Tag Archives: tea

Uncle’s Tea

My Uncle's TeaMy father’s only brother was ten years younger than my father. As a traditional older brother, my father felt a strong sense of responsibility for him. So when my uncle turned twenty, my father began to try to find him a wife. My uncle refused to get married and ran away.

Many years later, my uncle resurfaced again. He had become a monk and lived on Wu Zhi (“Five Finger”) Mountain in northern Taiwan, in a cave that he had chiseled out of the rock mountain by himself. The only memory I had of him from when I was young was his annual visit to our home.

He would always come late in the afternoon on the day of the winter solstice. He would arrive before dinner. He was an vegetarian and ate mostly fruits and nuts. For dinner my mother would serve him a plain piece of white tofu sprinkled lightly with salt. After dinner, he would continue to chat and have tea with my father. When we went to sleep, he would close his eyes, sitting on a rattan chair in our living room. When we awoke in the morning, he would already be gone.

This was how things went every year throughout my student years. On my uncle’s visits, my father would always give him a few pounds of very special tea – the oolong tea that farmers normally kept for their own use. My father could always manage to get some from a farmer with whom he was a close friend. My father called this tea “ten-steeping oolong,” since it could be steeped ten times and still be potent.

When I was about to leave for the United States to continue my graduate studies, my father told me that I should pay my uncle a visit before I went abroad. Over the years, my older brothers would describe my uncle’s cave temple, which always aroused my curiosity, but I’d never visited him. At last, I took the journey.

It was an hour train ride and then three more hours by bus on a bumpy country road to the nearest village, where I spent the night. Then, on the morning of the second day, I hiked up to the temple.

Upon arrival, I was surprised to see not a cave but a newly built temple. When I asked a young monk in the temple about my uncle, he said, “Oh, the Master doesn’t live here. He still lives in the cave. After the temple was finished last year, we tried hard to get him to move here, but he prefers to stay in his cave.”

The young monk led me to the rock cave about a five-minute walk from the new temple, at the base of a sharply rising rocky hill. The entrance was about two meters high and three meters wide, but the inside was very spacious. As we entered, the young monk told me that when the temple was finished the year before, they had also managed to bring electricity to the cave. I was impressed at how much space my uncle had managed to clear out with just a hammer and chisel, and I wondered how long it had taken him. But as soon as I saw my uncle’s smile, I forgot my questions.

My uncle didn’t seem surprised at my visit. When I presented him with the tea my father had sent, he smiled broadly and immediately turned on his electric tea kettle. I noticed that he had a nice gong-fu tea set – a typical Yixing purple clay pot with small cups – on a rock table. It was not really a table, but a shelf of rock that he had left in place when he carved away the rest of the cave.

When the tea kettle whistled, he rinsed and warmed the pot and cups with boiling water, opened the package I’d brought, and scooped tea into the pot. Gently he covered it with the lid and shook the pot, then he removed the lid and smelled the leaves – and passed the pot to me to smell as well.

“This must be from the spring harvest,” he said. Then he poured the hot water into the pot. I was very familiar with the process, since I had seen my father do this every day, but I was struck with how smoothly and economically my uncle moved. I could tell that he was an experienced tea drinker.

While we were drinking the tea, he did not say much; I found that I was doing most of the talking. It was a strange feeling. We had never been that close, and I was surprised to find myself talking so much. Most of the time, he just smiled quietly, nodding his head occasionally. As we finished one steeping, he would make the next.

At one point, I asked him if there was any advice he might have for me. He nodded, sat quietly a moment, then took off the lid of the tea pot and started to clean the leaves out of the pot.

“Uncle!” I said, “We have only finished the fifth steeping. This tea is good for at least ten steepings.”

My uncle looked into my eyes, and for the first time I realized how gentle his gaze was. “I know,” he said, and went on emptying the pot.

I expected him to say something more, but he didn’t.

After I came to the United States, I would occasionally remember how my uncle had stopped at the fifth steeping and puzzle over why he had done so. He was definitely a connoisseur and knew the tea was good for many more steepings. Many years later, after I had been in the working world for a long time, and my uncle had passed away, I began to realize what he may have meant to tell me: Everything has a beginning and an end, and from beginning to end everything goes through a series of stages. For the tea we had been drinking, the fifth steeping was the peak – the stage of greatest richness and abundance. He was, I think, telling me to stop at the peak and let it go, rather than stretching things out forever, hanging on to each little bit of flavor. As humans, when we reach a peak, we often try to hold on and stretch the peak out for as long as possible. We forget that this moment, like all others, is transitory. With holding on comes regret.

Often we see politicians who achieve power and never want to let go, holding on until they fall in disgrace. This is true for many people in all walks of life. It is better to let go when you are at your prime instead of clinging persistently to past achievements, so that you will be remembered at your best.

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A Memory of Tea with Master Pu Yu

master pu yu smallPu Yu (普雨法師) was the 133rd head master of Yungquan (“Bubbling Spring”) Temple on Gu Shan (“Drum Mountain”) in Fuzhou, China. Established in the Tang dynasty, this monastery has over 1,200 years of history. I formally became his disciple in the late 1970s, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, due to the long suppression of religion in China, the temple had few monks and hardly any visitors. As a result, I was able to enjoy quite a bit of time with Master Pu Yu during my stay.

Once I visited him in his private room while he was making tea, and he handed me a cup of steaming brew. The cups in the monastery were bigger than the tea cups usually seen in homes. It was a Song dynasty design, with a soft celadon glaze. I bowed, accepted it with both hands, and carefully took the first sip.

This was a special oolong tea known as “rock tea,” which has a bittersweet taste but a robust aroma with a hint of smoke in its flavor. While we had tea, I asked, “Master, what exactly is Zen mind?”

He smiled, but went on talking about tea.

After a while, when I had nearly finished my cup, I was about to repeat my question. He looked at my nearly empty cup, looked at me directly, and said very quietly, “So, do you remember?”

I was puzzled.

After a short moment, I asked, “Remember? Remember what?”

“Didn’t you just ask me about Zen mind?” he replied.

I tried to figure out what he meant, but was still confused.

“Do you remember the very moment you took the first sip?” he asked, looking right into my eyes.

After pausing briefly, he continued, “Do you remember that moment? Before you could tell whether the tea was hot or warm? Before you could differentiate smell from taste? Before you could tell what kind of tea it was? Do you remember that moment?”

As soon as I heard Master Pu Yu’s words, I understood: that moment is the state of Zen mind.

I looked at him and smiled in silence. He nodded and smiled back. It was but a brief moment; yet I have retained this memory for decades.

The foundation of Zen teaching is this: no matter where we are or what we are doing, we must fully live at that moment.

So, do you remember?

Tea and Wine

tea and wineAt first glance, tea and wine seem very different. Wine is made and stored as a liquid; tea is made and stored in the form of dried leaves. Wine is best aged while tea can be drunk fresh. Wine is served cold or at room temperature in a glass; tea is usually served hot in a ceramic cup. The temperature at which wine served is critical; tea can be served over a great range of temperature without losing its flavor. However, if we look at the art of wine tasting and compare it to the art of tea tasting, there are interesting similarities.

Both tea and wine are judged by their appearance. In both, color and clarity are important. In both, the aroma is an important feature, as is the sensation that the liquid produces in the mouth. In wine, the final aspect of the flavor is called the “finish.” the quality that the wine leaves behind in the mouth. In tea, people pay attention to the “aftertaste,” the feeling and taste that may linger for hours after the last cup is finished.

Wine comes from the yeast fermentation of whole grapes. The result is a great richness and complexity, both of scent and taste. However, in the same bottle of wine, the taste hardly varies from beginning to end. Tea “fermentation” is the enzymatic oxidation of the leaves; even the most complex scents and flavors are simpler than those of wine. But these flavors change and develop from steeping to steeping, so that the experience of tea over time is much more complex.

Wine is assertive; it comes to you and presents itself. Tea is reserved; you have to cultivate its acquaintance to know it in depth. Wine leads to disinhibition, spontaneity, and drunkenness. Tea leads to clarity, mindfulness, and awakening.

Traditionally, tea can be enjoyed in solitude. Wine is enjoyed in company.

Tea plays an important part in Buddhism. It was used to help monks stay awake while meditating, and in turn monks became some of the most important cultivators of tea. Wine is associated with Mediterranean religions; Catholic monasteries were centers of grape growing and wine making. Wine leads to ecstasy; tea leads to awakening. Wine helps you escape the world while tea helps you awaken to it. When you drink too much wine, tea can help you recover.

Tea and wine appeal to different people in different ways and at different times. Both are gifts of nature that have been refined and transformed by human cultivation, and that have transformed the societies that cultivate them.

Excerpt from The Essence of Tea by Shan-Tung Hsu

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What is Your Cup of Tea? (4)

Pu-erh tea grows in China’s Yunnan province. Its history can be traced back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) but it became popular outside China only at the end of 20th century. Pu-erh tea is made from a large-leafed variety of tea. The buds and tender leaves are first converted to raw material called mao-cha (毛茶) by a process involving wilting, kneading, and drying in the sun. The mao-cha is then steamed and pressed into a compressed disk or brick form, then put in storage to allow a natural aging process to “mature” the tea.

Traditionally, tea from Yunnan was sold to Tibet and Southeast Asia regions. The tea was transported by tea-horse caravans or by tea porters over the treacherous Tea Horse Road, often in bad weather. During transportation, the tea went through a second phase of fermentation by microorganisms. This is why it has been classified as “post-fermented” tea. Slow oxidation and post-fermentation created a unique earthy, sweet taste and aroma, and a beautiful ruby red color. This traditional pu-erh tea is now called “green” or “raw” pu-erh. It ranges from the initial green state to partially fermented, and post fermented tea. In other words, it cut across all categories of the fermentation process.

In 1973, a tea manufacturer in Yunnan invented a way to simulate the traditional process for aging mao-cha by using prolonged bacterial and fungal fermentation in a warm and humid environment under controlled conditions for 30-40 days. The tea is then dried and compressed into a cake or brick form. This cake is then stored for a few months to allow cooked smell to dissipate before sending it to market. Pu-erh tea produced through this process is called “cooked” or “ripened “ pu-erh.

While green pu-erh takes years to reach a rich and mellow state, the cooked pu-erh takes only six months. People who first encounter pu-erh tea prefer cooked pu-erh, since it is mellow and sweet. However, experienced connoisseur may prefer aged green pu-erh, as it more alive and has more depth.

Unlike green tea, which ideally should be consumed soon after production, green pu-erh can be stored for many years. Pu-erh tea is often classified by years and region of production, much the way wine is classified.

If black tea can be compared with a vigorous, assertive gentleman, then the mellowness of pu-erh tea is rather like earthy, affectionate old grandparents. Good pu-erh can be steeped many times. It is very dependable and can be counted on, just like grandparents, who, seasoned by life’s lessons, can be relied upon for support and guidance.

While green tea is sharp and refreshing, pu-erh is sweet and soothing, with a hint of earthiness. Also with its beautiful ruby color, pu-erh has been described as “drinking a warm campfire”.

With green tea as an innocent teenager, oolong tea as a mature and sophisticated lady, black tea as a vigorous and assertive gentleman, and pu-erh tea as mellow and affectionate grandparents; all these makes up a nice and wholesome tea family. All has their uniqueness. Tea lovers embrace all teas; drinking green tea in the morning, Pu-erh in evening and oolong and black tea the whole day long.

Enjoy Tea, Enjoy life!