sri lanka train tea


By Tyler Lewke

Chanting from the temple next door woke me up ridiculously early.

We’d been traveling for days and I was desperate for a break. It was summer of 2014 and I was spending July in Sri Lanka when it’s sticky-gross hot. I stumbled to the van to learn that our destination was way up in the mountains and required hard core traveling by train, van and foot via roads that looked like war. I decided this was my moment to bail. Overwhelmed by exhaustion and unsure I could brave another hard core day had me surrendering even though the bungalow we stayed in sucked almost as bad as my exhaustion.

I took the monk aside and announced that I wanted to skip, that I’d find a way to meet up at our next destination. He demanded I buck up and get ready, “I have an important lesson for you waiting at the top of the mountain.”

Every inch of the day was only possible because of his dangling wisdom lesson that was sure to change everything. I’m a sucker for all things extreme.

We traveled by train half the day through tea plantations and villages that blew my mind. The train was a royal blue with more than a hint of rust, and this wouldn’t be remarkable if not traversing through the most Ireland-green mountainside I’d ever seen. From my window I looked out at depths of poverty and the majesty of our world. Seeing them so intertwined in the same moment was mind blowing and perfect.

Rolling past rail-side villages where people brave hard in a big way, I was reminded of our abundance and how profoundly diverse our world is. I thought about my own abundance, extreme beyond comprehension in comparison to this crop of humanity.

I peered deeply into the people’s faces and saw a beauty in their efforts that humbled me beyond words. An ancient woman stood at one rail crossing, her arms crossed, her gaze piercing and intent. She wore layers of fabric that contained every color my eyes had ever seen. A basket balanced perfectly on her head, and as we came to a stop she exchanged fruit and nuts from her basket for rupees or well wishes, depending—lack of money is not a roadblock in her business, her compassion is bigger than that.

I took a picture of her that hangs next to me in my office so that I can be reminded to practice her level of compassion in all my affairs. 

We traveled for what literally felt like a lifetime. A train load of humanity. Families and workers alike all focused on getting to the tea plantations so they can earn a living and produce a product for the world. I watched the families be with each other. Share food. Laugh. Connect. Nobody was texting or wearing headphones. They were listening to each other and smiling to the world.

I was exhausted and emotionally spent yet intimately aware of the emotions filling me as I witnessed a range of pure humility and grace beyond words. The contrast from their lives to mine, the realization of what went in to a simple cup of tea, the suffering and sacrifice people make to deliver what appears to be such a simple product. I still can’t reconcile it. I shut my eyes now and see their blisters from sun, sweat and extraordinary effort. The impact permeates all of me like a single beet thrown into a green smoothie.

My self-centered desire to see whatever the monk had to show me was the only thing that kept me going. I didn’t prepare for a year and travel around the world not to get every single deep spiritual lesson available to me. No matter how tired, his promise fueled me.

We climbed 6,300 feet up to the very top of Lipton’s Seat, and as we overlooked the tea plantations, mountain ranges and endless blue I waited for my lesson. I follow the monk up the final footpath to the very top lookout. He hands me a hot cup, “Upasaka, I’ve brought you all the way here to teach you how to drink a cup of tea.”

As we sipped our tea up on Lipton’s Seat and looked out over the world, the wind blew the monks robes so fiercely I thought he was going to parasail away.  I grabbed on to him from behind and locked my feet into the fence, protecting us from the edge. He’s so tiny that I could easily crush him. I felt proud for a moment, like I was keeping him safe.

“We must protect our minds like you are protecting my body right now,” he said quietly.

“Monk, you really brought me all the way up here to reinforce the importance of compassion, mindfulness and meditation and are using tea as the teacher?”

“I guess there are other ways, but I am a simple monk.”


Tyler LewkeTyler Lewke is brutally irreverent, often way too direct and it gets him in trouble. He’s an optimistic pessimist, a grateful dad and friend, a hardcore capitalist, and a deep-seeking mindful and compassionate guy who’s most inspired by helping people through the bullshit parts of religion and spirituality to define a life of joy and contemplative service to others.

Tyler was born months before the official end of the Vietnam War on the Campus of Washington State University to a hippy mom and a heady scientist dad with an IQ that rivals Einstein… a combo that has left him totally out of place in the mainstream.

Tyler lives in the sky in downtown Chicago, in a 100 year-old bungalow in suburban Illinois and from his backpack as he explores the world. He teaches meditation and mindful leadership, has written as a form of art and spiritual practice every day for as long as he can remember. He shares his personal stories of integrating a spiritual life into a daily mainstream existence through his daily blog where he posts his raw, firsthand joys and struggles of trying to practice these mindful principles in all his affairs. Tyler thinks we all have only one real job, to add more love to the world.


Editor: Alicia Wozniak

Photo: (source)