Bowls of Soul in Big Sur
12 October 2020 | BY ANDJELKA JANKOVIC | Life , Travel
You gotta set your eyes on something you believe is true, it don’t matter what it cost
“Like you, I am scared to go within.”
These were the first words that Wu De spoke at the beginning of a week of Cha Dao at the Esalen Institute earlier this year.
I had tried to attend a course at the Tea Sage Hut in Taiwan for many years, but the busyness of my life always seemed to take over and I could never align the time to go. This came to a head last year, when my work in marketing for one of the world’s biggest food brands was becoming increasingly unfulfilling and an inner voice telling me that I had a greater purpose was practically screaming. I decided to take a career break and go on a quest through North America to ‘live into the answers’ (in Rilke’s stirring sentiment) to the questions of my life. Unfortunately, the moment I left my job, sold almost everything and moved the last of my possessions into my brother’s shed, it was also announced that the Centre would be closing.
All I really wanted to do at that point was get lost in nature, so I went hiking, traveling all the way from the top of the Canadian Rockies to the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains range in the US over the next six months. During my trip, I learned that Wu De (of Global Tea Hut) would be holding a meditation and tea retreat at Esalen in Big Sur, California. However, by the time I went to sign up it was sold out — naturally. I am not one to give up easily, so I persisted and pursued the gracious (read: patient) staff at the Esalen Institute reception over the coming days and weeks, hoping that a spot would become available. However, after about the sixth phone call, one of them politely told me: “Look, you’re fiftieth on the waitlist; I’d forget about it”. It was not happening, so I had to let it go.
And I did…
But a few months later, in February, I got an email out of nowhere that a last-minute spot had opened up on the retreat. I was volunteering at an intentional community in New Mexico at the time, and getting to Big Sur would be a logistical nightmare, not to mention my visa would be ending soon — but I was overcome with such a strong feeling (that could only be described as a ‘full-body yes’) that I took the opportunity. I booked my ticket and decided I would figure out the rest later — like how I was actually going to make it back to L.A. after the retreat ended to catch my flight home to Australia (ultimately, a Russian tea sister gave me a ride).
After two flights and a scenic bus ride along the famous Highway 1, I arrived at the edge of the continent — literally. Esalen is built right on the cliffs of the Pacific Coast and is one of the most staggeringly spectacular places I’ve ever been. A pioneer in holistic health and spiritual healing, Esalen is like staying at an upscale ashram that’s also a wellness haven for the senses. It is surrounded by the wildness of the ocean, a painting-like sky, giant towering trees and an invigorating sea breeze that makes you close your eyes and pause just to take it all in. The year-round fruit and vegetable gardens, bounty of flowers and bees, and the untamed redwood forest surrounding the property put nature at the centre of our immersion with Wu De and the Way of Tea.
Walking into the hall where we would convene every day, I caught sight of the retreat schedule, which would have had any tea lover in rapture: meditation, tea class, tea practice, discourse, and mealtimes repeated across the next five wonderful days. I was coming into the experience curious and eager to uncover why I’ve always felt a strong pull to tea. I’d looked for tea ceremonies everywhere I traveled and attended memorable ones in Japan, Canada, and the United States. Back home in Perth, I’d tracked down a copy of Wu De’s book The Way of Tea and it resonated with me at a bone-deep level. It was the Truth with a capital T. But I didn’t know where to even begin with my own tea practice. And so, I kept searching. I came to the retreat with the intention of integrating tea into my daily life and learning how to share my love of tea with others in ceremony.
In retrospect, I was starting a deeper relationship with tea and with myself as well.
I was also excited to meet Wu De in person after listening to a few of his conversations on various podcasts, including Life of Tea. I am almost certain I accidentally gave him those “oh my gosh, it’s Wu De” eyes when we first crossed paths in the dining hall (a look he later told us that he doesn’t like, as he would prefer to be anonymous). Hearing Wu De speak is a real treat; he is eloquent and self-aware, and I was drawn to his humility and humour, as well as his masterful storytelling. In real life, he is just an ordinary person — in his words, “I am just a dude. I am broken and dented too.” But as many of us know, Wu De is more than that. He is a student at heart and a sometimes-reluctant teacher, with a special ability to articulate Buddhist concepts with contemporary relevance and weave in cultural and poetic references with illuminating gravitas. He is also deeply in love with life, which makes him someone to whom many people are drawn. Like the Dao, you can’t explain Wu De so much as you have to experience him.
We started each day with meditation and three bowls of tea in silence. And each day, when those first few sips of hot liquid entered my mouth and moved down my throat, I felt them go all the way into my roots. So profound in its simplicity, a sense of “calm joy” (as Wu De often says) washed over me and an aliveness arose in my spirit — an embodied presence that had rarely touched my life before, except through music and being in the mountains.
Over the next five days, we — a group of fifty eager students of the Leaf — immersed ourselves in tea, Zen philosophy and community. For us first-timers, this meant practising and fumbling together while taking notes and imprints from the more experienced Chajin on the retreat. And at the end of each day, groups of new tea friends would come together to bathe in the healing mineral waters of the Esalen hot springs. I remember one night sitting there looking up at the constellations of stars in contemplation, wondering if life could actually get any better than a day of tea ceremony, meditation, wild nature, amazing farm-to-table food (I’m still thinking about that sourdough rye bread), and connecting with beautiful beings.
Seven Lessons From a Cha Dao Retreat
At the time of this writing, I have been back home in Australia for six months. Since my return, I have been cultivating a daily tea practice and have just started serving bowl tea to family and friends. I still have many more quest(ion)s and the forces that got me a spot in Big Sur will forever be a mystery. However, I know that whenever I sit on my cushion, take a deep breath and start boiling the water, a calmness washes over me and it feels like a homecoming every time.
Many of Wu De’s words come back to me often, in waves of remembrance or in moments of recognition when I am sitting with Tea. It is of course impossible to remember everything that Wu De said at Esalen, but these are the seven lingering lessons that stuck: