Recent discussions on Steepster and reddit about vendor representation of leaf age have left me rather thoughtful lately. For many people who posted in these discussions raised larger themes about puerh, reminding me that drinking tea is more than just the leaf. Now, I’m not talking about those of you dear puerh drinkers currently contemplating the particular qualities of the leaf in your gaiwan at this very moment. You folks can return to your cups and your appreciation of the leaf in your gaiwan just now, because this bit of scribble from me is not for you.
Tea is a difficult product to sell, and maybe old tea like puerh is the most difficult of all, not discounting masterful techniques like Famous Teas leaf processing, charcoal roasting and so on. The customer for puerh tea very often has more than just an interest in the leaf itself, more than mere flavor, qualities for aging or whatnot. Tea customers often approach teas with hopes and dreams. So when I say tea is a difficult product to sell, I mean it ain’t like selling penny nails. or a replacement gasket for a leaky faucet. No, selling tea means dealing with customer expectations that run the gamut between the mundane and the sublime. And between the wok and the prayer book, because purchasing tea is about desire, ideas of objective and subjective taste, whole notions of “value” that may vary across countries and even individuals. Buying tea for some customers may be about seeking something beyond their day-to-day lives, customers as seekers, perhaps even the vendor as a seeker, ideas about China or India that reflect the desire of the customer rather reality. A tea vendor is confronted with wishes, fantasies, miseries of individual lives, hard earned cash, sacrifice, customer stress that has nothing whatsoever to do with the vendor or the tea, but lies at the heart of the entire universe and meaning of life, spirituality and religion.
I can envision a massive range of desire and the burden of wish fulfillment that vendors have when dealing with tea buyers. From what I can see, western tea vendors I know got into the business because of some level of seeking, quite obviously because they are interested in a product that doesn’t grow where they live, but all the way around the world, grown and sold by people whose relationship with tea may be more ordinary daily reality, and not one filled with hopes, dreams, or aesthetics, but more similar to the penny nail, and who could care less about the all the “thinking” of the end consumer. Bottom line, we know for a fact that vendors are confronted with all these ideas and realities every single day they stay in this business, in addition to whatever personal reasons behind why they continue to sell tea.
On the other hand, we tea buyers might spend some time reflecting on our wish fulfillment in the transaction. What do I expect when I buy tea? From recent discussions, some might say “honesty” is the only necessity, but upon reading a little deeper the larger themes of wish fulfillment are obvious. Again, I urge those of you well into your gaiwan contemplating a particular leaf to return to your cups. For these thoughts are not yours at the moment. You are in the bliss of a session, remain there if you can.
Spirituality and religion are about the seeker and the one who can be found. Do you have hopes and dreams in spirituality and religion? Are you seeking something or someone who can effect a change you need? Do you have these yearnings? If so, these might be part of your wish fulfillment when buying tea. These feelings are very powerful, and as often as I like to joke about puerh hoarding, behind some collectors might lay intense spiritual yearnings. Along with those yearnings may be the feeling of a mundane daily life, a desire for escape, for romance or love. I know I have all these wishes, because at night they find me in dreams. I know myself to have intense emotions that I don’t, or can’t, easily or casually express in my daily life such as it is. Do I project them onto my tea buying? I cannot help but admit that I do. To some extent, buying tea or tea ware is an expression of those deep feelings of desire on many levels. Tea buying is the little tunnel into which all those feelings get to squeeze, if they are allowed out at all. So it is no surprise if I feel either contentment or extreme disappointment in a tea purchase. And no wonder if I find myself a critic, perhaps even critical of criticizers, because I’m sensitive to the notion of the hopes and dreams behind my tea hobby and those of others.
I may wish myself to be somewhere else, anywhere except for where I am right now. Have you ever wanted to visit China or India? Do you enjoy reading about religious temples, spiritual masters, martial artists, elegant poetry, or parchment? Do you think about the men or women in Asia you would want to meet? Do you have a fantasy about the Taiwan Businessman or the Japanese geisha or the Chinese woman waiting for you to appear? If you have a desire for a fantasy relationship or even a real relationship with someone from this part of the world, what does it consist of?
Perhaps you may yearn after a particular aesthetic like the clean minimal lines of a tea table, free of the clutter of daily existence. Anyone rinsing dirty diapers might survive this task with such thoughts, or the stress of a grey winter’s day, smog, clogged schedules, all may seem to melt away before a photo of bamboo and white cups. If so, then beauty is the yearning here, a feeling that one might relax and become our real self in the midst of notions of perfection. I know I wished it every single time I watched my young son playing classical bassoon during an orchestral performance. I wished I could keep him there forever in tuxedo, in the bliss of the moment of musical notes, a conductor and a meter, and never see him subject to any of what I and his father went through on a daily basis just to keep him there. Even now I want those feelings of the sublime aesthetic of the beautiful and pure, and yes, I want it when I drink tea.
I’m just scratching the surface of all the possible wishes, hopes and dreams a tea buyer might have when approaching a purchase decision. The simple answer to all this might be the thought of “go find a teacher/lover/guru/mystic/artist/god/goddess if this is what you need, because you won’t find it in tea.” But reality is not so simple, people are not so simple, and all the awareness and education in the world won’t touch people on the level of wish fulfillment. This is everything behind the reasons for living and, if we believe the religious people, not even death touches the yearning for the sublime. Embracing or rejecting the truth of human desire won’t change any of it, won’t change the customer or the vendor, and neither shall medications, nor the guru, the woman and alas, not even the leaf. This is the “pearl of great price, beyond all worth.” We humans will seek it until we can’t.
Lucky then are the friends of ours sitting contemplating their cups, their leaf and their tea soup in this very moment. I wave to those of you who feel blessedly free of any wish or desire beyond what you are drinking, those who are not conflicted, at this particular second in time, when you happen to be approaching your tea. You too are not exempt, but you are taking the moment while you can. We can join you as long as we leave the rest at the door, perhaps, or remain silent in a moment of mutual companionship over the drink, a break from everything else called reality to which we must return very shortly. Most of us believe in a dao of nothingness, a freedom from desire, a finish line to the very long haul of the self, but aside from hormonal diminishment or a good whack on the head, freedom from all thought is a moment to moment existence in which I personally prefer to drink tea while I can.
Then we have the leaf. Everyone wants to believe that the tea we are buying is the best tea for the money, ancient tea, and perfect for aging or drinking now, clean and free of pubic hairs. We all have ideas about the tea leaf that may or may not be augmented by any other desires or emotions beyond the “basics” of a good tea cake. We say “just tell me where the leaf is from, be honest about it, charge a reasonable price, tell me exactly what to expect,” things buyers consider “basics.” Yet these “basics” are complicated by language, the business practices in China and elsewhere, market issues, nothing but pure lies on every side. Even the experienced vendor navigates a complicated path littered with years of their own empty whiskey bottles and tummy tablets. You can do everything right and then leave your tea at the factory for pressing and find a bait and switch later. Experience helps, but every year is a do-over, and then on top of all that the weather is a force no one can control. And the truth is nobody wants to hear that their tea is crap, whether they bought it or sold it.
In a world of desire like this, I think anyone who gets into the puerh hobby needs to have money and tolerance for ambiguity and error. The error may be that of the vendor, or it may be our own bad purchase. Ambiguity lies in storage and aging. We need to also tolerate changing tastes, the tea which is a great idea now may be a bad idea a few years from now. We need to develop flexibility and allow for error in our choices. We can discover what we are looking for and yet I also believe that nobody should dwell overlong on our errors. Rather, we need to expect them. Because if you can’t tolerate any of this, you can always buy 100% oxidized tea or some other tea that is consistent. In fact, you should buy other tea so you have options on any given day. The vendor with terrible puerh may have a brilliant red tea after all, why miss out?
This sort of discussion never ends. And I’m glad of it, because I have a hobby that quite frankly is superior to other people’s hobbies. At the end of the year, I’m going to raise my cup of choice and thank the good gods I don’t have to collect wobblies or widgets and drink horrible coffee. At the end of the day, I won’t wake up with a hangover tomorrow or worry about the IRS and the cops and next world war. In fact, my house can burn down with my tea cakes in it, and I can rest assured I will buy more. I’ve been broke and unemployed and unfulfilled and yet none of this has stopped me from acquiring even more puerh tea. I’ve survived incredible odds with bad health and yet I live to drink another day. I don’t know with any certainty if I will see the face of the Divine, but if I ever do, I will simply change my shipping address to iCloud Mountain.
Requiescat in Pace