The nightly Olympic television broadcasts are awash in reports of the death-defying (and sometimes deadly) speed of extreme winter sports, making this the perfect time to read a book detailing the joys of the slow, contemplative life. Such a volume is Solala Towler's Cha Dao (London, 2010), a new Singing Dragon subtitled about "The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life."
As the title suggests, the book approaches the heavenly drink not from the point of view of a nutritionist, purveyor or aficionado, but from a cultural and philosophical perspective. Towler is an instructor of Daoist meditation and qigong living in Eugene, Oregon, and has for many years been the editor of the Daoist journal The Empty Vessel. As a consequence of the author's particular interests, this book is about "the art and practice of drinking tea." In short, it has as much to do with the tea drinker as it does with the tea.
Towler devotes a chapter to introducing us to Lu Yu, a Tang dynasty tea master and the author of a famous early Chinese tea classic. Even the idea of a tea master requires some consideration, especially by those readers who consider tea mastery to be dropping a teabag into a cup of boiling water, waiting five minutes, and then pulling it out, being careful not to drip. Bad tea, too hot and too long, as it turns out, but that's only the beginning. Following Lu Yu's adventures, we learn that it's the savoring of the tea, and what it says to us about slowing down and living each moment with full attention, that makes Towler's message most compelling.
The book also tells the tale of Rikkyu, a famous tea master who grew so big in his britches as a connoisseur of drink and an advisor to the rich and famous that the supreme ruler of Japan eventually compelled him to take his own life. The dance of these two, shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his tea master, gives the author a biographical and historical angle to explore the role of tea in the development and refinement of Zen philosophy.
Cha Dao does finish with a chapter on sources for tea, another about the different types of tea, and even one dedicated to the physical benefits of the drink, but what the author has really done is to offer the reader, in a breezy and enjoyable way, a lick at the salty stone of that most marvelous of all Asian philosophies, Taoism, (and its Japanese derivative, Zen). While the chapter titles promise a brief history of tea in China and stories of tea masters too, to see this as primarily a book about tea is rather to miss the point; it's a book about the Tao first, and tea second.
One does get the feeling that the author is using this book to dance a dance of his own, one that involves his favorite characters and stories in the Taoist/Zen canon and uses tea as the cohering melody. That's not a bad thing, as he manages to sew together many famous and interesting philosophical concepts, including wabi sabi, a Japanese concept of perfect natural balance, and wu wei, the art of doing nothing. Quoting Lu Yu, the greatest Taoist sage, Lao Tzu, and even one of his own Taoist masters, Hua-Ching Ni, Solala Towler discourses on Taoism and Zen, while still managing to teach us a bit about the tree we call Camellia sinensis, or the drink, made from its leaves, we call tea.
Is Cha Dao a bit of a hodgepodge? Yes it is. Does it lack a logical progression from chapter to chapter? It does. Then again, in the Taoist view, life itself is a hodgepodge, including, as it does, "the 10,000 things", and the only cohering idea is the Tao, or the Way. Solala Towler has given us 169 pages of ruminations, citations, exotic stories, and thought-provoking references. If high-speed downhill shenanigans are not your thing, turn off the TV and curl up with this friendly book, and a cup of high-quality tea.