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  • Writer's pictureDr. Skylar Stumpf

The Way of Tea Part 2: Cultivation

Updated: Sep 29, 2022


Within tea are certain characteristics which lend themselves to the practice of self-cultivation, as recognized by Confucian, Buddhist, Daoist, and Westerner alike. In the modern Introduction to Lu Yü’s Cha Ching we find:

“The Edinburgh Review once said of tea, ‘The progress of this most famous plant has been something like the progress of truth; suspected at first, thought very palatable to those who had the courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached; abused as its popularity spread; and establishing its triumph at last…only by slow and resistless efforts of time and its own virtues,’” (7).

With this inherent tea virtue in mind and heart, let us explore some key notions for the sake of context, starting with Confucianism.

Zhou Dunyi’s (1017-1073) Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity details the relationship between the Non-Polar (wuji), the Supreme Polarity (taiji), yin-yang, the Five Phases (wu xing), Heaven and Earth, and the Sage. This is most relevant to the discussion here, as the relationship between these concepts defines the notion of li. Li is the ultimate principle of Heaven and Earth, being the Supreme Polarity itself. The Supreme Polarity is present in all things, and all things have their root within it, including tea.

“Non-Polar (wuji) and yet Supreme Polarity (taiji)! The Supreme Polarity in activity generates yang: yet at the limit of activity it is still,” (8).

The Sage, in cultivating her/his mind-and-heart communes with this all-pervasive li, studying and refining one’s behavior to harmonize with this deepest principle.

“The sage settles these with centrality, correctness, humaneness, and rightness and emphasizes stillness. In doing so he establishes the ultimate of humanity. Thus the sage’s virtue equals that of Heaven and Earth; his clarity equals that of the sun and moon; his timeliness equals that of the four seasons…” (9).

There are five virtues which constitute li as expressed within the human. These are: humaneness, rightness, ritual, wisdom, and trustworthiness. Authenticity is the bedrock for the cultivation of these virtues.

“Being a sage is nothing more than being authentic. Being authentic is the foundation of the Five Constant [virtues] and the source of the hundred practices,” (10). Authenticity is further defined as, “That which is ‘completely silent and inactive’ is authenticity. That which ‘penetrates when stimulated’ is spirit… Authenticity is of the essence (jing), and therefore clear. Spirit is responsive, and therefore mysterious…” (11).

Contacting authenticity and sequestering within is the basis for sagely cultivation: the spirit of tea shares this sagely essence. The Song Confucian scholar Cheng Mingdao gives the practice of tea these four virtues: harmony, reverence, purity, and tranquility (12). These virtues manifest within the individual who is able to meet face-to-face (or no-face-to-no-face) with the li (principle) of tea.

“The tea-ideal of the Sungs differed from the Tangs even as their notion of life differed. They sought to actualise what their predecessors tried to symbolise. To the Neo-Confucian mind the cosmic law was not reflected in the phenomenal world, but the phenomenal world was the cosmic law itself. Aeons were but moments—Nirvana always within grasp,” (13).

Daoism resonates with ephemeral Tea intrinsically:

“The Taoist conception that immortality lay in the eternal change permeated all their modes of thought. It was the process, not the deed, which was interesting. It was completing, not the completion, which was really vital. Man came thus at once face to face with nature. A new meaning grew into the art of life. The tea began to be not a poetical pastime, but one of the methods of self-realisation,” (14).

And the following expresses the ‘feeling’ of this tea virtue, “Wangyucheng euologised tea as ‘flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the after-taste of a good counsel.’ Sotumpa wrote of the strength of the immaculate purity in tea which defied corruption as a truly virtuous man,” (15).

From these references, it is evident that tea possesses virtues which blend harmoniously with the virtues of humanity.

Whatever high place tea has within the sphere of Confucianism and Daoism, Zen Buddhism is truly one with tea. Indeed the Japanese proverb, Chazen ichimi-“Zen and Tea are one flavor”, expresses this with ultimate clarity.

“Among the Buddhists, the southern Zen sect, which incorporated so much of Taoist doctrines, formulated an elaborate ritual of tea. The monks gathered before the image of Bodhi Dharma and drank tea out of a single bowl with the profound formality of a holy sacrament. It was this Zen ritual which finally developed into the Tea-ceremony of Japan in the fifteenth century,” (16).

Takuan Soho (1573-1645), Zen and Tea master, describes the essential principle of tea thusly:

“The principle of cha-no-yu is the spirit of harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth and provides the means for establishing universal peace… The principle of propriety is reverence, which in practical life functions as harmonious relationship. This is the statement made by Confucius when he defines the use of propriety, and is also the mental attitude one should cultivate as cha-no-yu… The way of cha-no-yu, therefore, is to appreciate the spirit of naturally harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth, to see the pervading presence of the five elements (wu-hsing) by one’s fireside, where the mountains, rivers, rocks, and trees are found as they are in Nature, to draw the refreshing water from the well of Nature, to taste with one’s mouth the flavor supplied by Nature. How grand this enjoyment of the harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth!” (17).

The cultivation of the essential is seen within the practice of gongfu. Gongfu (alternately written Kung Fu) simply means the result of skill that has been cultivated with patience. It is the manifestation of embodied principle, rather than something physical, and it traditionally was applied through many arts, not just martial. One’s proficiency in calligraphy, dance, medicine, cooking, or tea could be called gongfu. Confucius’s approach for wisely guiding and transforming humanity is in essence, gongfu. (18). When it is applied to Tea, it immediately may seem like something too simple, maybe even insignificant, but in reality it is a very deep, powerful, and transformative practice. Gongfu in tea preparation means brewing a cup of tea that honors the tea, the grower, the land, the guests, the brewer, that honors existence itself, and satisfies deeply. Having some comprehension of gongfu is important with regards to understanding Tea and the whole of Chinese philosophy, for each microcosmic discipline is perfumed with gongfu. “The Song-Ming Neo Confucians, as well as the Daoists and Buddhists, all unequivocally spoke of their learning as gongfu…,” (19). A Japanese ichigymono, or folk saying, gives texture and shape to the multifaceted notion of gongfu:

“Makoto wa ten no michi nari- ‘Sincerity is the Way of Heaven,’… To the more mystical side of Confucianism, sincerity—etymologically, ‘when words become facts’—is the sine qua non of existence itself. Without sincerity, nothing in the universe would be what it is destined to be; trees would not be trees, nor would rocks be rocks… Without absolute sincerity, how does the Zen student answer his master’s questions; how does the Tea adept drink the tea; how does the martial artist deliver a proper blow?” (20).

Gongfu, at its core, is the work and its power, which flows from cultivation attuned to li. Although the following reference involves a martial artist’s view on gongfu, the essence is present in all other expressions of inner cultivation, including that of Tea.

“To say that principle precedes technique [phenomena] or that the body precedes the sword is a sickness of our art. With this idea, you will face your opponent, trying to understand his principles and his techniques. The techniques used to counter changing circumstances are not transformed by means of thoughtful consideration. Principle changes spontaneously without thought, and responds to things without measuring them. Thus, I regard the principle that responds within me, but do not put forth deliberation and discrimination,” (21).

This echoes Shao Yong (1011-1077) in his On Becoming A Sage,

“The sage can unite the sentiments of the myriad things because he can perceive reflectively (fanguan). Perceiving reflectively is not perceiving things from the viewpoint of the self. Not to perceive things from the viewpoint of the self is to perceive things from the viewpoint of things… From this one knows that the self is also the other, the other is also the self… This is how he can use the minds of the world as his own mind; there is nothing its minds do not think…He can do things that are vast, distant, lofty, and grand to the utmost, and yet in the midst of it all there is no one doing it,” (22).

Tea tastes best when it tastes of no one.

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