“Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires.”
Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu Chinese philosopher (604 BC – 531 BC)
In pursuit of fine teas, many of us connoisseurs and collectors often find ourselves locked in a mental or financial struggle between the quality of tea we would like to buy and price that we are willing to pay. We would love to drink a 50-year-old dry-aged pu’reh that has mellowed to perfection. Or we pine after an exquisite gushu picked from 1,600-year-old tress that have mysteriously eluded farmers for generations. While we sigh wistfully at tea descriptions and stare longingly at their age-darkened leaves, our tongues wag; our mouths drool. We cringe at the inevitable glance toward the price and sulk as we return to our modest shopping cart of five-year-old pu’erhs and two-year-old dragonwells. Our economy of seasons is far too early or too late for our palates.
Even the tea-wares are subject to this type of lavish premium. Yixing or Juan Shui clay pots, or pure silver kettles hand-forged in Qujing County, titillate our desires for the refined aesthetic or indulgent lust for other’s envy. Many of us have quite a collection of guilty pleasures; tea is by no means an exception. But is pursuing these treasures a sin against tea?
I often wonder whether this type of tea-collecting keeps with the spirit Teaism. Without digressing too much into the tenants of this elusive doctrine, let us look to its chief delegate Okakura Kakuzo, for a brief axiom from his classic work The Book of Tea,
The philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with the ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, in as much as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.
When we think of tea in this metaphoric way, we come to a deeper affinity for making our tea, drinking it, and appreciating its simplicity as well at its paradoxical complexity. We can sit at the table and see the universe. There is a harmony among the orderly pot and reverent customs in preparation while the leaves spin chaotically in the pot or gaiwan and rinse is poured out onto the tray. The humble bamboo cha-dao (tea tools) present both a refinement in manner and modesty in material and of use. This ritual of making tea becomes a meditation on mindfulness and a beautiful act of melding materials and skill into art. There is profound joy in creating and appreciating what has been created. Does the price of the teapot and rarity of the tea play a role here? Do reddit snobs and market elitism impede on this wonderful act of love and art? Can consuming tea and consumerism reconcile with each other or our they destined for conflict? Here, at the table or the market, we find ourselves answering those questions for ourselves through appreciation and gratitude or greed and gluttony. For many of us, there is often no division between these two oppositional ideas. We can at once respect the tea and its practice while coveting its finer forms.
Is this endless hunt for better tea an extension of the aristocratic appropriation of tea by Europeans hundreds of years ago? Is this desire for rare eccentric teas just our western culture’s materialism rearing its ugly golden head? Maybe…partially, but Western society does not have a monopoly on this type of avidity. Teaism was a type of remedy for the same aristocratic materialism at the time in feudal Japan. Here Professor A. L. Sadler gives his approximation on Teaism’s goals from Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony,
If Teaism had only taught people that any display is vulgar and un-desirable it would have been justified, for this is no easy thing to instil into any nation, since man is an acquisitive creature by nature, inclined to hoard and show off, and the most troublesome problems in the social and political spheres proceed from these egoistic qualities.
It’s OK. I too am often guilty of these “acquisitive” tendencies. There is no shame given. But this type of indulgence comes at a steep price. Tea is, after all, a business. And we can certainly agree that some tea is better than others. Which in fairness demands a higher price. Whether we are thrust into a position of economic humbleness or willingly choose it for ourselves, there are many alternatives to this costly and egotistical pursuit that do not sacrifice quality or taste.I will expound on those teas like Huang Pian or Kukicha in the coming months as I continue an exploration in a sort of frugal guide to good teas. In the meantime, go and try to love your teas without attachment and share them with friends without egotism.