Friday, 19 February 2010

Eyelids in the Dirt

Reading a really interesting account of the history of tea in a book that was recommended to me recently by Indonique (The History of Caffeine by Weinberg and Bealer). Starts out with a quote from Alan Watts and I’m reminded of my Buddhist leanings when I was a teen-ager. I carried around his books and tried to decipher them, but many of the ideas took years of considering for me to even begin to comprehend.

The quote is:

“If Christianity is wine, and Islam coffee, Buddhism is certainly tea.”

There are a few stories here about the first emperor of China who “discovered” dropping leaves in boiling water, as well as the elderly sage/border guard who stops Lao Tsu as he’s making a run from China and both brews him a cuppa and somehow convinces him to write the Tao te Ching. Great stories. The book also does a good job of relaying that what historical information we have about the history of tea in China has been so thoroughly revisited and rewritten, that what we know is convoluted and very probably loosely factual, if at all. Believing that this or that emperor invented or developed tea personally in any meaningful way is like believing Pope Gregory was individually responsible for all the Gregorian Chants.

The apocryphal story that practically jumped off the page at me is one that’s too good to leave out here. Tea was unquestionably used by monks to keep them from sleeping and allow them to meditate longer. There’s no disputing that. So according to the legend, this one monk, Bodhidharma, was so disgusted at his inability to stay awake (he was already the founder of what we know today as Zen meditation and sat for years on end in silent contemplation) that upon awakening from accidentally dosing off, he took a knife and removed his eyelids (the Asian Van Gogh of sorts, eh?). When the discarded eyelids fell into the soil, they eventually grew to become the tea plant whose liquor continues to help monks meditate to this day. Slashing off your eyelids to stay focused? Ay caramba!

There’s not much left to top that story. We wind through this dynasty and that emperor only to discover that the Chinese word for tea went from meaning many things to finally being only very specifically used for the Camellia sinensis plant, whereas here in the West tea used to mean a drink from the above-mentioned plant and today it can mean one of many kinds of infusions of herbs or leaves.

This is not the last you’ll hear from me about this book. This is exactly the kind of information I was looking to find out when I started this blog.

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