Edited by Qing Feng March 26, 2010
The Origin of Tea
There are seven things that Chinese people are concerned about in their daily lives: “firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.” Even though tea is last on the list of people’s daily necessities, it has quite a significant history and cultural connotation, as the Chinese people have long had the tradition of “having a cup of tea after a meal.” China is the origin of tea and tea culture, and tea has thus accompanied the Chinese nation for 5000 years. As stated in a couplet, “A cup of spring tea temporarily keeps a guest, a simple and clean life inspires one to become immortal.” Offering guests a cup to tea is a fine Chinese tradition. So today let us talk about “tea.”
Regarding the origin of tea, there is a Chinese legend about Shennongshi. “When Shennongshi was looking for medicinal herbs he tasted hundreds of kinds of herbs and grasses. One day he encountered 72 poisons, but then used tea as a detoxifying antidote.” As the legend goes, our ancestor Shennongshi had a belly that was transparent like crystal. No matter what he ate, he could see it very clearly through his transparent belly. At that time, people were living in primitive conditions and ate everything raw, such as fish, meat, vegetables and fruit, so diarrhea was very common. The legend says that in order to help people, Shennongshi tasted all kinds of herbs and vegetation, and then he discovered what happened in his body after he ate various kinds of foods. He traveled over mountains and rivers all year long. One day Shennongshi saw a kind of plant with green leaves and white flowers, and he ate the leaves. After he ate them, he noticed something strange happening in his stomach. The leaves not only moved all around and up and down in his stomach and cleaned up all the food he had eaten, but they also left a fragrant taste in his mouth and a feeling of freshness. Shennongshi was extremely happy to discover the detoxifying effect of the leaves. He believed that the discovery of tea was bestowed upon him by heavenly gods as their appreciation for his kindness in trying to find medicinal herbs to treat people’s illnesses in his old age. Shenongshi was grateful to the heavenly gods, and he became even more diligent in collecting medicinal herbs. From then on, whenever he got poisoned when tasting herbs, he used the green leaves for detoxification. Since the green leaves played the role of a doctor (to check and clean up his stomach), Shennongshi called the green leaves “cha” (examine). Later, people changed the character to “cha” (tea). This is how tea was discovered.
Because “tea” can quench one’s thirst, refresh oneself, and neutralize poison, tea trees were collected and grown in later years. They were viewed as a kind of herb for maintaining good health outside of medicinal herbs.
Gradually “tea” became well-known, and, aside from using it as a form of medicine, people also used it as an item of tribute, a dish or a kind of beverage. Through modifications in different dynasties, we have the tea of today. In summary, tea was a beneficial medicine discovered by our ancestor Shennongshi, a reward bestowed upon him by heaven as a form of appreciation for his kindness towards people. Gods arranged for Shennongshi to discover tea to make it beneficial for humanity.
(Source of the image: Shen Yun)
The Development of Tea
After tea was discovered, people went through several developmental stages in its application. Today we make a beverage use boiling water to make tea from tea leaves. In ancient times, our ancestors used tea as a medicine. At that time, people cut off branches from wild tea trees, picked the tips of the the leaves, boiled them in water, and then drank the water. This is what people called “porridge tea.” The tea made this way was very bitter and was therefore called “bitter tea” at the time.
By the time of the Qin and Han Dynasties, people developed new methods to prepare and use tea. They did not boil fresh tea leaves. Instead, they baked “tea cakes” on the fire, then ground them to dust. Boiling water was added to make tea. They mixed spring onion, ginger, and orange into it, and called it “baked tea.”
In the Tang Dynasty, people made tea cakes. When they had tea, they first broke a tea cake, ground it finely and put it through a sieve, placed the fine tea in a cup, and poured boiling water into it. Tea culture gained in popularity at this time. Gradually “tea drinking” became “tea tasting.” Also popular were tea banquets that were held at the royal palace, in temples, and among scholars. The atmosphere at a tea banquet was usually solemn and elegant and followed strict rules of etiquette. The tea served had to be of high quality, and the water had to be from well-known springs. The tea set used also needed to be precious and of a rare quality. The tea banquet usually began with the person in charge personally mixing the tea, or overseeing the mixing of the tea, to show respect to the guests. This was followed by presenting the tea, receiving the tea, smelling the tea, appreciating the color of the tea, and tasting the tea. After three rounds, people would begin to comment on the tea, appraise the fine moral qualities of the host, enjoy the scenery, and chitchat or write prose or poems.
By the Ming Dynasty, people usually poured water directly into a tea pot or a tea cup with loose tea leaves in it, making tea drinking simpler and more convenient. As time went on, people became more and more conscious of the fast pace of life and started to do things with efficiency in mind. Some people started to drink instant tea, or for health reasons they drank health tea, either ordinary tea or decaffeinated tea. However, most people were just “drinking tea” instead of “tasting tea.”
There was a man called Lu Yu in the Tang Dynasty, who, after many years of observation and research, wrote a book entitled Cha Jing. This book summarized a set of methods, from growing tea and picking tea to making tea and tea tasting. This book also described the deep cultural connotation of the art of tea, giving shape to the earliest Dao of tea. People in later generations called Lu Yu the “Sage of Tea.”
The tea culture reflects characteristics of eastern traditional culture–it is a combining of “tea” and the “Dao.”
China’s ancient sage Lao Zi said, “The Dao can be called the Dao, but it is not the ordinary Dao.” He also said, “The Dao is extensive and is everywhere right beside you.” Then what is “Dao?” It is said in China’s Confucian classic The Golden Mean, “The mandate of heaven is called nature; to follow nature is called the Dao.”
In fact, the essence of the “Dao” is to tell us that the existence of all matter in the universe, including the rotation of the cosmos, the procreation of mankind, the change of dynasties, and the birth, aging, sickness and death of human beings all follow the “Dao,” and they all follow a certain pattern. Creation-stasis-degeneration-destruction is the law of the universe. Consequently, what one can do is to “return to his original, true self” and return to his prenatal nature because one’s prenatal nature was pure and kind, and it was linked to the universe. By doing so, people can achieve the realm of heaven and man combined into one and the Dao following nature. This is what the ancient people called the “Dao” of cultivation.
So the “Dao” reflects the principles and the law of the universe and life, and the Chinese people don’t talk about the “Dao” lightly, as they believe it is something very deep and profound. It is not something that can be defined clearly. People in modern China are often cut off from the “Dao” by the term “superstition,” unlike in Japan, where there is the Dao of tea, the Dao of flowers, the Dao of incense, the Dao of the sword. In wrestling there are also judo (the way of gentleness) and Taekwondo. In fact, in ancient China, there was “Dao” in all trades and professions, and people were also interested in pursuing the Dao. Therefore, ancient Chinese also had the Dao in tea tasting.
Tea culture is a kind of “intermediary” culture, where tea functioned as a carrier to pass on and carry on the spirit of Chinese traditional culture. Liu Zhenliang in the Tang Dynasty clearly stated in the ten virtues of tea drinking, “Tea can carry on the Dao, and tea can refine one’s will.” Then what is the Dao of tea?
On the surface, there are tea etiquette, tea practices, tea methods, tea techniques, tea arts, and tea essence, which are often referred to as the six things about tea. Learning about the Dao of tea is to enlighten to the spirit of the Dao of tea through these six things. People appear to learn the techniques, while in fact the focus is not on “techniques” but on the “spirit.” However, to learn about the spirit, one has to start with the techniques. One needs to understand this principle to talk about the Dao of tea
The “Bitter” Taste of Tea
Tea is bitter, but it is tasty. People can deliberate about the bitterness in life from tea tasting. How much bitterness is there in life? In Buddhism, it is said that there is bitterness in birth, in old age, in sickness and in death. There is bitterness in grievance, in love and parting, in pursuing things, etc. In short, all matter that constitutes the existence of mankind and the spiritual elements involved in the process of such existence can bring people “bitterness and sorrow.” That’s why the Buddha said, “The sea of suffering is boundless; yet with a turn of the gear one can return to the shore.” This is the same principle as returning to one’s original, true self in the Dao school. Therefore, only by gaining insight into life and the mundane world can one find relief from the “bitterness.” Tea is bitter. Li Shizhen wrote in Compendium of Materia Medica, “Tea is bitter and cold, most yin and most effective in reducing internal heat, which is the cause of hundreds of illnesses. After experiencing the internal heat, there is a feeling of clear freshness.” People can enlighten to the principles in life from tasting the sweetness after tasting the bitterness in tea; they understand about living a simple life and regarding hardship as joy.
The Beauty of Emptiness or Calmness in the Dao of Tea
The Dao of tea is particular about being “harmonious, calm, contented, and truthful” and regarding “calmness” as the road one must follow to reach a state of selflessness, without any notions. Does this “tranquility” mean silent “quietness” to the point of solemnity? It is certainly not so. The tranquility in the Chinese Dao of tea refers to the calmness in the spiritual realm, alongside the external quietude or serenity. As long as one maintains tranquility within, nothing stops one from enjoying the chats, the laughter, the music, or opera. When people taste tea, they need to let go of their internal anxiety and attachments and keep a calm mind and heart before entering the state in which they can calmly appreciate the color, the fragrance, the taste and the shape of tea, reflecting upon life and molding their temperament, and achieve a state of emptiness, while enjoying the beauty of contentedness and tranquility.
The “Ordinary Nature” of the Dao of Tea
Japanese tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyu once said, “…(you) should know that the nature of tea is no more than boiling water to make tea.” He hit the nail on the head, and pondered that the nature of the Dao of tea is indeed to enlighten to the mystery of the universe and life through trivial things in daily life. The cultivation of Buddhahood and the Dao also requires people to enlighten to great principles through daily “cultivation and practice” amidst trivial things. Therefore, there was an ancient saying, “Don’t refrain from doing a good deed simply because it is small; don’t engage in anything bad, even though it is only a small thing.” One must not ignore small good deeds, because every good deed will accumulate virtue (de); at the same time one must not take reckless action because it is only a trivial thing; for if one does bad things, one will reduce his share of happiness allocated by destiny. In serious cases, one might even have his life and fortune shortened and implicate his family. One may not see the effect straight away, but if the bad karma accumulates, there will be a time when such cause-effect retributions are settled.
“Letting Go” in the Dao of Tea
People feel suffering because they cannot “let go” of things. Therefore, the Buddha School tells people to “let go” of attachments. One can only enlighten to the Dao by letting go of all attachments, otherwise all his efforts will be in vain. What are the things that people need to let go of? One needs to let go of worries in life, let go of fame, personal interests and sentiments, let go of all kinds of attachments and desires, and let go of “all that one cannot let go of.” When you let go of all these, you will certainly feel extremely relaxed, and when you look around, you will see the sky is blue and so is the sea, the hills are green and waters clear, the weather is sunny and the breeze gentle and the moon is bright and stars shinny. Tea tasting is also particular about being able to put aside what one is doing at present to snatch a moment of leisure from the mental pressure and to relax one’s closed mind. As a poem goes, “Let go if you want to, then what can worry you? Be a carefree person, enjoy the grandness of stars and the moon.” Hopefully we can all let go of things and become carefree tea people.
So, first and foremost in the Dao of tea is the cultivation of mind and temperament, to gain an insight into life from tasting the bitterness in tea. One must maintain a mind void of attachments and see the truth in ordinary life. In the end one should let go of all bitterness and pleasure and enlighten to the principles in life and the profundity of the universe and return to one’s original, true self. Every profession and every culture bestowed by the Divine can help people with cultivation and improve one’s realm, because in the eyes of gods, humans did not come to this world just to be humans, and there is a profound inner meaning and significance involved. Gods are offering hints and protecting humanity all the time, hoping that human beings can take the path towards godhood and return to their origin and true selves.
At this Doomsday period, when the great universal law has come to the human world to offer salvation and provide the opportunity to return to the divine, many people still struggle in the sea of bitterness and have not realized the painstaking efforts of the Divine. My friends, if you want to know more about the intricate universe and the true heavenly secrets, I would encourage you to read the precious book Zhuan Falun in your leisure time. Then you may understand all you want to know.