Uncle’s Tea

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.

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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