Matcha, Zen, and Beginner’s Mind

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I’ve talked about the origins of matcha and its deep connections with zen buddhism on this site before, but I thought I might share a personal story.

 

When I was 19 years old I stumbled, quite literally, into the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, a working zen monastery in the San Gabriel mountains, east of Los Angeles. I was hiking around Mt. Baldy and spotted some sparse-looking small buildings, and decided to go check them out. Inside were a bunch of bald people in black robes cooking. They were incredibly nice to me, and invited me to lunch. It was a simple lunch of brown rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables, none of which I’d ever had before (I grew up in rural northeaster PA, and no one ever served brown rice, miso, or pickled vegetables). It was an extraordinary day on many levels, and it’s fair to say that it led to a life-long involvement and fascination with Japan, the Japanese language, Japanese food, and zen buddhism, including a 16-year stay in Japan.

 

I was deeply interested in the lives of the monks; why did they elect to sit there for a few hours a day in zazen (sitting meditation), shave their heads, wear black robes, and cook the way they cooked? What led them there? (A dozen years later, Leonard Cohen began practicing zen there, which really put Mt. Baldy on the map.)

 

One of the monks, an exceedingly kind New Zealander named John, would patiently put up with my incessant questioning over a bowl of very strange tea, a viscous and VERY bitter brew he whipped with a weird-looking bamboo whisk. He called it “matcha.” He was in retrospect using very inexpensive, very bitter matcha, but I couldn’t know that at the time, and it couldn’t have mattered less; what mattered was sitting with him in a tiny room and absorbing his remarkable energy and knowledge about zen.

 

Monks in 12th-century (and onward) Japan did something very similar. They prepared bowls of matcha, as both metaphors for mindfulness in preparation and body movements and to simply enjoy one another’s company over tea in the simplest environment imaginable: a tiny, unadorned hut made just for enjoying the simplicity of a cup of well-made tea.

 

Matcha was also used by monks as a meditation aid: it was much easier to stay awake during meditation after a bowl of matcha.

 

The simplicity of monks preparing tea for one another caught the attention of Japan’s aristocracy, many of whom took their social cues from Buddhists (zen monks had a great deal of cachet at the time). The upper classes rapidly took to the art of preparing a beautiful bowl of matcha, but the movements in making the tea gradually became more stylized and ornate, which served to distinguish them as cultured, sophisticated —  in stark contrast to the people of the lower strata of the caste system, who, presumably, slurped down their tea in far less-polished ways. The tea ceremony was born from this distinction.

 

There is a lovely phrase in Japanese called shoshin: “beginner’s mind.” It refers to the zen practice of letting the mind rediscover a child’s sense of wonder about how the world works. It’s an open mind that includes both doubt and possibility, to consciously choose to see both everyday and uncommon things and thoughts as new and fresh. It is to be cultivated in all aspects of life, from routine tasks like making breakfast or putting gas in your car to more complex activities like raising a child or nurturing a business. Beginner’s mind is the essence of what John and most zen monks throughout history were trying to cultivate.

 

I try to practice beginner’s mind with every bowl of matcha. There’s always something new to notice. Sips of matcha can trigger all kinds of strange and long-forgotten memories and experiences, all of which float by like a fragmented movie playing in the background. But the joy and simplicity of just noticing its color, texture, taste, and very long finish is such a pleasure, such a welcome and delicious pause from the demands of contemporary life here at the end of 2014.

 

Shuryu Suzuki wrote beautifully on this subject in his classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970). HIghly recommended reading for anyone even remotely interested.

 

(The monk in the photo above is the great teacher, painter, chef, and all-around amazing human being Ninsho Kakinuma. I took the photo on a walk with him several years ago at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center)

 

The Breakaway Matcha Ceremony

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The Japanese tea ceremony is a thing of unquestionable intrigue, beauty, and sheer historical awesomeness. It is triply so when performed and enjoyed within the context in which it arose: in some lovely wabisabi spot in Japan, ideally at a zen temple, which is where the whole thing really started.

It was an extremely simple affair in the beginning:  a homely little hut, built expressly for making and enjoying tea. Nothing fancy, no excess anything, just four and a half tatami mats, a small charcoal brazier to boil water, a kettle, some matcha, a few basic tools. That’s it. You drank the tea and it was all about being in the moment, that moment, and noticing things. Noticing the surroundings, noticing your breath and palate, noticing the beauty and simplicity of the matcha and whatever else was in view, including the good fortune of being alive at that moment.

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From Red Rose to Rarefied Matcha

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I grew up with Red Rose tea bags, a blend of black and orange pekoe teas  My mother liked to make a cup in the evenings, after dinner, and I felt sophisticated whenever I joined her for a cup. She bought the 100-bag box at our local grocery store, and couldn’t have (wouldn’t have) paid more than five dollars for it (and this was 1970s dollars). Pennies per bag was my frame.

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“Going Quiet” with Matcha

There are lots of metaphors about the incessant chatter going on in most our heads, that datastream of conversations, impressions, admonitions, and other mental events that seem to occupy most of our waking moments, but I like one best. The most awake zen guy I’ve ever met, the great zen teacher and artist Kakinuma Ninsho

calls it “the movie”: it’s one big chaotic cinematic stream that basically doesn’t shut off; the best we can do, says Ninsho, is just to note what’s playing, without identifying with or liking/disliking the characters and scenes. Once you know it’s a movie, he says, it’s a lot easier to hit the power button. The movie will likely go blank for a few seconds, and then simply restart. What then? “Just watch for a while, and shut it off again whenever you feel like it.”

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Adapting Matcha to Local Conditions

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The Japanese tea ceremony as it is practiced in Japan can be a thing of beauty. The tradition is roughly 830 years old. Like so many other traditional Japanese arts, the formal study of tea can take decades to “master” and get right, and must be done according to the many and varied rules of the particular school of tea one practices. . Practitioners are expected to learn elaborate choreographies of movement and timing, all done with as much grace as one can muster. Full-on tea sessions, all extensively choreographed, can unfold over two and three hours. One can take the practice very seriously and deeply, and benefit from participating in this ancient and rarefied art/craft form.

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Matcha and Gratitude: Homage to an 830-Year-Old Tradition

Plenty of people consider matcha to be a new trend. In reality it’s been a trend in Japan for roughly 830 years, started by those  crazy trend-setting zen buddhist priests. But in a sense, “plenty of people” are right: It is matcha’s introduction into the American and European palate that constitutes the current trend.

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Matcha and Cooking at Tassajara

We’re doing it again: another workshop at one of my favorite places on earth, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the Ventana Wilderness, southeast of Carmel, taught by myself and the delightful Ikushin Dana Velden. It’s from May 31 to June 3, and will be all about cooking with tea. Or at least morning and afternoon sessions will be all about tea, but there will be plenty of time to explore Tassajara, to sit in the zendo with the monks, to get personalized meditation instructions if you’d like them, to take long soaks in some of the finest baths in the country, to take walks, read, and relax. The vegetarian cuisine is legendary. How could it not be when you’ve got a kitchenful of monks mindfully preparing each dish?

We have just two spots left (we like to keep it small). We  tend to have pretty magical experiences there — do join us if you can! Email me if you have any questions about it.

You can reserve a spot online here,  and the  official description is this:

Discover and explore an entirely different culinary universe through the lens of fine teas.

Enjoy the taste, health benefits, and ritual of tea by learning to cook with it! We’ll explore all kinds of unusual uses of favorite teas, including matcha, rooibos, genmaicha, oolong, jasmine, hojicha, and lapsong souchong. We’ll learn how to make flavored tea salts and sugars, tea sparkling waters, tea crusts for proteins, tea infusions in soups, and much more. We’ll also introduce the notion of mindfulness while cooking and preparing tea, and discover the focused, yet relaxed, energy brought on by good tea.