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The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea

The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea by Aaron Fisher. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing; 2010. Hardcover; 192 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0804840323. $19.95

In recent years, there has been a steady stream of tea books that have either reviewed tea’s place in human history, described the treasured varieties of tea that have been passed down through the centuries, or postulated about the botanical origins of the tea plant known as Camellia sinensis (Theaceae).

The main premise of Aaron Fisher’s The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea is that a deeper understanding of the tea plant as an exquisite entheogen can aid in the full enjoyment of tea practice for the aspiring practitioner. According to religion scholar Huston Smith in Cleansing the Doors of Perception, entheogens are “virtually nonaddictive mind-altering substances that are approached seriously and reverently,” with the inference being that the substances actually induce a mystical or religious experience, such as an encounter with God or the gods.

As Fisher is quick to point out, there are an estimated 5,400 texts written in the Chinese language alone about the Tao, or the flow of the universe. Through tea, “we learn to listen to the unfolding moment, adapting and flowing in harmony with it.”

With the exception of classic writings on the subject that are available in translation from Chinese to English, such as Lu Yu’s The Classic of Tea or Okakura Kakuzo’s The Book of Tea, this book, The Way of Tea, is perhaps the best to be found anywhere that delves into the mystical dimensions of tea. The author takes us into his world and personal experience with tea, giving a deeper appreciation of the way in which tea can be better understood and realized: “The profundity found just beyond the silence that tea inspires is deep, giving rise to joy and reflection, contemplation and meditation.”

In order to appreciate tea’s contribution to the betterment of human life, Fisher first describes tea in a broader context. We learn that tea evolved with other evergreen trees about one million years ago in the tropical forests that lie beneath the Tibetan plateau, in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province.

He suggests we consider that “the story of the Leaf is primarily one of trees, undisturbed in their primordial history. The real story of tea is a silent one; one where the first 999 pages are written in the quiet languages of the forest.”

The author also examines the Chinese character for tea, its potential, and original pictographic significance. Fisher acknowledges one of his teachers, a “tea doctor” and artist, who shows the Chinese character for tea as an illustration of the figure of a man living within a tea tree. This image, as interpreted by the author, is a metaphor for nature and shows “that we can live tea, becoming a part of Nature, rather than standing on the outside of it as an observer; and that such a ‘becoming’ is really a return to our original state.”

This is meaningful in today’s modern world; we might wish to remember that the earliest shamanic traditions stretching back for thousands of years in this bioregion utilized tea as a plant of the spirit, an entheogen that enabled humans to more deeply connect to the natural world.

To enable the reader to acquire a better overall grasp of the tea experience and its relevance for the well-lived life, Fisher takes the reader through an abridged history of tea in China, Tibet, and Japan. These chapters touch upon the various practices, poetry, and art of tea, primarily as a way to explore its spiritual and cultural-ceremonial significance. From my own experience, I felt that Fisher’s representation of the Tibetan history of tea might not be a complete representation of the facts. According to Professor Lobsang Jamspal at Columbia University’s Center for Buddhist Studies, tea was never in and of itself viewed as a “sacred and holy substance” in Tibet. The idea put forth by Fisher, that Tibetans refer to tea as a “nectar of the gods,” is somewhat misleading, as even water or the fermented barley brew known as chang may, like tea, be offered to the deities as well. According to Jamspal, “Tibetan monks are good at visualizing almost everything.” That nectar, which is offered, is held in the visual mind of the supplicant.

The historic facts and poignant myths that have grown around tea are, for the most part, a rewarding backdrop within the pages of The Way of Tea. The message at the heart of Fisher’s charming book appears in later chapters, as he suggests how one might go deeper into the experience and practice of tea. He recommends turning “to the Way of Tea itself,” describing the soul and its underlying transmission within the tea experience. This deeper experience is the essential aspect of what Fisher encourages readers to explore within tea.

The second half of The Way of Tea is primarily a guide to understanding how to approach the day-to-day ritual-practice of tea. Evident in these sections, with chapter titles such as “Calm Joy,” “Quietude,” and “Presence,” the reader learns that “Fine teas are appreciated much better in silence.” As Fisher states so succinctly, “In this modern age everything, everywhere seems to lead the senses outward and away from oneself. Don’t be afraid of quiet. Find the time for peace and introversion, and life will have new meaning.”

—Scott Chamberlin Hoyt, Director/Author of the film and book, The Meaning of Tea, New York, NY