Throughout the world a cup of tea is prized as one of life’s great pleasures. In China during the eighth century, drinking tea was considered one of the “polite amusements”, a pursuit akin to poetry. In Tibet there is a distance referred to as a “cup of tea” which is defined as the length one can walk with a cup of hot tea in one’s hand before it cools down sufficiently to drink.
One of the key tenets of tea-culture is an appreciation of the “Applied Arts”, or those arts involved in its attentive preparation. According to San Francisco tea-maven James Norwood Pratt, author of A New Tea Lovers Treasury, the applied arts involve “not just what you behold but what you hold”. They alson teach us to enjoy an intimacy with objects that can both focus our attention and deepen our delight.
It is not a coincidence that the Chinese symbol for drinking tea is comprised of three mouths. This is meant to remind us that one tastes tea in three stages: first, by paying attention to the tip of the tongue to discover its sweetness; next, to the middle of the tongue to note tartness; and finally to the back of the tongue to experience the bitterness.
Fine tea also has a “return flavor” which arrives about thirty seconds after each sip when the active but subtle elements in the tea have had time to become perceptible as taste.
Tea mavens tell us that by cultivating stillness that we can find deeper levels of subtlety in drinking tea.They also speak of tea as a tool for the cultivation of humility. This lies less in the ability to prepare tea for ourselves to drink than in preparing ourselves for drinking tea.
Experiencing tea is part of a broader aesthetic philosophy of life. In his classic “The Book of Tea” Kakuzo Okakura 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.”