A Brief Introduction to a Tao of Tea
This article is intended to share a tea drinking perspective that exposes the mind to openess and passive awarness. This practice, or Gongfu, is commonly known as mindfulness. It is the practice of allowing one's mind to become like a valley to which all the rivers flow, or like an empty vacuum to be filled.
To help introduce you to Zen Tao tea tasting, let me start by first stating a simple fact. Tasting is the biological consequence of exciting one’s flavor receptors. It goes without saying that this passive phenomenon occurs without any effort whatsoever. Tea tasting is a skill, some would say art, that starts with the autonomic sense of taste. It becomes an art when done in a state of relaxed mindfulness and all the body's senses focus together on a single act, drinking tea.
Empty Your Cup
The art of tea tasting requires only two things, a clear mind, and an empty cup. You are the cup, a vessel to be filled.
Clear your mind of any and all bias, judgments, and apriori. One must approach tea as does a curious infant to its new world.
At this point, tea tasting may seem more like a meditation; that is where we are going with it. As one continues this practice, they may find that they enter a trance-like state of relaxation and mindful awareness by simply smelling the tea leaves before even beginning the tea ceremony; in this way, tea tasting is a meditative practice. Some ancient eastern cultures held the practice of the tea ceremony to religious regard. Some cultures used particular teas for the sole purpose of influencing a calmly aware mental and emotional state for meditation.
With your mind and cup empty, we begin the tasting ceremony.
Prepare Your Tools and Environment
Like a painter before beginning a work of art, one must prepare their environment and their tools to allow for the experience to flow. Be sure that you have what is needed to prepare your tea. At the minimum, one needs a boiling pot, a strainer, a teapot, tea leaves, and an "empty cup."
Is your atmosphere comfortable? How is the lighting, too bright or too dim? Consider your environment. Remember, the blooming point in the tea ceremony is the receiving of all your senses focused on the single act of drinking tea.
Warming the Senses
The ceremony commences and having selected your tea, it must be prepared for brewing.
Take your tea leaves and observe them. Do you notice the shape of the leaves? Are they rolled into tight pins? Are they scrunched up or rolled balls? The shape they present themselves in is not to be considered good or bad. Do not make any judgments. Simply observe their presentation with an open mind.
What about the color or texture? Take a peaceful moment to observe and appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the tea leaves.
Looking so closely, you may have noticed the aroma of the leaves. Playfully smell the leaves. Take short fast inhales and long slow inhales. Experiment openly without judgment how you smell the tea. One might become aware of the changing quality of the smell when using different methods to inhale.
If memories or thoughts are triggered by this process of warming up your senses, allow it. Simply observe your thoughts. Do not hang onto them. Allow them to pass freely across the screen of your mind. Allow your thoughts and feelings to pass freely along during every step in the ceremony.
Washing of The Leaves
Experienced Tea Masters are often seen first preparing a small pot of tea only to throw it out. With the same leaves, they will prepare the true pot. If asked why they do it, they may respond by saying that they are "waking up the leaves." This process serves different functions.
By making a preliminary pot of tea, one is effectively ridding the tea of leaf dust and fine particles. This will allow the larger leaves to brew and release their complex flavors without being influenced by the tannins of the leaf dust and fine particles. The more even the leaf size used in brewing the more effectively a balanced flavor may be achieved.
As mentioned before, a Tea Master may explain that they are waking up the leaves, and they truly are. In much the same way that one prepares themselves and their environment for the tea ceremony, the tea itself must be prepared. As if the tea leaves have their own consciousness, they need to become awakened and aware that they will soon serve their purpose.
To effectively wash the tea leaves it is advised to brew the loose leaves openly for approximately 30 seconds. With time and dedication to the practice of mindfulness during your ceremonies, you will notice when the tea is awakened and ready for preparation.
During your tea washing, without force, keep your senses on the process at hand. Feel the warmth of the boiling water before brewing. Do you notice the water to have an odor? Do you notice how the leaves look and smell when you scoop them into the brewing pot? Again, remember not to make any judgments, especially those of good or bad. The blooming point of this practice is to receive the senses mindfully without judgment, bias, or apriori.
When the leaves are sufficiently awakened, pour the brewing pot of water and leaves through your strainer. At every step in this process receive your senses mindfully, the color of the water, the steam rising, the aroma released as you strain.
After washing and brewing your tea, the time has come to pour and taste it.
At this point in your ceremony, you may have arrived at a point of deep relaxation and mindful awareness. If not, please do not feel as though you have fallen short of a goal. It goes without saying that one would like to arrive at the blooming point in their ceremony, but please do not mistake arriving at the blooming point for striving for a goal. If you approach your ceremony as you would a goal with a mind full of wanting, you will not arrive.
The ceremony must begin with an empty mind and an empty cup. With practice, the ceremony will become effortless. You may arrive at deeper and deeper points of relaxation and mindful awareness. There is no goal, only a blooming point. Even then, you may find that you bloom differently with every ceremony. No two ceremonies are ever the same.
The tasting is the same as every step, but now we introduce the sense of taste. You may find that your sense of taste is keener after having prepared your senses to receive.
In the same way that we playfully smell the dried leaves before preparing them, playfully sip your tea. Bring in the air with your tea, or try swishing it around. Roll it on your tongue. Playfully experiment with the tea in your mouth and receive all of your senses as they pour in.
Your cup is empty. There is nothing left of the tea to pour into your senses. Observe this peaceful serenity. The music is not just the notes, but the silence in between.