Throughout the world a cup of tea is prized as one of life’s great joys. 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 the attention and deepen the delight.
It is not a coincidence that the Chinese symbol for drinking tea is comprised of three mouths. The character 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; then to the middle of the tongue in order to ascertain tartness; and finally to the back of the tongue to find the bitterness.
Fine tea also has a “return flavor” which is experienced about thirty seconds or so after one sips.This is the moment when the active but subtle elements in the tea have had sufficient time to enliven in the mouth and become perceptible as taste. Tea mavens tell us that it is by cultivating stillness that we can learn to apprehend deeper levels of subtlety in tea.
They also speak of tea as a tool for the cultivation of humility. An art, so they say, that lies less in how we prepare the tea for ourselves and more in how we prepare ourselves for drinking tea.
Kakuzo Okakura, in “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.”