Homo Camellia Sinensis

On several occasions my wife has told me that she’s not a tea person—a categorical assertion which I must say leaves me quite breathless. Yet when I make a particularly interesting tea I feel compelled to offer her a taste; I just can’t help myself. She never refuses—she takes a few sips, and being a great cook, offers precise and highly perceptive comments. It’s always fascinating to hear her reactions to an infusion because compared to mine, her senses are downright bionic, but she never asks for more than those few sips, and she never says anything like, “Oh, you’re making an Oolong, can I have some?” Well, why in the world would she, not being a tea person, after all?

I know several people who do not eat meat, but I haven’t ever heard them say, “I’m not a meat person.” I’ve heard people say that they are or are not a cat or a dog person, a night or a day person, even a computer person. but it always sounds so fixed to me, as though it is in the DNA, and you either do or do not have the dog/cat/day/night/computer/tea gene.

Apparently dog/cat/day/night/computer/tea people love their dogs/cats/days/nights/computers/teas enough to self-identity as being that sort of person. Curiously, loving vegetables isn’t enough to qualify as a vegetarian, which is probably why they don’t go around saying, “I’m a vegetable person.” A good thing, too, because that sounds like someone with brain damage.

I suppose I really am a dog/cat/day/night/computer/tea person, but I would never put it that way, and I have to admit that being both a day and a night person does make for difficulties; both in living and identity. Being a tea person in the U.S.A. is also difficult these days because there is a political movement popularly called the Tea Party, with which I do not self-identify, I’m not going to get into it. Suffice it to say the Tea Party it has nothing at all to do with tea. I guess that makes me someone who self-identifies as a not-comfortable-self-identifying-as-being-a-whatever-person person, and for obvious reasons, I’m not very comfortable with that.

I’m probably going on like this because I wish my wife shared my tea obsession. Tea does that to people; it makes us obsessed in a congenial sort of way (coffee and alcohol do too, but they are not without their dark side); tea seems to have a luminous nature of its own that gives rise to a kind of quiet evangelism. Apparently tea is now the most consumed beverage in the world, after water. I predict that in time the margin between tea and whatever came in third (beer, actually) will only grow. Tea is sneaky that way.

A while ago I had a minor confrontation of sorts with a co-worker which ended with each of us feeling raw and misunderstood. It was uncomfortable and awkward and I wasn’t sure what to do. After spending ten minutes at my desk, simmering, I made a small pitcher of tea, walked over, and offered him some. In retrospect, this was a no-brainer seeing as how he is a tea person, but I was feeling pretty annoyed at the time, and my usual inclination would have been to stay away. When he saw me approaching, he picked up his empty cup and held it out, looking at me with relieved sort of smile which was utterly disarming. I don’t think coffee could do that anywhere near so readily, and even though the whole episode sounds like a sentimental cola commercial, I don’t think a cola drink would lend itself so well, either.

Here’s an excerpt from Lu Yu’s The Book of Tea (written in 780 CE); he is excerpting yet another book, Rebellion of the Four Princes (Si Wang Qi Shi), a Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE) history book:

“When the fourth prince of the Jin revolted, Emperor Huidi fled away to escape the calamity. When he eventually made his return to the capital of Luoyang, dirty and thirsty from the trudge, the guard at the imperial court welcomed his majesty with tea in an earthen bowl.”

I can’t figure out which Emperor Huidi is being referred to, but whichever it was, I just bet that that was one hell of a great cup of tea.

Apparently there are many Chinese traditions and customs involving tea as a means of facilitating such things as showing respect, saying thank you, welcoming visitors, and making apologies; you can read about some of the here. The only other beverages I’ve known to have such resonance all have alcohol in them, but I think that tea is more powerful in many ways. Drinking tea can be more than symbolic—the tea itself can be a contributor, it can change you; tea has a lot of soul.

Have Some Tea

There is a famous story about two traveling monks visiting a zen monastery. The abbot of the monastery asks both of them, “Have you ever been here before?”  One monk, the older of the two, says that yes, he has, and the abbot replies, “Have some tea.” The other monk, quite young, answers no, he hasn’t and the abbot replies, “Have some tea.”

A senior monk standing by wonders about this and asks the abbot, “Why do you say the same thing to a novice that you say to the spiritually accomplished elder monk? ” To which the abbot replies, “Have some tea.”

 

 

 

Tea Club Log: 6/18/12

Deep Tea Group

Photo of tea in glass by Jules Ambouroue

I have been looking for an aroma cup that has more capacity than usual (if you are not familiar with aroma cups, I’ll be posting an appreciation of this brilliant but rather small device soon). I was thinking of something like a scaled-down brandy snifter and I found this whiskey glass on Amazon. Then my wife recalled that we had some identical glasses that had come packaged with a bottle of scotch. Looking at them, they have some of the features I want, so I did a quick test with boiling water to be sure they could handle the heat, and they seemed fine. I showed them to the group and made them available if anyone wanted to try them out.

Stolzle Glencairn Whiskey Glass

 

We began this week’s session with five minutes of stillness to help us relax and focus our thoughts. Then we had half an hour of quiet brewing, tasting, and making notes.

The tea for this session was a yellow tea from Seven Cups
Jun Shan Yin Zhen Organic Yellow Tea

As we began this session, I realized that although we had two electric kettles on the table, both of which were designed to heat the water to boiling and then shut off. This is great for oolongs and pu’erhs, but for yellow tea we needed the water to be cooler; so I emptied two water pitchers and poured the just boiled water back and forth between them a few times, and that was what everyone used. No thermometer, but when I’ve checked with a thermometer this produces water very close to 180° F, which I’m finding is likely a good temperature for any low oxidized tea.

I recalled a recommendation from Dae Yoo, of The Mandarin’s Tea Room. We were talking about brewing Long Jin (Dragonwell) and she suggested waking the leaves with a quick rinse of boiling water, then infusing them with cooler water. I mentioned the technique to the group and everyone tried it, so we had one kettle of boiling water, and one of water that had been cooled, which seemed to work fine with this yellow tea.

I provided the latest versioin of our tasting notes sheet, this one with places to identify the main elements, plus a grid for notes on each infusion. Mainly it is one large, blank area labeled ‘Notes’.

As we settled in, each with their own gaiwan, I saw that one person was engrossed in the aroma, cycling between the scotch glass, the gaiwan lid, and the aroma cup; another seemed to spend as much or more time not drinking as drinking; just letting it settle and have its effect (smiling a lot, I noticed). I became enthralled with a faint, but rich aroma that was only discernible in the proper aroma cup, not the whiskey glass.

After 30 minutes we broke silence  and indulged in some Madeleine cakes provided by one of the group, as we drank the remaining tea. Tea and Madeleines; now there’s a literary combination for you.

Everyone seemed to agree that the scotch glasses did not do a thing for this yellow tea, but I still want to try them with more aromatic teas.

 

 

General Tea Club

The larger group met on the 20th, and we compared three Da Hong Paos (Big Red Robe). One from Verdant Tea, and two from Teaspring. Most people found the Verdant tea one to be the richest and most complex, and the TeaSpring Beidou No. 1 Da Hong Pao to be also rich, with notable herbal elements; the aroma brought Herbal essence shampoo to mind. Finally, the TeaSpring Wu Yi Cha Wang Da Hong Pao was generally found to be flat and unremarkable, which surprised the leader of the session, as he remembered it as being the most expensive, and the Wang in the name means ‘king’ and indicates that it is a high-grade.

I have generally found tasting more than one tea at a time to be confusing, particularly when you are trying to sort out multiple infusions of each, and to be aware of how they are changing. Three teas over four or five infusions is a lot to absorb and differentiate at once. Also they tend to step on one another: if you experience a memorable sweet gan (aftertaste) or a rush of chi, which tea is responsible? You cannot know. Nevertheless, this session’s teas were more distinct than usual, and I find myself still, days later, maintaining vivid impressions of all three.

 

 

 

Tea Club Log: 6/11/12 – Monkey-Mind and All

Deep Tea Group: 6/11/12

We began with the introduction of a new simplified tasting form; from three pages down to one, from over one hundred fields down to five. This was accompanied by my explanation for the change in approach (see Approaching Tea, Part 3).

Everyone had their own small gaiwan and large tasting cup—large enough to hold the entire gaiwan’s steeping at once. Most had also brought their aroma cups. The gaiwans each had 3 grams of Dragon Teahouse Premium Milk Oolong. Knowing that none of the group had tasted milk oolong before I didn’t want to say the name of the tea, but one member guessed it after a single whiff of the dry leaves — that’s how milky and sweet the leaves smelled.

I then read Approaching Tea, Part 2 out loud, including the chimes. No one complained, but as a guided meditation it fell flat for me. I need to do some re-writing. Note to Self: do the live test before posting.

We then set to tasting. I found the amount of tea to be too much for me, so after the first infusion, I removed three fourths of it, and then added these leaves back in over several succeeding infusions.

Everyone used the new simpler form, but one member expressed the wish for the portion of the old form that had a separate line for each infusion. After the session, I copied that part from the old and pasted it into the new.

One person wrote fairly steadily, and when we chimed out, with ten minutes left in the hour, he shared what he’d written—a poem, inspired by the tea, concerning his feelings. Now this is a new, and remarkable response to tea for our group, and I was delighted that it happened spontaneously. I think an off-the-cuff poem is a far more insightful note than a ratings-based record.

Premium Taiwan Milk Oolong – Silk Oolong from Dragon Tea House

These sessions are a joy to me, but I don’t really do terribly well in them. I am so concerned with watching the other members and wanting it to go well for them that when I get to my own tea I am likely to be chasing the infusion I tasted last week when I decided to bring this tea in, and not getting it, which is an example of precisely why I’ve adopted a new approach (see Approaching Tea, Part 3). I wrote in my notes this time, “Just can’t seem to let go—like Ahab after the whale.” Ironically, leading a session seems to make it more difficult to be fully in the session. And of course, I can’t do the meditation if I’m speaking it aloud. But the truth is that I don’t care about my shortfalls; even with this lack of mindfulness, I still find respite in the occasion, and I am profoundly grateful to the group members for taking this journey with me. Maybe my thinking is wrong. Maybe I’m asking myself to be capable of leading and also of following my own lead at the same time, and perhaps that is just asking too much. For now I’ll settle for doing my own exploring outside the group meeting, and using the group meeting for exploring meeting dynamics, as I try to provide a foundation for the other members to do personal exploration.

In my daily sitting meditation practice I used to feel so frustrated with my inabilities, and daily frustration does not make for a welcome practice. Finally I decided to just see it as a sort of comedy; I’m too old to get enlightened, anyway. If my mind is overrun with thoughts, so be it—Maybe that is just what I have to go through. It that turns out to be a phase I never  get through, so be it. I’ve found that as long as I remain gentle and kind with myself, repeated attempts have intrinsic value, even when they only consist of wandering thoughts and feelings. Was there ever a serious contemplative that did not struggle with the monkey-mind?

One of the most reassuring and beautiful notions about meditation I have encountered is that tenet of Dogen’s(1200-1253):

To practice the Way singleheartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life.

or

A beginner’s wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment.

 

Dogen’s Shobogenzo

This would mean, monkey-mind and all, wouldn’t it?