Throughout the world tea is an essential aspect of everyday life. In China, during the eighth century, drinking tea was considered one of the “polite amusements”, a pursuit akin to poetry. In Tibet, there is actually a distance called a “cup of tea” defined as the length that one can walk with a cup of hot tea in one’s hand before it cools down sufficiently to drink.
One of the most interesting aspects of tea-culture is that it focuses on the “Applied Arts” involved in the preparation of tea, as well as i its sensual appreciation. According to San Francisco tea-maven James Norwood Pratt, author of New Tea Lovers Treasury, these applied arts, involve “not just what you behold but what you hold” and are valuable because they teach us to enjoy an “intimacy with objects” that can help focus our attention and deepen our sensual appreciation.
Focused attention is the core of all sensual appreciation, and ancient tea culture reflects this insight. Jennifer Leigh Sauer, in “The Way to Tea”, a local guide to San Francisco Tea Culture, points out that “the Chinese symbol for drinking tea is three mouths, reminding us that one tastes tea in three steps: first, paying attention to the tip of the tongue to judge sweetness; then to the middle of the tongue for tartness; and finally to the back of the tongue for bitterness.” It takes a particular form of love to be so drawn to the fine distinctions.
Besides distinction, reflection is an essential element of appreciation. Fine tea has a “return flavor” which is experienced about a half minute after one sips.This is the moment when the active but subtle elements in the tea have had a time to enliven in the mouth and become perceptible as taste. Tea mavens tell us that by cultivating stillness we can learn to apprehend deeper levels of subtlety in our sense of taste.
While knowledge of tea is certainly important to its appreciation, it is by no means essential to its enjoyment. In fact, a kind of materialistic intellectualism, even when innocently applied to the sensual arts, can often be an obstacle to real appreciation. In becoming obsessed with quantifiable components rather than the more fluid context of our experience we can often lose touch with the immediacy of the moment. This phenomenon is commonplace in western culinary culture. A specialty coffee roaster once told me that that as his business grew, so did his customers appetite for information. Having helped them to distinguish the merits of his regional coffees, he found himself surrounded by a highly-caffeinated group of coffee critics who often seemed more inspired by unearthing the origins of their drink than in simply enjoying the beverage.
Tea proprietors encourage a different attitude among their customers. According to Winnie Yu, proprieter of Teance in Berkeley, “there is more than we know about tea than we think we know.” From her perspective, Winnie’s appreciation of tea often feels to her “like a cellular memory. When she drinks tea she feels she can almost look “behind her shoulder” at thousands of years of tea tradition. Nevertheless, she insists that the real value of tea culture is its practical value.
“The object of learning about tea” says Winnie, is to learn to adapt it easily into our contemporary needs as a people. We all have the same needs. Tea heightens our creativity and calms our spirit.”
And as with other ritualized foods, the calming influence of a cup of tea often lies more in the context than in the content. Such experiences are particularly valuable to us today because they are designed to suspend the incessant materialism of our inner lives and give us permission to revel for a moment in non-action. Ironically, an old friend of mine actually used to defend his habit of smoking cigarettes on precisely the same grounds. Only when he was smoking, he told me, did he allow himself the luxury to do nothing.
According to the ancient Tea-masters one of the greatest benefits of attentive tea-drinking is the cultivation of humility. The art, so they say, lies not so much in learning to prepare the tea for ourselves, but rather to prepare ourselves for the tea. Developing such an attitude about all food and drink is a goal worthy of lifelong devotion.
Kakuzo Okakura, in his “The Book of Tea” writes:”Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. The heaven of modern humanity is shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. East and West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let’s have a sip of tea.”