The Tao of Tea


It is said that Tao is elusive and mysterious. As soon as an inkling of desire arises to grasp it, Tao is nowhere to be found. All attempts to understand Tao leave one buried in an avalanche of thoughts. Attempts to explain Tao result in unintelligible babble. Therefore, sages, saints, and mystics have always relied upon action, example and metaphor to point toward Tao.
In reality, Tao is straightforward and ordinary.

Like a cup of tea.

Perhaps that is why so many Taoist and Buddhist adepts have favored tea over lengthy debates about the nature of things. After all, who can adequately explain the experience of a single emotion, let alone the nature of reality? Who can explain the flavor of High Mountain Oolong so perfectly that others can taste all the subtle nuances? A thousand words would not suffice.

Yet one effortless sip tells all. Like one moment of perfect stillness reveals what countless masters could never teach you. In the words of the famous Japanese proverb, "The flavor of Zen and the flavor of tea is the same."

Yes, when we drink tea everything happens spontaneously. Initially, thirst comes of its own accord without any planning or forethought on your part. The presence of thirst moves you to seek water. Water placed over fire naturally boils. Hot water poured over tea leaves yields tea. Drinking the tea is a simple matter of lifting your hand and opening your mouth--babies can do it. The resulting feelings of refreshment and fulfillment also happen with out effort.

What a perfect example of spiritual cultivation!

It's called Cha Tao: The Way of Tea.

Cha = tea
Tao = way, nature, path, route

Cha Tao, then, is the expression of Tao through the enjoyment of tea.

Well then...in the spirit of our sharing here it would only be appropriate to take a brief pause to prepare a cup of tea.

As I write this, I am drinking a cup of Spring 2008 Baozhong. It's a mildly roasted oolong tea with a gentle spirit. The swirling steam rising from my cup reminds me of a playful dance.

What kind of tea will you prepare today?

Did you get your tea?

How does the steam move?

What does the aroma make you feel?

Now, very slowly, take three small sips. Each time, savor the essence all the way down to your dan tien (lower belly). This is a special way of taking tea: take one sip for Heaven, one for Earth, and one for Humanity. By paying close attention and savoring the experience of drinking your tea, Heaven, Earth and Humanity become one: Tao.

Does your belly feel warm, your spirit uplifted?

Wonderful.

Now let us enjoy the heart-felt sentiments of a fellow tea lover of yesteryear:

"The first cup sleekly moistened my throat and lips,
The second banished all my loneliness.
The third expelled the dullness from my mind, sharpening inspiration gained from all the books I've read.
The fourth brought forth light perspiration, dispersing a lifetime's troubles through my pores.
The fifth cup cleansed every cell of my being.
The sixth has made me kin to the Immortals.
This seventh, I can take no more."

- Lu Tung (755 - 805 AD)

Mmm yes, when hot water and tea leaves touch, something precious occurs. This basic alchemy of water and leaves has captured the hearts and palettes of humanity since time immemorial. Second only to water, tea is the most widely drunk beverage on earth. This simple, healthful brew is a miracle of vegetation. It is the inspiration of empires, industries, art, and a faithful companion on the deepest of spiritual pursuits. Tea is a true treasure of the world.

The mysterious origins of tea reach back into the history of ancient China. According to legend, tea was discovered by the Emperor Shen Nong circa 2700 BCE. Shen Nong was a skilled ruler, creative scientist, patron of the arts, and innovator of agricultural techniques and herbal medicine. One summer, the emperor was traveling to visit a distant region of his kingdom when his entourage stopped to rest. As was required in those times by the edicts of hygiene, the water was boiled for purification before drinking. While Shen Nong was taking his boiled water, a few leaves from a nearby bush blew into his bowl and the water turned light brown. He took a sip of the liquid and was pleasantly surprised by the flavor and restorative effects. It is said that he later used tea leaves during his many quests to discover medicinal plants. To understand the properties of plants, Shen Nong would eat them. When a poisonous plant was ingested, he would chew tea leaves as an antidote. And so, according to myth, tea was discovered as beverage and medicine.
Historically speaking, tea, Camellia sinensis, is believed to originate from the area of China now called Yunnan Province. From the Yunnan area, tea cultivation is thought to have spread to Assam, Burma, Laos, South China and numerous other regions throughout Asia.

Tea varies due to region, season, climate, soil, age, elevation and manufacturing practice. Generally, types of tea correspond to the different manufacturing processes, producing white, green, black, oolong, and pu-erh. All types of tea are dependent on the oxidation process and the degree to which the oxidation occurs. Traditionally, many tea producing countries, as well as certain tea regions, focused on producing only certain types of tea. For example, Zhejiang, China produced primarily green teas. Whereas, Nilgiris, India made only black tea. Recent cross-pollination of tea cultures is making tea people more open to change, and new types of teas are being explored all the time.
 

"Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves--slowly,
evenly, without rushing toward the future."


- Thich Nhat Hanh
 

Below is a basic explanation of the main classes of tea:

White Tea: Non-Oxidized

 White tea

White tea is made from uncured, unoxidized young leaves and buds. White tea is a specialty of the Fujian province where plantations offer teas like Silver Needle, White Peony, and Long Life Eyebrow for people who love the light, fresh taste of this unique class of tea. White tea has been found to have lower levels of caffeine than other classes of tea, and makes a nice option for people who are sensitive to caffeine.



Green Tea: Lightly Oxidized

Traditional Japanese green teas undergo a characteristic steaming process that results in a buttery textured flavor. Green teas from China are usually pan-fired, roasted or steamed. Greens from Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka undergo little oxidation and oven roasted drying. Green tea can vary greatly in flavor and color, yet almost always carries some degree of a grassy, vegetal flavor that gives it a unique freshness. Green tea requires precise brewing times and lower temperatures to avoid extracting a bitterness that can overpower the subtle, more pleasing notes of the tea.

Oolong Tea: Partially Oxidized (10 - 75%)

Traditional Japanese green teas undergo a characteristic steaming process that results in a buttery textured flavor. Green teas from China are usually pan-fired, roasted or steamed. Greens from Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka undergo little oxidation and oven roasted drying. Green tea can vary greatly in flavor and color, yet almost always carries some degree of a grassy, vegetal flavor that gives it a unique freshness. Green tea requires precise brewing times and lower temperatures to avoid extracting a bitterness that can overpower the subtle, more pleasing notes of the tea.

Black Tea: Fully Oxidized

Black tea is typically darker, stronger in flavor, and higher in caffeine than White, Green or Oolong teas. In Asian cultures, the term "red" or "crimson" is applied to this class of tea to describe the color of the brewed tea. The term "black tea" is typically used to describe post-fermentation teas such as Pu-erh tea. In English, however, the term "Red tea" typically refers to the herbal infusion from South Africa called Rooibos. As with many aspects of tea culture, there is ample opportunity for confusion here. So, for the sake of clarity, even though this tea looks red, we'll call it black. Ha! Black tea is perhaps the most widely cultivated type of tea in terms of geographic diversity. Production of black teas has spread from China's Yunnan province to India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, and America. Assam, Darjeeling and Nilgiri are three of India's most well-known black teas. Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka is prized for its unique mix of strong flavor with light citrus notes.


"Even though one studies the tea industry until old age, one can never learn all the names of types of teas."

- Chinese Proverb
(from Fujian provence)

Pu-erh Tea

Pu-erh is one of the most interesting and complex classes of tea. All Pu-erh tea comes from the same variety of "large leaf" mostly unoxidized green tea called Maocha. This type of tea bush is found mostly in the mountains of southern Yunnan province, China. The most prized areas for cultivation of pu-erh are called the Six Famous Tea Mountains. The leaves used for pu-erh have a slightly different chemical composition that gives a characteristic smell and flavor, and makes the tea ideal for compressing and aging. Pu-erh teas can range from lightly to fully oxidized, and many varieties undergo further processing called post-fermentation.

There are two basic classes of Pu-erh tea: Raw and Ripe.

Raw Pu-erh, commonly know as "uncooked Pu-erh", can be classified as green tea in terms of oxidation, yet it has very little in common in terms of flavor and aroma with tea rightly classified as green. Raw pu-erh is cultivated to be aged. Over time, the rough flavors smooth out and the subtle notes of the tea's character reveal themselves. Raw pu-erh can be aged for years, decades, even centuries.

Ripe Pu-erh, commonly known as "cooked Pu-erh" undergoes a special "ripening" process before being compressed into cakes or bricks for aging. The "ripening" process does not involve cooking, but rather a type of accelerated aging brought on by a controlled bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm humid environment. The ripening process typically takes from six months to one year, after which the tea is compressed into bricks or cakes and released to the market. Ripe pu-erh can also then be aged in a well-ventilated area to smooth out the flavor further.

"Tea induces lightness of spirit, clarity of mind and freedom from all sense of constriction, whether mental or physical; and it promotes such serenity that mundane cares fall away so that whatever is strident or exacerbating in daily life can be put out of mind for a while."

- Emperor Song Hui Zong (1082 - 1135)

There is so much more to say about tea! Yet, as interesting as tea-lore is, we ultimately have to fill the kettle, put the tender leaves to water, and enter the Tao of Tea. The experience of delight in a cup of tea is the real test of a tea's greatness.

If you'd like to experience the meditative spirit of classical tea culture, learn more about traditional tea brewing and tea ware, and taste unique varieties of tea, consider attending a tea session with Cain, or invite him to present a Tao of Tea experience in your area.