Thursday, October 30, 2014

Tea & Enlightenment

Shang Longrik Gyatso Rinpoche Blog ImageOn account of my long-standing daily association with tea, there is almost no tea which I would not taste. Early on, I even invented a special way to cook tea eggs, and have used all manner of natural ingredients in combination with different varieties of tea to the end of health cultivation... In order to provide a destination for all sorts of Buddhist practitioners to come and discuss practice over fine tea, I have established a variety of tea centers over the course of several years, setting the trend for a period of time, and now have in my possession more than a hundred different kinds of rare and precious teas, including some scarce types which have reached the century mark in age sitting on the cabinet shelves.

In recent years, my tea making style has been influenced by the Japanese tea ceremony, especially by the Tenmoku tea bowls which have come to play an indispensable role in the Japanese tea arts, and the price of which has skyrocketed overnight and shows no signs of relenting. Actually, in the literature about tea ceremony, before the seventh century, tea ceremony did not exist in Japan, and the earliest tea culture had a very important connection to the Japanese monastic community. This is due to the fact that when the Japanese went to China to do research into the practices of Chan (Zen), the Chinese Chan masters had the custom of discussing Chan over tea, particularly the monk Zhao Zhou, an enlightened Chan Master of the Tang dynasty. There is a story of how, once, two monks arrived at the temple in search of Zhao Zhou hoping that he would inspect and verify their level of realization. Zhao Zhou was an avid tea drinker, and as such he often used tea as a means for welcoming other Chan practitioners. At this time, Zhao Zhou greeted them in his usual fashion, abruptly inquiring of one of the two visitors, saying, “Have you ever been here before?” This monk replied, “I have.” Chan Master Zhao Zhou then told him, “Go drink tea.” Next, the Chan Master asked the other monk, “Been here before?” That monk replied, “Never been.” Zhao Zhou also said to him, “Go drink tea.” In that day and age, before Coca-Cola and latte coffee, tea was practically the most popular beverage around, drunk even by monks in the place of water. It was so popular, all of this activity related to the tea leaf, that this phrase - “go drink tea” - used by a Chan Master to welcome some disciples who were on the verge of enlightenment, was passed down with esteem for nearly a thousand years. In fact, Chan is just that plain and simple, while at the same time that profound. As to whether or not one can get to the essence of this Chan story and thoroughly perceive one’s original nature, that depends upon the perception and good fortune of the Chan practitioner.

And yet we owe the transmission of the way of tea from China to Japan to the Venerable Japanese monk Zui Cheng, who came to China to collect Buddhist texts and bring them back to his homeland. This later paved the way for the tea craze which would come to possess many of the larger monasteries in the country, and resulted in the plethora of stories which have been handed down to later generations. The most well-known at that time was the story of Sen no Rikyu, who originally served under Oda Nobunaga, and later on came to serve under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At that time, his reputation was known throughout the entire land, and so he was at the pinnacle of his life. However, his staunch refusal later on to allow Toyotomi Hideyoshi to take his daughter’s hand in marriage, as well as two other serious matters, ultimately drove him to suicide. Rikyu’s abrupt rise to power also spurred the complete and far-reaching integration of tea and Chan in the temples of Japan.


Starting in the Tang dynasty, the story of tea has been intermixed with tales of enlightenment. There was a great enlightened master in the Tang dynasty by the name of De Shan who encountered an old lady, the owner of a tea shop. De Shan was just thinking about entering the shop to buy some cake and refreshments to allay his hunger, when the old lady suddenly asked, “What is that big sack of stuff you are hauling around?” The Great Master De Shan said, “It contains all of notes I have made in order to make annotations on the explanation of the Diamond Sutra.” The old woman then said, “Seeing as you have done such thorough research into the Diamond Sutra, I’d like to ask you a question. If you can answer my question, I will offer you some tea and refreshments. If you cannot answer, then I ask that you leave at once.” She then asked, “The mind of the past is unattainable, the present mind is unattainable, the mind of the future is unattainable. So what mind is it that you would like to ‘refresh’?” De Shan was dumbstruck and, in disappointment and frustration, left the place! Now I would kindly like to ask a question of each of you: which mind is it that is away from all three of these minds?


This is what I, Shang Longrik Gyatso, wrote after a cordial discussion about the different Chinese and Japanese figures related to tea and Chan with a Japanese tea master one holiday.

1 comment:

  1. Yay I love tea... and this article rocks.
    I'm looking forward to the Emperor's daughter puer tea that Mike is preparing...

    ReplyDelete