The Zen of Tea

Zen, or more properly Zen Buddhism, is usually associated with Japan and their tea ceremony called Chanoyu. However, Zen began in China and has been a part of tea enjoyment almost since the beginning. Today, it can be more generally applied to your enjoyment of tea, no matter where that tea comes from (China, Japan, India, etc.) or where you are located. I call this the Zen of Tea and will show you how to experience it as you read on.

The Essence of Zen

Statue for Gongfu Tea Time - Saint "Luyu" - Ge Kiln Crackleware

Statue for Gongfu Tea Time – Saint “Luyu” – Ge Kiln Crackleware

Before diving into the Zen of Tea, it is good to understand the essence of Zen, which is a bit tricky. The history of Zen goes back a long time and is complex. But I have pulled out some basic points:

  • Setting aside any distractions
  • Slowing down for a short while
  • Paying attention to your health

These are also the essences of a great tea time, no matter if you prepare it gongfu style or the Western/European style that is more common here in the U.S.

Adding Zen to Your Tea Time

Making some principles of Zen part of your tea time can enhance your enjoyment. The most important thing is simplicity. The next most important thing is tranquility. And since tea is already healthy, well, you’re all set!

The essential approach to enjoying your tea the Zen way and achieving that simplicity and tranquility is to follow three basic principles:

  1. Focus on the Tea – This is a time for you to be away from any distractions, mental as well as physical. So often, also, we are doing more than one thing at the same time – even when filling the tea kettle we could be thinking of paying a bill, preparing for that meeting with the boss, or taking the car in for repairs. Set everything aside and devote your mental energies on even the simple task of filling that kettle with water and turning on the heat.
  2. Take Your Time – Our lives are pretty rushed. But while you prepare and enjoy some tea, you can slow down and pay close attention to it and to the whole process, even if it’s just doing a quick steep of some black tea.
  3. Keep Your Health in Mind – Not only will taking a little time out to relax help you keep from feeling overloaded or burned out, it will be a more healthy choice simply by virtue of the properties in the tea you are drinking.

A sample tea time:

While matcha is the usual tea enjoyed during the Chanoyu (tea ceremony), you need not limit yourself to that one tea type. Our sample Zen tea time is using Liu An Gua Pian (Melon Slice) green tea.

The style of preparation doesn’t matter, so we show it both ways:

Eastern: Gaiwan, Chahai, Sipping cups

Eastern: Gaiwan, Chahai, Sipping cups


Western: Small teapot, Strainer, Teacup & saucer

Western: Small teapot, Strainer, Teacup & saucer

  • How I focus on the tea – learning a bit more about it than the optimum water temperature and steep time (we have a whole article on this tea here); shutting off our cell phones, TVs, radios, computers, and other disturbances; making sure our environment is comfortable, including our clothing and seating (I can’t kneel on the floor, so I get comfortable at the dining table); and setting the lighting high enough to see what I’m doing but soft enough to let me relax. You might want some relaxing music (be sure to play a CD so you don’t get jarred by commercials).
  • How I take my time – slowing down and exercising patience, waiting for the water to heat and then the tea to steep (most teas don’t take too long to steep, in fact, heating the water usually takes much longer – about 10 minutes for 2 cups of water to boil vs. a few seconds to a few minutes to steep the tea). We live in a world of 1.5 to 3.0 Mbps (Megabits per second) download speeds on our DSL service, cars that can go 80 miles per hour without a quiver of protest, and rockets blasting off the launch pad at 45 miles per second. So preparing tea can seem like an eternity. At least at first. Give it a few tries, and soon it will seem quite normal to take out a half hour of your day for that Zen tea time.
  • How I keep my health in mind – I slow down, setting aside even the sense of hurry that fills many of us from the moment we rise in the morning to when we go to sleep at night; I select the tea with care, sourcing only those that are pure and the best quality (organic certification is not needed for all teas, just trust in my suppliers); and I clear my mind of anything but the tea.

Some History of Zen and Its Connection with Tea

In China, Zen is known as Chán and has a long history going back to the middle of the Tang Dynasty, around 765 CE. Different forms of Chán came and went in the ensuing centuries. It spread through neighboring countries through trade along the Silk Road and elsewhere. China underwent a cultural revolution in the 1960s where many things, including Chán, were suppressed. It has revived both in the nation of China, in the nation of Taiwan, and in the former British controlled Hong Kong. Chinese living in other parts of the world also follow it.

Chán was brought to Japan sometime between 800 and 1000 AD (sources vary on the exact date) by Chán Buddhist monks who used tea in their ceremonies. (The tea helped them stay alert during long periods of meditation, seeking an understanding of all things.) There it is called “zen” and today consists of three schools:

  • Sōtō – the largest with two head temples (Eihei-ji and Sōji-ji, with a much larger network)
  • Rinzai – middle with 14 head temples that have a substantial overlap with the traditional Five Mountain System, including Myoshin-ji, Nanzen-ji, Tenryū-ji, Daitoku-ji, Tofuku-ji, etc.
  • Ōbaku – the smallest with one head temple (Manpuku-ji)

Despite these different schools, there seem to be only two major ways of practicing and understanding Zen. Pen chueh says that we are born fully enlightened to the realities of this world and an appreciation for all beings in it. Shih chueh says that we have this enlightenment but that it is hidden from us until we meditate and find it, achieving an awakening. Thus the stress put on meditation, usually involving sitting in a certain way such as the lotus position and focusing on one’s breathing as well as looking inward at your own thoughts and feelings.

See part 2 for information on zen and tea. Click on the image above to purchase a copy.

See part 2 for information on zen and tea. Click on the image above to purchase a copy.

These days many connect tea with the Japanese Zen, not the Chinese Chán. Quietude, tranquil hearts, and restfulness are ideas in Zen that connect it with tea, in part due to the time of civil war in Japan where, despite their differences and conflicts, participants in the tea ceremony attended without their swords. The ceremony is much more than enjoying tea, also. You try to empty your mind and be calm, and both can take some practice. Kneeling on the tatami mat, a common element indoors in Japan, you may find yourself getting sleepy or having your mind wander to events in your life and the world around you. It takes effort to shut these out, and sipping tea can help keep sleep away. Proper training in the preparation of the tea is a must, as is training in all the aspects of the tea ceremony, from folding the tatami mats properly, to ensuring a peaceful atmosphere, to serving the tea. Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility. These are all part of the experience. However, to some extent so is imperfection, an acceptance that we are all human and prone to errors. Simplicity and service are important as well, especially where the tea is concerned. The host and guests achieve a sense of oneness with each other through both of these things.

An extensive article about Zen/Chán is on Wikipedia is here. Be sure to check out the references at the end for even more information.

Wishing you much peace, enjoyment, and good health with tea!

About Janice and Stephen Shelton

Purveyors of Premium Teas
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