Text by: Aaron Fisher
One of the many facets of the Leaf that has ever. endeared it to the spiritual traditions of the East is the way that it connects us to Nature. In drinking fine tea by Japanese style tea cups, we can have the same conversation with the wind and rain that the ancient Daoist mendicants had up above the mountain clouds so many ages ago. We discuss the streams and the moonshine with the liquor that speaks on their behalf. The discourse is actually perhaps closer to a song, sung and heard in the heart. It plays quietly in the soul, much like the melody of the riversong, the arpeggio of the deer's race or the bursting symphony of dawn rising from behind the mountains. And the wisdom is in the realization that the song and the listener are one; that without the audience there is no orchestra, for we are as much a part of the Nature of this world as any tree, river of animals.
The deeper draughts that are afforded by a cup of fine tea are the real impetus behind its ancient heritage: the scholarship, the devotion of the farmers and the passion of those that find this old folksong playing throughout its preparation. If you ask any tea master why? he or she drinks tea, they will tell you that they got over the flavors long ago, losing themselves in the way the tea makes them feel. Of course, most of us begin to explore the world of tea for its exotic flavors - especially Westerners. I myself was turned on by the amazing array of flavors I had never tasted. As time goes on, one is drawn into the sensations in the mouth, the Qi flowing through the body, and eventually - if one continues progressing - the transformative affect a tea life is having on ones soul.
Consequently all three masters I. asked .said they "drink Qi; not flavor." This is not to say that one ever stops enjoying the aromas and flavors of fine tea. That would be absurd. However, my teacher Zhou Yu always says that you would have to be a fool to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a flavor when you could have the best chocolate, ice cream or even a meal for far less. "What makes old Puerh teas so valuable is their Qi, and the affects they have on the constitution of the person—their health, and of course their potential for spiritual development through the drinking of such teas." He went on to say that you can't really say that being enraptured by a tea's elegant flavor is more of a "beginner" stage, for its still happens to him all the time—even after decades of daily tea drinking. You might say that the flavor becomes secondary; or perhaps that as one's exploration of tea deepens, one finds chat there are many other vistas to discover—each as beautiful as the one flavor offers. It is as if one were hiking through a glorious national park: you couldn't say that one magnificent view was better than another, just different and rewarding for other reasons. Also, in the end, it would be the journey itself, the hike through several kinds of surroundings, that would transform the wayfarer. Focusing on the flavor of tea alone is like sitting at one place along the trail, missing out on all the other great sights there are to see.
As soon as you start recognizing the way teas are making you feel, responding to the natural song they are singing, you will realize that tea can't just be about your own sensual pleasure. You can't build a tea hut and drink teas that are polluting the environment if you expect to make progress, whether it be in a purely mundane way as it relates to your sensitivity and ability to discriminate quality, or if you wish to walk the spiritual trails tea opens up.
For thousands of years people farmed tea without upsetting the balance of Nature - a balance which is being utterly capsized in one generation due to a focus on quantity rather than quality. All the greatest, finest teas are now and forever have been grown organically. That is fact. While there arc gray areas to in thar middle ground are always mediocre when it comes to evaluating them on every Level, which of course includes their Qi - the Nature song they are singing.
It is ironic that we separate ourselves from Nature philosophically and then manipulate the earth using poisonous chemicals which we then consume. Since the separation between Man and Nature is not real, the ways in which we abuse our environment do affect us, whether we ignore them or not. We spray our food and drink, put chemicals in the soil and then pluck those leaves and drink them. Even the insects we kill affect us through the ecological or global ecosystem, the food chain in other words.
While there are so many people all over the world who are beginning to speak out on behalf of traditional, organic farming methodology —or at least to make wise purchasing decisions—there are also the businessmen and their propaganda. For centuries, Asian people only drank fermented Puerh, for example, knowing that newborn Puerh is considered by traditional medicine to be cold and therefore only healthy in small quantities, and/or for people with certain constitutions or diets. Then when the Puerh boom happened, and shops sprung up like monsoon frogs they all started croaking "drink young tea." Of course, they don't have any old tea to sell when a customer arrives, so they discourage anyone from drinking it, suggesting that it is "musty, unhealthy, etc." Arid, obviously, they have a great alternative: "fresh", "vibrant" young Puerh, which can be "dry stored" properly, rather than drinking that old garbage "those other guys are selling." The same scenario occurs in marketing unhealthy products throughout the world, including inorganic teas.
The worst argument I have heard for not purchasing organic teas is that the difference in quality is not worth the extra price. While it may be true that an organic and inorganic tea from the same region taste similar, and the difference in price is not always commensurate with the difference in flavor, this has absolutely nothing to do with why one is paying the extra money. You are paying for a healthier environment, and not just for you but for those will inherit this earth when we are gone. Also, in choosing organic you are supporting traditional farming and farmers, a proven, time-tested methodology for sustainable agriculture. Growing organic tea is not easy - it takes a lot of work, much more than the inorganic plantations. As we discussed above, you are also buying a cleaner, healthier tea that does not sing a bluesy song about the how "the Qi is gone... the Qi is gone away" ; but the more romantic version that inspired the great Tang poets to pour out their hearts, suggesting tea was an enlightening experience. Making tea into a shallow pursuit of sensual pleasure at the expense of the environment is the same as arguing that a person should be allowed to eat the meat of an endangered species simply because they think it tastes good.
Similar to the ridiculous idea that organic tea isn't worth the price, you might hear the argument that if a tea tastes good it therefore must be good. In other words, if it has a great flavor then it can't possibly have been grown in a way that is environmentally unsound. Two words: fast food. It seems absurdly obvious that many of the things that taste good in this world are extremely unhealthy. Similarly, the heroine user doesn't get hooked because the drug makes him or her feel miserable, though it may lead there later. Sin is often pleasurable, which is one of the oldest spiritual dilemmas there is. The fact that a tea has a nice flavor, is rich in the mouth, etc. may or may not be related to how it was farmed. While it is true that the most heavily sprayed trees will never be a good enough quality to ever discuss, there is still a very real difference between a fine tea that was sprayed properly and minimally and the same tea that was grown on a completely organic farm.
Another argument against organic tea that often crops up is the fact that many fraudulent businessmen are claiming their tea is organic, and selling it at a higher premium, when in fact it is not. This is completely true, and always will be. Of course there is "fake" organic tea. But if you are going to use this as an excuse to not buy any organic tea, you might as well not buy tea at all, for there is so much mislabeled, wrongly presented tea to make any purchasing uncomfortable. If someone sells you fake organic tea, the immorality reflects on them not you. If I donate money to a charity that ends up stealing the money, it is no fault of mine; nor is my generosity in any way diminished by the way in which the money was used. By trying your best to only purchase organic teas, you are doing all that you can. You are promoting the philosophy in general, even if the specific tea you bought was not genuine. The more we promote organic farming, the more real farms will begin. Ignore the frauds, and accept that they are there. If you arc constantly seeking high-quality, organic tea grown in traditional ways you will eventually get some real samples: and once you have drunk enough genuinely organic tea, you will learn to distinguish the two and make wiser purchasing decisions, eventually helping others to learn the same. The fact is that the Qi, wellbeing and even flavor profile of organic teas are all better in almost every case (there are exceptions). After you have learned to discriminate real organic tea, it won't be difficult to spot the fakes. And you'll never reach that state if you give up simply because there axe some people who are dishonest. As long as you remain honest and pure-hearted, their deceit cannot affect you.
There really is no sound argument to convince me why consuming poison is better than the tea that was farmed organically, based on a tradition extending back thousands of years—except one: the only argument for inorganic farming is money: greed. If you want to increase your production in the short term, if you want to buy cheaper teas in larger quantities and sell them for a greater profit, if you are only concerned about your own prosperity and disregard the warnings Nature is giving us-if any of that appeals to you, then I would say that inorganic tea is just the thing for you. The only people I have ever heard, argue that aged Puerh is not good are those selling another kind of tea, often because they don't have access to the rarer, aged teas. Likewise, the only people I have ever heard claim that organic tea is not worth pursuing arc those who sell inorganic teas [period] The issue really is that forthright; and we really should feel this strongly about it,
Mother Theresa was once asked to join an antiwar rally and she said no, "absolutely not." When asked why, she said "if you have a pro-peace rally, I will join." Such wisdom is profound. To oppose something only maintains it. Rather chan focusing too long on the arguments against inorganic tea, let us promote organic tea - for they are so overwhelmingly positive that they need not be contrasted to other arguments against industrial agriculture. It is easier to just step away from the debate, promote what is right by choosing to drink organic teas yourself and share them with others. In the end, they are better in every way and those who are sensitive enough will recognize this; it is part in parcel of that very sensitivity. The great Zen master Dogen said that you can tell "the source of the water from drawing a pitcher out of the stream," As you progress in tea, you will also be able to drink a person's tea and taste the source: Are they trying to sell you something? Do they really want to share tea with you? What kind of teacher do they have? It will all be limpidly apparent in the kungfu teacup before you.
On a spiritual level, the way that we define tea conducts the very leaves we find - our choices create our experiences in other words. A person who views tea as sensual pleasure will seek out certain teas, and have certain tea experiences; while those who view tea as an opportunity for spiritual growth will cultivate other encounters. One of my teachers always tells us that just as the person is searching for the tea, the tea is searching for the person. This means that our outlook affects the tea sessions we will discover. As you read this, some of the greatest teas are being drunk all around the world, brought down from hiding places for just this occasion. And money has nothing whatsoever to do with who is present at those gatherings. All the best teas I have ever drunk were not teas I myself could ever afford, and many of them were not for sale at any price. While the rarest teas cannot be bought at any price, they can be drunk for free - just as the greatest artwork cannot be owned for all the money in the world, and yet it can be seen in all its splendor for the price of a two-dollar admission ticket into the museum.
If you try your best to promote healthy tea, and treat tea - and the Nature it represents - with reverence, these kind of great, transcendental tea sessions will just have a way of happening around you. When you've heard Nature sing through the Leaf - sing in chorus of the misty dew that embraced it - the imitation and lip-synching of those selling industrial teas will forever be disharmonic noise.