31 March, 2011

Writing About Tea

This article could easily be subtitled "It's a funny old game", or, with tongue firmly in cheek, "With great power comes great responsibility".

There are three extant schools, when it comes to writing about tea, which I present to you without judgement.

Moving House

The first school of thought is that embodied by Mr. Fisher's recent book, The Way of Tea.  If you write about it, you kill it.  Tea should be enjoyed without attempting to record it, without attempting to file it away in a dusty book, without attempting to impose our thoughts on it.  If you write, you have missed the moment, and you therefore suck.

The second school of thought is that of many writers: the goal is to communicate.  Perhaps with like-minded souls, perhaps with ourselves.  Plenty of tea-bloggers fall into this category.

The third school of thought is embodied by the Joshu-like sound, "meh".  You people have too much time on your hands, and over-think everything.  Do what you will.


I have sympathies with all three schools.

Some days, I find myself in the first school: I sit up-right at my tea-table, my pen stays in its holder, my diary stays closed.  I am fixed entirely on the current moment, and it feels most natural simply to do.  Boil, pour, brush, drink.  On such days, writing seems like a distraction.

Other days, I find myself in the second school: I write because I must.  Writing is as natural to me as doodling sketches on paper is to the artist, or as tinkling out new tunes is to the musician.  I've been writing for so long, in so many ways, that I even find myself getting a little edgy if I am far from my diary or logbooks.  I feel naked without them.  Ultimately, I write for myself.  Some of my writings make it onto this frivolous little web-site, because, as with most tea-writers, I like to communicate with like-minded souls.  As MarshalN so wisely once wrote, it is like a constant [distributed] tea-session between writers and readers.

Occasionally, I find myself in the third school: we are tidal creatures, and enthusiasm naturally waxes and wanes.  When waxing, I write more, as a natural consequence; when waning, I don't try to force it.  Easy come, easy go.


I find it hard to tell people what they should or should not be doing.  To do so suggests that we know best, and I am not convinced that we do - in fact, it is hard enough to know what is best for oneself, let alone what is best for others.  Zen teachers are very particular on this point.  One is just as likely to get a kwatz [sharp strike] with a staff rather than wordy guidance.  There's nothing to help opening one's eyes to the present as a good, unexpected smack around the shoulders, or a slap across the cheeks.

Sitting with students in tutorials, I have come to the same conclusion (usually, without the sudden episodes of violence).  I can tell them what worked for me, I can point out strategies and tactics that have worked for others in the past, but, ultimately, I can only provide guidance.  To do otherwise is presumptuous at best, whereby we force our opinions on others, and dangerous at worst, whereby our proposals may be entirely wrong for the individual.

Therefore, to recommend that we must treat every tea-session as a meditation, sat in quietude, and with a still pen, is to miss the point, I believe.  There is as much "Zen" in the writing of a diary as there is in sitting up-right at one's tea-table.  Try telling Basho not to write about his banana tree, or Buson not to sketch that dragonfly.

So, the best advice I can offer is, as always:  go with what works for you.

Seigan Hagiyaki

Finding out what works for you is very hard.  Writing about tea, indeed drinking tea itself, is a good method of exploring your own character.

Is tea just another passing interest in your life?  A distraction?  I have been through many such distractions myself.  Perhaps, like me, you have thrown yourself into something, learned all there is to know about it, collected and purchased and practised it.  Then, you reach a key point, when there is nothing more to learn, you believe.  Nothing more to buy, nothing new to discover, no new thrills.  Then, it is onto the next distraction.  And so on, year after year, distraction after distraction.

Young people are like this.  I write this as a crusty old fool who has passed his thirtieth birthday.  Suzuki wrote, "If you are young, don't try too hard [at Zen practice].  A few minutes per day is enough.  Don't overdo it, otherwise you will tire of it."

Tea can be like this.  The tea blogs come and go, often starting in a blaze of enthusiasm, with the fire and passion of a young person seeking for something, trying hard to know all there is to know.  I look down my list of old tea-blogs with wistful memories, remembering some excellent writers who have since tired and moved onto their next Big Thing.  Sometimes it is because of the pressures of life (Phyll Sheng, come back to us!), more often, it is because tea has been "exhausted", and new thrills must be sought.

I write this without any judgement about good and bad.  As I said above, I write this as someone who knows exactly what this is like, because I have done it many times throughout my life.  It is a natural process.

Haidu Snooze
A natural process

Ultimately, though, perhaps something sticks.  Something gets under the skin.  Something becomes a part of one's life, and not a mere distraction.  The great forces in my life all started as a mad, passionate distraction.  Those that remain with me are the ones that stuck - the aspects that I found somehow valuable, compatible with my life and outlook, useful to my daily round.

I found that this filtering effect becomes sharply focussed as the responsibilities of life increase.  As an undergrad, I tried it all, and cared little about anything in particular.  I loved everything, and, consequently,  loved nothing.

As a graduate, my responsibilities increased, my time became more limited, and I kept mostly those things that were valuable to me.  I still had a little time for passionate explorations that could be wildly abandoned, but it was lessened.

As a post-graduate, and lately a father, I have almost no time for such things.  Family, housework, deadlines, my own students, projects - as the responsibilities increase, so the filtering effect becomes more focussed, and more obvious.  The things that have stayed with me are those that remain essential to me.  I began to see a common thread running through them all, something underneath that made them all valuable.

The Farmhouse

Therefore, my advice: go with what works for you.  If you have a passionate, compulsive personality (as I have), then my tentative advice would be not to go crazy.  Listen to Suzuki, and take it easy.  I would not buy every cake out there, and not try to learn all the single mountains immediately.  I would not try to remember names and dates and recipes.  Just drift through it, enjoy it, and maybe it will stick.

Certainly, my gentle advice would be: don't try to force yourself to write.  When I started out the ol' Half-Dipper, I was intent on regular publication.  This was not a good idea.  Generally speaking, if you find yourself feeling burdened by your hobby, then something may need adjustment.  The only person who knows this is you.

Good luck with your drinking!  If we're all still here in another five years' time, then we can raise a slightly-matured toast to our continued mutual progress.


Troutbum said...

Very inspiring, I feel very struck by this post. Beeing a young father and having a load of hobbies coming and going.

For now, like tea and a few other things. Hobbies that can be practiced at home is of great value when having a family to take care of, and a work breathing down you neck.

Anonymous said...

I very rarely post comments online, but a friend directed me to this wonderful piece and I feel compelled to express a deep sadness that my book made you feel as if I think anyone "sucks". In fact, there are many places in the book--like the chapter on "Calm Joy" for example--where I express a very similar sentiment as what you have here: Tea can suit any occasion, from celebratory to solemn, wordy to quiet. For someone who thinks writing about tea and writes about tea "suck", I write about tea entirely too much :).

Nevertheless, I bow to your wisdom and as a teacher myself must be head-to-floor with regards to the idea that meddling in others' paths is often disastrous. I would also like to say with all the heart I can muster that I am sorry you felt judged by me or my writing. This wasn't my intention, and I claim full responsibility for this failure.

I wish you a thousand cups, a thousand blogs and whatever other insights flourish in your life. May insights abound, and may they all be forgotten. May the flowers be bright and fragrant, and may they wither and die.

(Aaron Fisher)

Nicolas said...

Write as we feel. Whatever the season, warm and generous as the summer or cold and barren as the winter ...

Write as we feel.


Bryan said...


This article really struck me. I am relatively young, four years younger than you - and i've only recently (the last 3 years or so)seen how much effort i've put into learning about tea without simply enjoying it. I've got a little blog, I write for teaviews(which I have been questioning) along with tons of other stuff. It's time for me to sit back and relax.


The Green Poet

MarshalN said...

"if you find yourself feeling burdened by your hobby, then something may need adjustment"

So true.

I do wonder about what you said regarding teaching though. Do you not, at some point, feel that it is the duty of the teacher to correct mistakes? On matters of fact and other similar things, there is indeed a right and wrong. While I never tell students how to study, I do feel duty bound to let them know when they identified Chiang Kai-shek as Mao's wife. In those cases, yes, I do presume that I know.

David said...

So much wisdom in this text. I found in it a lot of the questions I've been asking myself for a while. 

For me, tea is the first real passion that stuck. Maybe it is because I feel like one lifetime won't be enough to "learn all there is to know about it." The more you progress, the more you realise the tea world is vast and complex, like the possibilities in the game of go for example. You begin to learn joseki, thinking you are ok, but as you progress you realise that it was just one small step. One could find more than one analogy between these two worlds.

Tea blogging could have different motivations. Some may be considered good or bad. By bad, I mean people who are mostly looking for consideration, seeking some kind of "master-like" notoriety. I have to confess it has always been my greatest fear as a teablogger, to sound presumptuous or teacher-like, while I am a humble beginner, even proud to be. Willing to share some experience can very well be seen as teaching, even though it is not one's purpose.  It is so easy to misread one's intentions, a fortiori when dealing with blogs or forums. 

As far as I am concerned, the real benefit is the communication you are talking about. Developing human links through a passion is great. Having tea friends is the one single thing I am truly happy about my blog. I wouldn't change it for the world. 

Thanks for this beautiful text and photos ! 

Unknown said...


Lovely post, and I will say I am at the Graduate stage right now, and tea has definitely fallen towards a back seat, but one positive sign is, I now tend to appreciate my tea sessions even more. About being burdened I used to look forward so much to having tea each day, just as an hour I could veg out and enjoy tea. Now either due to schedule or knowing taking that hour off means an extra hour I will have to put in some other time, I find myself often going days at a time without a good session of tea.

I certainly still love it, but I feel my blog reflects the fact that there is far less time for tea than there had been previously.


LTPR said...

I suppose I'll chime in, as well, and commend you on another delightfully thoughtful post. It is for this reason that so many (myself included) so enjoy your writing, and I thank you. Although my entrance to the online tea world is fairly new, I'm guessing my age (nearing 50 now) sets me a bit apart from what appears to be a mostly much-younger crowd. Like any new endeavor that captures the soul, I have delved into tea with abandon, but as you yourself are finding, with increasing age comes increasing responsibilities. As a result, one must focus and hone one's filters and boundaries, continually zeroing in on that which truly nourishes the soul. Tea continues to teach and feed me, although spending my sessions with camera and pen in hand is proving to be distracting. And yet for those of us seeking a deeper appreciation of tea, it seems that blogging is still a good way to find at least some semblance of community.

Words will always fall short and detract from the essence of things, but in these conditioned bodies and lives we're left to bumble along as best we can, seeking connection and communion where we can, hoping always to be given a little slack for our perpetual ineptitude. :) I find myself full of gratitude for the attempts of any who seek to share something of their passion, as it inevitably sparks some Life in myself (another thing that becomes increasingly dear and precious as time peels away more superficial layers).

Bravo, dear Hobbes, and thank you for this bit of enrichment :)

Giri Mandi said...

Chiang Kai-shek is not Mao's wife?
Oh, my...
Shocking. Time to go back and drink my Bulang with milk, sugar and coconut flakes.

Brent said...

Great post!

I can certainly identify with going crazy and fizzling out. I miss all the fun I had back when the tea-orgy was taking place on dozens of blogs and TeaChat, but it's also nice to be able to relax and not feel like there's some sort of race to collect tea experiences like they're pokemon.

Anonymous said...

Well expressed...good advice for tea & parenthood: "take it easy".
All your time spent posting and sharing much appreciated,

Hobbes said...

Apologies for the delay - I've just got back to my PC. Thanks ever so much for the thoughtful comments. Specifics to follow...

Hobbes said...

Dear Troutderriere,

It's true - I found that I needed something that fits into a hectic life. As many have observed, tea is a good opportunity to put everything on hold. One of the parts of Mr. Fisher's book that stood out for me was a recollection of his grandmother drinking tea in the kitchen, and his family knowing that it was "special time", not to be disturbed. Something similar happens to my early Saturday mornings, a treat for which I am most grateful.



Hobbes said...

Dear Aaron,

Thanks for the comment; I read your book twice, in fact. As with all writing, I agreed and disagreed with it in various places, but the fact that I read it twice (given that I seldom find the time to read at all) gives you, I hope, a warm feeling. Thanks again for the copy.

All the best,


Hobbes said...

Dear MarshalN,

An interesting point. I like to draw the distinction between an education and mere data. The marital relations of Chiang Kai-shek are the latter; I am more concerned about the former.

It is something that the English schooling system emphasises, or at least has done so traditionally. These day, our country's state-run schools train their students to pass exams: they concentrate on data. As a result, according to a recent article in the Economist, English schools are 27th best in the world.

In contrast, our private schools (which we, perversely enough, call "public schools" for historical reasons) concentrate not so much on teaching students data, but rather teaching students how to think. The English school system has traditionally attempted to generate good people, in some loosely defined way, rather than exam-passers. The same Economist article cited their study as indicating that English private schools were ranked 1st in the world.

I've been interviewing candidates for our university for a few years, and the difference between the two populations can be quite significant. One set of students merely knows a few methods, and may flounder when asked to interpret new situations; the other set of students have been trained to analyse, reason, and tackle previously-unseen problems in a more detailed manner - their understanding seems deeper.

This is, of course, merely an unofficial observation concerning the average of both groups - there are plenty of individuals in both sets who are good or bad at reasoning and thinking.

So, I am less concerned about whether or not a student knows facts; I want to test their understanding of the concepts, and to see if they can reason independently, outside the narrow scope of the exams and textbooks.



Hobbes said...

(It is that guidance of developing a sense of reasoning and logical train of argument that one cannot really teach explicitly. I can teach you who Mao married quite quickly; I can, perhaps, turn you into a good scientist only indirectly, helping you to discover your own path.)

maguro said...

very interesting articles
We admire!