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Buddha's Tea

by James Norwood Pratt


Various Buddhists are sometimes given credit for the discovery of tea. A contemporary of Pythagoras, Zoroaster, and Confucius, the Buddha lived in India in the 500s BCE. After his death his teachings continued to spread and in subsequent centuries followed the Silk Route to China. While there can be no one simple explanation for China's nationwide adoption of the tea habit, it is clear that the Chinese themselves associated it with the introduction and spread of the Buddhadharma. One account claims a Buddhist monk named Gan Lu (Sweet Dew) brought tea back with him when he returned from a pilgrimage to India during the first century. Seven "fairy tea trees" he supposedly planted are still to be seen on Mt. Mengding in Sichuan.

Another story says tea sprang from the eyelids of Bodhldharma, the first patriarch of Zen, called Daruma by the Japanese. He had sailed from India to China but once arrived he merely sat down facing a wall at Shaolin Temple and did not stir for nine years. During this marathon meditation the determined saint once drowsed off, so far forgetting himself that his eyes closed momentarily. Without hesitation he sliced off his eyelids to make sure they would never again close and interrupt his wakefulness. Where they fell the compassionate deity Quan Yin caused tea plants to grow to serve Bodhidharma and all who came after him as an aid on the path to enlightenment. Unbelievers suggest this story arose because the Japanese characters for tea leaf and eyelid are the same.

Yunnan, the homeland of the wild tea plant, and Sichuan, where it seems first to have been cultivated, lay on the route from India to China. Just as the early Buddhists learned to sculpt the figure of the Buddha on their way through Greek-ruled Central Asia, so in western China they seem to have adapted tea to the needs of their religion. Virtually all early teas are named for mountains which were also sites of large monasteries. The role Buddhism has played in the history of tea in Asia exactly parallels the role of Catholicism in the history of wine in Europe. Their respective beverages assumed ritual significance and the faithful of both traditions became devoted consumers. Catholic monasteries became centers of grape-growing and wine-making the same way Buddhist monks took up tea-growing and evolved increasingly sophisticated methods of tea manufacture. Innovations like champagne, invented by the monk Dom Perignon, had their parallels in China where anonymous Buddhist monks gradually developed the various types of white, green, and oolong tea.

A Buddhist monastery was not only the house of a religious order with a temple attached, but a school, a university, an inn, a place of refuge, a goal of pilgrimage, a hospital, a library, a publishing house, a center of culture, and a social focus. People of every sort from all the world came to pass through its gates, to remain a while within its walls. All these people would acquire the habit of tea drinking, which Buddhists used as an aid to meditation and a substitute for alcohol. Monasteries produced superior teas, moreover, gradually developing improved methods of manufacturing the leaf and preparing the drink. Unlike small-holders raising a few dozen tea plants, the lands attached to a monastery would have considerable acreage in tea to supply the institution's needs, with a surplus to sell to the faithful.

By the Tang dynasty (618-907), China had centuries of experience with Buddhism and Chan Buddhism was the form with which tea had become most closely associated. The monastery where Lu Yu (author of the first book on tea) was brought up assuredly grew and manufactured tea. Its monks would have followed the Rule drawn up by the Chan priest Balzhang, which repeatedly mentions the use of tea on ceremonial occasions. The appointment or departure of abbots, seasonal assemblies, and the arrival and departure of individual monks all called for the formal serving of tea. Fine quality tea-making utensils were often donated to temples by the Imperial Court for these purposes. In addition, the monks used tea every day as an aid to meditation. It was drunk as a beverage, but from the Buddhist point of view there was more to it than the physical refreshment they received. As an elixir of sobriety and wakeful tranquility, tea was also a means of spiritual refreshment and the ritual of preparing and partaking of it was an occasion for spiritual conviviality, a way to go beyond this world and enter a realm apart. Thus taking tea gradually evolved into a spiritual practice in its own right and became a Way. Lu Yu became the first secular priest of this Way of Tea.