Wednesday, September 23, 2009

James Norwood Pratt on Roy's "OMG" Tea Class

We've had a lot of positive feedback on Roy's "OMG" Tea Class earlier this month. Amy Lawrence of the Afternoon to Remember teahouse and web site wrote, "Last night teas were just OMG! They all were so unique. I can't even tell you which one was my favorite because I loved them all. One of my favorites, though, in appearance was the Imperial Tribute Harvest Purple-Tip Puerh. I was fascinated by the leaves and their color. Thanks so much for doing the class last night and sharing your favorites. I am so inspired!"

Chef Karen Diggs told us, "Thank you again so much the fantastic OMG class on Sunday. I feel truly fortunate to be permeated with your rich experience and art of tea! Tasting such rare treasures really delights the senses and fills the heart!"

Our good friend and fellow tea-lover James Norwood Pratt was inspired to produce an entire blog post, which we're pleased to share:

Roy Fong, my long-time friend and tea mentor, allowed me to introduce him to those who gathered at his Imperial Tea Court for his "OH MY GOD" tasting Sunday evening September 13. Present were out-of-town friends like Amy Lawrence and Babette McDonald (and absent, alas, were others like Laura Philips of Dallas) but some were there who knew Roy only by reputation. How do you introduce somebody who's both a legend and an old friend? I said:

Tea is a practice in Asia, what they call a Way. And in every Way--whether martial arts or gardening--you acknowledge and honor your lineage, which is to say your teachers and their teachers. You can say I know this is what the Buddha taught because my teacher Suzuki Roshi revealed it to me. You see, a teacher does not just tell you something, she or he opens your eyes to something and makes sure you SEE what they speak of. And like Buddhism in any of its sects, tea is also a Way and has its lineages also. And here you are tonight entering the same Way of Tea I myself entered almost twenty years ago and with the same teacher, our esteemed Roy Fong, so it seems not amiss I say a few things about our lineage.

I feel all the more entitled to speak being Roy's senior student, since Roy has been my teacher in tea since just before he opened San Francisco's Imperial Tea Court in 1993. I must have been one of the first to whom he ever demonstrated the use of the gaiwan or taught to pronounce "long jing," so you can imagine how long ago it was that these now commonplace understandings first came to San Francisco. Imperial Tea Court was the first traditional Chinese tea house in North America and one of my proudest honors is that Roy made me the Tea Court's Honorary Director. What he really did was annoint me the Apostle of China Tea and I have rejoiced in my function ever since. Roy has taken me home with him, literally and figuratively, to China, the homeland of tea, and revealed some of her treasures and my life has simply never been the same. I am one of a small but not insignificant number who can now claim to have received this tea transmission from Roy. We should be respectful of where it came from--not just our own teacher, I mean, but where he got it. We also are heirs to Roy's lineage, which is the most ancient tea lineage of all.

Starting around 2,000 years ago tea was adopted and popularized all over China by immigrant Buddhists, but its origins are more ancient still. Tea is a cultural accomplishment the Chinese developed along with their deep understandings of yin/yang, tai chi, feng shui, i ching, acupuncture, and herbal medicine. These and other aspects of the Way, or dao, China's sages pursued for forty generations or more after rice cultivation was already well established in China six thousand years ago. Today we would call those ancient hermits and herbalists under whose influence tea slowly evolved from food to medicine to tonic to beverage Daoists and for them tea originally must have been both a science project and a magico-religious practice. We should always remember that Roy Fong is a Daoist priest in the fullest sense. This is where he's coming from and what he brings to us.

Time is the only difference between teacher and student. With time and attention we students can gradually come to know as much and understand as deeply as our teacher does. This is not a question of accumulating mere facts however. Information is not knowledge and knowledge itself is not understanding. Of course a teacher gives invaluable information, but mainly a teacher gives us a way of approaching, of looking at, or experiencing things. Roy can direct your attention to the concert of taste occurring on your tongue as you sip and you will discover sensations you could not otherwise have noticed. The experience itself cannot be taught. What Roy gives us is vision--both the procedures of tasting and the understandings of how the leaf itself was transformed. Then tea experience comes upon us the way it can on nobody else who has not been led to the light by such a teacher. Drinking tea with such a one is always a revelation.

1 comment:

Jason Witt said...

It strikes me here that I owe some gratitude to the people throughout the last couple thousand years who brought Pu-erh to the modern world so I could enjoy it. I'm also thankful of those of recent years and decades who opened up China so this delightful Pu-erh could be traded until I am able to make it so easily my everyday tea. --Teaternity