Tea Culture

Exploring the Relationship Between Tea and Spirituality

There seems to be a beautiful relationship between tea and spirituality. Caffeinated herbs in general seem to have a relationship with those that are seeking to perfect themselves and help others but this seems to especially be apparent in the world of tea. We have, for example, the drinking of tea by monks for a variety of different reasons that will be discussed later. This is an interesting topic to study because it can perhaps help us develop a good motivation for consuming tea. So, let’s look into tea history to see if we can unpack the relationship between tea and self-improvement through spirituality. The history and lore of the tea plant is vast and we can’t expect to cover everything in one blog post, but we can touch on some things related to this topic.

Perhaps we can begin with ancient Chinese figure, Shennong. He is known as the “Divine Farmer” in different Asian cultures and is seen to be one of the foundational figures of Traditional Chinese Medicine. According to Wikipedia, Shennong had a transparent body, and thus could see directly the effects of different plants and herbs on himself. It is also said that he discovered the tea plant and that he used it as an antidote against the poisonous effects of the herbs that he was testing on his body. Speaking of TCM, an ancient Chinese physician by the name of Hua Tuo stated something to the effect of, “to drink bitter t’u [tea] constantly makes one think better.”[30] This seems to be the case as we’ll see later.

A Japanese rendition of Shennong (Japanese Shinnō, 神農)

Another origin story of tea is actually related to meditation and the first Chan Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma. It is said that, during his 9-year meditation retreat of continuous zazen and/or sitting meditation, he fell asleep. Becoming angry with himself, he cut off his eyelids to prevent it from happening again.[53] According to the legend, as his eyelids hit the floor the first tea plants sprang up. Thereafter, tea would provide a helpful energy boost to the students of Chan, helping them stay awake during their long sessions of meditation. In addition to this, drinking the beverage became a common feature of Chinese monastic life. Perhaps this is what Hua Tuo was referring to when he said tea, “constantly makes one think better.”

Bodhidharma with his…eyelids still attached…

During the Tang and Song dynasties, Chan Buddhism became popular as did drinking tea. There are some remarkable stories of Chan practitioners and their austerities. During the Zhao Dyanasty, for example, there was a practitioner of Chan meditation who only took herbal pills and drink tea concentrate (tea, orange peel, and other ingredients.)1 There is also the story of a practitioner who sustained himself on tea alone, meditating for many days and not sleeping or taking food. Since this time, tea drinking became a part of the everyday routine in Chan Buddhist monasteries.2 Tea drinking facilitated their discussions on the nature of reality and was used to welcome guests who came to the monastery.3

Through contact with monks from China, the custom of tea drinking began to spread to Buddhist temples in Japan by the Chinese Buddhist monk known as Eisei. By the time that it spread to Japan, the people of China in general were not consuming loose leaf tea but granulated leaves. The compressed tea that was popular at the time was ground down into a powder an whisked. Perhaps it was brought over to Japan because the ruling emperor at the time, Zhu Yuanzhang, had banned the production of compressed tea. Either way, this introduction of powdered tea lead to the close relationship that Japanese people have to tea and tea culture. Different tea masters in Japan have emphasized the use of tea drinking to enhance one’s introspection, particularly through the creation of the Japanese tea ceremony. That being said, the connection between tea and those seeking the meditative path is not just a cultural one.

More and more, the potential physical and mental benefits of drinking tea are being grounded in science. The chemistry of the tea plant might give us a clue as to why it is revered by spiritual seekers of all walks of life. Tea, like coffee, of course contains caffeine. Caffeine is mostly responsible for tea’s stimulating effect. Tea also contains a lovely amino acid called L-theanine. This amino acid is almost exclusive to the tea plant, so much so that the thea part of the word “theanine” is Latin for “tea”. There is evidence to show that L-theanine can help people reduce their stress and anxiety.4 Tea also contains EGCG, or epigallocatechin-3-gallate. This is an abundant polyphenol in tea that is known as a powerful antioxidant. In a study done in 2018, it was shown that green tea catechins such as EGCG might be good for the prevention and treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.5 When looking at tea from the lens of Ayurveda, we can see that drinking green can help to wake us up, working as a nerve stimulant while also boosting GABA.6

While we only scratched the surface of tea and its connection to helping people pursue the spiritual path, we hope that you enjoyed this short blog. Follow our instagram and tiktok for more tea-related content and subscribe to our newsletter by entering your email address at the bottom of any page of our website.

  1. Yun, Venerable Master Hsing. “Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony.” Fo Guang Shan, n.d.
    pg. 5-6. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. Everett, J. M., Gunathilake, D., & Dufficy, L. (2016, April 23). Theanine consumption, stress and anxiety in human clinical trials: A systematic review. Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352385915003138?via%3Dihub
  5. Pervin M;Unno K;Ohishi T;Tanabe H;Miyoshi N;Nakamura Y; “Beneficial Effects of Green Tea Catechins on Neurodegenerative Diseases.” Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29843466/. Accessed 15 May 2024.
  6. John  Immel. (n.d.). Green tea. School of Ayurvedic Diet & Digestion. https://www.joyfulbelly.com/Ayurveda/ingredient/Green-Tea/133