at least she was flawless. I forgot steps, forgot my hands, and spilled tea all over the table. But attempting to keep in mind proper posture, motions, process, and placement was indeed a meditative focus. And smiling encouragement of my teacher, as well as the honor of participating in the tradition, was an absolute joy.

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