The Way of Toast

Tea pots in my kitchen

Tea pots in my kitchen

I was in the kitchen making breakfast the other day when my husband, Russell, glanced over at me and with a wry smile commented that the complicated ritual I have for making my toast should be called “The Way of Toast”, like how the tea ceremony is the Way of Tea, or calligraphy is the Way of the Brush, or any other kind of ritual art. We had a bit of a laugh about that because it is true that over the years I have created a certain ritualistic way of preparing my toast “just so”. But later I thought about what is meant by “The Way of …” and it seems to me that just about anything that you engage in in your daily life could be made into a ritual art that expresses your spiritual practice.

Although we might see tea ceremony as a beautiful but complicated ritual art shrouded in mystery and largely unintelligible to the non-initiated, it is basically simply about making a cup of tea and sharing it. Shunryu Suzuki, a much-loved and respected Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who is largely responsible for bringing Zen in the United States, would make tea ceremony using a polystyrene foam cup and instant coffee to show that you didn’t need fancy implements or some special occasion to share the essence of tea ceremony with another person. The purpose of the ritual is in fact to practice a way of emptying your mind to such a degree that all that remains is that single, precious, present moment of connection, of communion with another person – or even if you are alone, communion with the cosmos. The ritual helps you to be fully present and engaged without the background chatter of mind interfering. The longer the process, the more you have to really concentrate and the longer time it takes to master. This long-time investment of your energy and practice is a reflection of your own commitment to perfecting a ritual art and, despite our insta-everything world, reveals slowly the peeling away of the layers of mind chatter as you continue to practice. My dear friend in Japan, a tea ceremony master who had learned the art from her parents since childhood, once told me that she looked forward to her 60s because then she thought she might have reached a stage of being able to perform the tea ceremony with a “true heart”.

Cumquats ready to pick

Cumquats ready to pick

But you don’t have to aspire to become a master at a particular ritual art – what about becoming a master of the art of your own life by just fully engaging in the small rituals of everyday life? A spiritual practice can be developed by making your whole life into a ritual art: a work of art that is ever-evolving. This ritual practice can be fully realised even when you engage in the most seemingly trivial of acts such the act of peeling a humble potato and experiencing a moment of joyful awe at how it is that you and this here spud have arrived at this very moment in time together, a moment of being fully present. Now that might sound a bit OTT but in fact it is possible to live a life deeply imbued with a sense of wonder and joy whilst engaging with any moment of your life. It begins with bringing into your consciousness the awareness of every little action of your body when it moves through the routines of everyday life – cleaning your teeth, drinking a glass of water, putting on your clothes, making a cup of tea or preparing toast! When your mind is fully occupied with being aware of what your body is doing, that is a great spiritual practice because by emptying your mind of its usual white-noise chatter, you are creating an open space – this space is the place where spiritual transformation is possible, a space within which the pure joy of being is able to flow freely.

So next time you make a cup of tea, take a moment to feel the way your body moves step by step through the actions of creating a cuppa – feel your footsteps, hear the sound of the water boiling, feel the heat of the cup in your hand, feel the weight of the cup, feel the steam rising into your face as you raise the cup, feel texture of the cup as it meets your lips… and really feel the tastes and textures in your mouth as you drink, feel your breath coming in and out in rhythm with your drinking. It might sound a bit crazy, but the moment of enlightenment might be right there in your next sip! Enjoy!

Tea Ceremony for Dummies

I have an interesting book that outlines the steps involved in the tea ceremony… the manual details 331 steps! But actually you can partake of the tea ceremony in just six little steps: 1) heat water, 2) put tea leaves in a pot, 3) pour hot water in the pot, 4) pour tea in a cup, 5) offer the tea, 6) drink the tea. Or even just these three: make – share – drink!

At the heart of the tea ritual is the practice of awareness and sharing, of being totally in that moment of tea-making, without thinking about other things that are going on in your life or what you have to do afterwards. Just making tea. And once the tea is prepared, offer a cup to your friend with a loving heart, or offer it to yourself with a loving heart! And when you sip the tea, as I mentioned before, ponder on the journey that the tea has taken to be here in this moment, in your cup, in your mouth. Taste the earth, taste the sunshine – doesn’t that warm your soul?

Traditionally, tea ceremony is held in a small single-room hut, shut away from the mundane world in a peaceful garden, in which you can enjoy a cup of tea prepared carefully, mindfully, and lovingly by your host. The ritual involves the offering and receiving of tea, of sharing a moment, both persons experiencing this quiet moment together. Stillness, warmth, sharing a moment far from the madding crowds. How wonderful!

The lengthy training required and the 331 steps described to create that experience is the Way of Tea: just as in learning any skill or a martial art or any kind of art, to excel and be able to smoothly and effortlessly prepare tea with an open heart in full awareness requires time and discipline. However, the essence of sharing a cup of tea is to just keep practicing being in the moment of tea-ness, every time you make a cup of tea. So, when you put tea in the pot, just put tea in the pot; when you pour in the water, just pour in the water…. you get the gist! It sounds so simple but how difficult this actually is! As soon as we are doing something repetitive our minds just seem to drift off to all kinds of other things that are happening around us. But if you can remember to just watch the movement of your hands as you prepare the tea, hear the water boiling, smell the delicate scent released by the leaves, then this process becomes a gentle meditation that is very restful and, like the traditional tea ceremony, casts away that stresses of everyday life.

The Japanese Zen master, Soen Nakagawa, who was one of the first Zen teachers in America, is famous for making ‘tea ceremony’ using instant coffee and a styrofoam cup! He always taught his students that what mattered most is your pure intention and the importance of offering your heart with humble respect.

Here are a few tips about making delicious green tea…
1) The water shouldn’t be boiling for green tea, so after the kettle has boiled pour the water into a separate cup so that it can cool a little
2) Use about a heaped tablespoon of tea leaves – although that seems a lot, you can use it three times
3) Steep the leaves for only one minute
4) Pour a little tea in each cup and alternate cups as you pour – this helps to make each cup of tea the same strength
5) For the second and third cup, use hotter water

Enjoy!

Sharing a cuppa

my hands
warmed by the cup
become the potter’s 

It’s a beautiful sunny winter morning here at Wabi’an, so I decided to sit out in the garden with a cup of fragrant soba-cha (buckwheat tea) and listen to the thousands of bees busily collecting nectar from the flowers in the grevillea bushes. They made me feel deliciously lazy!

As I sat there listening to the bees, I enjoyed feeling the warmth of the tea heating up the cup and traveling into my fingers which were really cold from the brisk winter air. I took a moment to imbibe not just the warm smoky taste of the buckwheat tea, but its popcorn-like fragrance, as well as the visual pleasure of the green-brown glaze of the teacup through the clear straw-coloured tea. And, in this way, all my senses seemed to be absorbed in this moment of tea-ness which was ‘delicious’ on so many levels.

I also enjoyed the texture, shape and feel of the cup as I wrapped my hands around it. This cup is one of my favourites – it was made by a Japanese artist who lives in an artist’s community in a small village in the mountains near Koyasan, where I was ordained. The cup was a special gift from a fellow nun from my home temple, Muryoko’in, and although Buddhists are not supposed to be “attached” to the material world, I treasure this cup.

Then, in my moment of tea-ness, I suddenly felt that my hands were holding this cup in exactly the way that the potter had intended when he made it, and I felt too that his own hands were held in just such a way when he fashioned the cup. At that moment, with the warmth of tea coming through the cup, I felt the warmth of the potter’s own hands as he had so carefully caressed and shaped this cup from its raw state that had come out of the earth. The unknown potter had gifted me this moment of profound awareness that engaged all my senses and connected me with his creative spirit and with the earth herself. I was deeply grateful to him and said a prayer of thanks for our connection.

Do you have a favourite cup? What is its story? Next time you make yourself a cuppa, take a moment to feel the connection to the creator of the cup and, through that person’s hands, connect to the earth. I can assure you it is at the same time a very grounding as well as uplifting experience – and it’s right there for us to experience at any time of the day!

Notes:

I wrote the little introductory poem as a ‘haiku’ – a very brief form of traditional Japanese poetry in which the experience of a single moment is encapsulated in three brief lines. Try it!

Soba-cha is a delicious tea made from roasted buckwheat – I don’t know if its available outside of Japan, but if you can find it it’s very healthy and tasty.

I highly recommend a book called “The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty” by Soetsu Yanagi, which explores the value and essence of art by craftsmen who remain unknown, and how “objects are born, not made”. Wonderful book!