Slow down, avoid clutter, take time. Simple Daoist precepts as embodied in a cup of tea and twenty minutes to make and appreciate its ritual savor. This sums up this short primer. It introduces you to Daoism and Cha Dao, the way of tea, and looks at Zen and "wu wei" or non-striving as represented by tea. The connection may be new to you, but Towler shows it's a venerable association from ancient times.
He intersperses inspirational tales from Daoist masters, Zen practitioners, and Japanese and Chinese lore. His own visits and anecdotes explore the philosophical connections with tea and a more balanced harmony with nature and our own attitudes. Those familiar with "zazen" or "just sitting" may find a kindred set of spirits within these simply told pages.
Towler writes these, in fact, rather sparingly. It's as if they sound translated from another language. Many are, of course, but a slight remove from idiomatic English permeates this little guide. His two decades of study and practice may be credited, perhaps, for this pared down prose style, but I found it rather surprising. It may testify to his devotion to a stripped-down, more minimal outlook, but the book does appear on the short side without a lot of information as opposed to inspiration if you wish to learn about tea. The details about types of tea or how to make a cup are minimal, chapters are often brief, and the emphasis is more on the outlook of those who use tea more ritualistically or symbolically than on practical methods or culinary details about tea itself.
I review this in tandem with Sarah Rose's "For All the Tea in China" about the botanical espionage engaged in by the East India Company to smuggle out Chinese "bohea" black tea seeds to grow in India, so this type of larger cultural context and historical impact may be found there, for example. For Cha Dao, the stress is on no stress, the tea mind taking over and the reason for tea being not a substitute for coffee's jolts in our overstimulated world, but for a return to a dignified, less jittery way of relating ourselves to an essence of leaves and water, heat and coolness. Towler's rather timeless collection may not satisfy the hungry customer demanding instant knowledge, but it may soothe the tired wanderer seeking a longer-lasting, more restorative path to domestic wisdom.
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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
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In China, the art and practice of drinking tea is about much more than merely soaking leaves in a cup of hot water. The tradition is rooted in Daoism, and emerged from a philosophy that honoured living a life of grace and gratitude, balance and harmony, and fulfilment and enjoyment - what the ancient Chinese called Cha Dao, or the Way of Tea. Cha Dao takes us on a fascinating journey through the Way of Tea, from its origins in the sacred mountains and temples of ancient China, through its links to Daoist concepts such as Wu Wei or non-striving and the Value of Worthlessness, to the affinity between Tea Mind and the Japanese spirit of Zen. Interspersed are a liberal helping of quotes from the great tea masters of the past, anecdotes from the author's own trips to China, and traditional tea stories from China and Japan. The unique health benefits of tea are also explored, and a chapter is devoted to describing the history, characteristics and properties of 25 different tea varieties. This book will interest tea lovers, as well as those who want to learn more about tea culture, Daoist and Zen thought and practice, and Asian history and culture.