After eight years on the hardpan of the Sonoran desert, Paul moved to the concrete and metal canyons of San Francisco to pursue the urban tea lifestyle as well as his artistic dreams as a writer. “The Israelites did 40 years in the desert but I only ended up having to do eight,” he jokes about his years in exile.
Crossing the wilderness to the promise land led to the discovery of spiritual purification practices like Vipassana meditation, the martial art Aikido, the Lakota Ceremonial way of life known as The Red Road, and of course the power of Tea Ceremony.
The Fall of 2009 marks ten years under the tutelage of his Buddhist meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Later this year, he plans on completing the production of his first documentary film, Thunderdreamer, the life story of his mentor Wicasa Intankan Tatanka Weitgo, also known as Chief Phillip Aaron Crazybull, also known as Phil, an authentic Heyoka Medicine Man.
Sure, some folks may have what constitutes as a religious commitment to that morning cup, but those snaky lines, noisy steam and the jolting nature of caffeine in coffee can make mindfulness a pretty tall order. Good ol’ coffee and conversation considered, we’ve come to associate the dark pick-me-up more with passion and productivity then we do with self-contemplation.
Tea, on the other hand, brimming with grace and femininity, was ennobled centuries ago into a religion of aestheticism – Teasim, if you will. According to Kakuro Okakura’s Book of Tea, “Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony…worship of the imperfect…and is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in the impossible thing we know as life.” Today, tea is hot, and its popularity symbolizes the shift in America’s values toward living a less stressed, more tranquil lifestyle.
The inspiration behind all these thoughts of coffee, tea and duality was my pursuit of the tranquil new American dream at a Buddhist meditation retreat over New Years. Steering the silent ride to the land inside of our minds was Shinzen Young, a western teacher of eastern Vipassana or Insight meditation. There, a student of Shinzen’s who was also an avid tea practitioner provided an opportunity for us to take part in the Cha-no-yu ritual (literally “hot water for tea”).
Transforming the lobby of the aged, Catholic retreat center into a tasteful teahouse, she demonstrated her agility with powdered green tea, known as Matcha, meticulously preparing servings to a small group of us in the tranquil setting. We were taught that the study and mastery of the tea ceremony takes many years, often lasting one’s lifetime. Just participating as a guest in the semi-formal Cha-no-yu required me to study and learn general tearoom deportment, prescribed gestures and phrases and the proper way one takes teas and sweets.
Given my affiliation with Samovar, I got to thinking… thinking… and thinking a bit more (a phenomena I now understand consists of body sensations, self-talk, and visual images emanating from my mind). Why, I wondered, is it that one doesn’t cross paths with more black-robed, Buddhist devotees sipping Soy lattes? Why the stronger link between enlightenment and coffee’s cuz, this slightly bitter beverage served hot? Scratching around a bit, I discovered that tea, like coffee, had been bound up through the ages with popular cultural values. The tea social experience, however, was more closely tied to ritual, often occupying the center of certain ceremonial practices. Established rites like the Japanese Tea Ceremony I experienced, strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, sought to divide the world between the sacred and the profane (or everyday) in the effort to establish community or create a social experience.
Those fortunate enough to have taken a seat at one of Jesse’s Tea Tastings have sensed a similar energy of reverence and nobility. To the unenlightened eye, it may appear to be a creative marketing medium that helps move product. But look a little closer… and you just might catch a glimpse of Samovar’s skillful tea shaman upholding a living legacy of relaxation, pleasure, dignity, and delight.
Which brings it around full circle for me. Shinzen explained that we’d all soon be faced with “aftershock” and “afterglow,” his terms for the positive and negative feeling states experienced during turbulent, post-retreat reentry into a clattering modern world. He encouraged us to work at meditating daily, while seeking out places and people that supported our practice. Okakura’s charge to “know the stillness that makes the impossible possible,” echoed in his words. I can’t help but thinking… thinking… thinking… how Jesse’s efforts have made Samovar one of hose magical places that assists patrons and pilgrims in finding the harmony, the serenity and the sacred underlying our everyday world.
“…As far as I know, my Mother never sipped tea out of a small Raku-fired cup in a tea house or nibbled Japanese sweets out of a lacquered bowl. To think of tea and Mom, it’s more the English approach that comes to mind. Earl Grey, a splash of half-and-half, a teaspoon of honey and Mom perched at the countertop, the sound of a slow stirring spoon tinkling the inside of a favorite cup, her pursed lips cooling the steaming surface.
As far back as I can recall, tea was an essential elixir in our home. Not exotic Pue-erhs or Oolongs mind you– more the kind that came in the red and yellow box marked Liptons, the little white tea bags stacked up firm from side to side, the string tucked up under and packaged tight. When I first made the move to San Francisco and was exposed to the burgeoning ‘tea scene’ by way of Samovar, my friend Jesse’s hip tea lounge, I was excited to explore a shared passion with Mom. Who knew my seventy-seven year old Mother and I would find common ground over tea?
Then again, when I sent her Samovar’s menu, the retail list tea list and a tin of – what else? – Mother’s Mint, I should have anticipated her response.
Mom: “Well, look at all these. What am I going to order when I’m there?”
Me: “I’ll talk to Jesse and find out if we have some plain, bland tea socked away in the basement somewhere that I can bag up for you.”
Mom: “What have you got against Lipton’s? What’s the closest thing, then? The Lapsang Shoochang? The Monkey-Picked Iron Goddess of Mercy? The Maiden’s Ecstasy? Can you still drink that if you’re seventy-seven?”
Well, at least she had fun rattling off the names. Louise explained that at her age, some things still worked well and if they did, you stuck with them. It turns out the closest thing to Lipton’s was a Black tea and fairly straightforward, something along the lines of an Earl Grey. I sent her a tin along with a few other herbals, a wise choice considering caffeine intake was a concern. Mom’s tea ritual, practiced and perfected over many, many years, typically began in the early evening, when the backyard Oaks were splashed with dusky reds and purples.
It turned out she was a bit set in her ways, accustomed to the simplicity of dangling tea bags with stapled strings, and hadn’t sampled the loose teas I’d sent prior to my visit home this past Thanksgiving. But her curiosity – and no doubt willingness to indulge her son – coupled with my enthusiasm created an opening.
I walked her through the choice of waters and degrees of boiling (“Ooohhh, degrees of boiling” she intoned, pronouncing each word deliberately), the steeping, the subtleties, the beauty. She explained to me that she was quite familiar with things like boiling water and steeping, reminding me that she’d been steeping for years, long before I considered anything other than milk for a beverage.
And before I knew it, my Mom and I were connecting, as I had hoped, over tea.
To be sure, her Midwestern Way of Tea was less rigorous than some of the customs of my urban tea lifestyle. I had no illusion that anything but a uniformed bag of Liptons would occupy her mug the evening after I’d left and returned to San Francisco.
But something happened that post-Thanksgiving afternoon during that half hour, or was it longer? that Mom and I sipped tea, slipping in and out of light conversation and silence. It left me feeling that perhaps the making of a skilled Tea Master can take a multitude of forms….”
Thank you Paul for this story, and, for bringing tea to the Midwest. If you have had our teas make an impact on your life, or your Mother’s life, email us. We’d love to tell the world.