The origin of the word “tea” (Te, cha, chai, thea) is Chinese. It has a particular Chinese character and a very specific meaning connected to an exact plant: camellia sinensis. Black tea, green tea, jasmine and oolong are all produced from this one plant. It’s location, conditions and unique processing methods produce the virtually endless varieties and traditions known as whole-leaf tea.

Tea, its history and meaning, will be discussed by Wayne Brennan at a lecture Thursday at Way of Life.

Tea emerged from a culturally rich, dynamic and deeply profound way of life. A way of life that our mechanization and modern markets have all but eliminated. It was a world small-farmed, regional and intimately connected to the earth, and tea was an essential part of life.

Tea was used as the base of the broth that marginal people such as the Eastern Nomads used to create their primary daily source of nourishment.

What we currently call tea in America is “anything brewed in hot water except coffee,” explains local tea-monk Wayne Brennan. “However we are poised to re-discover what actually the early American colonial and frontiersmen knew well but which now seems so new and exotic to us today.”

He tells the story of our inherent whole leaf varietal tea culture.

Tea is not only our teacher but is part of our integral past. We are re-experiencing what early Americans experienced. The difference is we now have exposure to tea culture as well as the tea itself,” he says.

The dumbing-down of tea by the industrial marketplace emerged out of a production line standardization and mass-marketing scheme that has become the dominate cultural experience of mediocre tea, says Brennan.

No longer a cultural art/life form, tea became a commodity with little difference between brands.

“After World War II when the U.S. occupied Japan, Americans witnessed for the first time the spirit of teaism up close and in its native environment,” says Brennan.

But it was not until the mid ’70s, when China opened to the West, that a seismic shift in the availability of high-quality whole leaf varietals tea began flowing again into our culture.

China, the middle kingdom (not Japan), is the true mother of all teas and the great grandfather of tea culture.

“Some of China’s earliest origin-myths concern the discovery of tea — so great was the value of the tea plant to the human species,” says Brennan.

Used medicinally, to harmonize and synergize herbal formulas and as an antidote poison, scientists later determined that tea was the primary factor which explained the longer lifespan of Eastern people.

Tea was not simply for the privileged, a high-priced commodity to be consumed only by an elite few, it was and still is a celebration of earth’s bounty.

Each farmer, somewhat like a local grape grower, creates a tea offering with unique tastes properties and experience of their particular ecosystem and customs. Biodiversity, the cultivation of life itself, is the fluid that keeps people awake and evolving in this present moment.

Traditional tea lore tells us: The essence of the way of tea is this: To create an ideal society, enlightened mind, on the earth. However few in number — however short in duration.

The opening of China created new possibilities for finding what Brennan refers to as “multi-colored jewels.” His knowledge of tea reaches back in time and space to bring us back to the art of living, cultivating awareness, story telling and most important loving a good cup of whole leaf tea.

Liz Koch is the Way of Life Health Educator. You can contact her at svreeken@santacruzsentinel.com