Secrets of the Scoby: Tibetan Taoist Gummiberry Juice and Boulder’s Buddha’s Brew

gummiberry juice

I was recently reminded of an old entry from the annals of Shangri-La La Land: the apparently Tibetan fermented drink known as ‘Jun’. Jun is a relative of the classic fermented health-drink Kombucha. Whereas Kombucha is born from the alchemy of adding a kombucha culture or ‘scoby’ to black tea and sugar, Jun is made from Jun cultures mixed with green tea and honey. According to popular legend, besides being more obscure and more magical than Kombucha, Jun also hails from Tibet.

On August 4th, 2010, Emma Blue penned an article for The Elephant Journal which she, mincing no words, called ‘Jun: Nobody Wants us to Know About it’. The Elephant Journal claims to be committed to a more thoughtful, ‘non-New Agey’ brand of spirituality, but you could be forgiven for not quite believing this after reading Blue’s article.Blue explains that Jun is a ‘tightly guarded secret’ in the fermentation scene in the United States. Apparently only a handful of commercial fermenters in the country possess either the authentic jun cultures or the ‘sacred’ knowledge required to properly use them. Regarding jun’s origins, Blue has this to say:

“Jun is widely found in parts of western Tibet. Each province of China has a version of Chang beer, in some parts of Tibet the beer has Jun in it. Like all fermented things, when placed in contact with precious metals,the lively drink begins to lose its potency and enzymes.
My anonymous source (Christopher James Whitson) first tasted Jun in Tibet, at a camp at the base of Mt Kailash. At this camp a 40 year old Tibetan woman attempted to seduce him with a fine grade of Jun.The closest thing to a store in this part of the country is a dirt hut with a half naked 5 year old selling soda out of a cooler (and a marketing genius with the going rate for a soda being $2 US).

The rarest form of Jun is the “snow leopard” and one taste gives the equivalent effect of trampoline jumping for an hour. The Bonpo monks who produce this fine Jun are of Taoist, Buddhist and Shamanic origins and were rumored to have been given heirloom cultures by Lao Tzu.

The most easily found and tastiest Jun in Tibet comes from the Khampa nomads —former monks turned physical and spiritual warriors who learned their knowledge of how to make Jun from the Bonpo. The Khampa Nomad’s were trained by the CIA in the 70’s to try to kick China out. They took Jun so they would have superior fighting abilities against the Chinese. They are also guardians of heirloom cultures, travel on motorcycle with single long braids bouncing off their backs, flasks of Jun and swords on their hips.

Somehow Jun cultures have sprouted up all over the Americas, but few are trained in the alchemy of Jun brewing. Herbal Junction Elixirs, of Eugene Oregon ships Jun to a few select places, but the owner has kept his process for Jun brewing a tightly guarded secret.For those fortunate enough to have drank Jun from Herbal Junction Elixirs and western Tibet, they report equality in taste, but the jing in Tibetan Jun to be superior. According to my source, “Jing is the thing that makes you levitate when you’ve got nothing to lose.””

What to even say here? Blue reproduces tired tropes in which the pre-Buddhist state religion of Tibet Bon is forever revealed by foreign commentators as some other religion in disguise (in this case, mostly ‘shamanic’ Taoism) and her anonymous/not-anonymous source’s experience feels more Orientalist-sex-safari-fever-dream cougar than rare-and-infrequently-seen-indigenous-Himalayan snow leopard. My PhD adviser Carole McGranahan has spent decades conducting research on the history of Chushi Gangdrug, or the Tibetan volunteer resistance army which fought against the Chinese, which was indeed trained for a time by the CIA, and which Blue claims used the magical Tibetan gummi berry juice of Jun to increase their fighting abilities. While resistance fighters did attach images of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other special tshon soong (mtshon srung) or protective amulets to their bodies to preserve them against bullets and other forms of harm in battle, Carole assures me she never once heard any mention of flasks of Jun during the many interviews with veterans, their families, their trainers, and government officials she conducted over the years.

Tibetans regularly make and consume various kinds of fermented drinks, most of which, aside from yoghurt or sho (zho), are alcoholic, and fall under the general Tibetan heading of chang, or beer (see here for a wonderful three minute film of two elderly Tibetan refugee sweethearts in Nepal getting drunk on fermented millet beer together). The word Jun does not exist in Tibetan. It’s tempting to point to the Tibetan word འཇོན་ཐང jon-tang (‘jon thang’, which means skill/talent/ability/capacity) as a possible inspiration for the fermented magical elixir, but no Tibetan I have ever met has heard of Jun tea, and the idea as Blue describes it bears little to no resemblance to anything Tibetans do or have done. Master fermenter Sandor Katz writes in his The Art of Fermentation that:
“The lack of credible information on Jun leads me to the conclusion that it is a relatively recent divergence from the Kombucha family tree. Some websites claim that it comes from Tibet, where it has been made for 1,000 years; unfortunately, books on Tibetan food, and even a specialized book on Himalayan ferments, contain no mention of it. Whether or not it has a 1,000-year-old history, it is quite delicious.”

gross scoby

(It is a well-known and ancient principle that the more disgusting-looking the food-thing is, the better a person you will be when you jam it in your beak)

Likewise, a Tibetan friend on Facebook commented when I shared Blue’s article on my page a while back:

“This sounds like those white Buddhist/rinpoches say, “my guru was — Rinpoche, but before he passed on he gave me the ordination and vows, and now I am the only one left of that lineage…blahhh). No, there is no way that this mambo-jumbo can be anything but far away from any reliable truth. Besides, “འཇོན” has nothing to do with drink/drug/plants etc, etc. It refers to a person’s capacity/ability/talents. Emma Blue should stick to singing some blues rather than writing some pan-asian powerball fantasy. Or maybe she is receiving one of those strange callings that only new agers receive.”

(Anonymous blogger Angry Tibetan Girl also weighs in, well, angrily, on Jun and Blue’s article here)

Tales of jun’s origins seem to shift between Chinese and Himalayan poles. Sometimes we have Tibetan Bonpo monks to thank for the stuff, sometimes Lao Tzu, and sometimes that other thing Tibetans have never heard of, Taoist Bonpos. Emma Blue tells us that in 2010 Boulder, Colorado’s premier oxygen and crystal spagyric elixir bar Tonic hedged its bets and described jun as : “a drink originating in ancient Asia. The earliest writings on Jun date back to 600 B.C in Northeast China where it was valued for its ability to open chi (energy) in the body and to increase its circulation.” One woman based in Starkville, Mississippi , describes in a public Facebook post from October 2014 what she was taught in a herbal workshop intensive course called “plants & stones for awakening bliss”, and veers freely between Tibetan and Chinese origins for Jun:

“One of our samples was a Jun with a secondary fermentation of pomegranate, schizandra berry and then, a rhodochrosite stone elixir. The “buzz” I felt from this was pretty incredible. They proceeded to tell us that Jun was quite the black market and mysterious culture. Both of my teachers are acupuncturists with Eastern medicine backgrounds. One is a trained herbalist while the other is a trained Taoist stonalist. They were basically saying Jun is so highly revered in these traditions over any other culture bc of the sacred ingredients of green tea and honey that go into it (as compared to black tea and sugar in kombucha). They said that it is believed to originate with Lao Tzu and was originally reserved only for the most highly enlightened spiritual warriors because it was so divine. Now, the culture surroundingJun in Tibet is quite fascinating and they were explaining the difficulty of acquiring Jun here in the US.”

While it seems no one is entirely clear about where Jun came from, enthusiasts seem to agree that it must be well, at the very least Asian and special. It remains unclear to me how far Emma Blue’s tongue is pushed into her cheek in her piece (or what a ‘trained Taoist stonalist’ is, for that matter). Blue’s repeated and weird references to ‘anonymous sources’, much like her portmaneau ‘Jun-kies’ and her references to ‘Jun dealers’ selling the stuff bootleg-style out of coolers in the back of cars seem playful, if kind of giddy. Still, however ironically Blue may take Jun and its alleged origins and powers, it’s clear others are serious about the drink. In a post made about six months ago about jun, the ‘champagne of kombucha’, Jenny of the nourishedkitchen.com describes how she scoured books on fermentation and the Himalayas to find any more corroborative information about Jun, only to come up empty-handed. She asked Tibetan and Nepali immigrants in her ‘high mountain community’ about the drink and all she got was blank stares. Still, she holds on hopefully to the mystery, by pointing out that in the final analysis the cluelessness of her Himalayan neighbours is “neither here nor there, for they had no frame of reference for kombucha either”.

Both Jun’s limited availability and its apparent mystical Asian-ness seem to play vital roles in the alleged super-food’s allure. And since still, today, nothing quite says ‘inaccessible’ and ‘mystical’ like (outsiders’) idea of Tibet, it should be no surprise that everything from Bon to base-camp cougars, to snow lions and Tibetan armed resistance have been folded into the legend. In some ways, it feels like we’re in very similar territory to supposedly ‘Tibetan’ singing bowls. In my essay on the history of the bowls, I noted how “the idea of the ‘secret’ and esoteric is…a crucial component in the mythic histories and charisma that has been built up around the bowls”. Like with jun, singing bowl enthusiasts have also relied on appeals to ancient Bonpo tradition and its supposedly hybrid shamanic character to justify why ‘mainstream’ or ‘orthodox Buddhist’ Tibetans or Nepalis disavow fantastical claims about the bowls. As I explain in the essay, “the absence of credible information or proof of the bowls’ use in Tibet only goes to confirm for [singing bowl enthusiasts] the incredible secrecy and integrity of the ancient oral tradition that they insist lies behind the bowls’ mundane exterior.”

As commodities and fetishized objects, however, Jun and singing bowls differ in one significant respect. The charisma and economy around ‘Tibetan’ singing bowls relies on the bowls’ mundane ubiquity, and the tension that is produced when “their self-evident ordinariness…contrasts with the depth and opaqueness of the secret histories and science that they are supposed to embody.” Much of Jun’s commodity power, however, relies on the substance’s physical non-availability or opacity. As the Wiki page for the substance notes, there is not even agreement on what the jun culture even is in a physical sense, and with limited reliable suppliers and tales of producers refusing to share their scobies with the vulgar and uninitiated (and of scobies themselves mysteriously failing – or refusing? – to produce daughters or ‘babies’, the aura of exclusivity and unique agency around the substance would seem inevitable. Our Starkville poster, too, relates further mythology about how “there was only one person with the culture and he would not share babies or the process. His place was broken into and Jun was released into America slowly, but even in the heart of crunchy Asheville, there is an underground system to just even acquire one.” Online articles mention suppliers admitting to having procured Jun scobies as ‘contraband’ and through the black market. Stereotypes of Tibetan kung-fu monks thus blend with those that surround Chinese-centered global trade in magical and restricted substances, and Jun emerges as weird hybrid, half Philosopher’s Stone half rhino horn.

Ultimately, Jun seems like an interesting case-study for how secrecy sells. Claims about its unique spiritual or probiotic qualities aside, Jun’s innate opacity seems to supply it with much of its power. Jun is also an interesting example of how regional trends and proclivities come to influence broader (US) (sub)cultures. The legend of Jun’s Tibetan-ness appears to have been fairly unanimously accepted or at least repeated in the fermentation world/market-place, but it seems as if Boulder, Colorado (where Tonic, the Elephant Journal, and my own university is based) has been at the center of perpetuating this association. Given Boulder’s profile as one of the whitest, richest, most granola, most healthy and health-conscious places in all of the United States (and in light of this amazing overheard in Boulder blog, maybe), it seems only right that we may have the good white people of Boulder to thank for revealing the awesome secret of the magic trampoline Kung fu Khampa Taoist Bonpo gummiberry juice that those selfish Tibetans (or Oregonians?) have been hiding from us all.

Boulder is a strange place. It has a longstanding and active Tibetan Buddhist convert community. The prevalence of Buddhists and mountaineers in the town means that many people have visited Tibet and ‘ethnographically’ Tibetan parts of Nepal and India. A decent number of Tibetan, Nepali, Bhutanese and Sherpa folks live in town. You can sit down in a coffee shop and overhear a third-generation white Vajrayana practitioner smearing highly technical esoteric tantric Buddhist terminology across their conversation as casually as they might smear cream cheese across their bagel. Homes and shops everywhere sport Tibetan prayer flags and religious iconography (and then there’s also the newly minted and vibrant interdisciplinary Himalayan and Tibetan Studies Initiative at CU Boulder *insert plug). Still, the ubiquity of signifiers of Tibetan-ness in the town is no guarantee that non-Tibetans interested in Tibet will be particularly informed about Tibetans and their actual lives.

Some years ago, one or two months after having arrived in Boulder from South Africa, during my first semester in the PhD programme a friend took me to Tonic, the Boulder oxygen bar mentioned above. The idea that people who were already living in a place with such pristine mountain air would pay lots and lots of moniez to sit on a bench and inhale essential oil flavoured oxygen through a pipe in the wall was hard for me to believe, but I went in and dutifully threw down and sucked on some rosemary-infused vapours for ten minutes in the hopes of improving my sea-level circulation. In addition to eating air, I also ate organic vegan chocolate balls laced with alchemical elixirs, and later, lounging on some couches, talked to some students from Naropa, the local Tibetan Buddhism inspired private liberal arts college that was founded by Allen Ginsburg and influential and controversial Tibetan exile lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. There was an assortment of magazines around that these students had been leafing through, which were jammed with neo-Theosophical Nicholas Roerich inspired accounts of ancient lost technologies and space ships in Tibet. I was quite startled that students at a university founded by a living breathing Tibetan scholar could find the unsubstantiated and mostly blatantly inaccurate claims in the magazines at all plausible, but then my expectations were probably as unreasonably high as the people I was talking to.

When the menus came around I was encouraged to order a drink called ‘The Buddha’s Brew’ which was a powerful cleansing and re-aligning tonic tea that was made out of a medley of different mushrooms with special qualities. I asked the owner/manager (?) why the drink had been named after the Buddha – I seem to remember that the answer had something to do with the drink’s enlightening powers. While I truly did consider biting my tongue, I forged ahead anyway, and asked if he was aware that according to the sutras the Buddha died after getting food poisoning from consuming what scholars think was most likely a mushroom-based dish. From the look on the manager-maybe-owner’s face, he did not appear to have factored this into his menu design. He stalked briskly away after supplying me with some brief but commendable stink-eye (I tried the drink after others ordered it – if any of you are curious it tasted like muddy river water mixed with well, mushrooms). Anyway, I stayed for a party there for a few more hours, but never went back. Tonic is now no longer an oxygen bar and has been rebranded as a ‘herban’ bar. I don’t know what a herban bar is, or if stonalists are allowed there, but if you’re in Boulder, it would make sense to visit and try the Jun.

Just don’t drink the mushrooms.

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One thought on “Secrets of the Scoby: Tibetan Taoist Gummiberry Juice and Boulder’s Buddha’s Brew

  1. That was a fantastic article. Anticipated every question I could have thought of about the subject and answered others I couldn’t even have imagined asking. Who have I stumbled onto here? I don’t even know who you are? I guess I will find out.

    Liked by 1 person

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