Thursday, July 15, 2021

"The middle path is the surest"

This quote in praise of the middle path sounds very Taoist or Buddhist to our contemporary ears. If there's just one thing that we know about Chinese philosophy, it's importance of avoiding excesses and staying mid way. You could argue that this is even translated or symbolized by the name of China, Zhong Guo, the country of the middle!

And yet, I've found this quote in Ovid' poem Metamorphoses. (Book II, verse 137): "Medio tutissimus ibis". Phaeton, son of Phoebus, wants to drive his father's chariot, which pulls the sun across the sky. Phoebus, foolishly, agreed to his son's dangerous wish. Before Phaeton embarks, his father tells him how to hold the reins of his horse and how to drive the chariot. And since the earth needs a moderate temperature, it's safest neither to be too close, nor too far from the ground. Otherwise the soil could burn or freeze. That's why he concludes, very philosophically, that the middle path is the safest!

Wenshan Baozhong

The story ends in tragedy, because the mortal son of a God is not skilled, experienced and powerful enough to pull the sun with his father's chariot. He looses control of his vehicle and dies from his burns. So, even good advice is not enough when are a total beginner. A theoretical knowledge is not the same as what you gain from practice and experience (gongfu).

What else can we learn from this story for our practice of tea (and for life, maybe)! The middle path is especially useful for parameters that are not well defined by the theory, by the rule of the art. Two parameters come to mind:

1. How many leaves should I brew? 
Put too few and the brew will be bland. Put too many and the brew risks becoming bitter, too strong and lacking harmony. There's no definitive answer to this question. It depends on the drinker's taste, the size of the teapot, the kind of tea he's brewing... So, the safest way is to go the middle way: neither too few nor too many. With experience, you'll learn when to put more and when to put less.

2. How long should I brew my tea?
This depends on how many leaves one is brewing and how much aroma is present in the leaves and how quickly it is released. There's no right answer, just some guidelines. The brews should be shorter in the first brews when the leaves are potent and longer at the end as the leaves become weaker. This is the case with Wenshan Baozhong and similarly shaped teas. An exception is the first brew of ball shaped Oolong, because it takes time to open up the rolled leaves. 

When it comes to the brewing temperature, is the middle path the surest? Should your water be neither too hot nor too cold?
This is the surest way to failure, because the brew would always be bland! When you have a clear rule that says that tea is best made with just boiled water, then the surest path is to follow this instruction. Failure won't come from the temperature of the water, but from the other parameters.

However, the middle way works for the question 'how hard or fast should I pour my boiling water on my leaves?'
If you are new to gongfu cha, a medium strength of pouring the just boiled is the safest bet. It's only with experience, trial and error, that you'll slowly learn when to pour slow and when to pour fast, and where and from how high!

In conclusion, we can say that the philosophy of the middle path is common to Western and Eastern classic thought. It applies especially for situations and parameters that we encounter for the first time or for which we don't have any knowledge. However, the more you know, the more you can be bold without risk. It's like driving on the highway: 55 mph is a much safer speed than 25 mph, provided you know how to drive and the road is not congested!

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