I had the honor and privilege of being invited to a special tea ceremony at Hsi Lai Temple, a Chinese Buddhist temple located in the greater Los Angeles area, ahead of their annual interfaith prayer for world peace. As the interfaith representative of my church, I was already planning on attending the prayer, which is open to the public; but when Fr. Alexei Smith, the head of interfaith relationships for the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, invited myself and my friend and colleague to the private tea ceremony, all he had to say was "tea" and I was there.
I had never been to a tea ceremony, so was very curious. However, the reason I love tea is not just because it's a delightful, calming beverage, but because of the company that is enjoyed with tea. So, I felt a great honor to have the opportunity to sit down with people of other faiths and drink tea together, especially in the spirit of world peace. (Is it just me or does anyone else have the problem of not being able to disassociate the phrase "world peace" with Miss. Congeniality?)
Buddhism and tea have a long relationship, because Chinese Buddhist monks discovered tea helped with daily meditation. I don't know if you've ever tried meditating, but I can barely clear my mind for a few seconds before it wanders off, and monks mediated for long periods each day. So, the tea helped keep them awake. But unlike having an espresso shot, tea also has a calming and relaxing effect, so I wouldn't go thinking that mixing your coffee with meditation or having a soda pop would do the trick.
Before the tea ceremony began, we of course began with a meditation. I thought this would be like a moment of silence, when you close your eyes for a moment and perhaps 30 seconds later the silence is over. However, this was a real meditation that went on for as long as my mind could wander away too many times for me to even be able to count.
The tea ceremony is a very precise ritual from the way everything is laid out to how the tea is poured and in which direction. There is also a "tea master" who does all the pouring in a very precise manner and order. As you can see from the above picture, all the teacups are first laid out in front of her, and there is a teapot as well as another little pot used to pour the hot water into the teapot (hot water was never poured directly from the electric tea kettle into the teapot), plus a bowl for dumping water out. The first pour consisted of just rinsing out the teacups and pot with hot water; but even that was done meticulously and in a particular order. Before pouring the tea, she laid out the tea leaves on a wood dish, smelled the leaves, and then passed it around to each of us to also smell the leaves. Each pour started with the right most teacup laid out directly in front of her, using her right hand, but as soon as she reached the middle of the row of teacups, she stopped, gently placed the teapot back down in front of her on a towel to wipe off any excess tea that may have dripped down the side, then turned the direction of the teapot and continued pouring with her left hand. The three teacups you see that look like they are made of porcelain instead of clay were poured last. Once she poured tea into each cup, she passed out each teacup to each person. Then the ritual repeated itself for the next pour. The tea ceremony is like a tea tasting as well, because the first pour after the rinse is typically relatively light. Then it becomes stronger, before it becomes weaker again, and then it's time to change tea leaves.
For some reason, the simple act of drinking tea can have a meditative effect. And when we finished the tea ceremony, one of the Buddhist nuns asked if anyone would like to share some words or thoughts. She started with the religious leaders in the room, but then eventually picked on a few of us lay people to say a few words, and I was one of them. Actually, I was the last person to have to speak. Everyone said something very profound and meaningful, and I decided to be honest.
That morning, I woke up on the grumpy side of bed, because I'm not sleeping well these days, now in my third trimester of pregnancy. So, I didn't get much sleep and the thought of getting up early and driving all the way out to Hacienda Heights (roughly an hour away from me without traffic, and in LA terms basically another state) was not exactly bringing me peaceful vibes. At least, the room laughed at my honesty, but I also got real. With the way 2020 has kicked off with a few literal bangs around the world and Australia burning down, like many people, I'm feeling rather helpless. I also feel fearful of the world I'm bringing my child into--will he even have an earth to live on in 20 or 30 years? At least a livable one? Are we on the brink of a massive war?
So, as I made my way out all the way to the other side of LA, I tried to talk myself into a better mood. I thought, we're here to pray for world peace today, which is clearly very needed, and even before my son was conceived, I have been praying so hard for peace for him and the world he'll grow up in, that one of his namesakes is even Saint Oliver, the patron saint of peace. So, putting aside my grumpiness, I knew that this was where I was meant to be on this day. Praying for peace with my community full of people from different faiths and different walks of life, and I'm grateful and humbled to be able to partake on such a special day of unity. Not to mention, there's nothing like a cup of tea to bring you peace and untangle the mess in your head, and that is indeed what the tea achieved.
Beyond the tea ceremony, I want to share with you a bit about this prayer for world peace day, because it's truly a special day celebrated every first Saturday of the year, and it's a beautiful representation of what LA is and stands for. At the prayer service, we were not only joined by even more leaders of other faiths, but also our local government representatives and law enforcement. Each religious and community leader said a prayer and/or shared thoughts on how we can achieve peace together, making this event not only an incredibly meaningful one, but also a culturally enriching one. One of the speakers (I'm sorry I forget which one) pointed out, world peace starts in our own communities. And hopefully what we can achieve within our communities, can be emulated in our larger communities and societies, at state levels, national levels, and ultimately on a global scale.
This was a great reminder, and reminded me that I'm not helpless. None of us are. In fact, it's the approach I have taken within my faith community. It's no secret that the Catholic Church has committed terrible crimes and abuses of power throughout history, and I understand why many have fallen away from the church. But, I've always believed that I can affect positive change in the church by starting with my own parish and community...and also by waiting for all the old outdated men to eventually retire (or go Home, and I mean that with utmost respect). And that is what we must all do. We must look to what we can do within our own reach, and eventually that reach will stretch further.
I know this post has gone beyond tea ceremonies, but it comes down to this: drink tea and make peace.