In retrospect, I never gave my Taiwan travels a proper closing blog entry. After all, I was literally chased out of the tea village I had come to know so well by a great force of nature: the Typhoon! I actually had to scurry up to the mountainside tea factory, pack all my belongings in about 15 minutes, and flee back down into the valley – 5 days before my date of departure. This was all due to the heavy typhoon passing over Taiwan, of course, and had I not evacuated then, I very well may have been stranded due to road damage and landslides. It was difficult as it was what with vehicle sized boulders blocking sections of road and a 100-foot section of road was already washed away by the time I returned to the village. Luckily, an alternate gravel road had been opened up that connected back to the main road. Also luckily for me, I was welcomed with open arms at the Tea Sage Hut for the duration of my stay in Taiwan until returning to Canada.
In case you don’t already know, essentially I went to Taiwan as a student of the Leaf to learn about where my tea comes from, how it’s grown and processed, and who’s making it…and I wanted to gain that knowledge through first hand experience and community involvement. I offered my support in a tea factory and farm in a small tea village in returns for food, accommodation, and the experience to learn about the industry that is Taiwanese Oolong Tea.
This short documentary gives you an idea about what I was doing. In all my excitement in the first week (which is when the video was shot) I fumbled with words, but you get the idea. In particular I like my goofy comment on the smell of tea (which really is the greatest aroma I can think of), and my corny motto at the very end. Even though this video was shot only a few months ago, my outlook on tea has changed drastically. Much thanks to Wendy Wang who directed and edited the film, along with her crew.
This experience, as exhilarating and thrilling as it was, was actually quite challenging and draining. It wasn’t so much the long work hours, the extreme language barrier, or the complicated processing techniques that made things difficult; it was experiencing, first hand, farming practices that were in direct conflict with my love of tea as a natural product, a spiritual medium, and a connection with Nature. I was defining tea for myself by learning about what it didn’t mean to me. I was searching in the dark for the true light of tea. I really struggled at times, and wanted to make people aware of what I was learning about, but at the same time, I didn’t want to tarnish the image of tea, the image of any individuals, or the image of a country for that matter. As you can tell, I’m still being quite ambiguous about it all. I found there was no one to blame, not the farmers, not the salesmen, not the entity that is the chemical industry – it all came to no avail. In fact, it is the farmers who are the first victim.
I now ask myself, is it more important to let people know that the tea they’re drinking probably isn’t raised in the spiritual or natural manner to which they drink it (thus raising awareness), or to let them go on drinking it with such genuine spiritual intention, reaping the benefits inherent in their belief about the beverage they’re consuming. Either way, I feel damned if I do or damned if I don’t.
In some respects, I think people deserve to know what goes on behind the scenes of a large tea industry, behind the labels that vendors use to sell a product. And, I believe this can be done in a balanced and constructive manner. In another respect, I think certain information should be withheld because it’s the “knowing” about it that can exacerbate the “problem.” I’m not to say that ignorance is bliss, or that, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. I’m kind of saying that, but from a very different angle, one that places great significance on the intention behind an action. In this respect, we’re no longer talking about drinking tea, but drinking intention.
The worst tea served with the best of intention is better than the best tea served with the worst of intention.
I once asked my teacher, what is the most respectful way to use conventionally grown tea. I didn’t want to throw it out, but I wasn’t sure if I should serve it to others? He told me that tea served from the heart and received in the same manner will transform the tea. This is drinking your own intention. If you receive this tea with your heart and fully intend for it to be a joyful, nourishing, meditative occasion, then your physical experience will follow accordingly, and that alone will generate a therapeutic energy of well-being. I believe the benefit in approaching (any) tea in this manner is of more importance than raising awareness about what’s going on behind the scenes. This is a form of empowerment. Approaching a conventionally grown tea with this intentional manner is of more use than not drinking it because you became aware of the conventional practices employed in raising it. Of course, there is a fine balance between some level of awareness and cultivating a mindful intention with respect to consuming tea.
I’m not to say you should just forget all about farming practices and their role in society and carelessly sip away with fairytale intentions. Nor am I saying you have to spend 3 months in the mountains of Taiwan getting to know the factory laborers or field workers on a personal level, or to witness the livelihoods behind the thousands of hands involved in the process of bringing tea from the soil to your cup. That’s not practical or necessary – or sufficient. While it might not be practical to source a farmer who’s tea is raised in a spiritually-like manner to which you drink it, it is practical to suggest that you source and buy Organic and environmentally friendly tea, which is the next best option – and a good one at that (like the Global Tea Hut’s Tea of the Month, for example). Then you can be confident that the tea you are drinking is not only inherently healthy for you, but healthy for the environment, and the manner in which you drink it is more closely aligned with the manner in which it was raised. Your intention in this case will even further the therapeutic benefits of a tea drinking occasion.
So in reflecting on my time in Taiwan I learned that tea can be perceived in many different ways; as a commodity, a beverage, a ceremony, a science, a cuisine, a livelihood, a spiritual medium, a garden, a monoculture, an art, a culture, an evergreen, a medicine, etc, and all of them have their place within certain boundaries. My perception is constantly shifting and changing to accommodate a blend of those ideas about tea. For now, tea is for me, prominently: a social art, a connection with Nature, an opportunity of transformation, and a Way. This is what I really learned about tea in Taiwan.