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Chan (Zen) Buddhism Influence on Gongfu Tea Ceremonies

The local tea society of Chengdu convened on a cloudy spring day in 2016 at a university where one of the members taught. Several members prepared tables to serve tea to any who should pass by. One tea master prepared his table by placing a midnight-blue tablecloth over the table. Then, he carefully withdrew individually-wrapped teaware from cloth parcels neatly arranged within his backpack. He placed them gently, lovingly onto the edge of the table facing farthest from him. When he had unsheathed his teaware, a modest collection of six bright yellow tea cups, a simple hand-crafted gaiwan, the fairness pitcher, a filter constructed from the small body of a gourd, and a modest bowl to collect the washings rested upon the cloth.

Moments later, he walked cautiously around the courtyard and bent to gather leaves that had long ago fallen to the ground. A student nearby added a complete leaf to the table; however, he rejected it – citing that its hue belonged to red whereas the 茶席 (cháxí, the tea stage) was yellow. The student looked across the table and noted the composition of hues. Turning to the leaves, both that student and I noted that all the leaves were composed of shades varying from burnt-orange to faded canaries. The tea master silently organized the leaves to pour forth out of a simple vase.

By adding fallen leaves to compliment the chaxi, the teacher illustrated 无害 (wú hài, ahimsa, non-harmful) ways to utilize the natural and local resources to unite nature and tea. He did not pluck blooming blossoms from a neighboring tree, neither did he buy a bouquet of bright, yellow flowers prematurely pruned – to instead support a minimalist approach in design. This respect for nature, thus the unity ever present in Buddhist doctrine, is an incremental part of the preparation before the tea ceremony even begins.

Each object chosen for the tea stage is selected with precision. Some ceremonies will only utilize the teaware needed to prepare tea: A water boiler, gaiwan, filter, tea cups, a place mat, tea cloth, various utensils to transport tea and tea cups; in addition to one of the following: A tea pan, tea boat, or bowl to contain unwanted tea water. The ceremony preparation includes selecting which tea(s) will be served and displaying a proper amount alongside the chaxi. Tea sets can vary in color and design, but in Chan ceremonies, simpler designs are utilized to support the Chan minimalism ideology. To the tea server’s discretion, other decorations can be added, often including a vase of flowers. By utilizing only the necessary tools and rejecting convoluted teaware, a tea master reflects the story of Siddhartha who rejected the riches inherited to him; yet, by adding limited decorations rooted in symbolism, a master reveals The Middle Way, as they have rejected both extremes.

Three people sit on the floor during gongfu: One pouring, one assisting, one playing a flute

Chan/Zen Aesthetic Gongfu Tea Ceremony

The Ceremony: A Cleansing Purification

The “Tea Ceremony is one of pure giving and receiving; it is a ritual for cleansing and purifying the souls of the participants in the ceremony” (Graves 350). After the participants have gathered around, the first step in the tea ceremony is to wash the teaware. This process physically cleanses the objects needed and serves as a symbolic baptism for participants.

Just-boiled water is poured into the pitcher before descending into the gaiwan. From the gaiwan, the water then re-enters the pitcher before dividing the water evenly into the tea cups. Physically, this process cleanses the teaware. In most lower-scale restaurants in China, free boiled water is available for customers. Seasoned customers will first splash a bit of water into the cup or bowl first, tilt the contents to touch all walls of the cup before promptly dumping it into a nearby trash bin. This process, in addition to cleaning, also prepares the teaware for the shock of more hot water. In this manner, the cup feels easier to hold than if hot water were directly poured in.

Whatever the variety of tea, in the Chan tea ceremony, they all require an awakening 醒茶(xǐng chá). To wash the leaves, the appropriate water temperature is used to pour atop the leaves before being immediately dumped out. This process should take no more than ten seconds. The practical reasoning for washing tea leaves is to remove any lingering germs from any who have touched the tea (from plucking in the field to selling in the market to processing and selling it in shops). Awakening tea can also release unwanted chemical residue from inorganic teas; however, on a philosophical level, the washing of leaves symbolizes the cleansing of oneself.

Whatever experiences a person undertakes, wherever the tea originates from, both can be cleansed: The tea through boiled water and the individual through meditation. In the sphere of meditation, shoes are taken off, eyes shut delicately, and legs folded into themselves – there is no separation of rank. All have the same purpose and are unified. During the tea ceremony, guests are not to focus on the self but are rather absorbed in the sensation of the tea ceremony. They are not to consider whether this tea is a variety they enjoy or dislike, but simply become one with the activity.

After the tea has been washed, cups are then presented to guests. In addition to the teaware and its aesthetics, every action within the construct of the tea ceremony contributes to the overall zen experience.  Masters differ in their approach: Some require the tea ceremony to be taken in complete silence, others allow light music to tinkle in the background, and others yet encourage participants to converse about their experience throughout the ceremony. Tea masters will serve all guests before beckoning that all are welcome to sample the tea; in this way, no one drinks first and no one drinks last.

The Art of Drinking Tea

Whatever the decibel count of the ceremony, guests serve an essential role as participants. In Chinese, one can drink tea 喝茶 (hē chá) or one can sample and savor tea 品尝茶 (pǐncháng chá). To drink tea is an inadvertent activity whereas to pǐncháng chá is an exercise to utilize all the senses.  品 pǐn is composed of three boxes, each box representing an oral radical. It is said that pǐn is so structured because when sampling tea, one must utilize three orifices to evaluate the tea: The eyes see the tea, the nose to smell the tea, and lastly the mouth to taste the tea.

First, one perceives tea with their sight. The tea master’s elegant hands firmly but delicately grasp a gaiwan in order to tilt the mouth open to release the tea within into the pitcher resting below. As the liquor falls, a soothing waterfall accompanies as music. The sleeves of the master rustle like autumn leaves. Each sound emphasizes the aesthetic of the ceremony. When the tea cup is finally given to the guest, they seize the cup and lift it closer to their eyes. They draw in the contours of the cup and the tea liquor resting within.

Guests shall then use their sense of smell to continue their appraisal as the smell of the tea will naturally waft upwards. Guests may compare the aroma to that of other scents they are familiar with. A Big Red Robe wulong tea may carry hints of a robust stonefruit forest whereas an aged white tea may release notes of budding peach flowers. In connecting similar scents, the participant realizes a circular unity within nature: What is harvested from the tea plant, what is grown within the soil, what is  – all belongs to nature. The Buddha and his teachings are also ingrained within this interconnection.

Lastly, the third and final oral radical of pǐn symbolizes that tea should be tasted. Tea should not be inhaled; rather, tea shall be treasured and sipped. It is a practice upheld from dynastic tea ceremonies for the tea drinker to empty their cup within three sips. As Chinese tea cups are typically anywhere between an inch to three inches tall, it is an appropriate size to sample teas without the teas becoming cool or cold. As there is a small volume, tea can readily refill the cup. The tea master will continuously refill the cups as a teacher must consistently impart knowledge to their students.

The tea cups typically hold three-quarters worth of tea. If the cup contains too little tea, then the host subtly implies that it is time for the guest to leave. Fill the cup too high and the drinker may burn their fingers on the rim of the cup. This three-quarters process again symbolizes the Middle Way.

Tea as Unity

The tea ceremony is a method of active meditation. Instead of sitting in padmasana humming sutras, participants are rather able to pǐncháng tea: To see, smell, and taste what tea is. “The principles that govern the [ceremony] are harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, which combine with what might be called the Zen aesthetic of emptiness to give the Tea Ceremony its distinctive feel. … tea is, after all, still tea. It is other things, but it is also tea” (Graves 350).

“见山是山,见水是水;见山不是山,见水不是水;见山还是山,见水还是水” (Kang). At first, to see a mountain is to see a mountain and to see water is to see water; then, to look at a mountain is to realize that it is not a mountain and looking at water was not water; alas, to see a mountain is to still view a mountain and to see water is still to view water. A proverb from Song dynasty Chan master Xing Si, 青原行思, describes his journey for viewing the external world in what he originally perceived as physical objects were physically objects before he discovered that the physical objects were not as what he previously saw. In the end, he realizes that the mountains are exactly what they are, mountains. His perceptions are not important; rather, the journey as his comprehension changes is important. This transformation of understanding is also present within the tea ceremony. Tea is a symbol of unity: To see tea is to know it is tea; then to see tea is to know it is not tea; finally, to see tea again is to know it is still tea.

While tea is/is not/is simply tea, others will argue that tea leaves characterize people. By symbolizing humans, tea is not tea. Some claim that white tea is like a tender newborn, green tea is the fragile children oft worn tired, wulong tea is the complex adolescent arising to meet the demands of society, black tea as the stronger punch of an adult in the prime of life, and dark tea is the seasoned elder who has witnessed and sparked changes in flavor. If tea can represent humankind, what then do the tea cup, the water, and the tea master all signify?

Yet as the tea ceremony draws to an end, the participant will realize that whatever metaphors can be said of the tea, tea is still tea. Alas, the tea leaves must ultimately be disposed of. No matter what quality, tea inevitably will evanescence as a trickling, agentless liquor.


Graves, David C. “Art and the Zen Master’s Tea Pot: The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional Theory of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 2016. Web. 

Hershock, Peter. “Chan Buddhism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015. Web.

Kang, Dongni. Buddhism & Culture Class. China, Chengdu. Southwest Minzu University. 27 Apr. 2016. Lecture.

Ludwig, Theodore M. “The Way of Tea: A Religio-Aesthetic Mode of Life.” History of Religions, Vol. 14. 1947. Print. 

LaFleur, William R. “Buddhism a cultural perspective.” 1988. Print.

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