Spreading Buddhism, Spreading Tea

As Buddhist temples spread, so too did the cultivation of tea plants. By growing tea on their grounds, temples were not only able to satisfy their own need for tea, but the sale of tea allowed monastics to pay for the upkeep of the temple. In time, many teas became well-known based on the monasteries where they were produced.

Since the Ming and Qing dynasties, Buddhist temples have been secluded deep in the forests and high in the mountains. As a result, temples tended to be situated in the ideal environments for growing tea. The monastics carefully cultivate the tea plants and harvest the leaves. The methods of processing tea advanced and the tea became highly refined. Certain temples produced many superior, highly refined teas. Their history has given China a reputation for producing many famous and well-loved teas. Putuo Temple, in Zhejiang Province, is famous for their “Buddha Tea” and its excellent flavor. Another famous tea is “Cloud and Mist Tea,” grown in Huading Temple on Mount Tiantai.

Gantong Temple, in Yunnan Province in the city of Dali, is known for its “Gantong Tea.” Hangzhou’s Dharma Mirror Temple is known for “Fragrant Forest Tea,” a green tea that has a very elegant aroma. Huiming Temple on Mount Chimu in southern Zhejiang Province is also famous for the tea it produces.

In China, there are six main types of tea. One example, oolong tea, was originally grown in Fujian Province on Mount Wuyi. Tea has grown on Mount Wuyi since the Song dynasty, with the best tea grown by the monastics of Wuyi Temple. The “Water and Moon Tea” is grown by the monastics of the Water and Moon Chan Temple on Mount Dongting. This famous tea also goes by the name “Green Snail Spring Tea,” and is known for being a light, aromatic green tea. One of the most treasured Chinese teas is called Da Hongpao, or “Scarlet Robe.” It is grown near the Tianxin Cliff of Mount Wuyi in Fujian Province.

The first book on tea, the Classic of Tea, was written by Lu Yu during the Tang dynasty. Lu Yu’s interest in tea began in his early life, when he brewed it for his foster father, who was a monk. Before Lu Yu (733-804), tea was considered an ordinary drink. But Lu Yu was fascinated by tea. He traveled to countless temples to learn about growing, harvesting, processing, categorizing, and brewing tea from the Chan monastics. In tea, he saw the harmony and order that exists in all things. His life was intimately connected to tea and Buddhism. Not only did he formulate the Classic of Tea, but he taught people how to manufacture tea, to lay out the utensils and to brew tea properly. Due to his book, he became known as the “god of Chinese tea.” Due to Lu Yu’s efforts, tea became a popular beverage.

During the Song Dynasty, at Yuhang Jingshan Temple in Zhejiang Province, monastics, devotees and worshipers would gather together for a tea ceremony. During these tea ceremonies, they would have tea-tastings. At these events, they evaluated the best quality teas.

As they underwent these tastings, they also changed the process of making tea. Instead of boiling tea, they began to whip it. With this method powdered tea is added to hot water, which is then whipped with a fine bamboo whisk. This method was developed in the Song dynasty. Whipping tea was easier and more convenient than boiling, and brought drinking tea into greater prominence in mainstream society.

Buddhism spread from China to Korea, and with it, tea spread as well. Similarly, around the year 805 the Japanese Monk Saicho went to China to study Buddhism. He traveled from Japan to Guoqing Temple at Mount Tiantai in Zhejiang Province. When he returned to his homeland, he brought tea seeds back with him. He planted the seeds at Saka Motozon, Loku Daisan Gika Mountain. Five years later, when the plants reached maturity, Abbot Eichu served the green tea to Emperor Saga. The emperor was so impressed with the drink that he instituted tea cultivation in provinces near Kyoto, and tea became a major part of Japanese culture. The Japanese continued to develop the Chinese tea drinking traditions. Tea drinking became a complex, artistic ritual.

Chan Master Shuko, the “forefather of the tea ceremony” mentioned earlier, once went to China to study under the famed Chan master Keqin. Before Shuko returned to Japan, his teacher gave him a book titled Tea and Chan are One and the Same. This book remains on exhibit in Nihon Nusa Daitokuji Temple to this day. Shuko continued to practice and develop Chan Buddhism and the art of tea on his own, creating the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Even today, tea ceremony is highly regarded in Japan. The rules around the tea ceremony impacted Japanese literature, the arts, philosophy, calligraphy, flower arrangement, interior design, garden architecture, food preparation, and ritual greetings. Due to the relationship between tea and Buddhism, this helped facilitate the spread of Buddhism in Japan. In this way, tea became a tool to help spread the Chan School of Buddhism.

Since long ago, Buddhist monastics have planted famous leaves, made excellent tea, and presented the fruits of their labor to devotees. Much of today’s tourism centers on tea customs. Tourists can share in Chinese culture as they consume tea. Tea brings warmth and relaxation to the drinker. Today, we can appreciate the richness of tea, the fruits of generations of labor, love and tradition by our forbearers. Now, while you are enjoying a cup of tea, you can put your troubles behind you. Find a place to relax with your friends, a place where you can share your personal and professional troubles as you enjoy your drink. The place where tea is served is a place of peace and harmony. Tea brings with it a special tranquility, purifying one’s heart and bringing it closer to the Chan mind. Tea is one of our greatest companions in life.

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

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