Talk About Tea, Talk About Chan

Talk presented by Venerable Abbot Chi Chern
Report written by Chang Jie 09/19/2010

On Sunday, September 19, 2010, Venerable Chi Chern gave a talk entitled, "Talk About Tea, Talk About Chan" at the Chan Meditation Center. Venerable explained the functions of tea in China as medicine, beverage, art form, and its integration into Chan Buddhism as a way of personal cultivation.

    According to Venerable, tea was originally used as a type of medicine in China. One legend about the origins of tea tells of the patriarch of tea, Shen Long, who systematically researched the medicinal properties of herbs by ingesting them. Tea was supposedly discovered when he collapsed after experimenting on a poisonous herb. He then ate a plant that was growing beside him, and recovered. That plant, of course, was the tea plant. (According to Chinese philosophy of medicine, if you find poison, whether it is a plant or animal, you should be able to find its antidote within the same area. This belief is based on the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang-- that every phenomenon exists relative to something else.)

    In ancient times, when pharmacies were rare and people were poorer and couldnˇ¦t afford medicines, they used aged tea. People simply pulled the leaves off the tea plant, boiled it until it became very strong, and drank the water. (In fact, the word for "tea" in Chinese in ancient times was "tu" which means "bitter herb." Today, the word "cha" is used and simply means tea.) After resting, they would start to perspire, and their sickness would be cured. This remedy was used to cure upset stomachs, headaches, and colds. Even in modern times, tea is still used as a kind of medicine.

    Tea is also used to preserve ones health. Green tea has become very popular in the West because of its high vitamin C and antioxidant content. While green tea may not be a magical cure-all, it is useful for maintaining health and perhaps even preventing illness.

    In the West, sugar is added to the tea to get rid of the bitter flavor of tea, and milk to get rid of the tartness. By doing this, one loses the natural taste of the tea. According to Chinese historical records, before the Han Dynasty, people added ginger and herbs to make tea tastier. In China, this method is still used today.

    During the Tang Dynasty, tea was developed into an art form, with the discovery of ways to make tea less bitter, more flavorful and healthful through the process of fermentation and aging, and drinking tea became a form of enjoyment. Much is attributed to Lu Yu, who emphasized the drinking of pure tea, finding methods of getting the essential flavor out of the tea. He found methods of stopping the fermentation process by sun drying the leaves and packing the leaves into small cubes. He also developed and refined tools and utensils for making tea, as well as methods for brewing, serving and drinking tea.

    According to legend, Lu Yu grew up in a monastery and would often serve tea to his teacher, an old monk. Through this process, he developed a keen ability to brew and serve tea very well. For him, making tea became an art form. In order to further refine his skills, he left the monastery and went traveling in search of advanced knowledge and technique. Since then, the old monk did not drink tea, because any other tea than that served by his disciple Lu Yu, did not suit his taste. After a few years had passed, one day, the old monk was invited to the home of a high official and served tea. As the host served the tea, the monk thought to himself that he would not like this tea because it was not brewed by Lu Yu, but accepted it so as not to offend the host. When he drank the tea, he recognized the flavor and knew that it must have been brewed by his disciple Lu Yu, who was staying in the hostˇ¦s home. This story illustrates the refinement of the art of tea, for the one who prepares the tea as well as the one who drinks it develops sensitivity to the subtleties of the tea. We can see that tea at this time was not only an art form, but a way to cultivate the body and mind.

    Also during the Tang Dynasty, the art of tea was linked with Chan practice and monasteries. Records show that tea was grown in monasteries. Uniquely, Mahayana Buddhism, especially the Chan school, make use of the sense organs as tools for practice. The arts, including music, literature, and the visual arts, engage the other senses as a means to cultivate the path. Tea drinking makes use of and refines the sense of taste as a way of cultivating oneˇ¦s mind. Recently, at Famen (Dharma Gate) Monastery in China, cultural artifacts reflecting the monastery's cultural peak were found in an underground chamber. These included a complete set of utensils and instructions for tea drinking, which were in keeping with the records of Lu Yu.

    During this time, tea was brought to Japan, where tea drinking became further refined. In the Japanese tradition, green tea is emphasized. Every movement, from the making of the tea to its serving, and even the placement of the objects, is precise, helping the body and mind to reach a state of calm and clarity.

    Tea culture in China evolved differently from Japan. In China, there are many different kinds of tea, and in order to be a tea master, one must be familiar with the different kinds of tea. Green tea is an unfermented tea, oolong tea is partially fermented, and black tea is completely fermented. When flowers are added to tea, it becomes jasmine tea. There are also yellow and white teas. To brew tea properly, one must understand the tea's temperament or character. For example, to brew green tea properly, one must use water that is not too hot, and one should not brew it for too long. The Chinese value the original flavor of a tea, and understanding and bringing out the essence of a particular type of tea are refined skills.

    There is a saying: "Tea Chan is of a single flavor." This means that the ultimate goal of tea Chan is to bring out the essential flavor of a particular type of tea and to taste it. How does one do that? One has to be familiar with the characteristics of all the different kinds of tea, the tools and utensils used for brewing the tea, and even the water that is used for making the tea. (When making tea, a lot of emphasis is placed in the water; if the water is good, then the tea will be good.) One also has to be familiar with other conditions, such as the proper environment, and the proper method of brewing and serving the tea. If one does not have this experience or understanding of tea, without continued practice and familiarization, one is unable to get the original flavor of the tea. However, someone who is highly accomplished in tea Chan can brew a great pot of tea, regardless of the types of materials that are available or the conditions they face. This is comparable to the practice of Chan in that when one has familiarity with and continuous practice of the method, proper concepts and views of practice, eventually one will reach the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

    To the person who has realized enlightenment through Chan practice--no matter what conditions they face, wherever they are--everything is Buddhadharma, and everything is Chan practice. They don't have to go to a special place to sit and meditate; whatever conditions they face, at that present moment, they are in accord with the causes and conditions. They are able to use their wisdom in dealing with the situation. This person is free, no matter where they are, and their mind is calm and fully present with the causes and conditions. The practice of Chan requires an incredible amount of time, dedication, understanding, skill and practice, and through this process, one can eventually reach a state where at all times, one is in a state of Chan. It is comparable to the practice of the art of tea, or tea Chan; if one is accomplished, learned and skilled enough in making tea, in whatever conditions they are presented with, they can brew the original flavor of the tea.

    There is a difference between tea as an art and tea Chan. For a person who has reached a certain level of accomplishment in tea Chan, tea Chan is of a single flavor, and any tea they drink is good tea. This does not mean they are unable to distinguish the difference between good tea and poor quality tea. Rather, when they drink the tea, they are very clearly aware of the taste and the quality of the tea because they are not adding their experience, or making any comparison, or judging the tea as being good or bad. Because of this, regardless of the taste, they are able to appreciate and enjoy the tea. With this practice of appreciating tea, we make use of the sense of taste, smell, and appearance of the tea (such as its leaves). In a comfortable environment, the body may feel comfortable, and the presence of pleasant music may enhance the overall experience. With the practice of tea Chan, you incorporate all of your sense organs and appreciate all these sensations as part of the practice itself. In this way, a person who is clearly aware of the quality of the tea they are drinking and the experience of the drinking can appreciate any tea in any circumstance without judging or comparing. A person who appreciates tea only at the level of an art form would not be able to drink a poor quality tea. They may need all their tea tools wherever they go in order to enjoy a cup of tea. Someone who has realized Chan through tea can enjoy tea, the situation, and have clarity and calmness of mind wherever they go, regardless of the type of tea they drink and the conditions they find themselves in.

    A person who is accomplished in tea Chan or the true art of tea is comparable to a person who is realized in Chan in that they have wisdom and are very clear about what is wholesome and unwholesome, good and bad, and choose to do what is wholesome and not do what is unwholesome. They are able to understand, accept, and work with any situation, whereas someone without wisdom is not clear about what is wholesome and unwholesome, good and bad, and instead, think that both good and bad are the same. If we go a step further, the person who has realized emptiness has clear wisdom, clear awareness of what is good and bad, wholesome and unwholesome, but can completely accept and be okay with the situation and use their wisdom to deal with whatever causes and conditions that one faces.

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