Zheng Banqiao wrote the following couplet during the Qing dynasty:
“Since the beginning, scholars can assess any water,
Through the ages, Chan masters loved tea-tasting contests.”
Chan masters do not simply drink tea, they use their tea time to speak of Chan and debate in an effort to awaken to the Way. This can be seen in the famous gongan “Zhaozhou’s Drinking Tea.”
When students came to Chan Master Zhaozhou asking him questions, he would usually provide simple answers such as, “go drink some tea,” “wash the dishes,” or “sweep the floor.” For example, if someone were to ask, “Master, what is the Way?” Chan Master Zhaozhou would answer, “You, go drink tea.” If someone were to ask again, “Master, how can I be awakened?” he would just shout, “Drink tea! Go!”
What is the Way? What is awakening? They are the same as drinking tea. The mind may tell you it is something different, but one should not depart from everyday life. It is within everyday life that one finds the Way.
The Sixth Patriarch says in the Platform Sutra, “The Dharma is within the world, apart from this world there is no awakening.” We approach Chan through our daily life with internal peace of mind and reflect on our true nature. We can attain peace of mind or a spiritual awakening through the most ordinary activities, such as drinking tea, eating, and putting on clothes. If we separate meditation from life, we lose touch with reality. That is why Chan Master Zhaozhou taught us that we cannot depart from the world. Because if we were to separate ourselves from our everyday lives we would be incapable of realizing the Way.
The gongan “Zhaozhou’s Drinking Tea” heavily influenced Japanese monks, who carried the practice of tea drinking back to Japan. Japanese Chan Master Murata Shuko, the first tea master and creator of the tea ceremony, was once a disciple of Chan Master Ikkyu. He was constantly falling asleep during daytime meditation, so he sought a doctor’s advice. The doctor advised that he drink tea. Chan Master Murata Shuko grew so fond of tea that he would serve tea to others with great ceremony. Although Japanese scholars still debate as to whether a secular tea ceremony predated this occurrence, Chan Master Murata Shuko is credited as the founder of chado (茶道), “the Way of tea” or “tea ceremony,” and is referred to in Japan as the “forefather of the art of tea.” In Master Shuko’s time, tea became so popular that it was enjoyed by commoners and nobles alike.
After Murata Shuko created the tea ceremony, Master Ikkyu asked him, “What is your mind like when drinking tea?”
Master Shuko answered, “I drink tea for health.”
Master Ikkyu wasn’t satisfied with his answer. He asked again, “What are your thoughts on ‘Zhaozhou’s drinking tea?’”
Master Shuko remained silent.
Master Ikkyu ordered an attendant to serve Shuko a cup of tea. As Shuko held the cup in his hands, Ikkyu shouted, and hit the teacup, shattering it. Shuko remained unmoved by Chan Master Ikkyu’s strange behavior. Shuko bowed, paid his respects, and said goodbye.
When he reached the door, Master Ikkyu suddenly called his name, shouting, “Shuko!”
He turned his head and answered, “Yes, master. Your disciple is here.”
Chan Master Ikkyu then questioned him, “Since the cup is broken do you still have tea to drink?”
Shuko positioned his hands in front of his chest as if he was still holding a cup, made a tea-drinking motion, and said, “Yes, master, I am still drinking my tea.”
Master Ikkyu then asked, “Since you are going to leave, how can you still drink a cup of tea?”
Shuko replied sincerely and respectfully, “I am going to drink tea here and there.”
Chan Master Ikkyu asked again, “I asked you, ‘what is your mind like when drinking tea?’ You only know about drinking here or drinking there, but claim to have no special feeling. This is drinking tea with no-mind, how can that be so?”
Shuko said calmly, “No-mind’s tea is just as the willow is green and the flowers are red.”
Chan Master Ikkyu was pleased, and then transmitted the Dharma to Shuko. Shuko then went on and completed the new tea ceremony.
When drinking tea, if you can drink in the tea’s peacefulness, it’s Chan flavor. And if you enjoy the tea of no-mind, you can experience the incredible state of Chan. No wonder Master Ikkyu was so impressed and accepted Shuko’s tea ceremony. Tea and Chan share the common characteristics of purity and tranquility. Chan is active, visceral, and direct; it is our original face from before we were born. Tea itself is pure and knows the nature of things, and it is in harmony with the spirit of Chan.
If one can drink tea and experience it’s non-self and non-flavor, that is the highest state of Chan. Tea and Chan share the same taste and essence: tea is pure and crisp, while Chan is tranquil and still.
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