Friday, March 19, 2010

Book report: From Taoism to teaism

I still wear a yin-yang ring. It’s an affectation I adopted as a teen around the same time a friend of mine and I were tossing coins for the I Ching (“Should I ask Ashley to the dance?” … hey, Dave, what does “auspicious” mean?). My interest in all things Taoist was easily nourished amid by dull Methodist upbringing. Over the years I devoured the Tao Te Ching (thank you, Stephen Mitchell) and moved on to Chuang-tzu and the other masters. I think this is my fourth yin-yang ring, and every so often it fulfills its purpose: reminding me of life’s natural balance, and that my life should be in harmony with it.

Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life is a fine Taoist primer — with the added addition of a tea infusion. Author Solala Towler (who, for some reason, spells the Tao and Taoism phonetically throughout his book as Dao and Daoism) swings between anecdotes of Taoism and stories of teaism in an effort to describe a very Taoist concept: "tea mind." That is, “a way of being in the world, a way of living a life of grace and gratitude, of being able to see the sacred in the seemingly mundane.” This is the heart of Taoism, and also — if everyone is in the right frame of mind — the experience produced by a cup of tea.

Towler fortunately stops short of turning the simple cup of tea into some kind of religious experience even while acknowledging that the Chinese tea ceremony developed into a ritual that “took the simple art of drinking tea to a sacred level.” He refers to the "timeless time of tea." Towler dabbles in simple and complex concepts, and though his narrative is choppy and his scholarship sometimes questionable (Wikipedia as a source? really?!), he proves to be an effective guide through Lao-tzu's wilderness, even ably explaining the challenging idea of wu wei — the concept of “doing nothing” (which is not the same as apathy, nor is it the opposite of ambition).

The act of preparing and sharing tea, or taking it alone, causes us to slow down, step out of the world a bit. It's a reminder, like my yin-yang ring, that the world is not everything, that we are best and most at peace when we are, as Towler reminds us, "in the world but not of it." A wise old man in one of Towler's related parables says, "I find that when I get anxious or stressed, all it takes is a good cup of tea to make things right again. That is, if I truly relax and allow the tea to do its work on my soul."

In the end, Towler writes, in describing a Toaist tea ceremony: “‘Daoists follow nature,’ said the [tea] master, ‘and so Daoists like tea because it comes from nature. Tea is the flavor of the Dao.’”

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