Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tea with old man Tcheng

Old man Tcheng, he said (speaking directly to my bald-headed nitwit self):

I, old Tcheng, do not intervene to maintain, modify or change the course of things by following the desires of the individual mind. Let there be neither distrust nor revolt but only the necessary act.  If I behave in a different way with you, it is so that you might, at last, by yourself, directly see original spirit instead of always seeking it through the mediation of dead fellows or by running after scatterbrains like me.

My own manner, indeed, is to shake you like a sapling in the mountain wind.  Thus, I break up all your struts and props and, there you are, all undone, with nothing more to hold on to. But since I sap up all that you rely upon and, thus, you are filled with fear, you say, to reassure yourself, that I sin against the law and convention and am but a vile blasphemer. So you go on desperately clinging to appearance and accessories instead of letting them depart from you by themselves, without striving to hold onto them.

My words find no echo in you, so I play a trick on you and tell you they come from a great and famous fellow who has been dead for centuries. But you still do not understand that they are your direct and immediate concern. On the contrary, you seize on them as something precious, good for keeping and to cultivate. Bald-head, by holding onto your futilities, you simply waste your life away and the evidence of original spirit slips through your fingers. What a shipwreck for you!

Nitwit, original spirit does not appear when sleep leaves you and does not disappear when sleep comes to you. Original spirit is nothing and is totally independent of that which changes and dies.

If original spirit were truly your sole occupation, you would see all that alters and dies in the same way that you perceive the movements that dancers give to their streamers, and would resolve to constantly seek that which in you neither varies nor dies and , once you find it, then not one of the thousand worlds could divert you in your thoughts for the instant of a flash or in the slightest degree make you stray from it in your actions.

You believe you aspire to original spirit but you only actually seek the satisfaction of a condition, or learning, and of merit. Because of this, nincompoop, you are entirely under the fascination of all that in you and outside of you is not steadfast and just dies.

That is why the sayings of old Tcheng simply go through you without making an impression, like the birds which leave no trace in the sky.

Bald pate, all that you think and say concerning original spirit is but the erring and wandering of your own puny little mind. To that which nature spontaneously brings you, you respond only after interpretting it through all that you have placed on a pedestal above your head.

Baldy, this being as artificial as the dragons made for festivals, how can you hope to see original spirit in its spontaneity?

In my youth, I went all round the land giving myself up to study and practices. I associated with those who had strayed and, imagining they had found the light, did nothing but cause others to stray. Then, I met him who enabled me to see all the useless mud I bore with me. The way of truth appeared to me and original spirit became my sole occupation. And, one day, everything suddenly collapsed into awareness.

I, old Tcheng, do not imitate so and so, or such and such a one. I hold to no belief, no school of thought do I follow, no one’s disciple am I. In my true nature I know nothing, I own nothing, I am nothing… for there is no old Tcheng there! In the ordinary way, the things in which I take part, of themselves, just flow by, pass away on their own. Even original spirit is no longer my concern.

The words I speak to you come not from that which is learnt.

Shaved skull, I have hidden nothing from you. What profit is there for you? Nothing but stuff and nonsense!

Exit old man Tcheng

Thursday, November 10, 2011

1970's Da Ye Loose Leaf raw puerh

... or, why I love puerh.  It's been some time since I've sat with a puer (puerh, pu-erh, poo on this whole 'correct spelling' thing, you know what kind of tea I'm referring to), although my break from it was only partially intentional.  But the longer I stayed away, the more I wondered what I would find upon my return.  I finally broke my puerh-fast this morning with a pot of Essence of Tea's 1970's Da Ye Loose Leaf.

There are those who love puerh, and there are those who decidedly don't despite their love of other kinds of tea.  "Like drinking dirt," they say (probably not unlike my assessment of single malt scotch as "like drinking airplane fuel").  And even among puerh drinkers there are further sub-groups -- those who mostly drink young puer, those who only drink aged puer, those in search of a good investment, those in search of a good tea-high, etc.  My time away from puer has allowed me to learn some appreciation for other kinds of tea but has also left me wondering, just what is it exactly that makes puer so enjoyable (for me)?  Because yes, the "tastes like dirt/wood" assessment can't be denied in many cases, especially with older puer (although that doesn't mean it's a bad thing).  Such was the curiosity I brought to my tea session today.

the beautiful interior glaze of the cup 
The choosing of the tea and the tea cup (this morning's tea cup, my favorite to drink puerh from, one of Petr Novak's wood-fired beauties), the placement of the setting, the warming of the yixing pot and cup... all part of the enjoyment, and while this 'ritual' is not unique to drinking puer, I find that I naturally bring more awareness to these when drinking something aged and rare.  If it can be said that there is 'life' in these old dried leaves (and if one goal of drinking tea is to facilitate the expression of this life essence), then thoughtful attention of this sort is meaningful and purposeful and adds immeasurably to the experience.

The water boiled and poured into the pot for the first wetting.  The initial aroma is all storage and age.  It's a smell I've come to appreciate for the way it evokes deep, often unconscious memory.  This is part of the magic of good aged puer.  Now and then I'll have an actual articulable memory surface, but more often it's simply a palpable sense of connection to a vague and distant past which serves to ground my awareness at a deeper level than is usual in my waking day.  A great 'entrance' to a sitting with some very good tea.

A quick rinse and then patience and quiet as the leaves sit in the darkness of the warmed pot, pulling water into their inner spaces, activating what has lain dormant to new life.  What entered the pot as clear boiled water now pours into the cup, darkened with the first giving forth of the leaves.  Even before taking the first sip I'm treated to a heavenly sweet vanilla scent rising with the steam.  You just don't get scents like this from artificially flavored teas.  This kind of subtlety and complexity is something that can't be imitated.  Yet another reason why I love puerh.  And the fragrance now coming from the wetted leaves in the pot?  All overripe fruit mixed with good earth, rising warm and humid like a sleepy afternoon in the shade of an orchard tree on a late summer day (having grown up around orchards it's a memory-soaked scent I love).

Given the age of this tea I watch for the cloud feet.  They're there alright, barely moving on the surface, slowed with age, a contrast to the flashing, fast-moving cloud feet sometimes seen on younger teas.  I've been contemplating this matter of age lately.  The past-present-future.  Nondualists (and others) are fond of saying there is no actual substance to past or future, there is only the present; the now.  True enough.  And yet.  Is it just our mental constructs about age and past that make drinking aged puer a wholly different experience than young puer?  I don't have an answer to that, but it occurs to me that an aged puer is perhaps a long accumulation of nows.. traces of nows that have piled up like fallen autumn leaves, changing and decomposing into new expressions of what once was.

Although not all puerhs exhibit strong qi (and completely ignoring the debate on what qi is at all, not unlike the fussiness over puer/puerh/pu'er/etc), the best ones do exhibit "movement" in the body of the drinker, and this one is no exception.  Yet another reason for my love of good puer.  Just as aroma and taste vary from tea to tea (and from sitting to sitting even with a single tea), the qi that a tea exhibits is changeable, as well.  My experience with the Da Ye loose leaf this morning found a spreading warmth my chest and the faintest rise of perspiration to my temples and cheeks, causing a greater sensitivity to the slightest breeze in the air.  I welcome the enhanced awareness.  Does this mean someone else will experience this same phenomena when drinking this tea?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  There are so many factors at play.  No definable "best" or "right."  I can only speak to my own experience.  One man's "tastes like dirt" is another man's (or woman's) drink of bliss :)

Cultivate the beauty that draws you :)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Red Circle Tea's Ying De red tea

Red Circle Tea's Keemun red tea
Well, it's been quite some time, hasn't it?  I've been up to all sorts of tea mischief and sacrilege.  Although my love of puer is set in stone I've been sampling other kinds of tea more recently, feeling called to expand my knowledge and appreciation.  I've even been trying out flavored teas, curious to know what the experience of "vanilla jasmine" or "coconut pouchong" is like.  For the most part, I haven't enjoyed many of these flavored teas.  I find them one-dimensional with lots of (often cloying) aroma and very little taste.  But a few have made for fun "light" drinking, most notably some of the teas that Golden Moon Tea carries.  After trying many flavored teas from many companies, I think what makes Golden Moon's teas a notch better is that they begin with a higher quality leaf.  I was surprised to find nothing but whole beautiful leaves in my cup with their coconut pouchong.  They also strike a good balance with their flavoring elements.

But the tea I've been drinking a lot more of lately is red tea, or hong cha, which many Westerners regard as black tea.  Now I'm no expert on this type of tea.  I didn't grow up drinking English Breakfast tea and never developed a liking for the mainstay Lipton variety tea you find all over the US.  Rather, I'm coming to red tea with the mind and experience of a puer drinker, searching for depth and complexity and that certain wow-factor.  I've sampled plenty of red teas that remind me very much of what's generally known as plain old black tea here in the US.  They haven't impressed me.  I finally found something different, special and memorable in some of the red teas that Red Circle Tea carries.  Specifically, their Ying De red tea, which (not surprisingly) they report as their best-selling red tea.  It's a 2010 spring harvest red tea from the Guangdong region of China, and it's got plenty of wow.

I confess I didn't take notes on this tea while drinking it, and since I only ordered a sample I haven't had the chance to revisit it yet.  But when I find my mind haunted by the experience and taste of a certain tea, eliciting an ever-growing longing for it, I know I've hit on something good.  It had depth and complexity, with an intoxicating malty sweet berry fragrance and taste that dove deep.  I remember earlier this year when Brett Boynton (of Black Dragon Tea Bar and Phoenix Tea Shop) served me a similarly wonderful red/black tea that he was very impressed with, but at the time I was drinking puer exclusively and so didn't take him up on the offer of acquiring some.  My mistake.  I'm so happy to have found something very similar now in this Ying De tea.

a bit of golden halo on the Keemun red

Another Red Circle Tea I've been enjoying very much is their Keemun red tea, another 2010 spring harvest, this one from Anhui, China.  It seems that Keemun teas are a primary component of English Breakfast variety teas, and while I can detect a similarity in taste and aroma this tea strikes me as particularly noteworthy.  But remember!  I didn't grow up drinking English Breakfast and my few experiences with it (long ago) have all been from cheap store-bought tea bags.  So it's quite safe to say that I wouldn't know a good English Breakfast tea from a bad one.  All I'm going on here is what and how I've learned to appreciate tea from drinking puer, and I'm finding this Keemun tea is making for some very enjoyable tea sessions.

Speaking of puer, I see that Red Circle Tea has a small selection although I haven't sampled any.  Only one cake (cooked) and a few somewhat-aged loose leaf puerhs, along with a couple of bricks and a tuo.  At least they don't offer those little generic mini-tuos, and what they do offer is well-described with regard to year and quality.  In fact, I really like that all of their teas are shown with detailed descriptions and (so far as I can tell) spot-on tasting notes.  I even received a classy little "tea menu" with my sample order that I thought was a very nice touch.

One last tea-related update -- Chinese tea eggs!!  I love-love-love these and made up a batch for a potluck recently.  They turned out wonderfully.  The key (in my opinion) to tasty tea eggs is to let them soak in the tea liquid AT LEAST overnight.  Those "soak for a few hours" recipes just don't do it.  I like my tea eggs well-flavored!  Here's the recipe I use --

Chinese Tea Eggs

1 dozen eggs
1 1/2+ cup soy sauce (more if liquid needs replenishing after simmering)
3 star anise pods
a good-sized chunk of decent shu puer leaves (as if you were going to make a pot for two or three friends)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 Tb. sugar
a few whole cloves
a teaspoon of five-spice powder (just to be sure, although it's a repeat of the above ingredients, but like I said -- I like my tea eggs well seasoned!)

Boil the eggs in plain water for 3-5 minutes, enough to begin to solidify the the egg whites but not so long that you completely hard-boil them.  Remove from heat and place under cool running water just long enough to be able to handle them without burning your fingers.  Once they're cool enough to handle crack the shell of each egg individually using the back of a spoon.  You want to crack them pretty well so that the shells are lumpy and uneven but still attached to the inner membrane.  If you end up causing a few deeper cracks into the softly solidified egg whites then it's all the better (it allows the flavorful marinating liquid to really penetrate deeply).  Put the eggs back into the boiling pot with enough water to just barely cover them.  Add the rest of the ingredients and bring the pot to boiling again.  Once it's at boiling reduce heat to a simmer.  Cover the pot and let it simmer for about 40 minutes.  If you need to add more liquid, add additional soy sauce.  After 40 minutes of simmering let the eggs cool in the marinating liquid and then transfer to a large glass bowl to set in the refrigerator overnight (some people let them sit for two or three nights in the fridge).  Peel and enjoy :)