Part One, a fascinating jaunt to Jesmond Dene to draw water from St, Mary’s Well, can be read by clicking here.
An hour later and I am home. I decant the precious water into a stoneware jar I found yesterday in a charity shop. This is an important moment for me. I have been feeling my way into Cha Dao for some time, but up till now have been content to use bottled or filtered water.
I carry my jar of water to the music room which doubles as tea space. My Chaxi is simple today. A green man printed cloth for the connection with the ancient Britain and nature worship that the well represents. A candle floating in a bowl of water. A few shells, a piece of driftwood and a small statue of a turtle, a Taoist symbol for the Water element complete the theme. My teaware is a little rice bowl which serves me as a chawan. And the tea? What could be more appropriate than the sheng puerh buds I have received from Global Tea Hut?
After a few minutes of silent sitting I carefully ladle water into the kettle. I’ve never done this before. It’s usually a matter of glugging some water haphazardly from a bottle. But I really want to be with the water today and the slow mindful ladling seems to honor the water the respect it deserves. Looking, really looking at the clarity of the water I am pouring reminds me of Laozi’s words:
Do you have the patience to wait until your/Mud settles and the water is clear?
I have a smart temperature-controlled kettle which I couldn’t really afford, but a few months ago seemed essential. At the time, the idea of being able to judge water temperature by eye and sound seemed impossibly difficult. But today I leave the lid off the kettle, ignore the temperature dial and watch and listen as first steam begins to rise, then the first tiny bubbles, then strings of bigger bubbles . . .
Bowl tea is for me perhaps the ultimate expression of Cha Dao. The simplicity and immediacy of leaves, water and a bowl takes me right into what Taoism calls “zi ran”, the spontaneity, the naturalness of things as they are. I have no words to describe the rest of this tea session.
Why so much fuss about water? Am I crazy to have spent the best part of three hours collecting enough water for a couple of tea sessions? What is wrong with bottled or filtered water? For me this is part of a process of growth as a chajin. For most of my life I drank tea as a beverage and was content to fill a kettle from the tap. Later I passed through a short phase of tea connoisseur, or perhaps “tea snob” would have described me better. I filled my supermarket trolley with bottles of Volvic or Highland Spring water because only the best would do.
However, very soon Tea became my teacher, and in silent sessions alone and intimate tea sharing with friends awakened me to her deeper meaning. Cha Dao became “practice” as much as sitting meditation, and it became a way of being in the spirituality of Nature. Bottled water was perhaps “gong fu” but it was not Cha Dao.
Cha Dao taught me that the essence of tea was not about indulging in elitist or exotic taste experiences. Cha Dao taught me too that the essence of tea was not just about drinking fine tea with meditative awareness. Cha Dao taught me that harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility are not confined within the walls of the tea hut, but like water, need to seep quietly into every part of one’s being, purifying, nourishing and flowing gently but inexorably down to the vast ocean of Tao.
I can sit in my tea space and pour Volvic into my kettle. I can have an outer appearance of simplicity and tranquility and ignore the environmental impact of plastic bottles transported by fossil fuels across hundreds of miles, but how deep is such harmony and reverence? Cha Dao was asking me to see clearly and be responsible for my wasteful, consumerist actions and step back to a simpler and more honest connection with Nature. Cha Dao was asking for more effort and mindfulness on my part than casually turning on a tap and filling a water jug.
In my tea journey, I had already embraced the idea of “living tea.” Tea that was organic, grown lovingly by small farmers following ancient tradition and passed to me through bonds of friendship rather than business. My teaware had that living quality too, almost all of it coming to me in chance finds or as unexpected gifts. Now it was time to bring water to life, too.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of wells and springs across Britain to be sought out as sources of water for tea. Some are officially sacred, some quietly ignored in the perfection of their ordinariness. Not long since, almost within living memory, they were our only source of water. If the well dried up, or became tainted, there would be no water. Water mattered as it does today in so many parts of the developing world. Water, all water, not just water from “holy” wells, is sacred!
This does not mean that I will never again turn on a tap connected to the public mains supply to brew tea, but I hope that when I do there will be a little more awareness that water is just water . . . and is more than water.
The water I drew from St. Mary’s well had once been ocean, had once been clouds, had once been rain. This water had been all these things since beginningless time and would be all those things again. The water that makes up most of my body has also been all these things and would be again. Through water I am one with Great Nature. Water is the common medium and material of life. As Loazi said, water is truly like the Tao itself:
The highest good is like water.Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
Just as I am finishing this article, I open We De’s book, Tea Wisdom, and find these words by Buddhist scholar Dennis Hirota:
One does not prepare the water for one’s own use, but rather participates in and enriches the water’s existence as the water participates in and enriches one’s own life. In this relationship, one experiences both a sense of wonder in the existence of the water just as it is, and a profound sadness that reverberates through the shared existence.
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