Around the midpoint of my life, I found myself wondering whether I was on the right path. I considered whether I should change careers and set out on a new course. Around this time, I received a call from an old friend of mine in China who was a Taoist qigong healer. This friend told me that he had returned to the island where he was born, and he invited me to visit whenever I happened to be in China.
My 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.
Pu 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?
At 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.
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!