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Zen Buddhism and Tea: The Connection


Inner peace and outer health


According to legend, the semi-mythical founder of Zen (Chinese “Chan”) Buddhism, Bodhidharma was sitting in a meditative state, staring at a cave wall. A few years later (yes, years!) Bodhidharma realized he had fallen asleep at some point. In a horrific rage, he did the only logical thing to do in that situation, he ripped his own eyelids off of course. That way he could never fall asleep again. He tossed his lids to the ground but something miraculous happened. The lids grew into a peculiar plant.


Bodhidharma ripped some leaves off the plant and chewed them up. He noticed the taste was pleasant, but the effects the leaves had were highly desirable, too. He felt awake, energized, and innervated. From that point onward, this plant, the green tea plant or camellia sinensis would forever be a close friend and ally to Buddhist clergy and laypeople alike.

For just a bit of background, Bodhidharma is often shown in art to be a truly imposing figure. Physically enormous and strong, he is also the legendary inventor of kung fu, or at least the founder of Shaolin kung fu. He is also portrayed with massively huge, unblinking eyes, as though he had torn his eyelids clear off.


Though a fun story, the reality of tea goes back much further than Bodhidharma. Anywhere from 3000 to 5000 years ago people in Southern China and the northern highlands of Southeast Asia were enjoying tea in some capacity. From food, to medicine, to eventually enjoying it as a drink. But how did tea get so caught up with Zen (again, in China, Chan) Buddhism? To begin to illustrate as to how and why tea became intertwined with Zen, let’s hear another story about how tea came about as a drink at all!


According to yet another (and probably much older) story, the again semi-mythical emperor Shennong or “Divine Farmer” was on a quest to sample every plant, seed, root, leaf, and herb he could get his hands on. According to legend, Shennong was an ancient ruler who may have had the head or horns of a bull!


But anyway, he was taking a break from his arduous quest to sample all these plants to compile into a master codex of medicinal plants for humankind. He was enjoying a delectable and appetizing bowl of hot water when some leaves from a nearby tree wafted into his bowl.

They infused the water and turned it a light shade of green. Since he was already tasting every herb he could find he figured he would try these ones too. He noticed the aroma, the taste, and the effects to all be very pleasing. He felt his energy lift, his mood had calmed, his thoughts had become more serene, his body felt clean, healthy, and purified. This drink would then become his chaser after tasting every herb in case it was poisonous.


The mysterious drink would cleanse his body of toxins so he could survive even the worst of plant poisonings. These traits, align with aiding in mental focus, awareness, lifting energy, waking one up, calming one down, cleansing and purifying the body, and assisting in maintaining health are all reasons why tea continued to be enjoyed in China and elsewhere.

Tea and tea culture were already major developments in China by the time Buddhism entered the country. As tea was believed to have an array of medicinal benefits, it was also enjoyed by the monks and other clergy in China’s many temples. By the Tang era (618-906 AD) Buddhism in China had been synthesized with Taoism, Confucianism, and other indigenous aspects of Chinese culture to become Chan (Zen!) Buddhism. That includes the daily ritual of enjoying tea. The Chinese text known as the Cha Jing or Classic of Tea made a big impact on temple monks and may have served as a basis for the ritualized brewing, serving, and drinking of tea in temples and monasteries.


Tea began to be used as an offering to Buddha in the main shrine rooms. Tea was enjoyed by the monks for the more pragmatic reasons of giving them the energy to wake up early and perform lots of the hard manual work, martial arts, and rigorous studies monks would be required to do. Tea would be their fuel and also help to clear, calm, and focus their minds and bring on an air of tranquility for the monks. Not to mention tea was a great alternative to alcohol, which Buddhists are prohibited from drinking, and aided in fortifying the monks’ general overall health.


The cool thing about many monasteries and temples, too, was that they would be situated up in mountains and highlands. It just so happens that tea plants tend to thrive up on high mountains. Especially ones that have volcanic or porous soil with lots of drainage, regular rainfall, heavy cloud coverage, good climate, and tons of biodiversity.

That is why tea fields also became associated with temples, where the monks would work the fields and enjoy the labors of their hard efforts. Over time, as monks from Korea, Japan, and other parts of Asia visited China to study Buddhism, they became introduced to tea and the tea rituals that developed in the Chinese temples. One monk, in particular, was the Japanese monk, Eisai.


You may remember him from our piece on the samurai and tea! Eisai was a Buddhist monk who studied in China, and upon his return, planted some tea seeds and brought the antecedents of the tea ceremony to Japan for the first time. From here tea would develop a symbolic character associated with Zen.


Tea, though delicious, was ephemeral. To experience life or to experience tea, one had to have firsthand knowledge. The fact we get to drink tea to enjoy it came to represent the fleeting nature of life. The whole brewing, serving, and enjoying ritual would come to represent the cyclical nature of the universe that eventually comes to an end but not without a sense of beauty, profundity, purity, tranquility, harmony, and joy. Oh and also, it tastes good! Monks, especially in Korean Seon (Chan, Zen) are known for their mastery of Buddhist relaxation and good senses of humor. Their tea ceremony, like in other traditions always sport some sweet and delicious tea snacks like all different sorts of rice cakes. So it isn't all serious, there is also a sense of comradery and fun. A sense of bliss that is known in Buddhism and experienced through enjoying tea!

Your moment of Zen


The association between Zen Buddhism and tea is deep and profound. It comes from Buddhism's transformation in China, absorbing Chinese cultural elements before spreading to the rest of Asia and the world. Tea aids in calming the mind, bringing on a sense of tranquility in the drinker, facilitating good health, and hones mental focus. Tea helps us to reflect on the impermanence of life and to learn how to savor and enjoy each moment. Kind of sounds like a cup of relaxation doesn’t it?

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