As an avid tea-lover, it has not escaped my attention of the growing surplus of tea drinking. I’m actually gladdened by this considering most people drink coffee for purposes to stay awake. I never cease to be amazed how many people that drink coffee never actually like the taste of it. But I digress. Tea may contain caffeine as well as coffee but there is another implication to tea that makes it special and that is its charming simplicity.
One of the best books discussing the importance of the drink is The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo from the early 20th century. Discussing the social, spiritual, and historical accounts surrounding tea, it’s an interesting look at how the view of the beverage is percieved from differing viewpoints. From its origins, tea was an aid to spiritual undertakings by Buddhist monks to help them stay awake durig long meditations. Kakuzo calls the appreciation of simplicity and the common through the use of the drink, “Teaism” which has its roots in both the Buddhist sects of Taoism and Zennism. It is treated as a religion on its own with the Chaking by Luwuh as the holy scripture and the tea room as its temple.
However, while the East saw the drinking of tea as a unification of the wealthy and the poor to realizing the highest potential of beauty, when tea came to the West there was actually a stronger distinction in the socioeconomic status of those who could afford tea and even the way you drank your tea. Not everyone could afford tea when it came to Europe. Only the rich could manage to have tea on a regular basis. In Jane Austen’s England, tea was so expensive that family’s kept their tea locked away in a cupboard with the keys carefully hidden so that servants would not steal it. In Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, at one part he shows how the dregs of Victorian Russia would drink their tea with a lump of sugar between their teeth because the notion of dissolving sugar in one’s tea was a luxury reserved for the upper class. So instead of being a force to bring people together, it actually was a cause of tension between social classes.
Tea can be revolutionary. It was through a demonstration of tea that the American Revolution was started. You have to remember: the Bostonians LOVED their tea. So to sacrifice it all in protest against Britain was kind of a big deal. However, as time has gone on, I’m a little ashamed at what has happened to the Americanized version of tea. Where once tea was bought in loose leaf form and was brewed and served in the beauty of china teacups, now we buy non-specific brand tea in plastic water bottles for easy portability or in huge two-gallon milk jugs for party purposes. Also the fact that tea is sweetened to the point where it seems you’ll get diabetes from one sip is also a little distressing. It makes me cringe. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s gotten a little better with stores selling higher quality teas, but we’re nowhere near giving tea the respect that Kakuzo spoke of. Americans are struggling to learn how to slow down and smell the roses.
The tea today has remnants of the centering aspect and admiration of simpleness that Kakuzo spoke of when it was in antiquity. In the West, a large majority of people drink tea only for the health benefits it supplies or, more commonly, for the caffeine content it supplies to help them get through the day. I know I’ve been guilty of that a couple of times myself (Taylor’s Scottish Breakfast tea man, it just keeps you awake longer after a lack of sleep the night before!). But there is something else that goes with tea, it helps you to slow down and appreciate even the most trifle of things. In a world where we are constantly plugged in to technology and are told that “faster is better”, we may lose sight of the leaves changing colors, of the beauty of the clouds, or simple fact that life is so amazing that it is worth living BECAUSE of the beauty that is so often taken for granted. A simple cup of tea taken in the right way can help us realize this as we slow down and take a moment to watch the grass grow.