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.
"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
Origin: Xi Ping, Fujian Province, China
Vendor: Jing Tea Shop (This tea is now sold out, sorry!)
Price: ? (can't remember)
This 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!]
4 days ago