Friday, June 23, 2006

Friday Coffeehouse: Thoughts on TEA

Hello-- After experiencing some very frustrating technical difficulties today, I am finally able to publish this little post. Those of you who have already read some of it when it was up for an hour today, please re-read it, as before there were 2 paragraphs missing...

These "Coffeehouse Posts" are going to encompass a lot. Today I'd like to share some thoughts and philosophies on TEA.

I read a long time ago and am now re-reading The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo. I would not recommend this as a spiritual reading, though many non-Christians would categorize it as such. It is to me a lesson in aesthetics and beauty, and a lesson on Japan's culture. (I personally, as a potter, study it so as to better understand the history of Japanese tea bowls, which is a form I make a lot of in the studio.)

In my last coffeehouse post I spoke of the importance of establishing a tea time, a time to be still and rest amidst the business of our days. I think that the Japanese were on to something in this realm as well:

"...Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence." Okakura writes. He goes on to write about the philosophy of Tea:

"It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe..."

When I make tea, I am very picky about every step. A friend once said, referring to my family, "Oh, yes, the Hoyts! They boil the water about 10 times before they actually pour it!" -She was exaggerating, yet this is a very important aspect of making tea and can't be ignored. The water must come to a rolling boil, then sit for a few seconds, then be poured directly onto the teabag or through the tea leaves. If you go to a restaurant nowadays they will bring you a cup of "hot" water (I'd be surprised if it was even 160 degrees!) with a teabag on the side. By the time the hot water is brought to the table it's lukewarm. -The result is a very weak not-so-tasty cup of tea. No wonder folks in this country generally prefer coffee to tea. Many folks here think that tea is a pretty bland drink. When I lived in Scotland, they surely knew how to make tea. They would pour boiling water into a pot which contained the tea bags, then bring the piping hot strong tea to the table with a side of milk in a pitcher. You may think I am a tea and coffee freak, very particular about every aspect of the processes. This may be so! I am quite the snob when it comes to such things. But there's much more to the art of making tea than the basics I speak of. The Japanese have their own beautiful, proper ways of making what is to them a very sacred drink, and I feel like a total novice in the realm of tea when I read Okakura's words on this subject. He speaks very eloquently of the art of making tea. He is an artist with words:

"...the mountain spring is the best, the river water and the spring water come next in the order of excellence. There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby's arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the 'youth of the water.' Then the beverage was poured into cups and drunk. O nectar! The filmy leaflet hung like scaly clouds in a serene sky or floated like waterlilies on emerald streams..."

I'll leave you on that note. I could go on forever... Happy tea-time!

~Sia writes from Vancouver, WA

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