© 2017 Solala Towler All rights reserved.
When we drink the tea, we need to slow down and feel the different kinds of energy in each small sip of tea with different parts of the mouth and the heart. Zhongxian Wu 1
My partner Shanti and I often invite friends over for tea. We find it a more simple, less complicated thing than inviting them over for dinner. We have tea and snacks and often spend hours visiting. Yet our tea party is a little different than what most people think of as a tea party. Our type of tea is called gongfu cha. Gongfu (goong fu) is one of those misunderstood terms in Chinese that most people associate with martial arts (called wushu in Chinese). Gongfu actually means anything that you study (time and effort) and get good at. It can be gongfu gardening, gongfu painting and yes, gongfu martial arts.
Another name for what we are doing here is pin ming lun dao or “savor tea, discuss Dao.” Usually, when we talk about drinking tea we would say he cha but here we use a different term, pin. Pin means something more than just drinking tea. The character for pin is made up of three squares, which represent three mouths, as in the three sips we take at the beginning of the ceremony. Not only that but it has a quality of savoring or going slow or really letting not only the flavor of the tea but the energy of the tea to enter our being in a deep way.
Another way of looking at pin is like this: In classical Chinese culture, Pin is also the way of study and the achievement of Enlightenment2. The next character, ming, means high quality tea or a special kind of tea. This can be an expensive tea or just one that carries a lot of meaning for us. In this way we are offering our guests much more than just a cup of tea. We are sharing something deep and profound. To quote Master Wu again,
If we pick up the teacup and just swallow the tea without paying any attention to the tea, then drinking the tea will be meaningless to us. With heartfelt observation during our tea drinking, we can learn the Dao of tea, including the knowledge of the tea, the healing and cultivation functions of the tea, and the philosophy behind the drinking of the tea.3
The last two characters, lun dao refer to lifting the conversation into the realm of philosophy or some other high-minded conversation. I find when I do Daoist gongfu tea ceremonies that the tea really opens people up to be better able to grasp the Daoist teachings that I share as well. There is just something that is relaxing yet also stimulating about this simple ceremony.
We put a measure of tea into the pot, let is steep for just a few minutes and then pour it out as well. This is called “washing the leaves” and gets rid of any dust left on the leaves. I also call it “waking up the leaves.” It allows the flavor and goodness of the leaves to really open and improves the flavor of the tea.
Then we let it steep a few moments more and pour it into the small cups. We pick up the cups, holding them with our thumb and first finger on the sides and our third finger on the bottom and align them with our heart so that the cha qi or qi of the tea can align with our heart or shen energy. First we admire the color of the tea. I often use small glass gongfu cups so that the color of the tea is easily seen.
When we look at the color we are connected the tea medicine through our eyes to our shen or spirit. (This also happens when we hold the tea in front of our middle dantien or heart center.) Then we lift the cup to our noses and take and inhale deeply, allowing that cha qi to enter our bodies through our nose and right up into our brain. Each tea has a unique smell and often each cup will have one as well. In this way we connect the smell of the tea to our qi or vital energy body. After this we take one sip and let it sit in our mouths, if it’s not too hot, to once again allow the qi of the tea to enter our whole being. (This also connects the energy of the tea to our jing or original essence body.) To begin we take three small sips; the first one with the tip of our tongue, the second with the middle of our tongue and the last with the back of our tongue. You may be amazed how different each sip tastes.
This tea is a plant (wood), which is grown in the ground (earth), up towards the sun (fire) and watered by the rain (water). In this way it represents four of the five elements. The last element of metal is contained in the minerals that go into the clay that makes the teapot. This ideally done in silence. Then we drink the rest of the tea and hold out our cup for more!
When I was first served pu-erh tea I did not really like it. I was used to much milder green teas like Dragon Well (still my favorite first tea of the day). The dark coffee-like color and the earthy taste made me feel like I was drinking a cup of mud. But after trying it a few more times I really developed at taste for it and now I drink it all the time and really appreciate its earthy flavor. Pu-erh is often pressed into round cakes and will keep for many years. As a matter of fact, the older the pu-erh is the more expensive it is. Some rare and aged cakes can go for thousands of dollars!
Of course you don’t have to do a whole gongfu tea ceremony every time you want to drink some tea. But brewing and drinking tea in a conscious way can have great impact on your being. Brewing and drinking good quality tea is a whole cultivation practice in itself. This is not just about drinking tea. It’s also about something I call Tea Mind and has a lot to do with slowing down. By going too fast we zip through life without ever coming upon the interesting detours that suddenly arise when we don’t have blinders on. The funny thing is that even though we call it the Way, there are actually many ways to and through that way.
We each have our own unique and sacred path to follow. Comparing ourselves to others is a waste of time. In Daoist temples in China each member is free to pursue their own aspect of Daoist studies. Some study martial arts, some taiji and qigong, some calligraphy or religious texts, some pursue meditation or chanting, some do the bookkeeping or the cooking and cleaning. Most of their cultivation practices are done alone. Except for when there is a ceremony or it is a holiday everyone follows Dao in his or her own way.
Likewise, each pot of tea is different, even pots of the same tea. Each steeping is different, each time you fill the pot is different, and the company you share the tea with even makes it different. If you approach your life like you are pouring a pot of delicious and rare tea and sharing that with others, your life will be full of sweetness and delight.
Tea Mind is not rushing through each day as if it were a race and a losing one at that. Tea Mind is savoring each moment to the fullest of one’s capacities. Tea Mind is be open to change in each moment. Tea Mind is being awake to each step of the way, each revolution of the great wheel of life, each breath we take and each breath we give back out. Tea Mind is being thankful for each day, for all the blessings as well as the challenges. Tea Mind is not being attached to outcomes or goals but enjoying each part of the journey. (This may be a cliché but when we are hiking up the many stone steps on our way to a temple in China we look around at the overhanging trees all around us or at the mountain peaks off in the distance and are happy to be there, trodding like pilgrims from ancient days.
Tea Mind is not minding that sometimes life is difficult and hard and challenging and we don’t always live up to even our own expectations, never mind society at large. Tea Mind is enjoying the absurdities of life and being able especially to laugh at ourselves. Tea Mind is having an enjoyment of nature and natural forms. In Japan there is an aesthetic called wabi sabi, which appreciation for old and worn and imperfect things. Tea Mind contains wabi sabi and enjoys the simple unglazed tea utensils, made from the sturdy yixing clay.
Tea Mind is being open to making mistakes and not minding or at least not being torn up about them. Tea Mind is learning to have our emotions or energetic states in balance. Tea Mind is making the time to sit and enjoy a good cup of tea with our friends and loved ones and even just with ourselves. It is in savoring each mouthful that we give silent thanks for the opportunity to enjoy the tea, the moment, the company, the chance to connect with the plant world and all that is natural within us.
When we live our life with Tea Mind we trust that we have all the time we need to accomplish any task; we can call upon assistance from the spirit realm; we can study the words of the ancient teachers, those men and women of Dao who have so much to offer to our modern, fragmented society. We can take their words and their teachings deep into our own heart/minds and utilize them for our own cultivation, our own evolution, our own expression of Dao. Laozi says:
(Many thanks to Master Zhongxian Wu for his tea teachings, including the teaching of pin ming lun dao.)
 Wu, Zhongxian. Seeking the Spirit of The Book of Changes. Singing Dragon, 2009.
© 2017 Solala Towler All rights reserved.
Solala Towler has taught and practiced Taoist meditation and qigong for over twenty-five years. He is author of twelve books on Taoism including Tales from the Tao, The Tao of Intimacy and Ecstasy, Practicing the Tao te Ching, Chuang Tzu: The Inner chapters, and Cha Dao: The Way of Tea. He is the editor and publisher of The Empty Vessel. The Empty Vessel is dedicated to the exploration and dissemination of Daoist philosophy and practice, including qigong, Chinese medicine, internal alchemy, sexual cultivation, and more. It is open to sharing the various traditional and contemporary teachings in a nondiscriminatory manner in the belief that it is in using these practices and attitudes of the ancient achieved masters in a timely and contemporary manner that we can best benefit from them and in doing so, be able to effect change in the world around us. Towler also teaches qigong and sound healing at conferences and workshops around the United States and leads study trips to China. He is founder of the sacred music ensemble Windhorse and has recorded a number of CDs of meditation/relaxation music which have been used in many qigong DVDs.