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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #20 (July 19, 2010), page 14.
Tea expert writes of Taoist experience through daily ritual
The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea
By Aaron Fisher
Tuttle Publishing, 2010
Hardcover, 192 pages, $19.95
By Allison Voigts
The Asian Reporter
My grandmother drinks a mug of tea, made from a tea bag, each evening," writes tea expert Aaron Fisher in his new book, The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea. "There’s nothing fancy about it, but she always asks us not to disturb her; and when you see her face, leaning back in her chair and slowly sipping her tea, it’s obvious that she’s completely relaxed; and I’d say that has as much, if not more, to do with the quiet time as the tea."
It’s a moment most tea or coffee drinkers can relate to — settling back with a cup of warm liquid for a few moments of reflection. But for Fisher, tea drinking is not just a quotidian ritual, it’s a spiritual experience. In The Way of Tea, the author draws on years of research on tea ceremonies and the practice of Taoism to explain Cha Tao, literally the Tao of Tea.
In the first half of the book, Fisher gives an in-depth account of the history of tea drinking, beginning more than 5,000 years ago in China. Shen Nong, the legendary second emperor and "Divine Farmer" of China, was reportedly the first person to ever drink tea. The emperor was fascinated by medicinal plants and, once he’d discovered the tea leaf, devoted his life to classifying every variety of tea.
Shen Nong is said to have reigned for 140 years — because of tea’s restorative properties — before accidentally poisoning himself with a weed. Legend says the poisonous weed he ate could kill a man within 10 steps. As Shen Nong walked toward the tea leaves that could counteract the poison — on the seventh step — he died.
But Fisher, who has lived in India, China, Japan, and now Taiwan, is more interested in the practice of meditating with tea than the facts and legends of its history.
"I instead want to approach my reflections on tea — its history, development, and preparation over time — from an intuitive perspective; that is, to inspire the heart not the mind," he writes.
And this is where the ordinary tea drinker may begin to feel lost. To Fisher, tea is a best friend, as well as a god.
"There is nothing like the smile that curves a face when tea whispers to a person for the first time … There are no words, however poetic, to capture the sensation of being with tea. Still, I think I can try to capture a sense of what led me to these understandings, and the relationship I have with tea every day."
In great detail, the author explains the intricacies of the tea ceremony, from the brewing of the leaves to the cleaning of the pot, and how each aspect lends itself to a transcendent experience and the sensation of qi (not to be confused with a caffeine rush, he notes).
Luckily, the author seems aware of the eyebrows he may raise by drinking tea so religiously: "If you were to focus on the more conventional aspects of my relationship with tea you might say I am possessed, addicted, or in some other way compulsively chasing something trite enough to be comical. At times this may be true, but at others I honestly find harmony with myself, others, and the universal Tao through just simply sitting quietly enjoying tea."
While The Way of Tea is foremost for those who believe in tea’s divine properties, the serenity found in a quiet moment with a cup is something most readers will relate to.
Aaron Fisher is also the author of Tea Wisdom, a book of sayings about tea, and editor-in-chief of the online magazine The Leaf, <www.the-leaf.org>.