TeaFestPDX 2023: Finding Meaning in a Cup of Tea

Tea enthusiasts of all ages flocked to Portland’s annual tea festival, TeaFestPDX, on July 15th to find tea leaves, tea wares, books, and educational events. The full-day festival, inspired by the Northwest Tea Festival in Seattle, has a vision “of celebrating tea culture in Portland” and brings over 50 vendors and 30 workshops.

TeaFestPDX was a fantastic spot to obtain wares and tea and also to learn about the countless types of tea and tea cultures. All kinds of tea were available, from chai to matcha to oolong to pu-er to yerba mate to caterpillar poop tea (yes, you read right) and herbal teas. The event was also an excellent way to learn about local tea houses and tea vendors, as well as shop from businesses visiting from other states. Each participant was gifted a lovely small ceramic teacup to taste test the mind-boggling variety of teas available at the event. In addition, for those seeking a more meaningful relationship with tea, there were vendors and workshops that invited attendees to find sacredness through old (or new) tea rituals.

Since its inception, tea has been connected to spiritual practices, with the earliest records of tea drinking in China and India related to monks consuming tea to enhance their attentiveness during meditation. Nowadays, the consumption of tea occurs in a wide variety of venues and situations, from tea pouring ceremonies at traditional Chinese weddings to making a quick cup of tea at work. Yet, even in the more utilitarian modes of tea drinking, there is an opportunity to turn a routine into a ritual, however small. One of the vendors, Via Tiempo, has a booklet with wisdom about tea rituals and makes a helpful distinction from routines. While “routine looks to the past to repeat a form in order to get an expected result”, a ritual similarly “reaches into the past to repeat a form, but it is specifically used to open up a space for an unexpected result.” In a way, the rituals open up the mind and the senses to the ever-changing aspects of reality.

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Some of the workshops helped attendees connect with traditional tea rituals, such as the “Chinese Tea Ceremony Experience,” the “Wu Wo Tea Ceremony,” and the “Daoist Gongfu Tea Ceremony” workshops. In the same vein, there were also vendors with traditional tea wares and books about the traditional philosophical and spiritual dimensions of tea. Examples of these books include The One Taste of Truth : Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea by William Scott Wilson, Cha Dao and Tea Mind Tea Heart by Solala Towler, and The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea by Aaron Fisher. TeaZen, a private teahouse in southeast Portland, hosted the “Chinese Tea Ceremony Experience” workshop, guiding participants to use all of their senses to interact with the tea. It was on the formal side and felt a bit scripted, but nevertheless it brought slowness and intentionality to the practice. The “Daoist Gongfu Tea Ceremony,” led by Solala Towler, was an insightful introduction to the Daoist mindset one can cultivate through an intentional tea practice. In Daoist tradition, drinking tea is a way to engage all the senses, as well as to practice grace and openness while connecting with your authentic self, your environment, and others. Fancy wares and expensive teas are not required to have a meaningful relationship to your tea ritual. As a wise man once said, “A low quality tea offered with the right intention is preferable to a high grade tea with the wrong intention.”

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In addition to the education around traditional tea rituals, the festival also offered ways to engage in new rituals of your own design. This included workshops such as “Making Tea Ritual Your Own,” “Tea and Relaxation,” and “Making Tea Tins,” as well as organizations like Via Tiempo, Tea Curious, and The Empty Tea Cup. While these organizations offer different ways to connect with one’s tea practice, ranging from seasonal tea deliveries to mindful tea gatherings, they all share the belief that tea can help usher in a more gentle, contemplative approach towards life.

Overall, TeaFestPDX is a delightful weekend activity for a tea enthusiast, and there are exciting opportunities for the event to grow and transform in future years. One thing that would have made the event even better is if the workshops were held in separate rooms instead of all being held concurrently in one large event space. The workshops were quite popular, and many were sold out in advance of the event, especially the free ones, so the interest in engaging more deeply with tea culture is there. Future festivals might also consider exploring tea cultures in various countries and incorporating other activities associated with tea rituals like calligraphy, flower arranging, and meditation. I for one will be eagerly awaiting the next iteration of this festival. Until then, keep calm and drink tea.

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