Monday, January 31, 2011

Walking the Tao

I am greeting folks in the early afternoon as they arrive at Village Zendo, set inauspiciously at the end of a long corridor on the 11th floor of a large loft building in Mahattan's Soho.

We are gathering as Chinese New Year approaches for a happening called, Walking the Tao - a leisurely tea outing. These words are inspired by a long Chinese poem entitled Shodoka - Cheng-Tao-Ko, whose opening verse reads:

"There is the leisurely one,
Walking the Tao,
beyond philosophy,
Not avoiding fantasy, not seeking truth. . ."

We are a mix of folks who have known each other for some time as well as those who have never met. Most heard about the happening online. Some, like my friend and former colleague at Housing Works, Inc., Diana, have brought their kids along. Juliette and Sebastian have been studying Mandarin in school and are in a play later in the week, in celebration of Chinese New Year.

Fifteen of us assemble. We introduce ourselves briefly and what inspired us to come on the outing today. I suggest we might call ourselves "tea tao-ttlers." This garners a few chuckles and a few raised eyebrows. As we gather our belongings, I am delighted for how resonant this outing feels with another happening, the ongoing Potluck Tea Party in NYC's Central Park. I am awed at how dots connect.

Joining in today are Musho, who painted the wondrous party poster and happens to be a longtime fan of tea, esp. Japanese greens. His wife and founder of Communal Table, Deena, is smiling brightly as we introduce ourtselves. Many of us are foodies in one way or another. Deborah, founder of the vegetarian bistro Counter, shares that tea is a passion. Heads nod with delight in shared recognition.

Mark and Vinny share that daily consumption of tea is a pleasure and how excited they are for this outing. Zak speaks of his wife, currently living in Beijing, and how while visiting her, he was introduced and soon become enthralled with the elegant "gung fu" ceremony, which we are soon to enjoy. Days earlier, in his email rsvp, he writes, "totally stoked!!!"

Our destination: Flushing, Queens and Fang Tea, which is hosting a "tea expo," culminating after a month on Chinese New Year. As the poster for the happening says, Fang Tea:

features wonderful, small-batch, family-farm and wild-grown teas from Taiwan and mainland China. Also featured are a wide array of tea ware crafted by local and international artisans.

We head down via the elevator (except for the kids, who zip down eleven flights of stairs) and stroll out along the joyful bustle that is Broadway. Hopping on the subway, we change trains at Times Square to get on the #7, for a leisurely ride into the heart of Queens. Juliette sits down and opens her book, The Garden of Eve. by K.L. Going.

Above her head is a poster that says in big print, "Be Aware."

I ask to see her book. The back cover reads,

Evie receives a mysterious seed as an eleventh-birthday gift and meets a boy who claims to be dead. When planted, the seed grows into a tree before their eyes, but only Evie and the boy can see it - or go where it leads.

As the train shifts to being above ground, I notice through the window stretches of open space, frozen over ponds and bare trees, as well as big lots holding city buses and subway trains. On the exterior of each is an American flag.

As we travel, some enjoy conversation and some read. Sebastian sits beside Juliette, engrossed in a book of manga. I glance at frames in his book, which blend with frames outside the window. The world is passing by and we with it. Soon enough, we arrive at the last stop, as the train goes again under ground.

Here we are. Main Street, Flushing.

As we come up the stairs, Musho says, "hey, we're in China! That didn't take long." I look up and see a mammoth billboard over the busy intersection. It reads, "Welcome to China 2011." We cross the street, whose upper traverses are decorated with red paper lanterns, and arrive at a cozy hole-in-the-wall, for a round of fresh steamed buns. This place serves what I've never experienced anywhere else, calling the filling, "salted vegetables." The bright salty greens make for a tasty counterpoint to the slightly-sweet white bun.

I greet a fellow who's slurping down some noodles. He looks like he's down on his luck, clothes unwashed in some time. Still, he's quite content because at a little over $1, these are affordable eats. We exchange notes on the relative merits of the various condiments as I pass out the buns to our crew. We step outside to munch and mingle.

The sun is shining and a steady stream of people pass by. This clearly is a main thoroughfare. We finish munching and continue down the street, then cross over through small mounds of snow to the other side.

Walking through the revolving door, we enter the Sheraton East Hotel. This is home to the tea expo. As we turn the corner, a statue of a benevolent looking figure resting in a grove of bamboo greets us. This we think is the image of Kwan Yin, which represents the feminine expression of compassion. So much so that a famous tea is named after her.

As soothing music plays over a speaker, I notice a captivating poster, which displays steam rising from a kettle. The caption reads,

Let tea be your guide, and take you into the wondrous realm of the Tao.

Below this, in smaller print, it says,

From the world of Zen, bring forth the essence of tea and let it guide the experience of the Truth within your mind.

I'm thinking, "OK, here we go . . ."

We soon are greeted by Judy Chen, interpreter and liaison for Fang Tea. She offers us a tour of the expo's displays and shares a brief history of Fang Tea. Wanting to preserve the unique art of growing, harvesting, and preparing a wide range of chinese teas; relationships have been cultivated with those specializing in this. Also, international artisans continue to explore the relationship between tea and teaware. The materials used as well as the process convey a craft that is at once steeped in tradition as it is unfolding, like the leaves themselves.

She shows us a series of small teacups. On each is painted an image of one of the many implements of Kwan Yin. She is said to have one thousand hands and in each a different tool. It seems that compassion comes in many forms and each is quite pragmatic.

Judy then walks us over to a mammoth wooden table, reserved for host and guests to enjoy tea. Behind it hang seven scrolls with calligraphy. She explains that these are a series of Zen tea poems. They can be experienced as a progression in the Tao being a "way" of life, as expressed through daily activities. The last one consists of four characters.

It says simply, "Zen and tea, one way."

We smile in unison as she invites us to split into two groups of eight. She prepares to serve as host at one and a new friend, Kyle, prepares to serve at an adjacent table. Each of them has studied the art of gung fu. Their radiant faces enliven the room. We sit down.

Another server of sorts joins us. It's Naomi, who has offered iced jasmine tea beside me for several years at our Potluck Tea Party. She lives nearby. She and Michelle, another member of our tea tao-ttling group, are familiar with japanese tea ceremony, or chado (also translates as "way of tea"). They, like the rest of us, are curious about and eager to experience the Chinese ceremony.

I move from one table to the other at a leisurely pace. Unsure of what exactly is my role, my heart leads. I want to ensure that everyone is comfortable.

Judy and Kyle have chosen a "light Oolong" to start. The dry leaves are appreciated by all as the small "pot" for steeping is heated with hot water poured from a nearby kettle. This "pot" looks more like a cup and is called "Gaiwan." It comes with a lid, which serves as a filter for the loose leaves.

Each Gaiwan is superby stunning. The glaze on the one Judy uses is an unsual and sensuous shade of red. Chinese New Year abounds in the color red as it generally connotes happiness in Chinese culture. A subtle while distinctive orchid is painted over this glaze. Kyle uses a Gaiwan with a soothingly bright shade of yellow overlaid with just a few delicate blossoms.

After the tea steeps briefly, it is poured into a serving cup with a spout. Judy explains that this is the "fairness cup." She says that it ensures that everyone receives the same strength brew. She pours the tea into tiny white porcelin cups, which at the same time, are quite wide when held to the lips. This helps one sip the tea and then enjoy sniffing its sublime aroma. We breathe it all in and enjoy the first sip. I look down the table and see transfixed guests.

I get up and move to Kyle's table. I whisper to Deena, "ask him why that is called the fairness cup." She smiles and within a few minutes I overhear her asking. He offers some words and then also explains that the name literally translates as "ocean of tea." This ocean receptacle is equally stunning, and appears to be a fired clay suffused with blue-brown speckles. The name seems fitting. He pours, filling everyone's cup. Smiles flowing down the table, guests and host drink together.

Multiple steepings follow. I lose count after seven. Finally, Judy and Kyle each show us the completely unfurled tea leaves, placing them on lovely square-shaped plates. These are whole leaves. They glisten, like our faces.

For a time, we browse the tearoom and some purchase tea and teaware. As we prepare to leave, Judy introduces us to her teacher, who invites us to return. Putting on my coat, then turning the corner, I notice the poster again. The first sentence stands out:

Let tea be your guide, and take you into the wondrous realm of the Tao.

Indeed . . .

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