Tea and Its Infinite Variegations ~
One feature of tea that always keeps me coming back for more, is the search for the perfect cup of tea. Each time the leaves are steeped — each cup — is different and one is often met with the most pleasant surprises. Drinking tea in a conscious way allows us not only great insights into the leaves we are drinking but into the inner recesses of our minds as well.
The same tea brewed on two separate occasions will be found different even under the same conditions. Some of this comes down to the fact that subtle differences in the leaves and rates of oxidation mean that absolute uniformity within tea cake or tea batch is not possible. Even expertly blended and handled, there will be subtle differences — readily apparent to the quieted mind. The human factor is considered to be of equal importance to those such as region of origin, processing and storage. It is believed in classical tea theory, that two teas brewed in exactly the same way by two people will produce a different result. Furthermore, each time we prepare a tea we ourselves are different and the tea responds to us in kind.
In the past, monks would often duel with tea instead of with fists or swords. It is believed that the tea one brews reveals everything about one’s character and that all faults and credits to one’s personality are present within the tea broth. It is for this reason that meetings are often conducted over tea, for in business, in dating or any other transaction, it is important to know with whom we are dealing — beyond the veneer one presents to the world.
Tea at a certain point becomes a meditation, a Dharma. Some even suggest that one must meditate in order to be able to make truly good tea. In my experience this is not entirely true — the key is simply to not think too much about the process. This can be achieved in a number of ways ranging from extensive practice, natural ability or simply not giving a damn. Often times it is a combination of these factors that makes one a great tea brewer.
In search of the perfect cup of tea, I’ve encountered many of what are considered to be the best examples of ancient and modern teas — brewed by a number of the true high hands of Chinese tea. These were singular experiences, occurring at once in and out of time. It is such moments that can begin a life in tea. They force one’s eyes open to what is possible when both skill and sensitivity — conscious awareness — are applied to the art
The way I learned to make tea was similar to the principles applied in kung fu, where through consistent practice and determination one is able to ultimately transcend technique. The name kung fu is then very appropriately applied within Chinese tea. Kung fu is, overtly, a style of tea preparation — though the form of it varies a bit by time and place. Intrinsically, it is a principle which has guided the practice from ancient times to the present. It is a variable which is fluid, living and dynamic — the ‘still and still moving’ jar off Eliot’s poem.
Tea, wherever it is planted, takes on the specific characteristics of the terrain and climate. Tea shipments, wherever they land, similarly shape the culture of that place in wonderful ways. It changes with time, with each hand it passes to, and ultimately changes us when we imbibe it. And so the dance of tea has gone on in this way — never a dull moment for the last 5000 years.
Photos by M. Lang