Orchids in pots along the windowsill bloomed weeks ago. Air seeps into the bedroom. The blossoms dance. I yearn for heat. A hot spring running alongside the house would be perfect. Tea will do. I sniff the steam of oolong. The tiny cup is hot.
The tea will soothe the animal in me that wants to growl when it doesn’t get what it wants. The sound of tea being poured grabs hold of the beast. If there’s nothing to have, there’s still the listening, the simplicity of what’s in front of me, the renunciation of what’s desired.
I sip the tea. It takes time that would otherwise be filled with fantasies. Instead, with tea on my tongue I appreciate life in an instant—not the whole of life from the beginning, but life that lasts the time it takes to swallow a sip. To drink tea is to share in its steam, the curve of the cup, and the taste of the earth through the leaves. This is a time to listen to how the tea sounds when it’s poured. It’s sharing a time of stillness and breath, to listen in space and time, to admire the poetic movement of serving tea.
An invitation to tea is an invitation to appreciate what the earth offers. Tea is medicine from the earth. It is the earth’s leaves, twigs and dirt, coming together to create taste, smell, and touch. The hot water enhances the earth and brings it alive. We meet the earth in the tea. We meet the silence of the earth from which the tea came. It’s an experience of the unsurpassable suchness of life—just this. A tea invitation is a chance to listen to the earth being poured.
I’ve been to many tea ceremonies, but my mind comes to rest on one in particular. I sit and watch two women, a Zen tea master and her assistant, serve tea on their knees. I am humbled by how they first listen into the room. Guests will practice how to listen too. First, we crawl into the teahouse on our knees. We wear white socks and are seated in front of the tea master. Everyone is invited to look around the teahouse, to notice the calligraphy on the wall, to see the thick ashes under the tea kettle. We are asked to study the craft of the teacup. If there’s a painting on it, then we study it.
The message of the day is in the empty cup itself. The teacup is caressed with the left hand underneath and the right hand embracing the cup before it’s filled with tea from the earth. It takes both hands to hold a precious offering of clay and tea leaves. The cup mirrors the circle, no beginning and no end. Desire is held back.
All is going well. There is peace in being led to tea. The tea master passes the container with the powder of matcha tea inside. A mountain made with the tea powder is revealed. It clings to the side of the container. There’s a cliff and homes hanging off it. At the same time, it’s simply powdered tea.
The assistant takes the powder and makes the tea out of sight. There are secret chants she must do alone. The master passes out treats in the shape and colors of the earth. The tea is brought out and the master pours. We listen to the liquid earth falling softly into each cup. We bow on our knees with hands out flat on the tatami mat in gratitude for tasting the earth.
The smell of the tea fills the nostrils. We drink. Slow. Pausing. The heat of the tea stills the tongue. We taste the special handcrafted treats from Japan. There are comments on how well they go with the tea. More tea means more silence of the earth.
Spontaneous meditation occurs in pouring and drinking tea. No need to go after meditation, like hunting down some stranger. We run here and there, looking for comfort, softness, and healing. Right on the cushion with the tea master, there’s peace. If we don’t question what’s being offered, there’s peace.
The tea ceremony is complete. We bow on bent knees to the tea master who knows how to serve the earth. We crawl out backward into the garden, into the world. We know nothing of serving tea. We experience compassion for not knowing.
We have left the teahouse, a dojo for silence. I feel my own body can be the dojo, and from it, the earth can be poured from my heart out into the world. Beautiful statues of the Buddha enhance the senses, but I can see there’s no need for altars when the earth displays itself before you and draws itself out in you. The wisdom cultivated from the tea ceremony: sit with your mountain self and drink tea communing with everything that surrounds you. The issues of the world await you on the other side, as does your original face, the one you came into the world with, and which resembles the great awakening of all life.
What if pouring tea could be the activity that reflects our inherent silence and stillness as the body of earth that we are? In this way, we let the unsettling noises from our dark forests be the sound of discovery. We live with the vastness of life and are not stranded on the shore of our limitations. Seeing tea as from the earth, and the earth as ourselves, we understand life as awakened aeons ago.
At home, I pour oolong tea for the mountains. We bow.
Excerpted from The Deepest Peace: Contemplations from a Season of Stillness © 2020 by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. Reprinted with permission from Parallax Press.