Beginner's Mind

Beginner’s Mind and Drinking Tea

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.

Yiwu Kettle Gaiwan
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.

lbz
Sampling teas

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.

small white bug tea
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.

“Interesting.”

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.”

floating tea branch
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.

  • Guest

    This is a really great article. Many thanks for sharing.

    • TwoDog2

      You’re welcome, thanks for reading!

  • MarshalN

    Not sure I can agree with this entirely. While it’s certainly true that immediate fault finding is silly, I’d also like to think that there’s an element of self-improvement and learning that goes on when you drink tea. Over time, you accumulate experiences and learn what’s good and what’s bad. There is, on some level, absolutes in tea. A low grade Longjing costing you a few dollars a pound is probably going to be enjoyable on a certain, basic level – what you said about letting the tea speak to you. But the fact of the matter is that particular Longjing isn’t going to be able to say nearly as much to you as a well made, well grown Longjing. It’s just not going to happen. We cannot pretend that we can enjoy the two equally, and especially not when the low grade Longjing is being presented to you as a high grade tea. I’m happy drinking run of the mill stuff in a lot of settings (I do it almost every day), but I am also comparing the tea with my experiences and placing it on a spectrum when I drink it. Being aware of the critical differences doesn’t mean I have to be an angry drinker. It also doesn’t mean one should just try to find the positive when blatant falsehood in tea selling happens, which alas is something unavoidable with the online marketplace.

    • TwoDog2

      Aesthetics are subjective. The good and bad of tea are not absolutes. My experience has been that teas are often interpreted quite differently by different groups of people. Were one to take an “excellent” example of traditional storage to Beijing, many experienced Northern Puer drinkers would spit it out and call it moldy*. Were one to take a dry stored tea to Hong Kong, a similar reaction could be expected*. Some teas taken to new tea drinkers with no frame of reference, which could be deemed outright burned, might be loved and cheered for their smokey character that reminded the new drinkers of scotch or pipe tobacco.*

      The honing of the “good/bad radar” is something I encourage, or finding personal preferences. One issue I have with the echo chamber of the internet (or even groups of tea drinkers) is that certain mantras get repeated to the detriment of openness. I would love for the Beijing tea drinkers to appreciate the humid stored teas or the experts to find joy in the smoke.

      When it comes to blatant falsehood (online, or really offline, where it is equally as prevalent) – again, the echo chamber does disservice. People yell, in very vitriolic language, what one region is or is not, though they might not have never been there.* Or had a broad range of teas from the area.* Or by people who are repeating what they have been told by others.* Or because they have been misled entirely because other vendors have been selling them one region or tea, dubiously labeled as another.* This kind of misinformation, or misguidance can lead to an increasingly muddled discourse of what is “good”, “bad”, or “blatantly false”.

      Everything with a * has happened to me personally. While I would like for their to be more absolutes in one sense, the greater part of me would prefer that the labels be done away with altogether. I think more people would enjoy their tea more if they weren’t thinking of it as Laobanzhang or Bingdao, but just as tea. In the end, it’s probably neither anyhow.

  • Peter

    Great article. I find the “plain-speaking” and honesty in your posts quite refreshing. I especially liked your comments on tea forums and tea experts — right on the money!

    • TwoDog2

      Thanks Peter

  • Peter Stanik

    I do not like to take notes about teas I am drinking. They are always one-time notes, they right now,
    in that moment not true ever again. I do not like reading my ever notes. I do not like drinking tea with ideas of others. They are misleading and many time not applicable to myself. Lately I try to focus on the feeling, on the response of the body and the mind, avoiding thoughts. Also the aftertaste will tell a lot. I think the feeling, how you feel about the tea is less influenced by thoughts, by what we know. You can´t tell the body to feel good now. A good gushu tea is like a mountain spring, you drink
    a crystal clear water, its so clean that you feel only the cold of it and you still like it. I refer to gushu puerh now as I have not experience that feeling with any other tea.

    This summer I had two or three different wines tasting one after another, just sipping off of three glasses, the last one was was very clear, tasty and once drunk I felt the aftertaste of the morning tea. Was this wine thin, wattery, not worth? I liked it the most of the three. The first one was a mass production ‘modern’ wine, the taste was good but still the instant aftertaste was oily not natural, leaving a bit of unnatural feelling in the mounth. The second one nearly organic, the wine makers call them here around authentic, tasty, with herbal notes and leaving very pleasent feeling in the mounth. The last one was a kind orthodox, clean and organic wine, done with no use of any sulphur added at all and probably grow in a vineyard that was not touched by chemical for many years.

    Anyway, I have no idea what was my intention here to say with all these, so please take these notes as my humble experience in the world of senses only.

    • TwoDog2

      I really appreciated reading your notes. I understand what you mean about not reading your own notes. Lately, I do not even want to know what a tea is. I don’t want to know where it is from. I don’t want to know what other people think about it. I’d rather experience it without any information.

  • HeinzTheBaron

    Appreciate this post. I’m still very much a sheng drinker of puer (get it? I’m sure I’m the first one to do that, ever) and I find that sometimes it seems as though the learning curve is very steep indeed. It can be exhilarating and intimidating, but the taste and the experience of this tea, which I’d never had until a few years ago, and never drank regularly until quite recently, are what keep me coming back. Unfortunately, I’m of modest means at this point in my life, so I’ve mostly been restricted to buying a lot of samples – whattaya gonna do?

    I feel like I’m finally arriving at the stage where I can make a few informed decisions about cake purchases; I’ve had the experience of agonizing over the possibility of missing out on something but knowing I can’t spend the dough as of yet…

    But it’s still humbling. I keep notes, and I’m sometimes amazed at how my experience will vary from one sesh to the next, even with the same tea. Keeping that openness is essential, and a lesson that has all kinds of applications in life….

    • TwoDog2

      You are very right. This attitude has application throughout all of life. Walking down a familiar corridor or street. Eating a familiar food. Experiencing other people.

      Good luck on your Puer journey.

  • William.

    Reading this article was a real pleasure, many thanks. It reminded me how tea should be treated .. with just a beginner mind, nothing else.

    Have a great day.
    Regards,
    William.

    • TwoDog2

      Appreciate it, William

  • Subhorup Dasgupta

    Super read! Thanks.

    • TwoDog2

      Many thanks

  • ian

    So glad to see this post!! I’ve long considered the retention of (at least the idea of) the “beginners mind” to be absolutely essential when it comes to matters of taste. Lots of really good points in this article.
    A few stray thoughts I had:
    -Blind tasting ftw! There’s nothing more humbling and educational than to find yourself surprised/incorrect by the results of a blind tasting (and also nothing more gratifying than being able to correctly identify something and to be able to clearly judge its merit).
    -To provide a counter example to “beginner is better”: I find it’s often difficult to clear one’s head of external influences, especially for beginners. An expensive tea must taste better and be more enjoyable, and what experts/tea sellers/friends/bloggers tell me tastes rad must taste rad. And if I think otherwise it’s because I’m inexperienced/wrong/don’t appreciate things yet. Sometimes it takes some experience to have faith in one’s own sense of taste and ability to judge, especially when what one tastes is contrary to others.
    -W/r/t the idea of “a cake is a sample.” Some teas I don’t start to understand (or even like) until like my fifth session when I realize I’ve been brewing it wrong or didn’t realize something enjoyable the first few times. It’s important to taste things again and again and again. I find the most complex (and best) teas are impossible to immediately judge or fully understand, but instead make you find something new every time.
    -I’m pretty new to wine and my best friend is a professional wine buyer. She likes having me do tastings with her because instead of comparing say a Chianti to all the other countless Chiantis I’ve had and judged, I can simply focus on flavors/feelings of that particular wine. While of course I hope I’ll gain a greater ability to compare, I hope I never lose my ability to approach a wine in that way. Same goes for tea. And to bring it full circle, I had a Loire Valley Cab Franc recently that totally tasted exactly like a woodsy, camphor-y sheng!!

    • TwoDog2

      Good comparison with your friend the wine buyer. Outsiders offer a different perspective that can often break through the boxes we all accumulate when we are in too deep in any subject. A fresh set of eyes (or a fresh tongue) often helps more than anything.

      Also, great word on having multiple sessions with a tea before really coming to terms with it. This is part of the danger of sampling – some teas are not really apparent in the first few sessions. I’ve had similar experiences where it took even a cake before I felt like something clicked with the understanding of a certain tea.

  • To synthesize what you said and MarshalN’s response: experience gives you the ability to quickly hand down sound judgement on what you know is almost certainly true (while the less experienced would falter and deliberate), and be more circumspect about those things which you still have uncertainty about (while the less experienced tend to make sharp judgements on such matters, falsely). This is certainly how I’ve become more and more as I’ve become better at anything, and what I’ve observed in those who have studied the same things as me, but for longer; one of my previous aikido teachers who has been doing it for almost 30 years now is very firm on certain points of technique he has found to be correct or not correct, but on other things, he doesn’t see any problem or weakness in simply saying, “I don’t know.”

  • Kate

    I was at your tea tasting in Madison. As someone who was entirely new to puerh, it was great fun learning about the tea in a group made up of both other beginners and more experienced drinkers. Thanks for sharing your time and your teas with us.

    • TwoDog2

      Hi Kate, Apologies for my late reply – I’ve been traveling in Yunnan and neglecting my blog! I had a great time at that tea tasting. I hope to have these kinds of experiences in America more often in the future!

  • R.C. Agarwal

    It was dark when I woke. This is a ray of sunshine.

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