Tag Archives: Teahouse

EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II

Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

A little over a month ago I led the tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”. As part of an ongoing series of tea talks I’ve been leading for over a decade, and a sequel to a talk I gave several years ago, this time I dove even deeper into tea’s history to investigate tea and tea culture during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Now, as many of us find ourselves sequestered in our homes, under self-quarantine against COVID-19, I want to offer up the video from this tea talk, filmed live at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Only two hours long, consider this video a crash course in ancient tea history as we discuss how tea developed from ancient medicine to lofty beverage, enjoyed by scholars, monks and emperors alike. Using ancient Sòng, as well as antique and contemporary reproductions of Sòng teawares, we’ll go into great detail of how tea during the Song period was prepared.

All 抹茶 mǒchá, unless stated otherwise, was hand-produced and hand-ground in the manner detailed in Sòng period texts, to approximate as closely the look, feel and flavor from this time. For reference, I have provided a list of what we tasted.

• First Tea: Hand-ground semi-wild 白茶 báichá from Fuding, Fujian, China.

• Second “Tea”: Powdered mugwort leaves grown and produced in South Korea.

• Third Tea: Hand-ground 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn grown in the Dongting mountains near Lake Tai, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

• Fourth Tea: Whole leaf 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn (brewed for comparative purposes).

• Fifth Tea: Fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha from Uji, Kyōto prefecture, Japan.

For additional insights on this topic, I have linked previous blog posts that discuss tea during the Sòng period:

“Everything for the First Time”

“A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk”

“Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style”

“EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”


To view “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II”, follow the link above.

For the first talk I delivered on tea in the Song period, please follow this link provided below:

If you are interested in attending or scheduling this tea talk or tea talks like this, please email me at scottttea888@gmail.com.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Tea, Tea Tasting

In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Along the Path

July has come and so too has the scorching heat of the day. The Sun’s rays are blinding. The humidity can easily sap one’s strength. The air is heavy and fragrant with grass.

For the tea practitioner, Summer presents a myriad of challenges. Overcoming the pervasive heat and inducing a sense of lightness and coolness is paramount. During this time, holding tea gatherings shifts to early morning, right as dawn’s light begins to push through the trees.

In a tea garden, one which culminates with the stone and mossy path of the 露地 roji (lit. “dewy ground”) that leads to the 茶室 chashitsu (tea room), the mere act of walking along the path during the first light of day is enough to cool the mind and ready the spirit to share in a bowl of tea.

Waiting in the 待合 machai of the outer garden, one contemplates the space between the stepping stones. Some stones are jagged and worn, others cut and chiseled by hand.

Looking out upon the garden, the mind is led to wander.

Up a hill or through a vignette framed by an open window.

In the morning, empty 灯籠 tōrō (stone lanterns) guide the way. One set into gnarled roots.

Another set beside the calm water of a shimmering pond.

Light becomes diffuse as it pushes through the leaves of a twisted maple tree. Bright pinks and blues collide with emerald greens and the muted greys and earthen tones of wood and stone.

Trees frame a view to another path in the distance. A lonely wooden bridge. Towering cedars. The sound of a waterfall.

A slight breeze sets leaves to dance atop their canopies. The smell of wet stone. An old well turned into a 蹲踞 tsukubai (a basin to purify oneself before entering a tea room).

Pebbles and old roof tiles pressed into the soft earth. Hand-hewn rocks next to timeworn stone.

A woven gate to an inner garden. A pause before one waits for tea.

****

Images featured come from the Portland Japanese Garden, taken during a recent trip to Portland, Oregon.

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Remembering the Blossoms of Spring

Time has a funny way of playing tricks on you. A year can come and go in a blink of an eye. A lifetime can pass and yet we are reminded constantly of our youthful days. And even when you have taken years to master a craft, in an instant you can be brought back to the mind of a novice.

Tea can be this way too. Constantly changing, all the while one’s expectations somehow remaining fixed. As the great equalizer, tea and time has the ability to humble even the most rigorous of practitioner. This is a recollection of such a moment I recently had.

Last month I met with respected Taiwan-based tea blogger and practitioner of gong fu cha, Stéphane Erler. Having begun his blog “Tea Masters” in the early 2000s, his writing and practice has always been inspiring to me. Finally having the opportunity to meet with him, I was excited to sit and learn directly from him.

Meeting at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we decided to sit beside the window and enjoy several pots of tea. Upon sitting down, Stéphane produced a collection of porcelain cups and a gold-plated silver teapot. Stéphane then unrolled a handmade 茶布 chábù (tea cloth) and began to arrange his equipage atop it. He explained that the cloth and selection of tea and teapots was part of a philosophical approach to brewing tea harmoniously.

Where 功夫茶 gōng fū chá may be primarily utilitarian in its approach, 茶席 cháxí (roughly translates as “tea performance”) suffuses this functional approach with an overall attention to harmony. The result is practice that is both elegant and melodic, with tea and teaware fitting into an overall cadence and rhythm attune to season, breath, and the emotional interplay of host and guest.

Opting to first brew one of Floating Mountain’s teas, we selected a 2018 信陽毛尖 Xìnyáng Máojiān (Xinyang “hairy tip”). Produced in late Spring in China’s colder Henan province, the tea leaves are thin, dark and wiry, having the appearance of pine needles. Set against the bright green and pink field of Stéphane’s chábù, tea and teaware were already bringing to life the harmony Stéphane was hoping to achieve.

Additionally, Stéphane began to further adapt his presentation to the location, employing one of Floating Mountain’s signature stone slab 茶盤 chápán (“tea tray”) into his setup.

For a brief moment we sat and enjoyed the silence before tea.

Once the water came to a boil, Stéphane began the process of warming teapot and cups.

Mindfully, he transferred the hot water from the silver teapot to the porcelain teacups.

Next, using the boiling water, Stéphane began to brew the Máojiān. Initially surprised by his choice, I was delighted to learn that both Stéphane and I shared this approach, utilizing high heat to unlock flavors of even the most delicate of teas, modulating only tea amount and brew time.

In the span of only a few breaths, the tea was steeped and decanted, producing a bright golden hue.

Set atop the wide field of pink and embroidered flowers, the feeling was fresh and serene. The result of this dramatic approach was a sweet, clean flavor that awoke a tea now a year old.

As the first of many teas we had this day, we enjoyed this opening overture together, recalling our first introduction to tea and how we have practiced this art over the decades. For this moment I felt humbled. A new friend. A new approach. Years peeling off of me as my mind returned to those early days of reading Stéphane’s blog, reminded of my “beginner’s mind”.

The tea, too, now a year old, seemed like part of a memory. A year gone by and flavor remaining despite the time that had passed. And now, reflecting on this moment almost a month since it had occurred, how the memory sweetens, softens at its edges, until it, too, will fade. A flavor wafting from a cup. An impression on the mind. A field of flowers remembered in a woven fabric.

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Spontaneous, Like Water Returning to the Mountain in Spring

As Spring arrives and the gentle warming of the season comes, even the mountains can not resist the change. Heavy snow from a wet Winter has left the mountain tops coated in a thick blanket of snow, yet on the slopes and in the forests that surround, water has returned, filling river beds and running through winding streams. The forests awakens to this, if almost suddenly, and the wildlife within become gregarious, filling the wooded environment with their motion and audible calls. What once felt like the depths of Winter has, as if spontaneously, transformed into Spring.

The abruptness of a season’s change can catch one off guard. Sometimes this is met with a sense of sadness, of having lost a time that was dear to oneself. The closeness of Winter has vanished, replaced by the expansiveness of a bright Spring day and the energy and speed it can bring to life.

Sudden shifts like this, however, can and do often occur in life. Relationships can come and go. A job we love may one day end. A person we cared deeply for may leave or die. We often ascribe moments that arrive to us quickly with a sense of unease or perhaps undesirable. But why? What is this that we push up against? Is it the feeling that comes? Is it fear of change? Is it a reckoning that something we had come to expect has forever been altered? Is it that we cannot face this change in our environment, or in ourself?

Spontaneous changes, however, are constantly happening around us. In the city of New York, this is unavoidable. One day there is a worksite, the next day there is a skyscraper. One year there is a neighborhood that is defined by a certain ethos and character. The next year it may completely change.

Tea can be this way too. When I first began to practice tea, every moment was new, every tea I made was eye-opening. Every action, whether picking up a teapot or bring water to a boil, seemed like it was for the first time. It was exciting and, at the time, it felt like every action carried the gravitas of a solemn ceremony.

Nowadays, however, I make tea everyday. I still select a tea, and I still decide which teapot to use. I boil water and I brew the tea. What one might now call a deep-seated ritual that I conduct daily, I consider incredibly ordinary. I simply “make tea”.

This morning, as I gathered to lead yet another Sunday morning tea meditation, I did so as I always had. I laid-out the tea setting, people came, tea was made, we meditated. Nothing special.

Yet to say that it is “nothing special” is not entirely true. The moment was not entirely the same. The people were different. The tea, an excellent 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan, was particularly memorable. And even the light of the early morning in Spring seemed unlike that I had seen all year.

A thought arose between teacups, and, all of a sudden, something that seemed quite routine became something entirely new and ponderous. Within the relative repetition of practicing tea and meditation, when a thought arrives it can come like a crash.

But if one is well-practiced, this sudden moment is met with equanimity. Realizations, whether pleasant or unwanted, are met on the same terms. Each are bowed to. Each are offered a cup of tea. Just like Winter abruptly changing to Spring, we will sit with that which is new. This is quite ordinary and quite special.

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A Tea Culture Grows in New York City

I am not a New Yorker. I’m a transplant. A Northern Californian relocated from his foggy climes to the urban jungle of New York City. I ride the subway. I see the rats (all of whom I rather enjoy the company of). Amidst the daily clamor, the concrete jumble, the yelling, the kicking, the screaming, I find peace. Eked-out by my motto of “take time to make time”, I have found my solace.

For those who know me, this takes many forms: cooking, exploring, music, meditation, tea. First and foremost, tea. Tea has saved me somehow. From the madness of a PhD candidacy to a vow of poverty, up through to my current life in New York City’s regular and daily “churn”, to simply sit with tea is “just enough”.

But to say I’ve done it alone is to ignore the countless people, places, and spaces that have supported my (and many other’s) cultivation. I’m taking about tea houses and their owners. The people who make it happen.

From the mercantile to the monkish, the tea merchant crisscrosses a vast expanse of ideological and psychological forms, creating along the way spaces dedicated to “their version” of “the Way”. No one is incorrect in their iteration, but each produces something purely their own.

Love them or leave them, what they do is (and will always be) difficult. Turning a tiny leaf into a mighty buck. Boiled water. Ceramic. Bamboo. Paper. Glass. Iron. Caffeine. The list goes on. Yet, I, too have been in their shoes, though only for a while.

To their tough travails I offer up this article, published today on Sprudge (itself, a coffee-centric publication). Even in this realm, tea (the second most consumed beverage worldwide) is a side note (though a noteworthy one).

My little guide to New York City’s tea houses is by no means complete. By no means extensive. Just a breath on the wind. But I hope it causes conversation. I hope it sparks pondering. This city is always evolving, and, currently, it holds some of the nation’s (dare I say the world’s) most interesting tea houses.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Hongcha, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Oolong, Pu-erh, Sencha, Tea, Travel, White Tea, Yellow Tea

Blue Sky Meditation

I once had a teacher instruct me, “When mediating, think of a big blue sky. Imagine this. A deep, clear, spotless blue sky. Soften your focus and widen your gaze so as to be expansive in all directions. In this sky, clouds may come and clouds may pass in front of you. Observe them without focusing on them. Let them drift naturally.”

Today, when I lead guided meditations, I often call upon this teaching. Paired with tea, I find this helps to settle the restless mind and inspire a mind of wonder. Set against an azure-colored 茶布 chá bù (tea cloth), the assembled tea and teaware for this morning’s meditation become the drifting clouds.

While making tea, we may need to momentarily put these items into use, it’s important not to focus on them.

The Yixing teapot, which has over the years been dedicated to brewing countless steepings of 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá (oolong tea) may feature in the process of brewing tea, but it, itself, is merely a vessel. Empty until filled with tea (and intention).

The other wares, too, have their role, but are not the primary purpose of tea nor a meditation with tea.

A teascoop is whatever you may find that conveys tea leaves into a teapot. Your hands will do just fine.

The wooden coasters upon which one places a teacup can be anything, from a leaf to a rock to nothing at all.

The cups, too, are not necessary. Even I have been known to drink directly from my teapot.

And the tea, yes, even the tea, is just that, perhaps nothing more. Don’t invest too much value into this lest it becomes yet another distraction.

All that is left, really, is nothing. No tea. No buddha. Just the blue sky. Expansive in all directions.

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All Labor Has Dignity

A day after friends gathered for incense and tea, I hesitate to put away the assembled wares. With the golden light of a cold January day streaming through the windows of my apartment, each object seems to glow against the blonde wood and white plaster. Hearing the gusts of swirling wind outside, I want to stay indoors, and in the still of the day I sit to meditate. It is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, and a meditation seems fitting to reflect upon a man who promoted nonviolence. As the warm light cascades across the table where I sit and read excerpts from a speech Dr. King gave in 1962 to an assembly of the Wholesale and Department Store Union in Monticello, New York, sunlight touches a Japanese 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon Hagi”) teapot, a gold lacquer-repaired porcelain 宝瓶 hōhin (handleless teapot), an American-made 茶碗 chawan (teabowl), and folded paper envelopes of incense.

“There are three major evils…” King spoke… “the evil of war, the evil of economic injustice, and the evil of racial injustice.”

As light shifts and moves along the beetle-green ceramic edges of an ash-filled incense cup, my mind focuses on these words.

Not much has changed. Such evils continue to grip this nation, keeping people of all genders, races, occupations, classes, and creeds locked in mindless competition and conflict.

In tea and in incense, there is no competition. In the meditative mind, we only sit with ourselves.

Comparisons, desires, and greed can be observed and fall by the wayside. Our daily work, when done full-heartedly, brings its own sense of dignity.

In the tearoom, we leave our worldly trappings and our markers of status at the door.

One sheds a layer of red dust and enters a pure space.

Sitting amidst the quiet, on this day, a bittersweet contemplation rises. In the cold of a bright and shining Winter’s midday light, sadness sits peacefully side-by-side with joy.

To be part of a practice that honors peace such as tea, to be part of a method such as nonviolence, and to walk in this world in such a way, brings questions to the meditative mind. How to use each moment as if it were your last to further such causes? How to touch the heart so as to redirect one’s spirit towards love? Where will our future be when our present is currently such?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting

Echoes of the New Year’s Bell

In Seoul’s 종로 Jongno district, as the clock strikes midnight to herald New Year’s day, crowds cheer, friends embrace, and (in modern times) fireworks explode in the sky above. Years ago, during my first visit to Korea, I witnessed this first-hand. Today, years later, and days after the bells rang in the 보신각 Bosingak bell pavilion (the bell of which gives Jongno it’s name, which literally means “bell street”), I woke with the faint echoes of it ringing in my ears.

The biting cold of a Korean winter drives all into the warmth of their homes and, for some, into the comfortable climes of a teahouse. My first journey to Korea was marked by much of this, darting through the tight alleyways of Insadong, discovering Korean tea, in all its depth and diversity, for what seemed to be the first time.

Recalling this today, I sit down to brew cup after cup of one of Korea’s more unusual teas: 발효차 balhyocha.

Grown amongst the shaded groves of bamboo in 지리산 Jirisan, the tea is semi-wild. Its leaves, when viewed, appear as a tangled assemblage, dark and curling.

Having been left to dry and then rehydrate with the morning dew, the leaves were left to partially ferment during the final processing stages, resulting in the tea’s uniquely chocolate-like aroma and flavor.

It has been almost a decade since I last had this tea.

Left to sit in the warm interior of my grey-colored 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teapot, this distinctive scent fills the air of my tearoom.

Instantly, memories begin to flood my mind.

Set to brew for only a moment, I pour-out the amber-hued liqueur into the waiting sookwoo (of which I atypically use as a serving vessel). From there, each cup is served.

Three small vessels. Three precious jewels. With each sip, the echoes of 108 strikes of the bell. Savoring the new year.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Hongcha, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Before the First Light of the New Year

Weeks of preparation has led to this moment. December has ended and a whole year has passed by. In the darkness of the early morning, during the hour of the tiger (4am), water is drawn and brought into the tearoom. Huddled by the soft glow of charcoal nestled in a low mound of ash, a kettle is brought to a boil; the first of the new year.

Despite the humble surroundings, a celebratory air is about as I sit with my partner before a small assemblage of objects for making tea. A 黒楽 kuro-Raku (black Raku) teabowl is brought out of storage. A 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop) made from a cut piece of bamboo is placed upon it.

Tea is mindfully measured-out and placed into a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume (“kōaka” tea caddy), forming a small hill of powdered 抹茶 matcha within its glossy interior.

Set together before my partner and I, it is a simple affair. A night of revelry and meditation for the new year has us both excited and relaxed, ready to enjoy tea. Set to the light of a covered candle, everything in the tearoom seems muted.

The red lacquer appears like deep crimson. The black of the Raku teabowl feels like a dark, bottomless void.

The bright, electric green matcha appears hidden within the cavernous hollow of the ceramic tea vessel, only coming to life when it is briskly whisked into a foam froth.

Passed to my partner, she accepts the first bowl of tea for the year. Set upon a brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (silk cloth for holding precious teaware), the warmth of the tea can still be felt, radiating through the thick fabric, the pattern upon which is 紹紦利休こぼれ梅文様 shōha Rikyū kobore ume mon’yō (“spilling ume/plum blossoms”, the favored symbol (文様) of Rikyū).

Savoring the bowl of tea brings a moment to pause before the new year ahead, remembering the year that has passed. The final dregs of tea are sipped, leaving a soft residue in the teabowl to admire.

In the first light of the first new year’s day, light finally crawls into the tearoom. Together we enjoy the quiet and the inspection of a small red and blue 染め付け sometsuke (Japanese blue-and-white porcelain) 香合 kōgo (incense container).

Within it, a painted vista. A boat on a horizon. Friends coming home.

To all the world, I offer up a bowl of tea. For peace. For compassion. For the deepening of all our practice. For a happy new year.

Thank you for reading. May you be inspired to share a moment of tea with those you love.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea