I’ve recently broken form and written about a different subject in my tea blog, about my son becoming a samanane, or Thai Buddhist novice monk. That was for a special two-week program, covered him ordaining (here), and also how it worked out (here). People tend to write about the overlap between Buddhism or Taoism and tea, perhaps due to having an interest in both. I typically don’t but will make the same exception here.
Conventional forms of connection
Buddhism is often connected with tea in relation to the Japanese tea ceremony. Participants prepare and serve matcha according to a very precise, structured series of steps, and per my understanding, there is also a brewed-tea ceremony version. I participated in two such ceremonies while attending Colorado State Universities and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while studying Buddhism at both. One source I read stood out for claiming the practice was relatively recent (within a century or so), and not really connected to prior rituals, religious or otherwise. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter either way how old the ceremony form is, or the origins.
Taoism is one of the two predecessors to Zen Buddhism, and predates the Cha-an Chinese form of Buddhism that Zen originated from. It’s also connected with tea practices and ritual, although I’m not clear on how it all links. I studied Buddhism and Taoism as religion and philosophy but related more to teachings and theory, not religious rituals or forms.
My own connections with the two subjects
I ordained as a Thai Buddhist monk myself just over ten years ago, in Bangkok, where I still live, but only for two months. There was very little connection there to tea, and I wasn’t really into tea back then. Monks would often have tea there as part of the ceremonies, but just as something to drink, with no emphasis on type or quality, and with no ceremonial role played by it. If you weren’t thirsty there was no need to drink it. I did a good bit of chanting in Pali back then, but what I knew of that original sutra chanting content was quite limited in comparison with the full-time monks.
I’ve retained close contact with a few of those monks and give them tea sometimes, since it now has become a personal interest. People can give offerings to monks, with limitations on the form of what can be offered and when, but tea is not a problem. There are a lot of restrictions about food offerings, about what can be given to monks and when, and what they can retain, or choose not to eat, but a beverage is a different thing.
In a strange twist, one monk shared Da Hong Pao with me a while back. Monks can give away the little that they possess with others (which typically isn’t much). The Thai Buddhist monastic tradition isn’t set up for much in the way of personal relationships to factor in, but monks are people too, and they need to maintain contact with lay-persons to perform their basic functions, teaching others Buddhism, maintaining the temples, performing rituals, etc.
I’ve seen really interesting teaware on public display in the temple we go to most in Bangkok, Wat Pho, the one I was ordained in. Most were just ornate versions of ceramic pots and cups, very beautiful but functionally basic Western brewing gear. I recently ran across some gaiwans in a more secluded area, a curious stock of teaware given that it was reportedly very old. It makes you wonder who was brewing what tea in it, related to what rituals, and when. Lots of the more isolated and older parts of the temple are like that; there are surely stories to the artifacts there, some of which are lost from living memory.
I was surprised in visiting a temple in Hawaii with my Thai wife–then a Thai girlfriend, and a fellow UH grad student–that the monks gave us food that grew naturally on the temple grounds. It seemed backwards that they shouldn’t be giving us anything. I just looked up how that works out related to precepts (monk’s rules) related to food offerings, which I summarized in a Quora answer. The short version: Monks can’t farm, and even picking an apple and eating it could be counter to one interpretation of those rules. The practices are set up for monks to live entirely off offerings (alms), not even storing food contributed from day to day.
Of course, we didn’t bring my son and those other 87 novice monks tea, since it’s a judgment call giving kids any caffeine at all. We brought ice cream to their retreat instead, on two separate weekends.
Images provided by author.
Thanks for sharing your personal journey. Amazing that you introduced your young son to these rituals. I can only imagine that it pleased him to be involved in something that his father cherishes. We’ll have to see what life path he pursues. He’s off to a wonderful start.
I really don’t like to hear parents voice concerns about caffeine in tea. Did you worry about all that dairy and sugar in the ice cream? The alternative community views sugar as “poison” and dairy products as hazardous to ones health – I’m just saying:) The China Study documents the association between casein and cancer in animals and humans. In fact, they did the largest epidemiological study in the world to confirm this. Sad but true.
Thanks :) Keoni is Thai (both that and American by nationality) so it’s part of his native culture, a more direct connection than I have with Thai religion. I have been doing a good bit with Buddhism, more study than he will match soon, but the culture is his.
I don’t have any problem with caffeine for kids, in moderation. Our kids take in far less sugar than typical American children but they do drink milk. I had heard a study linked milk consumption to one type of cancer but I don’t have any opinion on that finding just yet. It seems possible that the widespread use of hormones to increase milk production may not be completely safe after all.
This goes beyond even “organic” milk. It’s so disturbing to me. I almost wish I’d never read the China Study. When the National Institute of Health reviewed the research, they concluded it wasn’t necessary to inform the American people of these findings. They believed that Americans would never accept this information as dairy and meat products were part of our culture. So despite a profound relationship to cancer, it was too much for Americans to accept.
That is going to be rough if it turns out that drinking milk causes cancer. Before it’s all settled there must be lots of other shoes to drop related to impact of use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetic modification of plants, and basing diets on heavily processed foods. It’s surprising all that works out as well as it does, that changes in health issues are occurring but it’s not as dramatic as one might expect.
I think the work has been done. Read the China Study if you dare. Yes, pesticides, processed foods and GMO’s are the biggest on-going remaining hazards of our food supply I think. It’s a scary world. I think the changes are dramatic. Look at the increase in obesity in China – as countries adopt the standard American diet, they grow fatter and sicker. Children born in the U.S. over the last 5 years are not expected to live as long as their parents. It used to be that each generation added about 10 years to their parents life expectancy.
You can listen to the Food Revolution Summit replay to get some interesting information.
In the past I’ve been happy to notice that very few Thais are overweight, related to modern diet trends affecting the US. We just visited a Western restaurant here not long ago (a “Sizzler”) and I was shocked to notice that although there weren’t that many obese people a high proportion were overweight compared to most Thais. It’s not a good foreign trend to import. I’ve viewed a brain health related video before that listed the “standard American diet” as a main cause for poor brain health. What that means is scary; parts of your brain shut down over time due to long term exposure to a bad diet.
Wow what a wonderful journey! I have always wanted to experience the way Buddhists ceremonialise tea! It is surprising what you wrote, that tea was something that one just drinks and had no spiritual connection attached to it.
I learned a lot about your article, I am really interested to know more about your journey!
To me it’s not unusual that Buddhism has next to no connection with tea. It’s hard to turn up a history of beverages going back that far but tea probably wasn’t popular in India 2500 years ago. The Japanese Buddhist tradition has ceremonies involving tea, and there are Chinese and Korean ceremonial practices of drinking tea, but they’re all not really central to Buddhist practice, per my understanding and interpretation. For a practitioner of those ceremonies their take would be different, and the linkage would seem tighter and more important.