07/13/14

The Lore of Tea


4 World-Famous Chinese Green TeasWhoa! Down the rabbit hole I tumbled this week. I started reading about tea in several books I recently purchased. What a story. What a delight! Many hours spent between the pages absorbing culture, history, types, classifications, production, terroirs and marketing.*

I’ve read bits and pieces about tea before; mostly history and cultural notes; some tidbits about specific types and specific bits I’ve gleaned from online sources. I never read any significantly detailled work about picking, grading and production previously. Nor was I fully aware of the range and depth of teas, the complex terroir of tea and the variations in (and recommendations for) making and drinking tea.**

I had a vague notion, of course. My kitchen shelves stock several boxes and packages of tea in both leaf and bag form. I know the rough difference between white, green and black teas (black which the Chinese call red tea…). I know that tea from China and tea from India and tea from Sri Lanka are different, but exactly how and why, or how they got their names and manners, I could only hypothesize.

Now I am replete with information and wide-eyed in wonder, albeit I still have a lot to learn – and I puzzle over some concepts. Perhaps not enough bookshelf space left, mind you, to be fully educated in tea, because clearly I need to buy more of these publications. (Can one ever own too many books? Yes, but only if you run out of living space.)

I am also informed about how to make a good cup of tea – temperature, container, infusor and more. I don’t have a simple method of determining water temperature (mayhap I need another kettle, one with a digital temperature setting?) but it appears the correct temperature matters a great deal to the resulting drink.

Tea History Terroirs VarietyLike most folks, I suppose, until recently tea was mostly a drink that came in a box full of bags you plunked into a cup, added boiling water, and let steep. Then came some milk.*** Maybe a touch of honey or sugar, too.

Voila: a cuppa. And several more to follow during the day.

That is, I’m learning, to tea culture what a bottle of my homemade plonk is to viniculture. Crass. Pedestrian.
Tea – real tea –  offers so much more than a bag of grocery store tea dust. And I ache to learn more about it.

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07/6/14

A Compassionate Buddha?


Buddhist storyThere’s a story in Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the Dhammapada (Penguin Classics, 2010, commentary on verse 6, p 115-116) that caught my eye recently, and it made me wonder what the moral or ethical precept was buried in it.

And it makes me question what it says about the supposed compassion of the Buddha and his attitude towards animals.*

I have not found online the story exactly as Ms. Roebuck tells it**, but I have found many variations on it. It even has its own holiday: Madhu Purnima. In essence the story goes like this:

The Buddha is at the Kosambi monastery where 500 monks get into a doctrinal dispute (i.e. pissing match over minutiae) he cannot resolve for them. So he gives up and heads to the forest to find peace (first stumbling block: where’s the fabled patience?).

Meanwhile, an elephant (often described as a bull elephant), tired of living among the herd, joins him. There the elephant takes care of the Buddha, bringing him water and protecting him from predators.

A monkey joins them and brings the Buddha some honeycomb, which the Buddha accepts. The monkey is so delighted, he swings from branch to branch wildly, but in his excitement, falls to his death. He’s reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, so that’s supposed to be okay.

No indication that the Buddha felt any compassion for the animal, let alone any remorse for being the cause of its death. Personally, I’m not sure the trade-off between life and death is worth it, but maybe I’m just too attached to living. Or maybe I’m just a teensy bit too skeptical about rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, gods and so on (a la Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs).

Meanwhile, the monks come to the forest and beg the Buddha to return, which he does, leaving the elephant in the forest. Roebuck says it was “at the point where the animal might have been in danger from human beings if he had followed him.” Other texts say the elephant followed him to the edge of the city.

Again, no indication of gratitude for the elephant’s service. No thanks, no fond wave of the hand, no blessing.

The elephant dies of a “broken heart” from being abandoned. The Buddha in the tale shows no compassion or remorse. The elephant pops up in Tavatimsa heaven too, though. I suppose that’s okay.

Or is it?

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07/5/14

A Cup of Dragon Well


TempleLegend has it that, in the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong (1711-1799 CE), the grandson of the Emperor Kangxi, went on a holiday to the West Lake district, in the Hangzhou area of Zhejiang province, China. He stopped at the Hu Gong Temple, nestled under the Lion Peak Mountain (Shi Feng Shan). There, he was presented by the monks with a cup of green tea made from the temple’s own tea bushes.

He was so impressed with the tea that, when he became Emperor himself, Qianlong gave these 18 tea bushes special imperial status and the tea became “Gong Cha,” or Imperial tea. Those trees are still living and, according to Wikipedia, “the tea they produce is auctioned annually for more money per gram than gold.”

The green tea he sipped is known as Longjing or Lung Ching – “Dragon Well” in English, named after an eponymous well located in the nearby village, itself with an interesting story to tell.

There are other parts to this legend:

Since the first cup of tea served, he was very impressed with its beautiful appearance, elegant fragrance and mellow taste. The monk who served the tea, brought him to the tea garden, where 18 tea bushes were planted. Being enamored with the work of women picking the tea, Emperor even decided to try it by himself.

When the Emperor was enjoying gathering the tea leaves, urgent news came saying that his mother, the Empress Dowager fell sick and asked for his immediate return to the palace. When the Emperor came to see his sick Queen Mother, the aroma of tea leaves, which he kept in his pocket, attracted her attention. At once, he served the tea to her, and the Queen Mother fell in love with its amazing taste and flavor. After drinking tea for a few days, the Queen Mother was cured. The Emperor was so grateful to the tea that he granted the 18 tea trees under the Lion Peak Mountain the name of the Imperial Tea Tree. Since then, Dragon Well tea became a tribute tea to Chinese emperors.

Tea SommelierGabriella Lombardi, writing in The Tea Sommelier, says it is the “most famous of all Chinese teas.” (I found this wonderful, beautifully illustrated book on sale at Indigo, Eaton Centre, last weekend; a real steal for anyone interested in tea.)

But the tea from that region was known long before Qianlong. It was mentioned by Lu Yu (733-804 CE) in his famous “The Classic of Tea.”

There were other books about tea produced in China after Lu Yu, such as Zhu Quan’s Manual of Tea from the late 14th century CE. Tea drinking in China is itself at least 2,000 years old, and the oldest tea trees are about 1,700 years old.

Another legend says the tea plants are “watered by rain from a local dragon.”

Tibettour.org tells us:

Dragon Well Tea flourishes in the mountainous area where mild climate and plentiful rainfall are plentiful year-round. Around West Lake, Shifeng Peak, Longjing Village, Yunxi Mountain, Hupao and Meijiawu Region offer such prime conditions. The history of planting tea trees is rather long in these areas, as the tea sage Lu Yu mentioned in his Book of Tea. The teas grown in these areas were called Shi, Long, Yun, Hu and Mei respectively in the past. Now, with an increase in production, it is generally classified into Xihu (West Lake) Longjing Tea, Qiantang Longjing Tea and Yuezhou Longjing Tea, among which the Xihu Longjing Tea is the best.

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07/3/14

Reading the Dhammapada


BuddhaOne of the most inspirational, moving books in my library is the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, originally from the Pali canon. I’ve had a version of the Dhammapada in my library since the late 1960s, and read it through many times. It’s good to reread it often.

My first copy I recall was Irving Babbit’s edition, published by New Directions press in 1965. It may still be hiding on a bookshelf upstairs for all I know.

It’s one of my desert island books. You know: one of the list of 10 books you’d want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

Over the years, my favourite version has been the Still Point Dhammapada by Geri Larkin, guiding teacher at the Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit. (Her Buddhist name is P’arang.) I like it because it’s not simply a translation but a witty and wise commentary that clears away the clouds and makes it a very personal work. Larkin helps guide the reader towards the basic tenets of everyday Buddhism, rather than simply offer the words for us to contemplate.

The Dhammapada is not a literary narrative like the canonical gospels. It is more like the verses in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. (Gnostic only because it was found in company of Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi library; it doesn’t profess Gnostic beliefs, however). I also keep it with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as a book I can pick up and read at random for a shot of wisdom.

One version of the Dhammapada on my shelf is the classic Max Muller translation from 1870; popularly reprinted as a copyright-free edition. Another is an older Penguin Classics version from the 1980s. I have a couple of odd versions printed in India and Southeast Asia by Buddhist teachers, somewhere in a box.

There is a more recent Penguin edition, translated by Valerie Roebuck (2010) but I don’t have it yet (on order though).

I’ve never paid that much attention to the translation until recently. It’s tough for Westerners to appreciate whether a translation is good or bad because so few of us can read the original Pali – that falls into the realm of scholars. They may be technically adept but often not poets or even practicing Buddhists. And many of the online translations are by scholars and Buddhists for whom English is a second language. In both cases, the renderings can leave the reader feeling like something’s missing.

This weekend, while in Toronto (and scouring what few remaining bookshops I could find), I came across a new translation by Glenn Wallis (Modern Library, New York, 2007). It’s supplemented by a good reading guide with commentary and notes to help explain the translation, the original language, the various terms and symbols.

Where Larkin makes her version a personal, intimate guide, all about daily life and being in the moment, Wallis spreads a wider net, bringing in much more Buddhist practice and belief in a more scholarly manner. Both are worthwhile approaches and both authors are practicing Buddhists. Wallis is also a professor and a member of the Buddhist punk band, Ruin, which adds another facet when considering his translation.

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06/26/14

The Death of Handwriting?


I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia - which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.
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06/18/14

The Strange World of E-Writers


Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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