Drinking green tea in Newcastle

2011-06-03 00:00

I SPENT three days in Newcastle last week researching a story on the challenges facing the clothing and textile industry in the area. This involved interviewing several owners of cut, make and trim factories, all of them Chinese immigrants. Such meetings also meant drinking copious amounts of green tea, the beverage of choice among the Chinese. Green tea is well known for its sleep-denying properties, but given the amount I drank, I’m surprised I didn’t start seeing monkeys.

Green tea’s propensities for wakefulness go back to one of the legends related to the discovery of tea. This is the story of Bodhidharma, a bearded Indian monk who is said to have taken Buddhism to China in the sixth century CE. After a fruitless meeting with the emperor, Bodhidharma went 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 Bodhidharma got a bit drowsy and, annoyed at this backsliding and in a bid to stay awake, he tore off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Where they landed tea bushes grew.

Bodhidharma later became acknowledged as the founding patriarch of the school of Buddhism in China known as Chan. It was later exported to Japan where it became known as Zen. Chan or Zen, both words simply mean meditation. The story of Bodhidharma’s eyelids could well be a story composed, in hindsight, to explain the practice of Zen Buddhist monks who resort to drinking green tea to banish sleepiness during overnight meditation sessions.

Tea and meditation are often interlinked. In his book Road to Heaven, the writer and translator, Bill Porter, recounts his trips to the Chungnan Mountains in central China to find out if any Buddhist hermits managed to survive the depredations of the Cultural Revolution and were still practising in their mountain hideaways.

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 that its forest had been harvested, Porter deduced that hermits would be in short supply: “There was hardly a tree in sight. I reasoned no forest, no deadfall; no deadfall, no firewood; no firewood, no tea; no tea, no meditation; no meditation; no hermits.”

And the monkeys? There is a ghost story by the 19th-century Anglo-Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, titled Green Tea. It is about an academic clergyman “the Reverend Mr Jennings”, who is immersed in a work “upon the religious metaphysics of the ancients”. To aid his concentration he resorted to tea: “It cleared and intensified the power of thought ... and it became a habit with me to sip my tea — green tea — every now and then as my work proceeded.”

After a while, the reverend gentlemen begins to be plagued by the unwanted attentions of a monkey. A creature he alone can see. Eventually he is driven insane and commits suicide.

The reader is informed that the unfortunate scholar had fallen victim to the hallucinatory qualities of green tea consumed in large quantities. Monkeys, apparently, being the pink elephants of overindulgence in the beverage.

Hence my relief, given the quantities of green tea consumed, that I saw no monkeys during my visit to Newcastle.

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