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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Zen Tea


It finally arrived! A big shipment of tea from my brother, including the type of green tea produced in my village, so that when I opened the package, my entire apartment smelled like my home town. What a sweet feeling! But the most special thing he sent might be the tea from a temple close to my home, which is produced in only extremely limited quantities and only locally made available. It's Chan Cha (禪茶) or "Zen Tea".

This is the tea produced and used by Zen monks during their monastic practice. It has a history that reaches back to the Tang dynasty, when tea first became widespread in China. It forms part of the heart of Chinese tea culture, but you can't buy it in a market. You have to go to a temple to get it.

Before telling you more, let me take a moment to get just a bit philosophical. We live in a world that we can never completely understand. We all go about our lives with only a partial understanding of, well, basically everything. This applies even to things we consider familiar.

For example, after having spent a few years in the United States, my experience here is that many people know the word "tea" without knowing very much about what it is. To them, tea is something that comes in a teabag, of which there are three kinds: black, green and herbal. Some even believe that black tea originally comes from England, and that green tea comes from Japan. (Of course, both green and black tea were originally produced in China, which is where tea culture began.)

Similarly, my experience here is that many people know and use the word "zen" without much understanding of what it means or where it comes from. For them, it represents a general sense of minimalism, stillness and tranquility somehow rooted in obscure East Asian traditions of mysticism. Those who know a bit more frequently believe it refers to a particular Buddhist movement that comes from Japan. They understand it also as a kind of quietude and austere beauty reflecting the essential character of the Japanese people, expressed in traditional Japanese arts such as calligraphy and ink painting, among others.

Like tea, Zen (Chan 禪) comes from China. It is something deeply Chinese that could not have developed anywhere else, and reached its maturity before spreading to Korea and Japan. (As it happens, East Asian calligraphy and ink painting also come from China. It's a country with a rich history.)


Zen Tea is a tea produced and used by monks as an aspect of their practice, which is also made available to members of the lay community when they visit the temple. Zen Tea is grown using methods that are 100% organic and environmentally friendly. This tea is planted by monks, weeded by monks, tilled by monks, pruned by monks, watered by monks, plucked by monks, and processed by monks. The limited quantity produced annually and special steps in its production make Zen Tea extremely precious and rare. The production process of Zen Tea involves not only the same rigorous standards of other famous traditional teas, but also requires that the tea be purified and blessed with a series of eloquent ceremonies intended to develop mindfulness and compassion. 

 Blessing ceremony before harvest time

Purity Blessing Ceremony (灑淨祈福儀式)

In winter there is a purity blessing ceremony (灑淨祈福儀式) which initiates an annual period when the tea garden is closed to visits from the public, so that the plants have a peaceful winter season to rest and develop their energy for more growth in spring. The ceremony itself reminds people to respect and protect the tea plants, as well as life in general. In addition, it expresses gratitude for the gifts of nature and asks that a large harvest might arrive in the coming year. 

In spring, another purity blessing ceremony is held just before the tea harvest. This is to appreciate and praise the sacrifice of the tea plants and the contribution they have made. It also asks that the plants recover quickly from any injury due to plucking and continue to grow in great health. Prior to the purification ceremony, the monks must meditate, light incense, sing, chant, and pray to the Buddha for the protection of all beings.

Buddhism includes the belief that there are numberless unseen beings connected to trees, flowers, grasses and plants such as tea. The monks believe that if they pick the tea heedlessly, it will interrupt or even destroy the lives of these beings. So they chant the Great Compassion Mantra (大悲咒) or other Buddhist mantras while the head monk sprinkles purified water over the area they will enter to pick tea. The head monk then leaves the area, only to walk back and spread water on it one more time. The first time is to inform the beings that the monks are coming so that they may move; the second is to ask forgiveness from the plants and everything alive and express appreciation to them.

After that, an offering of tea is made to heaven; the monks contemplate Buddha and read sutras. Finally, they change clothes to harvest the tea. The buds must be plucked without harming any other part of the tea plants or their environment. Every movement should be conscious, every step careful not to hurt or kill anything living on the ground. For the monks, the harvest forms part of their meditation. The entire process of tea production is structured to help develop patience, conscientiousness, empathy, purity and peace.

For me personally, the more I learn about tea, the more I find to appreciate. Particularly with Zen Tea, each sip, every breath becomes so important if we just pay attention to it. I'm very grateful to those who give their lives to this tradition, because its gift is to help make me aware of the endless beauty we live in.
The Classic of Tea (Chajing 茶经)

Tea has had an intimate connection with Zen for many generations. Every tea drinker has heard the name of Luyu (陆羽), also called "the Sage of Tea", who wrote The Classic of Tea (Chajing 茶经), the first definitive work on tea production, preparation and etiquette. He was abandoned as a baby and adopted by the abbot of a Zen temple. Luyu grew up in the temple, raised by the master, where he learned about tea and medicinal herbs and where he prepared tea for his master on a daily basis. Although he later left the temple, this experience stayed with him, and it is in large part due to this early training that he later became famous.

Of course, the relationship between tea and Zen did not begin with Luyu. Tea had been incorporated into Chinese Buddhist practice even preceding the development of Zen in the Tang Dynasty (about 1800 years ago). This means tea has had a connection to Zen since its beginning. In fact, when we see a temple in China, we assume it also has decent tea. There is an ancient saying: "Tea and Zen share the same flavor; tea and monks share the same fate; tea and temples share the same place." (“茶禪一味、茶僧一緣、茶寺一體.”)

In China we say: "Where there is a good mountain, there is a good temple; where there is a good temple, there is good tea." Monks typically live close to pristine nature: on a high mountain with mist and clouds, with rich soil and ancient trees, beautiful flowers and clean water. Making tea as a monk is not for business but as a part of practice and meditation. Now I understand why many of the most famous teas (e.g. Fo Cha "Buddha tea", Tie Guanyin "Iron Goddess", Da hong Pao "Big Red Robe", Longjing "Dragon Well" etc.) were originally developed by monks.

Monks have to sit hour after hour, day after day for meditation. Younger ones eventually fall asleep, older ones sooner or later lose energy; tea keeps them focused, helps them stay awake and gives them energy. For example, after eating, mental concentration drops as energy goes to digestion. It is a challenge to sit after a meal without just becoming a potato. Tea helps prevent the monks from becoming potatoes and supports both digestion and circulation.

Due to its many benefits, tea has remained in the temple for dynasty after dynasty. Today, tea is still integral to the rituals and practices with which monks develop themselves. It lends itself to etiquette, purifies the mind, lifts the spirit, improves general well-being, strengthens character, and helps to develop self-discipline, inspiration and finally enlightenment - or so I'm told, not having had this experience myself.

Zen Tea is separated into three grades: high grade, mid-grade and standard grade. Different grades serve different purposes. High grade tea is offered to heaven in ceremonies; mid-grade tea is served to members of the lay community, and standard grade tea is what the monks retain for themselves. In case this seems at all strange, let me say that considering others first is actually basic etiquette in China. We always serve tea to others first and ourselves last. For example, my parents always save the best tea they make themselves for their children, friends, relatives, or special guests - so what do they drink every day? Whatever is left that they don't want to throw away.

So, the package of tea from my family includes some of the best tea from my home town, and the best Zen Tea made available to the public. It isn't sold openly. Because my family has a connection to the temple close to my home, they were able to get some. Of course, they had to go to the temple to get it.

There are many fascinating anecdotes involving Zen and tea, and I very much want to share some of my favorites with you, but right now, after having written this much, I'm ready to sit with a small pot of the tea sent from the temple, just to relax and refresh myself. It's very helpful just to have a short moment to remember what's most important. Just one cup of tea helps put everything in perspective. We have so much to be grateful for!


  1. Thank you so much for your thoughts and information.

  2. Ni Hao--Excellent and informative addition; truly educational, heartfelt, and inspiring. All the best and many Blessings.

  3. Hi Alan, Thanks for your time to reading every post I wrote. I appreciate your support as always.

  4. Hi Paul, Thank you for your kind commentary. I am so pleased to hear that the information is useful for you. Your passion and appreciation of tea definitely add more bliss and value to tea. Enjoy your tea!

  5. What a beautiful work! I have learned a lot from your blog. No one else explains things so specific like you. You bring me to another level of tea art. Thanks a lot.

  6. Finally I understand the role of tea in Zen. Glad to find this post.


About Me

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Seattle, WA, United States
I grew up with tea, and it continues to fill my life with so much beauty and discovery, pleasure, peace and friends. It is always leading me toward a greater understanding of culture, nature, myself and others. It is my hope to use this space to share the joy of tea and tea culture with you.