TAs you sit drinking your cup of tea on a sunny spring day, do you realise what a wondrous thing the ‘amber nectar’ really is? Well here are some pointers!
Although known in the East for many centuries before, tea only reached England in the 17th century where it was regarded at the time as a delicacy. Only the ‘well to do’ could afford the delight of tea drinking. It was described by commentators at the time as: “That excellent and by all physicians approved China drink, called by the Chinese Cha, and by their nations Tay, alias Tea.” Samuel Johnson wrote that he was: “a hardened and shameless tea drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of the fascinating plant; who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning”. Not everyone approved though. Jonas Hanway in his “Essay on Tea” stated that: “men seemed to lose their stature and comeliness, women their beauty through the use of tea.”
In the East the benefits of tea drinking had been known for a long time. Apart from the physical benefits there were also the Spiritual. It is known as “Chado” or the “Way of Tea”. Lotung, a Chinese Tang dynasty poet, waxes lyrical when saying:
“The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrails but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration, all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup—ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan*? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.”
Who would have thought that a simple cup of tea could have such wondrous effects! Safer and more effective than LSD it seems!
This brings me on to the tea ceremony in Japan. In that country there was the art of “Teaism”. There were tea masters like Rikyu (1522-1591) who excelled in the art. The whole process was a meditation. The tea house is known as the “Sukiya.” The original ideographs signified that it was the “Abode of Fantasy” or the “Abode of Vacancy” and Kakuzo Okakura in his wonderful “The Book of Tea” says: “it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse. “Even the “Roji”, the path leading to the tea house symbolised the first stages of the meditation process. Passing through the beautiful Zen garden raised the consciousness and calmed the spirit in preparation.
The entrance to the tea house is no more than three feet high meant to foster humility, everyone high and low enters in the same spirit. The samurai must leave his sword outside as it is a house of peace. Inside all is simple and artistically arranged. The guests enter and make obeisance towards the “Tokonoma”, a recess that contains usually a simple flower arrangement and a scroll containing some sacred verse. The lighting is subdued and even the guests must wear simple, unobtrusive clothing. Kakuzo Okakura writes “The host will not enter the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the iron kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill. “
The simplicity echoes the Zen idea that there must be something left for the mind to fill in. This is expressed in Japanese poetry and art, where the space has more meaning than the form. Even the dimensions of the Tea house have significance, usually ten feet by ten. This is derived from the Vimalakirti sutra in Buddhism where the layman Vimalakirti welcomes Manjushri and eighty-four thousand followers of the Buddha into a room of that size, showing the illusion of time and space to the enlightened.
So, let’s leave the guests meditating in the tea house. Tea drinking has been proved to have beneficial physical effects. Green tea in particular has been shown to improve blood flow and lower cholesterol. A 2013 review of many studies found green tea helped prevent a range of heart related issues, from high blood pressure to congestive heart failure.
I must conclude by saying that I owe much of the information in this article to Kakuzo Okakura’s “Book of Tea”, which besides being a book on tea also gives beautiful poetic insights into society, art, Zen and Taoism. Highly recommended! I have read it perhaps a dozen times and still get so much from it. So, on this sunny afternoon let’s end with his words:
“Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things. “
Yes let’s do that!
*An inaccessible island that generally is part of a Japanese garden.