Consider, for a moment, how times, places, and everyday objects can influence our faith practices. Religion or spiritual traditions are not created in a vacuum. For example, Jewish Passover might include congee instead of unleavened bread if the Hebrews had exited ancient China instead of Egypt. How does a Christian missionary translate the import of Jesus’s “I am the bread of life” statement to a people who live without bread? The intertwining of foods, culture, and spiritual practice have taken place with tea, Buddhism, Christianity, and Daoism. Let’s take a look at how tea shapes, and is shaped by, faith practices.
Buddhism and tea have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. Buddhist monks in China and Japan can be credited with some of the earliest development of large-scale cultivation and processing techniques for tea. Monasteries became places associated with consistent, quality teas. Without the monks and nuns who developed specialized growing and processing methods, we would not know tea as it is today.
On the other hand, monasteries were not growing tea purely for the sake of agricultural production. Tea contributed to the spiritual life of the monks. Stories of the Daruma (Bodhidharma) and the transmission of Zen Buddhism reveal how tea was seen as a aid in the activity of meditation. Tea was incorporated into the Pure Rules of Baizhang as an element of offering, commemoration, and celebration. It was tea that became a part of ritual and daily life. It was part of the spiritual activities of being properly engaged and aware, both of self and others. As J. Norwood Pratt relates:
“As an elixir of sobriety and wakeful tranquility, tea was also a means of spiritual refreshment and spiritual conviviality, a way to go beyond this world and enter a realm apart.”
Just as tea’s roots entangled themselves into Buddhism, wine became a part of Christianity. One religion associates with a stimulant, the other a depressant. But Christianity found a place for tea, and even shaped the culture of tea. For one, tea was an aid in Christian temperance. Christians of the West (and other groups) adopted tea as a social drink in place of alcohol. Tea became a way to be together.
In Japan, the culture of tea drew on elements of Buddhism and Christianity. Those who have seen the tea ceremony developed by Sen no Rikyu and his disciples recognize elements of Catholic Mass. This should come as no surprise. Rikyu’s wife and some of his disciples were Christian. Jesuit missionaries in Japan saw the cultural value of tea as an equalizer, the approach to tea as an aid to meditation, and the emphasis on beauty in simplicity. Jesuits like Joao Rodrigues and Alessandro Valignano accepted tea as an entry point for bringing Christianity to Japan. Tea was the means of following the tradition of giving a cup of cold water in the name of Christ. In turn, these Jesuits were influenced by the drink and its associations.
While many associations have been drawn between tea and Dao, the early teachings of Daoism offer very little. As Lao Zi and Yin Xi’s relationship indicates some of the ideals of the Daoist master/disciple relationship, it is worth noting that their first encounter supposedly involves their sitting down to tea together. Daoism has other elements that fit well with tea. Dao emphasizes wu wei, or action without acting. There is a degree of just letting tea be what it is, and responding to the circumstances it creates. There is also the basic character of leaf, fire (heat for the kettle), and water that call upon the the Daoist concept of returning to a state of rustic simplicity.
Just as religion and spirituality aren’t created in a vacuum, tea was not developed in one. Saying that tea influenced spirituality cannot be emphasized over the fact that spiritual practices and spiritual people influenced the development of tea. What remains to be seen, however, is how these forces will further intertwine themselves. Or conversely, will tea be largely relegated to the realm of mundanity?
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