Tea and meditation
- 28. 03. 2016
Hasegawa Tōhaku, Pine Trees, 1593.
TEA AND MEDITATION
The very legend about the origins of tea connects it to meditation practice.
Tea is linked to Bodhidharma. This Indian monk, part of the unbroken lineage of masters and disciples from Buddha, came to China in the 5th century, and is considered the founder of Zen. Many stories about his life are part of the legends and myths, that don’t serve historians so much as they serve masters as part of ‘the work’. These stories are symbolic and metaphoric, describing and conveying more than is being said.
So, one of these legends says that Bodhidharma, during one of his long meditation solitudes, fatigued from his demanding practice, closed his eyes to sleep for a moment. Angry for not being able to stay awake, he tore his eyelids (in some versions, eyelashes, if you prefer this image to stay with you) and threw them to the ground, out of which tea leaves sprouted. The great master took the tea leaves and chewed upon them, suddenly feeling as ‘the one who is awakened’. With a clear and focused mind, he continued his meditation.
This story is obviously referring to meditation with open eyes (zazen), which is, still today the practice of Zen Buddhism.
This influential master, called ‘the blue-eyed barbarian’ is nearly always depicted as bearded and ill-tempered, and is present today in Japanese culture, in the Daruma doll (Daruma is Japanese for Bodhidharma). These dolls, given for luck and encouragement, often represent his image without eyelashes or eyelids.
New discoveries on the benefits of tea for the human body continue to be published, though we already have enough reason to enjoy this plant and its many positive effects. Today’s chemists and botanists say that the most important parts of tea are in its chemical structures. These chemical structures give tea its specific taste and aroma, and are responsible for its effects of simultaneous relaxation and stimulation.
Long before people were aware of its influence and beneficial effects Lu Yu in the 8th century, in one of the most famous works on tea (the first tea monography) called ‘The classic of tea’, stated ‘tea, when taken over a long period of time, gives a person strength, contentment, and purpose’. He recommended three cups a day as the right measure, saying having more is ‘excessive’. We are lucky the poet Lu Tong did not listen to his advice, so we are treated with one of the most famous poems on tea, ‘The seven bowls poem’:
“The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.”
Translated by Steven W. Owyoung
Zen and tea
Zen, being the religion where the emphasis is not on the act itself, but on the way it is being done makes the connection with everyday life intimate. Thus, cleaning the monastery is no less valuable than sitting in the meditation hall, and the possibility to meditate while cooking is as strong as anywhere else. So, in the monastery there is a place for the tea house (its Japanese ideogram can be translated also as “Abode of the Void”). In this way, preparing the tea becomes a symbolic opportunity for our mindfulness, bringing awareness into what we do: waiting for the water to boil and listening to the bubbles travelling to the surface, or being aware of our guest to whom we serve the tea, sensing his unique rhythm and respecting his readiness for the next step. In this way, as in Argentine tango, we cannot continue to move on with another before listening to where he or she is in this very moment.
Out of this Chado, ‘The Way of Tea’, or ‘The Japanese Tea Ceremony’ is born as a reminder that all gains value when we are fully present in it. This meditation in movement is an opportunity to understand that for which Osho says: ‘The tea ceremony is only the beginning. I say unto you: Your every act should be a ceremony. If you can bring your consciousness, your awareness, your intelligence to the act, if you can be spontaneous, then there is no need for any other religion, life itself will be the religion.’
This was said by Rikyu, the tea master:
“Tea is not but this:
First you make the water boil,
Then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it.
That is all you need to know.“
If it seems easy, as it did to a disciple who commented on a similar answer that he knew that already, then hear Rikyu’s response, too: ‘If you can do it, I will be your disciple.’
The invitation for listening to our senses that takes us back to our humanness, is an invitation for coming from the head, down to the belly. This humanness includes our body and our transience, so instead of brooding over it, why not enjoy what has been given to us? And have a cup of tea…
And if we start to lose ourselves in thoughts, then similar to the Daruma dolls which are made so they cannot be turned over no matter how often they are pushed, let’s come back with a smile and humour into our own center.
‘Forget all about this spirituality
Relax in your ordinary life.
Eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty,
go to sleep when you are feeling sleepy,
and wake up in the early morning
when you are feeling that you have rested enough.
Just live the ordinary life joyously,
Don't hanker for something great,
ultimate, far away.
Don't bother about the other world,
the beyond – this world is more than one needs.
This world is so beautiful,
who cares about the other world?’