the best pot, the best tea

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After Saturday Sangha last weekend, I headed around the corner to the tea house. Usually, on a Saturday afternoon, the Tea Master’s wife is in charge, but on this day it was only the Tea Master and the two young women who work there on weekends. I love the Tea Master’s wife just as I love any of my aunts, but it’s always nice when it’s just the Tea Master there. The shop has a feel of serenity when he’s seated behind the table.

When I came in, they were just finishing their meal and the Tea Master stepped out for a moment. I went over the shelf of teapots behind the counter caressed my eyes over the pots on the top shelf, the one reserved for the more expensive pots, and the one that I usually keep my eyes away from. This time however, I was curious about a certain pot that I’d learned about a couple of weeks before. It’s shaped more like a cylinder, and tall, designed for oolong tea that has been rolled into a ball, allowing it room to expand as it steeps. There, on the far right side of the shelf, sat just the pot I was curious about. I carefully reached up to take it down. As I turned it in my hands, examining the tiny Chinese characters carved into the pot, I figured there could well be 260 characters. Squinting a bit closer, I could make out enough ‘bul’s and ‘mu’s to know that it was the Heart Sutra.

A bit taken with pride, when the Tea Master returned, I asked him if I was correct about the type of pot and the writing. With a smile he affirmed my thoughts, then told me to have a seat at the table. From behind the Zelkova root table, he took out a very tall, perfectly crafted teapot and a large golden bag of tea with red dragons printed across the front. First, he explained the teapot. He praised its quality and said the original is $2000 but this replica is exactly the same (and only $120!) he added with a laugh. Then, as he opened the tea, he said, “This is 10 year old Cheol Gwan Eum (as in Gwan Sae Eum or Avelokiteshvara tea). This one is second grade quality. Very rare, very difficult to get, very, very expensive!” He emphasized the “very, very” in the last one as if to tell me not to even ask…

Cheol Gwan Eum is the Chinese version of Taiwanese Oolong tea, grown in high altitudes, it is regarded as one of the most special teas. The leaves are of such fine quality that after steeping them, they can be spread out to dry, then cooked tempura style and eaten. Even the lower grade is about $600 per kg. As he generously filled the pot with what would be one of the most amazing experiences my taste buds have ever shared with me, he added, “For any true tea lover, using the best quality pot and best quality tea is a great happiness.”

I smiled and said, “Yes, even though I have many teapots, I’m always looking for more better quality ones.”

“I’m also the same,” he empathized, causing the four of us sitting at the table together to laugh, and sipping the 10 year old Cheol Gwan Eum, I was very happy. Not only because of the tea, but despite our circumstance*, we have bonded through our mutual love of tea, and to show his appreciation he shared with me the best teapot and the best tea. In the slightly bigger picture, the tea-shop that day was actually the best pot, and the four of us sure felt like some rather fine tea!

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*In Korean society, even a single year of difference in age will keep people from being friends, as they are required to speak to one other in different terms of respect. The Tea Master is nearly twice my age, and despite our ages, cultures, languages (most of what we speak is translated through one of the employees), and blood (Korea puts great emphasis on its ‘one blood’), I feel closer to him than any other Korean man.

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