Seasonal Tea Club 2021
The Art of Life in Autumn
The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.
The unnameable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
Of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery
Caught in desire, you see
Only the manifestations.
-Tao Te Ching-
The late summer afternoon rains arrived early and plentiful this year. Perched amidst high cliff crags, the enormity and stability of the mountains becomes apparent. Slow heavy clouds, pregnant with water, float over distant peaks. The bustle of our mountain town, far below, seems insignificant against the magnificence of the surroundings. At this time of year, the rivers are full and steady, the early deluge from snowmelt having passed. The rush of verdant growth in spring and early summer slows to a sweet pace. Wild strawberries and raspberries ripen, along with honeysuckle, snowberries and red flowering currants. The forest is alive with the song of trees, flowers, medicinal and edible plants, and this year, mushrooms. Oysters, shaggy mane, amanita muscaria, and the highly-prized chanterelles and porcinis. To wander the forest is to turn our eyes to the ground, and without intending it, to find ourselves lost in wonder. The mushrooms are living memories of dead trees that tell stories of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong to this story as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen to this story is to press a stethoscope to the skin of the landscape, to hear what stirs below, to bring attention to our wonder and curiosity.
In the forest, the story of trees emerges from relationships. One aspen tree is actually only a small part of a larger, singular organism with the main life force underground in the extensive root system. Before a single aspen trunk appears above the surface, the root system may lie dormant for many years until the conditions are just right. A symphony of vibration and movement between minerals, bacteria, mycelium, plants, animals, bird song, seasonal changes, sunlight, and moonshine all work together to subvert the atomistic view of trees as detached individuals. We’re all- trees, humans, insects, birds- pluralities, an embodied network. This is the meeting ground of ecological, evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict. In our negotiations and resolutions we recognize not stronger, more disconnected selves, but rather a dissolution of the self into relationships. And because we are part of the community of life, the illusory duality between humans and nature dissolves into the recognition of our belonging to the story that made us. To follow the way of the trees, to drink tea leaves with reverence, is to drink the wisdom of nature’s great connectors. To understand this relationship is to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance and beauty.
This year, Autumn begins on August 7th according to the traditional lunar calendar. The Autumn Tea Offering marks the final season of our fourth year. We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past four years with the first year exploring seasonal lifestyle, health, food and herbs, the second discussing the seasonal elements and their prevalence in culture, the third traversing the psychoemotional aspects of the seasonal elements and the fourth investigating the first Four Facets of Way of Tea: meditation, virtue, vitality and tradition. The Spring and Summer offerings discussed Zen and Shamanism, while this Autumn offering will explore Taoism. Starting with the winter offering, we will conclude the final Two Facets, method (processing and brewing tea) and Community in the context of the Way.
The Great Tao
Pin Ming Lun Tao is a commonly used Chinese phrase, which means to discuss and understand Tao through the taste of tea. For thousands of years in China, all great discussions of the Tao, or the deeper questions of life, have taken place at the tea table. The tea ceremony has long been regarded in Asia as a means of connecting with the essential in Life and Nature, with symbolic images and punctuations in the ceremony drawing the participants into a primordial space of connection to one another and the plant world. Inherent in the Leaf is a reminder of the intertwining relationship between meditation, tea, and enlightenment -- Tea cannot be described in words, but only tasted directly right here and now. The truth is that we can’t really talk about the Tao either because words are limited and limiting. We can’t actually describe reality with words because reality isn’t words. Reality isn’t just material. That’s simply an idea. “Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him” (Chuang Tzu).
Taoism is an approach to life that emerges from a deep sympathy and feeling for the natural world, which includes humans in all their “uncivilized” simplicity. The earliest Taoist texts are enshrouded in mist as they come from unclear origin in predynastic China. Lao-tzu, the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching, is believed to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E. Yet, this classic work of Taoist literature has been translated into nearly every language with over 60 translations in Western languages to date. Contemporary readers continue to receive timeless advice for living skillfully, cultivating virtue, managing worldly affairs, developing greater ecological awareness, and how to best govern a population. As a naturalistic philosophy, Taoism draws from principles observed in the natural world as models for how man or woman might best live their lives skillfully. At once deeply practical while suggesting a mysterious essence in all things, the teachings of Taoism continue to find relevance and fertile soil in modern life.
Over the past four years of the tea club, we’ve explored many central tenets of Taoism: yin and yang, the five elements, seasonal living, aligning with nature, and letting things go their way. We’ve also discussed personal practices of liberation, free from the limitations of the commonly held beliefs within our culture. And so, for the sake of this little essay, we’re zooming the lens out to explore some of the more general tenets of Taoism that will hopefully benefit the reader in navigating their lives.
Our Place in Nature
Over many millennia, the religious and philosophical paintings of the far east maintain a similar quality. They show humans as tiny figures amidst the vast grandeur of nature, not set apart or against it. We are shown amicably at home amidst the workings of the universe, comfortably attuned to the natural cyclical rhythms of the world. Western religious paintings, on the other hand, portray iconographic images of solemn angels and saints, dominating over nature. In the west, we exalt the conquest of nature, and more recently, the conquest of space as a tourist destination. We are often more interested in looking at the photos we’ve taken of a forest than in the actual experience of spending time amidst its beauty. The domineering and extractive feeling towards nature has inspired the way we use technology, the powers of electricity, and the strength of steel to carry on a battle with the external world. Instead of finding ways to work with the natural patterns of the land, we flatten everything with bulldozers, build boxed structures and beat our surroundings into submission
In the words of Eckhart Tolle, “When you perceive nature only through the mind, through thinking, you cannot sense its aliveness, its beingness. You see the form only and are unaware of the life within the form - the sacred mystery. Thought reduces nature to a commodity to be used in the pursuit of profit or knowledge or some other utilitarian purpose. The ancient forest becomes timber, the bird a research project, the mountain something to be mined or conquered. When you perceive nature, let there be spaces of no thought, no mind. When you approach nature in this way, it will respond to you and participate in the evolution of human and planetary consciousness. We depend on nature not only for our physical survival. We also need nature to show us the way home, the way out of the prison of our own minds.” (The Power of Now)
In the Taoist view, the natural world in which we live, and human nature itself, must be trusted. If we use our technological achievements to harness the powers of nature, we run the risk of interfering the very course of nature, leading to destructive ends. The mind-made tendency to force control of all workings of nature runs contrary to the organic unfolding of an evolutionary process. The Taoist sees a world in which, of their own accord, the heart beats, breathing occurs naturally, flowers bloom, animals eat, seasons change, blessings turn into challenges and misfortune turns to blessings. All the occurrences that make up a life happen of their own accord, and thus the sage abstains from forcing and grasping. To follow the world is to put something on everyday- social status, identity, self-importance, egoic pursuit, prestige and opinions. To follow the Tao is to take it all off, to follow the living current of the moment. From Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, “The great Way is easy, yet people prefer the side paths. Be aware when things are out of balance. Stay centered within the Tao. When rich speculators prosper while farmers lose their land; when government officials spend money on weapons instead of cures; when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible while the poor have nowhere to turn— all this is robbery and chaos. It is not in keeping with the Tao.”
Philosophy of the Tao
In order to describe something, we must have something else to compare or contrast it to. The Taichi symbol is central to Taoism. Yin is the receptive and Yang the active principle, seen in all forms of change and difference such as the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), sexual coupling (female and male), and sociopolitical history (disorder and order). Natural dualities are not static entities, but rather processes of dynamic change. Light and dark, fire and water, sun and moon, expansion and contraction are physical manifestations of the energy or Qi created by the endless dynamics of this interaction. Because of the inseparability of opposites, they always work together with seeds of the opposite in each, evincing a unity that underlies them. Thus, Taoist self-cultivation practices such as Taijiquan and Qi Gong work to harmonize yin and yang, working through sequential movements that dynamically balance states of emptiness and fullness, stillness and activity, latency and expression- all within the governing unity of circles and cycles.
A central concept in Taoism is wu wei, which can be understood as not forcing, not obstructing, not doing, or effortless effort. So often in life we try to control reality, including ourselves, by imposing our will, desires, opinions or ideas about how things should be. Rather than shifting our perspective to align with a situation, we try to change the situation to align with our perspective, often much to our chagrin and disappointment. By putting ourselves out of accord with the way of things, we create conflict and tension for ourselves and others. By following wu wei, we follow the watercourse way or the path of least resistance, which requires attentiveness to the flow of the moment and the patterns of nature. The surgeon and woodworker follow wu wei when cutting along the natural orientation of collagen fibers or the patterns in wood with the least resistance, thereby causing the least damage. When we look for the pattern in things, the natural flow, we move in accord with them and work is thereby made simple and unobstructive.
For a period of time, the art of tea preparation and service requires learning proper preparation, brewing techniques, steep times, water temperature, variation in leaves, and correct use of different teaware. However, once a degree of proficiency has been achieved, the art of tea requires a certain letting go of control. Many great artists speak of a moment of creative inspiration wherein the self dissolves into the creative act. In the same way, athletes reflect on the flow state or the zone, or even mathematicians allude to a process whereby the equations seem to solve themselves. In all of these instances, the rules of logic, words, syntax and order become secondary to the act itself. Mountains, rivers, stars, the extraordinary workings of the human body and all of life follow intrinsic, organic patterns. To perform anything, including the art of tea, without a self-conscious, calculated, mental rationalization of our actions is to allow the mysterious underlying patterns into the process. This is the source of true creativity, wu wei, and the doorway into the Way of Tea.
THE AUTUMN 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. While we typically offer four teas each season, we are offering larger quantities of three teas with the Autumn serving. We plan to offer six teas in the winter with our exploration of the six genres.
AUTUMN TEA SERVINGS: We recommend using 4-6 gm of tea per session, or simply, use enough leaves to lightly cover the bottom of the pot. This is true as a general rule of thumb for all teas included in this collection. You may want to use less leaves initially in exploring Plume, so as to bring out the sweetness instead of the astringency. Yugen is a subtle, delicate tea so we recommend using less leaves or cooler water in a gong fu pot, if you have one. Sun and Moon is a robust, large leaf tea that is wonderful brewed leaves directly in a bowl.
BREWING AUTUMN TEAS: We recommend brewing Plume and Yugen with water between 180 and 190 D Fahrenheit, pouring off the first flash steeping to “awaken the leaves,” and brew the first five to six steepings for very short amounts of time (2-4 seconds). This practice of short steepings is different than European tea whereby you steep the tea for a long time. Sun and Moon can be brewed with water just shy of a boil.
Yugen – Bi Luo Chun Green Tea – Sanxia District, Taiwan Spring 2021
We wanted to offer a very special green tea appropriate for the lingering heat of August. This stunning organic green tea is grown between 600-800 meters above sea level in northern Taiwan in a tea garden protected and preserved by the Tea Mountain Preservation Society. Yugen is made from a bud-and-leaf set using a varietal that is more commonly used for Oolong, which is evident in the floral taste that lingers between steepings. We find this tea sweet, vaporous and elegant. The name Yugen speaks to an important aesthetic ideal in Japanese art. It suggests that which is beyond what can be said, subtly profound grace. We found in drinking this tea that we didn’t want to talk about or describe it, but rather just enjoy the elusive beauty of the tea.
Plume – Dark Roast Nepalese Oolong – Mt. Kanchenjunga 2021
With spicy, nutty, caramel flavors and a peppery aroma, Plume is a true Autumn oolong. The brew is full-bodied and tannin-rich. Gently invigorating, we look forward to enjoying this tea during a leisurely afternoon as the Aspen trees change. We decided to venture away from our typical Taiwanese and Chinese Oolongs to offer a Nepalese oolong because we felt that this is a truly unique Autumn tea that resembles darker roasted traditional Chinese Oolongs. We also love the model of the tea estate and research center, which works to rid their community of poverty through a cooperative model that puts people and planet before profit. Situated at an altitude of 1300-1800 meters (4,200 - 6000 feet), [c15] the area enjoys a pristine high-altitude Himalayan climate that produces stunning, aromatic teas.
Sun and Moon – Ruby Red #18 – Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan 2021
Hand-processed in the traditional way for the first time last year, this Ruby Red is an exceptional large-leaf red tea from Nantou, Taiwan. Rich, full-bodied, smooth and complex, Ruby Red carries a bubblegum sweetness and less maltiness than Formosa Assam. It is comprised of a hybrid mixed Burmese Assam plant with a native wild Taiwanese plant, yielding what feels like red tea but also embodies elements of a fine Taiwanese Oolong. One notable quality of Ruby Red is the way that it leaves the drinker salivating between steepings and desiring more, both signs of a fine tea. On cool mornings as the Autumn chill arrives, large-leaf red tea makes for a perfect start to the day.