On the Road with Zen and Tea.
Bruce Ginsberg is a South African farmer’s son and a Zen practitioner for 50 years who has immersed himself in Asian cultures and made a life journey through tea. He was Chairman of the Buddhist Society Trust from 1991-2012 and served on the United Nations Association Religious Advisory Committee alongside imams, rabbis, Hindu priests, and Christian bishops and academics in the interfaith field. He runs Dragonfly Tea, a family-owned, British tea company with a hundred year heritage of making artisanal teas.
You are the grandson of a tea planter?
In the 19th Century my grandfather lived in Moscow, where he completed his schooling. Tea is very central to Russian life and he lived there with a maternal uncle who worked in the tea trade. He went to South Africa in 1903 and is known as the founder of Rooibos tea.
Chinese tea was very popular in Europe. What part did South Africa play in the tea trade?
The Cape was the stopping off place of the tea ships from the East. Their ballast was porcelain, and above that was tea. The Portuguese were the first to encounter and introduce tea to Europe in the early 17th century. Tea was in Holland from about the 1640s and by 1662 Samuel Pepys is mentioning drinking fine tea in his diaries. The craze quickly spread and tea became an expensive, fashionable, drawing room drink, as it was in China.
How did your grandfather become involved with Rooibos tea in South Africa?
Rooibos is a wild legume. The tea drinking culture was spread to all the Dutch and French frontier farmers at the Cape. Tea was mixed with local herbs to make it go further, as it was expensive. As a result, a number of Cape Bush Teas made from local plants came into use. Rooibos (redbush) was on the fringe at that stage and not so well known. The main one in use amongst rural farmers was Cyclopia (honeybush). In 1907, as a result of the Anglo Boer War and bad feeling, the British organised a very big Exhibition of South African country products in London, opened by the Prince of Wales. This spurred an interest in all these teas and raised their profile. My grandfather was the first to put Rooibos into packets, making a consistent quality tea, and he carried out experiments using old Chinese tea curing techniques on this wild Cape plant. Later, in the 1920s, a shortage of wild teas, which grew only in the Cederberg coastal ranges inland from the South Atlantic coast, led to Benjamin Ginsberg driving a project to get Rooibos, which has a difficult seed to propagate, into cultivation. As a result Rooibos became a new 20th century agricultural crop that is now crucial to the rural economy of this marginal area on the edge of the desert.
How is Rooibos cured?
Like a Chinese Oolong tea. All teas are cured, whereas a herb is just dried, and Rooibos is cured. It is high in anti-oxidants and is a mild anti-spasmodic that can be given to little children and babies with feeding problems, and it relaxes you at night.
Who built up the business of Rooibos tea?
My father became an obsessive farmer, and by 1950 was growing half of the Rooibos tea cultivated in South Africa. He was the one who really placed it on the market. He was also the largest wine grape farmer in South Africa and laid out a model estate. I ran those farms for him for 6 years after he had a heart attack. He sold his farms in 1991.
You introduced Rooibos tea to England?
I came to live in London in 1976 where I introduced Rooibos tea. In South Africa it was a poor man’s tea, but in the UK we developed a marketing proposition that it was actually a very special rare tea and now it is popular all round the world. The Germans are the biggest drinkers, and it is very popular in America and China.
In 1967 you became a student of Zen Buddhism?
I was working as a journalist and I went to Tokyo for a job interview with a Japanese English newspaper, but my real interest was to get a closer understanding of Zen. Zen was the avant garde flavour of the decade in the 50s and 60s, with the American Beats, Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums”, abstract expressionists, John Cage. We were all fascinated by Zen.
And, like tea, Zen was from China?
Zen was originally Chinese, but maintained in purity in Japan. Zen was brought to China from South India in the 5th century by a man called Bodhidharma.
You studied Zen in Japan?
I was living as a layman in a famous Zen monastery, Daitokuji, which is where the Japanese tea ceremony was developed 500 years ago. It is famous for its gardens, poets and painters, and every autumn 10,000 tea ceremony teachers come to Daitokuji to pay tribute to the founders of the tea ceremony. I began to get a sense of the way tea was celebrated, and it deepened my interest in the culture of tea.
What is the culture of tea that you discovered?
Fine tea needs to be drunk very slowly close to nature. Tea was spread from China by Buddhist monasteries. It doesn’t only have caffeine, it has theanine, which is a relaxant. So you have a simultaneous relaxed alertness, as meditation does. It became a practice for the warrior classes who brought Zen to Japan in 11th and 12th century.
Is tea connoisseurship like that of wine?
It’s like wines on a much deeper scale. It’s possible that wine connoisseurship developed from tea connoisseurship.
What interests you so much about tea?
Tea culture is my interest. The experience of boundlessness that comes when you hold a cup of tea. I see myself as a beginner, with a beginner’s mind, fascinated by everything. Each moment is a heaven in itself if you know how to step into it. You are bringing everything into attention and noticing. I am an explorer in the classic world of tea.
Is there a great variety of tea cultivation in China?
Every mountain range across China has its own techniques in curing tea. Until the 1870s a trained British tea taster had to understand 8,000 teas. Part of the connoisseurship is the shape and beauty of the leaf, and the quality of the water is also very important. I have seen the Japanese Emperor’s tea maker take 6 hours rolling tea by hand, until it is so altered that you can eat it as a delicacy.
Why have you followed this path of Zen and tea?
I have been on a path to deepen my experience of everything, to understand the moment before you think when the brain has already made the decision for nine tenths of all the things we do. We have an existence which doesn’t need thinking when we hand ourselves over to the moment.
Is it like a religion for you?
It is a religious feeling. We need to explore the aesthetics of the moment of drinking and tasting in full awareness and emotion structured into an art form. The art of drinking a cup of teas is artistic as a ritual and when you leave the tea room you need to feel a part of everything. James Joyce called it the aesthetic arrest. When you get absorbed into the moment, totally absorbed, you feel free and totally alive. What follows the freedom is the creative flow through us.
Chinese tea once enjoyed great popularity in England, but now this has changed?
The British have lost their knowledge on tea, and from the 1880s more tea was coming from India than China. Many houses don’t even have teapots any more, but people keep drinking it because the physical effect is such that we like that mood sensation which has a very subtle effect. In the 18th century more than half the tea drunk in England was green tea, and we moved to poor quality Indian tea. A tea called Eastern Beauty was a favourite of Queen Victoria; a fine Oolong, slightly fermented tea, just turning to brown from green. By the 19th century the Chinese produced black teas for the English market, but real tea shouldn’t have any bitterness to it.
Tea also comes from India?
Indian tea like India is a British creation. A representative of the Chelsea Physic Garden went to China in 1849/50 and smuggled plants out to the British who put them into India and Ceylon. Up until recently the Chinese wouldn’t drink such teas. Real tea goes back 1500 years.
And now coffee is the dominant global drink?
Coffee is now the fashion icon because we need to develop the style which people have forgotten in tea. Tea has a quietness, stillness and repose, whereas coffee is a buzz.
You also love gardens. What is it about gardens that interests you?
I am intrigued by how we cut off a piece of space and do something to it. Colour touches the heart and flowers have an emotional effect on us. Gardens are artificial, but there is a structure between nature and man. I also have a topiary box plant (buxus) nursery, because a garden is a culture, a space that as you walk through it either speeds you up or slows you down, without realising it. It is very important for me to be near nature.
Is this possible today?
It’s absolutely critical. Drinking tea you need calmness and relaxation, so anything that requires this needs a centre of gravity within ourselves. In the Renaissance world we measured the world with our bodies, and this comes from being in balance, a sense of poignancy. If you want to feel alive you need these small ceremonial moments of poise.
What tea do you drink yourself?
I vary, but at the moment I usually start the day with a 2nd flush Darjeeling, without milk and sugar, and will add water to the pot several times. In China, with fine teas the third or fourth cup will be praised more than the first. Sometimes during the day I drink a Chinese Oolong, half black, half slightly scented with orange blossom, or a particularly fine handmade green Dragonswell tea, Lung Jing, grown in the hills around the magical West Lake in Hangzhou. Hangzhou was the ancient Song dynasty capital in Zhejiang province where Marco Polo stayed. It is a place where great poets have lived and painted. There is a beautiful causeway made up of numerous bowed bridges across the lake, and the light comes so beautifully, with endless reflections. It has touched people for a long time. Zen came to Japan from there and the Zen monasteries in the area were famous for their simplicity, their formal strictness and tidiness, and the playfulness of the practitioners with their high cultural emphasis on creativity. Gondolas ply between several small islands, where there are famous teahouses. At night I drink Rooibos in particular, as it is wonderful for sleep.
What are you looking for?
I am not looking for anything, other than to enjoy the moment. It’s about the quality of how each of us experience the world that we are part of, to allow these moments where we rise to the occasion. I am a tea enthusiast, and have travelled all over China. Tea is involved with nature, with gardens.
Are you a Buddhist?
Others would describe me as a Zen Buddhist, but I don’t know if we need these names any more. We are travellers.
Do you consider yourself a South African?
I feel very tender towards South Africa, which has 8,000 species of plants, wonderful mountains and is where two oceans meet. I try to go back every year, but no longer have a farm there. It’s a place of the heart where I have known intimacy with everything around me. My first fears and exultations were experienced there as a boy who clambered over rocks.
London, December 2016
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