Thursday, November 29, 2007

Buddhism 101: Tie Guan Yin | 2007 Anxi Xi Ping Tie Guan Yin

Tie Guan Yin: you've heard the name, and likely quite a few mistranslations. I'm willing to bet you've been thinking, "By golly, I sure wish someone, preferably a strapping young lad, would write a post about the Buddhist themes behind Tie Guan Yin!" My readers, today is your lucky day.

Guanyin Depictions"Tie" means iron, and "Guan Yin" (lit."Observing the Sounds/Cries of the World") is the Chinese name given to the Indian Buddhist figure Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion (It is also the name of a similar figure in the Daoist tradition, but it is commonly understood that this Daoist figure was lifted from Buddhism). A bodhisattva, in short, is a very advanced being who is nearly enlightened but not quite there (essentially, the state right before Buddha-hood), who compassionately aids other beings on their paths to enlightenment. There are a number of bodhisattvas in the Mahāyāna* traditions and Avalokiteśvara/Guanyin is one of the most popular ones. Interestingly, Avalokiteśvara is male in his Indian depictions, but becomes represented as female when imported into Chinese culture.

*[As a brief aside, Mahāyāna is not a particular "school" per se, but rather more of a "movement" or trend. Most Buddhists today are Mahāyāna, whether they are fully aware of it or not, except for Buddhists in S.E. Asia where the Theravāda school is dominant.]

Importantly, a bodhisattva is not the same thing as a god/goddess. I often see Tie Guan Yin translated as "Iron Goddess of Mercy/Compassion," but it is more accurately translated (In Buddhist context, anyway) as "Iron Bodhisattva of Mercy/Compassion." In the Buddhist hierarchy of beings, gods are not necessarily any closer to enlightenment than a human, animal, or any other being– they have just earned more good karma in their previous lives.

A bodhisattva (lit. "Enlightenment Being"), on the other hand, can be any type of being (god, human, etc.), has spent many lifetimes in pursuit of enlightenment, and can, among other things, control how they are reborn (example: the Dalai Lama is considered to be Avalokiteśvara in human form, and claims the power to direct his rebirth). A god, while powerful, is still more restricted than a bodhisattva. A god is still "stuck" in the system, while the bodhisattva isn't. A brief analogy: a god is like an "agent" in "The Matrix," while a bodhisattva is like Neo– the agent isn't as powerful as Neo because he is still confined by the rules of the Matrix, while Neo can bend/break these rules. Though the movie does contain some other mish-mashed Buddhist ideas, it is far from a perfect analogy, so don't read too deeply into it. :)

At the risk of this becoming an irritatingly long post, I will also briefly describe the legend of the tea, Tie Guan Yin.

A poor farmer was dismayed by the poor condition of the Guanyin temple (with an iron statue of Guanyin) near his home. He wished to repair it, but had not the resources to do so. Doing what he could, he instead brought frequent offerings of incense and swept the floor of the temple. One night, the bodhisattva Guanyin appeared to him in a dream, telling him that there is a treasure for him and his neighbors behind the temple. The farmer looks and finds a lone tea plant, and takes it back to his farm, where he cultivates it into a tea bush, which produced spectacular tea. He gave cuttings to his neighbors, and they sold the tea as "Tie Guan Yin." Eventually, of course, there is a happy ending: the farmers grow prosperous, and the temple is rebuilt. Hooray!

As for the legitimacy of the legend, who knows. All that really matters to me is that we have it now, and it is darn tasty. So, without further ado, my notes about Jing Tea Shop's Anxi Xi Ping Tie Guan Yin.

Wikipedia on Guanyin, Avalokiteśvara, and Tie Guan Yin

Class: Oolong
Origin: Xi Ping, Fujian Province, China
Year: 2007
Vendor: Jing Tea Shop (This tea is now sold out, sorry!)
Price: ? (can't remember)

Anxi Xi Ping TGYThis post is already hideously long, so I won't say too much. This is a good tea, for sure. The aroma of the dry leaf is toasted grains with light fruit and flowers. Has a "breakfast-y" aroma, if that's a word. (I suppose just "breakfast" is descriptive enough without the "-y" attached.) The leaf looks a little ragged, to be honest, but I'm thinking it might be more loosely-rolled than most TGY, because the wet leaf seems to indicate this is more than just dregs from the bottom of the barrel/bag/bucket/misc. storage device it came from.

Parameters: 100mL zisha gaiwan, 5g leaf, off-boiling water. Steeps around 30s.

The liquor is similar to the aroma: toasted grain and floral, with a bit more floral character and a pleasant astringency coming out a few infusions into the session. Not the most complex– not nearly as complex as the Gan De TGY from Jing I had a while back– but a good, solid, tasty tea. Actually, this is a perfect example of how more complexity doesn't mean better. I enjoy drinking this TGY far more than the Gan De, even though the Gan De was one of the more complex teas I've ever tried (which, admittedly, isn't that many, but you get the point).

The wet leaf shows a large amount of whole leaves, which are quite tough to the touch, not fragile like some others. Mmmmmmmm. :)

Anyway, that's it for now. Expect more Buddhism 101 when I get around to some other teas with Buddhist names (Tie Luo Han, for one, but I'm guessing there are others out there). Hope you enjoyed it!

[Edit: I just came across this Anxi Tie Guan Yin tasting set at Jing Tea Shop. I haven't ordered it, but it looks interesting.]

[Edit 2: Thanks to Nada, who pointed out that "Chenrezigthangka" refers to the painted scroll of Chenrezig, the name of the actual figure. Thanks Nada!]


Hobbes said...

Dear Brent,

Thanks for the great post. I always find it fascinating that Buddhism has acquired its own benevolent female figure, it has distinct parallels to Christianity's St. Mary the Virgin. I recall that Guanyin / Guanshiyin started out as a male, but is now almost exclusively female in the popular imagination. Small and irrelevant points for the practical Buddhist, of course, but an interesting reflection of peoples' hearts.

Have you come across a book titled Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, by Moira o' Hallaran? Despite the dreadful title, it's a captivating book, being the diary of a young Irish girl who went to study Zen in Japan, and attained profound enlightenment. She died in a car crash shortly afterwards, and the book was published by her brother. The local Japanese worship her as a reincarnation of Kannon (Guanyin). A recommended read.

Kind regards,


Julian said...


Great post. As a Chinese person and a Tibetan Buddhist, I think you have put across an accurate picture.

I think it is fair to say that the term "goddess" is a lay person term whereas boddhisattvas is a more accurate description.

Having said that, it probably makes no difference to an average tea drinker.

The village of Xiping is the birthplace of this magnificant tea, although now high quality TGY can also be found be Xianghe and Gangde. It is a truly magnificent tea, but low grades permeate the market and it is prone to much abuse.

Confusingly, the word TGY now describes the entire family of Mingnan oolongs such as Golden Cassia, Yungcun, Buddha hand etc.

Today, you can find 2 sites in Xiping associated with its origins. One is the Wei legend (which is what you outline) the other being the Wang legend.

Like any other great tea, drinking TGY can be a spiritual experience. So regardless of the legend, I think the name Goddess or Buddha are an appropriate one.

Enjoy! Jing has some great photo!

Brent said...


I just didn't want your blog to be the only source for information on Buddhist themes in the tea culture. :) Jokes aside, thanks for the added insight and the book recommendation.


Thank you– it is encouraging to hear that this made sense to people with an actual practical understanding of Buddhism (instead of just an introductory academic one, like I have). I often wonder how much I bury my head in the sand, so to speak, by just studying theory/philosophy/etc. and not the actual people involved.

Also, thanks for all the additional information! You are certainly more knowledgeable about this than I am. :)


Julian said...


Hahaha! You are always welcome.

I have been working with an Anxi TGY tea garden for a while now so I do get quite intimate with this tea. I am sure with other teas your knowledge is far far superior.

As for Buddhism, it is the past, present and future!

May be to clarify further in case you are interested.

All movements aspire to self liberation and enlightenments but through different means.

Theravada (similar to Hirayana?) emphasises on meditation to negate the existence of "self" and realise emptiness.

Mahayana (called Big Vehicle in Chinese) emphasises on compassion and the desire to liberate other beings.

(Believe or not compassion and realisation of emptiness are actually the same thing!)

Then there is the third school the Vijrayana that is followed by the Himalayan region.

It is probably the most popular movement in the Western world (represented by Dalai Lama). They build on the former two schools and seek to achieve enlightenment through "one body and one lifetime" as exemplified by the great Saint Milarepa, doing so through guru-student transmission and intensive long term retreat!


I am of course a beginner who gained a little bit of knowledge here and there through practical experience (rather than systematic study) so I am open to challenge.

Hope it helps to add to your blog.

Brent said...

Thanks again, Julian!

Hinayāna, or "little vehicle" is more of a pejorative term for the former mainstream Buddhist schools, the main philosophies of which are found in the Abhidhamma. The Theravāda school is the only remaining school from this group, so you may often see the terms used interchangeably among non-Theravādans.

The idea that wisdom and compassion go together is certainly perplexing, especially to the Western thinker. But, with study it starts to make a little sense (I'm sure it would take a lot of study to have it make perfect sense), and is actually quite interesting and brings a totally different perspective on what it means to be compassionate (or human, for that matter).

Perhaps I'll write more on these topics later, if I can find a good way to relate them to tea or tea culture. Thanks again for your comment!

Space Samurai said...

This was awesome, infomring, and entertaining, thanks.

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