The origins of a cuppa

2014-06-03 00:00

LAST week, while interviewing Jing Wang, recently arrived from China to teach Mandarin at Kearsney College, she spoke of the cultural differences she had encountered here — different sports, different foods and different beverages: “In China, we drink mainly tea, but here people drink coffee.”

China and tea are indivisible — after all, that is the country from which the esteemed beverage comes.

There are two stories concerning the origins of tea. One features the Buddhist figure Bodhidharma who came to China from India in the sixth century CE.

The many depictions of Bodhidharma portray him with bulging, glaring eyes. The story goes that after a fruitless meeting with the emperor of the day, Bodhidharma headed off to meditate in a cave on Mount Sung close to the Shaolin Temple — yes, the kung fu one. There he spent nine years in meditation facing the cave wall. At some point, he started nodding off and, annoyed at this backsliding and in a bid to stay awake, Bodhidharma tore off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Which explains those eyes. And where the eyelids landed tea bushes sprang up.

Bodhidharma later became acknowledged as the founding patriarch of a Buddhist school known in China as Ch’an. It was later exported to Japan where it became known as Zen. Ch’an or Zen, both words simply mean meditation.

The story of Bodhidharma’s eyelids is likely a story composed in hindsight to explain the practice of Zen Buddhist monks who resort to drinking green tea in order to banish sleepiness during overnight meditation sessions.

Tea and meditation are inextricably linked.

In his book Road to Heaven, writer and translator Bill Porter recounts his trips to the Chungnan Mountains in central China to ascertain whether any Buddhist hermits had survived the depredations of the Cultural Revolution. Such hermits living in their mountain fastnesses were an especial feature of Buddhist life in China: “Other than a mountain, they didn’t need much: a little mud, some thatch, a patch of melons, a row of tea bushes.”

Porter visited various mountains where hermits — male and female — had been known to live in the past. Some mountains had not only lost their hermits but also the forests that once grew upon their slopes. Arriving at a mountain and finding its forest had been harvested, Porter deduced hermits would be in short supply: “I reasoned no forest, no deadfall; no deadfall, no firewood; no firewood, no tea; no tea, no meditation; no meditation, no hermits.”

The other story concerning the origin of tea has it being discovered in the year 2737 BCE by a legendary emperor, Shennong, who, when leaves from a tea bush were accidentally dropped into the boiling water of a campfire cooking pot, was moved to taste it thanks to the tempting aroma.

Fast forward to 1983 when, while making a television film called Looking For Africa, I worked with composer Colin Shapiro, visiting him at his home-based studio to listen to possible themes for the film. Colin asked me if I wanted tea or coffee. When I said tea, he asked me what type. “What have you got?”

By way of answer he took me into his kitchen and showed me a veritable library of teas: teas of every variety and flavour imaginable, all in colourful tins from the same manufacturer. It wasn’t Whittard. Nor was it the famous Jackson of Piccadilly. Though I can’t recall the brand, the name Jackson shall serve for the purpose of this story.

Surprisingly, considering his addiction to Mr Jackson’s blends, Colin had never been to England, the source of this bounty. Whenever friends went overseas, he requested they bring him back a few tins. Gradually, over the years, Colin built up his library of tea. When he finally got to London, he dutifully made pilgrimage to Mr Jackson’s emporium and happily browsed among the teas on display until an assistant came to help him. Colin’s accent immediately identified him as a South African and the assistant inquired how he came to be there. Colin related his tale and spoke of how moved he was to finally be standing in Mr Jackson’s establishment. The assistant was impressed and took him upstairs to meet the estimable Mr Jackson.

“Mr Jackson, this is Mr Shapiro — he has been drinking our teas for years and has come all the way from South Africa.”

Mr Jackson rose from behind his well-polished oak desk, came and shook Colin by the hand and ushered him to a chair.

“Well, Mr Shapiro,” said Mr Jackson, “can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

While coffee may now be in the ascendancy in the West, it will never match tea’s mythical pedigree or the poetry it has inspired. Such as this verse from the Zen Buddhist poet and tea-seller Baisao (1675-1763): “An iris pond in flower / before the ancient hall, / I sell tea this evening / by the water’s edge; / it is steeped in the cup / with the moon and stars / one sip, you wake forever / from your worldly sleep.

Coffee for the buzz; tea for enlightenment.

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