I am real, and the tea is real. I am in the present. I don’t think of the past. I don’t think of the future. There is a real encounter between me and the tea, and peace, happiness, and joy are possible during the time I drink.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
It could be a poem or a novel or lyrics to a blues ballad, I’m not sure, but I’ve been keeping a list of all the terrible, no good, very bad cups of tea I make. There are just so many ways it can go wrong.
Like the time I was trying to be considerate by preheating a special guest’s tea cup with hot water and then forgot and poured the tea into the full cup (the light was dim). Like all the times I’ve tried to be thrifty and reuse old leaves or old bags well past their point of releasing any worthy flavor.
Then there was the time the lama casually mentioned that when he was growing up in Sikkim they used to toast the Darjeeling tea leaves before brewing. How many times I burned the leaves that summer. Such bitter cups I served, with shaking hands and rattling spoons.
And the oolong, oh, the oolong with its testy time limits and tiny cups. The bitter chai with ginger stewed too long or overly biting cloves. The tasteless maté in that complicated calabash gourd with the metal straw. Lady Grey served in a chipped cup. Curdled black currant, coffee poured in tea, tea poured in coffee. Tea made in anger, tea made in haste, tea made with tears. Tea on the counter. Tea on the floor. Tea on my knees. Tea on the doorstep as I try to turn the knob while holding a carafe in one hand and the saucer set in the other.
Burning the milk is one of the gravest tea misdeeds in the eyes of some Tibetans. But it’s so hard to keep an eye on hot milk. So innocent as it trembles in the saucepan, but blink and it’s racing to the lip of the pot. The foam mushrooms out and over the edge onto the stovetop, where it blackens the burner. Once, after I produced such a mess in the presence of a lama, the monks were quickly summoned to do protector pujas. It turns out there are a few female deities who are offended by the smell of burned milk, and they are not to be messed with.
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