The International Writers Magazine: Teatime in Beijing

Zen and the Art of Tea
Paul Haire

Not so long ago I decided my spiritual side needed some fine tuning and so I would go to a tea ceremony, not just any tea ceremony but a Zen Buddhist tea ceremony led by a Zen buddhist 'expert'. It was being held by the Chinese Culture Club of Beijing.

Therefore,  I found myself, on a bright and sunny Wednesday morning, standing outside a building in Western Beijing. The building was situated in a complex which, to be frank, didn't look quite as salubrious as I had expected. It was a collection of small factories and shops and had a slightly industrial and unkempt look. I had been expecting something a little more old fashioned, perhaps like Raffles Hotel, somewhere where middle aged expat socialites would gather to learn about the 'natives' and their funny ways.

So it was with mild trepidation that I entered the building. I paid my fare (120 yuan) and entered the main room. The room was  long and thin with a banquet table stretching nearly the entire length and surrounded by chairs. On the walls hung various traditional Chinese paintings and, rather incongruously, there was a blackboard, which still retained the faint chalk marks of the Nike, Puma and Reebok logos! Two or three people had already arrived and were sitting at the table. I sat right at the end, not particularly feeling in a sociable mood. Without judging, the people there seemed to confirm my preconceptions - they were mostly middle-aged Western women (it is apparent to me that I have the soul of a middle-aged woman. I like yoga, incense sticks, self improvement books and cooking). There was also, however a younger girl and a middle aged man as well. Other people were trickling in, including two attractive young females - one heavily pregnant - and a group of three swishy and sophisticated friends, two French women and an English man. The last people to arrive were a pair of middle aged English women (I think), one of whom looked like she couldn't care less about buddhism and wanted to leave as soon as possible!

Then in came the 'Zen expert'. He was a man in his mid-thirties, who had a bright intelligent face, a shaved head and traditional Chinese clothes. He looked like a monk. He sat down quietly and with no fuss and was silent for a few moments, then 'ting' he struck a tiny bell on the table. Everybody stopped talking and turned to look at him, there was an air of expectation and curiosity. 'What's he going to do next?', 'Will he fly cross legged across the room?', 'Break a brick over his head?' 'Or recite some bizarre koan to instantly bring us all to enlightenment?'

in fact, he just spoke. He explained to us, in a calm and unhurried way the basic concepts of Zen and how drinking tea could be used as a way to practice it. It was all about staying in the present moment, he said, and the getting rid of the sense of self we have. He told us to ask ourselves 'Who' we were, and who was drinking the tea, 'who, who, who?'. We were to be aware of our mind and how it worked. He said that we all thought too much (which brought nods of agreement from grumpy lady) and that drinking tea could help us stop thinking and focus. We were to concentrate on the colour of the tea, the smell, the cup and the way we held the cup. We were not to think, but just act, just be. It was all very interesting, especially for the lady beside me who was furiously scribbling away on a notepad, which I felt sort of defeated the purpose of being in the here and now!

Then we were brought our first tea - green tea -  a thimble sized cup was handed to us and we were told how to accept it in the Zen fashion - hands in the prayer position and giving our full attention and gratitude to the person giving us the tea. But nobody did this as we were still all feeling shy. Then there was a moment of nothing, as everybody waited for the Zen master to give the signal that we were to drink the tea, 'the tea will be cold by now' I thought, I really wanted to drink it immediately and reflected that this impatience wasn't very Zen like. Finally we were allowed to drink the tea, we noted it's colour and taste and thought about who it was that was drinking the tea. I'm pretty sure I drank my tea, but it could have been the lady next to me, she did have a sly look on her face and dribbles on her notebook.

We then tried a type of red tea and then a type of puer tea. I smugly thought I would demonstrate to everyone how to use the smelling cup before everyone else drank the puer tea. The smelling cup is a long thin cup, which you put the tea into first and then transfer to the smaller drinking cup and smell the aroma from the smelling  cup. I did this before everyone else, thinking I'd get top marks from the Zen master. But lo and behold, he, sensing my nascent smugness and pride proclaimed that he didn't bother with 'all that nonsense' he 'just drank the tea'. How very Zen, speak the truth at all times even if it seems harsh - the git. I shrunk back down into my seat, humbled like the Zen rookie that I was. I tried to find solace in the fact that in Zen there is no differentiation between self and other (which is fine if everybody believes this but not when everyone doesn't and is laughing at you!).

We were then asked to think who was tasting the tea? Then to contemplate who we really were. We were asked what the teas tasted like to us and the pregnant lady said the green tea tasted like chocolate to her, which I thought was nonsense and was obviously down to her taste buds being mixed up because she was pregnant - but then I added my own original and astute observation that I thought the tea tasted 'Nice'! Wow! Thoughtful and insightful, yes, you betcha!

The middle aged grumpy lady, who didn't want to be at the ceremony sat glowering at the master and when he said there was no God or Self. I thought, cool, a fight - fat middle-aged woman against Zen warrior, I knew who my money was on. I'm sure he could have paralysed her with one deft movement, it would be called something like tea-drinking-cobra-strike-on-fat-lady-move.

People began opening up a little more as we neared the end of the class. The tea had mellowed everyone up and we were all on quite a caffeine high. I know I was,  I usually only drink one cup of tea a day and was quite frankly drunk at this point. The group began to feel more like a self-help group with people opening up about life and showing their vulnerable sides. The debonair man admitted that if he knew who he was, he wouldn't have gone to the lecture in the first place, though in my opinion he was placing a bit too much faith in the ability of the Zen master to solve his problems in an hour and a half! The middle-aged man (who had an air of sadness and hopelessness and looked a bit like droopy) talked about the process of interconnectedness and how it affected the taste. Where did the taste come from? Was it from the leaves? Or when the leaves were picked? Or the fermentation process? Or a little bit of everything?

At the end of the lecture we practiced a Zen walk - where we walked around the table at various speeds dictated by the master and paid attention to our bodies and movement. This went well despite a faltering beginning as we debated which way was counter-clockwise (note taking lady had been adament that she wanted to walk in the opposite direction to everybody else, but a swift Zen slap to the face, soon sorted her out. No that didn't happen, though I did picture it at the time!).

We were 'very good' at the Zen walking apparently which made us all feel proud, but then guilty as we realised there was no self to feel proud about and then confused as there was no self to feel guilty about either and then we reached a Zen like emptiness, no mind, enlightenment. After about thirty seconds I couldn't take it any more and began thinking. I'm not sure what I thought about, but I think it may have involved a tag team martial arts fight between me, note taking lady and grumpy middle-aged woman, where I would care not a whit about life and death and conquer my foes with swift precise moves.....)

So as we left the building, all  cheery and feeling the cameraderie of having shared an unusual experience together I reflected that, yes, Zen had good points, but as the Buddhists themselves say - you shouldn't cling to anything, not even Zen. For if you see the buddha on the road - kill him - except if he's drinking tea, then you'd better make sure you've got some cookies and a decent sized mug!
© Paul Haire Jan 2007

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