What I Talk About When I Talk About Tea
14 July 2020 | BY ANDJELKA JANKOVIC | Life , Travel
Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call and I'll be there
A relationship to anything deep and intimate is often inexpressible.
It occurred to me recently that my memory is catalogued in smells and tastes, and most of them come back to tea.
Tea is a lot of things: a warm beverage, an invitation, a moment to yourself, a chance to connect with someone, and a way of life.
Tea is said to have roots that go back 6000 years, she is ancient and wild. But let’s go back to before I knew that, to the beginning of me and tea.
My earliest memory of tea is of my mum making me a cup of chamomile when I was sick. She would add honey and it would taste like sticky sweet goodness. As a child, I would sometimes open the box of teabags in the back of the cupboard just to get a whiff of that flowery meadow scent. Chamomile is still my go-to when I am unwell or need comfort.
When I was 19, I left Australia to study abroad at Queen’s University in Canada. I lived in a giant Home Alone-style house with ten people and one of them was an English rose called Amanda. I met her while she was unpacking and noticed she had a giant ziplock bag of teabags. I asked her what they were, and she said “PG Tips”. She had bought a stash with her from London in case she couldn’t find them in our small college town. Amanda made a cup with a dash of milk and sugar and it was like a warm liquid hug. We became instant friends. To this day, the smell of English breakfast tea takes me straight back to Amanda’s room and the giant autumnal tree outside her window.
In Kington, where we lived, I was introduced to jasmine dragon pearl tea after Amanda gifted me some from a charming tea store downtown. This was 2008 and I had never had proper loose leaf tea before this point! I was enchanted by the smell of the fragrant jasmine buds and would sometimes poke my nose in the bag just to get a hit. When I went back to Canada seven years after my exchange, I went looking for that very tea shop on the main street only to find it was no longer there. A heavy sadness came over me. It’s no coincidence that I wear jasmine scented perfume to this day and always stick my head in every flowering jasmine bush that I pass.
When I was 26, I went on my first 6-month solo trip (or ‘quest’) across North America. I made a point to visit Portland and discovered it to be the tea capital of the US, and later had a tea and tarot session at a teahouse in Burlington, Vermont. I ended up going to a sacred spirituality festival called Beloved in the Oregon woods. I went for a walk after setting up my tent and came across an altar covered in crystals and gems with a man called RonJon sitting behind it. He was serving tea to anyone who pulled up a cushion, all day and all night. I sat down to drink tea and ended up staying for hours chatting openly with strangers. One particularly memorable night, I made my way to the tea circle around 3am and RonJon served us a special tea with palto santo shavings and coca leaf. It was magical and I had one of the best sleeps of my life.
After months of travelling across the US and Canada, I ended up living in New York’s East Village in a 15th floor apartment with no elevator. I had a lifelong dream to live in Manhattan and so I had to see it through. However, it quickly started to show itself as not being my place. The hustle and grind of the city, the everpresent noise and sirens, the community you could see everywhere but never get into, and the lack of nature and trees (two things I need!) really got to me. And frankly, I had no idea what I was doing there.
One day, I saw that my yoga studio was hosting a ‘tea ceremony’. I didn’t know what that was exactly but I was drawn to it. I was going through a particularly hard time with my health and I wanted a feeling of peace. The tea gathering was hosted by Bealyn Elspeth who is better known as All Matters of Spirit. As I sat in a semicircle with about twenty women drinking bowls of tea, I didn’t quite know what was happening, but I liked it. At the end, we shared our experiences with each other. I can’t remember what I said but I did feel connected to something for the first time since I got to the city. Several people in the group broke down and cried. They said the silence made them anxious and they didn’t know what they were meant to do. That’s the thing: we were just drinking tea and not talking. I then realised that for so many of them, being native New Yorkers, they had never experienced such stillness in their entire life.
From this moment, I was in rapture with tea and the ritual of ceremony.
Back in Australia, my brother, mum and I really got into Japanese organic sencha. At first, I didn’t care for it. It tasted like grassy vegetable broth. Then my palette started to change and I fell in love with green tea (Gyokuro is my favourite, and I also have a soft spot for Indian chai, Moroccan mint tea, and the tiny cups of steaming Turkish black tea along the Bosphorus). I went on a solo trip to Japan in 2017 as my word for that year was reverence. I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Ehime and read in cozy teahouses, attended tea ceremonies, toured tea plantations and made a special pilgrimage to the birthplace of green tea in Uji, and of course, overdosed on matcha everything. Tea was starting to resonate a lot.
I found out that Baelyn was a student of someone called Wu De. I read his book The Way of Tea and became enthusiastic to study with him. Wu De, as I discovered, was born Aaron Fisher and is an ordained Zen monk, scholar, author, poet, artist, teacher, and founder of the Global Tea Hut. He was fascinated with the East from an early age, moved to Asia some twenty years ago and now lives in Taiwan.
An ardent love for tea was bubbling up and I wanted to pursue it. Except, I didn’t. Five years went on, my career and life took over and I never seemed to be able to line up the “right time” to get my butt to Taiwan and sit a ten-day tea meditation course at the now-closed Tea Sage Hut.
Perhaps I wasn’t ready for tea yet.
But the calling never went away.
I continued looking up tea ceremonies in every city I flew into (I travelled every second week with my job at the time), hoping one would pop up so I could experience that quiet magic again. I joked that I wanted to become a tea sommelier (I looked into it and needed qualifications that were in London/Europe) and also started hosting tea circles in the park.
Then mid last year in 2019, I took another leap of faith — or let’s call it a jumping off a cliff moment — and set off again on a quest to North America. I took a break from my career, sold and gave away most of my things, said goodbye to my beloved family and friends (and cat Gustav!) and set off for a hiking adventure. Of course, I took my tea stash.
I went back to Portland and stumbled upon Fly Awake, a teahouse tucked in an alleyway. I sat in the open air while it rained outside and drank tea for a whole afternoon while I wrote in my journal over fifteen infusions of an oolong. I thought: this is what I gave everything up for. I then made my way to the Canadian Rockies on a train and hiked to two unforgettable teahouses in the mountains — Plain of Six Glaciers and Lake Agnes Tea House. So remote, that both helicopter supplies in once a year and fetch the water from a creek every day to use in the tea. At both places, I had a pot of Cream of Earl Grey tea which has a hint of vanilla and will taste like the Rockies in peak fall for the rest of my life.
I ended up living and volunteering at an intentional community in New Mexico for two months. I came across AY^AM and was delighted to find they had a secluded tea temple in Tesuque outside of Santa Fe. I rented a car and made a ‘tea’ weekend out of, attending a tea ceremony every day I was there. When I walked into the ceremonial octagon space, it had a resonance and familiarity that I couldn’t put my finger on. As it turns out, I was told it is where Baelyn lives half of the year and all of the teaware was hers — I have a running list of tea puns and synchronici-tea is one of them.
The happenstance continued. I had my first gong fu tea experience with Ashish in his hermitage-style cabin in the mountains outside of Santa Fe. When I contacted him via Airbnb, he was just about to drive across the country from Portland with his dog called Osa and still invited me to tea. I insisted that he would be too tired from the three-day drive and that we can give it a miss, but he persisted and so I went. I am so glad I did. The feeling of presence and kinship over a long tea session with him warmed my soul to no end. I made a tea friend and later learned how to brew gong fu tea in Ashish’s online course which I highly recommend.
A tea person, or a chajin, is truly unique. The Chinese adage is true, ‘drink tea, make friends’ and it is called the great connector for a reason. Tea people are incredibly generous, kind-hearted and are inextricably in love with the same thing as you — a leaf.
Earlier this year, I saw that Wu De (the Wu De who I’d been trying to study with for fives years!) was going to be offering a meditation and tea retreat in Big Sur. Naturally, it was sold out. After many fruitless emails and calls to Esalen and then being told I was number 50 on the waitlist, I had to let it go. Not happening Andjelka.
I started keenly listening to the Global Tea Hut podcast Life of Tea and gifted myself the monthly magazine and tea subscription. I was enchanted with Wu De’s way of describing the world. We Du is a master storyteller and has an eloquent and profound way of weaving pop culture, poetry and philosophy into his teachings with his special signature of humility and humour. I then came across his conversations with Rich Roll talking about Zen and the art of tea and a follow up on meditation and Buddhism.
In February, I got an unexpected email that a last-minute place had become available on the Big Sur retreat. I knew I had twenty minutes to decide. There was a fair list of reasons why I shouldn’t go (nothing dampens a moment of excitement like logistics) but I got a full body yes and booked a spot anyway. I told myself I’d figure out the rest later.
I made it to Esalen. I met Wu De, studied the ancient practice of Cha Dao (translated as “the way of tea”) and learned the art of tea ceremony. A beautiful new world had opened up to me and it felt both like coming home and somewhere I was always meant to arrive. Every night, after a day of meditation, tea lessons and dharma talk, me and my new tea friends would head down to the Esalen hot spring perched over the Pacific Ocean to bathe naked in the healing mineral waters. Looking up at the starry sky that surrounded me, I was deeply aware and grateful that (don’t think I was going this long without a Bon Iver lyric) it must’ve been forces that took me on them wild courses to get me here.
It’s like how Elizabeth Gilbert says, the truth is bigger than your plans.
From that moment on, I was on my way, the way of tea.
Tea is a plant and medicine. Tea is ceremonial and spiritual. Tea is drinking the seasons and conversing with the elements. Tea bridges and teaches. Tea is a space for ichigo ichie and recognising every moment as a once in a lifetime encounter.
Tea is also an adaptogen meaning it helps the body adapt, most notably to stress. We drink living tea from the wild forests and semi-wild gardens of Taiwan, Japan, and the birthplace of tea in the Yunnan Province of China. As Wu De explains: “Tea has been used and consumed every day for 20,000 years – it’s older than the pyramids.” All tea comes from the plant Camellia sinensis or the Camellia genus and anything else that is an infusion of a different plant is called a tisane (but you can call it what you like). Tea is a sexual plant meaning it breeds with other tea shrubs creating offspring with their own individuality. Unlike most commercial tea, living tea is seed propagated, chemical-free and organically grown in a biodiverse optimal environment that makes it potent for healing.
Now back home, living in Fremantle, I have been doing a daily bowl tea practice for five months. Tea wakes up your heart and body — when the first sip of hot liquid goes down my throat, I feel it go all way down into my roots. When I sit down for tea in the morning, it feels like a homecoming, every time.
Tea has become an unlikely teacher. Tea has taught me so much and her communication is a transmission of wisdom. As Wu De always says, ‘tea lessons are life lessons’. Remarkably, it is true.
When I sit for tea, I am putting leaves in a bowl with boiling water. So profound in its simplicity, tea brings, as Wu De says, a ‘calm joy’ and aliveness to my mind like only music previously could. You never get sick of listening to your favourite songs and I can’t imagine a life without tea.
A life of tea involves two important shifts:
Tea from beverage to medicine
Tea from drinking to ceremony
A mindful approach to tea preparation takes this daily practice from the mundane to the sacred.
In its simplest form, tea is sitting with yourself without distractions.
It is allowing whatever is to be present. Tea invites you to do nothing and receive. How rare that can be for many of us.
Tea is a conversation that will unfold for the rest of my life.
Tea is an instrument for service, love, introspection, self inquiry, sharing and joy. — Wu De
Drinking tea in quietude is a form of meditation. It is also a form of love we can give freely.
Tea is experiential and very practical, and getting to know her is a lifelong friendship with the leaf.
If today were my last day on Earth, I would begin it with my daily tea ritual.
It would be my honour to serve you tea.
I’m so glad you could be here. Allow me to boil the kettle and burn some incense, please get comfortable for the ceremony.
There is nothing to do but drink tea and just be.
We will share three bowls of tea in silence; I’ll let her do the talking.
Tea unlocks quietude, presence, clarity and completion. — Wu De