Sister Wisdom’s Cup of Tea

by Sara Swenson

The image shows a brass incense cantor, red apple, sliced fruit on a white plate, and two china cups filled with tea, set in a circle on a black tabletop

The image shows a brass incense cantor, red apple, sliced fruit on a white plate, and two china cups filled with tea, set in a circle on a black tabletop

January 1, 2018

I have recently undertaken a research project alongside one of my monastic friends, Sister Wisdom. Originally, she wanted to help me understand more about the origins of Buddhist teachings, and the differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist philosophies. Shortly after our project started, however, Sister Wisdom was contacted by another monastic friend of hers, who is doing research for a graduate degree in Buddhist Studies overseas. Her friend has been working day and night to translate English Buddhist studies texts into Vietnamese so that the can then translate them into Chinese to cite them for her thesis. Sister Wisdom asked me to write and translate several chapter summaries from a Buddhist Studies text book, Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations to assist her friend.

Our project demonstrates how Buddhism is ever-evolving across international borders. While many Buddhist studies scholars come to countries in Asia to find sources perceived as ancient and authentic, here my monastic friends were reading textbooks written by scholars in the USA and Europe perceived as well-researched and authenticated. Perhaps Buddhism is something that happens beyond these two types of sources, and is, instead, something much more embedded in local, daily practices.

Even this thought isn’t completely mine, but an unexpected lesson from my monastic friends. On Monday morning, Sister Wisdom agreed to meet at my apartment to discuss the Mahayana philosophy of Trikaya – the idea that Buddha has three kaya or “bodies” that exist in various physical and metaphysical realms. I woke up very early to prepare and was still reviewing the textbook she had loaned me when she knocked on my door. I opened it to find this tiny, delicate woman in her flowing blue robes wielding a heavy box and two bags, which she had hauled to my flat by motorbike.

“Ngai Noodles!” She exclaimed, unpacking bulging bags of soup, noodles, and greens. She prompted me to boil water, and then unpacked the other bag: a fragile china tea set, two cups, green tea, apples, clementines, and an incense cantor.

“What’s all this?” I asked, anxious to get to my page full of questions to discuss.

“We will drink tea to celebrate the New Year in your country,” she told me.

“Do Vietnamese people drink tea during Tet [the Lunar New Year]?” I asked, unaware of the tradition.

“It is a Buddhist practice,” she responded indirectly. She showed me the precious tea she had been gifted from a monastic friend of hers, then carefully poured boiling water over the pot and cups to warm them before filling the cups to the brim. She lit the incense and explained it helped her to focus. She often kept the brass cantor on her desk while she was studying. I sat on my couch, in front of my papers, prepared to do the same.

“Can we sit here?” She asked, indicating the floor. I left my papers and we moved the end table to sit in the middle of the room. She demonstrated for me how to balance the cups between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. We drank so quietly I could hear us swallowing. The tea was exquisitely bitter.

“How many sips in a cup of tea?” She asked playfully. I paused to think.


“The same as me!” Sister Wisdom chimed, refilling our cups. We drank again, and this time I paid attention to the number of sips. She watched me with insightfully kind eyes that made me understand why she had been given her monastic name. “That is mindfulness,” she said simply.

“Is that why this is a Buddhist practice?” She didn’t answer, but prompted me to take some fruit slices. I asked for a photograph of the table and she helped me rearrange for a more beautiful picture. We chatted for awhile and she instructed me on how to warm up the Ngai noddles for lunch before I realized we both had meetings to attend.

“We forgot to discuss the chapter!” I slapped a hand to my forehead, glancing regretfully toward my stack of papers and textbooks. She smiled knowingly and answered, “We can study books, and philosophy, and history, and that is very important. However, the most important thing is to practice.”

“Practice is also important,” I agreed.

“Practice is the most important,” she corrected me, gently.

Her lesson finally dawned on me. When she agreed to come discuss Buddhist philosophy, Sister Wisdom felt that we had shifted much of our focus to ideas and theories, without remembering the self-application. That is why she had hauled a dainty, fragile tea set on a motorcycle through Saigon’s morning rush hour to my house. Sister Wisdom had come to remind me that, Buddhism, at the end of the day, is a set of practices and a way of orienting oneself to the world, even more so than it is a set of ideas.

 We can study Buddhist texts until we intimately know the turns of a Sanskrit phrase, but until we understand how Buddhism affects people’s daily lives, choices, behaviors, and feelings, we may be missing the most important part. This is why I love being part of the ethnographic branch of Buddhist studies. Through ethnography, I can share stories precisely like Sister Wisdom’s, which demonstrate the often overlooked value of practice for Vietnamese monastics and beyond.

Contact Information

Sara Swenson