Tea and Zen Are of One Taste
Translation by Mizhe
Tea, Zen and Serenity
There was a tea master who was highly skilled in the art of tea making. One day, he was shocked to receive a letter which stated, “I have an unsettled score with your father and will come visit you one night. Be prepared to fight to the death.” The tea master did not know Kung fu. His father had passed away and thus could not provide him counsel. He went to a Zen master seeking advice. The master told him, “There is a way to save you.”
Following the Zen master’s suggestion, the tea master was performing tea rituals at the appointed time during the evening. He calmly and methodically arranged the utensils, boiled the water, washed, steeped and sampled the tea. Suddenly, a man in black jumped off the roof, drew his sword and started toward him. However, the tea master leisurely went on with his tea preparation. The intruder watched him closely with menace. Gradually, his sword hand started to tremble. The tea master acted as if he was all alone. He continued to pour tea and sip from his tea cup. Not even a single drop was spilled. Finally, the intruder threw away his sword, kneeled down and bowed: “Please spare my life, grand master!”
Staying calm and relaxed in the face of a deadly enemy is only possible if one has reached the realm of utmost inner serenity. The intruder mistook the tea master for a Kung fu master because of the supreme composure that was demonstrated. He was not aware that at the highest level, the Tao of tea, Zen and martial art share the realm of serenity. The Zen master’s life-saving advice was based on this profound knowledge.
Tea, Zen, the Way as It Is
The Tao of tea enjoyed an ancient tradition which took shape during the Tang dynasty. Both the tea and its preparatory routine were believed to possess medicinal and meditative values. Tao is “the way it is” – nothing to add and nothing to take away. This is the guiding principle for the Tao of tea. The best is the most natural. From tea leaf harvesting and water selection to the making of the cups and pots, the closer it is to the natural way, the better. The ceremony of tea preparation and tasting strives for smooth and purposeful movements which manifest the unification of body and mind, and reflects the participants’ inner peace and harmony. At its core, the Tao of tea is to ponder and understand life through everyday experience. In comparison, Zen focuses on becoming enlightened through observing ordinary details of everyday life. The two share a very similar approach.
During the Tang dynasty, a Zen master named Huihai was one day visited by a monk from the Vinaya School. The monk asked Huihai, “For a master who has attained such an advanced stage of enlightenment, do you still perform daily cultivation?”
Huihai answered, “Of course!”
The monk asked, “What is your cultivation method?”
Huihai answered, “I eat when I am hungry, I sleep when I am tired.”
The monk was surprised, “Can this be called cultivation? Who does not do this every day?”
Huihai answered, “It is not as common as you think. Some people do not eat properly when it is time to eat and they do not sleep when it is time to rest. They always come up with excuses to let their mind wander. I am very different from them.”
Focus on the moment, live here and now. The true self emerges when the mind is pure. To cultivate is to get in touch with the natural self. The Tao of tea and Zen share this principle.
Thoughts on Tea, Zen and Life
All things and all beings are good for something. This is true of both tea and people alike. All plants absorb energies from their surroundings, including earth, air, sunshine, wind and people. Tea leaves therefore contain ingredients that are beneficial to human bodies. Different types of tea produce very different effects. For example, green tea promotes bowel movements. However, it is cold in nature and has high caffeine content; therefore, it tends to cause a cold stomach and sleepless nights. In comparison, fermented tea is gentler on the body and it can warm the stomach, enhancing digestion and excretion. People suffering from excess stomach acid often experience stomach discomfort in the mornings. A warm cup of pu-erh tea, which is fermented, would put the body at ease.
Each one of us is unique. We all have our roles to play. No one is superior to others. There is a shining diamond inside each of us. Understanding the Tao of life and becoming blessed, wise and enlightened is a matter of elevating our perspective. Ponder, cultivate and act – those are the keys. Self-awareness aided by Zen training can quickly help us change our perspective, improve ourselves, and bring happiness and good fortune to people around us. Both tea and Zen can become a natural part of everyday life.
Reaching the Zen State Through Tea
Zen was popular during the Tang dynasty. Tea also became popular then, first as a favored drink in Buddhist monasteries. The bitterness and slightly sweet aftertaste mingled with the subtle fragrance helped the monks meditate. A monk-poet from the Tang dynasty wrote a song in praise of tea drinking:
One cup awakens my mind to be as expansive as Heaven and Earth
Two cups refresh me like misty rain clearing dust from the air
Three cups grant me enlightenment, skipping the trials of pain and suffering.
Similar to Zen, the effects of tea range from relaxing the body and calming the mind, all the way to becoming free from daily worries. Tea preparation and drinking can be considered “meditation in action.” Why don’t we give it a try to rediscover our true self and see life as it really is?
Tea and Zen are of one taste. Rusticity, modesty and simplicity are the essential elements. There are too many different ingredients, often sugary, in today’s popular tea drinks, which include iced tea, red tea, bubble tea and rice ball tea, among others. Many people already consume more than enough sugar from other sources. When various fruits are added to tea, they can become harmful. A healthy diet is based on simplicity and should be as natural as possible. Extravagance is counterproductive to one’s health.
Tea can aid people in search of Zen, and Zen enhances one’s life. An infusion of tea ritual and Zen mindset can harmoniously create a blend of life that is peaceful and beautiful. Sit down, relax, enjoy a cup of tea and steep your body and mind in the simple and deep pleasure of tea and Zen.