buddha-chaxi

Tea as Meditation

Just this past week I was privileged to be able to prepare tea for a meditation group I attend weekly. Our practice is Insight Meditation or Vipassana, a very old Buddhist practice that migrated to the West through Thailand. Besides wanting to share some delicious tea, I also had an interest in discussing and experiencing tea as a meditation object. Tea and Buddhist thought have been intertwined for almost as long as Buddhism itself, and as tea made its way throughout the world becoming altered by the traditions of the cultures through which it traveled, so too did the practice of awareness travel and mold itself to fit each place.

I began the class with a quote by Sen Sōtan that I hoped would bring some mindfulness and curiosity to the sitting,

“If asked / the nature of Chanoyu / say it’s the sound / of windblown pines / in a painting.”

Tea, in my opinion, gives us the chance to honor this moment, which is unique and will never happen again. As written by Shunryu Suzuki,

“Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.”

“Treat every moment as your last; it is not preparation for something else.” This was the advice I read to the group before I began preparing their first cup of tea. As they drank, I suggested one additional instruction: “Three sips, two hands, one cup.”

copper-chatakuTea can be a meditation object; just as the breath can be an anchor to our awareness, so too can the process of making and drinking tea. Just focus your concentration toward the tea, and when you find that your mind is wandering, bring it gently back to the tea again, without judgement.

Why tea? Because it lends itself to ritual and is at the same time a mundane activity. It is also a single beverage that exists in the experience of millions of people on this planet. It is perhaps one of the few unifying factors that lies between all countries and cultures. What is making tea? Simple! Heat water, infuse leaves, drink. And yet, when one cares to do so, it is possible to perform those actions with mindfulness, being aware of each step, each motion, fully in the present.

In one sense, tea is no different from any other familiar activity, but it can be used to create something special. After all, sitting is done without mindfulness many times each day, but when we sit to meditate, we tend to do so with a bit of ritual; a bell may be rung, a cushion may be used, or our hands may be placed just so. None of these things are necessary, of course, but they are aids to mindfulness. Such variation helps us remember that we are not performing an everyday activity. When making tea, through the use of particular tools, motions, or setting, one can also cultivate such a variation. Indeed, others have developed these variations into rituals and schools for hundreds of years.

chaxi-practice-setupThat is not to say that one must follow the rituals or use the utensils used by ancient masters. Far from it! Tea can be made mindfully using the simplest of tools. A cracked old teapot or a bowl can be just as satisfying a place for the mind to rest as a fine yixing Shuiping pot. Fine teaware or not, if the mind becomes attached to these utensils, then that is not the practice of meditation.

To quote Dennis Hirota from Wind in the Pines, “The practitioner eliminates all notions of utilizing the teascoop, or displaying it, or impressing the guests with deftness of movement; in this way the mind ceases to objectify it and becomes immersed in it. By entering into the teascoop and becoming one with it, the life of the teascoop is experienced from within, and this is also for the tea practitioner to become manifest with wholeness of mind and sincerity. ”

tea-on-zafuEven when one is not making or drinking the tea, the ritual of tea itself can be used an object of mindfulness. Visually, the beauty or interesting character of the tea tools can be an object to keep the mind present. The aroma of the tea in the air, the motions of the other guests, the sound of the water dripping into a cup. All these can be used as meditative anchors. Indeed, in the tea ceremony, one might say that everything is a meditation.

The important part is to set that moment aside, however short or long, as a moment of practice. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us,

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”

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Tea in the Year of the Wood Sheep

This weekend morning I drank some lovely Lishan Winter Sprout (kindly sourced by Song Tea) as the chill wind shifted the piles of snow outside my window. It was a peaceful and delicious way to start the day. To bring a timely quality to this gathering, a small ceramic sheep (who followed me home from Montréal many years past) joined the Chaxi. He likes to celebrate special occasions, this sheep, and as the Chinese New Year resonates, our wooly friend was most pleased to be included. He refrained from drinking any tea, however.

The Lishan was sweet and bold, nearly glowing in the cup, with leaves that reached out to touch the winter air. A bit of the ice and the pines outside made their way through the aroma of the tea into our thoughts.

May your winter days be quiet and warm, with a cup of tea for everyone.

alishan-oolong-black-setup

Alishan Oolong Black

This morning’s treat was to share some waffles and a pretty unique tea with my wife as we watched the snow gently fall outside. This is one of the teas I bought from a small shop in Taipei called DigniTea, which is a family-run artisan tea company that grows (as far as I know) all of their leaves on Alishan (a rather famous mountain outside of Chiayi). I have of course written about their lovely oolongs before. Unlike their other offerings, however, this one is an “oolong black”, which seems like an unlikely descriptor, yet there it is, right on the package.

alishan-oolong-black-package

 

Well, ok, the package also reads “大紅帖”, or Dàhóng tiē, which to the best of my ability to translate means “big red ribbon”. So perhaps the title in Chinese is just as mysterious and unexpected.
alishan-oolong-black-leaves-dryWhile I might expect a title like “oolong black” from a Western tea bag company, where precision in naming is less important than floral descriptions, DigniTea is hardly that type of company. Their Jin Xuan and Qing Xin products are some of the finest I’ve tasted, and their packaging specifies the cultivar, year, and season of harvest. This leads me to believe that the title is not mere embellishment. So, how can a tea be made as both an oolong and also a black tea? My only guess is that the style is processed in the rigorous rolling and drying system common to high mountain oolongs but allowed to oxidize longer than any other similar Dong Ding or Alishan. In fact, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of such a creation before.

The dry leaves are dark and rolled into small balls, already giving a unique impression. It is as though one took the dark roasted leaves of a Wuyi oolong and rolled them like a tiny Dong Ding. Infused, they produce a beautiful amber liquor reminiscent of a Sun Moon Lake black tea.


The taste as well is similar, I think, to that famous Taiwanese black tea (Hong cha, really) known variously as Sun Moon Lake, Red Jade, or Number 18. Sweet and caramel-thick, but with a slight dryness and rough mouthfeel that reminds me of a charcoal roasted oolong, this tea has a gentle but unexpected character. Indeed, every time I drink some my palate is always a little confused. Is this oolong, or is it Hong cha? The DigniTea page designates it as the latter, but this may be one of those cases where the question is simply one of experience and not semantics.

The uniqueness of this tea has earned it a special spot on my shelf over the last few years, although there is precious little remaining. But that is a good thing! The way of tea is to remind us that the present moment is fleeting, and that change exists in all things. The seeds of a flavorless teabag exist in even the finest high mountain oolong, if it is not consumed. I am fortunate, and it speaks to the quality of this tea, that my Alishan oolong black has lasted so long while retaining its delightful character. It is time to drink it and move on, giving thanks for all the joy and mystery it has brought to my life.

May your tea be warm and delightful during the frigid winter snows. And may your mind find peace in the cup.

alishan-oolong-black-wet-leaves

 

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San Lin Shi Winter Sprout 2014

What an interesting oolong that I discovered in a small package I brought back from my trip to California. I remembered good things from this tea, and today’s snowy conditions seemed like the perfect day to bring back some memories of sunlight.

sls-wintersprout-dryThe first thing that hit me upon opening the package was the scent. There’s an amazing dry-leaf aroma of pineapple that brings to mind nothing short of a creamy Pina Colada. It’s astounding how fruity the leaves smell, but without any of the acrid or overpowering notes that you’d get with an artificially scented tea (or any scented tea, for that matter). It’s pretty clear that this magic comes from the leaves themselves.

Even so, I worried that the liquor might be too strongly fruity to really taste the oolong flavor. Of course, I needn’t have worried. The scent is only part of the overall flavor, which has all the character of a deliciously light-roast San Lin Shi: a hint of pine over a bed of sweet artichokes and creamy spinach. The warm flaxen gold liquor is a perfect counterpoint to this blustery December day.

sls-wintersprout-liquorI’ve written before about Winter Sprout tea (不知春 or bù zhīchūn), but it’s still a fascinating topic, and this leaf hasn’t lost any potency for its one year of age. The tea is harvested in the coldest time of the year when most tea plants have yet to even give forth a single new leaf. And yet the humble Tea (Camellia Sinensis) is, after all, an evergreen plant. From what I understand, occasionally the right weather conditions manifest for a small harvest in the wintertime, and this magnificent oolong is the result. (Note that this is different from a typical “winter harvest oolong”, which is usually from late autumn, although those can certainly be some of the finest teas ever picked.)

sls-wintersprout-snowMy continued admiration to Peter Luong at Song Tea for his skill at sourcing this unique style. I can’t wait to have a tasting with the other Winter Sprout I brought back. For now, though, I’ll sit back and sip this gentle reminder that even in the depths of Winter there is a little bit of Spring waiting to emerge.

camphor-in-cup

Old Man Camphor

What a great name Wu De and associates have chosen for this month’s tea. The gift from Global Tea Hut this December is a bit of loose Spring 2007 Shou Puer they call “Old Man Camphor” (老夫樟 or Lǎofū Zhāng).

Earthy and with a wonderful aroma. Just by the smell it makes me think of some really great old Sheng (生 or raw) Puer that I’ve had in the past, but those teas were all more than 10 years old and this is a blend from only 2007. It’s rare in my experience to find such delicious old-book notes in a Shou (熟 or ripe), so I’m very pleased to have this in my cup. The closest Shou I can think of is the 1998 Xiaguan from Camellia Sinensis, but this has some characteristics that are unique. The mouth-feel of those old Shengs was leathery and dry, but Old Man Camphor is quite smooth and clean feeling on the tongue, which is not a judgement on the quality of either tea, only a comment on the differences of the experience which I find fascinating.

camphor-in-potWhen drinking this tea I feel my mind transported to a far-away oak grove, surrounded by ancient trees and stacks of drying lumber. The scent of woodsmoke floats around my nose, a delicate reminder of a warm glowing fire that keeps out the chill of winter. I can almost feel the snow in the treetops. This image is appropriate for the region of Northern Vermont where I live and the brisk time of year, and so nature complements my tea. Or perhaps my tea complements nature. Either way the experience evokes a harmony in my thoughts that is sorely needed.

The Global Tea Hut magazine this year is filled with wonderful writing and tea knowledge as usual. Besides a very good discussion of the processing of Shou Puer and the ten factory leaf grades (which layers nicely on their previous Puer special edition), there are some really inspiring poems in the margins. The accompanying stories of the Tea Hut crew’s adventures through Europe are inspiring and make me want to host more tea gatherings myself!

But enough analysis. As Wu De is quoted as saying at a tea gathering in the last article, “[this] is the tea we are having in this moment.” Be here with your cup (whatever it may be!) and enjoy. I’ll be here with mine.

camphor-in-pitcher

A Reprisal of Gaiwans

I posted a while ago about how to pour a gaiwan, but I wanted to talk a little more about this super-useful device.

What is a gaiwan? Why should you have one? Where do you get one? How do you use it? These are all good questions! Let’s break it down.

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What is a gaiwan?

It’s this ceramic thing with a lid. In fact, gaiwan literally means “lidded bowl”. Usually there’s also a base or saucer making it a three-piece brewing tool. They’re basically an ancient Chinese teapot and teacup all in one. Hundreds of years ago it was common to actually drink tea directly out of the gaiwan as it was brewing, but today we usually use them as a teapot only.

Why the change? By pouring all the tea out of the gaiwan at once we have much more control over the infusion time and therefore the flavor of the tea. Leaving tea leaves in water while you drink the first cup will just continue to make the tea stronger, often masking many of the flavors and nuances available and turning the brew into a bitter broth. Of course that’s assuming the drinker is looking to find the flavors and nuances of a tea and that there are nuances to be found. Flavored and scented teas (tea containing something other than just tea leaves) are designed to provide a burst of flavor without having to look for it.

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Why should you have one?

So if a gaiwan is just an unusual teapot, what’s the point of using one? Bringing out the best flavors when infusing loose full-leaf tea requires some practice and learning. There are many reasons to own a gaiwan, but in my opinion the first reason is to learn. A gaiwan is an excellent tool to learn skillful brewing techniques and also to learn about individual teas.

Whenever I have a tea I’m unfamiliar with, I always try to brew it in a gaiwan first, before using a teapot. The wide opening and white-colored interior make it ideal to inspect the leaves as I begin and removing the lid makes it easy to look at the color of the liquor while I wait for the steeping to be done.

Good tea infusion usually relies on timing, but I never rely on others (and certainly not packaging) to determine the proper time for my tastes. I always prefer to experiment first and learn as I go. When the color looks right, a gaiwan has the additional advantage that it pours out into a cup or pitcher almost instantly. A teapot may pour much more slowly, making determining the timing difficult indeed. Even an additional 10 seconds can significantly change the taste of some teas.

When should I not use a gaiwan?

Finally, it should be said that a gaiwan is not ideal for every situation. Japanese green tea, for example, is generally very finely broken and will usually not pour well from a gaiwan, since the straining mechanism only works for larger leaves. A Kyushu or shiboridashi is a much better idea there. There are other teas with tiny leaves that may also cause a problem, but for any rolled oolong, Puer, and most green and red tea you’re going to be fine.

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Where do I get a gaiwan?

If you have a local tea shop, you’re may already be in luck. On the other hand, not everywhere that sells tea also carries traditional teaware. The web makes buying teaware like a gaiwan much easier than it once was. That said, there are a few things to look for when selecting one.

First, consider the material and color. I would suggest only purchasing gaiwans that have a white glazed interior. The white color makes it easier to see your leaves and tea color and a glaze protects the cup from absorbing any flavors from one leaf that might influence other types of tea. Porcelain is a pretty good bet, but clay gaiwans also work. The color on the outside of the gaiwan is less important so feel free to look for something pleasant to your eye.

Also you might want to think about size. Any size will probably be fine, but many traditional gaiwans are appropriate for only a small cup of tea per infusion, whereas others are quite sufficient for sharing between a few people (or filling a mug). Small ones are easier to handle and pour while larger ones are often harder to grasp with one hand (although as you’ll see that’s not necessarily a bad thing). This is very much up to personal preference, but I would err on the side of smaller if you’re unsure.

How do I use a gaiwan?

I’m going to include a short video here showing the common ways I use a gaiwan. This, perhaps more than anything, seems to be what prevents people from using one. Below the video you’ll see a few tips that may help.

The important things to remember are:

  1. Use fewer leaves than you think if you’re filling by eye.
  2. Leave about 1.5cm above the level of the water when pouring to avoid superheating the rim.
  3. Grasp only by the rim edge and the lid knob to avoid burning.
  4. Make sure the lid is tipped just a bit to avoid dumping leaves or blocking the flow.
  5. Pour quickly and decisively by tipping the gaiwan more than 90 degrees. Slow pouring or a gentle angle will cause the boiling water to run down the outside of the gaiwan.
  6. Make sure all the water is out of the gaiwan when you are done pouring or the leaves will continue to steep.

I hope everyone has a chance to try using a gaiwan someday! If I were to recommend just one piece of teaware for a tea lover, a gaiwan would definitely be my pick. Happy sipping!

Taidicha and Gucha

Just a short post to mention a link I stumbled upon today. This page by Bana Tea has some really great Puer tea videos. I’m amazed I never encountered them before. I learned the terms Táidì Chá Yuán (Terraced Tea Garden – plantation-style puer) and Gŭ Chá Yuán (Old Tea Garden – wild tree puer). If you’ve ever wanted to see Puer being made, this is a very good resource.