Today's Spiritual Crisis

May 11, 2020

Today's Spiritual Crisis

Abandoning what we think we know

Drinking tea not for tasting, but for tasteless

“Once upon a time, in the roots of Western culture – Greek and Hebrew culture, the goal of life is to become a perfect people. Modern people think that the goal of life is to make perfect things and the knowledge of how to make the perfect things. Westerners are now a schizophrenic incompetence - incapable of experiencing emotions."

—Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis

In the view of Western scientific theory, water is a colorless, tasteless liquid. As the source of life, under the interpretation of Western scientific theories, it has clearly become a normal substance. People began to analyze and study various kinds of substances, and everything on the earth and throughout the universe, including the human body itself, has already become a material system separated from human wisdom that exist only for human beings to research and make use of.

That is because in this system of thought, we have become a material-based social system. Under such a social system, we abandon our own feelings or emotions and only focus on the use of unconscious intelligence to judge the existence of matter. This kind of theoretical system has already become popular, completely overwhelming human feelings and emotions. However, human intelligence (rationality) is the lowest expression of consciousness. Once again, mankind embarked on the sinister path of splitting thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and gradually moved toward the path of self-disintegration and destruction, with materiality as the center. 

From the perspective of theories of matter, water is indeed a colorless and tasteless liquid, but water from different regions does have different tastes. Since the sweetness and fragrance of water has not been perceived, it could also be rationally said that people have already lost their sense of taste. As Fukuoka Masanobu said: "Because of a spiritual crisis, so humans have become enthusiastic about taste." And this "enthusiasm for taste" is also a clear signal that we humans are heading toward a spiritual crisis. 

No matter how crazy the tea factories work on the tea blending, or how crazy businesses can make all kinds of flavored tea, you, as a consumer, can respect the taste of the pure tea itself and start to wake up your true feelings and tastes. If you attentively taste a pure tea without any artificial additives, and compare it to a tea made with artificial flavors, then what you do is not only to retrieve your long-lost experience, feeling and emotions, but what's more important is that you use your actions start to protect the precarious ecology in the environment and reverse the entire tea industry – even the agricultural industry's quick and profitable development methods at the expense of nature. At the same time, you will be promoting improvements in the industry, namely making healthier teas instead of low-end teas filled with chemical additives.

In traditional Chinese culture, there is a word called “Pin Cha(品茶)”. In this word, “Pin(品)” means “taste.” This Chinese character consists of three boxes. One box (口)in Chinese means mouth. In Laozi’s (Lao Tzu’s) philosophy, there is such an interpretation: Tao gave birth to the One; the One gave birth successively to two things, three things, up to ten thousand...So, in traditional Chinese culture, three also means a lot. Tasting tea is called Pin Cha (品茶). The deeper meaning is that not only can you eat things with one mouth, but you should pay attention to the process of eating. Experiencing the taste of the food changes in the mouth, so that your mouth needs to chew many times to truly taste the food. This is the deeper meaning of "taste tea" (Pin Cha 品茶). A cup of tea can be just like gulping down a glass of water, you won't taste anything. But if you carefully and slowly taste it, you can feel how a simple cup of tea can keep changing in your mouth. 

The Chinese Classical literary masterpiece "Dream of Red Mansions" has such interesting ridicule for tea drinkers: "Drinking one cup is a tasting, two cups are stupid things to quench your thirst, and three cups is a cow drinking." It can be seen that in ancient China, people meticulously took their time to taste a cup of tea, and you need to know that a cup of tea in ancient China was only about 15-20 ml. Imagine today coming out of Starbucks and holding a huge cup of flavored tea – in the eyes of the ancient Chinese, we would all look like thirsty cows. So, with such a huge cup of tea, drinking like a cow, how could you know the true taste of tea? No wonder merchants need to put all kinds of flavoring agents and artificial flavors into the tea, otherwise who would notice any flavor ? 

If you are a westerner reading this book, I’m guessing you might be familiar with wine tasting. Wine is getting popular everywhere now, but in general, Westerners might know more about wine than Asians. When you walk into a nice restaurant, people introduce you to a nice wine, prepare nice food to pair with your wine. But from there, wine culture often turns toward showing off and a culture of luxury and fashion. People try to taste as much wine as they can, know as much about the taste and the wine as they can, and show off their knowledge as much as possible. For me, as an Asian person, it is a very exotic and interesting culture, but I am certain that wine has a lot of things in common with tea: it has tons of different varieties, similar possible methods of appreciation, fascinating origins, and a long history.

On the other hand, there is another interesting culture I come across when I’m talking to Western friends about tea. The project they associate with tea is perfume. When I’m sharing the tea tasting and tea aroma with my Western friends, they either associate their background knowledge about wine with tea, or they relate it to perfume. That’s very natural, and this is a very interesting topic I would like to discuss with you a little here. 

Recently, I was reading a book The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Perfumer, which was written by the perfume master Jean-Claude Ellena, who is Hermès's exclusive in-house perfumer. I don’t use any perfume, but learning what the perfume culture is like is an interesting topic for me. 

In this book, he wrote, “Nature is complex - there are five hundred molecules in the smell of rose, more for the taste of chocolate, few for garlic. I have engaged in this game to free myself from natural representation, using it to establish what amounts to olfactory semantics so that I can combine these signifiers in complex smells, in perfumes.”

And another interesting diary entry he wrote was, “Up until the 1980s, I used products that few perfumers would dare use in their perfumes now, such as last residue forms of methyl ionone, hydroxy citronellal or lilial, and manufacturing byproducts whose smells are difficult to reproduce identically. I used reproductions of natural musk, composed of disparate ingredients whose quality could not be assured with certainty, making the production of perfumes unreliable. Since then, products have been standardized, and there is less hapless tinkering taking place. Oddly, this standardization, which should be a rationalizing process, led to a degree of ‘waste’: even though they are not toxic, these by-products have now been eliminated because they cannot be standardized for production on an industrial scale.”

Mr. Jean-Claude Ellena’s book is giving me a new angle on seeing how artificial essences could be amazing. And how human beings can rely on our own creations to make amazing things that nature could never give to us.

By one philosophy, the concept of creating perfume is sort of similar to creating tea blends. Based on what nature provides, we artificially combine nature’s ingredients together to create something new, something that nature couldn’t combine together for us. That’s an amazing thing about human beings and why we’re unique from other animals, and how we can keep developing.

But on the other hand, I see this is an important difference between Western and Eastern ways of thinking.

If you noticed, when Mr. Jean-Claude Ellena creates perfume, he uses typical Western science to identify how many molecules are in a rose, then frees himself from natural representation to create something totally different from nature. Nature gives him inspiration, but he creates something that only human beings can make, which in my eyes, is an amazing part of Western culture. Without human creation, we would never ever able to communicate online like what we’re doing right now. I fully respect and love it.

I think this might be the typical way that people naturally think of tea blending: combine different ingredients together to create some new flavor and aroma that no individual, natural tea can give. This highlights the very deep difference between Western philosophy and Eastern philosophy.

If you still remember a topic I was shared in my book 5 Element Tea, I discussed how the Chinese discovered the existence of the meridians of the human body thousands of years ago, but had to wait until thousands of years later for Western science to verify their existence using technology.

That’s because a different way of thinking prevails in the Eastern world. In the Eastern world, feeling things in their entirety is more important than cutting it up to observe the parts in isolation. We try to know life as it is so that we can feel it in its entirety. We don’t use external force to touch it or interfere with it. By following this principle, we can actually get more comprehensive information about the things we’re trying to understand.

At this point, I’m not saying the Eastern way of thinking is better than the Western way. What I’m trying to say is that these different ways of looking at things bring about different processes and produce different results.

If you are a Westerner, because of your cultural background, it might be natural for you to think about how many different flavors and aromas of teas, herbs, and foods we have. You might want to figure out every single thing you want to blend with tea to create a flavor or aroma that no one has created before, and that no individual ingredient could produce, and that nature couldn’t make on its own.

Creation is how humanity as survived and keeps developing on this planet. And I greatly respect lots of great Western creations, for without those creations, there would be no development. But on the other hand, I want to point out that most of us are increasingly focused on what humans need, but ignore what the Earth needs. So we never stop developing and inventing, creating even more needs, taking as much oil out of the Earth as we can, then gradually realizing we’re on an unsustainable path. That’s why we fear the Earth could dry out one day and we’d have to abandon it to keep searching for other planets’ resources to fulfill our needs.

But thousands of years ago, the ancient Chinese had already discovered the natural laws that mother Earth laid out for us, and she was hoping her human children would follow her laws to live on this planet forever. In ancient Chinese thinking, when we create it isn’t necessarily making something new, but rather discovering or uncovering things already hidden in nature – or it’s at least creating new things based on nature’s laws.

This kind of philosophy led us to discover the 5 Elements system and many other hidden secrets that mother Earth didn’t tell us directly. Then we created things based on nature’s rules. That’s how traditional Chinese medicine theory has developed over the years.

I’ve talked so much, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m judging who is right or wrong. I do want to show you that such a small and seemingly innocent project as tea blending is actually a microcosm of the world that shows us the clash between two different ways of thinking.

Having learned the 5 Element system and now that I’ve shared with you a little of my own opinions about the Western side of the perfume culture, I want to let you know that based on different cultural backgrounds, you may find different meanings in tea blending.

To focus on which direction all depends on your choice. And different choices will give different results. The results will not only affect tea projects, but far beyond to the direction of human development and sustainable living on mother Earth.

Lastly, I want to say that tea blending is an interesting project which can let us, as tea lovers, carve out a creative space for ourselves. Tea blending can also allow us to discover human beings’ limitations and understand the universal laws that help us create consciously and sustainably. 

By remaining quiet and indifferent to fame and benefit, a man can keep his temperament even and moderate; by remaining peaceful, pleasant and sticking to emptiness and nothingness, a man can cultivate his virtue.
Drinking tea not for tasting, but for tasteless.

I hope this new book can help or encourage you to keep exploring tea blending with a wider and deeper perspective. I hope you and I can be good students of tea and keep learning, sharing, and giving love back to Mother Earth.

Peace & In Good Tea :)

- Shana Zhang


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