22 March, 2008

Irreverence, or "1999 Menghai Big Green Tree"

"If you meet the Buddha, you must kill him."
Blasphemy? Not at all, for this is a famous saying in Zen. The irreverence of Zen is something to be cherished. Like most Zen koans [aphorisms/riddles], for all its apparent absurdity, this one has many practical truths within, layered like an irritating cocktail onion.

I'm only qualified to discuss its most superficial meaning and will leave deeper exposition to the venerable monks in my readership (!). For today, "If you meet the Buddha, you must kill him" I will take to refer to independent observation, uncoloured by the opinions of others.

In the Kalama Sutra (I love squid), Buddha himself is said to have told his followers to accept only that which they can verify by personal practice and experience. Not the voices of teachers, authorities, or authors - just personal verification.

Spending a morning (and over two litres of good water) with the 1999 Menghai "Big Green Tree", I spent some time thinking about "killing the Buddha".

Spring is with us. You can almost track the seasons by the photographs of the colourful displays that my wife so kindly arranges for our tea-table. That said, it's snowing outside, and the nearby Angel-and-Greyhound meadow is currently underwater from another flood...

Every article I have read on the subject of the 1999 Menghai "Big Green Tree" ["Da Lu Shu"] praises it in the highest: a landmark in tea-storage, a seminal classic, a benchmark.

On examining the leaves of this prestigious cake, based on reputation alone, I anticipated the distant sound of celestial harps. Choirs of seraphim. The fabled impromptu xylophonic stylings of St. Michael the archangel.

No harps yet. Dark leaves, large but fragmented, with a gentle sweetness. No halo, no lotus flowers blooming in its footsteps.

As can be seen in the flowery photograph above (and below), this brews a solid orange soup, which has a particularly splendid vibrancy in the mouth, and an equally robust huigan, brought about by some well-balanced acidity.

Ready for $400 (?!) worth of fireworks, I was surprised (based on its reputation) to find that this was comparable to many other far less expensive teas. Certainly, it is well-stored, but in its friendly sandalwood-and-camphor flavours there isn't much of an extraordinary nature.

By the sixth infusion, it had polarised into generic sweetness vs. robust huigan. By the fifteen infusion, it was peach-coloured sweet water (but well done for getting that far, I must say).

Definitely no harps.

This is an excellent tea with which to "kill the Buddha". History, yes. Landmark in the tradition of processing, maybe. Awesome tea: that's less obvious.

It is easy to be swayed by tea-writers. We're a passionate bunch, and, occasionally, give the entirely misleading impression that we know what we're talking about.

In everything, least of all tea, don't accept anything without personal verification - this article included. As Brad Warner says in the excellent Hardcore Zen, "question everything, including yourself".

Start with the 1999 Menghai "Big Green Tree".

(This was the "classic" blue/black-labelled version of Dalushu, for all you Dalushu fans out there.)


nada said...


Thanks for your comments on this. I'd often wondered about this tea... how much was just hype by those with perhaps a more commercial interest or how much the tea could really stand on it's own.

I've been keeping an eye out for this conspicuous cake in HK, hoping to be able to taste it for myself, but haven't encountered it so far. Still, perhaps China will afford me the opportunity to kill someone dressed up as the Buddha.


nada said...

btw. I appreciate your choice quote to include from the Kalama Sutra. I think of all Buddha's sayings this is my favourite.

Will said...

I tried it at the Pasadena tasting, and it was not one of my favorites. Too aggressive tasting for my taste. Maybe it will be great with some more age, but it's not something I would buy large quantities of to drink now, at least based on that tasting (which, to be fair, was pretty abbreviated).

Brent said...

The story of Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom, teaches this lesson too.

I forget exactly the context, but from what I remember, there is a meeting of bodhisattvas and the buddha (Gautama), and all of a sudden Manjushri steps up and swings his sword at the Buddha.

Of course, all the other bodhisattvas are outraged, but the buddha praises Manjushri for seeing that even the buddha is empty.

Anyway, it's one of the few of such stories I remember much about, so I just thought I'd share. Thanks for the post (and the pictures, as always)!

Hobbes said...

Dear Nada,

Thanks for reading, despite being so far removed - I'm glad to hear that it's working out with Cloud and Charles.

I bet there's plenty of other (more tasty) fish in the sea, out there!

P.s. I think my favourite of all the Buddha's teachings is when he held up the flower, which made Mahakasyapa smile.

Dear Will,

To keep your head when surrounded by classic teas, such as at the Pasadena Tasting, can't have been an easy task - it's hard to imagine even being able to pay this 99 Menghai much attention after trying its older brothers, so consider me impressed at your presence of mind.

Dear Brent,

What a dream, comments from the sutras. :)

Thanks for the kind words, too!

Toodlepip all,


nada said...


Hobbes said...

Very much like that, in fact :)

MarshalN said...

Methinks much of it is hype, unfortunately.

But I know people who swear up and down it's the best thing they ever tasted.

So... once again proves the point that tea is very subjective.

Hobbes said...

Tea is subjective up to a point, but I feel that the capacity exists for misleading overemphasis. My wife recently said, "Tea is getting to be like High-Street fashion".



Matt said...

Mahakasyapa smiling after Buddha lifts the flower is also my favorite.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on tea and Zen.



Bill said...

I actually have this exact tea in my closet for the lasts 6 months. Perhaps, it is time for me to taste it myself.

Great post as usual!


Hobbes said...

Dear Matt,

Thanks for calling in - I've been reading MattCha!



Hobbes said...

Dear Bill,

Do please post your notes once you do, I'll look forward to them.



speakfreely said...

Having tried both the dark blue nei piao and the (completely different) 1999 standard issue of this tea side-by-side, I must say I disagree. The contrast may have accentuated my rapture, but I was carried away, if not by seraphim, instead by that "sandalwood-and-camphor" which my notes called "the incense-infused wood of an old temple". I really loved this one, though I refrained from purchasing at the ridiculous asking price.

Hobbes said...

Dear Carla,

At the risk of sounding like a total hypocrite: I did enjoy this tea, don't get me wrong. I'd like to try the comparison with the standard-issue '99, as you did. "Old temple" sounds about right - I imagine heavy pews.

"Ridiculous" is definitely appropriate for the price!



Michel said...

Well I don't know what my comment is worth but if a half decent tea is bought and marketed by enough people it starts to get a reputation and when it ages it 'must' pick up 'financial value'.

same as for an ok grade chang tai from 99 -it can also fetch soo much money when it's initial sell price is probably no more than 25$ .

Hobbes said...

Dear Michel,

Your comments are always worth plenty around here!

The marketing aspect is the crux, I agree. If particular teas get pushed hard, the price goes up accordingly. Maybe when the tea market becomes more mature such "shaping" of the public's opinions will become more difficult. It takes some time to develop that maturity, and competition among vendors helps it along. Let's see how it turns out.



Will said...

Well, the Pasadena tasting started with the most recent and went backwards, so the '99 was one of the first ones we tried. The 80s and 70s teas were still very aggressive tasting to me, at least as we had them that day. The 60s Ba Zhong Huang Yin was probably my favorite of the day.

I was at Guang's table, and he brews tea pretty strong. Plus, we were using a big pot, and also, we didn't have time for a lot of infusions of any of the teas. So who knows - I would definitely like another chance to try the Big Green Tree cake.

Honestly, I'm tempted to buy one just because everyone else says it's great. I'll probably enjoy it later, and anyway, it's a famous enough tea that it'll probably continue to appreciate in value.

Will said...

I'm trying it again right now (sample from Hou De, dark blue piao). I like it more, and am definitely picking up the sandalwood / incense type smell.

There is a strange taste that seems a little off to me. I don't know how to describe it - it kind of reminds me of when a bagel gets that black stuff on it (I don't think it's mold - maybe something from the oven - but I don't know if I'd exactly characterize it as pleasant either)? It's not at all like a wet storage taste, just kind of odd. It showed up in maybe the second infusion and receded into the background, but it's still kind of present. Can't tell if it's a storage thing somewhere in the past, or something that should be there.

I am definitely liking it more this time, so maybe third time's a charm. Sometimes it takes a little to learn how to brew a tea well (hopefully this happens before you put your foot in your mouth and pan a good tea).

Hobbes said...

Dear Will,

I really appreciate the extra notes, thank you for posting them. I look forward to seeing if I can find that baked bagel aspect you've detected.

I totally agree about getting some experience with a tea - I've necessarily had to do several sessions with each tea these days, to attempt to reduce the variability and get a more representative impression of the tea.

Thanks again, and toodlepip,


~ Phyll said...

(Please pardon my late comment for this post, but I am still catching up with reading your prior posts of the last 6 months or more)

Of the many teas that we tried at the Pasadena Pu'er gathering, I remember clearly of being thoroughly impressed with this Menghai Green Big Tree tea. So impressed that I still remember to this day how I felt when I tasted it. Hence, my comment about it in my blog as being "simply outstanding! 5 stars."

While I may be just another one in the army of people singing its praises, my praise for it came from nowhere but my own verification. At the time, I knew only little about this so called Green Big Tree other than the fact that it's an expensive and a rather hard tea to get your hands on. I am, however, a skeptic by training.

Nevertheless, this skeptic thought the tea was complex, immensely layered, and very active in the mouth. It was full of energy. It gave me a surge of excitement! Yes, perhaps it was a bit on the assertive side, as Will mentioned, but not brutishly so. Rather, it was like a youthful person, full of life, talent and intelligence. (I'm bad at describing it.)

Circumstances and time constraint did not let me explore this tea to the fullest at the Pasadena event, however. The Cha Wang of the day, though, to me personally and to many others present was the 60's Bazhong Huangyin.

I'm glad to read your honest take on this tea.

'tis but only my humble opinion...