” If you ask Zen people they will say tea is not something that you pour with unawareness and drink like any other drink. It is not a drink, it is meditation; it is prayer. So they listen to the kettle creating a melody, and in that listening they become more silent, more alert.” ~Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Tea is not a drink in China. It is China – it is the people, culture, history, the tradition of this country. To understand tea culture is to understand Buddhism, Daoism. You understand not in words, but in feelings. Words are ambiguous – they can mean so many different things. You feel something, and without a vocabulary, you understand it.
Tea itself goes back at least 5,000 years. Its invention attributed to an Emperor Shen Nong. There is different folklore about how he came to find the tea. One story tells of Emperor Shen Nong’s travels throughout the countryside that led to the discovery of tea. While traveling, he decided to take a rest under a tree after a long journey. When he awoke, he was very thirsty, so he began to boil water to drink. Dried leaves from a nearby camellia bush fell into the boiling water. Before Shen Nong could remove the leaves they began to brew. Shen Nong was an herbalist and scholar, so when he smelled this sweet aroma he decided to try it. After one taste, the world was forever changed. By the Shang dynasty, beginning about 1675 BC, tea was considered a medicinal drink. The Tang dynasty (619 – 907 CE) spread tea culture to Korea, Japan and Viet-Nam. Drinking tea was considered a “must” for self-cultivation.
Pu-erh tea is a sub-category of Chinese tea, highly regarded, and its origin stems from the foothills of the Himalayas in the Yunnan province. The Tea Horse Caravans, the ancient way tea was transported from the Yunnan province to all over southeast Asia were of great importance in the production of Pu-erh. Economics and life on the road led merchants to learn new ways of compressing tea to make their transport more profitable. It also brought about aging technique, when those drinking the tea noticed it tasted better at the end of the long trip, then at the beginning. There is Green Pu-erh which is raw, known as a sheng – which is “uncooked”, health tea, and Black Pu-erh which is ripe, sho which is “cooked” tea. Pu-erh, both Green and Black, differ from other teas by the technique of sun-drying the leaves. Ripe Pu-erh differs from raw in that the leaves are tossed into piles to ferment (cook), which develops a complexity and smoothness to the tea. Pu-erh Tea is stored in warm, moist cellars after forming to mature and mellow. They are drinkable after three months, but do not begin to develop a unique, aged taste for at least five years.
The medicinal effects of tea are both well documented (even by Western standards) and anecdotal. Pue-rh Tea produces a calm yet alert, focused, productive state – which is proven in Alpha wave studies. Medical benefits are myriad – improving cardiovascular health, in the treatment of certain cancers, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, increasing bone density, controlling weight, fighting bacterial and viral infections, among many others.
The theology, philosophy, culture of China are mirrored in Tea Culture. Buddhism and Daoism are engrained in the tea culture – one has influenced the other – they are intertwined. To be one with tea is to be in harmony with nature, with oneself reflecting Buddhist and Daoist teachings.
Tea is the heart of the Chinese tea ceremony and plays a central role in Chinese culture. When sharing tea, the host and ceremony participants smell the tea, taste it and enjoy the many layers of taste discovered with every mouthful.
The tea ceremony reflects the search for beauty in every object of the world, in accordance with the Chinese Dao philosophy. The ceremonies often reflect a peaceful atmosphere and induce a sense of tranquility and harmony among the participants. There are many different aspects of sharing tea — service style, types of teas and tea wares, the occasion — each so unique to the those sharing. Traditionally, a lower ranking individual or young person serves someone of higher rank or an elder (especially in formal ceremonies). Sharing tea is part of everyday life — to say hello, to thank someone, to apologize to them, to honor them. When you pour tea for somebody, you humble yourself before them.Tea houses were traditionally places where people could go to share ideas. Nothing ever got accomplished without tea. Drinking tea by oneself was a means for self-cultivation, self-reflection, growth and understanding.
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh