China is known as the “Motherland of Tea” and is the likely origin of the tea plant. Tea is central to the daily life of Chinese people; there is even an old Chinese saying that, “There are seven essential items to start your day: firewood, rice, cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea.” This is just one small way that we see tea closely intertwined with people’s lives.
Drinking tea aids with digestion, enlivens the spirit, and keeps the mind alert. While tea is popular with everyone today, Buddhist monasteries were the first to develop and promote the virtues of tea drinking. Generally, monks and nuns serve tea while hosting lay followers and distinguished guests. This custom began to influence the wider society’s view on tea. Gradually, welcoming guests by offering tea in homes, in offices, or in restaurants became a common custom. Many people developed the daily habit of drinking a cup of tea after each meal. As Buddhist monasteries expanded their cultivation of tea, some became known for the fine teas that grew there. Many of the teas that are now known throughout the world were first planted and cared for by monastics. As we can see, Buddhism and tea are very closely related. It is nearly impossible to separate the history and development of the two.
There is a Chinese legend concerning the origin of tea. When Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of the Chan School, was living at Shaolin Monastery on Mount Song, he spent nine years facing a wall in meditation. One day, he was feeling particularly drowsy during his meditation and nodded off. When he awoke he was incensed at himself. To ensure that it would not happen again, he cut out his eyelids and threw them to the ground. Where his eyelids fell, the first tea plant sprouted. Since then, whenever the disciples of Bodhidharma became tired during meditation, they would pluck some leaves from the tea plant to brew into a beverage. The drink seemed to enliven the spirit and keep the mind alert. Although this is only a legend, it underlies the close relationship between tea and daily efforts of monks working towards enlightenment.
Tea is prized for its ability to enliven the spirit and keep the mind alert. Monastics are busy every day. There are countless chores to work on from before dawn until well after dusk. Even during contemplative periods, with long hours of sitting meditation, tea is very helpful. Tea became the ideal beverage to refresh the mind and to hydrate in the body. Thus, tea has long been used to keep monastics awake and focused during the long hours of deep meditation.
The Arts chapter of the Book of Jin records how the Venerable Daokai, who practiced sitting meditation in Zhaode Temple during the late Zhao dynasty, took only a few herbal pills and drank one or two liters of tea concentrate every day. The concentrate was a compressed cake of tea, ginger, cinnamon, orange peel, and dates. Eventually, he could live without sleeping and was immune to heat and cold.
The Chan School of Buddhism became prevalent after the Tang and Song dynasties. Since Chan masters held tea drinking in high regard, the custom spread rapidly throughout China. Chapter six of the Record of Feng Shi says, “During the Kaiyuan era (713-741), at Lingyan Temple of Mount Tai there was a great teacher who promoted the Chan School of Buddhism. The Chan master practiced meditation for many days without food or sleep, sustaining himself on tea alone. Wherever he went, he would make tea. Henceforth, many laypersons emulated him. And so tea became a favorite beverage in society. The habit of tea drinking spread rapidly. Gradually, drinking tea became a custom.”
Once tea gained popularity, it became officially included in monastic tradition and customs. Monasteries had a special “tea room” that was not only used for Chan monks to discuss the Dharma, but also became a place to welcome the lay followers and distinguished guests. In addition, a “tea drum” was installed in the northwest corner of every temple’s Dharma Hall. The drum was sounded to summon the Chan monks to have tea. A “tea chief” or “tea leader” was responsible for boiling the water, making the tea, and serving the tea. Finally, the “tea-serving monk” served tea and welcomed devotees and visitors at the main entrance of the temple.
Often, the tea is named after the temple it is served in, such as the “Fo Guang Tea” served at Fo Guang Shan. There are also a number of special teas that are served for particular purposes. “Dian Tea” is offered before the altars of Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and patriarchs.1 “Jiela Tea” is a special tea served during monastic gatherings and is offered in the order of ordination seniority. “Pu Tea” is the name of tea served when all the monastics come together to drink tea.
Typically, monastics rise before dawn. After they prepare for their day, they drink tea and attend morning chanting. After each meal, the monastics drink a cup of tea before attending to their affairs. In volume 26 of the Jingde Record of the Transmission of the Lamp, Venerable Daoyuan outlines the daily routine of monastics: “Monastics usually rise in the morning. Right after cleaning up, they drink tea. They then pay homage to the Buddha. Before beginning their routine chores or special projects, they pay respect to the abbot at the Dharma Hall. After the noon meal, they take a nap. When they awaken from their nap, they refresh themselves by drinking more tea before going to work on projects that contribute to the temple’s viability and its function as a center for preserving and passing on the Dharma.” The Origins of the Transmissions of the Five Schools records that: “Drinking three cups of tea after each meal was customary for Chan monastics.” From this, we can see that drinking tea was an important aspect in a monastic’s daily routine, a tradition that remains popular to this day.
1. Dian (奠) also refers to libation offered to the deceased out of respect.
This is an extract from a Dharma talk by Master Hsing Yun - "Buddhism and Tea Ceremony". This extract describes how Buddhism helped inspire the development of tea ceremonies in China and Japan. First published as 佛教與茶道 in 1995. Translated in 2008 by Irene Poon. Article extracted from Hsingyun.org