Saturday, December 3, 2011
Fire, Water, & the Art of Charcoal: Part 1- Introduction
There is little to no literature in English on the use of charcoal to heat water for tea, yet it was done this way for hundreds even thousands of years before. It is quite humorous that one English site claims that there once was an Tao of Charcoal- although this is meant to be a joke there is a measure of truth to it. There is a traditional Way of Tea that sees the use of charcoal as an essential component to harmonize the energies of the tea room while imparting the best possible taste to the water. Few people who have tried tea made with water boiled over charcoal heat deny that it creates the best possible water for tea. Current scientific research in Japan suggests that the benifits of infrared heat might have something to do with slight changes in the water's structure under infrared heat (see comments section here).
Fire is thought to be the most yang of the elements. Fire is active, vibrant, hot, and ascends- this is natures law. Water is thought to be the most yin of the elements. Water is passive, nourishing, cool, and descends- this is nature's law. In the traditional movement of the Five Elements, Water is thought to control or balance Fire. When Fire becomes relatively more abundant Water can pacify its energy. Conversely, an overabundance of Fire can pacify Water. When we make tea, the goal is harmony between these Elements.
Wood also plays an intermediate roll between Water and Fire. Wood is nourished by Water. Water's nourishment is necessary for Wood to grow and become strong. In this way it is said that Water is the mother of Wood. Wood generates Fire. Wood acts as fuel which is necessary for Fire to burn and become powerful. In this way it is said that Wood is the mother of Fire. This is the way of nature and the way of the Dao.
Throughout early tea history wood was likely used as the primary source of heat for making tea, old images and poems describe the use of wood when making tea while enjoying the vast beauties of the outdoors. It is important to note here that the heat given off from wood and traditional charcoal are energetically different- traditional charcoal burns as pure infrared where as wood heats with the gases released from the wood itself as well as infrared. As a result burning wood and burning charcoal each impact the boiling water and the resulting tea infusions slightly differently.
Over the years wood was slowly refined into higher and higher quality charcoal. Charcoal had an advantage over wood in that it could burn longer and more controlled. Gradually charcoal was refined to the high quality traditional grade that is used today- reaching its zenith only 300 years ago.
Due to the convenience and consistency of modern heat sources, the use of traditional charcoal in the preparation of tea has declined dramatically. The use of traditional charcoal has always been to create harmony in the tea room and within the teapot. It should be noted that in today's world the use of charcoal is often not appropriate and could create more disharmony in the tea room especially if not used mindfully.
In the following weeks and months this series will focus on how to achieve harmony when using traditional charcoal to boil water for tea. It will cover topics such as: the different cultural traditions of using traditional charcoal to boil water for tea, determining the quality of charcoal, making your own charcoal, methods and theories of starting a charcoal fire, safety issues when using traditional charcoal, and the energetics of traditional charcoal.
So, as the chill of Winter sets in, gather round and feel the penetrating warmth as we discuss in detail the harmony that traditional charcoal brings to the preparation of tea.
Disclaimer: Using any flammable substance such as charcoal comes with some level of risk. MattCha's Blog takes no responsibly for any harm done by readers of this blog. Please use common sense and take reasonable safety precautions when using charcoal. Always make sure there is adequate ventilation if burning charcoal inside.