Friday, April 18, 2008

The importance of tea

I have been a tea-drinker all my life. In England where I grew up, tea-drinking is an institution. But I have only been drinking green tea for the last 8 or 10 years, since about the time that I discovered eastern philosophy. I tried it once, preparing it in the same way I would prepare an ‘English’ tea: a heaped teaspoon in the pot and wait until it becomes a dark colour. Needless to say, it was undrinkable. Green tea, I later found out, has to be handled more delicately. There is an art to preparing tea. The Chinese have many treatises on preparing and drinking tea and the Japanese have their Way of Tea and the Tea Ceremony. Fortunately for me, I discovered later how to make a decent cup of green tea. Otherwise I would have missed out on one of life’s great pleasures.
I will not set myself up as an expert: I will let you make the discovery of green tea for yourself, in your own way. I will only say that with green tea, the water must not be boiling and the quantity used and time of infusion are much less than with our ‘western’ teas. The taste must be delicate, light, subtle. Then it is incomparably the best drink in the world. Try it, and then you will tell me about your discovery and how you now love green tea.

In ‘The Importance of Living’, Lin Yutang offers us a better understanding of how and when to drink tea, as such a delicate, sensual enjoyment can be ruined by many things:

For tea is invented for quiet company, as wine is invented for a noisy party. There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life…. Since the Sung Dynasty, connoisseurs have generally regarded a cup of pale tea as the best, and the delicate flavour of pale tea can easily pass unperceived by one occupied with busy thoughts, or when the neighbourhood is noisy, or servants are quarrelling…

He later gives us examples of proper moments for drinking tea:

In accordance with the Chinese practice of prescribing the proper moment and surrounding for enjoying a thing, Ch’asu, an excellent treatise on tea, reads thus:

Proper moments for drinking tea:
When one’s heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one’s thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.
Playing the ch’in and looking over paintings
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.

Reading this ancient list, we are reminded perhaps of our need to reconnect with friends, with art, with nature and to relax. How long is it since you read a poem, looked at paintings, drank tea in a forest? Not to mention the charming friends and slender concubines.

Moments when one would should stop drinking tea:
At work.
Watching a play.
Opening letters.
During big rain and snow.
At a long wine feast and a big party.
Going through documents.
On busy days.
Generally conditions contrary to those enumerated in the above section.

In these activities, our attention is distracted or engaged on a task; therefore we cannot fully appreciate our tea. Better to keep it for later, when we have leisure to appreciate it, and let it become part of our personal ‘relaxation ceremony ’.
Photo by Jerneja Varsek

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Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond