Reflections in the Cup - Philosophy of Life as Learned Through Tea
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” Muriel Barbery The Elegance of the Hedgehog As far as I see it, the qualities that are of fundamental importance to existence are reflected within the temporal body of my tea cup. My seemingly silly little cup, filled to the brim with deep honey-colored liquor, its warmth turning air into a swell of steam that bares a roastedness on its simple breath…. It teaches me, reminds me, rewinds me and relieves me. It takes me to lands I’ve never seen, it opens me to a perspective of nature I’ve never known, and it emphatically outlines the truth that Nirvana is, in fact, never far beyond us. In the trees and the leaves and the rivers. In the relationships between us. In the fleeting moment that an inhale hangs on before it jumps off. The art of tea is a philosophy in and of itself. It is a tangible and danceable micro-cosmic display of the way. It is breath, and time, and patience. It is discipline, open heartedness, open mindedness, flexibility and forgiveness. She is transient and eternal… moving in cycles and seasons and equations. And Yoga… tea is most certainly, purely, essentially, yoga. It all starts with the trinity of the earth, the sky and the seed. It is molded through its growth by the ever-changing influence of the dirt, the rain and the sun. And this is where it finds its chi, or energy, and where its character blossoms into robust being. Will her leaves be sweet or floral? Dark or light? Energizing or sedating? Will she be youthful or wise? The minerals in the soil, the neighboring flora and fauna, the heaviness of the suns touch, the weight of the clouds water… these will all determine what this years harvests will become, and is there really a more intimate way to know the art of nature? The brewing of tea is a pleasant mixture of art and science. Spiritually, the environment is like a temple. It is a chance to meditate, appreciate and pray. It is a place to find discipline, balance and ritual. It is a time to laugh and explore and play. It is an opportunity we give ourselves to sit in the present moment. Scientifically it is an equation that takes into account the amount of leaves, the qualities within the leaves, the temperature of water, the vessel in which its brewed and, of course, the time with which these things all mingle together. Once a teaist has come to understand the way in which these factors interact, brewing becomes an art of intuition, intention and preference. Our internal ticks become our timers, and our finger tips become our thermometers.
The tea will tell us what to do from there. For example, I like my Nepalese black teas to be brewed at a slightly lower temperature, for a slightly less amount of time. I like it lighter than most, the sweeter notes hit my tongue this way. Others that I know like to scorch the leaves with boiling water for 15 seconds longer. They like it stronger. And this is just another facet of the leaves themselves. I always say it takes just as long to know a tea as it does to know a human being…. And then the rains shift and the sun hides a little longer the following season and it all changes… and you get to meet it all over again, like seeing a friend after many years. Sometimes I brew too long, and the tea shows me the side of itself I don’t particularly enjoy… but in the end I’m glad I know it a little better. Sometimes its perfection on some otherworldly level, and I am grateful to have had such a lovely and transient experience. The infusion of tea. It is one of the leaves most important moments, the moment it has been waiting for since the time of its plucking… to unfurl in dance, to paint water with its body, to fill the air with its scent, and to send nature into bliss. This is her moment, that beautiful Camellia, to shine and shed wonder and grace into a world that has outrun itself. She humbly and delicately offers you a seat in the temple of her presence to unfurl your mind while she unfurls her leaves. She invites you to laugh and get tea drunk on her spirit. She connects you to people and places and landscapes you may otherwise never know, expanding your experience of the world. So sit, sip, and surrender to your very own self for a moment. Especially while the second half of winter makes its way out... giving way to the first harvests, new friends, new lessons, new love, new heartbreak, new experiences. Happy New Year, a little late for America but just in time for many of the Tea growing lands in Asia… I was too busy getting lost amongst steam and leaves… and of course, photographing these things.