The flavor of Zen and the flavor of tea is the same.
– A Japanese proverb
Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha
Buddha was a contemporary of Pythagoras, Zoroaster, and Confucius. He 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 single, simple explanation for China’s nationwide adoption of the tea habit and then the spread of tea around the globe, it is clear that the Chinese associated it with the introduction and spread of the Buddha dharma.
Wu Li Zhen
One account claims a Buddhist monk named Wu Li Zhen brought a tea plant back with him when he returned from a pilgrimage to India during the first century. He is credited with cultivating the first tea garden in 50 BCE. Prior to this time, tea was primarily harvested from wild plants and consumed as a bitter broth, often times referred to as a soup. Cultivation enabled tea farmers to develop ways to enhance the flavor of Camellia sinensis.
The plants he cultivated are known as Gan Lu, which means “Sweet Dew,” and is a famous tea in China. One of the legends is that, after he achieved enlightenment from deep meditation, the locals around Meng Mountains nicknamed this tea “Xian Cha,” which means Tea of the Immortal. Only the leaves picked in the misty peak areas of Mount Meng can be considered a true Meng Ding Gan Lu.
Another story says tea sprang from the eyelids of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen, called Daruma by the Japanese. He had sailed from India to China, but once he 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 is said to have sliced off his eyelids to ensure they would never again close and interrupt his wakeful meditation. 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.
Teas of Yunnan Province
Yunnan Province, the homeland of the wild tea plant, and Sichuan Province, 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 adapted tea to the needs of their spiritual practice.
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 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 drinking tea, which Buddhists used as an aid to meditation and a substitute for alcohol.
Monasteries produced superior teas, gradually developing improved methods of manufacturing the leaf and preparing the drink. Unlike smallholders 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 community.
Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea
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 was brought up assuredly grew and manufactured tea. Its monks would have followed the Rule drawn up by the Chan priest Baizhang, 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; the monks used tea every day to aid 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 spiritual refreshment. The ritual of preparing and partaking in it was an occasion for spiritual conviviality, a way to go beyond this world and enter a realm apart. Thus taking tea 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.