C. H. A. (What Makes Good Tea?)

Camellia sinensis :: Handcraft :: Awareness

You might be surprised to learn I’m not drinking tea as I write this.

When tea people think about good tea, we usually think about the first two components: starting with the best leaves, made masterfully into finished tea, and prepared in such a way that its qualities are best expressed.

Once you’re familiar with tea, it becomes obvious you can’t brew good tea with badly-made leaves; and, you can’t be careless with well-made leaves, and expect them to embody what the tea maker envisioned. That third component, however, is too often overlooked.

If you start with your greatest tea, and prepare it with your greatest skill, all is for naught if you don’t bring your greatest attention to actually experiencing what you helped create.

It’s not only this negative relationship; it is also that, with each particle of increased attention, your experience of the tea will be greater. This has been said many ways.

In The Importance Of Living, Lin Yutang quotes an earlier writer, Hsū Ts’eshu1 (the author of a different Ch’asu). Lin says:

In accordance with the Chinese practice of prescribing the proper moment and surrounding for enjoying a thing, Ch’asu, an excellent treatise on tea, reads thus:

Proper moments for drinking tea:

When one’s heart and hands are idle.
Tired after reading poetry.
When one’s thoughts are disturbed.
Listening to songs and ditties.
When a song is completed.
Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.
Playing the ch’in and looking over paintings.
Engaged in conversation deep at night.
Before a bright window and a clean desk.
With charming friends and slender concubines.
Returning from a visit with friends.
When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.
On a day of light showers.
In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.
In a forest with tall bamboos.
In a pavilion overlooking lotus flowers on a summer day.
Having lighted incense in a small studio.
After a feast is over and the guests are gone.
When children are at school.
In a quiet, secluded temple.
Near famous springs and quaint rocks.

Moments when one should stop drinking tea:

At work.
Watching a play.
Opening letters.
During big rain and snow.
At a long wine feast with a big party.
Going through documents.
On busy days.
Generally conditions contrary to those enumerated in the above section.

Things to be avoided:

Bad water.
Bad utensils.
Brass spoons.
Brass kettles.
Wooden pails (for water).
Wood for fuel (on account of smoke).
Soft charcoal.
Coarse servant.
Bad-tempered maid.
Unclean towels.
All varieties of incense and medicine.

Things and places to be kept away from:

Damp rooms.
Noisy streets.
Crying infants.
Hotheaded persons.
Quarreling servants,
Hot rooms.

I feel honored to share even the English transliteration of this work. : )

Thích Nhất Hạnh says it like this:

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.

The Miracle of Mindfulness (1999)

This, of course, is not only about tea. He also says:

Tea is an act complete in its simplicity. When I drink tea, there is only me, and the tea. The rest of the world dissolves. There are no worries about the future. No dwelling on past mistakes. Tea is simple: Loose-leaf tea, hot pure water, a cup. I inhale the scent, tiny delicate pieces of the tea floating above the cup. I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me. I am informed by the tea, changed. This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed; all the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose. There is only the tea, and me, converging.

Life is like tea. You must be completely awake in the present to enjoy the tea. Only in the awareness of the present, can your hands feel the pleasant warmth of the cup. Only in the present, can you savor the aroma, taste the sweetness, appreciate the delicacy. If you are ruminating about the past, or worrying about the future, you will completely miss the experience of enjoying the cup of tea. You will look down at the cup, and the tea will be gone.

Life is like that. If you are not fully present, you will look around and it will be gone. You will have missed the feel, the aroma, the delicacy and beauty of life. It will seem to be speeding past you.

The past is finished. Learn from it and let it go. The future is not even here yet. Plan for it, but do not waste your time worrying about it. Worrying is worthless. When you stop ruminating about what has already happened, when you stop worrying about what might never happen, then you will be in the present moment. Then you will begin to experience joy in life.

Occasionally, we’re lucky enough to wake up before our cup is empty. In these cases, we still have time to live.


  1. I haven’t found this author’s name, either in the original Chinese, or in a more recent transliteration style. If you know more about him, please get in touch! My name is david, and you can email me at that name, at cha su dot org. (No spaces, of course. : ) Thank you!