I recently participated in a tea ceremony led by Lindsey Goodwin from the nonprofit organization Global Tea Hut in Miaoli City, Taiwan. Lindsey, a former resident at GTH's unique Tea Sage Hut School of Tea & Tao under the tutelage of the Master Wu De (whom many know as Aaron Fisher, author of The Way of Tea and Zen & Tea One Flavor). On this occasion, Lindsey and her partner were traveling across the country, en-route to their home in Germany, offering tea service in at least a half-dozen locations. Events were hosted by people belonging to Global Tea Hut’s large network of former students, visitors, and subscribers to their monthly tea magazine.
Although trained in various tea ceremonies, including Chinese Gong-fu Cha and Japanese Chanoyu, Lindsey treated us to her favorite, a simple service she called “bowl tea” or “side-handle pot tea.” The ceremony, attended by seven guests, was held in the upstairs room at Teance in Berkeley. We sat in a semi-circle around a simple, elegant fabric Lindsey had placed on the carpeted floor. To her left were ten earth-colored clay bowls, each slightly different in size and shape, a large, round clay tea kettle on a trivet. Her partner sat behind her left shoulder, kneeling in front of a small electric hotplate, on which sat another kettle. To her right, next to her knee, rested a rich brown side-handle teapot, a robust darkened bamboo handle protruding from the pot’s mid-section like an antler.
Lindsey demonstrated how to hold a bowl of tea and explained that we would drink the first three infusions in silence. “Try to stay present with your feelings and sensations,” she said, “and even when we begin to share, let’s stay rooted in the heart experience. I’ll answer technical questions about the ceremony after we are done.” She checked to see that we understood and then began.
The tea service was simple. Lindsey placed the ten bowls in front of her, staggering them so that when she poured into them from the kettle her arm zig-zagged — slightly forward, slightly back — as she traversed the line. The effect was akin to a dance, and in the silence her subtle movements, the sound of the water, and the shimmer of light sparkling off the ever-changing forms of the water — streams, pools, drips, and drops — lulled me into a velvet hush. After each steeping, she placed the bowls in front of us (and one to the side for her teacher) and invited us to drink the tea, raising the bowl to our heart-center, tipping it to our mouths, returning to the heart, and repeating until we were done. When each of us had set our bowls in front of us, she collected them and repeated the process.
Later, Lindsey told to me that the roots of this particular style of tea ceremony — which may be the oldest in the world — reach back to the days of mountain shamans. These extraordinary beings, who cloistered themselves in the wilds of China and were sought out for their healing power, doled out their medicines and teas in a simple bowl. The healing, however, did not come from the drink alone, but was deeply connected to the shaman’s energy. Simply drinking the elixir into which his energy was immersed was the most important step to healing.
I’ve heard that a bowl of tea made by a true master will taste different from the same tea made by a less-realized being. The purity of the master’s mind and actions and the careful, unfettered attention given to each step of the process has an undeniable effect upon all elements (and people) present. Lindsey readily admitted that she is no master, but as she moved through each subsequent infusion, I could feel myself settling more deeply into the present, each tilt of her wrist, turn of a bowl, tiny drop of falling tea, or whisper of steam from the kettle becoming part of my own experience. It was unlike my experience in any other tea ceremony. Afterwards, other participants spoke of feeling more connected — first to the environment, then Lindsey, then the tea, then other members of the group, and eventually to the whole Universe — as we moved through the seven bowls.
The peak of my personal experience came while she was preparing the third bowl. Somehow, the combination of light, sound, and relaxation I was experiencing triggered a surprising welling of emotion. For a brief moment while Lindsey was passing the teapot over the bowls for the final time, leaving in each one a tiny drop that plopped and disappeared, I felt a thrust of sadness shoot up from my chest. Tears form in my eyes, and while I did not cry I felt the warm liquid of grief coursing through me for a moment. Later, while drinking the fifth bowl, I shared my experience with the group, explaining to Lindsey that I had no explanation, other than “it was something about the way you were tipping the pot, and those little drops falling so swiftly and disappearing so magically.”
Lindsey shared that my experience is not uncommon, that she’s witnessed many expressions of sadness and grief during this ceremony over her years of offering it. “Quite often,” she said, “it's those big, heavy whole-body sobs, the type that really clean you out. I think the ceremony makes space for people to relax enough for some very old stuff to rise to the surface. We don’t often give that to ourselves.”
After the official part of the ceremony ended — seven bowls for Lu Tong, I presume -- Lindsey demonstrated how to do our own version at home. She gave us a small packet of red tea from Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake region, and instructed us to place 4-5 leaves in a bowl, cover with water, sip, and repeat. “Drink three bowls in silence every morning for a week,” she said. “And notice if something changes.”
Since then I have begun each day on the back deck, under the shade of the live oaks — or on the meditation cushion in my room — sipping three bowls of tea in silence. I’ve not yet re-connected with the sadness I felt on the night of the ceremony, but I do notice that those three bowls, in addition to being grounding and pleasant to drink, are a pretty surefire way to find out what is actually going on with me as I begin my day.