Why we brew – Constructs for understanding, Part 2

This is part 2 in the “Why we Brew” series of posts. [Part 1 is here]
These posts are my writings on why we brew tea, and how we can understand the practice of ourselves and others.
I hope this can be a conversation, and I would greatly appreciate your comments, suggestions  questions, and clarifications.
– Jason

Modern phenomenology is the study of human experience. Phenomenology has its roots in architecture to describe the feeling of seeing and approaching a structure – one that has such a presence as to stir an emotional response. Imagine with me, if you will, approaching the roman forum, the Acropolis, or the Summer Palace; these structures were formed in order to unsettle or impose. These structures were formed in order to set the tone for their function. Imagine with me the feeling of awe and grandeur at approaching these buildings during their time of use.

Phenomenology may be divided into a limitless array of categories such as the phenomenology of art, how one relates to and understands art (such as in the tea room, if any); the phenomenology of company, how one relates and understands the presence of others (tea is quite different alone or in a group), or the phenomenology of taste, how one relates and understands the sensory stimuli of flavor (not to mention a clean pallet). For our purposes, categorization is unnecessary or even detrimental to the understanding of tea ceremony as a whole. Instead we will look at Phenomenology as a singular and inclusive field.

Phenomenology, in recent years, has been co-opted and expanded by Cultural Anthropology to explain the way in which our setting and external environment effects the perception of experience. This is ½ of phenomenology – that while two or more individuals may share an experience, their perception of events may differ. Yet, it is possible, in no uncertain terms, to create and craft an experience; to create settings and situations in which one cannot help but to feel the set and range of emotions decided on by the crafter. This is what it means to be the director of a play, guiding the audience though the emotional trials of the cast; this is what it means to be the host of a Charity Banquet, creating a situation for your guests to enjoy themselves and (hopefully) donate to your cause; this is what it means to be the host of a Chanoyu ChaJi creating Ichigo Ichie.

We will label the application of phenomenology to tea ceremony as “phenomenism”. [This is not a real word. It should not be used in polite or intelligent conversation] This is of no passing interest to the brewer, the practitioner of Chinese Tea Ceremony; I will argue it is the summation of our and our guest’s experience.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that individuals vary in their level of knowledge and understanding of tea. When one is brewing for themselves, their approach is inherently matched to their own level of understanding; someone interested in the silent and meditative aspect of the ceremony wouldn’t play music while brewing, someone interested in ceramics may spend more time matching wares to individual teas, and someone interested in tea as part of nature could brew outside. That is creating an environment where you can personally appreciate tea.

When brewing for others more thought, and sometimes planning, is required. If your goal is to introduce your friends to tea, you wouldn’t set up a 30 young pu’er sensory panel; you would probably pick one or two approachable teas and have light conversation interspersed with the explanations. If your goal was conversation with fellow tea drinkers, you should prick different tea than if your goal was for a more serious tasting. When presenting tea ceremony at the Institute for new members, I don’t use our finest Qing porcelain; it is not because I don’t think new members will appreciate it, just the opposite. New members will appreciate and concentrate on the wares too much. It would overshadow the tea. Worst of all, they may come away with the idea that rare or expensive porcelain is required for GongFu (it’s not). It does no one any good to be out-leveled during a tea ceremony.

Phenomenism is a framework that serves to create an experience where the practitioner and guest can appreciate tea on their level of understanding. This is difficult as experience is subject to the perceptual effects of expectation, situation, and memory. Understanding how the external environment effect the perception of individuals is the other half of Phenomenology.

Consider the best tea in the world (whatever that may be); would you have the same expectation if it were served in a hello kitty mug as a Yuan QingBai cup? How would that expectation change your perception of the tea? I suspect you would think less of it, consciously or not, in the mug.

Would you have the same expectations for a tea served to you at a street side stall as one served to you in a specialty tea house?  How would the situation change your perception of the tea? I suspect you wouldn’t give the tea from the stall nearly as much thought.

Finally, how would your experience of a tea with any expectation in any situation be effected by your past experiences? Those experiences, those memories, are the way you reference, compare, and interpret the world around you. Few enjoy sheng pu’er the first time it is served to them (we say it is an ‘acquired taste’); the best sheng in the world is lost on an individual with no experience with sheng (we say they have no appreciation for it). It is through repeated exposure that a formative reference is created and through which one can begin to enjoy the nuance and subtleties of any type of tea (or artisan good for that matter); memory is experience, and experience is what forms our preferences.

The Phenomenism framework is thus sensitive to expectation, situation, and memory. Thinking on the Phenomenist level can help clarify your personal goal each time you brew and can clarify where your concentration should lie. Thinking at the Phenomenist level can also help you uncover and reason your own assumptions and guide you to a deeper level of understanding.

Perhaps it can be said that the point of tea ceremony is creating an experience where your or your guest’s expectations, guided by the wares you use, are for quality; where the situation, guided by the setting, is conducive; where the memories evoked are positive, and the memories formed are clear; all for the appreciation of the tea.

Tune in soon for part 3, where I try to explain why Structural-Functionalism and Phenomenology are different theories!
Have a question, idea, or sneaking suspicion? Post it in the comments!

Migrated Comments

Billabongk Charlotte

To me, brewing tea is most of all a way of being present in the present. That’s what brings out an open mind, and a pure hart in our tea practice.

Tea gives an elegant, yet very simple and natural experience of life. I noticed tea brings me the quietness and softness, the determination and strength in any situation…

Jason's Reply

Dear Charlotte,

I think that is true for many of us, tea as a source of solace and meditation,
a practice that clears our minds, and tunes us in to the present.

That idea is an experiential one, and (I think) all experiential reasoning falls under the Phenomenist approach; I believe it takes knowledge and practice before one is sure enough in their own skill to simply experience the moment and not concentrate on ‘what to do next’ (or the like).

My personal practice of Chanoyu followed this progression though the 3 frameworks; I am lucky to be invited to a number of ChaJi’s by the Japanese tea community in the USA and during my time in Japan. At first, I had a very hard time enjoying them. I was more worried about remembering what to do next and learning the underlying functions (each step if you will), and I could not simply experience the beauty of the ceremony.

Throughout my first few ChaJi’s I was between the Utilitarian and the Structural-Functionalist stages. During my first 2 ChaJi’s I was so focused on getting it right I didn’t find them tranquil at all!

It wasn’t until Japan, where Pat and I never went more than a day without Chanoyu, that I became focused on the experience, the point where I had internalized the flow of the ceremony enough to ‘be’ and enjoy. I had moved to the Phenomenist stage.

All of that for being a guest of course;
I still have another decade or 2 of learning before I can preform Chanoyu at the Phenomenist stage!

All the Best,

Billabongk Charlotte

Indeed, it takes knowledge and practice before being free from the intellectual part of a tea ceremony. Every single step needs to be perfect… and that is exactly why the determination in one’s practice remains so important. But the tea’s Qi is always present on the way, even when it’s mainly our mental sphere in action.

Thank you for your very interesting articles. I’m having a great time reading them…

I wish all the Best too !


Jason's Reply

Dear Charlotte,

That was a great way to put it;
knowledge sets you free!

Many more articles to come!

All the Best,

Emily Van Clief

It seems as though these levels are attained through training and investing time in what you are doing (be it art, philosophy, architecture, etc). While I personally think this is a progression and phenomenism is actually moving a step up in understanding, for the sake of discussion, aren’t all of these theories, utilitarian, structural-functionalism, and phenomenism, aiming to create a positive experience?
That’s why someone would think “all of these wares will achieve the same goal,” or, “these cups should be matched with this tea pot to be more aesthetically pleasing,” just the same way someone else might think about the guests or the experience as a whole.

My point is, we wouldn’t have these thoughts if they weren’t directed toward a purpose, and I think all of these theories aim to fulfill the goal of ceremony, just in different ways.

Is it agreed upon that Phenomenism is the superior for this? Is it a culmination of the other two?

Jason's Reply

Dear Emily,

I don’t believe these frameworks, or “levels”, are restricted to understanding tea ceremony; I think they can be applied, with some interpretation, to all types of art and practices. I don’t give myself any credit for that; these frameworks have all been borrowed and revised from other fields.

Its important to separate the goal of Chinese Tea Ceremony (‘brew good tea’) with the point of Chinese tea ceremony. Just because a ceremony exists does not mean one must or want to preform it (this should cue a Jew joke for me).

I am writing these frameworks with the assumption that the point of Chinese tea ceremony is Enjoyment. Anyone who practices the ceremony for another reason wouldn’t get much out of my frameworks.

I do not agree with the idea that all of these frameworks promote a ‘good experience’. Only Phenomenism is an experiential in nature; utilitarianism could be summed up as ‘the end justifies the means’, and SF could be stated as ‘form follows function’. They do not account for ones external environment nor the experience individuals want from the ceremony.

Think of the difference from when a new brewer preforms and when you preform (forgive me, I know Emily as a member of the Tea Institute). Think of the difference when you preform and when I preform (that gap is shrinking!).

New members only aim to brew tea ‘correctly’. We don’t let them worry about the wares, or the proper amount of tea to use. They start off only learning the skill of brewing. Yet, though at that early stage they have a different personal goal (don’t make mistakes!), the goal of GongFu Cha remains the same. It is only the point of the ceremony for them, not the goal.

As for Phenomenism, nothing is agreed. It is a made up word to describe a (very real) made up construct I pieced together from Cultural Anthropology, Philosophy, and Architecture. I use it to help myself (and others) form their practice and understanding of tea ceremony. I believe it is the last stage of learning, but only the beginning of ones actual practice.

Everyone is free to agree or disagree with that!

What do you think?

– Jason

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