Tea now enjoys a prominent place in many Buddhist traditions, but in the time of Gautama Buddha (the first Buddha and the founder of Buddhism), tea had not yet reached India, and wouldn’t for hundreds of years. It was because of traveling monks going to China that tea finally met with Buddhism, and since then, the two have been closely intertwined.
Many of you will know the tea origin myth associated with Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who is credited with founding the Chan tradition of Buddhism in China, which eventually developed into Zen Buddhism in Japan. Legend has it that after a very long time spent in intense meditation, Bodhidharma drifted off to sleep. Upon awakening, he was so disappointed and frustrated with himself, that he tore off his own eyelids and threw them to the ground in a rage. According to the myth, the eyelids took root and sprouted into the first tea plant. Although quite obviously this isn’t true, it serves as a wonderful example of how closely linked tea and Buddhism have been for centuries.
In the five precepts (the five skillful actions), the Buddha labeled the consumption of drugs and intoxicants as an unskillful action. It is unknown whether or not he meant substances that can alter the state of the mind and body or substances that can cause actual harm to the mind and body. Precise meanings are often lost in translation, leaving much of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) open for interpretation. However, it should be noted that if the Buddha meant substances that can alter the mind and body, tea might be considered one of those substances in many cases due to its extraordinary ability to focus and calm the body/mind.
In the case of tea, I doubt the Buddha would be against its consumption as it is not a harmful substance if consumed in moderation; it allows for longer and increasingly productive meditation sessions (without altering perceptions), and it can serve as a powerful reminder of our interconnection with the natural world and other Humans.
It should be noted that the idea of caffeinated beverages being against the five precepts is the subject of a number of hot debates in Buddhist communities, and does cause a great deal of confusion. Despite the confusion and debate, monastics and lay people alike have been consuming and enjoying tea for centuries.
In China, a text called the Ch’a Ching outlined the ideal methods to properly brew, cultivate and store tea. The Ch’a Ching, or “Tea Classic” was written by Lu Yu, a tea master who was raised by a Buddhist monk. The Ch’a Ching is heavily influenced by Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucianist philosophies alike. It is an important document to the history of tea and is what might have inspired the conception of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Buddhist monastics in the Japanese Zen tradition developed the Japanese tea ceremony as both a way to enjoy tea and a way to meditatively energize themselves for their day of fervent meditation ahead. Since its initial creation, the Japanese tea ceremony has evolved and been refined to incorporate many new features that add to the philosophical and meditative value of the ceremony. A number of Japanese Buddhist tea masters are credited with the addition of simplicity and honesty of self to the tea ceremony. They taught that one should bring themselves to tea in their true form and use utensils and tools that aren’t distractingly ornate or valuable. In their view, well used and simple tea utensils were more valuable to the ceremony than elegant and expensive ones, as they might distract from the tea’s qualities. Not only were their methods revolutionary for the tea ceremony, they also expressed the Buddhist values of simplicity, wholeness of self, mindfulness, and modesty.
In today’s Buddhist communities of the West, tea is consumed as a pre and post meditation prep, as well as a meditative practice in itself. It is used to help the mind prepare for a meditation session and to re-energize the mind after the session. For Western Buddhists, green tea seems to be the most favored for this purpose. It is also often consumed as a healthy refreshment during gatherings and meetings.
Although tea was not present in India in the time of the Buddha, Buddhism has played a critical role in the evolution of tea culture. Whether it’s because of Buddhism’s involvement in origin myths, or its influence on tea preparation techniques and ceremonies, it is a seemingly inseparable part of the world of tea.