Friday, May 20, 2005

On Tea

It is said that when Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, arrived in China from India in the fifth century, he sat down facing a wall and meditated for nine years. During that time, he fell asleep once. When he woke up he was so angry with himself for this lapse in concentration that he tore out his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Where they landed, so the legend goes, the first tea plants grew. Ever since that time, monks have been using tea to keep their minds clear during meditation.

This story is interesting in its depiction of tea as a stimulant herb, but it is known that the origins of tea use go much farther back than the time of Bodhidharma. In fact, tea is one of those drug plants that humans have probably been foraging in the wild, then cultivating on their own, for many thousands of years. And why not? Tea tastes good, refreshes the mind, and is an important medicine in its own right.

Scientists now know that tea contains potent antioxidant chemicals known as polyphenols. A University of Kansas study shows that EGCG, one of the strongest known polyphenols, is about a hundred times more effective than vitamin C in its power to protect against the ravages of the body’s cell-damaging free radicals. The presence of EGCG and other compounds makes tea (especially green tea) an important weapon in the fight against cancer. In fact, Japanese research shows that people who drink four to six cups of green tea every day have a much lower incidence of liver, lung, breast, esophageal, pancreatic, and skin cancers, compared to people who don’t drink tea at all, or drink less. Other research shows that tea lowers the risk of stroke and heart attacks, lowers blood sugar levels, fights viral infections, and helps control allergies.

Because tea has received much publicity for its health benefits, you can buy it in the form of concentrated and caffeine-free pills and capsules. These products are fine for people who truly dislike the taste of tea or wish to avoid caffeine. But, I would ask those who place themselves in either of these categories, have you ever tried a cup of really good tea? Tea is made from the leaves of a flowering plant, Camellia sinensis. Since the best leaves are picked in the springtime before the budding of flowers, the floral essence of the bloom-to-be is captured in the leaves and stems, giving some teas a delightfully sweet, floral scent. Other teas, especially those green teas that have been steamed before drying to prevent the oxidation that would otherwise produce an oolong or a black tea, have a fresh vegetal quality to them that reminds one of an ocean breeze or cut grass in the summertime. My point is that tea drinking is as complex and enjoyable a sensory experience as is wine tasting, and if you think you don’t like tea, it just may be that you’ve never had a decent cup. So give tea a chance and treat yourself to the good stuff! Get high-quality leaf tea (avoid the finely chopped and oxidized tea that comes in tea bags) at specialty stores, or buy online at or

As for caffeine, tea is an altogether different beast than coffee. Or, perhaps more accurately, if coffee is a beast then tea is more like a wise friend. It is the great fallacy of modern pharmacy that the effects of a natural substance can be reduced to a single active ingredient. Unfortunately, this type of thinking has led some to believe that tea, because of its caffeine content, is an unhealthy stimulant. The reality is quite different. Coffee contains about five times more caffeine, cup for cup, than green tea, and its many volatile oils, acids, and other components make for a much rougher ride through our metabolism. Green tea does contain some caffeine, but it exists in an organic matrix of healthy substances, including chlorophyll, vitamin C, and the antioxidant polyphenols. In any case, the overall mental effect of tea is quite different from that of coffee, more the heightened awareness of a samurai warrior than the mile-a-minute mental chatter of the coffee addict.

But all this talk about health benefits, antioxidants and caffeine is almost beside the point. The true value of tea, in my opinion, is that its proper preparation and ingestion require us to pause for a few moments in our mad scramble through life. This is how you do it: you let the dry leaves fall into a favorite ceramic teapot, cover them with hot but not boiling water, put the lid on, and wait. After a couple of minutes you pour the tea, and let its sweet fragrance waft up and enter into you. The fertile earth, the monsoon rains, the blazing sun have conspired to place in your hands a bowl of jade-colored dew. You drink it with gratitude, then go about your day.

No comments: