Sunday, February 28, 2010
Solala Towler's "Cha Dao: The Way of Tea": Book Review
Slow down, avoid clutter, take time. Simple Daoist precepts as embodied in a cup of tea and twenty minutes to make and appreciate its ritual savor. This sums up this short primer subtitled "The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life." It introduces you to Daoism and Cha Dao, the way of tea, and looks at Zen and "wu wei" or non-striving as represented by tea. The connection may be new to you, but Towler shows it's a venerable association from ancient times.
He intersperses inspirational tales from Daoist (Taoist) masters, Zen practitioners, and Japanese and Chinese lore. His own visits and anecdotes explore the philosophical connections with tea and a more balanced harmony with nature and our own attitudes. Those familiar with "zazen" or "just sitting" may find a kindred set of spirits within these simply told pages.
Towler writes these, in fact, rather sparingly. It's as if they sound translated from another language. Many are, of course, but a slight remove from idiomatic English permeates this little guide. His two decades of study and practice may be credited, perhaps, for this pared down prose style, but I found it rather surprising. It may testify to his devotion to a stripped-down, more minimal outlook, but the book does appear on the short side without a lot of information as opposed to inspiration if you wish to learn about tea. The details about types of tea or how to make a cup are minimal, chapters are often brief, and the emphasis is more on the outlook of those who use tea more ritualistically or symbolically than on practical methods or culinary details about tea itself.
I review this in tandem with Sarah Rose's "For All the Tea in China" about the botanical espionage engaged in by the East India Company to smuggle out Chinese "bohea" black tea seeds to grow in India, so this type of larger cultural context and historical impact may be found there, for example. For Cha Dao, the stress is on no stress, the tea mind taking over and the reason for tea being not a substitute for coffee's jolts in our overstimulated world, but for a return to a dignified, less jittery way of relating ourselves to an essence of leaves and water, heat and coolness. Towler's rather timeless collection may not satisfy the hungry customer demanding instant knowledge, but it may soothe the tired wanderer seeking a longer-lasting, more restorative path to domestic wisdom. As Laozi asks: "Who can be still while the muddy water settles?" (Posted to Amazon US 2-24-10)