Tag Archives: Philosophy

Raising the Bowl of Tea

The rite of tea is a condensed form of daily life. It comprises the vital values that make human existence meaningful and allows us to maintain and remember the old values that in contemporary society have been rendered seemingly trivial or have been forgotten. A great deal of what has been of great importance in the past has become common sense today, which only brings us further from the true core of our existence.

By remembering and practicing this tradition, we re-align ourselves with those values and bring true meaning back into our current situation. The one practice that embodies this elementary knowledge most significantly is when we raise the bowl of tea before drinking from it. What this gesture signifies is commonly described as thanking the gods and Buddha’s, or the one god, or the universe for providing it. But this religiously sounding connotation does not resonate with us any longer since over time we have distanced ourselves from religion in today’s secular political environment.

We do however realize that gratitude and being grateful for the things that are bestowed on us is important, but most often we don’t remember what it is we should be grateful towards. Is it the labors of the people who contributed to farming and producing the tea? Is it the environment in which the tea grew? Is it the host who prepared the tea? Yes, it is all of them, including the religious precedent we believe (or don’t believe) in.

Nevertheless, none of them actually captures truly what it is in essence we should be thanking for. Receiving a bowl of tea is receiving life. By consuming a bowl of tea we consume the life of another living organism in order to support our own. It is because we recognize this that in order to sustain our own lives we are dependent on the life that resides in other organisms, and therefore we express gratitude, but also respect for that organism, by lifting the bowl up before consuming. This action also expresses our humility, because we place our own being second to another.

It is this notion that life resides in every being present in nature that is strongest in Japan’s tradition. In pre-modern Japan it was common practice to raise a bowl or plate before receiving something, because this understanding was strong, and life and co-existence was ever valued. The Shinto tradition, most often referred to as Japan’s indigenous belief-system makes mention of eight million gods, which is interpreted as a number equal to infinity, in fact stating that every organism in nature is of god-like status, and should be treated as such. And when we take the life of such a being in support of our own life, we should be aware of our interdependence while being grateful, respectful and humble in receipt.

Nature has always played a tremendous role in Japan where earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and similar natural disasters are not uncommon, and certainly not only something contemporary. The Japanese people have always lived with the knowledge that someday nature may have a destroying effect on life, and while we cannot avoid it, we can only be prepared. Our lives are affected by nature and sometimes we fully depend on it in support of our existence. But nature also depends on us to observe the natural laws and treat it with respect. The co-existence between man and nature is a matter of give and take and should be conducted in harmony with each other. This harmony originates in us by respecting nature and being grateful for what we take from it, and through being humble in doing so, not being wasteful, but only take what we need.

Practice in the rite of tea allows us to remember this co-existence, and provides training-ground for us to reconsider our vulnerable yet valuable position on this earth. Raising the bowl before we consume tea may seem as a trivial gesture, but in essence it engraves in our hearts the knowledge we need to gratefully and respectfully build our interdependent relationship with mother earth.

How I Activated Lazy Me.

We are being told this same thing over and over. The internet is overflowing with blogs and content aiming to convey the exact same message. We have heard the phrase so many times that when it appears, we say “yea yeah, I know this already”. But in reality, we only understand its literal meaning, but not the idea behind it, and the impact that understanding this can have on our lives.

Do, act, get off your ass.

Only by doing something, you will achieve something.
By doing nothing, you will achieve nothing.

I am a lazy person, and rather sit back thinking about what I could do, rather than to actually go out and do it. But being self-employed, this unfortunately won’t get me very far. When I began selling tea, set up a tea ceremony classroom, started teaching and giving lectures about tea among various other freelance activities, I very soon realized that just thinking about what I should to, where to go or who to contact wasn’t going to get me very far, so I started looking for inspiration on how to activate my lazy self.

I found guides on how to improve my productivity, read books on entrepreneurship, sales, management, etc. but in the end, I still found myself doing everything that wasn’t going to lead to the collaborators and students I needed for my activities. I made a beautiful homepage, set myself up on every possible social network, spent a lot of time on selecting the teas for my store, and after a few months, I was still surprised that I hadn’t been selling much tea, nor wasn’t getting a lot of students for my classes. What I was in fact doing was painting the walls of my bedroom in the hope that someone on the outside would notice how beautiful it was.

Something had to be done, and the next step I took was to learn about setting goals. I made to do lists, set short-term goals, long-term goals, and began to take action little by little. The words on paper compelled me to get up and get out to actually do something, but this quickly started to feel as an obligation, rather than as a positive boost. Something was lacking, and it was Simon Sinek who helped me understand the importance of our beliefs. No matter how beautifully composed your to do lists are, or how large you have written your ultimate goals on the wall, if it doesn’t resonate with why you are doing it, you just won’t do it.

Setting goals can be a drive to get moving forward, but if it doesn’t stroke with the reason why we are doing what we are, interest is easily lost. For me, figuring out that the main reason why I do everything regarding tea and Japanese tradition is because it inspires me to live a simple and happy life, while it allows me to share with others what I have learned and feel passionate about, helped me attain a different mindset. Rather than pushing myself to send x emails to x existing and x new contacts, and to update my Facebook status x times a day, and so on and so on, in order to reach a goal of x total students in x years, I now began doing everything I felt was right, when it was right, because it was in line with my core belief. I actually started doing more because it was what I loved doing.

For some setting goals may work, for others clearly defining your beliefs may be more beneficial. Nevertheless, what I have learned is that we shouldn’t spend too much time on pondering on and polishing our goals or beliefs. Set a goal, write down your beliefs the way they appear to you now, and move on. Focusing on getting these things right for too long is impairing. In fact, even without having a goal written on your wall, or without a clear idea of your beliefs, it is far more important to get out and do what you love, rather than to spend hours at a desk trying to figure out why you are doing what you actually aren’t doing at all.

Get up, get out, do something and enjoy it. Make adjustments where necessary and move on. A clear view on the goals you want to achieve, or the core reason why you are doing what you are doing will become clear eventually. If you are doing what you feel is right, and resonates with who you are, then results will show. In the end, if you are doing what you love doing, people will recognize your passion and beliefs. Don’t forget to listen to them; because it is usually those persons that will tell you what you need to know about your own beliefs.

About ‘Buji’

Proverbs that originate in Zen Buddhism play a significant role in the rite of tea as well. Some of these proverbs have been adapted in secular circumstances, and in most cases their meaning has been altered to our immediate contemporary needs.

‘Buji’ [無事] for example is one such proverb. The word is formed of two characters of which the first (‘mu’ [無]) means ‘none’, and the second (‘ji’ or ‘koto’ [事]) means ‘thing’ or ‘matter’. In its secular meaning, the word ‘buji’ is most frequently used to indicate that everything is all right, or that nothing is untoward; ‘Nothing’ is amiss. But the spiritual meaning in relation to its origins in Zen Buddhism requires a bit more consideration to be understood.

The highest achievement for a Zen monk in training is to reach enlightenment. His spiritual journey guides him on the way to achieve this ultimate state. However, enlightenment must not be treated as a goal one has to work towards in order to be obtained. The practice of the monk is in the conduct of everyday affairs, maintaining a steady state of mind. He who pursues enlightenment is unlikely to ever reach it, but he who abandons this perception, and halts his pursuit of the ideal, will eventually obtain full comprehension.

It is this knowledge that is recognized in the above proverb. ‘Buji’ in its purest form means that there is ‘not a thing’ one can do to obtain enlightenment; Comprehension of our being cannot be forced, it will come when it comes.

This belief applies not only to Zen monks, but also to every aspect of our spiritual, private and professional lives. Whatever we pursue or attempt to master demands effort, patience and perseverance. When we take up a new hobby, commence learning a new skill, or even start a new business, we can’t expect to grasp the essence of whatever endeavor we engage with in a matter of mere months, or even years.

Every time we engage in our undertaking, we gain new insights. Every insight adds to our understanding of our pursuit, and eventually will contribute to mastery of the art. But it is only through continuous study and engagement that these insights can be obtained, and regardless of how strongly we wish to achieve something, it is only through ‘doing’, and by taking step by step that someday we will reach that level of full comprehension.

In addition, from my perspective as an adept and instructor in the art of tea, I have come to understand that ‘mastery’ is not something that is obtained after a certain amount of lessons, or a period of years, but that true mastery lies within engagement in the art for as long eternity lasts. Every occasion, every person we interact with is different, and continuously allows us access to new insights. Becoming able to perfectly execute an art is not where our realization of mastery ends, it is where the journey towards true mastery begins.

The Efficiency of Machines vs. Our Preference of Taste

Contemporarily, Japan is renown for its green tea. Matcha is overtaking the world as a ‘power food’, and is rapidly gaining preference with the more health conscious among us. Gyokuro is favored for its deep and varied taste and abundance of umami flavor, and Sencha is known as the most eminent of Japanese teas in terms of green tea of the whole-leaf kind. What these teas have in common, is that they all are non-oxidized green tea variations of tea.

In contrast to black tea, which is more common in the West, green tea has not been oxidized or left to wither after harvest, but has instead been processed to stop the oxidization and maintain its green color immediately after being picked. Through oxidization, several of the active components such as anti-oxidants, polyphenols, and amino acids change structure and generate a variety of flavors and aromas, but recent research has pointed out that maintaining them in their original state has greater benefit to our health and bodies.

One of the reasons that green tea is gaining popularity in the West, is exactly this discovery. I won’t go in detail here, but green tea has ‘proven’ benefits in regard to cancer prevention, blood pressure lowering functions, propels digestion, and is favorable for weight-loss and dieting. These are just a few of the demonstrated effects of this beverage. So, when keeping the leaves green and fresh can have this many different benefits to our health, then why would we even consider withering these leaves? Well, this certainly is a valid question, if you look to this plant only for its – maybe possible – beneficial functions. (Imagine even how many cups you would have to drink daily to get just the slightest benefit)

Everything comes at a cost. And for something new, something old will always have to make room, as is the case here. The freshness of tea that we consume today has only become possible since recently. From the 1960’s onward machines as an aid to harvesting have been employed, cars aided with transitioning crop from field to factory, and a wide array of manufacturing machines have replaced the arduous traditional ways of hand-rolling tea. We have become able to harvest more leaf at once, transfer it to the factory faster, and immediately process tea in large quantities at a much higher pace. The mechanization of harvesting and manufacturing processes has eliminated the necessity for freshly picked leaves to sit idly during transport after picking, and in waiting to be processed.

In the past, tea had to be transported on foot, and since the distance between farm and factory could be rather far, it wasn’t uncommon that the leaves had already begun to oxidize slightly during this journey. Moreover, since only a few trained professionals could conduct the steaming and rolling, harvested batches sometimes had to wait for several hours before they could be processed. It is obvious that during these periods of idleness, the leaves would gradually continue to wither, but rather than to throw them on a pile, or let them sit in the baskets in which they were carried, it was customary to spread them out on large ‘withering’ and drying beds. This would allow all leaves to dry evenly, and enable manufacturers to process each batch of tea individually without having to rush.

What such a process results in, is not the Japanese green tea we know today, but on the contrary a lightly oxidized variant with a much more outspoken aroma, often referred to as floral or sweet. This tea would be somewhat equivalent to what we know as Oolong, although some of the manufacturing processes are different compared to traditional Taiwanese methods. Nevertheless, should a green tea today even offer a hint of this aromatic character; then it is immediately written off as a failed batch. Why? Because since the advent of machinery and the possibility to maintain absolute ‘freshness’, the new standard has eliminated any room for floral scents and other tastes that even slightly give notion of oxidization in the tea. Contemporary green tea is strictly non-oxidized, and in effect is also un-aromatic.

The advent of machinery has once again changed our priorities, and created opportunity for a ‘new’ kind of tea to emerge. ‘Proven’ health benefits have guided us to choose not only tea, but also foods in relation to what it may or may not be able to do for our wellbeing, and such choice even takes precedence over whether or not what we consume is in fact delicious – to give one example, the Japanese eat fermented beans because it is said to be healthy. In doing so, we have chosen for a far more generic taste, because the fragrance and aroma of a green tea in comparison to even a slightly oxidized tea is close to none. An oxidized tea on the other hand, has a much more outspoken and varied aroma, and although it is definitely not my intention to write green tea off in this article, it is my belief that a slightly withered tea appeals to a much wider palette.

I am in favor of re-discovering the true tradition of Japanese tea through fragrance and scent. Do you choose the illusion of health, or are you in favor of sharing in the joy of a truly delicious tea? It is my feeling that the true future of Japanese green tea lies in the possibilities of withering.

Comparing Japanese Oolong

The Koshun Organic Oolong, produced in the Shimada region in Shizuoka, has since the opening of my store been one of the favorites. It has proven to be popular with our customers, and it served as one among 5 different teas featured in the many tea sampler packages I have delivered the previous year. In its description, I have described it as a tea with a milky savor that has an especial appeal for young women, and this description has not yet been proven misplaced.

Unfortunately, we have run out of stock from the current batch of the 2015 harvest, and the time has come to move on to a new batch. However, unlike with the more current types and blends of tea available in Japan, the production of slightly oxidized teas is still pretty new to most contemporary producers. In effect, manufacturing methods have not yet been set in stone, and are continuously altered and improved. With the manufacturing of green tea however – even though the quality of the crop may differ from year to year – fertilization and manufacturing methods, in addition to blending practices have enabled contemporary tea vendors to obtain a somewhat steady product all year through.

With the manufacturing of naturally and organically produced teas on the other hand, most of such practices are omitted, and quality and specifications of the crop will vary every year. From my personal perspective, this allows for a pleasant variation and healthy diversity depending on what nature and our surroundings is willing to provide. But, in the case of lightly – and fully – oxidized teas produced in Japan, this variation doesn’t only occur through natural influences.

Since the manufacturing of oxidized tea is still very new, and has seen a gradual increase in the past 3 to 5 years, most producers are yet in the course of developing best practices and solidifying their approach to making a truly delicious tea with authentic specifications exclusive to the region they are produced in or to the vision of the producer himself.

Therefore, when enlisting a new batch of our Koshun Oolong, I feel it is necessary to indicate some of the improvements that have been made to the product, and in effect point out several changes in character of the tea. I have taken a sample of the 2016 harvest and compared it to the 2015 batch, which was current at The Tea Crane.

Tasting notes:

Judging from the color of the leaf alone, it becomes clear that the 2015 tea underwent a longer process of withering. The 2016 tea maintains a greener hue, whereas the previous tea is darker and bluer in tint. This is an understandable alteration since the manufacturing of slightly oxidized teas in Japan currently is leaning towards lighter oxidation in order to maintain and include more traits of green tea. In effect, the final product will be closer to a slightly oxidized green tea, enhanced with a scheme of aromas instilled by the process of withering, than it may actually compare to for example a Taiwanese oolong. Manufacturers believe that it is this character that will distinguish ‘oolong’ – and likewise fully oxidized black tea – produced in Japan, from other regions in the world. But this topic I will save for a later post.

Since the oxidization of the newest batch is less deep, the flavor of the tea maintains a lighter, sweeter, more flowery aroma. Also the flavor reveals more traits of green tea, such as a slight stimulus on the tongue with a younger and slightly greener expression, which becomes apparent in a higher amount of tannins exciting the inner cheeks. This is less the case with its predecessor. The 2015 tea has a more velvety feel and creaminess to it, making it an agreeable tea to drink. On the other hand, however, it wasn’t as outspoken aromatic and flowery as its successor, which brings more diversity in fragrance and flavor to the table.

Overall, where the 2015 tea was softer, creamier and smoother, the 2016 tea is a little more robust and thrilling. The foremost benefit of the new batch is that it has a stronger and more diverse aroma, but this had to come at the cost of a little bit of the creaminess. Of course, this didn’t happen to the extent that the trait has been totally eliminated. Summarizing the comparison in one sentence, I would say that the velvety 2015 tea has made place for a slightly more exciting tea in 2016. I wonder what improvements will be made when this year’s batch becomes available.

I expect the 2016 Koshun Organic Oolong to be available on the store very soon. Please be patient while I update our stock.

The power of acceptance – Dealing with difficult situations

We are continuously being informed that building a business takes time. It requires patience and we mustn’t rush ahead, but what does this actually mean? How doe we become patient if we aren’t yet? And how can we recognise whether or not we are acting impatiently?

I haven’t been too patient myself and I have always rushed ahead. Of anything that I have done, I have always been able to clearly see the desired outcome; the goal I am eagerly seeking to achieve, but have constantly been oblivious to the path that leads toward that image. When I want something, I want it now, and that is how we somewhat have become conditioned in our current society. When we want something, we buy it. Do you feel sick? Take a pill and the symptoms will go away. Want to talk to a friend? Pick up the phone or send a text message.

Everything has become instantly available, and we are slowly forgetting what it means to be patient. But, even in this rapid paced world of today where everything is readily available, there still are things that can’t be obtained immediately. Human relationships and love are things that take time and patience to build, acquiring a skill takes time to learn, and building a business is just as much one of those elements.

The Internet is flooded with guides on creating an online business, or courses and books on starting your own entrepreneurial undertaking. Entrepreneurship has become so prominent a concept in our lives that our younger generation can start a business of their own just as easily as they would take up a new hobby. We don’t want to work for an employer anymore because it limits us in our doing, but we still need the money to sustain our living expenses. Starting a business is in this light a very viable and appealing option.

Nevertheless, what we tend to forget is that it takes time and effort to build a successful business, and it requires the patience and persistence to make such an undertaking profitable. Not understanding this sufficiently means that when things don’t look as good as you had initially anticipated, or sales are insufficient and there is a shortage of cash flow, you may quickly loose faith and confidence, and quit. But, it is in dealing successfully with these down times, that we may find the key to success.

But, how can you stay calm on such an occasion? I believe that since we have become too used to being able to get what we want instantly, that we have lost our patience and willpower. To be patient means to accept the situation and to be satisfied with what we have at that current moment. Willpower drives us to continue striving for our goal no matter what the difficulties we encounter. Acceptance is an important factor here, because it is only in being able to accept the current situation, that it is possible to take steps in the right direction. When things don’t go well, I often use the phrase ‘I accept that things aren’t going as I would want them to. What do I do to make things better?’ Realizing what the situation is you are in, and accepting the fact that it is what it is, provides you with the strongest steppingstone to start moving forward.

But how do you maintain this tranquility of mind when your world appears as if it is about to fall on your head and squash you underneath its weight? I find meditation to be extremely powerful. Meditation is the art of acceptance. As you sit, and focus on your breath, you let your thoughts flow, let everyday activities rest, and take time for relaxation. In this moment, you take your mind off the thoughts that circle you deeper and deeper into the difficulty of the situation, and may even lead to extremely harmful doom thinking. You practically distance yourself from what is troubling you, and in effect get a broader view on the situation, making room in your mind for new ideas or solutions to enter.

As Einstein said it, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Abraham Lincoln adds to this “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, wise people have advised us not to jump onto the problem at once. I meditate to sharpen my mind before attacking the problem, and simultaneously devise a different mindset from which to approach the problem. Meditational practice is a powerful tool to prepare us to stay calm in any situation, but I am not urging you to start practicing the art of zazen, or tea ceremony, or yoga as I do. Similar results can be achieved through going for a swim or a run, or engage in another physical activity, go on a short holiday or short break, read a book, etc. Do something relaxing.

The first step in dealing with a difficult situation is to temporarily let go of it and accept that it exists. As a wise Zen master once said when a pupil entered his quarters with a million questions, “Sit. Let’s have tea in silence first!

Meditation in Hospitality; Hospitality in Meditation

What is the rite of tea? Some refer to it as a meditational practice, others point to the considerate alertness it nurtures within the practitioner to the needs, comfort and delight of others; in short, the hospitable face of this praxis. Although these two sides are seemingly opposite to one another, it is my belief that the true value of what we can learn from the praxis of tea is hidden in the paradoxical combination of simultaneously the meditational aspect, which works on the individual, and the hospitable side, which nurtures mutual respect and consideration for others.

Both items indeed seem to work against each other. When we are in meditation, then how can we be considerate of others? And when we are working to serve others, how can we also be in meditation? I believe that it is exactly this paradoxical combination – of unbroken meditation with considerate alertness to the needs, comfort and delight of others – that characterizes this rite as something of which I feel contemporary society is in sore need.

The point in the seeming impossibility of combining meditation, and consideration for others in one and the same praxis, lies in how we perceive meditation. Meditation is most commonly seen from a Zen perspective, in which an adept sits cross-legged for an extended period of time. We see this exercise as a means to ‘distance‘ ourselves from what is current, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Through meditation, the learner practices ‘being present’ in his current environment. The exercise gives means to train his/her mind to become free from conceptions, and to focus on exactly what is actual in our direct environment, seeing it for what it in essence is without distinguishing between right and wrong.

Meditation is an activity that trains us to nurture inner peace and to accept. And I have consciously chosen to call it an ‘activity’ for two reasons. 1) Obtaining peace requires an effort. 2) Meditation is not limited to only sitting quietly. The practice of sitting was originally selected from a wide range of Yoga exercises by Zen monks, from the belief that it was the most effective practice to nurture inner peace and train in the objective observation of our surroundings. But this practice can in fact come in various forms, ranging from being focused and present in the most difficult of Yoga poses, to sneaking out of the office for a 30-minute swim during lunchtime.

The rite of tea is meditation in practice. It is only through the exercise in hospitality that this rite becomes meditational, and it is meditational because the activity and environment demands the practitioner’s full attention and focus. Through meditation, an adept trains in 1) introspection to understand and accept his/her true nature, and 2) selflessness to take peace with who he/she in essence is to enable oneself to fully commit to love and give to others. It is this component of meditation that is essential to the rite of tea, for without the ability to unconditionally love and give to others, a service of tea cannot come about.