Drinking Tea with Beginner’s Mind
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki
None of us were born with tea in our mouths. At some point, each of us had an initial contact with tea. It might have been an oversteeped black tea poured from an old English style tea set, eating scones and petit fours with grandma. It might have been a dark ripe puer on a Sunday morning with relatives around a table stacked full of dimsum. It might have been a bag of Lipton tea in a thick ceramic mug, next to your eggs and bacon. Despite the diversity in backgrounds, we all began our tea journey somewhere.
Kettle filling a gaiwan , near Yiwu Spring 2014
That first sip was our entrance into a new world of flavor. This is tea. But, are there other kinds of tea? If you are like most people reading this blog, once your interest was piqued you dove into the rabbit hole. You wanted to try every kind of tea. Checklist in hand, you brewed oolongs, black teas, green teas, and Puers. Hoisting mental flags in your head at each position of reference. After your first Puer tea, you probably thought, “I have tried a Puer tea. Puer is this.” Then, after some further digging, the checklist of regions comes out. “I have tried an Yiwu Puer tea. Yiwu is this.” And then comes aging. “I have tried aged Yiwu with humid storage. Humid stored Yiwu is this.” And so on and so on. Concepts of specific teas are channels in the brain. Grooves that become deeper and deeper over time.
“Beginner’s mind” [or Shosin] is the concept of approaching life without preconceptions and being open to new ideas and experiences.
Tea Tastings with Beginners
Lately I have been lucky enough to have tea houses in Beijing seek me out to host tea tastings, as well as hosting a tea tasting in Madison, Wisconsin at Macha tea house earlier this year. These tea tastings have been a blessing for me. The old cliche that students teach the teacher has not only been true, but it has been a welcome awakening for me.
My typical method for running a tea tasting is as follows: each person gets a sheet of paper, nobody is allowed to discuss anything about a specific tea until we are finished drinking, and each person has to take notes…notes on their impressions of the fragrance from the gaiwan lid and gongbei… notes on the feeling in their mouth and throat… notes on the first flavors that come to mind.
This is where I offer my gratitude to the beginners. Sometimes the folks who show up at these tea tastings are complete novices, either to tea or to Puer. And I am glad they come. In fact, they are my favorite people because their notes are always astoundingly honest. If they tasted asparagus in that young sheng Puer, they unabashedly say so. If the flavor reminds them of a candy bar or grilled meat, they tell me. There is no shame or second guessing. No judgment. They occasionally couch their comments with an, “I’m new to this, so…”, but this is how I know the next words out of their mouth will be new and exciting.
Tea Forums and Conformity
The internet can be a brutal place. Mudslinging is often anonymous and there are a lot of angry people out there, just waiting to stomp negatively on any comment. If you want to view this phenomenon in real time, you need only go to twitter and watch a celebrity make a tweet to their 2 million followers. Lucky were those historical personalities born before the age of the tweet. I sincerely believe that Ghandi himself could tweet “Love your fellow humans” and it would take no less than 10 seconds for somebody to reply, “Eat shit, Gandhi! You suck!” These voices are not the majority of people, but unfortunately, the most obnoxious people are often the loudest.
Now, most tea forums are not twitterbad; but there is still a lot of jockeying for rank and snarky passive aggressive (and sometimes not so passive) discourse. I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone say, “I thought X tea tasted like Y,” only to have some curmudgeonly old veteran stomp in the thread and say, “Oh, really? You thought X tea tasted like Y? How cute. I’ve had X tea, mine never tasted like Y.” Or the more aggressive amongst the crowd will simply call the new beginner’s opinion of the tea wrong.
A small bug crawling across a branch, 2013 Guafengzhai
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
A dismissive tone will squelch outbursts of honest expression in any environment. Unfortunately, this sort of mindset is pervasive in online tea forums. Stories get told and re-told, and eventually there is no space for openness or interpretation.
Puer tea in particular has a lot of comparison situations. How are these storages different? How is this region compared to that region? How is this tea compared to that tea? I often see a lot of, “This tea is good, better than X, but not as good as Y. Less expensive than Z, but more expensive than Q.” or “Storage X? Ha! Storage Y is much better because storage X does Z.”
Although the urge to compare is human nature, I’ve found that if I make a conscious effort to approach each tea with a blank slate and allow it the space, it will speak to me on its own terms.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sharing some on my Spring tea with someone, who in my opinion, knows more about Puer than 99% of Puer drinkers. He has been to many, many tea mountains. He can process tea; recognize regions by both leaf and flavor; identify the variation in wrappers and stamps from cakes of different eras; and many other things that aid in having a strong Puer background. But, regardless of my opinion, nobody could rightly call him inexperienced.
I brought some maocha from a village I had visited this Spring, and brewed it up without mentioning the origin, as per his request. My opinion of this tea was that it was high quality, from old trees, and unique in how it compared to other things from the area. He drank the tea, and shared what he was experiencing in a stream of consciousness manner. He swerved back and forth between ideas, feelings, fragrance, and flavors. Finally, after about 15 steeps, he ventured a guess of where it was from. His guess was not correct; and I told him the actual origin. His response was to say, “Interesting.”
A floating branch from an old arbor tea tree
His response was not only uncharacteristic of someone who has as much experience as he does, but also in stark contrast to many of the big egos I tend to see around tea tables. The types of people who slam fists and declare, “This is not from that area! You’ve never really had real tea from that area!” Despite the fact that any given village might have several different kinds of tea, hundreds or thousands of trees, and hundreds of families processing the tea in different ways. These personalities are often more concerned with the stroking of their own ego via the derision of other people than actually discussing the nuances tea. Confining teas to say that one type of tea should only be one way is folly; but in the minds of self-proclaimed experts, there are few possibilities.
The people I know to be true tea experts are not quick to find fault, not quick to point fingers and make snide remarks, not quick to speak. They experience tea with beginner’s mind and are open to the vast universe of differences that tea presents. That, and when they find their assumptions to be incorrect, they simply say interesting and carry on learning.