Incense and tea

Some people like burning incense while drinking tea.  I must say I’m not a fan, although aesthetically it can be a nice thing to see/have.  Some would argue that incense makes the room more pleasant and calming, and that a certain amount of nice, understated aroma is great for dispelling any kind of stress that one may have from the vagaries of modern life.  The picture above is a line of just-finished agarwood.  It was, certainly, very nice to have a little aroma in the room, but at the same time, it means that it interfered with the proceedings of drinking and tasting tea.  Moreover, in a case where the incense is so prominently displayed, it actually got in the way of the tea preparation.  Our host was more concerned with not breaking the incense than in pouring a good cup.  The tea suffered.

This brings me to a larger point, which is that oftentimes we put the emphasis on the wrong things when making tea.  Teaware, preparation procedures, setting, temperature….. all these things can get in the way of making tea.  I believe human attention is finite, and what is spent on one thing must be taken away from something else.  Someone who is spending a lot of time watching the clock to make sure the infusion is exactly 20 seconds is inevitably taking something away from some other part of the tea preparation process.  Someone who is too preoccupied with the beautification of the pot with a brush is probably not paying enough attention to the tea inside the pot.

Practice will alleviate a lot of these problems, but I think more important is an acceptance that no cup is “perfect”.  There’s always a better cup somehow, somewhere.  Focusing too much on form and the peripheral things will only detract appreciation of what’s really important.


Comments

Incense and tea — 7 Comments

  1. Hm … makes a lot of sense to me, that we have only so much attentive capacity. Interesting also that someone who I would think has LOTS of practice still sees that as a point, that one cannot do everything perfect. So there’s still the need to prioritize where to focus attention. But what woud be really the right and wrong things to focus on, I wonder? Given that gong fu cha is very much a learning process: There may be times when it’s necessary e.g. to put a lot of attention on steeping time, to find out, for instance, whether a few seconds will make a difference or not.
    On the other hand, if one would like to get some peace and enjoyment from the process, obsessing to be perfect will certainly be counterproductive. Maybe that’s a point – beeing curious and learning, but not obsesed to “get it right”.

  2. @TMartin – 

    Well, for everyone, I think the “what’s really important” is different. Our idea of “right” changes over time. What I thought was right five years ago are no longer quite right. In fact, I’m no longer sure what “right” is at all.

    You’re right that there’s a certain amount of learning that goes on, especially in the early phases of drinking tea. Then again, nowadays I’m drinking tea with far, far less care than I used to. It’s just an evolution, I think.

  3. This just reminds me that Chinese ancient literati listed “drinking tea in front of blooming flowers” as one of the six sins that “kill the scene”. When I first read about it, I puzzled for a long time what was wrong with that. Then I thought probably it does make some sense.

  4. This is one of the most important teablog in the western world. Reading it I had many times doubts, if it is a professional site or a “publicity site” to attract readers, or a collection of impressions shared by an educated person or by an enthusiast. In any culture of the world burning incense is not a question of “liking”, or external sign of a rite, but it is a deliberated intention to draw attention, concentration and meditation. In a moment you are ready to prepare and share a cup of tea, your mind is clear and concentrated.
    To be more clear: why this incense holder has this shape?

  5. Certainly I wouldn’t like to be considered offensive with my excessive criticism, or maybe I didn’t understand well the matter of this post. The way of incense is a serious deep practice as much as the tea. Preparing the utensils, the tea, the decoration, the incense are parts of the same stage.
    Maybe your guest was not enough attentive handling too much time the incense. He/she can be considered as your missing part (of incense, of practice, of…)
    I wish you great moments and teas and thank you for having discuss with me.

  6. Certainly I wouldn’t like to be considered offensive with my excessive criticism, or maybe I didn’t understand well the matter of this post. The way of incense is a serious deep practice as much as the tea. Preparing the utensils, the tea, the decoration, the incense are parts of the same stage.
    Maybe your guest was not enough attentive handling too much time the incense. He/she can be considered as your missing part (of incense, of practice, of…)
    I wish you great moments and teas and thank you for having discuss this matter with me.

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