; Cwyn's Death By Tea: The What of Tea Rituals ;

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The What of Tea Rituals


This post is mostly a companion to the previous post, which was another in the series of letters that I write each year to a prioress friend living in a monastery in the US. I know the letter posts are not really related to tea, but over the years I get emails from people saying they find the posts interesting. Also, as I noted above, I really feel monastic life especially needs demystification given the issues with accountability and abuse. I can continue that process here in a more tea blog-specific post, adding in a bit more about qi and tea rituals. But I didn’t want to force the prioress letter when people land on the blog, which is why I’m back-to-back posting. If you are interested in the prioress letter, scroll down and read that first. Otherwise, I can proceed on the what of tea rituals.

Plenty has been written about the concept of qi because it is not part of western culture, and we seek to understand it, if it exists on its own, or whether the experience of caffeine, theanine and maybe “old” trace substances are to a large extent well understood and scientifically explained. But with the qi experience we have the tea ritual, and for some this is an avenue they are using as a personal spiritual search, even traveling to learn formal tea rituals in Japan or elsewhere along with the language.

I read a lot of grumbling online about people who approach tea rituals this way. This isn’t just westerners traveling east, I’ve covered before in this blog articles of western high tea lessons in China packed with students. Everyone wants to learn how tea is done around the world for various reasons, including spirituality and aesthetics.

Because of my background, I can empathize with people who do this type of inner searching. This was very much a consuming obsession for me. Despite this, I have always tried to keep the notion of a spiritual existence as purely a brain experience that perhaps served humankind at a point in our evolution but is no longer necessary with advances in science. We know part of the brain is dedicated to spiritual experience, and we perhaps evolved that way because the shamen and women of the past had so many children and the explanations of how the world works were served well enough by them for millennia.

I don’t rule anything out. I think all of this is the same open question it ever was. I can have this exact thought at the very same time while participating in religious rituals. Catholic spiritual writers have called this the “discursive mind.” This is the part of the mind that talks to itself continuously in the form of thoughts, like clouds floating by. It does so alongside of anything else we may be experiencing. The discursive mind cannot follow whatever other spiritual experiences are going on in the brain, the “cloud of unknowing." Discernment and observation are processes in which we note the appearance of thoughts without dwelling on them or paying much attention, distinguishing them from any genuine spiritual experience. With practice we detach from the discursive mind altogether and make choices free of its influence.

Every religion or spiritual school in the world has essentially the same way of describing this phenomenon. The same instructions are issued to the aspirant to focus on the breath or the parts of the ritual or the spiritual image or phrase as a way of focusing attention. Catholic nuns refer to this as the act of contemplation.

Rituals are an effective way to open the mind. They work through repetition, embedding themselves in the culture so that a group understanding of the ritual emerges, and the ritual is done in unison with others all focusing on the same actions and thoughts. Children are taught these rituals young, and so your childhood-learned rituals especially become the “key” to your “door,” having the most emotive power to help you relax and open your mind. We can find new keys, of course, but for rituals to have an effect, they need to be deeply embedded in meaning for you.

For me, a tea ritual is not a method of enlightenment because of my tradition. A tea ritual for me is like incense duty in a convent prayer ritual. The steps are formal with lighting the charcoal early to get it fully lit by the time the incense is needed. Then spooning in the incense from a box (3 spoonsful), lowering the censor lid after the first cloud. Finally, the carrying in the procession, the swings over the participants (1 large, 2 small) each followed by a bow before handing off the censor or removing it from the ceremony. I got incense duty because I was young and could physically manage it. You don’t want to be 80 years old with clouds of incense in your face.

But my tea ritual every night in the kitchen after my mother passed away served me much comfort mainly due to daily repetition over time. Memorized prayers have the same calming effect which is why they are taught to children and continue to “work” throughout life. My mother also turned on a stream of water to get me to pee, and it works to this day, like a switch.

Rituals like keys are an easy fix when we have a lot of anxiety. I wonder about all the stories of kids anxious from the pandemic and know that the children who have rituals in place, well before the stress happens, can benefit from them in a time of need. Music that is perceived to be calming, will thus be so. Rituals are tools we can use, with or without devotion to a deity or any particular program.

I think the experience of qi includes the positive repetition of a ritual, especially in company with others who are in appreciation of it, who contemplate it, together with all the chemical compounds in the tea, or the frankincense and myrrh in incense blends.

But a monastery, anywhere in the world, includes more than the repetition of rituals. Monasteries have a program which is designed to break down your personality and re-form it in accordance with the virtues held by that monastery. The program uses various forms of sensory deprivation along with repetition and gentle guidance from a mentor who embodies these virtues and who is skilled in working with people on an emotional level.

This type of treatment is a very effective part of any monastic program or cult, and even the military. People undertake breakdown programs in the hope of attaining whatever their goals are. While going through this process, repetitive rituals, prayers and exercises in comradery instill desired virtues while quelling the incredible anxiety during the emotional breakdowns. You are going to emotionally burn through everything that ever happened to you in your life. It will all come up to be understood, torn down and your personality scripts re-formed. You will do physical work in the process. You need to have a very strong sense of self to break down. When you finish and re-form, you have sorely tested yourself. You will have honed the virtues and skills and you now have more emotional strength than before.

Very often the experience will relax and lift the lid on repressed memories. Some people may remember childhood abuses that they hadn’t before, and this can break people in a permanent way as well. Anyone with severe mental illness cannot undertake a breakdown process, because the illness itself interferes with personality boundaries and breaks the sense of what’s real versus mind. The medical treatment needed is not more of the same, but rather includes daily reinforcing of a firm and consistent boundary between mind and world.

Certain psychedelic drugs can also open the mind up, the downside to this being the break happening faster or more suddenly than the person can handle, especially if there is no experienced guide or the helps of familiar calming rituals.

The experienced guide or guru or psychologist knows when to apply praise and affirmation, and when to challenge, and to refer appropriate reading. The guide during a breakdown process must be someone you affirm and relate to positively, and yes, such people often have charismatic gifts as well.

I related to my directors positively, though I can’t say they had a charismatic quality for me. The second one tended to view herself as a perpetual student, an overseer rather than a guide, and she referred us out to others for direction. I ended up put into a program with a certified Sufi master to supplement everything else back at the motherhouse. When my second director got done with us, she embraced her student stance and went to live at a rural meditation community for a life of study and practice.

Nobody really needs to go to a monastery or the professional military unless you are looking for this type of program. Only if you find something you want to be and are willing to undergo the breakdown training for it. It is a full-time endeavor. I think in the process of preserving their methods and traditions, monasteries have failed to share enough of what they offer with people who aren’t full time monks. I think people want aspects of monastic life in their world without giving up everything for it until you die. On the flip side, monasteries and perhaps the military might say that to truly acquire the goals you really do need to be in it full time, at least through the training period, and there may be detriment or no effect with anything less.

Still, the monastic failure to share leaves people searching for things like tea rituals and hoping to find a path in it. Rituals have a strong place, performing them well is a service to others. Rituals are an appropriate exercise for someone who cannot for whatever reason undergo a breakdown program. Of course, some people are very gifted and are naturally open, but I’m certainly not and I wanted a program. Also, I liked having a thousand years or more of things to read along the way, and to read them with people who have also read them. And the singing. Really it depends on what you require. The result of sincerely looking for something is finding it.

We shouldn’t be too hard on our friends who find meaning in the tea ritual. They are likely to master the beauty of it. You won’t see slopped-over tea trays with careless tips of tea, or bamboo trays with traces of black mold. I lack the ability to do these things well, the convent kitchen looked upon me with horror and laughter, and they booted me out continually though I tried to convince them working there would be best for me. I’ve been well-marked as someone incapable of performing beautifully with food and beverages, someone as inept as I was a problem they didn’t need. So, if you ever master a tea ceremony ritual, you are then in position to criticize and boot out the inept.






  1. > I think in the process of preserving their methods and traditions, monasteries have failed to share enough of what they offer with people who aren’t full time monks.

    I think this is more of an issue in the most recent decades, as the spiritual significance of religion has withered for so many people.

    There are some Western Buddhist organizations that are trying to do something like this. Take a listen to some of the material at https://www.audiodharma.org/.

    1. I practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen and communal living as well as long (100 day) group and solo retreats provide a taste of monastic life.

    2. In the case of Catholic monasteries, this has been going on for centuries. At one time they accepted married people to join under what is called "the Pauline Privilege" (see 1Cor. 7-12) but that practice fell out of use when husbands or relatives used it to put away people into monasteries for political or property inheritance reasons. More recently in the mid 20th, monasteries were so full they could barely house the people they had, and after Vatican II many novitiates closed for several years while the programs were updated. After that dwindling finances and aging communities focused on accepting a few candidates at a time. Supporting a member financially finally became almost impossible for most communities, and many members now must fund their own retirement or health care. They simply don't have the resources to offer programs beyond their own needs. History waxes and wanes, I expect we will see fewer monasteries surviving but with increasing numbers.

  2. Thanks for this and the earlier post, Cwyn. I had been fretting for several months about my inability to connect my tea drinking to my meditation practice, all the more so because there's a strong connection between tea drinking and Buddhism in China and Japan (and other countries as well I imagine). More complexly, from a buddhist perspective suffering itself is grounded in the constant interplay between craving and aversion and my own tea drinking embodies a restless search for particular kinds of pleasure and avoidance of un-pleasure. I was supposed to lead a tea workshop at a recent Buddhist gathering and I was really struggling with how to connect it meaningfully to our practice when it seems to me that encouraging aesthetic pleasure in tea is the opposite of practice. A power outage forced a change in programming and I was grateful to be able to cancel the workshop.

    1. In this practice, is not the performance or observance of the ritual in itself a form of contemplation? At least, that's how I view the incense ritual I described. The power of the group setting all contemplating the same thing at the same time is especially helpful for beginners. I think the renunciation of various pleasures is a path prescribed for more experienced practitioners. After all one cannot renounce what one has not experienced. I think that's why St. Augustine put off his conversion for as long as he did. He fully expected to give up "the pleasures of the flesh," as it were, once he made the commitment to do so, and be prepared for it. The idea of "freedom from is freedom for" (positive and negative liberty) then comes into play. This is definitely a philosophy under monastic vows used to cope positively with what you give up, whether it be marriage or owning your own car. I might share the community car, or use public transit, but in not owning my own car I get the positive aspect of sharing without the negative side of paying all the costs myself! One doesn't need to be a monk to appreciate mass transit and the good reasons to fund it. This same idea can be applied to a tea master. The master either owns or is in charge of all the equipment needed for a tea ritual, acquiring or maintaining the tea, etc. Others then share in that benefit as a group and they don't need to make those investments personally.

  3. It's interesting that you mention perspective and personality restructuring in relation to both monastic life and the military. I was ordained as a monk at one point, and it all sounds a bit extreme, but I guess in a sense it works. There are definitely rules, rituals, restrictions, and a rigid life structure. I only ever participated in a weekend long military outing once taking an ROTC class (for a gym credit, that class, kind of a mistake on my part). It's strange how fast that conditioning kicks in, and becomes normal (sort of). By the end of 2 or 3 days I was starting to get it, and that's not at all who I was back then. It was much better designed to reconstruct personality than the monastic experience.