Recently in tea philosophy~art~ritual Category

tea journey

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Greetings, friends. It's been a while, I know, and I apologize for my long absence. But I'm back and not only writing, but also creating videos for a new online digital tea publication called "Tea Journey". Tea Journey is a collaboration of journalists and tea experts from around the world, bringing content from the tea lands, much of which has never before been available in English. I am excited to be a part of this, and I hope you will consider taking a look at the Tea Journey Kickstarter page and perhaps even deciding to subscribe. Here is the link.

It's been great to be in touch with those of you who continued writing to me and sharing your own tea adventures. I value your friendship and your views on tea and tea culture. Keep writing! And thank you for being a part of my own tea journey.

tea scroll inspiration

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Tea scrolls used in Japanese tea ceremony often refer to the season, event or time of the ceremony. This video pays homage to a special tea scroll used during a full moon tea ceremony at Urasenke Foundation in San Francisco. The video itself was shot at multiple venues, including Sowing The Moon Tea house at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center and the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco.

The tea scroll reads: "Pure wind sweeps the bright moon; The bright moon sweeps the pure wind."

Does your tea have good rhythm? Below is a discussion on the topic with Bret Hinsch, author of The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea. A Harvard PhD in Asian Studies, Hinsch has spent fifteen-plus years in Taiwan as a professor and Chinese history scholar. His years in Taiwan have exposed him to a plethora of connoisseur teas, and his fluency in Mandarin enabled him to to research the subject by reading numerous texts in Chinese. Bon Teavant welcomed the opportunity to discuss tea appreciation with Mr. Hinsch. Does Your Tea Have Good Rhythm? is Part 1 of a series that will hopefully bridge some of the gaps in information on tea and tea culture for an English-speaking audience. Enjoy the interview below!

The growing demand for information from eager English-speaking tea connoisseurs in the U.S. inspires this post. Here is a first-installment list of tea books that are well worth a read as well as a couple of books that will increase the depth of feeling and awareness of the tea connoisseur:

-The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Tea  (Bret Hinsch) We believe this is possibly the best introductory book out on Chinese-style tea appreciation. Bret Hinsch is a Harvard-educated Asian Studies scholar who has lived and taught in Taiwan for more than fifteen years. Disappointed in what is available on Chinese tea in English, Hinsch researched Chinese teas and tea connoisseurship by surveying a vast amount of information written in Chinese. His book is already out of print, but you can find used copies or an e-book version. This book is so good, it is almost worth purchasing an e-book reader in order to absorb all the great, articulately written information on tea production, appreciation, brewing, and the like. We give it highest marks for both the content and the clarity of delivery. Thank you for your contribution, Bret!!

The Time of Tea (Dominique Pasqualini & Bruno Suet) This French author-photographer duo published a timeless two-volume set that is as beautiful to the eye and the touch as the content is fascinating. One volume is filled with rustically reproduced color photographs of tea culture around the world, and the other volume is a treatise on tea appreciation. This double-volume set is out of print, but there is talk of it being republished in the near future. There are only a handful of copies know where. Get it while you can.

The Classic of Tea (Lu Yu) The first treatise on tea culture in China first published in the eighth century, this classic work informs tea lovers the world over how to consider and participate in tea ritual and practice.

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West (Beatrice Hohenegger) 
Steeped in History: The Art of Tea (Beatrice Hohenegger) These two books by Beatrice Hohenegger really compliment each other and should not be missed by the tea historian interested in how tea came to the West. Full of interesting facts, Liquid Jade reveals some of the darker secrets of tea's history. Steeped in History is a companion volume to the exhibition curated by Hohenegger at UCLA's Fowler Museum in late 2009 and includes discussion and images of fascinating artifacts from various Chinese dynasties and from Europe. Here is an interview with Hohenegger by Bon Teavant in 2009.

The Way of Tea (Aaron Fisher)- This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about tea appreciation from a more spiritual perspective. Written by Aaron Fisher (aka "Wu De"), a tea aficionado living in Miao Li, Taiwan. Check out his site Global Tea Hut to support this outstanding non-profit organization dedicated to the sharing of tea and tea education.

The Book of Tea (Okakura Kakuzo) This 20th century classic on tea culture from a Japanese perspective is a gem that should not be missed. The content of this book has recently been re-packaged and published by Bruce Richardson.

Culinary Tea (Cynthia Gold): What a fine collection of recipes and information on the historical and contemporary uses of tea as food. Cynthia Gold inspires not only the reader to try tea in new ways as an ingredient in dishes, but also invites chefs around the world to reignite the passion for tea as food and to take it in new directions.  As such, Cynthia contributes much to the growing information on tea and tea culture around the world. Here is a more in-dephth review of Culinary Tea by Bon Teavant.

The Tea Dictionary (James Norwood Pratt) This newly minted tea dictionary is a manageable volume of information provided as a quick reference to teas and terms used in the world of tea appreciation and industry. The hefty price suggests that you are receiving a distilled inventory of terms that require curation for the professional or avid tea lover. You can find a video interview of JNP here.

The Art of Tea (Magazine) Published by Wu Shing Press in Taiwan, this magazine, which is published at indiscriminate intervals, is well worth perusing for hours and hours. Back issues are available on a variety of topics, including puerh tea and yixing teaware--information that is not always so easy to find in English elsewhere (but can be found here).

Wabi-Sabi (Leonard Koren) This 1994 classic volume explains the complex concept of wabi or wabi sabi, which I will not try to distill on this page, other than to tell you that this is the concept that infuses Japanese tea culture and frankly, all tea culture to some degree. To understand wabi is to absorb and digest the art of fine tea and the duality inherent in life itself.

The Secret Life of Plants (Peter Tomkins & Christopher Bird) This book is not specifically about tea but about the way plants interact with humans, and should not be missed by those who want to increase their enjoyment of Camellia sinensis on a new level. Scientific studies illuminate the powerful ways in which plants respond to human thought, intention, and actions. This book is revelatory for any lover of plants, and tea is certainly our favorite...

There are so many more tea books that deserve attention, and you can consider this a first installment to our growing bibliography of tea books that we love and want to share. We want to shout out to some of the best tea authors (and their books) of our times and of times past.
Those of us who love tea tend also to have a deep affection for the tools we use in the preparation, presentation, storage and sharing of tea. Just as we invite valued friends to our tea table, we also invite the special objects with which we have developed an intimate relationship--our tea kettles, gaiwans, yixing teapots cups, tongs, picks, tea caddies, and even tea "critters" that enliven our tea trays.  Some of us are also inspired to find objects that have nothing to do with tea and re-purpose them to have everything to do with tea.

Throughout history, eminent tea masters have had something to say about the values that are meant to be expressed by the selection or creation of their teaware.  And if we go far enough back, to the origins of the discovery of tea, we begin to understand the earliest perspectives on nature and life and the corresponding philosophies that inform the relationship between the tea master and his or her teaware.

Vintage Gaiwan - 1913

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Teaware has been as much a topic of discussion as tea, and more so, is said to influence the quality of the tea experience. Lu Yu, who in the eighth century wrote the first treatise on tea, Cha Ching, included a meticulous etiquette for using teaware; and eight centuries later, Japan's famed tea master, Rikyu, expressed his endearment to the wabi style of teaware with its underlying philosophy of simplicity and minimalism which he so respected and to which he paid homage in his practice of tea.  

Through the objects of teaware and the relationships held between the teaware and the tea masters,  the values and mores of the times were embraced, handled and poured. As such, teaware reflects the philosophy of the age and region in which it is being used and appreciated.

The ephemeral nature of a tea ceremony or even the simple sharing of tea between friends, is heightened by the intimacy we have with our guests as well as with the objects of the tea service. What elevates the event includes not only the disposition and intentions of the tea host and guests, but also and equally so, the character or "nature", if you will, of the objects used to make and serve the tea. We love the way a teapot pours water, the way a kettle hums at different stages of heating, the taste of tea from a particular cup, or the snug, effortless feel of a serving vessel embraced by the hand. These objects comfort us, make us smile, and whether we admit it or not, we befriend them, and, as with good friends, would miss them if they were absent.

Text from "Teaware Treands And An Intimacy With Objects" by Jennifer Sauer 2010

letting tea settle

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It is the natural inclination to act on your excitement when receiving tea in the mail by opening the package immediately and sitting down to steep it.  If you happen to feel mildly surprised or disappointed that the tea is not "performing" as you had hoped, try letting it rest for a few weeks or more, then steeping it again.  You will likely be rewarded.

Just as people can often feel a little out of sorts after moving homes or travelling long distances, tea can take some time to re-orient and settle after being jostled over miles of ground travel or pressurized at 30,000 feet during air transport. 

I noticed this strongly with my recent shipment of Asian Beauty, which after five weeks of settling in my storage, now offers a rich, smooth, round body and soft mouth feel that were, shall we say, "struggling" when I first received it.

People whose passion is the study of tea will tell you that tea requires careful handling and rest when being moved from one storage space to another, even within the same town or village. Plants are extremely sensitive to change, and just as a person can suffer jet lag or mild disorientation when traveling or moving homes, tea can experience "shock" when being transported or changing venues, and is best left alone for a while to find its equilibrium.

I have experienced this with several teas, and noticed that some teas can take a few months   of "regrouping" to reach their fullest potential, particularly when the tea has traveled from one country to another.

If you are willing to be patient and let your tea get over its jet lag, you will often be repaid with a bright, smooth tea that provides the resilience it has developed, as well as the rest and comfort as it has been given.

tea poem: a shared tea ritual

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There are three primary tea traditions that influence Western society at present: Chinese (including Taiwanese), Japanese, and British.  From these, other tea traditions have emerged, including Moorish, Persian, Russian and Indian, and what I call "fusion tea", which is the creation of a tea experience that might borrow from traditional tea cultures, but ultimately offers its own unique expression of tea or tea rites, rituals and customs. When you create your own tea ritual, you may want to borrow aspects of traditional tea rituals practiced by Chinese, Japanese, British, or any other tea culture.

Here is A SHARED TEA RITUAL, which you can "practice" with a friend:

Tea Poem Ritual:

•    Invite a creative friend to tea.  Tell him or her that you are going to create a tea poem together.
•    Provide a special piece of paper, maybe Japanese rice paper or a watercolor paper.
•    Put the paper and one colored pen on the table in your designated "tearoom".  (This can be in your kitchen or dining room, or on the floor of a sunroom or even in an office.
•    Bring your favorite tea to the table and make whatever kind of tea you would like to have. Pour (or whisk, if Japanese matcha tea) a cup or bowl of tea for yourself and for your friend.
•    Enjoy a first sip of tea together. Invite your guest to write the title of the poem on the paper provided.  This means your guest begins the poem.
•    Have your guest then hand the paper to you. You will take a sip of tea and then write the first line of the poem.  Return the paper to your friend.
•    Continue to take turns writing a line of the poem, one after the other, until you have decided that your poem or your tea is finished.  Give the poem to your guest as a gift, along with a small bag of the tea that you shared with him or her.

heating elements for tea

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Many variables play a role in the making of a great cup of tea: water quality, water temperature, and amount as well as the  type, quality and quantity of tea leaves, and of course, steeping time. What few consider, however, is the impact of the heating element on the tea.

Some tea people are mindful of this, and go out of their way to find or create just the right  heating element.  Possible sources for heat include charcoal fire, wood fire, electric coil (stove), gas range, and ceramic heat, among others including electric plug-in appliances.

In earlier times, and still now in some parts of the world, people had no choice but to heat water over a wood or charcoal fire. From experience, I can say this does enhance the pleasure of a tea event, but how does it influence the tea itself? Does it matter if you boil tea over a hot flame or stove or more slowly at a medium high temperature?

According to Lu Yu, author of The Classic of Tea (Cha Ching) in eighth century China, "The ancients placed a great store in tea's flavor when it was brewed with firewood that had been cured for a long time." If using charcoal, he said, be sure to use new charcoal so that it does not "give off a musty, rank and greasy smell".  He also advised against using "oily wood or worn-out or discarded utensils as fuel."

It is hard to know what he would have thought of a gas or electric range or a Zojirushi, but my guess is that he would think electricity to be too excitable for the best in tea.

In American society, we tend to like the quick fix - the electric kettle or Zojirushi. Some among us still revert to wood fire, but usually when camping, and not on a regular basis. Others use ceramic hotplates, which heat the tea at an even rate, and have high marks among tea connoisseurs for its impact on the tea.

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Japanese tea ceremony relies on the ritual making of a charcoal fire in a pit as well as the cleaning of same. There are even special procedures for placing and removing particular pieces of charcoal as part of the ceremony.  For the making of the fire to be a part of such an important tea ceremony, the quality of the fire must have impact on the quality of the tea and the tea experience.

Some people think electricity disturbs the energy of the tea water and that a wood or charcoal fire lends a natural element which cannot be duplicated by nuclear generated power.  Whether these enhance the tea itself is up for speculation.  Any comments?

tea dream

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A good decision should lead you closer to your goals and further away from conflict with yourself and others.

tea ceremony etiquette

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Meiya Wender, Head of Tea, Green Gulch Farm & Zen Center
"The tea room is a laboratory for studying the self and our relationship with others," said Meiya Wender, Head of Tea at Green Gulch Zen Center in Muir Beach, CA several years ago when I interviewed her for my book The Way to Tea.

Yesterday, Meiya hosted a public tea ceremony at the Center's Sowing the Moon Teahouse, which gave me an opportunity to "experiment" firsthand.

The beauty of the tea room is distinguished not only by the carefully placed flowers, tea scroll, and tea implements, but also by the behavior of the host(ess) and guests.  

As the ten or so of us filed into the tea room, on our knees as prescribed by tradition, we entered a sanctuary where the norms of the external world fall away to a breathtaking humility and community that is tea and zen. 

It is the art of the guest, in this case, most specifically the "first guest" (and the only one among us who knows tea ceremony etiquette in detail), to match the hostess' kindness, and whose job it is to compliment and draw out the virtues and efforts of the hostess in creating the ceremony by requesting information about the tea art and tea ware used in the ceremony.


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Chashaku resting on natsume
"I see you have chosen a special piece for this tea gathering. Please tell us about this lovely tea scroll," says the first guest to Meiya.  Meiya initially explains to us that each object in the tea room has both a practical and poetic function.  For example, she says, the chashaku (tea scoop) is functional in that it scoops the tea, but it also has a poetic function, which reinforces the theme of the tea experience. In this case, the chashaku was carved by Meiya herself, and was named by a Zen priest.  The tea scoop's name--"Swift And Unbridled"-- comes from a Zen poem and also reinforces the message of early spring, the season in which we are gathering for tea. 

As for the tea scroll, Meiya translates the calligraphy for us: "No highs or lows in the colors of spring," which echos the Buddhist appeal for people to follow the "Middle Path" in which one does not identify oneself with extremes in order to find balance and harmony within.
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Sowing The Moon Teahouse
It occurs to me that the guest also has both a practical and poetic function in the tea ceremony. The guest is needed as the one who receives the gift of tea, but (s)he also serves the function of bringing delight and awareness to the gathering. Just as we sometimes learn more when we share our thoughts, the guest serves as the facilitator for the expression of the hostess. Our "first guest" continues to request information, while complimenting the hostess:  "And the flowers that you have chosen and arranged so artfully are lovely. Could you tell us about them?"

Meiya tells us the tight white bud surrounded by high gloss, forest green leaves is a camellia, about to bloom. The camellia is from the same species as the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and so has significance in the tea ceremony.  The other flower in the iron vase is a small-fisted bud of pink-orange quince, one of the transient delights of this season.  Neither opulent nor strongly fragrant, the flowers too reinforce the message of simplicity, humility, and the temporal nature of the moment and of the season. 

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So too might a guest come to tea simply, humbly, and not flashy or full of himself and his ego. The tea room is not a place for heated discussions or demonstrations of one's own knowledge, virtues or abilities. The guest's role, in particular, is to put the focus of discussion on the hostess' efforts and to ask about the objects used in the ceremony.

Subjects considered oafish to raise in conversation in the tea room include anything divisive (most especially politics), gossip (particularly speaking badly of others when they are not present), and money (which creates disharmony, jealousy, and stratification).  The tea room is a place for equals (which is why everyone enters on their knees),  and while certainly no two people have equal abilities or qualities, the appreciation of each others' kindness, intentions, abilities and actions (not one's own), is what creates delight, peace, and harmony.

The guest's role is to compliment the hostess, to draw her out, to put the focus on the inspiring objects created and/or used in the ceremony for the benefit and enjoyment of all present. This  intention by the guest of bringing harmony and inspiration to the tea room heightens the experience for all, and reinforces the meaning of the tea ceremony,  to which is traditionally attributed four words that are as much intentions of awareness: Tranquility. Respect. Harmony. Purity.

Were that the whole world engaged in tea room etiquette throughout all interactions.

gift tea and tribute tea

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There has long been a tradition in Asia of giving tea as a gift. Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea all consider tea to be one of the finest and most appropriate gifts to be offered as a sign of respect, and of course, the finer the tea, the finer the gift. 

In 1972, Richard Nixon was given a rare and authentic 50 grams of Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) Wuyi tea by Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong. At first insulted by such a "meager" gift, Nixon was finally pacified when he learned that this gift represented half of the entire harvest of this rare tea for the year.

The concept of "gift tea" (li cha) goes back thousands of years in China, where tea has been viewed as a medicine and currency; and "tribute tea" (gong cha) refers to the offering of tea as a gift to the Emperor and other dignitaries in China. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907) these "tribute" teas for the Imperial Court became a mandatory tax that all tea growers were required to surrender, and the harvesting of teas was carefully monitored by governing agents. 

Tea has also long played a role as a customary betrothal gift, and in the Song Dynasty, was offered to the family of a young woman as a proposal for marriage from the parents of the potential groom. To "Accept Tea" and "Drink Tea" conferred confirmation of the engagement. In some countries, the family's best puerh teas are saved or stored as a dowry for their children.

the imperfect cup

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"Wabi" is a Japanese term that describes "perfection through imperfection," and sometimes refers to imperfections in ceramics and other material things. It is imperfection that gives a thing its true value and perfection, according to those who ascribe to the wabi ethic. 

Now to tea and the imperfect cup...

Not every cup has to be perfection. When the tea turns out to have bitter tones because it has been over-steeped or, on the other hand, too watery because it has been under-steeped, one might be inclined to self criticism.

Be patient! The imperfectly steeped cup is your teacher, as it guides and helps you to  understand tea in a deeper way.

The imperfect cup will lead you to experiment with water types and temperature, different kinds of teaware, and varying steeping times. When taken in combination, the variables to achieving the "perfect cup" will keep you busy, amused, creative, and alert.

Buddhists say that "enemies" ultimately do more to benefit us than do our adoring, accepting friends. The enemy gives us challenges, which when overcome, bring us to a higher level of self-mastery and awareness, and therefore closer to "enlightenment" or spiritual completeness.  So it is with the imperfect cup.

Sip, engage, explore.....and appreciate every sip of your  "imperfect" tea!

how to use a tea aroma cup

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Mmmmm.....the first time you use an aroma cup (also called a fragrance cup), you will understand why some tea people become addicts.  The euphoria one feels when breathing in the fragrant florals of a Taiwnese oolong cannot be measured, and like all undefined things, leaves one searching for words to describe a sensation that defies even the mighty metaphor. But since articles rely on words, I shall do my best to introduce to you one of the most special elements of a tea ritual with Taiwanese oolongs.

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The aroma cup is distinguished by its cylindrical shape which enhances the fragrance of the tea. The use of fragrance cups originated in the 1970s in Taiwan, when oolong production increased dramatically and a connoisseur market for these delicate floral teas developed. The aroma cup became a part of the Taiwanese tea ritual for many years, but since the late 19080s or early '90s, has fallen out of favor, and many people now just smell the lid of the gaiwan when the tea is brewing.

I still favor the aroma cup, and believe that it greatly enhances the overall experience of the tea in a way that smelling the lid of the gaiwan cannot.

Aroma cups are typically used only on the first steeping and only on Taiwanese oolongs. You will rarely if ever see aroma cups used in China or Japan.  (I, however, use my aroma cup on all teas, regardless of tea type, but only on the first steeping).

This is how you use an aroma (fragrance) cup:
1) Heat the aroma cup, tasting cup and tea vessel with hot water, and pour off
2) Steep tea properly
3) Pour tea into the aroma cup
4) Cover the aroma cup with the tasting cup by inverting the tasting cup so that the pair resemble a mushroom.
5) Hold the pair together with thumb and middle finger
6) Flip the aroma cup and tasting cup pair, so that the aroma cup is facing downward, into the tasting cup.
7) Lift the aroma cup vertically, out of the tasting cup, leaving the tea in the tasting cup.
8) Waft the aroma cup to give it some air
9) Sink your nose into the aroma cup and enjoy the fragrance.
10) Smell it every 10-15 seconds to smell the changes of the aroma as it mixes with the air. It will become sweeter and more fragrant for the first 60-90 seconds before falling off.

tea, nature, and knowing

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WaldenPond163web.JPG Walden Pond - Concord, MA

On the east coast this week, and while walking the old trails around Walden Pond of the famed naturalist, author and father of American ecology, Henry David Thoreau, I was reminded that Nature teaches us all we need to know. The wisdom that springs from Nature is not Taoism, shamanism or any other ism, and no culture or individual has greater access to it than another. It is the most democratic form of education, whether scientific, philosophical, spiritual, or creative. This ancient intelligence is gladly shared with anyone who wants to listen, and it naturally arises when one is quiet, open, and mentally naked, stripped of the trappings of illusion, technology, engines, electricity and all the other manufactured distractions that ironically prevent us from knowing ourselves, each other, and the nature of all things.

Like a walk in the woods, sipping a fine tea gives us this nurturing quality that we so crave and find in nature. Tea brings peace, quiet, and the stirrings of consciousness and awareness. Tea shares its gifts with anyone who imbibes, whether rich or poor, wise or foolish, kind or rotten. It gives us comfort and awareness whether we deserve it or not, indiscriminately.

This is why tea has traveled the world in the hands of Zen and Christian monks, been delivered to one country from another in the pockets of scholars, naturalists, and monks.  Tea inspires vivid insights, and beckons those who are seekers of wholeness and truth.Yet within that immortal awareness, and that of the passing of time, we can't help but appreciate the sensual and sentient nature of life and the importance of how we spend, share, and enjoy it.

I will say no more, but leave you to the task of finding your own teas and truths, preferably in the wild, knowing landscapes that both surround and inhabit you.

global tea culture

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TasteAmericanTeaCulture©2010BonTeavant.jpg In San Francisco, we are fortunate to enjoy the most diverse and exciting tea culture in the history of human kind.  Why?  If you go to China, you will enjoy only Chinese tea culture, but not that of Japan, India, Britain or elsewhere.  Likewise, if you go to Japan, you will enjoy only Japanese tea culture.  But in the United States, and particularly on the West Coast, and even more particularly in San Francisco, we have an "alchemical" tea culture which is informed by traditions around the world, from Asia, Latin America, Europe, South America and Africa.

You can go to a Japanese tea ceremony on a mountain top in Marin in the morning, a British afternoon tea later in the day, and in the evening, enjoy a Chinese gong-fu cha with tea masters who have recently visited the farms where their tea was grown, harvested and processed.

This, I believe, is tea culture in a high form, not because of its adherence to discipline, but because of its nascent, creative spirit.  We are participants and witnesses to the mutation of a tea culture in the making. Here in the Bay Area, we have enjoyed a Renaissance of tea in the past ten or twenty years that has brought both tea and people to us from all parts of the world.

Americans snubbed Britain and her duty-laden tea more than two hundred years ago, and waited to be infused by a tea culture that is inclusive of later migrating Asian-, African- and Latin Americans whose influence, as well as that of early Europeans, would inspire us. That you can get a chai, sencha, dong ding, ti guan yin or yerba mate within the viscinity of a few blocks--and often in one tea shop or tea house--is nothing short of fabulous and surreal.
In absorbing the tea cultures of Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, we also invite the philosophies, arts, and merits of these cultures and their offerings, whether in the form of teaware. rituals, literature and music, or the art of tea as a practice and meditation.

We might also be fortunate to pick up concepts embedded in other tea cultures, like the virtues of humility and kindness, the value of serving others, the importance of harmony, or the notion that plants can and do act as vehicles to awareness, healing, and community.  All of these sources of information and illumination are found in your teas.

The stories and inspiration of Shen Nung, Lu Yu, Bodhidharma, Eisai, and Robert Fortune all await you in your tea cup, as do the stories and lore of the teas themselves.  Drink up, with gratitude and a surrender to the creative freedom that awaits you in every sip.

tea spirit medicine

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Plants have been known to heal people of various maladies for millenia, and in fact, form the basis for almost all medicines on earth. For example, aspirin is a synthetic form of willow bark, and digitalis, taken for heart imbalances, comes from foxglove.  The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has a history of being considered a medicine, and has reached many continents with this reputation. But does tea heal people? And if so, how and of what?

First, I do not make any claims about the tea plant being a medicine capable of healing any ailment, and those who do are not necessarily to be trusted. While tea is loaded with polyphenols, antioxidants, and other agents that suggest excellent health benefits, one would not want to say that tea cures any particular ailment or disease without documented clinical substantiation of such claims, which you will not find offered here.

But I digress. Many herbalists believe that using real plant-based medicine can be more effective than using synthetic pharmaceuticals for a number of reasons, including the avoidance of grave and sometimes even fatal side effects caused by manufactured medicines. But a lesser-known, perhaps even more compelling, reason that traditional herbalists use plants for healing is how the "spirit" of certain plants can assist in healing the patient. This concept is referred to as "plant energetics" or "plant spirit medicine", and has been practiced by traditional healers around the world for thousands of years.

In this philosophy, plants are considered to have spirit, intention, and the capacity for relating to others with consciousness. And while certain herbs physically treat certain maladies, the spirit of the plant medicine can also assist the patient in healing the emotional constructs that are a part of the imbalance. Several compelling books have been written on the subject, including The Secret Life of Plants , The Lost Language of Plants, and Plant Spirit Medicine.  

Does Tea have spirit? Can that spirit heal people? Tea's reputation both as a medicine and as an aid to spiritual practice is what gave it such cache as it traveled from continent to continent, many times in the hands of Buddhist or Christian monks, as it was introduced to new lands like Japan and Portugal. When not spoken of with reverence by priests and monks, it was prized by herbalists and scholars. Some believed it cured plague and other serious maladies.  Of course, it does not, at least not scientifically, but what could tea possibly do as an agent of healing?

What I have learned in my own personal study of Tea (and by Tea, I mean only Camellia sinensis) is that some teas can be transformational and healing in terms of one's understanding of himself and of life. Tea has taught me kindness, deeper compassion, and a peace of mind that I had not experienced before despite years of meditation, yoga, and other relaxation practices.  Tea also brings community and sanctuary, often simultaneously, which in itself is rather a miracle in this age of virtual antipathy for congregation.

I have seen and so believe that people who drink tea are changed by it, in the moment, and if one drinks it regularly, in a very deep and lasting way. I have read numerous accounts of people expressing how their lives have been changed by tea--sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually, and sometimes physically.

Tea helped me personally to develop a greater capacity for kindness and compassion, both for myself and for others, and also to enjoy each moment, sometimes profoundly. It has also given me a greater appreciation of nature and of my immediate surroundings, and enhanced my sense of community and interrelatedness with the world. Are these qualities "healing"? For me, they have been, and I am grateful to this plant--just as I would be to a priest or a doctor who bestowed so many blessings on me.
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aesthetics of the tea table

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AaronFisherSilverpotjswm.jpg Aaron Fisher (aka Wu De) uses a silver teapot and antique Chinese tea bowls as an aesthetic and soulful treat

Tea enthusiasts spend countless hours tasting teas, but perhaps even as much time focused on the aesthetics of their own personal rituals with tea.  Collecting fine or simple tea ware is a favorite pastime of most tea lovers and brings a deeper awareness of the potential of a tea by the kettle, gaiwan, teapot, or cups that are used to heat the water, prepare the tea, and sip it. 

People who study tea know that all aspects of tea ware will influence the final cup.  The kettle and its heating element, the teapot or gaiwan and serving vessels, and the cups themselves all have an effect on the taste and "mood" of the tea.

While some use very expensive and collectible tea ware including silver or antique Japanese iron tea kettles, others seek out or come upon items for the tea service that fit more into the "wabi" aesthetic of tea in which the rustic, pure nature of the tea ware stands out by virtue of the beauty of its simplicity. In other words, the refinement of the unrefined. 


A roadside stone can be put to use on a tea tray
For example, I had tea with a well-to-do, Taiwanese tea company owner who has one the largest collections of antique Japanese tea kettles I've ever seen.  However, for his own tea service, he uses a kettle that is "un-sellable" because of its cosmetic defects, and in addition, uses a stone he found on the side of a road as a platform for his yixing teapot lid.  His tea tray? Part of an old wooden door whose finish has been worn by years in the elements.

Aaron Fisher, a tea teacher and author of the new book The Way of Tea, uses Ming Dynasty tea cups and Song Dynasty tea bowls to teach his students about the impact of tea ware on the taste of a tea. He told me that the quality of tea ware has a huge influence on the tea, and that even touching one's full tea cup to a treasured piece before sipping from it will heighten the taste and experience of the tea.

Some tea friends of mine bought slices of semi-precious rocks at a mineral show, and use these under their yixing teapots, so when the water flows down over the teapot and onto the rock, the slice of geology is transformed into a lustrous and luminous tableau full of color for all to appreciate. This demonstration of the abundant beauty of nature is the most fitting offering in a tea ritual of any kind.

You may wish to purchase expensive items or simply find usable "tea ware" in nature, abandoned construction sites or at estate sales. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on one silver tea kettle or find a gorgeous item for your tea table on the beach, in a forest, or even on the roadside. Whatever you choose, have fun experimenting with what makes your tea experience look, feel and taste the way you want it to.
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tea vacation

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Many people cannot afford the time or extra expense of a vacation right now. But we all need some rest, to be sure. Years ago, when I was traveling in Bali, some Balinese people asked "Why do you Americans take vacations? We don't have big vacations, but we have a small vacation everyday when we see our friends and make music, art or a meal together."

This got me thinking that it is important to take a small vacation each day, and having a daily tea ritual fits nicely into this logic. While I don't see tea friends in person everyday, I do think of them when I have my tea, as I have bought or received tea ware from some of them.

My wood bark display dish was a gift from Shiu Yuen Li, a Singaporean teacher of tea culture who lives in Taiwan; my tea tray comes from my friend, Shiuwen Tai, my gaiwan and serving pitcher from Roy Fong of Imperial Tea Court, aroma cups from friends at Pure Puerh, who brought them back to me from Taiwan, and tasting cups from Peter Luong of Red Blossom. The small ceramic figure of Lu Yu that graces my tea bench was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Norwood Pratt. So when I have my daily tea, I feel the presence of all these special tea friends as well.

I offer up a cup of tea and the scent of an aroma cup in thanks for all the gifts of life so generously given to me. And perhaps even more than tea, gratitude offers the release from care that we seek from a vacation. 

If you don't have time to take an extended rest this summer, take your daily tea vacation....
Taiwan's revival of tea culture spans only about 30 years, since the early 1980's. Yet in that short time, several tea people have emerged as gatekeepers of the leaf on the emerald isle.

One such person is Shui Yun Li, a native of Singapore and teacher of tea culture in the capital city of Taipei who founded the organization "Chrysanthemum Teaism".  Her lovely venue for tea education feels as much Japanese as Chinese or Taiwanese, with rough "wabi" style furniture punctuating the dominant Ming and Qing Dynasty cabinets and tables that are carefully placed for both use and consideration in tea gatherings.

What is unique in Ms. Li's offerings are the public tea ceremonies that she coordinates with sponsorship and grant money from various tea merchants and other donors. Her students, many of whom are interior designers, architects, and film makers, are given instruction by Ms. Li about how people around the world create spaces for tea gatherings.  From this base of knowledge, Li's students create unique tea spaces that are used for public, outdoor tea gatherings, where tea is served and celebrated with dancers and other performers adding to the mystery and beauty of the gatherings.

Literature and art are invited guests as well. The concept of Indoor and outdoor space becomes blurred as they merge and bend to each other as gracefully as the dancers.

A slide show of events Ms. Li screened for me at her tea space brought back memories of how I felt when I first went to Spain and viewed Gaudi's architectural triumphs--buildings and landscape design so unusual as to inspire even the least creative person to expand all references to "reality" and "possibility" in art and in life.

The "tea room" designs created by the students under the direction of Ms. Li are sometimes very contemporary and at the same time in rhythm with centuries of traditional tea cultures found in Asia. Ming Dynasty tea bowls sit on brightly colored modern textiles laid on the ground as a tea "tableau" rather than a traditional tea table. Dramatic overhead lighting is screened through trees brought in to throw shadows on the scene and highlight the drama of the tea ware.  Dancers spin through the empty space like human mobiles or constellations in a dark and open sky.

I have yet to see anything similar to this being done in the United States, but we are ripe for this, I believe. Where are the tea loving dancers, writers, film makers, architects and interior designers with boldness and creativity? Come out, come out wherever you are!

tea picnic season

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Rita&Arnas-falls copy.jpg Rita & Arnas sipping a winter baozhong together by Cascade Falls

In Tang dynasty China as well as in Victorian England, taking tea outside was de rigeur, as well as a marvelous way to share some ebullient times and fine teas with great friends and colleagues.  Japanese tea ceremony also celebrates the natural world, but even the most austere and engaging tea room is no match for Mother Nature.

Arnas1.jpgWe have all seen images of those romantic days when folks joined together to sing, laugh, recite poetry, make music, and share philosophies by soft flowing streams and blue mirror lakes, all the while sipping tea.


Spring called up these images, and conspired with memories of last October's Wuwo tea ceremony to get excited about creating an outdoor tea. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon, friends Rita Stanikunaite and Arnas Palaima joined me for the first tea picnic of the season in my hometown in N. California, where streams, waterfalls and redwoods converge to create the ideal tea picnic site. The natural tapestry of wild flowers, towering trees, flashing streams, and rich flowing waterfalls spurred by spring rains made the perfect backdrop to an amazing tea gathering.

Here are some tips for you to consider in creating your own tea picnic or outdoor tea gathering:
  • Bring a thermos of filtered, water which is boiled just before leaving for your hike or picnic.  Use a large thermos--you'll need it to rinse cups & heat teaware besides just brewing tea.. (Sometimes more IS more.)
  • Bring a tea that requires cooler brewing temperatures--often green, white and delicate oolongs work best.  For our picnic, we chose a winter bao zhong, and it was spectacular!  Now that spring teas are newly arrived, you may want to celebrate the event by choosing new spring teas.
  • PicnicTeaware2.jpgBring teaware:  gaiwan or yixing teapot, cups for each person, serving vessel, and cup coasters. It is fun to bring special tea ware reserved for special occasions.  Pack it carefully or use a tea travel set.
  • Bring a nice mat, blanket, or pretty piece of fabric to sit on and create the space.
  • Find a place that inspires you with its beauty, and light, and which is not heavily visited. It is especially inspiring to have tea by a body of water--stream, waterfall, pond, lake, etc.
  • Bring some delicately flavored snacks. ( I brought a lightly sweetened polenta honey cake and fresh organic anjou pears for color and delicate taste.
  • Bring friends, a date, a colleague, or your family.  Or just head out on the trail on your own.  It's all good!
We can slow down and enjoy the seasons and its teas.

morning tea ritual

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morningteaforblog copy.jpgYou can create a morning tea ritual that will change the way you view your life, improve your attitude, and help you to manage your time and resources.  The time for mental rest and contemplation and the relief of awareness, presence and focus is provided by the tea ritual. The 20th century nap is best had awake with a cup of tea in this 21st century. This "waking nap" affords the body and mind some rest and at the same time,  an opportunity to be inspired.

Taking time out of your day, or even starting your day with a tea ritual helps  you to relax, refresh, and also clarify where you are in your  work and relationships, and to consider whether your thoughts and actions are likely to help you create a life that is fulfilling.

To get started, sit comfortably on the floor or at a table, preferably near a window where the light and the view are inspiring or relaxing. Select your tea and tea ware. (If you drink matcha, using a traditional Japanese tea bowl and whisk are great sources of ritual; if you like Chinese tea, go for the gaiwan or a yixing teapot; if you like British style tea, choose your favorite tea pot and tea cup). The comfort comes quickly as the tea and tea ware are laid out, the water is heated, and the tealeaves await their fate.

Regardless of the tea ware you use, the feeling of ritual is the vital element.  It is a time to let go of the concerns of the day (or of the years), and focus your awareness on the water, the leaf, and the "choreography" of the practice of making good tea, including paying attention to the sound of the kettle to get the tea water to the right temperature, observing or smelling the leaves as they steep, and considering the optimal time for the pour. 

Then steep yourself in the comfort of the tea, enjoying its fragrance and taste, as well as the beauty of the liquor. The immediacy of the steam as well as the fragrance of the tea and the ribbon of water saturating the unfurling tea leaves will comfort you to your roots, as the day gradually progresses into a little puzzle of perfection. 

As you sip your tea, you will find your mind wandering in certain directions.  You might remember some things you had wanted to accomplish that day or think about a loved one who might need extra attention (perhaps even yourself). Having note paper or a note book nearby can be a great help.  You'll find that when you write something down, you are relieved of its burden.  The item is acknowledged, and you can move on, let go, rest, and bring yourself back to the enjoyment of your solo tea party as well as to the stillness and quiet that help to balance the mind and emotions.

The best part of this process is that you don't actually have to think about anything.  What you need to be aware of will naturally come to you when your relax your mind and body, and focus your awareness on nothing more than water, leaves, fragrance, taste, and timing.

If you do this everyday, you will notice a difference in the quality of your enjoyment of life and your awareness of what can change and what is there to appreciate.  As well, you will have remembered the things you often forget about, those important details where both angels and devils lurk.

Let me hear back from you.  What is your tea ritual and how does it make you feel?

In Roy Fong's new book, The Great Teas of China, Roy shares his 30+ years of knowledge and experience with tea, and distills it into a slim volume that is direct, concise, and elegantly written. You would be hard pressed to find a better book with which to begin your tea adventures, and it will serve for years to come as a reference guide.

In broad, clean strokes, Roy shares information about each of the ten teas he features, including its history, lore, processing techniques, and region of origin (including a map).  He also provides color-correct and proportional images of the teas before steeping and as a liquor in the cup, so readers have a good reference for selecting and brewing each tea. 

All the elements of this book come together to teach tea.  Roy takes this opportunity to reach out to anyone who cares to learn a lot about tea.  With this book, you have a tea master's training in your hands, and someone to whom you can turn with questions. 

Each time you scan this book, you will learn something new or be reminded of a different facet of the relationship between tea, its origins, and the tea drinker.  You will feel as though you were being tutored by Roy directly, and hearing his tea stories first hand, as if walking through China together as he teaches you the most important things he has learned about each tea, and how he learned it.

Very simply, Roy is a great tea man.  If you want to be trained by a master, this is your book.
Roy Fong sipping tea
Roy Fong, owner of Imperial Tea Court, has just come out with his long-awaited book,The Great Teas of China. We caught up with Roy to do a multi-part interview, with our first discussion focusing on puerh teas.

Click here to listen:


It seems that many tea connoisseurs ultimately favor puerh teas.  Why is this?  Puerhs don't usually have the strong and intoxicating floral fragrances of Taiwanese oolongs, nor do they have the very light, crisp notes we find in some greens and whites. 
RoyFong-ITCBerkeley217FINAL copy.jpg
Some people even refer to puerh teas as "dirt teas."  I once saw someone pick up a puerh cake at a tea shop and mention quizzically, "Hmmmmmm....smells like feet!" 
With all this in mind, what is it that tea lovers favor in puerhs?  Click on the interview for a short and fascinating answer from Roy.

Green Gulch240forbt.jpg For nearly four thousand years, China kept tea to herself. During the latter part of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), some Buddhist monks from Japan visited their Chan Buddhist counterparts in China, and discovered that drinking ground, whisked green tea (now known as matcha) could be an asset to their concentration and meditation practices as it was for that of the Chinese monks.

Japanese tea ceremony is based on such a meditation with tea, and its practice is meant to support awareness,  and harmony. Why, of all the plants in the world, is tea the one chosen by Chan, Taoist and Zen monks to assist in meditation? I went to the best source I know to find the answer.

"The medicinal properties of tea are extremely significant as to why tea is used as a beverage and for meditation," said Christy Bartlett, head of San Francisco's Urasenke Foundation.

"When tea was drunk in early Buddhist monasteries in China, they drank it for several purposes, and one was that it was considered to be a medicine that prolonged life and helped to keep people healthy. As well, caffeine stimulates and sharpens the senses during meditation or study", said Bartlett (below right, instructing a student in tea ceremony, also known as chado, chanoyu, or the way of tea).
UrasenkeforBlog copy.jpg "Then, by people gathering together and making tea for one another, it fostered a sense of community.  So in early Buddhist temples those were the associations made to drinking tea," she said.

We know that many plants are stimulants, but tea offers more than just stimulation, which could, by itself, hinder the steadiness and concentration required for good meditation practice. Instead, tea offers a relaxed alertness which aids in contemplation and meditation. Perhaps we can attribute this to tea's high concentration of the amino acid L-theanine --known for its ability to relieve mental and physical stress and to enhance cognition and awareness. Most botanists will tell you that the thousands of combined chemicals found in a single plant cannot be duplicated by another plant (or distilled or fabricated into pill form as a medicine). So what tea offers is a unique concert of chemicals that delivers wakefulness, awareness, relaxation, and perhaps something extra that cannot be named.

Asked about tea ceremony as a ritual, Bartlett was careful to correct the association: "Tea ceremony is not a ritual but a practice, a form.  It's like a score was written for the practice of making tea, and when we sit down, for example, and play a piece of music, which someone else might have written, we don't feel like we are doing a ritual.  When you play music or when you go to a dance performance, there is very little sense in that case of viewing it as a ritual, even though there is a predetermined sequence of gesture and motion through time. So I view tea the same way as that, not as a ritual but as something very simple and something that has a clear form to it."

teawarecomposite.jpg Some people want to explore the world of connoisseur tea, but are not comfortable with the idea of brewing teas that do not come in tea bags.  Let's demystify the options here and save the planet, friends (for more, see my entry on "Tea's Carbon Footprint"). 

First, the only thing you really need in order to brew loose leaf tea is a device to strain the tea or rather separate the infused tea liquid from its leaves. There are several methods to choose from:

1. Porcelain cup with filter: For many people new to loose leaf tea, this is the most comfortable and familiar method of brewing tea.  You simply put tea leaves in the filter, place the fitted filter in the cup, then pour in hot water.  Steep for the allotted time, then remove filter (with leaves), and your tea cup will be filled with a lovely tea infusion. You can put the filter, with the used tealeaves, aside, and steep it again when you are ready. If your cup does not come with a filter, you can use a small strainer, found in almost any cooking store or even the supermarket. Easy peezey.

Thumbnail image for yixingpot2jpg.jpg 2. Tea pot (with its proprietary strainer or with a filter): The next most familiar method is the trusty tea pot.  You will find many choices, but optimally, you would use a glass, porcelain or ceramic teapot to brew white and green teas and porcelain, ceramic or yixing for oolongs, blacks and puerhs. Many tea pots have a built-in filter or some type of internal system at the interior base of the spout that will prevent tea leaves from escaping the tea pot.  If you have a tea pot that has no such filtering device, simply use a filter or strainer over your cup or serving vessel. You can find some very nice strainers made of bamboo and other non-metal materials (which is preferred).

Red Blossom408.JPG 3. Gaiwan:  Ahhhh, the gaiwan.... For those who are new to tea, the gaiwan can be either  enchanting or perplexing.  Once you learn how to use a gaiwan, you might never want to use a filtered tea cup or tea pot again.  The gaiwan comes from China, and comprises a saucer, a cup, and a lid.  In fact, it means "covered bowl" in Chinese.  Regardless, the lid of the gaiwan is used to cover the tea as it steeps, smell the tea, and also prevent the leaves from escaping the cup when the infusion is sipped or poured into a serving vessel.  To use a gaiwan is simple: put tea in the gaiwan.  Rinse the tea for 1 second with hot water, and pour off.  Pour hot water on the leaves and cover with the gaiwan lid.  You can also use the lid as a kind of paddle to nudge the tea leaves awake while the tea is brewing. 

Then either pour the infusion into a serving vessel or drink the leaves directly from the cup of the gaiwan, using the lid to hold back the leaves. I brought a gaiwan with me on a family trip, and my father blanched and asked "WHAT is THAT??.  Alas, the gaiwan is not for everyone.

Thumbnail image for bamboo whisk for matcha copy.jpg 4. Japanese tea bowl & whisk (for matcha): Tea has been prepared from ground green tea for more than a thousand years.  In China, it was whisked in a bowl. In Japan, it became the primary object of contemplation and practice in the famed Japanese tea ceremony, but you can lose the kimono if you wish, and simply whisk up some tea to elevate your mood. The bright green froth of a matcha brings great solace and energy to those who love this kind of tea.  To use this method: put a few small scoops (2-3 teasppons) of matcha powder in a ceramic tea bowl.  Pour hot water into the powder and whisk briskly (while you say "whisk briskly" briskly three times :>D ) with a bamboo whisk.  Stay tuned for more information on different kinds of matcha and different Japanese tea ceremonies (hint; there is a sencha ceremony as well).

In all, tea brewing can be taken very seriously and require a number of traditional tools, but it can also be extremely simple and require nothing more than a cup and a filter.  This is the beauty of tea.

tea and kindness

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"A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives roses." ~ Chinese Proverb

YadollahPouringTeasm.jpg When I come to one of my favorite local tea rooms, Teance, I am sometimes lucky enough to be greeted at the door by Yadollah Moghaddam.  He takes my hands and says "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you. Seeing you here makes me feel so good!"  His kindness is inspiring. Through his bearing, I feel valuable all of a sudden, as if my presence has meaning. He has reminded me of what is good in me with just a few kind words, a gesture, a smile, and a humble graciousness that says "You matter to me." If anything, this is the finest art of tea.

I once asked Yadollah's son, Darius, who also works at Teance, how his father had come to be so kind and gracious. "Practice," said Darius simply, as if to remind me that any of us could become like this if only we could make a small effort each day and with each person we greet.

"Everyone loves my dad," said Darius. "When I go to the bank, or to our favorite Pakistani restaurant or anywhere people know Yadolllah, people say "I love your Dad! Tell him I say hello.  Give him my best!"

Just as making tea is a practice for those who are avid tea lovers, so is kindness a practice for those who want to achieve a certain state of grace. The Dalai Lama stated, "My religion is kindness."  Though tea is not a religion, the act of serving tea with an eye towards making the guest feel welcomed, appreciated and valuable has the same essential goodness at its core and the same desire to serve with selflessness.

I had thought that some people were just born good-natured, but perhaps this is not the only way. Perhaps it can also oneday be me who glows radiantly like Yadollah, who after saying goodbye as he walked me to my car, stood at attention and watched as I drove away.  I watched him too, in my rear view mirror, saw him standing silently and diligently, as if he were my father, my brother or my best friend, saying goodbye for the last time.

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"Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness"~ Seneca

"Wu-Wo" tea ceremony is an outdoor tea ceremony, based on the Taiwanese gong-fu style tea brewing method, but embracing all different cultural styles of brewing tea. As many as 1000 people brew tea outdoors for themselves and each other--simultaneously and in silence. If you are interested in viewing or participating in such an event, you will have a rare and outstanding opportunity to do so this weekend.

The12th International Wu-Wo Tea Convention--a bi-annual event usually held in Asia-- is coming to the United States for the first time, next weekend. Hosted by the American Tea Culture Association, the three-day event, from October 16-18, will feature two public outdoor tea ceremonies, each expected to draw upwards of 150 people from around the world, who will be bringing their favorite teas and teaware, and in traditional dress, brew tea for each other outdoors. Tea brewers will be coming from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, and other areas for this rare, bi-annual convention.
folliage.jpg  Teas and tea brewing styles will be as different and diverse as the participants. If you miss this convention, you will likely have to wait another ten years for it to return to the United States.

"The Wu-Wo tea ceremony encourages participants to forget about knowledge, wealth, and appearance and to establish group equality without prejudice," said Betsy Meyer of the American Tea Culture Association.

Listen to this podcast interview with Betsy Meyer on the fun and fascinating wu-wo tea ceremony:
Click here to listen:


The wu wo tea ceremony is simple easy to learn.  You simply bring a mat to sit on, a teapot pre-filled with the tea of your choice, a tea serving vessel, four cups, a thermos of hot water, and a tray. There is time to mingle before and after brewing tea, so you can admire each others'  tea ware and enjoy meeting tea lovers from around the world.

   The ceremony originated in Taiwan, where Grand Master Tsai Rong Tsang decided that he would like a more convenient way for modern people to do an outdoor tea ceremony. He discovered that by using a thermos of hot water and placing tea leaves in the pot beforehand,  you can easily take your tea set out on a hike or out to a park. From that outdoor service,  he asked 'Well, why not do it in a group?' and that's how the Wu-Wo tea ceremony and convention was born.

For larger gatherings, tea brewers choose lots to determine their seating, and then brew and serve tea to the three people on their left, while reserving one cup for themselves. Sitting in a circle, the three people to your right will be serving you their tea while you serve your tea to the three people to your left. As such, each person is both host and guest, tea server and tea sipper. At least three steepings are brewed before everyone packs up and goes about their day (or hike). The whole ceremony takes only about 30 minutes.

Many events at the convention require payment, but the Sunday Wu-Wo tea ceremony is open to the public and free of charge. You must register to be a tea brewer at the event, so follow the links in this entry. The Sunday morning (Oct. 18 @ 9 a.m.) event will be held at the Foster City Parks and Recreation Center (650 Shell Drive, Foster City, CA), about 30 minutes south of San Francisco.  Anyone interested in participating must register in advance, and will need a little practice. There will be a practice period on Friday morning, at 10 a.m. at the same location. Listen to the podcast above for information on what to bring with you, and go to to pre-register for the ceremony.

Friday 10/16: 10 a.m. practice session: Pioneer Memorial Park, Mountain View. Contact Betsy Meyer at to sign up for training and to receive an equipment list.
Saturday 10/17: 9 a.m. Wuwo Ceremony in Memorial Park, Cupertino 
Sunday 10/18: 9 a.m. Wuwo Ceremony at Foster City Parks & Rec Center 650 Shell St., Foster City. This event is free and open to the public.
Please go to the American Tea Culture website for complete information on tea ceremony presentations, dinners, and other events taking place during the convention.

SusanaTruax.jpg If you could walk through a time machine and visit the landscapes and history of tea, it might look like the new exhibition, Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, now on display at UCLA's Fowler Museum until November 29, 2009.

Nearly a decade of dedicated attention went into the creation of this seminal collection of Chinese, Japanese, European and American tea ware, paintings, scrolls and other tea paraphernalia. The exhibition was put together artfully by guest curator and author Beatrice Hohenegger, who wrote the fascinating book on tea, Liquid Jade (2006 St. Martin's Press).

Click here to listen to an interview with Beatrice Hohenegger:

Download | Duration: 00:04:46

Staged in five parts, the exhibition introduces tea itself, then covers tea's fascinating history from its origins in China, into Japan, through the "Tea Craze in the West" and finally to "Tea and Empire." The collection and exhibition catalogue highlight the many expressions of tea, from sacred objects to priceless and exquisite examples of art and craftsmanship to the off-beat and obscure. 

teabowlSongDynasty.jpg The collection offers both a historical and sociopolitical look through tea's past and Asian origins as well as to the European and American influences on its present.  It is also a call to attention towards the human cost of colonialism as well as that of mass produced commodities. That Hohenegger is able to scold with an arc of absurdist humor points to the intelligence and good nature with which she created the exhibition.  You are meant to be disturbed, but also awed, amused, and intrigued. 

This is an amazing opportunity for students of tea, ceramics, Asian philosophy and history, or the sociopolitical ramifications of colonialism and commodity manufacturing--to view the story of the world's most loved beverage, next to water.

Whether you make it to the show or not, you will want to purchase the catalogue (with the same title as the show) for its scholarship on tea. This remarkable anthology of essays, written by Ms. Hohenegger and a carefully selected group of experts with divergent points of view and interests in tea, is a must for anyone dedicated to the study of tea. To buy a copy, you can call the Fowler Museum store at 310-206-7004.

water for tea #1

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©2009 Jennifer Leigh Sauer
Before tea there is water.  While you invest time and money to procure great tea, you might also want to consider your investment in "gathering" and brewing water for tea.

Any cup of tea will be at its best when you use the finest water available, heated to the optimal temperature for the particular tea. While I don't profess to be a tea master, I've made it my life's work for the past three years or so to research tea for my book and blog by interviewing great tea masters. They all have different preferences and standards when it comes to water, and I'll share some of what I have learned from them.

One of the most engaging tea experiences I have had was my recent visit with the legendary tea master David Lee Hoffman. During this second tea encounter at Hoffman's home, he gave me the choice of having tea in his open-air teahouse or at a fire pit just behind the teahouse. Despite my appreciation for his gorgous teahouse which he built himself, I chose the latter. At the fire pit, we would be building a fire together as part of our tea gathering. I thought this would be fun, and I liked the idea of building a fire together for tea.

Brewing water this way seems to change the character of the water and certainly that of the tea experience. Hoffman told me that he regularly collects water for tea from an undisclosed local stream. He also occasionally makes a trip up to the Sierra Mountains and when he does, he collects water from high mountain streams that derive from glacial runoff. What's good about this water, he says, is that it has aerated from cascading and also picks up dissolved minerals along its journey. When possible, he brings a bit of this water back for making tea at home.

This is an amazing standard and reminds me that how we live is sometimes much more important than what we do. David Lee Hoffman's appreciation for quality tea water reminds me of Lu Yu, the eighth century Tang Dynasty tea sage who instructed his readers in The Classic of Tea about how and where to collect water for tea:

  On the question of water to use, I would suggest that tea made from mountain streams is
       best, river water is all right, but well-water is quite inferior.

Other tea masters rave about the water used for brewing tea in the rural mountain villages of China where they go to find teas. They believe that where good tea grows, good water is often close at hand. As well, the experience of drinking a tea in its natural habitat with local stream water meant for that tea is an inimitable lifetime experience to be treasured.

Rites and rituals for heating water for tea can of course be found in Japanese tea ceremony. If you were to be a fly on the wall watching a Japanese tea master prepare for a tea gathering, you would see him or her carefully positioning hot colas in the hearth. The vision of the gleaming scarlet coals is meant to heighten the aesthetic experience of having tea. Whether it influences the water or not is hard to say, but seeing the bright coals glowing under the large cast iron teapot makes the guest feel warm and cared for, as if they were existentially "home". There are even ceremonies to mark the seasons by changing the hearth itself. The act of brewing water for tea is that important.

If you don't have the time or will to go to the mountains to collect water for tea and you don't happen to have a tea brewing hearth or fire pit nearby, you will probably, like most of us, be using tap water heated in a tea kettle on a gas or electric range. You can still attain an easily-met higher standard by simply filtering the water. You can find a variety of filters, some that are quite sophisticated and are installed in your water system, and some that are more basic, like a Brita® filter over a plastic jug. You can also do what I've seen done for Japanese tea ceremony, which is to put a special piece of whole-stalk bamboo charcoal into your tea kettle, which absorbs undesirable chemicals and odors while your water heats up. (These can be found in Asian tea shops and in places like San Francisco's Japantown). However you do it, it's worth the effort of filtering local tap water. Your tea will taste better this way.

As an extra note, the distillation process is said to rid water of the minerals that bind with the tea to bring out its best flavor and character, so you will not want to use distilled water for brewing tea.

IN A FORMER ECONOMIC COLLAPSE, Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous address to a frightened and ailing nation, said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  I would concur and also add that the most important thing we have to choose is discernment itself. And quality tea is one ofour greatest allies in this endeavor.

Discernment is our most precious renewable natural resource, and this concept should be especially appealing to the artisan tea and foodie crowd who welcome the opportunity to hone their palates. Discernment is the axis upon which our love of tea depends and upon which our survival relies as well.

It is good discernment that will save us as a society. The exact same discernment we use to identify and give value to one tea over another is the same quality we use to make decisions about the direction we choose to go in from now on.  The old ways of selling and buying meaningless and irrelevant products are falling away.  What will remain, one hopes, are the products and services that require the affection of our discernment, and as such, benefit us most profoundly in the present and in the future.

Without discernment, drinking teabag tea covered in pesticides would be just as good as sipping a wild tea handcrafted in the remote ancestral tea regions of China by people whose kin have known and tended these tea plants for generations. Those of us who love artisinal tea--perhaps we can call ourselves the "Slow Tea People"--will know the difference and will do what we can to support and defend good tea (and good food).  We instinctively know that in doing so, we support discernment itself. And discernment is survival.

As such, we support tea shops and tea houses that take the risk of buying and serving slightly more expensive teas that are worth drinking. Some think five dollars for a pot of tea is too dear, but we Slow Tea People consider all that we are drinking when we drink this "expensive" tea. For one, our keen discernment tells us we are drinking not just a beverage but a phenomenon. When we pay five dollars for a good pot of tea, we are also paying for the wisdom and responsibility of the tea farmer as well as an earth-friendly cosmology which informs us of our dependence on the soil, the plants, and the many creatures who share and nourish our planet.

Each time we sip a premium tea, we know we are consuming hundreds of years of craftsmanship and skill, and in so doing, we are supporting farmers who for generations have relied upon their own good discernment to protect, nourish and preserve the land. Our discernment in this case naturally leads us to protecting the land and its thoughtful caretakers, so that it will continue to support us. These tea farmers have an intimate understanding of nature and its rhythms and secrets. Our good discernment tells us this is worth five dollars.  It is our survival.

By drinking artisinal teas, we also naturally move into an elevated state of mind, a state that offers us the benefit of a heightened sense of discernment in all of our daily choices and activities, a state that helps us make good, sound decisions with long lasting constructive effects. In this intimate and direct way, tea also supports our personal discernment, which in turn, helps us to make good decisions within our own lives and relationships.  Tea brings out generosity and goodwill, the hallmarks of successful community and business.

As well, if we are in a tearoom or tea shop that serves premium tea, we are undoubtedly sipping our tea among interesting, thoughtful people. These are good people to be surrounded by during any kind of crisis, precisely because they have good discernment. 

In quality tea rooms, we also find ourselves enfolded in an ambiance imbued with fabulous art, be it teaware, photographs, sculpture, furniture, or paintings. Slow Tea People bring these objets d'art into their lives, because they know the value of beauty and craftsmanship, beyond just the obvious. They recognize and cherish symbols that  suggest humanity has the potential to be a successful endeavor at all. It encourages us, and reminds us that our creativity harbors the possibility of continually raising the bar of our potential.

This is one of the pivotal moments of our species, which demands that we consider what products and services we consume and support. This will happen of itself, without any prodding or pushing, because people are not able to afford everything they want at every moment they want it.  We will have to make hard choices and narrowly edit our selections  The paradigm of the moment can be summed up in a couple of words, perhaps "relevance" and "value".  And it is our discernment that will help us to identify what has relevance and value.  Drinking tea naturally supports excellent decision making because it heightens the quality of our discernment.

As such, we Slow Tea People will keep good tea and visiting quality tea rooms at the top of our list and in the "must have" section of our carefully honed budgets.  It is not that we "deserve it," we rely on it and know that it is a metaphor for our best chance at thriving.

Illustration ©2009 Jennifer Sauer

 I JUST FINISHED READING the book The Republic of Tea: Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur, by the company's original founders, Will Rosenzweig and Mel & Patricia Ziegler.  In a series of whimsical faxes exchanged during the early 1990s between Mel (as mentor) and Will (as mentee), Mel describes not only how to build a company from the ground up, but how to craft a life: "sip by sip, not gulp by gulp."  As the book progresses, Mel invites both his colleague, Will, and his readers to consider the benefits of Tea Mind-- the state of mind one enters at around cup number five, according to Tang Dynasty poet, Lu Tong who wrote, "At the fifth cup, I am purified," in his poem, Tea Drinking.

"I want what I have," Mel petitions the reader, through his advice to Will. This statement is at the nucleus of Tea Mind, and the raison d'etre of creating a tea business, particularly in a severe economic downturn.  Wanting what you have provides relief, particularly when you need a distraction from thinking about what you may recently have lost or might lose in the unknown future. Tea is a wonderful tonic for any depression, be it economic or physiological. Tea Mind comes naturally from drinking tea and taking time out of one's day to be quiet, observant and resident in his or her own stillness. It comes of itself, as easily as the steam. Tea Mind is enduring and even more important now than it was during that puny recession of the early 1990's when The Republic of Tea book was written (and the company founded).

Tea Mind is wanting what you have rather than angling to get what you want.  This small shift in words nudges the reader toward a huge yet simple segue in thinking and values. You find that wanting what you have is much more gratifying and takes much less energy than wanting things to be different.  "I want, I want, I want," says the incumbent monkey mind. Yet when you sit down and sip a rare, hand-crafted oolong made from the ancient trees of China, you suddenly look around, and although life and its present challenges are still the same, you somehow settle into yourself, and the need for things to change somehow evaporates like streaks of steam rising then disappearing from your cup.  Suddenly, you are still and empty, and simply enjoying the gorgeousness of the steam itself, its aroma mingling with the comfort of your favorite books sitting on the shelf, and the lovely color of your living room walls.

Life has changed, and you didn't do a thing, but drink some tea and start thinking differently. "Wow," says Tea Mind. "Steam, color, smell." Tea Mind is that simple:  "I want what I have."

~Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither~

Thumbnail image for DavidHoffman©2009BonTeavant.jpg 
I had the honor and pleasure of visiting famed tea master David Lee Hoffman and his wife, Bea, for tea not long ago.  An unsuspecting visitor might be tipped off by directions to David's home and private tea house that (s)he is in for a magical adventure:

"Come up the driveway, past the boat on the lake at right and chicken coop on left.  Pass the bell tower, bear to your right, walking up the brick path that leads to the tea house, and enter through the large steel doors on left. Pass through the stone tunnel below the tea house, up the brick steps, past the worm palace and moat on the left....."

I have suddenly become Dorothy searching for the (tea) wizard in a Chinese/Nepalese version of Oz. I would not be entirely surprised to see the Tin Man or the Scarecrow waving to me at any turn of the brick path.  Whimsical stone sculptures stand erect by half-built "castles" and towers. The brick path brings the visitor over bridges and streams and past ponds and chicken coops.  I wonder when the Lollypop Kids will appear to greet me. "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," I think to myself bemusedly.

Finally making it to the open-air deck of the Chinese-style tea house which faces a panoramic cathedral of old-growth redwood trees, I hear the music of male voices discussing the completion of a Japanese tile roof. "Helloooo???" I chime.  "I'm just coming down from the roof," I hear in response, as David magically flies down from above to welcome me to his kingdom. Neither hidden behind a curtain nor donning a cape, David appears before me.  He is as lovely, rustic, and authentic a character as his magnificent Chinese tea house with its gnarled-wood antique Chinese chairs and festive Nepalese prayer flags. We shake hands, and I return the quiet grin spreading beneath Hoffman's kind and curious gaze.

David's private tea house, to which guests are welcome by invitation only, is the ultimate place to savor the delights of tea and take in the lavish gifts of the magical redwood forest (not to mention David's inspiring company). But a late autumn chill drives us into David's home, as the tea house, for now, is unheated and open to the elements.  I have brought with me a photographic print as a gift for David and Bee, yet something in me wonders if I should have brought tea. It seemed imprudent at best, and cheeky at worst, to bring tea to someone whose legendary status in the U.S. tea world is dwarfed only by his reputation among Asian tea groupies, who follow him around China to find out which teas he will buy each season.

We enter David's warm and cozy home, which, like the tea house, faces out to the great  Northern California redwoods. "Did you bring your favorite tea?" he asks.  Hawks circle the air.  I shake my head.  "Not this time," I say, feeling a bit sheepish.  I look around the wood-and-glass home to see the lovely gifts of nature David and Bee have collected, as well as some Asian art and writings.  One piece of writing tacked to a beam in the house especially moves me:

              "These three ways
              lead to the heavens:
              asserting the truth,
              not yielding to anger,
              and giving......."
                        ----Dhammapada, verse 224

David is indeed generous, bringing out three different pu-erh teas to taste, one in a bamboo casing, one a cake, and one a loose tea. He steeps the teas in ceramic gaiwans, lining them up, each behind a tasting cup, so we can taste the brews, one after the other.  He pours the rinse water into a three-legged earthen frog, which he loves because of its stability, and it's mirroring of the Chinese belief in the strength of three-pillared bases.
"Which tea do you think is the oldest?" he asks me later.  "How do you judge the age of a tea?" I ask.  He says there are many factors, each of which can be faked.  Hmmmmm....All of the teas are smooth, and each has a very different and distinctive aroma and flavor.  One is brisk, vegetal, and almost astringent; one is mossy and changes on the tongue, and one is very earthy, the "dirt" taste many associate with pu-erhs.

One tea has a particular depth and, as I decide not to risk flaunting my ignorance, I wait for him to tell me that it is this complex tea which is the oldest.  "Probably around 1992," he says.  "This tea is much darker than the other two," he offers, pointing to a different tea, "so some might guess this to be the oldest tea. But the darkness of the tea doesn't mean its older. It's this other tea here which is the oldest", and he points to the tea in the middle, the mossy one with the personality that keeps growing and shifting with such subtlety.

The afternoon moves forward, the tall trees tossing themselves into a rose sunset.  It is time to go, to let David relax after a long day of working on the roof, which has been in the making for years and years, David says.  We promise to meet again. "Next time, I will bring tea," I add.

"Can you find your way out?" David asks. I assure him I can, although within moments of departing, I find myself in a maze of tunnels, trees, streams, and collected things that have not yet found permanent homes.  I click my heels three times.......


TEA ILLUMINATO,James Norwood Pratt, and his lovely Lady Valerie invited me over to share tea and Evensong this week. Evensong is an enchanting, half-hour, weekday afternoon ritual of music and prayer held at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral onNob Hill. Our mutual love of Camelia sinensis combines well with our shared interest in ritual, prayer, devotion,and music, and creates a magical afternoon that some can only dream of.

To enter Norwood and Valerie's home in North Beach is to discover a temple of tea and culture. The aura of literature and art, with its books, busts, and religious icons, wash over the visitor like fragrant notes of a fine tea.

Norwood is devoted--to tea and more deeply and personally, to his sense of the more subtle structures of the universe with its sky-blue porcelain gods, earth-green teas, and amber-brown, leather-clad beckonings of Goethe. Valerie is a lovely English woman whose gentle and intelligent bearing remind one that femininity is both strong and soft.  With ember-red hair, and a liquid awareness about her blue eyes, Valerie offers perhaps more with her attentive and quiet demeanor as most others do with their many words.

What moves me most about Norwood is not only the depth of his knowledge about tea, history, art and literature, but the depth of his spirit. His Southern manners prevent him from flaunting his sturdy intellect, so it slowly seeps into you like a soft, fine mist. I get the sense that he will meet whatever level of mental faculty is offered by his companion, but his gentle kindness and humility would not permit him to brandish overly rigorous thoughts that might elude or intimidate his guest.

Despite his bearing of refinement, Norwood is also magnificently irreverent. One of my favorite art pieces in Norwood's home is a clay cast bust (made by San Francisco sculptor Harriet Moore) of Norwood himself, sporting a large, floppy English afternoon tea hat which Norwood has apparently placed on its head. Norwood loves to poke fun at himself, and this makes him not only endearing inside his gigantic persona as the country's foremost tea expert, but more approachable as well.

Valerie offers me the best seat in the living room, a red leather, high-backed chair facing the San Francisco Bay with its toy sailboat views. We try our first tea, a 2008 spring harvest Tung Ting oolong,  which I brought with me as an offering. Norwood steeps the tea in a lovely white porcelain vessel, custom designed by his friend, Jason Chen, who is the owner of Lu Yu Tea in Bellevue, Washington. The infuser looks like a tall tea cup with an elongated filter. We drink from large white porcelain tea cups, antiques seemingly worn with the ancient sipping of old Chinese tea drinkers. The tea is delicious, and Norwood approves. He is especially pleased, as he has been focusing intently on oolongs for the past six months, he says.  I breathe easier, and the level of revelry between us swirls and rises.

We then try a very special tea, Golden Lily, from Lu Yu Tea. This tea was really spectacular. Just a few kilos of this organically grown and hand-processed tea is made available, and then only to tea maker Jason Chen's closest friends. Apparently Chen owns many hectares of land in the Zhejiang and Fujian provinces of China, where he oversees the growing, harvesting, and processing of his own organic teas. The tea label includes information on the tea's origin, altitude at which it was grown, harvest season, and steeping suggestions--all the information a connoisseur would want to know about a tea (s)he is purchasing. We finish with a lovely Te Kuan Yin, an homage to the goddess Norwood reveres.

"So what makes a great tea, Norwood?", I ask.

"In my opinion, the tea plant is the highest form of vegetation. It is always a combination of heaven, earth, and man -- heaven being everything above ground, earth being the ground and everything below it, and of course, the influence of man relates to the growing, harvesting, processing and brewing of the tea plant. A great tea is made when all three of these factors combine, each at their best and in perfect harmony with each other."

Two hours of discussion and tea evanesce into wisps of fine memories, and we hasten out the door to walk up the hill to Grace Cathedral, which is both grand and graciously welcoming, like my hosts. We sit in chairs on the altar, right by the Grace Men & Boys Choir. Hearing the child voices mingle with adult voices creates a wonderful wand of energy passing over the church. Together, Norwood, Valerie and I sing and pray, voices lifted to the lovely arched ceilings and stained glass masterpieces.

As we leave, Norwood pays respects to a special corner of the cathedral that holds a statue of "Saint" John Donne. "Now this is the kind of saint I can really pray to," says Norwood. "You wouldn't want to trust praying to a saint that was always only good. Donne is the saint of writers and poets," he says with a bemused smile, and gently bows to St. John Donne.


and tea culture in San Francisco's Chinatown, what first surprised me was the vast array of teas available. Pu-erhs. bao zhongs, senchas, maatchas, keemuns. Old growth teas, red teas, teas that wind you up and teas that quiet the mind and body. Teas that make you meditate and teas that make you chat nonstop. Wow.

Having previously studied plant energetics with a Native American herbalist, I understood that the character of a tea would be determined by the way it was grown, harvested, and processed, as well as by the integrity and intention of the grower.  Discussions with local tea masters confirmed these presuppositions. These tea specialists mentioned other influences on a tea's final character, including the elements of nature and geography that gave it life--the elevation at which it was grown, the climate, the quality of soil and light, and even which side of the mountain it was grown on. 

So too would the age of the tree have an impact.  Some teas come from trees that are hundreds of years old.  As such, when you drink these teas, you drink not only what is present, but what has passed through these trees for centuries--the soil, atmosphere, water and climate hundreds of years ago is still in this tea!  And if this is true, perhaps your tea might even hold the chanting and prayers of the Buddhist and Taoist monks who did and still do people the caves and havens in the remote mountainous ares where teas are often grown.  If you are very sensitive (or simply imaginative), you might feel these profound influences as you sip your tea.

In researching tea's history for The Way to Tea, I learned that tea was introduced from one continent to another almost exclusively by healers and monks. Buddhist and Taoist monks sent tea to different parts of Asia, and Portuguese Christian missionaries living in China were the first to report back to Europeans of the existence of tea.  So the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, has this personal history and trajectory, this vivacity and benevolence of spirit. It has invited the attention and appreciation of the most sensitive individuals among us.

Of the hundreds of thousands of plants on the earth, why has tea consistently been the beverage chosen by the most keenly perceptive humans for at least a thousand years, and perhaps many thousands of years more?  Why not dandelion, elder flower, nettles, or chamomile?  What is this magic held by Camellia sinensis?

Very simply, this is the nature and character of tea. As with the many mysteries that shall remain so.

So, go out, friends, and delight in our fabulous tea culture.  Commune with the tea, with yourself, and with your old and newfound friends.  See how your mind and body change when you drink each tea.  Go for a tea tasting at any of our great tearooms, marvel at the varieties of teas and how they make you feel. 

lu yu

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LU YU, AUTHOR OF THE FIRST comprehensive book on tea culture (before there was such a concept), was intellectually rigorous, but at the same time, soulful and intuitive.  These are the qualities found in a lot of great tea people today, which is why those of us who love tea are drawn to other tea people as well. 

Lu Yu's understanding of tea was paralleled by his love of nature (the true source of any good cup of tea), from choosing the right plant, the right farming and processing methods, to, finally, using the right kind of water in which to brew the tea.  In his book, The Classic of Tea, Lu Yu distinguishes between several different sources of water to optimize the steeping of tea:

"I would suggest that tea made from mountain streams is best, river water is all right, but well water tea is quite inferior....Never take tea made from water that falls in cascades, gushes from springs, rushes in a torrent or that eddies and surges as if nature were rinsing its mouth."

Lu Yu understood the elements of nature and how they played into the final expression of a good cup of tea. He therefore responded to that understanding with cooperation and respect. What initially seems like a personal preference actually has several layers of universal awareness, expediency, and action behind it.

First, water has its own nature, depending on where it comes from and the particular characteristics of its origin.  Tea made from well water will be inferior to tea that springs from a mountain stream, says Lu Yu.  Why?  Perhaps because mountain water is WILD.  What could be more exotic, intoxicating, memorable, and love-inducing than wild tea made from wild water?  Then there is the tea plant and its leaves.  Are the tea leaves from an ancient tree or a young bush?  Was it grown high on the mountain, near lavendar or jasmine or onions?  What time of day was it harvested? Who processed it and with what tools?  How would a machine-processed tea differ from a tea that is lovingly processed with attention and care by the farmer who harvested it? 

These are the questions asked by true tea people, like Master Yu.  Inside these questions lies at least one basic premise: that all beings and objects possess their own nature, or spirit. The tea, the water, the hoe, the hand that plucks and processes the tea, the wok in which it is roasted, and the container in which it is finally packaged--all of these beings and objects influence the tea, not only because of their material composition, but because of the nature and energy they possess.  Otherwise, why would Lu Yu differentiate between river and mountain stream water, or water that gushes rather than sits quietly in a pool?  Although all water is H2O, not all water is the same in spirit or character. And I don't mean just hard or soft water, chlorinated or fluoridated water, but really the energy and nature of the water's source.

This harkens back to nature-based cosmologies in which believers recognize the inherent and particular spirit imbued in each place, object, and being.  We all know it is there, whether we openly acknowledge this eternal truth or not.  Who has not fallen in love with some very personal place--a forest, a quiet beach, a stretch of land that beckons?  Some mystery falls upon a such a place, and we appreciate it even if we can't put a name on it. 

Everything in this paradigm speaks of the intimate network of nature that is required for good tea--and the tea is very very good because it suggests a path to healthy sustainable living and survival.  Not only physical survival, but spiritual survival--the very inclination to love life itself. We are all made of the same stuff:  water, leaf, hand, sun, wok, Chinese paper with pretty designs.  We know goodness better than we know math. We smell and taste it, we see it, fringing the edges of the quietly smiling tea master, who chooses to process his tea with his bare hands rather than with a machine.  Everything in him speaks of the goodness of tea and life. 


What do you think about organic teas?