Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tower of Cosmic Reflections

On another day that I spent on my own exploring Portland I hit up the Lan Su Chinese Garden and the Tower of Cosmic Reflections in Chinatown. That's right--a teahouse called the Tower of Cosmic Reflections. How could I resist a place like that?

The garden was beautiful. It was exquisitely authentic and evoked the same feelings of the Chinese gardens I visited in Beijing and Sichuan province when I lived in China for a summer. There were beautiful walkways, bridges, pavilions, and lovely landscaping. A tranquil pond offered a reflection of the impressive yet welcoming architecture, and soft green plants made me forget that I was surrounded by an urban environment. The only difference from China? There were way more white people and barely any Chinese people. So it goes...

The tea house was located right in the garden. I ordered an old growth tea called Banzhang Zhuan Cha, which was served in a ceremonial style.

In addition to the tea I ordered some baozi (steamed buns). I used to grab baozi for breakfast on my way to class at the Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu. They are typically a thick steamed bun filled with a meat or vegetable stuffing. I usually opt for the pork filling, but the Tower of Cosmic Reflections only served baozi stuffed with a vegetable and mushroom filling. They also cost about ten times as much as the baozi in China, but that can be expected. They were still very tasty.

The baozi were on the lighter side as far as baozi go, which is what I prefer. Sometimes the bun is so thick that it weighs heavy and makes it so there's not much room for the filling. These ones were more thin and came with a little oil and sesame seeds. The filling was made of shredded and cooked green vegetables with small pieces of mushrooms. The dipping sauce seemed to be composed of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and black and white sesame seeds.

A light cucumber salad in rice wine vinegar accompanied the steamed buns and was topped with more sesame seeds. The salad was also topped with little red goji berries. They offered a nice sweetness against the vinegary sauce.

Because the tea was served in a ceremonial style, there was a very specific process that needed to be followed. It began with the server giving a description of the tea. She held it out for me to view and to smell the earthy pieces of brick tea. I could smell the forest, the dirt, the past.

Next the clay pot was filled with hot water and also had water poured over it to purify the vessel and warm it up. Then the water was emptied from the clay pot and the tea was placed inside. Hot water was poured into the pot and the tea was left alone to infuse.

After a few minutes the tea was poured from the pot into another vessel. From that vessel, a small amount of the tea was poured into a tall smelling cup.

The drinking cup was then placed on top of the smelling cup.

Next the drinking and smelling cups were turned upside down (this step was a bit precarious!).

The smelling cup was lifted out of the drinking cup. With every new pour I breathed in the subtle earthy scents that wafted out of the smelling cup.

Now the tea was ready for drinking. It was sipped in small doses out of the delicate drinking cup, each taste a new and refreshing experience.

The various infusions of the tea were rather light in color--a honey brown in the pot and almost golden green in the little drinking cup. The tea was foresty and earthy. It tasted like it was solidly rooted in the earth and yet exhibited the freedom of the sky.

I spent about two hours in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections, sipping my tea and appropriately reflecting on cosmic matters. What brought me to this very moment in time? How did universal occurrences align to bring me right here, right now? It was truly a matter of intuition that brought me to Portland. It started with a dream, turned to a two-second text message--reaching out to see if my communication would be answered. And it was. Then a simple invitation. A flash of realization that, yes, I needed to be there. But even though cosmically the opportunity arose I still needed to take action. Curiosity led to searches for flights, a look at finances, and a desire to fulfill my passion for pursuing new adventures.

And isn't that what it's about? Not just paying attention to signs but then acting on them? I could have let the notion go--float away as a possibility. But instead I turned that possibility into my reality, and the universe was pleased.

I've been filled recently with a sense of calm excitation, an eagerness to pursue various aspects of life but without the sense of rushing. It's like I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing at every moment. The flavors of the tea and the whole ceremonial process of preparing and drinking the tea reminded me of that sense of rightness that has recently permeated my life. The tea was light--it was not looking to overpower and yet it still had a nice intensity. It spoke clearly without shouting.

I stopped to appreciate the scent of each cup before I took the first sip. I allowed the flavors to waft over me, awakening the senses as the traditional tea with deep roots in the past of an ancient country so far away infused my being with its delicateness.

Like many traditional practices, this style of drinking tea promotes mindfulness. Each step in the process was permeated with purpose and simplicity. The action of each step could be pared down to just one verb…


Similar to meditation there was an aspect to focus on at all times. Rather than focusing on breathing or on a mantra as with meditation, here the focus shifted and yet helped the mind to remain present throughout the whole ceremonial process. Each sip woke up the mind again, reminding me to stay present as it interacted with the body, creating sensations through taste and tea and water.

As with so much in Portland, I felt at home in the Tower of Cosmic Reflections. It was easy and comfortable, and all was right with in the world and the universe...

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