Guest Contributor, Dewey Meyer
Estimated reading time, 5 minutes.
How did the Wu-Wo tea ceremony begin?
Wu-Wo is a tea ceremony based on traditional Chinese Gong-Fu small pot brewing dating back to the Ming Dynasty more than 300 years ago. In 1989 Grand Master Tsai of the Taiwanese Lu-Yu Tea Culture Institute realized that Gong-Fu brewing was headed for extinction as Taiwan society modernized. In response, Master Tsai modified this traditional practice to create a ceremony that allows many participants to brew and serve tea together.
Master Tsai wanted to create a ceremony that could be done by anyone, anywhere, easily and simply. Something that created a feeling of community, where everyone was equal, without judgment, or preferential treatment. There is no distinction in knowledge, region, or social rank, and no expectation of reward. Participants follow the arranged schedule and constantly check and review their brewing process while keeping an open mind, and a positive and tolerant attitude. This cultivates cooperation and thoughtfulness toward others. Wu-Wo translates as “selfless” or “void of self”.
The ceremony is done in silence, reminding us to slow down and take time to “be” with our tea, our community, and nature. The only thing that limits the number of people that can participate is the size of the area where the gathering is being held.
The first time I saw this ceremony was in 2005 at the International Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony Convention in the WuYi mountains of China. At this gathering there were over 1000 active participants, meaning 1000 people brewing tea at the same time! They ranged from local children of 5 years using a bath towel and a cracked teapot, to tea masters from around the world with beautiful and expensive tea equipment, and all were treated with the same respect and acceptance. Wu-Wo gatherings demonstrate that we can all come together, and no matter what country we are from, there is no language barrier when we are speaking the language of tea.
How is the Wu-Wo Ceremony practiced today?
In 2018 Master Tsai formally changed the English translation to read “Sans Self Tea Gathering”. Therefore, when written in English you will see it both as Wu-Wo and/or Sans Self, yet they are the same ceremony.
Although the ceremony was originally developed using the Gong-Fu brewing method, you may brew tea however you would like, with any type of equipment. In this way, the ceremony is flexible and accommodating of all brewing styles.
Participants bring their own tea sets with tea leaves already in their teapots and hot water in a thermos. A lottery is drawn to determine the seating arrangement and participants find their places and set up their equipment. Some time is set aside for socializing, picture taking, and appreciating the other participants’ tea sets. At the designated time, participants return to their places and start brewing tea which they serve to the three persons on their left while reserving one cup for themselves. The tea is served in one direction but received from the other, reminding us to give freely without expectation of reward. Multiple rounds are brewed from the same tea leaves. Participants then gather their cups and pack up their tea equipment. The ceremony is usually closed with a poem or song.
Where are there Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony organizations around the world?
Wu-Wo is practiced in many countries around the world, with the largest groups gathering in Asian countries. International conventions are held every other year and groups bid to host the convention in their country. Since it was founded, it has been hosted by China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and the USA in 2009. At the 4 conventions I have been lucky enough to attend, there were also people from Italy, Egypt, Russia, Singapore, and Mexico. The central office for Wu-Wo is at the Lu-Yu Tea Culture Institute in Taipei, Taiwan. I am sure they have a directory of all the main groups around the world, however, it would be written in Mandarin. They did however make a great effort at the 2019 convention to include English translation for the brochure and during speeches and demonstrations for which we were grateful for their efforts. The American Tea Culture Association in Cupertino, California represents the USA at these international conventions.
How many groups are actively practicing in the U.S.?
This is a good question and one that I would like to have an answer to. I know of only three other ongoing groups in the US, but I have heard of other gatherings around the country. I hope to develop a central website where groups can find each other, along with notices of where and when gatherings are happening.
How does someone organize a group?
Forming a group is fun and easy. Just talk to your friends or anyone interested in tea and ask if they would like to have tea with you in the park. Explain that they didn’t have to be a great brewer or have special tea equipment. They can even make their traveling kit just from things in the kitchen. There is equipment made especially for this ceremony to make it easier, but it is not necessary. Really, all you need is one person who understands the ceremony and can lead others through it. The first time I did it, the person I sat next to just looked at me and said, “monkey see, monkey do” and I was able to follow along just fine.
There are many things that I have learned throughout the years that are useful in keeping the group interested and together, which I am willing to share with anyone. I would suggest that you have a regular schedule to keep people engaged. We do tea experiments and tastings when the weather doesn’t allow us to brew outside Wu-Wo style.
Is there formal training?
There are two levels of training. The basic level can be learned in an hour or two with someone guiding you. The ceremony is simple but because it is done in silence it’s very helpful to get training so you understand the basics along with the seven principles that guide the ceremony. If you are going to start a group, you will want to be walked through it step by step so you can help others. I usually do this in person at small workshops or tea festivals but can easily be taught remotely.
The next level is to become a certified instructor. In 2019 I trained at the Anxi College of Tea Science in China to become one of the first internationally certified instructors. To date, this has never been taught outside of China, but currently, I am developing a 2-day in-person training for the U.S. involving written exams, practicum, speeches, and brewing techniques.
Why are people drawn to sharing the Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony?
”I was invited to a meeting by a dear friend (and member of Wu-Wo). I felt at home right away. The teas were wonderful and the people in this group equally so. My first meeting was a tasting, not an actual Wu-Wo ceremony. After coming to my first group ceremony, I was hooked. I loved how the whole process was, it brought me back to a piece of me that was missing. The fact that you can be in mediation with the tea, the quiet, the pouring, the movement, the tasting, the sharing afterward. When I started the world seem to be moving so fast and it was a place to slow down and be with myself and others doing the same thing.”
“The meditative, contemplative process of brewing a simple cup of tea to actively share with friends through the Wu-Wo ceremony is the most restful thing I can do for myself. I also like the idea of selflessness, service, equality, and tolerance that are expressed under a boundless sky. It is the prayer of tea.”
Karen Van Hoy
“I was attracted to the inclusive nature of Wu-Wo, where one learns to deepen community through tea. I appreciate the time of silence, and also the time of socialization. It’s meditative, provides community, and instructs about tea.”
“For me, Wu-Wo is about connections with other tea lovers and learning more about tea. Then again, it is a time of meditation while sipping.”
“I loved the concept of Wu-Wo first because it was a simple ceremony so you could quickly relax into it, enjoying the outdoors, the people, and the tea. As we learned more, I so enjoy the culture it brings, the beautiful teas to taste, and of course the truly expansive ability to have and enjoy the teaware!! The focus is on relaxing and enjoyment………..”
What about your local Wu-Wo Group?
I started getting people involved in Wu-Wo after I came back from China in 2005 and founded the Northwest Wu-Wo Tea Association in 2007. We are based out of Portland Oregon and gather on the second Sunday of every month. When the weather allows, we hold gatherings in the local parks or back yards.
The association frequently presents the Wu-Wo Tea Ceremony to the public at tea festivals, colleges, tea houses, public parks, and gardens. Our goal is to encourage the flowering of tea culture through appreciation of a gracious tea ceremony where participants can be with nature, tea, and community.
We would love to help groups get started all over the country, and most of the basic information can be found on our website nwwuwotea.com, along with equipment lists and a short video demonstrating the ceremony. I can also be contacted through email at [email protected] for equipment, training, general questions, and support.
How did you adapt to Covid restrictions?
Wu-Wo needed very little adaptation with regards to Covid. It is meant to be done outdoors and you are self-contained, bringing all your own equipment and water. Although you would normally deliver your cups, in times of Covid you maintain your own cups so that no one touches them. The seating was moved from 3 ft to 6 ft apart and masks are always worn except for when drinking, but remember that the ceremony is done in silence, thus reducing spread through talking and you only drink once everyone is seated.
The only thing that you receive from another person is the hot brewed tea. While people are delivering tea they have their masks on and are safely distanced. Usually, we would share snacks before starting the ceremony but that we have discontinued for the time being.
Years back I went to an international convention during the SARS outbreak, and even with hundreds of people, we were able to stay safe and share tea. In that case, they had everyone use disposable cups.
Wu-Wo by the nature of its design is the perfect way to safely share tea with friends old and new.
Guest Contributor, Dewey Meyer
Dewey Meyer is the founder and lead instructor of the NW Wu-Wo Tea Association. In 2005, after several trips to China, she was invited to the International Wu-Wo Tea Convention in the Wuyi Mountains of mainland China. Since then she has traveled with Tea Masters throughout China and Taiwan, visiting tea plantations, processing tea and tasting some of the finest teas of those regions.