One of the realisations that has come from a busy period hosting an academic visitor is that nefarious nature of "tea spirit".
Lei and I often discuss this obscure notion: that some people make naturally pleasant tea-company, and that others, while perhaps being good company, are not necessarily good tea company. So what makes the difference?
My search initially took me to London. The combined effect of squeezing a visa out of the Chinese Embassy and the potent pollution levels made for a tiring and painful experience. However, it gave me a rare opportunity to see how the "Tea Smith" teahouse is getting on, which I encountered before, in April.
Its proprietor knows a great deal about tea, of course. Ordinarily, this can be quite an obstacle to being good tea company - the desire to impress knowledge on someone else seems to get in the way. I remember Phyll writing something similar about a recent tea-tasting event in the US. However, in a man of quiet modesty such as the owner of Tea Smith, this knowledge, appropriately delivered, can be conducive to a good tea atmosphere. With aching head and sore throat, I slumped over my diary and a copy of Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel and let the calm of Tea Smith bring me back to myself. Exhibiting the consummate skills usually found in legendary bar-keepers, the staff of Tea Smith ensured my good mood was eked out of me like the slow flavour from a tough tea-leaf.
I remembered Phyll's other comments, about his brewing of a 1950s pu'er at the tea-tasting event: because of the busyness, he reportedly found the experience of drinking the famous tea surprisingly unimpressive. Being a modest type, he put this down to faults in his brewing - however, having experienced the same thing several times in the company of all manner of accomplished brewers, I put this down instead to the nature of the company itself (or rather, the nature of the interaction between the people present). Many times have Lei and I sat down to tea with various guests and simply found it very hard to enjoy our favourite teas. Something just... isn't right with some tea-company.
Now, surely, this is no flaw in the natures of the people themselves, but merely an unexpected result of putting people of different dispositions at the same tea-table.
As our academic visitor joined us for tea most nights (being Chinese, he was particularly keen to do so), these thoughts revisited me. What made Tea Smith such good tea-company, and what made our visitor (and other well-meaning souls like him) less good tea-company?
Sitting in Tea Smith, listening to a pair of web-writers interviewing the owner, the four tea-concepts of Rikyu came back to me from a recent book of Lei's that I had strayed across. I realised, recovering at the bar, that these four concepts adequately define that which I previously held to be undefinable: what makes good tea-company?
The four words are easy to read, and there are a hundred vague explanations in a hundred vague books, and I appreciate how easy it is to dismiss them, and the bad poetry that accompanies them. However, the significance of the four simple words really made themselves apparent when I directly applied them to the practical task of defining good tea company. I am conscious that this subject could easily border on the preachy, or the distastefully faux-poetic, and so I'll try my hardest to make it as concrete and practical an interpretation as my limited skills will allow.
Wa: without harmony of spirit, there is violence on some level. Many times have I sat to tea with people that have different expectations, different characters, that have led the tea session to be instantly disappointing. The tea becomes characterless, hard to concentrate upon, and instead the hosting instincts are at work trying to manage a lack of harmony between characters. This hard work ensures that the tea session has instantly failed, often before it has even begun. Rikyu stated that there is no place for the fuss of manners and the endless wheels of etiquette at the tea-table, which should instead be a place of sincerity and simplicity. Lack of harmony between characters, even well-meaning characters, is bad tea-company. I see this when sitting down to tea with people I don't know very well - the lack of wa soon becomes obvious.
Kei: respect is harder to achieve, even if the characters are harmonious. It indicates gratitude: not necessarily gratitude to the host, but that gratitude that Suzuki calls (bear with me here) the sheer gratitude of living - the understanding that what is important here is not, for once, "me". It is the ability to put personal considerations out of the way, and simply enjoy a simple tea-experience in a simple way. To put something else ahead of oneself is kei, and it can be very hard for some people. Many of my friends from London are like this, maybe due to the dog-eat-dog nature of life in the capital (and I'm no saint in this regard, indeed in any of the four regards).
Sei: purity is simplicity, getting rid of the unnecessary. Drinking tea is not complex, and to make it so can create bad tea-company. Though gongfucha can involve several implements, if any of these feels redundant and is used only for show, there is no sei. For some, this could mean no wenxiangbei, perhaps, but I believe that it mainly involves avoiding the desire to flourish, and to show off. It is simplicity of spirit that is at stake here, and without it we have the flourishing, "impressive" gongfucha of the tourist districts. In guests, that same simplicity of spirit means the avoidance of showiness of knowledge. This is where Tea Smith scores highly, and where several other knowledgeable tea-friends (including myself) have something to learn.
Jaku: so hard and fast is recent life, even in the relatively slow "backwater" of academic existence in comparison to modern financiers and industrialists, that tranquility is something so often desired and so rarely achieved. Our recent academic visitor had no jaku: for him, sitting at the tea table was merely a continuance of normal life, networking, discussion. Ordinarily, these are beneficial - but not at tea. The ability to let go that which truly does not matter determines the quality of tea-company.
So many tea sessions have Lei and I had, with so many people, and sitting in Tea Smith, I realised that it was only those in which wa, kei, sei, and jaku were present could I count as being good tea-company. They made for a good metric by which to explain my dissatisfaction at previous experiences, and also to give me pointers about how to improve myself in future.
Good tea-company is a rare thing to be cherished, I've learned. Its rarity says much about how modern people relate (or rather, don't relate) to one another.
Wa, kei, sei, jaku.
Thanks for reading.