Monday, March 04, 2019

China's 3 doctrines and tea

It took me over 20 years to come to a comprehensive understanding of Chinese thought. One of the reasons for the complexity of Chinese thought is that there is not just one, but at least 3 doctrines. And they have each contributed some ideas to each other! I'm not going to give you a detailed lesson, but a very general overview of each doctrine and how it is linked to tea!
Song dynasty style tea
1. The (Neo)Confucian doctrine finds its origins in the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC). This doctrine teaches children to be respectful of elders (parents and teachers). It emphasizes learning from masters, through copying, imitation (in Chinese, the character 學 means to learn and to copy). Exams determined the best students and who would get the best positions in the State. One of the key value is gratitude and showing this thankfulness through many rituals whereby the ancestors, the master or the superiors in the hierarchy were honored.

This doctrine of social order is still very much alive in Taiwan and China. See the tough education system and how getting into the best universities is so important and difficult, for instance. However, the pinnacle for Neo Confucian rule in China was during the Song dynasty (960-1279). That's when the literati, the scholars, had the most power and influence. This doctrine emphasizes rationality, learning and respect, which is why it was so modern back then. One didn't show off with his material possessions, but with knowledge and good taste. That's why the beauty of Song dynasty tea is so understated, almost austere.
An other occurrence of Confucian doctrine in tea is the ritual offering of tea to the emperor or the head of State. It's an honor and good publicity, because customers like to copy the elites in what they drink and how they drink it. 

To summarize, happiness is: learn well from your master(s) and be content with what you have.

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2. The Buddhist doctrine comes from India and became more and more popular among the common Chinese people during the Tang dynasty. The main characteristic of Chan Buddhism in China (which became known as zen Buddhism in Japan) is meditation. Meditation is the path to enlightenment.

Buddhism has this strange legend of how tea was invented: Bodhidharma was falling asleep during a long mediation and tore off his eye lids in order to stay awake. His eye lids magically turned into a tea tree when they reached the ground and Bodhidharma chew on its (tea) leaves and stayed awake after that! This tale shows that tea became popular with Buddhist monks, because it helped them to meditate without dozing off. And by favoring tea as a drink, this helped turn people away from wine, which had a bad reputation for those aiming for purity.
The link between tea and meditation also goes the other way round: tea helps to meditate, but meditation also helps to be more focused on enjoying and preparing the tea. Meditation is helpful to be aware of the very fine aromas of tea.

Happiness is: drink tea while or before you meditate and have no desires.

The character Qi, energy
3. The Daoist (or Taoist) doctrine refers to the Dao (Tao), which means 'the way'. It is the earliest Chinese philosophy and was founded by Laozi (601-531 BC) who wrote the Dao De Jing. In Chapter 42, we can read this fundamental text:

"The Way produces one, one produces two.
The two produce the three and the three produce all things.
All things submit to yin and embrace yang.
They soften their energy to achieve harmony."

One way to interpret this text is that the Tao is the original void. It produces one, which is Qi, energy. This energy produces 2, which are Yin and Yang. And through the interaction of Yin and Yang all life is created. And harmony is finding the right balance between Yin and Yang. This thought is very abstract, metaphysical and difficult to grasp. The important concepts are void or emptiness, Qi or energy, the tension between Yin (a soft, receptive force, darkness) and Yang (an active force, light) and Harmony.

The importance of the void in tea can be found in teapots, jars or cups. It's not so much there shape that matters, but the void inside them that let them be filled with water and/or tea!
And the tea froth on top of a bowl of Song dynasty tea is so delicious thanks to the many small tea bubbles. These are filled with air, almost nothing!

We also find Qi in Chaqi, the energy one feels after drinking good teas that can be felt in the body beyond their mere scent and taste. This is the ultimate tea tasting experience! In my experience, the most common and easy to grasp Qi is a powerful aftertaste. Because that's when you still feel the tea even though the brew has already disappeared in your mouth. The palate is empty, but the tea's presence can still be felt. And sometimes you can feel the warmth of tea circulating in your belly, shoulders, arms, hands and even feet!

The interaction of Yin and Yang can also be found in the interaction of water (Yin) and tea leaves (Yang). Through their interaction, we create tea. Daoism focuses on the interactions to find harmony: what is the right proportion of water and leaves, the right amount of force in pouring the boiling water, the right amount of time in the steep... What are the colors that complement best each other on a Chaxi? How do the shapes of our tea ware interact with the energy of the tea? What kind of energy does my body, my mind or this moment require?

Happiness is when your tea unleashes your creative energy and you strive for Harmony.

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