Now and Zen – tea tales from around the world by Nadia RaafatIt can be a cool summer tonic or a winter warming drink. Some would even describe it as an elixir in a glass – synonymous with tranquillity. But no matter how you steep it, the drink remains the same – tea.
Earl Grey, Lapsong Souchong, jasmine, Assam, Ceylon, breakfast blend and afternoon; while these tea types and blends are on most tea fans’ shelves, these varieties and names barely touch the subject. If you had a single tin of each sort, you’d probably need an extra kitchen to store them all in, with something like over 1,500 varieties of tea available today.
This is even more amazing when you consider they’re all produced from one plant, Camellia sinensis. This remarkable tropical evergreen’s discovery can be traced to China and parts of India where the plant is indigenous.
Legend has it that in 2737 BCE, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was boiling some water under a tree when some leaves from the tree fell into the pot. He found the result to be, to his delight, a great improvement over the taste of plain water.
You have to wonder if he realised that day, this accidental brew of his would become the world’s most consumed beverage – after water.
Tea and feng shui
The ancient Chinese revered their tea and its beneficial health properties from the beginning. Eventually tea took on sacred properties and came to be associated with the spirituality of the day – Buddhism. As Buddhism then travelled from India through China and onto Japan with the monks of that time, so did tea.
But attitudes changed.
By the time of the enlightened Tang dynasty in the 7th century, tea was being drunk primarily for its taste, boiled with flavourings such as ginger or salt. Lu Yu, a sage and hermit of the time, devoted an entire book, the Ch’a Ching, to its study saying:
“The best quality teas must have creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like a fine earth newly swept by rain.”
“There is no trouble so great or so grave that cannot be diminished by a nice cup of tea”
The Chinese tea ceremony, from which the Japanese version most probably evolved, is known as the Cha Tao tea ceremony and came from this time. Although less Westerners are aware of it than its well known Japanese counterpart, it is still very much in practise in China and throughout Chinese communities world-wide.
While less formal that the Japanese style, its procedures all carry significance and meaning – all intrinsically related to feng shui.
In the Cha Tao manner, tea is prepared in a special pot made from unglazed purple clay. This is to represent the Earth element. These pots will be crafted by a Master craftsman who will shape it according to the type of tea it will hold and the brewing technique that is to be used.
“The Chinese consider tea to be like wine,” says Hi Ching, Director of Teatotal, a London-based organisation designing what will be the largest Chinese Tea House in Europe. “Some teas, like Puerh tea can be brewed all day and stored for up to 25-30 years whereas Spring tea is as fresh as the unpicked bud.”
In the Cha Tao style, the water for the tea must be extremely pure. In the old days, purists would try to catch snow from a mountain blizzard as this was considered to be purer than ground water.
During every stage of the Chinese tea ceremony, respect is accorded to the auspicious plant. Good tea was the result of good environmental feng shui and required all the five Elements to flourish, as much as possible during Cha Tao, these Elements must be given credit.
In drinking it we drink sheng ch’i which must not be marred by any extenuating circumstances – like dust, which is why the first infusion was, and still is, often thrown away.
The ceremony would be conducted in a special pavilion, placed to bring together the best of everything. It would be a type of contemplation and a celebration of nature through recreating it in the making and drinking of the tea.
The Japanese tea ceremony
Tea arrived in the courts of Japan around the time of the 9th century.
Some three hundred years later, the founder of Rinzai Zen, introduced tea to the samurai class. From here, Zen Buddhism and the tea ceremony probably developed alongside each other until the two became inseparable. Chado, or The Way of Tea, became a metaphor for the beliefs of Zen Buddhism and vice versa.
“A famous intellectual visited a master to learn about Zen. The master while serving him tea just kept on pouring until the cup over-flowed spilling tea everywhere. When the intellectual expressed horror at what the master was doing, the master said: ‘The cup is full and can take no more tea unless I first empty it. In the same way your mind is full of ideas and before I can teach you Zen, you must first empty it’.”
Those early Zen masters who developed the tea ceremony thought that through its path, we could all achieve harmony, respect and purity, which would then open the door to tranquillity.
The ceremony today is usually performed in a specially designed room in a home, or in a tea house within a private garden. The full Chaji (ceremony) involves a meal and the serving of two different varieties of green tea and can last up to four hours.
Each occasion has its own unique atmosphere depending upon the scrolls you hang, the flowers you display, the teas selected and the food you serve.
Guests are not greeted as they arrive at the door but instead are guided through a series of open doors to a waiting room. Here they are served a small porcelain cup of hot water taken from the tea-room as a taster of the water that will be used. The guests then quietly exit into the garden where they are met halfway by the host who greets them silently with a bow.
According to tradition, this silent passage through the garden symbolises disassociation from the everyday world. It is a chance for guests to gather and clarify their senses and be inspired by the sound of trickling water and the visual beauty of plants.
The entrance to the tea room is so small that guests must stoop in order to pass through – a symbolic gesture of humility. Once inside, guests stop to admire the kettle, which will prepare their tea, and a scroll depicting Zen Buddhist characters which decorates the wall.
In Zen, everything, which is not necessary, is left out; this thinking applies to the mind as well as the physical setting – every utensil has a specific purpose, every placement has a specific meaning. Nothing is superfluous or incidental.
Guests kneel down on rice straw (tatami) mats, sit back on their heels and partake of the hostís light meal. The finest foods will be used and must include produce from the mountains and the rivers. After the repast, the guests quietly withdraw to the garden while the host freshens the room, withdraws the scroll and places fresh flowers in the vase.
The guests then return to the highlight of the ceremony, the sharing of a bowl of thick tea (prepared by mixing powdered green tea matcha into boiling water with a bamboo whisk) and served with sweet cake. A second round of tea uses a thin green blend, which is served to guests in individual bowls accompanied by sugary sweetmeats. Final greetings are exchanged and the guests leave.
Throughout the ceremony, the host focuses entirely on serving the tea, the guests on drinking and enjoying it. In doing so, both guests and host focus completely on the present moment and accord each other total and utter respect, irrespective of social rank or professional standing.
A disciple of Zen and tea master Sen Rikyu asked him what are the most important things that must be understood and kept in mind at a tea gathering.
Sen Rikyu answered:
“Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.”
The disciple was dissatisfied with this answer because he could not find anything in it of great importance. Rikyu replied:
“Then if you can host a tea gathering without deviating from any of the rules I have just stated, I will become your disciple.”
The deceptive simplicity of Chado accords a basic daily act as tea-making all the status of a ceremony and the weightiness of the art of life.
The tea plant, harvested twice-yearly during the Spring and late Summer, produces three basic types of tea; black, oolong and green tea. Black tea is fully oxidised, roasted and fermented; oolong tea is fermented or semi-green and green tea is unoxidised. Spring green tea is the freshest tea available.
The main producers of tea are India, Sri Lanka, China, and parts of Africa though tea is now even produced in South America and Australia.
Green tea – A different shade
In the West, we mostly drink black tea. But now as more Eastern habits, foods tastes penetrate the Western market, green tea with all its health properties is finding its way into kitchen cupboards the Western world over.
Aside from being a super anti-oxidant which helps protect the body from the damage caused by harmful free radicals – one that is 25 times more powerful than Vitamin C and 100 times more potent than Vitamin A – green tea is a natural astringent that helps your body to retain moisture. Its caffeine content is also much lower; 8-36 mg per cup as opposed to a black tea’s caffeine content of between 25-110 mg per cup.
An old Taoist trick, for those who prefer decaffeinated green tea, is to pour hot water over the leaves and let them soak for 30 seconds, then pour off this first round of water. This exercise will rid you of 80 % of the caffeine leaving you with a full-flavoured green tea with a much lower level of caffeine.
The last cup
To transpose all that comprises the history of tea – the philosophies it has inspired, the books written and lines composed, the ceremonies made in its honour, the friendships forged over it, the utensils designed to serve it, the peace achieved through sharing it, would take more space than this article permits. Suffice it to say then, this most humble of drinks has reached mythological proportions. Emperor Sheng Nung would be delighted.