This post was written by Wu De of Global Tea Hut, originally published by Global Tea Hut in their magazine in January of 2013 and then on T Ching in February, 2015. It is the first in a series of articles by Wu De exploring the meaning of tea beyond the beverage. This is the first in the series. We hope that you will share and comment in the comments section below. 

The Meaning of Tea

The true meaning of this Way of Tea is only hinted at by words, as much adumbrated by them, and we can but hope to catch a dappled glimpse of it through the leaves we write and say. If there is a Way, a Path of Tea to be walked and lived it is surely in the growing, processing, preparing and drinking. These are the juicy buds of Cha Dao that we must steep our lives in.

After that come the secondary leaves—the ones we usually leave for next season—the history, lore and discussion of tea. As a tradition of tea lore, passed on from teacher to student, there is much to say about what tea is to us, yet we mustn’t forget that the understanding we share isn’t as valuable as the living energy we become when we align ourselves with the harmony in a life of tea. We can’t pass on that life lived, merely point out the road and leave behind as many signposts as possible so that future travelers will have an easier trip. This list is one such sign, tacked on a worn old tree you’ll find just past the ancient brook . . .

Exploring Five Aspects of the Meaning of Tea

People often ask what tea ‘means’, as though it were a symbol scribed on an old temple wall that needs translating. In our tradition we also speak of the essence and meaning of tea as defined in five principles, but these five aspects shouldn’t be regarded as something apart from tea to which it occasionally alludes. These principles, rather, are the very essence of tea as it is cultivated and expressed in our tradition.

We adopt these five primary forms of tea not as the symbolic ends to which our tea practice points, but the very quintessence of our tea life. They are the tea we drink and share— leaves and liquor alike. This steaming bowl is these five functions; and if it isn’t serving one or more of them then it isn’t tea. We define our tea in the gathering, processing and preparing; and more importantly the energy with which we do these things, which should always be in accordance with one or more of these five tenets.

If we view these five values as something to strive for—the culmination of Cha Dao, for example—we will in fact fall short of their attainment. These five essentials aren the meaning of tea. They are inherent within it: as a plant, a beverage, a culture and a Dao.

As we mentioned above, these five essences are what tea is to us, not what it symbolizes. We must therefore demonstrate them in our tea, rather than seeking them beyond it in esotericism. Consequently, the oft-asked question ‘What does tea mean?’ is not answered by these five principles. However, the question ‘What is tea?’ most definitely is satisfied by the list below, at least as far as we are concerned.

Though it is important for us to be able to expound what tea is to us as a tradition, and create a valuable lore that we can hand on to future students, there is also a need for caution since ideas are often opinionated, and can be agreed or disagreed with. This list isn’t meant to be an argument for what tea should be to everyone; it is instead what we define as our own cultivation and expression of a tea life in this tradition. Our tea must therefore manifest these values; it must be steeped in their water to the extent that the liquor, the aroma and even the very steam that rises from our tea are all imbibed with them. This is our definition of tea; Tea is Nature, Tea is Medicine, Tea is Heart and Spirit, Tea is Friendship, Tea is an Act of Kindness.

Loading image from T Ching archives, post images courtesy of Global Tea Hut.  

Additional Thoughts on The Meaning of Tea

Teaism is a community founded on the adoration of the beautiuful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the rimanticism of the social order; it is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possinbe in this impossible thing we know of as life.    

–  Kukuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea

Tea-making is a ritual that, like the drink itself, warms the heart somehow.

–  James Norwood Pratt, The Tea Lover’s Treasury