The Dao of Tea.
There is not one right or wrong way to make tea, each culture simply makes tea in their own way. Daoism is the same. Unlike other religions that dictate a set of rules to follow, Daoism is much more about looking inward to find your own way.
What can tea teach us about Daoism? Surprisingly, quite a lot.
Daoism is an interesting philosophy: most people, if asked “what is Daoism” wouldn’t really know how to answer. However, due to Daoism’s inherent natural way, it is often the common-sense approach of how to live and understand the universes, that many of us are drawn towards without even realizing.
So, what has any of this got to do with tea? Many people have tried to explain Daoism in creative ways however, I have never seen its core concepts explained through something as simple as tea. And so that is what I will try to do here.
Let us begin, where many people start their journey with Daoism: with Yin and Yang. At its most basic understanding Yin and Yang are about balance. The balance of light and dark, night and day, life and death. But it is also about flow and interdependence: night flows into day and day flows into night. Some people make a comparison to “two sides of the same coin” but this is not quite right. Yin and Yang are not about opposites. Notice that inside Yin there is Yang, and inside Yang there is Yin. They are not opposites of each other, but they are part of each other and cannot exist without each other.
The Yin and Yang symbol actually comes from a much more complex framework known as Ba Gua. The Ba Gua framework has the Yin and Yang symbol in the centre, with eight sections leading out wards; this ancient framework is used for several things such as traditional Chinese medicine, Feng Shui, and even fortune telling.
Each section of the Ba Gua framework represents the balancing of opposing forces. Most notably: the left and right representing Fire and Water; and the bottom and top represent Earth and Air (sky/heaven). Tea is like Yin and Yang in the sense it also requires balance. The balancing of the four elements: fire, water, earth and air are integral to making a perfect cup of tea.
Let’s take Jasmine tea for example: when made correctly, it is my favourite tea, but if the elements are not perfectly balanced the tea easily becomes too bitter, too cold or too weak. So, how to make a perfect cup of Jasmine tea?
Take out around a tablespoon of dry jasmine tea leaves and place it in a Gaiwan (a Chinese cup, lid and saucer)
Boil water to precisely 85°C. If boiled to 100°C allow the water to cool.
Pour water onto the sides of the Gaiwan until the tea is completely covered. Be careful not to pour directly onto the tea to avoid burning it.
Pour out the first so that only wet tea remains in the cup.
Again, pour water onto the sides of the Gaiwan until the tea is completely covered.
Allow tea to brew for around 20 seconds.
Pour tea into a teacup and let it sit for a minute before drinking.
We can understand tea leaves as the Earth, it is important to take the correct amount: too little and it will taste too weak, too much and the flavour may be overpowering. Fire and water balance each other, boiling the water to the precise temperature and then allowing the tea leaves to brew in the water for just the right amount of time, to ensure it is not bitter. Finally, air is necessary to cool the tea to a perfect drinking temperature being careful not to wait too long or drink from the cup too hastily.
Mastering balance of these four elements is not only what you need to become an Avatar, but also what you need to make the perfect cup of tea (I knew Iroh was on to something). Just like we saw with Yin and Yang the apparent opposing elements of Fire and Water, Earth and Air, do not try to dominate each other but rather, balance each other.
There is not a competition between the parts, there is a unison, a connection. That is the true nature of Yin and Yang. Two interconnected parts of the whole. Yin is Yang, Yang is Yin; the student is the teacher, and the teacher is the student; we should be an example to others, while at the same time always open to learning. Yin and Yang. One and the same.
At its core, Daoism is about connection. There is the fundamental idea that nature does not divide, nature just is. Humans, animals, plants and everything else are all part of nature. All made of the same atoms and ultimately come from the same place. It is the human mind that makes the divisions between all things through labels and categories. But these boarders and boundaries are all just constructs; we are connected to everything and everyone.
Not only do conversations over a cup of tea bring people together, but tea is one of those things that nearly every culture has. Whether it be English, Turkish, or Chinese Tea, brewing leaves in hot water to make a drink is something all of humanity has been doing collectively for thousands of years.
However, different cultures have their own unique ways of making tea. There is not one right or wrong way to make tea, each culture simply makes tea in their own way. Daoism is the same. Unlike other religions that dictate a set of rules to follow, Daoism is much more about looking inward to connect to your own nature and find your own way. The quote “you are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop” comes to mind. Remember we are connected to all things. The whole of nature, the universe, whatever is, was and will be flows through you and with you. You need look no further than within.
So you must ask yourself: What is right for you? How do you want to interact with the rest of nature? How do you want your cup of tea?