On Wednesday nights, I run down the street in a long, black robe, invariably late for Zen practice. On Sunday mornings, I run down the same street in a different black robe, invariably late for High Mass. There's a lot of ritual in my life, including tea ritual. How much of it is useful? What on earth does it mean anyway?
The university here is old, and it's always been packed with the strange rituals that you'd expect to accumulate over long periods of time. It dates back to a little after the Norman conquest of England, some time around 1090 a.d., and has always been a religious institution - it's primary function for the majority of existence was to train clergy for a life of service to the Church. Up until the Reformation in 1536, that meant the Roman Catholic church. After that, it meant the national church, the Church of England (a.k.a. "the Episcopal Church" in the U.S.A.).
In fact, up until 1880, you could only join the university if you were a communicant of the Church of England, and had to swear an oath of allegiance on the Book of Common Prayer during matriculation. It's still illegal for the Queen to marry a Roman Catholic, which seems rather at odds with our supposedly egalitarian and ecumenical society.
Even though these days you can be Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindi, Atheist, or Pastafarean and still join the university, the religious undercurrent remains strong. Almost all of the 44 Colleges and Halls have their own chapel, chaplains, and choir, with the larger colleges celebrating Mass every morning, and singing Evensong every night. That's a lot of communion wine...
Every year, a sizeable proportion of the new intake of Freshers end up at some chapel or other. There's a lot of ritual to learn, as the university tends to be a bit more rigorous than we'd typically see at school. Bow here, kneel there, nod there. Sing in Latin (unigenite does not rhyme with anything), sing in Greek. It's all very confusing to the newcomer - I remember it well, being in the same situation and behaving the same way, and I recognise the familiar expression of mild confusion and determination on the faces of every new student.
Everyone learns the ritual, but how many students finds out what that ritual means? If it has no meaning, why are we doing it?
Some of the good chaplains teach the meaning of the ritual to the new students, but most are left to pick it up themselves. Being a stubborn type, not given to expending effort without reason, I try to learn the meanings of these things. If I'm supposed to be down on one knee as I first approach the altar at High Mass, I want to know why. If I'm supposed to sit in zazen with my left hand uppermost and my right hand lowermost, thumbs touching, I want to know why. If I'm pouring tea into an aroma cup before the tasting cup, it's got to be for a reason.
Each part of the ritual in the High Mass, and in zazen, is an expression of something on the inside. If we bow at the altar in High Mass, it's to express respect and adoration for something that we respect and adore (in the literal sense). If we have our thumbs touching in zazen, it's so that we can ensure a state of mindfulness. If we pour tea into a tall thin cup to smell the aroma, it's because the aroma can more easily be ascertained from something with that shape and evaporative quality.
This (eventually) brings me to the point of all this verbosity: blindly following ritual without questioning it is dangerous.
At Mass, the Freshers are learning the ritual to fit in. They don't want to look as if they don't know what they're doing. They want acceptance. At zazen, it's the same. In performing gongfucha, it's the same. I did this; maybe you did, too. We assume that the ritual is right because we have imbued the people that are telling us about it with some kind of authority, whether or not that authority is deserved, or justified.
I remember reading a tea web-site that told me the optimal brewing time was the time taken for the water to evaporate from the outside of the teapot. Without questioning it, I brewed tea like that for a week or so. My tea tasted awful. I pushed on, because I had unconsciously given that tea web-site some authority in my mind - they couldn't be wrong, they'd been writing for ages! Weeks later, I finally questioned it, varied the parameters according to my own observation, and got some better brews.
It happened all the time. I would go from one seemingly authorative web-site to another, picking up ritual quite blindly, trying to find out the "right way" to perform gongfucha. I had to have certain shapes of teapot for every micro-variety of tea. I had to use X grams of leaf for Y millilitres of water. I had to use water heated to Z degrees. Surely, these authorities knew the "right way" for gongfucha, and I had to learn it.
After many weeks, I started to drop these bad habits, as I began to question more and more the authority that I had given these sources. That's not to say that they were wrong, but simply that I was taking them far too literally, and simply trying to find that "right way".
There is no "right way". Not in gongfucha, not in High Mass, not in zazen, not in writing that essay, not in validating that theorem, not in making par on that tricky 18th hole.
Doing it wrong is very beneficial, oddly enough, because it enables us to find out better ways of doing it ourselves. In Zen, it is said that "delusion is valuable, it is like ice - the more delusion we have, the more obvious the effect when it is melted." The more howlingly bad our tea is when we follow some authority's "right way", the more obvious it is when we find that particular method that works for us.
Zen monks approved to teach do not say, "Listen to me, I can make you achieve state XYZ." Priests in chapel do not say, "I can make you feel the presence of God." The golf coach does not say, "Follow my words and you'll hit a hole-in-one." The professor does not say, "I will describe to you how to create a new important theory." They are just fingers pointing at the moon, signposts to a goal which we can only reach on our own. They may have reached that goal themselves, and so their opinions may be worth heeding - but these are just opinions. There is no right way - not to God, not to making par, not to making a decent brew.
This is why gongfucha is so vital, I think. It is unprescribed - and unproscribed. Nothing is ruled out. Nothing is set in stone. Occasionally, we will come across a poetic series of steps for making tea, usually written in a series of four Chinese characters per step - but there is no standard, no benchmark, no right way. The quality of the result is itself the ultimate arbiter.
So, just make tea. Make lots and lots and lots of tea, and find out what's best for you. Your tastes will change as you drink more, and so your method will change to suit those tastes. Who can tell you how to make that perfect cup?
Next time you read an article about making the tea leaves rotate anticlockwise, or how your teapot has to be egg-shaped, or how your kettle has to be constructed and heated, remember - these are just opinions. These are opinions being reported by people who have found out what works for them. They're not the "right way".
Take what works,
Change what doesn't.
Take what works,
Change what doesn't.