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October 24, 2008

Oolongs on my mind: The art of the leaf

This Saturday October 25 Stuart and I will conduct our first oolong-only tea-tasting at Many Rivers in quite a while. I’m looking forward to the occasion for many reasons, but principally because oolongs are my favorite class of teas. This personal enthusiasm comes through, I think, in the write-up that I did to advertise the tea-tasting in our October newsletter:


There are so many reasons to fall in love with tea: the diverse palate experiences, the remarkable health benefits, the alert yet meditative calm to be had. And then there are the semi-oxidized teas known as oolongs, which for many of us constitute the best reason to give your heart to a leaf. Oolong lovers—you know who you are—need no convincing. We look forward to seeing you here! But if you haven't yet found your affection enticed by the extraordinary qualities of oolong teas, join us for a fun tea-tasting experience where we will sample, compare, and explain why oolong teas are the object of such passion!


In preparation for the tea-tasting, last night I re-acquainted myself with an oolong that I haven’t tasted in quite a while: our dark-roast Tieguanyin. It was quite delicious, and in an unexpected way, because my impressions of this tea start with my introduction to it about four years ago, when we first decided to carry it. That tea provided a delicious brew, quite highly roasted, while nevertheless retaining a distinctive oolong complexity carried beneath the layers of roasty flavor.

This year’s tea is excellent in its own, quite distinctive way. The difference is most noticeable in the lesser degree of roasting to which these leaves had been subjected compared with the previous year’s tea, which brings more to the foreground the non-roasty flavor elements.


Which style of dark-roast Tiekuanyin is better? That is entirely dependent upon one’s personal palate and preferences. What I can say for myself is that I enjoy and appreciate both styles. Which brings me to the real subject of this posting: the extraordinary way in which the contributions of nature and artisanal skill create unique flavor experiences in fine oolong teas. This “conversation” between the products of the tea tree and artisanship occurs with all fine whole-leaf teas, of course, but oolongs are the class of teas where the products of this give-and-take are most evident.


As opposed to the siftings that go into mass-market tea bags, the quality of fine whole-leaf teas depend upon the quality of leaves harvested, and the treatment of those leaves post-harvest. For those unfamiliar with the details, there are now many books available that describe these processes in greater detail than I can offer here, such as The Story of Tea, The Tea Companion, and The New Tea Lover’s Treasury.


The point is that there are two principal axes of variability that influence what you can brew in your cup. One axis of variability is the effects of climate on the tea trees/shrubs themselves, as mediated by the treatment (or lack thereof) by tea farmers. The other axis of variability is what the tea-master does with the leaves after harvest. The degree of roasting noted above is just one decision that a tea-master makes when choosing what to do with tea leaves. This is in turn influenced both by the tea-master’s goal with a particular lot and his/her experience, as well as the character of the particular leaves on hand.


American consumers tend to expect uniformity of product. That’s what most tea-makers strive for with the majority of teas: reliability and uniformity of character. This is appropriate for most products, and most teas. But good quality oolongs, those that have the benefit of a skilled and attentive farmer, and a sensitive and experienced tea-maker, partake of, and aspire to something more than just uniformity.


Great oolongs are artistic creations, and we should no more expect uniformity from artistic output with tea leaves than with painting, poetry, or to use an even more appropriate example, than with high-end wine-making. That is the glory of fine oolongs. One cannot capture the evanescent qualities of the greatest efforts because those qualities depend upon factors that can never be nailed down as we expect production variables to be handled with mass-market products.


And that’s what I love and appreciate about oolongs. That’s why oolongs inspire such passion. In the western world, the closest comparison to oolong lovers I can think of are with those who seek in the finest red burgundies similar evanescent complexities on the palate. The best oolongs are art on the tongue. Enjoy!

October 21, 2008

The Seven Characteristics of Self-Observation

I have been reading a book by C. Daly King recently called The States of Consciousness, published in 1963 immediately after the death of its author. King was a student of Gurdjieff's famous follower, A. R. Orage, and one of his significant contributions to the Work was his privately published book, The Oragean Version. In The Oragean Version King meticulously lays out the principles, both practical and theoretical, of Orage's interpretation of Gurdjieff's teaching. The States of Consciousness includes many of the same ideas as The Oragean Version but it is supplemented by King's own scientific work in psychology and neurobiology. He seeks to elucidate the various states of consciousness available to human beings.

King's take on Self-Observation is particularly interesting because it represents one of the clearest published descriptions of the practice that we have run across. King is uncommon in his recogntition of Self-Observation as not just a method or technique, but rather as a distinct state of consciousness. King calls this state Active Awareness. In fact he he felt the term Self-Observation was "a somewhat confusing terminology, since what is observed is not at all the self - the 'I'-entity can never observe the 'I'-entity."

He lays out the seven characteristics of Active Awareness as follows:

  1. It excludes any element of criticism
  2. It excludes any element of tutorialness
  3. It excludes any element of analysis or other mental process
  4. It involves a a complete non-identification from the organism
  5. It is directed only toward the prescribed area of objectivity
  6. It involves the mediation of all sensations appropriate to its objects
  7. It is not limited in its exercise to any special times or places

The first characteristic of Active Awareness means that it there is no process of judging taking place; what is observed is neither good nor bad. If judgment is happening, that is not Active Awareness (though one could in principle be actively aware of judging happening). The second characteristic means that active awareness does not seek to alter or improve what it is observing. The third characteristic emphasizes that Active Awareness is not a mental process. Mental and logical analysis are distinct from consciousness in this formulation.

The fourth characteristic represents for King one of the more challenging aspects of Active Awareness - that it requires non-identification with the organism. When we observe the manifestations of our organisms in Active Awareness, it is as though we are observing the manifestations of a stranger. The identification that "I am my body" must be released to cultivate Active Awareness. It is when we identify with the object of Active Awareness that the criticisms, agendas, mental processes, emotional reactivities, etc. flood into our field of awareness.

The fifth characteristic clarifies that the field of active awareness is the organism - that is what one has to work with. Things external to the organism are only "represented indirectly through the body's own receptor mechanisms." The raw energy of experience of the organism, internal and external, is the proper scope of Active Awareness.

King emphasizes that it is better to start a practice of Active Awareness with the sensations of the organism. King's emphasis here is grounded in the belief that it is easier for beginning practitioners to stay non-identified when the scope of their Active Awareness practice is confined to the sensations of the body. In Tayu practice we have found it productive to extend the early practice to include feelings and thoughts as well as sensations. As long as Active Awareness is practiced in the context of a Work-group with experienced guides, our experience has been that the scope can quickly include the functioning of the mental and feeling centers as well as the body center.

The sixth characteristic states that Active Awareness is not necessarily atomic but may involve a variety of sensations, etc. For instance, if one is actively aware of one's posture, one will be aware of a variety of sensations extending up and down the musculature of the body. Sometimes we observe small things, sometimes we observe more complex manifestations of our organism.

And finally, the seventh characteristic of Active Awareness emphasizes that this is a practice and a state of consciousness that is intended to be available at all times in all contexts. The cultivation of Active Awareness is not meant to be something we do 20 minutes every morning - it is intended to be something we do whenever we can remember to do it. Our practice is intended to shift the operating point of our consciousness from its habitual waking state of semi-hypnotism to the spacious freedom of Active Awareness - but this is no small task.

In King's description of Active Awareness, he is quick to point out that although the description above seems straightforward enough, the difficulties necessitate working with a guide or a group that has experience with this practice. It is extremely easy to become identified with the contents of our Active Awareness; it is extremely easy to start thinking about that which we observe. To achieve Active Awareness is an uncommon endeavor tha requires much more assistance than we may like to think.

October 20, 2008

The Best, the Greatest Spiritual Books?

I have seen some really elaborate attempts to categorize and rank spiritual books. Long-time residents of the North Bay area may recall Dawn Horse Bookstore in San Rafael, where spiritual books were placed upon the shelves according a seven-tiered ranking system devised by (as he was then known) Da Free John. And most religious organizations have lists of approved books. Regrettably, some even have lists of banned works.

Many Rivers has a different attitude toward categorization of, and recommendations about spiritual books. I hope to explore this topic over a series of postings. For this post, I want to consider the topic of superlatives (“best” “greatest” etc.) as applied to spiritual books.

Superlatives are not arguments, nor are they absolutes. This is a compressed way to state that claims for greatness do not, and cannot themselves establish superiority.  And further, it is an articulation of the position that God – or Buddha Nature, or whatever transcendent category you want to use – does not pick and choose.  So what can it mean to talk about a “great” spiritual book? In a sense, would not any judgment about a tool designed to open consciousness be self-contradictory, even self-defeating?

To address this question, we need to remember that the rarest  human achievement is the embodiment of transcendence within the grounded particulars of a human life. That’s the demonstration that saints, avatars, and spiritual masters offer. The transcendent embodied in the particular, and the particular as an expression of the transcendent.  In one sense, that’s all there is, or could ever be; everything else is illusion. But it’s hard for the human organism to achieve recognition and appreciation of the inescapability of the transcendent.

One way to approach this recognition is by searching for the eternal within the quotidian realm of everyday existence.  Paradoxically, the eternal emerges when we expand consciousness to see that there is a season for everything under the sun, as Ecclesiastes reminds us.

The challenge of human existence is to discriminate without identifying with the act of discrimination. If this sounds self-contradictory, for the egoic mind, it is. That’s why spiritual attainment is rare, and practice is a necessity.

So without creating an “absolute” list of the “best” spiritual books, the aim of this blog is to point to and discuss books that at least some people have found useful.  It’s not just about books that I or someone else “likes” or has a fondness for.  It’s about books that have proved genuinely inspiring to the process of spiritual growth for someone at some point – and it’s about trying to articulate how one has been moved in a useful or helpful direction by that inspiration.

“Inspiration” means “to breathe life into.” Inspiration is a funny thing. It is no more tangible than a breath, a waft of air. Yet people can be moved by inspiration in ways that may exceed the grasp of greed, anger, or ignorance.  Such inspiration is what people seek to find in spiritual books. Yet what moves a person to great things on one day may prove dry and useless on another day. A book that touches your heart profoundly may leave me unmoved.

So what we can offer in a blog about spiritual books is our best, most honest testimony about books which have moved or failed to move us. Use this information for what it’s worth to you in your unique spiritual situation right now.  And let us know how “inspiring” our efforts have been.

October 16, 2008

Tea in the Spiritual Tool Box

Spiritual practice is the application of attention to every aspect of every moment of experience. Spiritual tools are those practices which assist in the application of attention to life.

The best-known spiritual tools include practices such as prayer, chanting, devotional ritual, and meditation. These practices entail the direction of attention toward aspects of experience that, in the midst of daily life, the usually distractible mind rarely rests upon for long. In our online store and in our bricks and mortar store in Sebastopol, Many Rivers offers a range of tools to support these practices, including books and compact discs about prayer, meditation and chanting, sacred art images, ritual objects for home altar creation and use such as incense and candles, meditation cushions, etc. These tools help focus awareness in ways consistent with the goal of putting unwavering witness attention upon every aspect of experience.

Tea can be another instrument in the spiritual tool box. Of course, like any other tool, it can be misused or not used to its full potential. Most people treat tea as mechanically as they do any other aspect of daily life.

The inspiration for using tea as a spiritual tool comes from the east. In many Asian cultural contexts, the preparation and drinking of tea has long been valued as a special opportunity to place attention upon that which we often ignore. An example of the translation of this attitude towards tea from east to west can be found in Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village community. The sharing of tea in community with fellow meditation practitioners is framed as an explicit spiritual tool – an opportunity to exercise awareness – along with chanting, formal meditation practices, etc. Tea has been used in similar ways for millennia by Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian spiritual practitioners.

The raison d'être for Many Rivers – the reason why Tayu Meditation Center created the store in first place – was to provide a place where genuine spiritual practice of every kind, from every tradition, could find tangible support.  Tea ceremony in several east Asian traditions (China, Japan, Korea among others) historically has been used as a spiritual tool as defined above. And as appreciation for fine, whole-leaf tea has grown in the United States, more and more Americans have come to realize that tea can be treated as more than just a commodity, or just another beverage. Like other practices, brewing tea can be consciously employed as a way to enhance attention and cultivate the unblemished presence of witness awareness.

Brewing fine whole-leaf tea is an opportunity to encourage attention to coalesce upon one object, or more properly, upon one process with many facets. To make the best-quality tea of any type, and especially when one is using highly sensitive green or oolong leaves, it is vital to focus awareness upon the interaction of a variety of factors: water temperature (and water quality), leaf appearance, aroma, brewing vessel, timing, and drinking vessel, not to mention the physical context where the tea is made and enjoyed. To these objects of awareness, circumstances may also add other factors, including the consciousness of the people with whom one may be sharing tea.

Harmoniously blending all these factors into a seamless spiritual exercise may be considered an art, but to do this consciously and consistently is an “art” that depends upon the experience of training attention with persistence and dedication. The product of such self-training can be a spontaneously elegant dance without agenda, where one seems to be “doing” nothing at all except paying attention. The tea makes itself; or the Universe collaborates to make this magical brew in this unique moment. Such a result can only be consistently achieved, however, by employing the contents of the spiritual tool box to create habits of awareness with a clarity beyond the habits of distraction that typically guide attention.

So it was a deliberate choice to call the store Many Rivers Books & Tea. Our motto “Tools for Spiritual Practice” encompasses all forms of spiritual tools, including tea, because tea can has much to offer those who would use it to deepen awareness and train attention.

 

October 02, 2008

A Tale of Four Waters

This posting describes an unusual tea-tasting event that we held in the store on Saturday September 13, 2008. We wanted to test the proposition that differently sourced waters can produce vastly different palate experiences in the resulting brews. In the tea world, and in extant literature on tea, the crucial importance of the quality of water  has been accepted wisdom at least since the first great tea sage Lu Yu wrote, some 1250 years ago, a treatise on the twenty best sources of water for tea in China. This was a companion volume to his still highly regarded book The Classic of Tea.

Our own experience prior to this tasting event tended to confirm this point. Nevertheless, we wanted to conduct a rigorous contemporary test, and it occurred to us that one of our monthly tea-tasting events would be a great occasion to do so.What we found, as described below, both confirmed this principle but also produced several surprises. Following is the description of that event that we posted on the “Upcoming Events – Special Events” section of our website:


Tea is Mostly Water: How the Qualities of Water Influence Brewing Tea
We know that water from one source tastes better than water from another source. But few of us actually test how using water from differing sources influences how tea leaves brew tea. In this unusual comparative tea tasting, we will brew several teas using waters from distinctly different sources. Given conditions as identical as we can make them (particularly water temperature, brewing vessel and amount of leaf) except for the differing water sources, we may be amazed to discover that not just taste can be affected by which water we're using; even the color and intensity of the tea liquor may be visibly different. Join us for some fun, comparative science in service of the spiritual art of brewing tea that provides health and tastes sublime.

We decided that it would be best to create a blind testing where our customers would serve as unbiased testers. Tasters were provided with a form to record notes. In the actual event, roughly one dozen people participated. While the tasting was blind to everyone but myself (blind to other Many Rivers staff as well), I did tell tasters beforehand which water sources we were using:

  1. Distilled bottled water from the supermarket
  2. Sebastopol city tap water
  3. Alhambra bottled mountain spring water
  4. Untreated local well water from a shallow 30 ft well in my backyard, about 100 ft from an artesian spring on a neighbor’s property

We began by tasting the four waters without making tea – but that morning I boiled a quantity of each of the four samples, and allowed them to cool to room temperature, because I wanted the tasters to try the water just as it would be when used to make tea. This had the benefit of removing the chlorine from the city water sample (boiling removes the chlorine gas added to water to kill disease organisms).Tasters were mixed, but there was agreement that the water that was eventually revealed to be distilled water was very drinkable. Several tasters preferred the distilled water over the other three. Preferences were fairly evenly mixed among all four waters.

Then in the order of waters listed above, we first brewed a green tea (Lu Shan Clouds & Mist), then an oolong (Phoenix Mtn. Single Grove Almond Fragrance), and finally a black (Selimhill Estate 2nd Flush Darjeeling) from each of the four water sources. We took great care to use the same amount of leaf in each case, and used the same temperature water, in identical brewing vessels.

The most notable clear-cut reaction of tasters was their “anti-preference” for the distilled water source for all three teas. This pronounced distaste for tea brewed with distilled water strongly supports the view that dissolved mineral content is crucial for producing tasty teas. We expected this result, and our tasters confirmed it.

The biggest surprise of the tasting was that more tasters preferred the green tea brewed in Sebastopol city water to the other two non-distilled choices! (Although there were preferences expressed for each of these other non-distilled water sources.) I did NOT expect that result at all! As I understand it, this water comes from wells deep under the nearby Russian River, so that it consists of river water naturally filtered by 100 ft of sediments. In any event, with chlorine removed, it was the top vote-getter for green tea in our blind tasting.For the oolong and black teas, preferences were more or less evenly distributed among the three non-distilled water sources.So there you have it! I would summarize the noteworthy conclusions to our blind tasting as follows:

  1. Water that tastes good to drink may or may not be good for brewing tea
  2. Distilled water does NOT work for brewing tea. Tasters reported a flatness of taste for water brewed with this water
  3. Surprisingly, Sebastopol city water makes very acceptable tea

Perhaps in 2009 we’ll conduct another tasting comparing a variety of other waters.

       


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