This cup of tea in my two hands,
mindfulness held perfectly.
My mind and body dwell
in the very here and now.
-Thich Nhat Hanh
For a long time there has been a close link between Buddhism and tea, especially Zen. When I first started discovering Korean and Chinese tea, I had no idea how complex it was to serve a small cup of tea. I would sit in the tea house in Seoul and be served the most amazing tasting teas, yet, no matter how carefully I watched, I would return to my home and not be able to steep a similar tasting cup even with same type of tea I had just enjoyed that morning. The woman at the tea house would encourage me, saying, “If you could make tea like me already, it would be time for me to close the shop and go home!” With big smiles, she would tell me, “Making tea is really a reflection of your mind. If your mind is calm and focused, you will make good tea.”
There’s a lot more to Chinese tea than putting a tea bag in a mug of hot water. Chinese tea is served is very small cups, to be enjoyed in three sips, equally fresh each time. Part of what makes a master is when one can consistently serve a well steeped tea up to eight times or more from the same leaves. That is the part that requires concentration and a sort of non-dualistic connection to the tea, to the process, to the moment.
First, depending on what tea you are making, the correct pot must be chosen. Green tea or Oolong tea (partially fermented) should be prepared in a thin pot. Pu’er tea, fully fermented, requires a thicker pot because the water must be hotter. Next, the pot is heated with hot water, poured into the cups to heat them and rinse off any dust, then just the right amount of tea must be added to the pot. Too much and the tea will be bitter, too little and it will be dull. Then, different teas need different temperatures of water to steep in, and different steeping times, increasing with each pour. I would usually get a couple good steeps, then, inevitably, lose my concentration and ruin the leaves.
The more I started meditating, the better my tea became. I also learned to just feel it intuitively instead of fretting over how many seconds. Suddenly, there was little difference between the tea I could make at home and the tea they would serve me at the teashop. The more calm my mind is when I’m making tea, the more I enjoy it.
When monks have meetings, it is usually done over a cup of green tea. Many monks also told me they will drink Pu’er tea before meditation. When my friend Joe and I first drank Pu’er together we almost felt like teenagers toking for the first time but once we got used to it, we feel an encompassing peace flow through our bodies with a few sips of tea that is nice to carry into meditation with you.
I think the first reference to tea and Buddhism I ever heard was actually in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. He stumbles upon a character named Japhy sitting in his room, translating Han Shan poems, sipping his tea. His friends recommends to him “The Book of Tea” on the two thousand year history of drinking tea. Latter, when they are hiking together in the mountains, Japhy steeps some Chinese tea for the two of them. He recalls the book again, reciting the first steps in sipping tea.
“The first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.”
In the actual book, the author quotes Lotung, a Tang Dynasty poet:
The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrails but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,–all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup–ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horai Mountain? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.