May 24, 2010

Gong Fu Tea - Like a Cloud Hanging in the Sky?

I've been thinking a lot recently about gong fu tea as an art form--there are so many different ways you can go with it beyond the simple goal of making tea well. Lately the aesthetics I've been attempting to focus on are minimalism and utility. Too often my tea mat is piled up with three different cups I'm not using, a couple of tea pots, innumerable tea crumbs, and the rest of the table is littered with bills, place mats and whatever else got dumped there in the past week. Ideally, though, the gong fu equipment is designed to bring the focus on the tea and the moment of the tea session, so all of these other things are superfluous at best, or total distractions at worst. Making an effort to clear off the table and pare things down to the bare essentials has been a good way for me to really focus on the tea I'm drinking and the time I'm taking out of my day to sit quietly--no trips to the computer, no music, no reading, no writing. Every piece of equipment has a role that isn't duplicated by any other piece, and hopefully it all comes together to shed more light on the tea that's being drank--perfect for special teas like yesterday's 80's pu-erh, but I sometimes wonder what I'd discover about my daily teas if I paid this much attention to every session.

I've spent a lot of free time in the last few months roaming the trails of Discovery Park wrapped in an aural blanket woven by free improvisation pioneers AMM. Although some may disagree, I don't think it has to be too difficult to enjoy "modern" (classical) music. Without getting into things too deeply or technically, I'll offer that it's a pretty simple process--it's a matter of loosing yourself from the bonds of your preconceptions and unlearning the patterns and criteria your brain has been trained to seek out in music, instead letting the arrangement of sound just be what it is, appreciating it on its own terms. Only after digging into a handful of AMM albums did I become aware of an ironic confluence of ideas--a number of their "song" titles are drawn from directly from the Zhuangzi, which is probably my favorite piece of writing in any format. The irony is that I unknowingly first started cultivating an appreciation for the type of left-field music that AMM creates by analyzing it from a perspective that I gleaned from reading the Zhuangzi. I spend so much time thinking that we each inhabit our own discrete, subjective spheres of thought and mind experience that a clear connection like this can catch me totally unawares. With such low expectations, it's exhilarating to encounter some fellow travelers who seem to understand the same ideas in such a similar way.

Anyway, the tea connection comes down to this: these principles aren't exclusive to music or Daoist texts (or even Daoist thought, since they're echoed in a number of Buddhist texts and the mystical traditions of many other world religious traditions)--the beauty is that they can be applied to illuminate any number of sensory (or intellectual) experiences with the blinding light of a less dependent perspective. When I'm really trying to pare my gong fu down to the bare, elegant essentials, it's an effort to allow the tea to be experienced as solely as possible: not as a product tied to some website with a typed description, a wrapper and a bunch of disparate tea blog descriptions, but as a thing (tea), which comes along with a bundle of sense experiences made possible by a complex, disciplined skill (gong fu, the arrangement of the parameters necessary for a successful tea session). If I can reach that level of attention once a month with a good tea, I'll be a happy man.

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