Updated: March 29, 2019

When we talk of Zen thoughts concerning tea culture, most readers will think of Japanese Teaism. It is true that the Japanese have incorporated traditional Zen Buddhism and religious practice into daily life and transformed them into established customs. In addition, Zen thoughts strongly influence how the Japanese behave. These thoughts are not only at the centre of the Japanese tea ceremony, but also at the heart of Japanese flower arrangement arts and incense burning appreciation. Zen is more closely related to Japanese Teaism because the Japanese have enshrined the tea ceremony as a highlight to popularize national culture. The Japanese matcha tea ceremony actually originated from tea whisking practice in the Song Dynasty. Similarly, Japanese Zen was also introduced from China. This chapter will not attempt to approach tea ceremony in a systematic way or expound on Zen thoughts embedded in the Japanese tea ceremony, but talk generally about how Zen thoughts have influenced tea brewing practice.

Zen-tea-picking Image crushing tea leavesThe Oneness of tea and Zen occupies a dominant position in Zen thought in the tea ceremony. There is a common Chinese saying which says the most indispensable daily necessities in a man’s life include firewood, grain, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar and tea, which indicates what a significant role tea plays in the daily life of the Chinese.

The belief in Oneness of tea and Zen equates ordinary tea drinking practice with Zen meditation, which exemplifies the notion that life should be centred on Buddhist practice. The belief in the Oneness of tea and Zen experienced constant development until gaining maturity in the Song Dynasty, when the Zen school was established as the mainstream in Chinese Buddhism. This Buddhist school valued unexpected comprehension, which means that Buddhist practitioners could spontaneously achieve enlightenment through introspection. In this process, monks relied on tea to relieve exhaustion and restore inner peace when lost in meditation. In daily life, monks also resorted to tea to dispel distraction from worldly lusts. For this reason, many elements of tea ceremony evolved from Buddhist practice. Prior to the Tang Dynasty, when “The Classic of Tea” was published, tea ceremony was already well developed, sharing a bond with Buddhism which could not be easily severed. Sage of Tea, Lu Yu, was a Buddhist follower himself. In the Tang and Song Dynasties, the tea ceremony was introduced to Japan by two monks named Jianzhen and Eisai. Later, it was popularized by Japanese monks.

There is an oft-quoted Buddhist story concerned with the Oneness of tea and Zen. It is said that a Tang Zen practitioner in Zhaozhou Prefecture had a monk visitor. The practitioner asked, “Have you ever been here before?” His visitor answered, “I have been here once.” The host replied, “Go have some tea!” One day, the host asked another visitor the same question. The visitor said that he had never been there. The host’s reply remained the same, “Go and have some tea.” His servant, after observing his replies, asked out of curiosity, “why are you replying in the same way regardless of others’ answers?” The host called his servant by name and said to him, “Go and have some tea.” This anecdote is believed to be of milestone importance in the establishment of the idea of the Oneness of tea and Zen. Zen thoughts can be interpreted in various ways, just like the host’s replies concerning tea.

china-tea-crockery Image tea being poured into a cupThe idea of the Oneness of tea and Zen is closely related to the Zen school. But if we assume the “Zen” in “Oneness of tea and Zen” shares an identical meaning with the “Zen” in “Zen school,” we have arrived at a false conclusion. Considering millennia-old Chinese religions and cultural customs, the former does share something in common with the latter, but the former is much more meaningful in traditional Chinese culture than the latter. To a certain extent, the beliefs of Chinese religious followers can be generalized into “Confucian thoughts are fundamental; Taoist principles are pragmatic; but the ultimate pursuit for a man lies in pursuing nothing.” This generalization commits the error of overgeneralization, and does not apply to all Chinese believers in different dynasties and in different social classes. However, this generalization approximates the lifelong pursuits of traditional Chinese literati. Considering this, the Oneness of tea and Zen is concerned with conflicting concepts of action and inaction, secular life and monastic life, ritual and personality, moderation and harmony as well as the relationship between man and heaven.

Zen thought in the tea ceremony is not only restricted to historical anecdotes and cultural research, but also associated with tea ceremony masters. These thoughts are present in each and every tea brewing and drinking practice in our daily life. If we seek peace and relief by experiencing the beauty of ordinary life through every practice, then everything happening in life can be transformed into a valuable opportunity to appreciate the beauty of life.

The “let it be” mentality

The “let it be” mentality is a significant element of Zen thought that we should think about. Each day, we may have several cups of tea, some brewed by ourselves and some served by others. When brewing the tea by ourselves, we might inadvertently make the tea too strong because we are caught up in a business call. When served by others, we may regret that they have made black tea rather than our favourite green tea; or perhaps the tea leaves are not as good-quality as we thought. Real tea lovers will not be influenced by their personal preference and dilute the over-strong liquor with water, and might feel as if they are drinking an unfamiliar kind of tea. No matter what conditions, they will make best use of what they have in hand and try every means to optimize their enjoyment of the tea. This mentality and behaviour exemplifies the principles of Zen thought.

china-tea-ceremony Japanese woman serving teaThe “all are equal” mentality is another significant element of Zen thought. In the tea brewing process, every steeping will produce different flavours. Therefore, tea brewers are supposed to first pour tea liquor into a pitcher which is commonly known as the “Justice Cup” and then share it among different drinkers, rather than serving someone before others. If we have no justice cup in hand, we can find other solutions. For example, if two drinkers are served, we should fill the teapot with two cupfuls of water. When pouring the tea liquor, we should pour half a cup into the first cup, and a full cup into the second, and then fill the first cup. Steady hands and the continuity of movement will also help to ensure that the liquor in the two cups is of the same strength. If four drinkers are served, this rule also applies. This way of sharing crystallizes the wisdom of the ancient Chinese, and their insistence on treating everyone as equal.

In addition to “let it be” and “all are equal,” other Zen thoughts are widely observed in the tea brewing practice. The key lies in whether we can understand the Oneness of tea and Zen in daily life and the most ordinary things around us. For instance, the importance of ensuring balance and harmony in our lives. These elements can also be expressed in the tea brewing process through careful consideration of the amount of water and tea used, and how long the tea is brewed. In daily life, we make preparations in advance for the tasks we plan based on previous experience. Similarly, we can learn and make adjustments to the way to prepare tea based on our own evaluation of the tea liquor. Also, the consistency and fluidity of the tea brewer’s movements can help to concentrate the brewers’ mind in a similar way to Zen principles. The brewer can also identify the care with which they treat their teaware as a microcosm of wider conduct in life. Even in cleansing the teaware following the brewing process, we can express gratitude for the tea and the gift of nature, a metaphor for our overall gratitude for life in general.

Luo Jialin holds an MFA from Peking University and is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Ljubljana of Slovenia. An expert in tea ceremony, he won certification as the tea-making master from Taiwan Luyu Tea Culture Institute. He lives in Beijing, China. This excerpt was republished from The Book of Tea with permission of the publisher Earth Aware Editions. © 2012 Earth Aware Editions. Buy the book!