Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tea, Spirituality, Language, and Culture

Adam Yusko recently raised some fascinating questions in his blog post titled two tea perspectives. In this post, he discusses a distinction between two ways of looking at tea. One perspective views tea primarily as a caffeinated beverage, and sometimes focuses on the "health benefits" of tea as well. The second view looks at tea more for the experience, and has a more spiritual experience of it. He then suggests that this reflects some sort of divide between western (British) and eastern tea cultures.

While I think there is a considerable amount of truth in Adam's analysis and interpretations, I want to present a subtly different perspective.

How important is the language that we use?

I'm cautious about concluding that people in a culture do not think about a certain concept (like "qi" or "energy") just because they do not refer to it using the same language.

A long time ago I wrote a piece called language in religion in which I argued that when it comes to religion and spiritual matters, people often use different language to refer to the same concepts, but at other times, they use similar language to refer to vastly different truths. I came to these realizations after spending time talking to Christians from many different denominations and traditions, and comparing the language and ideas people in these communities talked and thought about with the perspectives of others who identify as irreligious, agnostic, or members of other (non-Christian) religions. But I think this same phenomenon also occurs more universally, in topics of a more spiritual nature (which I think many people would say includes the notion of "qi"), because they are intangible and rather subtle.

As an example from my personal experience, I remember thinking about foods in some sort of "warming/cooling" properties of foods, a lot like the "yang/yin" dichotomy, long before I heard of those concepts. I often would feel a craving for certain types of foods, and seek them out because I felt my body needed them to bring myself back in balance. For example, if I had been eating lots of starchy, meaty, and heavily cooked foods ("warming" foods) I would experience a craving for fresh, raw, "cooling" foods, like fruit, or fresh mint from the garden. It was only years later that I learned that in Chinese traditional medicine, there was a whole theoretical framework that gave names to these things.

British tea culture...spiritual perhaps?

Given how important tea is to the British, I would say I am virtually certain that at least some people from this culture experience it in a more spiritual manner. It is not just about the caffeine, but also about the community, and the experience and ritual of drinking the tea. The ritual is very different from, say, the Japanese tea ceremony, or Gongfu Cha, and in many cases (but not all) focuses on people and family, and provides a time period for rest and reflection, just like the tea traditions in many eastern cultures.

Also, given that most of western Europe comes from an area where the major religious dichotomy is Christian vs. secular, and that tea does not figure prominently in Christian traditions, it would make sense that people would use mostly secular language to talk about tea. But this may just be an artifact of language; it does not necessarily mean that people do not experience tea, or the ritual of drinking it, in spiritual ways. Furthermore, even within Christian tradition, there are some grounds to suggest that some people would actually experience tea in spiritual terms, especially considering the concept of God being present in all things.

Consumerism vs. Spirituality:

From my perspective, regardless of the culture, religious tradition, or lack thereof, that a person comes from, it is possible to experience tea (like any kind of food or drink) both in a more reflective, aware, connected (and I would say spiritual) way, as well as to experience it in a more mechanical "chug-it-and-go" consumerist way.

This is not about an east-west divide. To use a glaring counterexample, Japanese culture can be just as fast-paced and consumerist as American culture, and China has also taken some unfortunate consumerist turns recently, due to globalization. Southeast Asia is by no means a universal preservation ground for traditional culture; as an example from tea, I actually recently reviewed a bottled Japanese tea, produced in Singapore. Yet the countries in this region also have rich traditions which focus on taste, meditation, and a spiritual view of food and drink, including tea. I think it is not really possible to generalize about whole cultures.

Personally, I do see the dichotomy between tea as a consumer product, and tea as a whole experience. I think this distinction exists in virtually all aspects of life in which there is some sort of product for sale. And...personally, I think the more spiritual view has a number of benefits, and I think the consumerist view is problematic in a lot of ways (not the least of which being sustainability). But I think it also does not matter as much what you call it, or what culture you are coming from. What matters is that you pay attention to your food and drink, think about it, where it comes from, how it makes you feel. And I think in that point I am 100% with Adam in his original post. I'm definitely someone who experiences tea, and indeed, all food and drink, in this way.


  1. Yes, it is most certainly not an East-West divide, especially now that the world is "flat" with such interchange between cultures in many countries. In terms of language, while I certainly agree, I can not think of any English word that would be as encompassing as the idea of Qi. By that I mean if we use a word related to energy, we view that as a caffeinated, or wide awake sensation. Each additional symptom would almost need to be expressed piecemeal. Not to mention that with just a single modifier such as "calming, energizing, cooling, or warming" in front of the word Qi, you can instantly paint a picture that can be more widely agreed upon by people that are used to the vocabulary.

  2. Yes! That is definitely true that, in the mainstream, the word energy has a "high energy" connotation in English. You can certainly say "calming energy" or "cooling energy" in English, but people are more likely to give you strange looks. Unless, perhaps, you are in California. =)

    I actually remember having similar thoughts about qi when I was studying Tai Chi, and then later riding a crowded bus where I had to stand...I was thinking about the momentum and movements of the bus relative to my body, and I found that thinking about Qi was useful for keeping stable, and that there wasn't a straightforward way to describe in English what I was experiencing.

  3. Thanks, Alex, for your links about caffeine!

  4. What a wonderful article! While I am definitely a western tea drinker and I do drink it for the caffeine, at the same time I am experiencing the warmth of the cup, the aroma of the tea and the calmness that it brings. It is my time to center myself within the world.