Well over a year ago, in early September 2015, I listened to an episode of the Rich Roll podcast and was quickly drawn into the conversation. The guest was a man named Wu De and I was captivated by the simplicity, vulnerability, humor, calmness and the earthly wisdom in their talk.
“If you don’t have the ability to celebrate what you have now, nothing you get—and I mean nothing; nothing material, nothing experiential, no amount information, no amount of experience, no amount of material possessions—is going to teach you how to celebrate.”
The podcast was one of the top podcasts of 2015 for me. At the time, I was a novice to the art of tea. Tea was still to become a daily sacred moment and way to cultivate empty space through the ancient ritualistic way of preparing, serving and drinking the simple plant for me.
However two friends and co-workers, who had already touched the world around tea and zen in greater depth, introduced me to tea ceremonies and the power of drinking some living tea at work during a break.
I really enjoyed the mindfulness part of the tea ceremonies, from the serving process to emptying the cup zip by zip, whenever I randomly took part of one of the events run by people who had studied with Wu De. It was sort of an extension of and a new perspective into my mediation practice, reminding me of a great quote by Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:
„To be mindful is to be fully present with whatever we are doing. If you are drinking tea, just drink your tea. Do not drink your worries, your projects, your regrets. When you hold your cup, you may like to breathe in, to bring your mind back to your body, stop your thinking, and become fully present. In that moment, you become real and the cup of tea becomes real. In this state of true presence and freedom you enjoy simply drinking your tea“.
So, when Rivo walked into work in early spring of this year and announced, hey you know this Wu De guy from that Rich Roll podcast last year is coming to Europe for a retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees in October and we should go, I did not have to think for too long. I was all in! I paid the reservation and before I knew it, it was October and we were on our way from Tallinn to Barcelona, and from there a 300 km Taxi ride to Casa Cuadrau in the small village of Vio to drink tea, meditate, hike in the mountains and just be.
I have been on a fair share of different retreats over the years and this was one of the first ones I signed up for with very little expectations. Rivo and Signe took care of all the flight planning, hotel bookings, etc. I was simply curious to see and hear the man from that podcast a year earlier, create space in my mind and see the Spanish mountains. I never expected when signing up for it that I really needed that break! With work and Tristan’s new school routine, life had just gotten a little too busy in my mind and it was a perfect moment to cultivate more space between my thoughts.
The retreat itself drew people from all over the world. All the way from Panama to Canada. Amazing people and I am so grateful for the chance to have shared these seven days with them.
Our days were quite simple. We got up before six in the mornings and went to bed after nine in the evenings.
There were five to seven meditation sessions, tea sessions, bowl tea brewing classes and also evening discourses, where Wu De shared his knowledge related to tea and Zen, answered questions shared his life and perspectives from different walks of life.
Wu De (Aaron Fisher), was born and raised in Ohio, studied Asian Philosophy and Anthropology and during his freshman year, got at one point into tea and meditation. For the last 20 years he has lived in Asia and has studied under different teachers, like S.N. Goenka (the man behind the popular ten-day Vipassana retreats), as well as different Zen teachers, who often used tea ceremonies as a way of conveying Zen wisdom.
Wu De has also written several books on tea and Zen. He currently runs a print magazine called Global Tea Hut, a tea centre in Taiwan and also leads tea workshops, seminars and retreats around the world.
Through yoga I have seen „mystic“ yogis, who at times give the impression, that they have all the answers and are somewhat superhuman. What impressed me about Wu De is his humanity. He struck me as a human who is not trying to be some overly spiritual being out of the world that rest of us operate in daily. He was clear about his knowledge and sincerely honest, also saying when he didn’t have answers. The experience of him reminded me of an Alan Watts lecture where he described his first encounter with Zen masters in Japan and was surprised to find that they were as human as he was with their up and down moments.
I am clearly not the right person to discuss the philosophy of Zen. All the books I have read and lectures I have heard on it have only allowed me to scratch the surface. Zen is something that you can not put into words. It is not a dogma, religion or a set of beliefs, rather it is something you have to experience. It is about the transformation of consciousness, the way you experience your own existence.
“Zen means that if you are looking about for certain states of mind or miraculous teachers, take a break and have some tea.” -Wu De
Over the years, I have learned that no retreat, course or training gives you true value to grow if you do not make changes after getting back into your daily routine. All that high spirits and awe will fade. Without new habits and an adapted mindset, nothing but this past experience remains.
The retreat reminded me that there is great power in daily sacred moments. We can choose to experience and notice these moments. We can also cultivate these moments to be part of our daily routines.
It is now close to two months since the trip to Spain, so it is a good time to look back. To see what I still find important and share my thoughts with some new perspectives.
Creating space – I keep realizing that creating space is one of the most important things in my life. I usually rediscover it, when there is not a lot of space – neither in my mind nor in my physical world. When we create space in our mind, we create peace and balance. Also when we create space in our physical world, there is more space in our mind.
Creating space also creates freedom. Retired Navy Seal Jocko Willink once said that discipline is freedom. Real freedom comes in the form of discipline. I’m getting to understand this more and more. Having no discipline is not freedom. Having discipline gives freedom, allows to create space, and with that, we open doors for the things we don’t even know about yet.
Being mindful – It really surprised me when Wu De said that mindfulness is not the most important thing. It is respect or a better word for it is reverence. If we have respect, then we are also mindful of the people around us, events, places and even things. Simply put, it is about honoring and respecting the guest and occasion. If we do that, then we are also mindful.
Mindfulness, respect and reverence tie into one of the fundamental understandings of Zen: Doing things for the good of all beings. After long conversations Wu De would often say: “Do the right thing. Don’t be a jerk.” It hit me very hard at times to acknowledge my own jerk-like behaviour in certain moments.
„No Big Deal Me“ – It is a short phrase that I heard many times during the retreat. It is about becoming aware that there is more than the “I” and the “self”. Life is not always and only about you! Often our internal talk takes us down that road. We all do the self-talk but it is not healthy. I used to do it and still do at times (about myself and others), and I have been with people who continuously do it. Tune it down! Stop it altogether! A complaining mind is a draining mind.
Same goes for frozen or rigid opinions. Drop them and have no expectations. I know it is hard – focus on being open instead. Be present. With too much “I” in the picture, you cannot be at peace. Less self, more happiness! That does not mean you should not take care of yourself. You are the change. Your habits and actions make the change and these should be more about the greater good, not entirely your own well being.
Growth – Growth is in the valley not on the top. Suffering is productive and discomfort is always there – embrace it. As a Zen saying goes: “Obstacle is the path.” I have it on my door, clearly visible when leaving the house in the morning. That obstacle is the source for growth. Don’t orientate towards your comfort zone!
Obstacles, discomfort and suffering build wisdom, empathy, understanding, compassion and knowledge. Staying in the comfort zone for too long is nothing but stagnation. Face what is coming with courage, take risks and don’t choose what is easy. Be ready to make sacrifices. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – have faith!
Creating your life! – Look at life as it is – not how you want it (remember: expectations). That does not mean passiveness and accepting everything. How you relate to issues that life puts in front of you is the only issue. You can alway change your perspective. Embrace life and cultivate a beginner’s mind! Kids are masters at this. Be curious, don’t stop wondering. Learn, always.
“Advanced skills are the basic skills mastered.” – Wu De
All too often we are tempted to linger in the past, reliving old experiences. Experience happens now! Too much rumination and you will miss it! If you want change, then you need to change. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. Walk with a light step, start simple. Don’t take life too seriously. Life is not something you have to figure out, it is a big paradox. Meaning can be found in every action without always seeing the full picture. Stop living in delusion! Live so you have no regrets – time is precious.
Being in the present moment! It is simple, you either are in the present moment or you are not.
Now, looking back on the practice, being a more thoroughly initiated tea drinker, I have a much better understanding of the three legs of a zen practice. First: great faith; second: great doubt; third: great determination.
Wu De also gave us a homework! For a week, every morning, we were to take time and start the day with three bowls of tea! “Just you and the tea. One flavor!”
I have continued on. It takes me about 20-25 minutes to drink these three to four bowls. Sometimes Tristan gets up a little earlier and joins me.
Usually, after finishing the third or fourth bowl, I meditate another 10-15 minutes, which roughly means I have about 45 minutes of ‘me time’ to create space to get the day started with a fresh and open mind. I would love to say that it is just me and the bowl of tea. To be honest it is usually me, the bowl of tea and random thoughts. At times the space between thoughts is blissfully long and at times, well… the thoughts are quite busy, but with continuing practice I notice more and more that I am the observer and these thoughts are not me, these thoughts are objects, just like the garbage truck that arrives every morning at seven o’clock sharp. I have a choice how I observe these rising thoughts and what I do with them. Sometimes these thoughts are just brilliant to me and give some new insights into whatever I am working on or what is coming.
“Victory over thoughts is really a victory over all limitations, weakness, ignorance and death. The inner war with the mind is more terrible than the outer war with the machine-guns. Conquest of thoughts is more difficult than the conquest of the world by the force of arms. Conquer your thoughts and you will conquer the world.” -Swami Sivananda
Thank you, Wu De, for the time shared and the deep love for the retreat and everyone involved. I am sure we will meet soon again. If not sooner, surely next summer/fall in Estonia. Dani, you have built an amazing center and your insights on the surrounding nature on our hiking trips fit the overall theme of the retreat very well. Carla, you made the whole arrival so welcoming and the warmth lasted until the final day. Antonio, thank you for humbly supporting our daily classes. Karma yogis, I miss the amazing plant-based food and all your helpful smiles. Very few words and so much understanding.
And to all the fellow retreaters, I could have never imagined meeting so many awesome people on such a short trip. Time together, time after the retreat in Barcelona (thanks Felix for letting us crash at your place) and all the continuous interactions technology makes possible.
“To be Zen, truly, is to be Zenless.” – Wu De
–Zen & Tea One Flavor by Wu De
–The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea by William Scott Wilson
–The Way of Tea – Reflections on a Life with Tea by Wu De
–The Way of Zen by Alan Watts