Spring Seasonal Tea Club 2021
The kettle whispers and hums through the early morning air as I unwrap a cake of warming, aged shou puerh. Here in Southern Colorado, a snowy early morning squall passed through the mountains. The heavy boughs of the Aspen trees bow towards the earth, reminding us that spring is yet to arrive. For the spring offering, we always include a dark Puerh to bide the time until the pansies, snap dragons, violets and iris officially mark the arrival of the new season. To our tea friends, old and new, we’re overjoyed to share the second season of the fourth year of the tea club. We aspire to improve this offering with each passing season, and hope you agree. For all of us, this past year has been unimaginably challenging, and we believe that spring will bring new activity, inspiration and energy. We also hope that this “long winter” has provided the opportunity for deep reflection, introspection, and prioritization of what truly matters in life. Here at Living Tea, we find ourselves still unable to open Mountain Gate Teahouse, which has allowed us more time to truly connect with the mission of our offering. This reflective period has edified our commitment to embody and share the Way of Tea in new and creative ways. We’re incredibly grateful that you’re along with us on this journey and hope you find tremendous value in this seasonal offering.
For those of you new to the tea club, you may feel like you’ve stepped into the middle of an ongoing, thought-provoking conversation. In fact, you are. However, this is a circular conversation much like the seasons and many of the Eastern arts. This way of experiencing a subject matter disrupts the linear, rational mode of learning common in the West This approach is by design and for good reason. This cyclical way of learning is not about acquiring data and knowledge, but rather about including yourself in the learning process. Information alone leads to knowledge, while true learning leads to understanding and transformation. True, lasting insights into tea, human nature and the universe do not happen through a “paint-by-number” process, they happen when judgments, beliefs and ideologies are put aside, or at least, passively unobtrusive in the fresh observations. This approach is particularly important in this season’s exploration: Zen and the Way of Tea.
As many of you know, we are exploring Six Pillars of the Way of Tea through each seasonal offering. These pillars move from the innermost to outermost: Meditation, Virtue, Vitality, Tradition, Methodology and Community. Each season, we add deeper layers to each of the pillars. Last spring explored tea in the metamodern age; last summer explored health in the context of Covid; the fall tea club explored Meditation, while the winter 2020 offering explored Virtue. Many of the previous tea clubs, available on our blog, have explored the pillar of Vitality in depth through the subjects of diet, herbalism, movement, seasonal living, traditional Chinese medicine and the effects of different teas. Having discussed the first three pillars in the past year, we are beginning a deeper dive into the fourth pillar, Tradition. Throughout history, many different traditions in the East have used tea and tea preparation as a mindfulness practice, a moving meditation, a living art and an aid for long hours of meditation. For that reason, we incorporate principles and practices from those traditions in our relationship to tea. For this tea club, we will be exploring one very important tradition that has reverentially regarded the Leaf for many centuries: ZEN. Entire books have been written on Zen and Tea, and thus, we only wish to contribute a chapter. Hopefully, some of the observations here will enrich your tea practice and bring it to life in a new way.
Zen and The Way of Tea
An old Zen saying: With no bird singing, the mountain is yet more still. Writing an article about Zen and Tea is a silly, futile endeavor and a perfect use of time. Nothing is to be gained by writing, and certainly not by reading it. What a waste, you might think to yourself. Pour a cup of tea slowly and enter Zen here, at the doorway of pointlessness. Right here, reading this useless article, you are smack dab in the center of the doorless zendo, the tips of your thumbs just barely touching in your lap, nowhere else to go. Zen enriches no one. It does not move you forward or elevate you. It settles you beyond the search for truth. It is waiting beyond your opinions about reality, about anything really. Westerners especially struggle with this transrational finger-pointing. I once read a book by Alan Watts called The Way of Zen and recall writing in the margin, “I don’t get it.” It was a wonderful and profound book on Zen. Sen no Rikyū, a 16th Century teacher of chanoyu, the Japanese “Way of Tea,” taught that if one’s life were any different without tea, then they do not yet understand it. Tea is easier to approach. There’s stuff to do. One can study tea from so many different angles, appreciate it in so many different ways. And for many, the study of tea can guide them up to the edge of Zen, where they might realize the indistinguishability of the two, along with everything else in the universe. One can “study” Zen, but that’s mostly the study of aims and methods, history, culture, schools and people. It’s not really Zen. Zen is more interested in experience and insight than in intellectual understanding. To that end, Rikyu emphasized rustic simplicity, directness of approach and honesty of self. These are relatively easy ideas to talk about, yet extraordinarily difficult principles to embody in one’s tea practice and daily meanderings through life. Or maybe they aren’t. It’s hard to say. Let’s explore some tenets of Zen as they relate to tea, and perhaps these insights will help us find the order and meaning in our tea life to which the words and actions of many Zen-trained people bear witness.
The realities of life are most authentically seen in everyday things and actions. There is a saying that the two greatest passions of a tea-lover are: seasoning their teaware and repurposing non-tea items for tea ceremony. In the mad rush for stimulation that our dopamine-drip technological frenzy of a modern culture values, we lack the attention to care for humdrum experiences and observations. The daily practice of tea works as an antidote to this limited and limiting way of life. After all, what could be more prosaic than a cup of tea. By incorporating elements of nature and repurposing them for tea practice, we turn our daily walk through the woods into an opportunity for deeper observation. The twisted twig becomes an elegant tea pick, the mossy flat rock finds a new home as a tea table, the falling Autumn leaves transform into scattered leaves across the tea stage- a reminder of the changing seasons and the impermanence of all things, as well as a reminder of another Zen tenet that everything exists in relation to other things. We season our teaware through daily use and punctuate our daily practice with repurposed natural objects, thus we enter more deeply into a life of tea by being more attentive to the world around us. By bringing the subtle flair of Zen to our tea practice, we recognize that the objects we use belong to our familiar earth, our home. There’s no “out there,” or “that thing we use,” but rather the beautiful living objects that come and go from our lives. Many people treat tea and teaware as an exercise in hoarding and collecting. One 17th Century venerable tea person named Basho poked fun at this human tendency in saying:
If I could bundle
Fuji’s breezes back to town.
What a souvenir!
Everything exists according to its own nature. Our individual perceptions of worth, size, beauty, correctness and value exist inside our heads, not outside them. Another common reflection from our tea tradition is that if you take 20 grams of precious aged tea and 20 grams of common plantation tea, throw them in the forest, you get 40 grams of dirt. How reliable are your perceptions, much less your opinions? In the world of tea, there’s a lot of hype about the age of a tea, the mystical misty mountain from whence it came, the sequestered holy tea monks who bequeathed the tea, the super sacred state of consciousness that one embodies in taking pictures of themselves for instagram while drinking said tea. Tea production requires hard work, as does the life of a monk, and both deserve respect. However, humans have a tendency to add a shiny veneer over everything, and in doing so, they lose the beautiful naturalness of the thing sans the sparkles and fireworks. In our voyeuristic culture, we’re often more concerned with how things appear than how they actually are. Great Zen art, including tea ceremony, celebrates the objects and people without all the pomp and circumstance. The great achievement of someone who has lived a long life of tea and Zen is that they are utterly themselves, which in most cases is pretty contended and normal. Humans are always squirming about, attempting to be more than we are, while flowers bloom calmly.
There is no ego in the sense of an endlessly enduring, unchanging private soul or personality that temporarily inhabits the body. The best tea sessions are not determined by the person hosting the ceremony and how well they “performed” the ceremony. It’s also not about the guests, nor the tea and teaware, the music and incense, the beautiful tea space. The mysterious element that sublimates a tea ceremony to a transcendent experience can be found in the space between all of these elements. The dance of form and emptiness, the space given to each, and the going beyond identity and categorization- these elements bring the ceremony together. The more a tea ceremony is about the brewer, the less room there is for the guest to experience the power of all the elements working together, the less room for the guest to be taken beyond their own identity by the beauty of the moment.
What are you? The you that is always the same is fictional. Fictional means “created.” The fictional you, who has a social security number, a driver’s license number, a credit card number from each of a dozen companies, and so on, does exist unchanged. This person’s name is on checks and application forms and letters. This person exists in filing cabinets and computers. But the living you who signs the income-tax form and the living you who signs a love letter are quite different. The person who signs an application for a social security number at sixteen is immeasurably different from the one who signs for social security payments at sixty-five. The goof at golf is the panther at ping-pong.
As you sit here quietly, enjoy your quiet self, and hopefully a cup of tea. Forget your active self for a moment. Such forgetting is not a denial of real self. There is no real self to deny- a self that persists always in one pattern, one mood, one degree of intelligence, one turn of affection. The living you is always changing. Best to accept yourself as you are now. We are lifted in each moment by a different wave, blown by a wind from a different direction, charmed or threatened by a different coastline. We respond to the same stimuli in different ways from one day to the next. Two tea ceremonies with the same tea and wares are never the same. In fact, nothing is ever the same, not because of it, but because of you.
Into the cold night
I spoke aloud… But the voice was
No voice I knew.
This could be quite startling to someone who believes that he is always the same person, and that his ego always speaks with the same voice. When brewing tea for another, it might be helpful to think, “life is brewing tea for this dear friend.” The ego is stubborn- my status, my pride, my financial and occupational security, the appreciation of my virtues and talents by loved ones- must remain unchanged. The price we pay for the illusion of an unchanging soul or ego is our engagement in an unrelenting lawsuit with our environment.
Tea can teach us to loosen up the burden of this lawsuit. The water flows- sometimes serenely in wide, quiet places, sometimes dashed through rapids and buffeted on rocks. This flow pleases the artist, enriches the farmer, fills the ocean, rises as vapor over the surface of the earth to fall as rain and snow, feeding the springs which fill the river which flows on. Is the water really the river, or the pleasure, or the enrichment, or the evaporation-precipitation cycle, or the element bringing these humble tea leaves to life? Not one of these-because all. It flows. We live.
Being a spectator while one is also a participant spoils one’s performance. One saying in Zen is, “When you eat, eat; when you sleep, sleep.” How many of us suffer indigestion after hurrying through a meal in order to get to the next activity? How often have we struggled to fall asleep, lying wide awake in bed for hours, ruminating on ideas, fears, hopes and worries? How many tennis matches have been lost by thinking about winning while returning a serve? The disease of thinking about our actions while we are acting can be particularly venomous in Zen arts. The ink painting absorbs the ink at the moment the brushes touches the painting without the possibility of erasure. The flow of the tea ceremony is disrupted by an oversteeped bitter infusion, with all subsequent infusions lacking vigor and flavor. Thinking and acting must proceed without hesitation, without second thought, without distraction. By being fully present unto the activity, there exists little room for contrivance, excess and distraction. The brewer is one with what they are doing, brewing with the entirety of their being. This attentiveness allows the brewer to avoid polluting the purity of an action with thoughts about how they are performing. For this reason, we call it a “tea practice” because without repeated attempts, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain a single-pointed focus on the action. We are overly concerned with what and how we are doing what we’re doing, rather than being totally present to what we’re doing. In tai chi, qi gong or martial arts, we must develop muscle memory of a form, after many months or years of practice, before we can tap into the deeper subtle energetics of the movements. This is true too for tea ceremony.
The long night:
The sound of the water
Says my thought.
The water does not comment on the night or on itself. Its sounds are part of the night- and so is Gochiku.
How one approaches their relationship to tea is entirely up to them, like all things, but I’d like to suggest that we experiment with bringing a bit more Zen to our tea. Rather than focusing solely on the tea, teaware and “doing” of tea, might we also allow more stillness, mind-expanding emptiness and reverberating silence to our practice? What would it mean to allow intuitive contact with Nature to pervade our tea sessions? What if we let go of the flow of words, the flow of inferences and judgments and speculations, and allow for an awareness that life is other than and sometimes quite different from what we say about it. Without a word, might we enjoy a simple cup of tea.
SPRING TEA COLLECTION
Living Tea seeks out farms or wild tea gardens that have a healthy, reverent relationship to all aspects of tea production. The following are qualities of a Living Tea: seed propagation instead of trees from grafted clippings with shallow roots, plenty of room for the trees to grow instead of tight rows like you see on tea plantations, biodiverse growing regions instead of clear-cut mountainsides or valleys, growing practices that avoid all chemicals including pesticides, chemical weed-killers and fertilizers, no irrigation, and living wages for all employees.
For a tea person, this time of the year marks a shift in lifestyle, activity, and orientation. We gradually transition from dark, earthy, grounding brews into lighter, floral, uplifting teas., Dark red teas, and young to mid sheng Puerhs are ideal for early Spring, while Qimen red teas, Baozhong, Dan Cong, Yencha Rock oolongs, green and white teas come out later in Spring. We generally explore more gongfu cha, brewing these delicate teas in small zisha pots with small porcelain cups, honing the craft of the perfect brew. We also enjoy early morning bowl tea sessions with large-leaf loose teas. This important time of the year is about growth, expansion, and creativity. Having conserved and cultivated our inner reserves during the winter, we welcome the lush growth of spring through sweet, opening, ethereal teas.
We recommend using 3-4 g. of tea per session, or simply, use enough leaves to lightly cover the bottom of the pot. For Parasol Matcha, however, we recommend brewing 1 to 2 tsp. of the concentrated matcha powder. Sift the matcha into a small bowl (chawan) to get rid of any lumps, then pour in 2 ounces of water between 175-185 F. Using a matcha whisk, whisk briskly from side to side until the matcha is fully dispersed and there is a foamy layer on top. Add roughly 6 ounces more of the same temperature water or steamed milk and whisk again until foamy. Sweeten to taste, if desired. Find bowls and whisks at livingtea.net. For Hidden Temple Green Tea, we recommend brewing between 185 and 195 D. Brew the first five to six steepings for very short periods (2-4 seconds). For Golden Sun and Eye of Heaven, we recommend brewing with water between 200 and 210 D Fahrenheit, just shy of a rolling boil, pouring off the first flash steeping to “awaken the leaves.” The practice of short steepings is different than European tea whereby you steep the tea for a long time. Eye of Heaven is an aged shou puerh, which is technically more of a winter tea. We included it because it’s an extraordinary tea, ideal for the month of February before spring really begins, and also because it is calming and nice in the afternoon or evening. Golden Sun and Jade River are the most uplifting teas, better for the morning.
Parasol - Ceremonial Grade Stone-ground Matcha from Uji Japan
With a velvety ample body and perfectly balanced bittersweetness, this Japanese matcha is one-of-a-kind. Parasol is very finely ground, picked from the uppermost highest-quality leaves, and shade-grown, which yields a higher content of theanine and caffeine. This combination yields the strong calm energy that tea lovers appreciate in matcha. Matcha is best fresh so we recommend refrigerating it if you do not intend to drink in the next month.
Hidden Temple - Bao Shan Yunnan Green Tea
Picked in the Spring of 2020 near the border of Myanmar (Bao Shan Prefecture), Hidden Temple is a beautiful fresh spring green tea. With 3000 meter peaks and mountainous terrain, the home of this tea maintains cooler weather than other parts of Yunnan, and thus is picked later in the season in late April. Hidden Temple is fully hand-processed, maintaining a long shelf-life and great patience in brewing. Nutty, cooling, pleasantly bitter, aromatic and invigorating, this beautiful tea is wonderful in the morning or midday as we enter the warmer months.
Golden Sun - Yunnan Golden Bud Red Tea
This organic black comes from the area of Simao, harvested during the Spring flush 2020 at an altitude of 1300 meters. Golden Sun is grown on the southern slope of Ma Wei Mountain west of Pu'er City. The processing is typical of black tea with sun withering, rolling, oxidation (three hours) and drying. This robust Yunnan red tea consists of one leaf and one bud plucking. The taste is strong with chocolatey fruit and vegetal notes. The leaf and bud sets give a complex, full-bodied strong taste and mouthfeel. We recommend brewing it many times Gong Fu or bowl tea style. In the words of one tea lover, Golden Sun engages the entire sensorium- deep, rich, dark, mesmerizing, transporting.
Eye of Heaven - Aged Menghai Ripe Puerh Mini Tuocha 2006
Thick, full-bodied, nicely balanced with a brisk brassiness around the periphery of the palate, Eye of Heaven is a beautifully drinkable tea in a little package. One finds qualities of cream, squash blossom, straw, hazelnut and dark wood. The finish is smooth and the age has lent complexity to the mouthfeel. We love the balanced contrast of depth and brightness. This is the first mini tuocha we've offered, and we find it the ideal traveling companion when we don't have a full setup of teaware. The tuochas are convenient and easily brewed, requiring only one to two per tea session. They also hold up well for a nice long tea session in a zisha pot, opening slowly.