Tea in the Daily Life of a Monastery
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.