Nathalie Kelley

Cha Dao – The Way of Tea

When my best friend Baelyn invited me to attend a tea retreat with her teacher Wu De who was visiting from Taiwan, I jumped at the chance to go.

It had been almost a year since she first served me tea at the Spirit Weavers Gathering and the ceremony had left a profound mark on me. Since being back in LA tea has been a part of my daily ritual. A designated time and space for turning off my phone, sitting in silence and losing myself in steamy bowls of puehr, red and green tea. And so, being gluttonous for more tea and tea time with Baelyn’s teacher, I signed up to attend a 2 1/2 day workshop in Topanga. In my mind I pictured a lot of sitting around, drinking tea, talking about tea, chatting with my tea friends, catching up over meals etc. A retreat was just what I needed after a stressful few weeks in LA!

And so it happened, as it always does when I engage in projection and expectation, that the tea retreat was to look almost nothing like the above mentioned fantasy. In my excitement to attend I had failed to read that it was actually a ZEN meditation and tea retreat, with an emphasis on Zen meditation, just in case you didn’t infer from my capitals. Wu De after all is a Zen monk, who said at one point during the retreat that there was a time of his life where if a day didn’t include 8 hours of meditation, it was not a good day.

After the introduction I went and studied the schedule. It included 4 1/2 hours of meditation on Saturday and 3 1/2 hours on Sunday. Mandatory chanting both days at 5:30am. And in between meditation, tea and teaching we were asked to maintain a ’Noble Silence’. This included mealtimes, during which we sat in silence and chewed mindfully and gratefully for the small but nourishing portions we were served.

“Get it out of your head that you are on a ‘retreat“ said Wu De. “The next few days you will live like you are in a monastery.”

Ok then. I will admit to the immediate and visceral resistance I experienced upon realizing that instead of drinking Wu De’s exotic teas from Taiwan I would mostly be sitting in silence with myself. Didn’t I deserve to at least sleep in after paying to be on a ‘retreat’? Would anyone notice if I opted out of the non optional chanting? Probably yes as I was sharing a bed with Baelyn, known in the tea world as Tien. And it was Tien’s bell every hour that told us when to wake up, when to eat, when to meditate. Funny side note: Later Tien admitted to me that she’d had a nightmare on the first night that her bell was broken! A scenario which I found to be hilarious and so very Virgo of her. I had dreamed that I slept through chanting and got 2 more hours sleep than everyone else, but now in retrospect I am glad that I slept next to Tien and her little bell for it didn’t leave any room for my usual lazy tendencies.

What followed the next few days was medicine** in every sense of the word. It was sometimes not what I wanted to do or hear or eat. But it was exactly what I needed – every word, every lesson, every bite. During the retreat, in between meditation and lessons on Zen Buddhism, we were encouraged to choose from a stack of beautifully hand made cards, each painted and inscribed with a Zen koan or saying. We would spend our free time meditating on the infinite lessons contained in each one. The first one I pulled stated “Hitting the mark is the maturity of 100 misses.” At that moment I was sold. Despite all my negative internal dialogue I knew that this was exactly where I needed to be. This saying in particularly touched my heart. Most of my job involves handling rejection and ‘misses’. For a spiritual practice to directly address how to navigate them really resonated with me. Time and time again, the lessons contained in these cards would ring true in my head and heart.

“Each moment of meditation is aspiration, practice, enlightenment and nirvana” was one of them that came to me often during the more difficult moments of meditation. And once these sometimes tiring sits were over, a strange thing happened. My normally racing mind was suddenly quiet and open and ready to receive. I absorbed almost every word during Wu De’s teachings. This is very rare for me, as I have a hard time concentrating and really listening to people. Yet in this case, my mind was so alert, and the lessons being taught were so profound, that I was soaking them up like a sponge.

He talked about the concept of non-duality. How the labels we give to events in our life (good, bad, blessing, curse etc) were the cause of so much unnecessary anxiety. Who are we to know, what is a blessing or a curse in the grand scheme of things? Therefore all drama is an illusion… What a liberating concept for someone like me.

I could write pages on the notes I took that weekend. Let me close by touching on the practice of Tea, which to my great relief we did get to drink – in abundance and with so much gratitude. It is virtually impossible to do every single thing in one’s day completely mindfully. Which is why tea as a spiritual practice can be such a profound meditation. It provides the opportunity to ‘draw a circle’ around one’s practice and declare that every act within the circle be performed with mindfulness, care and reverence. From the setting of the cha xi (different every time), to the boiling of the water, the rinsing of the bowls and pouring of the tea. As Wu De often repeated throughout the day “Tea and Zen, one flavor.”

Wu De’s volunteer-run tea centre in Taiwan, Tea Sage Hut, is open to the public and even houses visitors from all over the world. Visiting this centre is now high up on my priorities but in the meantime I subscribe to their project, Global Tea Hut and receive their monthly magazine (full of tea wisdom) and also a free tea every month. This is a great way for those of you who are interested to start your tea practice.

So much love and gratitude for the tea community, especially Tien and her little bell. A huge thank you to Wu De for coming to Los Angeles, and offering such profound teachings with the perfect balance of sternness and humor. It was an honor to learn from you and drink tea with you and I look forward to visiting the centre in Taiwan.

So now let me leave you with my favorite saying of the weekend. The one I keep coming back to when something in my day goes awry and it threatens to throw me off my path. “If you hear, enter Zen through there. If you cannot hear, then enter Zen through there”

**”That which brings us closer to spirit and nature” – was the definition of medicine that Wu De gave.

Below are a few pictures I took during the retreat. Here are some of the beautiful people, tea ceremonies and snippets of nature that I saw through the ‘lens of Zen’. The beautiful retreat space is called Greenleaf in Topanga and a last special thanks goes to them for hosting us.

{To purchase transformational tea that is beyond organic, as well as pots, kettles, tea mats etc – my friend Colin at Living Tea has exquisite taste in all of the above. My current favorite teas are Forest Path, Philosophers Stone and Ancient Isle. Enjoy!}

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  • Lena

    Why are these things always almost all White people, taking names from other cultures? Is there no self-consciousness about cultural appropriation on many different levels? Why do Westerners and White people always need to take from other cultures–those they have historically subjugated, colonized, and exploited for labor? Can’t they look to their own European roots? Or is that not exotic and “authentic” enough?

    • Nat Kelley

      Hi Lena. From your message I am hearing a frustration about the way some people of European descent engage in cultural appropriation without mindfulness. Especially considering the still fresh wounds of colonization. Being of indigenous descent and not a “white person” I hear your pain and frustration. My ancestors suffered firsthand the tyranny of colonization and there were many years I carried anger and bitterness in my heart at things that happened hundred of years ago.

      • Chris Watters

        I can only agree with Nat seeing how my ancestors were of indigenous descent native American…So much of my culture has been lost because my ancestors were decimated by colonization. Much like the

        abariganiese people there own unique mixture of cultures, customs are only still practiced by the small groups of elders fortunate to remember these traditions. It is so important to keep these lost practices alive in ceremony’s and traditional attire. Honestly most derive from similar beliefs that we need to be one with our surroundings and feel blessed to be here the short time we are. The eastern practices are no different its all about meditation and finding harmony and balance with mind, body, and spirit and everything is connected and we are all free to follow what makes the most sense to our hearts…Right?
        Looks like a wonderful learning experience Nat. sending love too you always.

        Chris xx

    • Nat Kelley

      Hi Lena. From your message I am hearing a frustration about the way some people of European descent engage in cultural appropriation without mindfulness. Being of indigenous descent and not a “white person” I hear your pain and frustration. However the huge generalization you made in your comments is lacking in the sensitivity and mindfulness you are seeking in others, and such arguments only incite misunderstanding between cultures.

      Judging the people in these pictures without knowing their backgrounds, history or context in which these pictures were taken – is unfortunate and amusing to me at the same time. We spent the entire weekend learning Zen principles like “No limiting story-lines” and sending love and peace to people like yourself in our metta meditations. There is a world out there that is very harsh, full of exploitation and subjugation as you say, and we are cultivating paths of peace and harmony with those around us, yet you see us as the enemy?

      Ultimately there is no “ownership” on self cultivation. There is much to be learned from ancient practices and the western world is so young that of course it must pull from somewhere. Zen is not about color or race or culture and flows wherever it is called, just like water. Considering the wounds of the past are still so fresh in our minds, shouldn’t you be encouraging such growth and enlightenment? Why such resistance on your end?

      Let me reassure you that I observed so much honor and respect in that space, to the cultures and masters that paved the path for us to walk today.

      We are all one and there is no separation… I would encourage you to go deeper within yourself for answers rather than externalize your feelings of frustration and anger on people you do not know. Peace and light to you on your path.Hi Lena. From your message I am hearing a frustration about the way some people of European descent engage in cultural appropriation without mindfulness. Being of indigenous descent and not a “white person” I hear your pain and frustration. However the huge generalization you made in your comments is lacking in the sensitivity and mindfulness you are seeking in others, and such arguments only incite misunderstanding between cultures.

      Judging the people in these pictures without knowing their backgrounds, history or context in which these pictures were taken – is unfortunate and amusing to me at the same time. We spent the entire weekend learning Zen principles like “No limiting story-lines” and sending love and peace to people like yourself in our metta meditations. There is a world out there that is very harsh, full of exploitation and subjugation as you say, and we are cultivating paths of peace and harmony with those around us, yet you see us as the enemy?

      Ultimately there is no “ownership” on self cultivation. There is much to be learned from ancient practices and the western world is so young that of course it must pull from somewhere. Zen is not about color or race or culture and flows wherever it is called, just like water. Considering the wounds of the past are still so fresh in our minds, shouldn’t you be encouraging such growth and enlightenment? Why such resistance on your end?

      Let me reassure you that I observed so much honor and respect in that space, to the cultures and masters that paved the path for us to walk today.

      We are all one and there is no separation… I would encourage you to go deeper within yourself for answers rather than externalize your feelings of frustration and anger on people you do not know. Peace and light to you on your path.

    • Nat Kelley

      Hi Lena. From your message I am hearing a frustration about the way some people of European descent engage in cultural appropriation without mindfulness. Being of indigenous descent and not a “white person” I hear your pain and frustration. However the huge generalization you made in your comments is lacking in the sensitivity and mindfulness you are seeking in others, and such arguments only incite misunderstanding between cultures.

      Judging the people in these pictures without knowing their backgrounds, history or context in which these pictures were taken – is unfortunate and amusing to me at the same time. We spent the entire weekend learning Zen principles like “No limiting story-lines” and sending love and peace to people like yourself in our metta meditations. There is a world out there that is very harsh, full of exploitation and subjugation as you say, and we are cultivating paths of peace and harmony with those around us, yet you see us as the enemy?

      Ultimately there is no “ownership” on self cultivation. There is much to be learned from ancient practices and the western world is so young that of course it must pull from somewhere. Zen is not about color or race or culture and flows wherever it is called, just like water. Considering the wounds of the past are still so fresh in our minds, shouldn’t you be encouraging such growth and enlightenment? Why such resistance on your end?

      Let me reassure you that I observed so much honor and respect in that space, to the cultures and masters that paved the path for us to walk today.

      We are all one and there is no separation… I would encourage you to go deeper within yourself for answers rather than externalize your feelings of frustration and anger on people you do not know. Peace and light to you on your path.

      • ceeza

        wow can’t believe you pulled this passive aggressive bull. you’re still the lone brown girl occupying the space of a bunch of privileged white ppl taking or appropriating from brown and black culture. i don’t care how “conscious” they are. if you think its helping yourself personally then cool but don’t act like this isn’t superficiality masked as spirituality.

        • Nat Kelley

          I love you “Ceeza” – if you are one of these poor black or brown people who cannot afford tea. Please let me know and I would be happy to set you up with some.
          x

          • ceeza

            lol. you’re a very passive aggressive selfish mean girl for someone who preaches this pseudo spirituality free love bull. i don’t want you to buy me anything. there are more important things going on in the world then tea. but you know what? if tea, performing for white ppl and pseudo spirituality is all you have to offer how about you organize an excursion for unprivileged kids in your area. how about that? how about you do something for someone else for a change instead of performing for the white gaze all the time.

          • Nat Kelley

            Why are you so resistant to the idea that I could possibly love you and all the ways in which you challenge me? Do you frustrate me enormously? Yes. Does this mean I hate you? No.

            I’m curious how you even found my blog and how much you know about me. Because if knew me well, you would know that I have “organized excursions for underprivileged kids” since I was a teenager. First in Brazil, then working with indigenous youth in Australia. This is just a tiny bit of background on my life, I don’t feel the need to give you an exhaustive defense of the way I live my life and the things I have done to “help” people. Actually this concept of “helping” people is a White Privileged Way of looking at the world. It implies a separation, that one is ‘better’ than the other.

            Maybe when I was young and naive I thought about the world this way and would pat myself on the back for ‘helping’. But now I seek to live every day of my life without the need to separate ‘good deeds’ from the rest of my day. This means that I am loving people (ALL people, including yourself) in all my daily choices. I think carefully about what I eat and wear, mindful that these choices trickle down and effect the most vulnerable of us all over the globe. When I am in abundance I sponsor younger sisters to attend life changing workshops, right now I am figuring out a way to raise money for my friends in Cuba to have a little bicycle business – there are SO many ways I think about other people in the way that I live. I am definitely not perfect but one thing you cannot say is that I am not mindful of others. Its absurd that you would make that assumption from a blog post about Tea and Zen.

            The deeper question is: Why are you so triggered by the way I live my life? Why do you think yourself to be better than people you don’t even know? If you are so stoked on “helping people” and the lives of “brown and black” people – aren’t there a million better uses of your time than commenting on my blog?

            Go get out there and DO SOMETHING! Its easy to hide behind your computer screen and judge, way harder to make hard choices needed in order to make this world a better place. Go boycott something, protest against the corporations that are killing brown and black people every day through the raping of our natural resources! It will make you feel a whole lot more useful than trolling some girl’s website.

            Let me know if you want tea. I am serious. It is life changing.

            Peace

          • ceeza

            helping people is a white privileged way of thinking of the world? what the F. you’ve lost youre mind. who cares what you eat or wear. white privilege is going to burning man not helping ppl. its all waste non consciousness its white ppl entertainment. its a silly rave, that i don’t care about go have you’re fun, where thousands of cars drip oil and structures are built that don’t need to be there. they sell tickets that cost as much as a trip to hawaii. how many bikes could that buy? you’re going on vacation just say it. its capitalism at its finest. bet you don’t pick up a trash bag and pick up trash while you’re taking nude selfies on the beach. you’re not trickling down your thinking about yourself. you can eat meat and think about others you can buy from certain companies and think about others. its all the hypocrisy that triggered me. go have your fun just don’t preach this love bull while not living it. just another average pretty selfish girl. love you.

          • Nat Kelley

            I actually ALWAYS pick up trash on the beach, with and without clothes!! :) :) :) “Ceeza”, I’m sorry my existence is causing you so much stress. Let’s agree to end this here. You are free to unfollow me and never check my blog again. I won’t be offended. May you be safe and happy. Xxxx

          • ceeza

            i edited and deleted the clothes part because that was sexist. you owe me nothing but you are putting thoughts out publicly and sometimes that means public push back. especially if someone earnestly asked why their culture is being appropriated and you treat it so flippantly. sorry if my words came out harsh but they’re honest. still out of all my words its the clothing that you chose to address? not the hypocrisy not the waste not the appropriation? be well.

  • Seraya

    Very intriguing and inspiring. Having participated in meditation retreats myself, I am delighted to read what you have learned on your journey. It’s amazing and beautiful. Much love.

  • Seraya

    Very intriguing and inspiring. Having participated in meditation retreats, I am delighted to read what you have learned on your journey. It’s amazing and beautiful. Much love.

  • Trevor Hodgkins

    You are the most beautiful person i have ever gazed upon you are true beauty and it is really cool how you travel around and do this keep it up.

  • Kayla

    I would love to learn more about cha dao and if you know of any upcoming workshops or retreats that I could attend that would be amazing