“. . . tea experts, tea farmers, tea businessmen, and tea lovers . . . who look for their real heart through tea life . . . ”

I met a Korean monk, who is also a tea master, and asked him whether he could explain the concept of “tea person (Cha’ren).” I had been wondering about the concept for a long while. The Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans use the term “tea person (茶人),” but in different ways. Tea people in contemporary China include tea experts, tea farmers, tea businessmen, and tea lovers. In Korea, the term refers to those “who look for their real heart through tea life,” while in Japan, it seems to refer to a tea guru, such as Murata Shuko or Sen no Rikyu. Obviously, a “tea person” in contemporary China is actually a person who relates to tea in some way and does not really reflect my understanding of the term. I relate better to the definitions of “tea person” in Korea and Japan, but still the term is a bit vague.

The Korean monk (and tea master) I met offered the following explanation, which is the most complete I have heard to date:

“The concept of a tea person is the same as the concept of a flower or a saint. Why? Flowers treat everyone equally and without discrimination, while, at the same time, delivering peace and pleasure. The same is true of saints. When a tea person makes tea or drinks tea, he has the ability to observe the mutual interdependence of earth, water, air, and fire in the tea and tea set. This is what differentiates a tea person from ‘a person who is just having tea.’ A tea person possesses three characteristics: modesty, nondiscrimination, and emptiness. One thing is for sure – he who regards himself as a tea person is definitely not a tea person.”

This Korean monk usually does not like to express his opinions. In fact, he often answers others (including me) with “I don’t know.” I think that is one kind of practice of modesty, which does not mean he really does not know. But I was very lucky because he answered my question directly, clearly, and completely. He said it was because there is a kind of kama between us. Frankly, though, I did not completely understand his explanation. However, I memorized it instead of asking for clarification. I knew that I would understand it in time. However, my study of the concept of emptiness and of the Prajnaparamita literature has improved my understanding of the concept of a tea person. In this and my next two posts, I will try to illustrate my understanding of the concept of a tea person based on the concept of emptiness and the Prajnaparamita literature.

What is the meaning of Chadao?

Before we can fully understand the concept of a tea person, we need to understand what the word “Chadao” means. Understanding Chadao will also help us understand the concept of emptiness upon which the concept of a tea person is based.

Chadao is usually translated into English as “tea ceremony.” However, this is not accurate because the English word “ceremony” contains no reference to the word “Dao.” Some people translate Chadao as the “way of tea.” This seems to be more accurate because “Dao” can mean “way” or “path,” but Chadao does not refer to the detailed process of making or drinking tea; rather, it refers to path of “awakening” by way of the path of making, drinking, and enjoying a cup of tea.

The word “Chadao” first appeared in a poem written by the monk Jiaoran, a famous tea expert and poet during Tang dynasty. It is said that upon drinking his first cup of tea, Jiaoran awakened from worldly illusions; the second cup cleansed his spirit, just as the earth is cleansed by a spring rain. The third cup led to enlightenment, obviating the need to consider freedom from pain and difficulties. This was the first mention of Chadao, which means the way of enlightenment through tea.

The Chinese regard Luyu from the Tang Dynasty as the saint of tea and the originator of Chadao. However, Chadao was not mentioned in Luyu’s book, The Classic of Tea. Except for references to people who are modest and self-restrained in their moral behaviors and virtues, the entire book is really about tea making, planting, and selecting. If the word “Dao” is translated as “the detailed way,” then Luyu is the originator of the “way of tea making.” I guess that is one of the reasons why “tea art” replaced “Chadao” in contemporary China because it is really embarrassing when you claim something is “Chadao” when it is only a detailed account of making tea. In Chinese culture, when something is referred to as “Dao,” it confers a sacred meaning to it.

What is the sacred meaning of Chado?

In Korea, a tea person is a person who looks for their real heart through tea life. In other words, Chado is the way for a tea person to find their real heart. In Japan, Japanese Sado is based on the ideology of Zen Buddhism, and all the great tea gurus are actually zen masters. Thus, it is necessary for us to looking for the real meaning of “Chadao” by understanding the foundation upon which it is built.

Traditional Korean Tea Ceremony - Chadao - by Im Yeongsik

Based on the concept of emptiness and the Prajnaparamit literature, I would like to propose that Chadao is not tea ceremony and not the “detailed way of tea,” but rather a path to enlightenment by the way of tea through the practice of emptiness (shunyata). This path can be divided into three stages:

  • Chadao as a detailed way of tea, with the focus on the person who is making the tea
  • Chadao as an awakening by way of making, drinking, and enjoying a cup of tea, with the focus on a person learning to know emptiness
  • Chadao as a way of tea, with the focus on the tea person

In the first stage, Chadao is the practice of making tea, including the practice of concentration. In the second stage, which is the most important, Chadao is a path to enlightenment through the practice of emptiness (shunyata), which is the ultimate wisdom leading to full enlightenment. In the third stage, the focus is on the real-life characteristics of a tea person: modesty, lack of prejudice, and emptiness. The “sacred” meaning of Chadao can be found in the second stage.

But what is exactly is emptiness (sunyata)?

As the Korean Monk said, “When a tea person makes tea or drinks tea, he has the ability to observe the mutual interdependence of earth, water, air, and fire in the tea and tea set.  This is what differentiates a tea person from ‘a person who is just having tea.”

This is emptiness, which I will illustrate based on the Heart Sutra.  The Heart Sutra, the most compact version of the Prajnaparamita literature, claims that those who wish “to practice the profound perfection of wisdom should view things in this way,” implying that there is a certain way to view the world that leads to wisdom. What is this view? It is said: “Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form then is emptiness and emptiness then is form.” In fact, the term “prajna paramita” refers to Buddhist wisdom at its deepest level — not just wisdom, but the perfection of wisdom.

Before I illustrate the philosophical meaning of “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” let me return to the Korean monk’s words “to observe the mutual dependence of earth, water, air, and fire in the tea and tea set.” Then let me ask the question, “Empty of what?” When you see a tea cup, imagine the cup. Perhaps because it does not contain tea, you might consider it empty. But you cannot say that this cup is truly empty because it is full of air. A cup in a vacuum does not contain any air, but it still contains space, light, and radiation, as well as its own substance. 

When you observe a tea cup, when you touch it, you can see that you are also touching the clay and minerals and water with which this cup was made; you are also touching the fire in which the cup was born in the kiln. And you are also touching time, space, and your own consciousness.

This cup is full of the cosmos – space, time, consciousness, soil, air, and everything, so how can you say it is empty?

It is true that the cup is full of everything, except one thing – its inherent existence. The cup’s properties and components are not the cup. The function is not the cup. The shape is not the cup. Only all these aspects together make up the cup. One thing has to rely on all the other things in order to manifest. Thus, emptiness means being empty of one’s inherent existence. A cup is empty of its inherent existence. The Heart Sutra concludes with the profound words, “form is emptiness.” In another words, all things are empty. Wisdom is the capacity to see the emptiness of all things.

According to the doctrines of Buddhism, all things are empty because they are dependent on other things, because they are impermanent and subject to change, and because they lack inherent existence. “Intrinsic existence” means that things appear to exist independently. To say something has its “self” means it is a permanent, an everlasting, and an absolute entity. Early Mahayana Buddhists found no exceptions to the rule of emptiness. They examined the inherent existence of all things – matter and human beings – and found them all to be empty of unchanging, independent characteristics.

Other evidence seems to support the concept of emptiness. Evolutionary biology is a good example of this. Darwin discovered the “emptiness ” of species of plants and animals; that is, they were not fixed forms forever, but were actually impermanent and dependent on contextual conditions.

Have you heard of “hermitage tea” (草庵茶), which is the tea ceremony created 600 years ago by Murata Shuko. In his tea ceremony, “all men are created equal.” At that time, class discrimination in the tea ceremony was extreme. People from different classes used different doors to enter the tea room; the nobility entered through a large door, whereas people considered outcasts or lower class entered through a small door. Murata Shuko believed everyone should enter and exit through the small door. He also believed that everyone should use the same toilet. This is the reason why unoccupied toilets can be found as part of modern Japanese tea ceremonies. Moreover, he believed that people should be humble before their inferiors and slight their superiors. If the nobility arrived to one of Murata Shuko’s tea ceremonies later than the outcasts, Shuko would banish the nobility to the last seat.

From Wikipedia

Murata Jukō also known as Murata Shukō. 1423 – 1502

Now let us return to the Heart Sutra: “Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form then is emptiness and emptiness then is form.” We all have the habit or tendency to make concrete, to solidify, to grasp, and to fixate. However, Avalokitesvara says anything that you’re clinging to, anything that you currently believe to be so, is not real. We used to think the Earth was square, whereas it proved to be round. We used to think that species of plants and animals were fixed, whereas that proved not to be the case. People have the tendency to gravitate toward fixed thought; however, fixed thought itself is not real. It is empty.

In ancient Japan, people assumed without question that the nobility should enter the tea room through a large door, and the outcasts should enter through a small door, and that people should be slight their inferiors and humble to their superiors. What Murata Shuko did was to challenge fixed thought. This is Chadao. This is emptiness. This is the ability to ask real questions based on “taking nothing as a basic fact,” not yielding to the conventional views that dominate most human minds.

People not only tend to accept conventional views without question, but label objects when they perceive them. When we put a label on an object, the label takes the place of the actual object in our mind. However, our mental image or label can never represent all the qualities and characteristics of an object. Take a bowl, for example: we label this one for rice, that one for wine, and another for tea. However, is that the bowl’s nature? The thought that a bowl used generally for rice is inappropriate for tea is constructed by you; it is not determined by the bowl itself.

The Heart Sutra

When I first read in the Heart Sutra that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” I felt it was easier to understand the former than the latter. “Emptiness is form” is usually explained as emptiness manifests as form; that is, emptiness and form are inseparable. It is true there would be no emptiness if there were no form. Remember what emptiness is? Emptiness is empty of one’s inherent existence. If there is no form, then there is no emptiness. However, in my opinion, there are other meanings in it.

First, think about your first reaction when you heard that “form is emptiness” or “all things are empty”? When it comes to emptiness, people naturally connect it with nihility, which is based on the belief that reality is “unknowable, that nothing exists, that nothing meaningful can be communicated about the world.” It is important that emptiness in Buddhism should not be considered as nihility. First, nihility is based on the concept of existence, whereas emptiness involves the denial of existence (non-self or non-intrinsic existence).

Next, “form is emptiness” points out the absolute truth that everything is empty. However, based on the principle of the middle way of Buddhism, either being stuck in a fixed-thought view or using the absolute truth beyond our conventional life is wrong. Emptiness is the path to wisdom; however, it would be the “poison of Shunyara” if it were taken as dogma. Remember the question “Empty of what?” when Avalokitesvara says to view things in such a manner that is empty of fixed thought.

Thirdly, the Heart Sutra describes the way to practice the profound perfection of wisdom. Prajnaparamita could be translated as “transcendent knowledge.” It is the wisdom that sees things as they are, not bound by concepts or knowledge. Avalokitesvara has told us the way to practice the profound perfection of wisdom is to view the emptiness of all things. However, where is Prajnaparamita found? Where is emptiness located? Avalokitesvara said: “emptiness is form,” which compassionately returns us to the conventional world, which points out that Prajnaparamita is found in each of us, in our life, not beyond our life. Prajnaparamita does not exist anywhere but in yourself. Therefore, wisdom is available to us by transforming our daily life.

Three stages of Chadao

That’s the reason why I propose my three stages of Chadao. Chadao is a path to transformation. During the first stage, people improve their tea-making skills and their ability to concentrate. Concentration is not only for making good tea, but for preparing the practice of the mind to be open. From conventional tea making, through the practice of Chadao in the second stage, the absolute truth – emptiness – is brought in. The practice of Chadao, in my opinion, includes being empty of matter, empty of fixed-thought views, and empty of empty (the poison of Shunyara). In the final stage, a new person is born with no attachment to matter, fixed thought, or emptiness itself; this person is now a “tea person.” His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present.

This article has been reformated and updated from the original December 11, 2012 publication.