The popularity of drinking tea among Buddhist monks helped to spread the custom of tea drinking to the common people. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism became popular, in particular, the Chan School of Buddhism, which has prevailed since then. Most Chan masters had a high regard for tea drinking, which contributed to the custom of tea drinking spreading throughout China. In Volume Six of the Record of What Feng Shi Has Seen and Heard (封氏见闻录), it says: “In the year of Kaiyuan, there was a Chan Master who exalted the Chan School of Buddhism in the Lingyuan Temple of Mount Tai. The Chan Master practiced meditation for many days without eating or sleeping at night, and allowed himself only to drink tea. He boiled tea wherever he was. Henceforth, many civilians learned from him and imitated each other, and so tea became a favorite beverage among the inhabitants of the society. Tea drinking spread with marvelous rapidity. Gradually, drinking tea became a custom.”
During the Song Dynasty, drinking three cups of tea after each meal became the tradition among monks. And during the Ming Dynasty, making tea was the second most important activity in the life of lay Buddhists, just after incense meditation (焚香). In short, tea first became popular in temples. Then it became part of the daily routine among monks and lay Buddhists. Finally, tea became an indispensable part of Chinese life, becoming one of the seven essential elements needed in daily life according to a Chinese proverb (开门七件事，柴米油盐酱醋茶).
Buddhism was also responsible for the development of the first tea-production techniques. Many famous varieties of tea were first invented by monks and temples could be relied on for producing good tea. The well-known Mending Gan Lu tea is said to have been planted by hand during the Han Dynasty by Zen Master Puhui of the Sweet Dew Temple (甘露寺) on Mount Mengshan. It has been a tribute tea since the Jin Dynasty. Wuyi Rock tea, which was first invented by monks in Wuyi Temple in Fujian, became a tribute tea during the Song Dynasty. And Biluochun, also known as Water and Moon tea, was produced by monks in the Water and Moon Temple of Dongding Mountain in Jiangsu Province.
Buddhist monks invented a method of shade cultivation in the garden. They planted tea together with bamboo, the latter providing shade for tea trees and enabling the tea trees to absorb the fragrance of the bamboo. They also invented the method of frying green tea. Monks liked to serve this fried green tea to guests because the aroma of frying green tea could fill the room.
In short, some of the teas we favor most today, such as Dahongpao and Biluochun, and some of the techniques for producing green tea started in the temples. Buddhism contributed greatly to Chinese tea’s invention and development.
However, perhaps the most significant contribution of Buddhism to tea culture has been the infusion of Buddhist philosophy into tea drinking, making the history of tea totally different from that of other beverages. Chinese Buddhism absorbed tea’s characteristics of bitter (苦), serene (静), and common (通), connecting them with the Buddhist ideals of suffering (苦), equipoise (定), and wisdom (智) to develop spiritual tea culture, namely “to see tea and Buddhism as being of one taste (茶佛一味)”.
The first meeting of Buddhist philosophy with tea drinking appeared in a poem written by the monk Jiaoran, a famous tea expert and poet during the Tang Dynasty. It is said that drinking the first cup of tea caused the author to awaken from worldly illusions; the second cleansed the spirit like the earth is cleansed by a spring rain; and the third cup led to enlightenment, obviating the need to consider freedom from pain and difficulties. Since then, drinking tea has been not only a pleasure of the senses, but a path to enlightenment, namely Chadao (茶道).
Buddhism brought Chinese tea culture to Japan and Korea. In 803 AD, during the reign of Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty, a Japanese monk named Saichou came to China to study Buddhism. Two years later, he returned to Japan with tea seeds, and the history of Japanese tea began. During the Southern Song Dynasty, a Japanese monk named Eisai also came to China to study Buddhism. He lived in China for 24 years and returned to Japan with a new form of tea, Matcha. He also recorded the ways of making and drinking tea during the Southern Song Dynasty and is revered as the founder of tea in Japan.
Tea was introduced to Korea by monks who studied Buddhism in China during the period from 632 to 646 AD. After that point, the Chinese custom of tea drinking and tea art were introduced into Korea. In 828 AD, an envoy from Korea took tea seeds from China. Since then, Koreans have planted and produced tea.
In conclusion, the culture of tea is closely related to Buddhism in China. It is difficult to imagine how the history of tea might have progressed without the influence of Buddhism.
I honor the early monks and support their contention that tea is “one of the seven essential elements needed in daily life”. This seed of wisdom is no less important than the tea itself.