Tea Book Reviews
Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path / Compiled and Edited by Dennis Hirota
Know that chanoyu
is a matter of just
The poem above is telling us “… however thorough one's understanding of tea writings, it is only so much information. It is knowing with the head, not actual experience.” This echoes the statement I have heard from many of the colleagues I look up to in the tea industry who, while not necessarily disparaging the various tea sommelier programs out there, or discouraging one from doing them, insist that the best way to learn about tea is to drink lots of it. Cupping different teas all the time, tasting teas from all around the world of various grades and types; only from that “experience” can you take advantage of the information your learn. Or, as Yoda would say, “there is no try, only do.” In his lucid introduction, editor Dennis Hirota states that
For students familiar with Japanese Buddhist traditions, the phrase "just heat water and prepare tea" resonates with key expressions in Buddhist teachings such as "just say the Name of Amida Buddha" and "just sit" in zazen. "Just" here implies acts free of all instrumentality and worldly distraction.
And then he further develops that by writing
When one "simply heats water with wholeness of heart" for tea, one is free, in one's humility, from designing and calculating. One does not prepare the water for one's own use, but rather participates in and enriches the water's existence as the water participates in and enriches one's own life.
Wind in the Pines: Classic Writing on the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path was a fascinating read for me. While not a practicing Buddhist, I identify with many aspects of Buddhism and see many parallels with the yogic path that I am on. To insert the ancient and amazing thing that is tea into the meditative aspect of the equally ancient and amazing paths of yoga and Buddhism was inspiring and enlightening, to say the least.
The Zen Tea Record that is the subject of one of the chapters does distinguish between two types of tea: worldly tea and Zen tea. So there is at least an acknowledgement that there is a place for worldly tea and that it can be enjoyed without all the ceremony and refinement described here. The masters of chanoyu were obviously pursuing Zen tea, and that is the main subject of the book.
One reason I love reading the old texts on tea is the descriptive way they have of giving instructions. With our gadgets and technology, we don’t have to think as much about how to tell if the temperature of the water is correct or not. But in Rikyu and Sotan’s day, they would tell you the water was ready “when the water heating in the kettle produces the sound of wind in the pines…” Another interesting aspect is the historical record of the intertwining of tea and Zen, such as the fact that T'ang Dynasty Zen master Chao-chou (778-897) was famous for responding to disciples with the words, "Have a bowl of tea!"
This book might not be of interest for those who are more interested in specific info on tea or who are only into worldly tea. But regardless of whether you are interested in Buddhism, it will be fascinating for those interested in tea history and the development of the chanoyu tea ceremony in Japan. It is full of beautiful tea quotes and tea-related poems. I had to exercise considerable restraint not to quote them all here. My notes on passages I loved ran to almost 10 pages! But I always come back to “Chanoyu is just a matter of building a fire, boiling water, and drinking tea.”
I’ll leave you with one last poem, used as an epigraph for the book:
must be made with the heart,
not with the hand.
Make it without making it,
in the stillness of your mind.
James Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary is a great reference for learning about the details of tea and the tea business. While some of the detailed info contained might not be of interest to the casual tea drinker, the dictionary format makes it easy to go directly to the information you need without being overwhelmed. There is a wealth of information here, with over 400 pages of terminology, photographs, timelines, maps, history, etymology, vocabulary, pronunciation, and quotations.
This book was published and produced by Ravi Sutodiya and Devan Shah, whose recently untimely death is currently being felt throughout the tea world. He is well remembered for his many contributions to tea, including his businesses and tearooms, participation in festivals and trade shows, and for furthering tea education.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending a few of James Norwood Pratt’s appearances and tastings at various events and find him charming and knowledgeable. I would highly recommend checking him out if you ever get the chance.
This book is always one of the first references I check when I run across a tea term or name that I am curious about. It is a bit weighted towards Indian tea, but they brought in Chen Zhongmao, one of China’s formost tea authorities, and Lily Talise Chang to help round out the Chinese teas and terms. Japanese tea and terms are also covered fairly comprehensively. I read through the whole thing as I was learning about tea.
My only gripe with the book is that it is poorly made, a pet peeve of mine that might be even worse with books than tea! The glued perfect binding came apart almost right away and the spine has completely cracked, separating the front cover from the text block. My copy may be an anomaly but based on what I can see from (literally) looking inside the binding, I don’t think so. Despite the fact that my copy is literally falling apart, I still go back to it on a regular basis.
All in all, this is a great resource to have on your “tea” shelf. I highly recommend its content to those needing a reference and looking to expand their tea knowledge.
This tea book is an invaluable reference for understanding tea in its many varieties. The team at Camellia Sinensis Tea House has put together a well-thought out and nicely organized primer that you will find yourself reaching for again and again as questions come up in your tea journey.
“Tea is the ultimate universal beverage,” they state in the forward. I have to agree that few beverages can rival its history, simplicity of enjoyment combined with continued refinement and complexity in production, and popularity. Like many agricultural products, terroir really matters. As they so succinctly state: “…just like wine, tea represents one of humanity’s most fabulous achievements, using precious knowledge inherited over generations and taking advantage of the most distinct properties o f its specific growing environment.”
The book starts with some history and basic cultivation information and then quickly gets into the different tea growing regions. They start with the historically important regions, roughly in the order that tea became important to them, before touching on some of the more modern tea growing areas. Understandably, they spend most of the book talking about China, Japan, Taiwan, and India. But they do give some attention to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, and the East Africa coast. Each geographic section is further divided into a short history, a discussion of the terroirs, the tea industry (sometimes including an interview with a prominent tea expert), the gardens and plants/cultivars, processing specifics for the different types of teas produced, local tea customs for preparation of tea, and then some examples of specific teas from the region. The sections on processing were especially helpful to me as I tried to get my arms around the reason for the differences between tea types and regions.
The third section, From Cup to Plate, then goes into the art of preparing and tasting tea, ending with some recipes from top chefs that are using more and more tea in their gourmet creations. The section on tasting was especially helpful to me as I continue to develop my palate. I find myself going back to their “Wheel of Flavors” again and again, so I’ve placed a bookmark there to help me get there quickly each time I reach for it. Their lexicon of tasting terms is also very helpful.
Finally, the Tea and Health section sets this book apart from any that I have run across thus far. The team had 35 teas analyzed for their health benefits; focusing on caffeine content, antioxidants, and catechins. This analysis has totally changed the way I think and talk about caffeine content in teas. The ex-engineer in me loves hard data! It’s just not as simple as caffeine content descending from black to green to white. I just referred to this section yesterday when asked about caffeine differences in various green teas. I’d love to see more analysis like this so that tea drinkers can make the informed decisions about caffeine. Here’s to hoping that someone carries on this fascinating analysis.
My one nit with the book is the quality of the printing. I’m a book-lover in general and there is nothing more disheartening to see than a book coming apart. On my copy, I can already see the glued binding giving way and expect to have loose pages or a broken hinge pretty soon. Hopefully that’s just my copy.
But this is a book that everyone curious about tea should check out. If you are in the tea business, it is a valuable reference. If you simply enjoy tea but want to know more about what is in your cup and what makes it taste the way it does, it will make fascinating reading.
Silently, silently I steal into my chambers.
Deserted and barren is the grand hall.
Waiting for a man who will not return.
Resigned, I go to my tea.
This poem by Wang Wei is listed in the anecdotes of Chapter 7 in Lu Yü’s Ch’a Ching, or, The Classic of Tea. My edition is the 1995 reprint of the long out of print 1974 edition by Francis Ross Carpenter. The book seems scarce again now but is a classic that students of tea would do well to track down. There is so much to learn from both Lu Yü and from the insightful and informative introduction and notes by Carpenter. Lu Yü wrote this first book on tea around 760CE, after tea had been known in China for at least a thousand years and a thousand years before it would be known to the West. In his preface, Carpenter says “Tea may be the oldest, as it is surely the most constantly congenial, reminder of the West’s debt to the East.” He goes on to state that there should always be western-language versions of this important text in print.
And so the act of drinking tea must be attended by beauty.
The introduction takes you through the origins of tea in China and how it has become an integral part of the Chinese spirit, then gives its history up to Lu Yü’s time, how it has changed from the T’ang to the Ming dynasties, how the West came to tea, and finally discusses the Life and Times of Lu Yü. Tea was taken very seriously indeed. At one point in the Introduction, Carpenter points out that:
The waste of fine tea through incompetent manipulation was considered one of the three most deplorable acts in the world (the other two being false education of youth and uninformed admiration of fine paintings).
The tea in Lu Yü’s day was brick tea, so his instructions on making tea and the equipage needed are not always in sync with the tea of later eras but some of his writings certainly still ring true. He has much to say on what makes quality tea and he says it beautifully. For instance, he states:
Tea has a myriad of shapes. If I may speak vulgarly and rashly, tea may shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots. Or it may look like the dewlap of a wild ox, some sharp, some curling as the eaves of a house. It can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak. Its leaves can swell and leap as if they were being lightly tossed on wind-disturbed water. Others will look like clay, soft and malleable, prepared for the hand of the potter and will be as clear and pure as if filtered through wood. Still others will twist and turn like the rivulets carved out by a violent rain in newly tilled fields.
Those are the very finest of teas.
He would probably turn away in horror at the profusion of tea blends in today’s modern marketplace and at the ingredients used for that blending. Indeed, even in his day, he states that:
Sometimes such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches; still, alas, it is a common practice to make tea that way.
He obviously liked his teas straight. But at the end of Part One, he does state that “Its goodness is a decision for the mouth to make.”
My favorite parts of the book are chasing down the obscure references and trying to verify that he actually mentions some of the teas he is reputed to have highlighted. That can be tough in a translation because subtle or unclear references can get lost. For example, could he be referring to Gan Lu (Sweet Dew) tea in the following passage, again from the anecdotes he lists in Chapter 7?
The Records of the Sung: Wang-Tzu Lüan of Hsin An and Wang-Tzu Shang of Yü Chang paid a visit in the Mountain of the Eight Dukes to a Taoist from T’an Chi. After savoring the tea laid for them, one protested: “This is nothing less than sweet and peaceful dew fallen from Heaven. How can you call it tea?”
It was on my third read through before I caught that reference.
In his notes, Carpenter supplies more modern names (and coordinates) for the Tea Producing Areas listed by Lu Yü as producing the best quality teas. This allowed me to figure out that my An Ji Bai Cha was produced one of these areas, tying in this more modern tea to the same quality tea terroir known in his day.All in all, this book provides a fascinating glimpse into tea and tea history. I highly encourage you to track down a copy and add it to your tea reference library.