Tea Culture

Serenity in a Cup: Buddhist Monasticism, Medicine, and Better Tea

The world of Buddhist monasticism is vast. There are many scriptures to be studied, meditations to be practiced, and disciplines to be kept. At Den’s Tea, we are not Buddhist monastics. However, we have heard that tea plays a role in monastic life. So, what is the role of tea in all this? How is tea perceived through the lens of different Buddhist monastic traditions?

Principally, in a monastic context, tea is seen to be a medicine. It has been scientifically understood that tea can help us with our health. We’ve written some blogs about this before, like our tea and fasting blog post. It could be said that it also serves to support monastics in their spiritual, communal, and even economic pursuits. Today, different traditions acquire and use tea in different ways. So, let’s explore the different Buddhist monastic traditions and their views tea.

Chan Buddhism

In Taiwan and China, Chan Buddhism is perhaps the most popular form of Buddhism. Chan Buddhist monasticism and tea seem to have an interconnected relationship. Monastics cultivate tea, drink it for meditation and study, offer tea to the Buddha, and even sell it to support themselves.

These ways of using tea are quite ancient. A Chinese Buddhist monk by the name of Chánglú Zōngzé (長蘆宗賾, Jp. Chōro Shūjaku) wrote a set of rules called the Chányuàn qīngguī (禪苑清規, Jp. Zenen Shingi). Its English name is Rules of Purity for Chan Monasteries. This work was written during the Song Dynasty and tells us how tea is supposed to be used in a monastic context.

A Chan master (named Xuyun). (Source)

With the help of T. Griffith Foulk‘s work, we can get some more insight into how tea was utilized in early Chan Buddhist monasticism. He found in his research that communal drinking of tea, “…was a ubiquitous feature of life in public monasteries of the Song [Dynasty].”1 Tea was used by monastics to pay respect to other individuals or groups.2

At this time, Buddhist monasteries had least one tutelary deity enshrined in the sangha hall. The deity was included in the tea service. This gesture symbolized the deity’s membership in the assembly of monks. Tea, during the Song, was also used to establish and strengthen relations with the laity. 3

A Chan Buddhist nun in Taiwan preparing tea. (Source)

Overtime, manners regarding the use of tea were passed down. Venerable Master Hua, a Chan Buddhist master, gives us his experience regarding this matter. He says that, “…there is a certain way to hold one’s teacup…You have to place your thumb on the rim of the cup and use the rest of hand to hold the cup from the bottom.”

He goes on, “After you are done with the tea, you place the cup in front of you and the attendant will take it away. This is done in complete silence…”.4 We get a sense that tea was taken with attention, respect, grace, and composure.

Venerable Master Hua (Source)

Chan Buddhist Monasticism is interesting in that the monks/nuns are quite self-sustaining. This is different than the more orthodox practices of Theravada Buddhism. In the Theravada, monks and nuns go on what is call piṇacāra and/or the “alms round”. This is where they collect food and other necessities for sustaining themselves. In Chan Buddhist Monasticism this is different.

In each Buddhist country, the laity have certain expectations and wishes that the Buddhist monastics must respect. As Venerable Thubten Chodron, a nun of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, tell us, this is no different in China.5

For example, manners of dress of dress changed to meet cultural expectations. The color of the monastic robes changed from saffron to earth tones of grey and brown. Similar to what happened with the Catholic Church, Chan monastics had to collaborate with the government to gain support. This progressively lead monastics be less concerned with Dharma practice. For this reason, some monastics did not want to collaborate with the government.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (Source)

Therefore, monastics retreated to the mountains and started to become more self-sustaining. As Chan Buddhist monasticism spread, so too did this ideal of secluded, self-sustaining monasteries. D.T. Suzuki, a religious scholar of Buddhism, agreed with this sentiment. He thought that social circumstances in China led to the development of a system where the abbot and the monks all performed mundane tasks.6 These included carpentry, housekeeping, administration and gardening/farming among other things. So, the monasteries grew their own food and, by extension, started to grow their own tea.

Zen Buddhism

Chan Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan. For this reason, Chan and Zen are quite similar. Zen Buddhism and tea are almost synonymous to most people. The Japanese tea ceremony even has its roots in Buddhist characteristics of cleanliness, respect and attention. Between Chan and Zen, appreciation and consumption of tea look very similar.

T. Griffith Foulk (mentioned above) speaks about this in an essay he wrote about Zen. He says that, “All of the monks involved in the initial establishment of Zen in Japan were well versed in the Chanyuan qinggui (Rules of Purity for Chan Monasteries) compiled in 1103 by Changlu Zongze.”7 This is the text mentioned in the previous section. Zen monastics were well-versed in Chan rules of training, including the proper attitude when giving and receiving tea.

Zen Buddhist monk Seizan Toda with a matcha bowl (Source)

In fact, according to Foulk, many characteristic Zen Buddhist art forms come directly from ancient China. He says that, “The styles of gardens, tea utensils, calligraphy, and ink painting found in Japanese Zen subtemples had their origins in the elite literati culture of Song and Yuan China.”8 So, tea ceremonies and calligraphy practiced in Japan can be traced back to ancient China.9

From here, we can head a little east toward Tibet, where Himilayan/Northern Buddhism is practiced. For the sake of familiarity, we’ll be speaking about Tibetan Buddhist monasticism.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhist monasticism also has a culture of utilizing tea. Similar to Chan Buddhist tea culture, in Tibetan Buddhism it seems that tea is popular among the laity and that the culture of drinking tea integrated itself into the lives of Buddhists.

Tea found its way into Tibet via the Tea Horse Road. The story of the Tea Horse Road is fascinating and is possibly a good subject for a blog post or two. Suffice it to say, Chinese tea entered Tibet around the seventh century.10 This is also around the same time that Buddhism was formally introduced. Tea could not grow in Tibet so it had to be imported from China. By 1000AD, tea had integrated itself into the lives of Tibetans.

A Tibetan monk churning butter tea (Source)

In Tibetan Buddhism, it is common practice to consume what is called butter tea (or po cha) twice a day. Butter tea is a type of tea that combines dark tea (specifically, pǔ’ěrchá, 普洱茶), salt, and butter mixed together. It is traditionally churned, though today is mixed using a blender. It is said that the butter can help people with chapped lips and is very important to the people of Tibet. Tea provides the people, including monks and nuns, with a much needed source of phytonutrients as many vegetables do not grow in Tibet.

Speaking more about spirituality, every day activities are used as practices of Buddhism. According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a great Tibetan Buddhist master, we can pray over our tea and cultivate an amazingly altruistic motivation. He says that prayers such as, “may it [this tea] help heal all depression, all those with physical sicknesses and mental sicknesses…May anybody who drinks this tea be healed immediately…” are quite good to do.11

Lama Zopa Rinpoche blessing the tea (Source)

It seems that with any activity we do, including drinking tea, we can turn it into virtue by having a virtuous motivation, a motivation that isn’t just focused on our own selfish concern for pleasure. We can think of food at tea as a means to better serve others. This can make the experience of taking food or drinking tea better.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Khadro La (Source)

Theravada Buddhist Monasticism

We have a general idea of how tea is viewed in Chan Buddhist monasticism and Tibetan Buddhist monasticism. What about that of the “Southern” tradition, Theravada Buddhism? Theravada Buddhism is the type of Buddhism found most commonly in South East Asia.

Mentioned previously, there was a text called the Rules of Purity for Chan Monasteries. This, in turn, is based the Buddhist code of monastic discipline, called the vinaya. Different traditions follow different vinaya rules. In Theravada monasticism, they have their own vinaya tradition. The vinaya governs the way monks and nuns live, include the way they give and receive such things as food and drink. This, of course, includes tea.

So, what does the Theravada vinaya have to say about the consumption of tea? It depends on the Theravada tradition that is observing the vinaya. Ajahn Brahm, a well-known Theravada monk and teacher, explains that herbal infusions, such as tea, are considered medicine and are allowable afternoon, “…as much as a monk or nun requires.”12

A joyous Ajahn Brahm. (Source)

“Allowable afternoon” is an important note here because foods are generally not permitted to be consumed afternoon. Tea, however, is not considered a food but a medicine and therefore follows different rules. While mind altering substances such as heroin or alcohol are strictly not allowed, tea is considered different and it doesn’t have the some mind-numbing affects as these drugs.

Buddhist Nun Venerable Bhikkhuni Canda on the left and Ajahn Brahm on the right. (Source)

This point is made in Bhikkhu Thanissaro‘s extensive commentary on the Theravada Buddhist vinaya. He talks about this with the rule against the consumption of alcohol because alcohol, “…destroys one’s sense of shame, weakens one’s discernment, and can put one into a stupor.”13 According to his commentary, it seems that the rule against consumption of alcohol can be extended to other intoxicants such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, etc. However, coffee, tea, tobacco, and betel do not necessarily have the same affect as the drugs listed above, so they are outside of the rule of consuming “alcohol” and/or. intoxicants.14

A young Bhikkhu Thanissaro (Source)

In a different source, Bhikkhu Thanissaro goes on to describe the difference between “medicine” (in our case, tea) and “food”. From his understanding, “…anything of medicinal value that is not used in and of itself as a staple or non-staple food, tonic or juice is a medicine. This typically include teas, coffee, fruits (like lemons), roots (like ginger) and any other plant or plant derived substance and salts.”15 This part of the commentary speaks not just to consumption but storage. For a Theravada Buddhist monastic, most foods cannot be kept overnight but medicines can.

What is also interesting is the various types of medicines that are allowable for a monastic. Leaf medicines, for example, are one type that are classified and include, “…neem leaves, kuṭaja leaves, cucumber leaves (Trichosanthes dioeca), basil leaves, cotton-tree leaves, or any other leaves that are medicines and do not serve as staple or non-staple food.”16 Tea, of course, is dried leaf material that does not have the mind-numbing affect of marijuana or heroin. Therefore, it perhaps could be classified as a “leaf medicine”.

Bhikkhu Thanissaro (Source)

Another Theravada monk helps us develop a distinction between food and medicine in this context. Bhikkhu Ariyesako tells us that medicine, “…can be considered as those things that are specifically for illness; those things having tonic or reviving quality (such as tea or sugar); and certain items which have a nutritional value in times of debilitation, hunger or fatigue (such as cheese or non-dairy chocolate).”17 If you have ever had tea before, it certainly can have a “reviving” affect on our body and mind.

He goes on, “Some bhikkhus will consider tea-leaves allowable (as ‘herbs’) while some will see it as food or as a ‘stimulant’ (caffeine) and therefore not appropriate. Also, the ordinary rural villagers of South East Asia (until very recently) would have had no tea or coffee to drink, so such items could be considered quite a luxury. It will depend on local conditions and interpretations…”18

The way in which the medicine (that is, tea) is consumed is paramount. This is true even in the realm of hard and fast rules regarding behavior. The late Bhikkhu Khantipalo advised that, “Tea, coffee, and cocoa (all without milk) are also allowable during the afternoon and evening. With these allowable drinks and fortified in any case by having few desires and some ability to endure, bhikkhus (and samaneras) sustain themselves for study, practice or teaching.”19

Bhikkhu Khantipalo on the right in orange, Lama Yeshe on the left in red. (Source)

Here, we see the emphasis placed less on the rule itself but more on the idea that the practice of taking tea and other substances should be “fortified” by having few desire and/or the vigilant pursuit of such a quality. This is like what Lama Zopa Rinpoche of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition said about using and blessing tea. Bhikkhu Khantipalo also notes that medicines, tea in this case, can be kept for a maximum of seven days since its being received.

He then goes on, “…A bhikkhu is allowed to use medicines if they are offered in the same way as food. Once offered, neither food nor medicine should be handled again by a lay person…”.20 There are some pretty specific details regarding how requisites are received by monastics. Perhaps this is to ensure the preservation of one’s moral discipline.


We hope that this article has shed some light on how tea is used in different Buddhist monastic settings. It seems that the practice of Buddhism can be integrated into all facets of our life because the practice of Buddhism is mostly mental. There is a respect for people of carious backgrounds and traditions and we hope that tea can help to bring us all closer to understanding one another.


  1. Foulk, T. Griffith, Steven Heine, and Dale S. Wright, ‘Chanyuan qinggui and Other “Rules of Purity” in Chinese Buddhism’, in Steven Heine, and Dale S. Wright (eds), The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts (New York, 2004; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Feb. 2006)
    Pg. 292 ↩︎
  2. ibid. ↩︎
  3. Foulk 1.
    Pg. 293 ↩︎
  4. Hua, H. (2004). The Chan Handbook. The Buddhist Text Translation Association. http://www.longbeachmonastery.org/the_chan_handbook.pdf
    See pg. 166 ↩︎
  5. “01 Exploring Monastic Life: The Spread of Buddhism and Monastic Llife 07-31-18.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 Aug. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8-E7bDTjxw.
    Timestamp 53:31 ↩︎
  6. Wikipedia contributors. (2024, June 13). Chan Buddhism. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chan_Buddhism#:~:text=Sinification%20of%20Buddhism%20in%20China ↩︎
  7. Foulk, T. G. (n.d.). Rules of purity in Japanese Zen. In Zen Classics [Journal-article]. https://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/HistoricalZen/Foulk-Rules-Japan.pdf
    Pg. 138 ↩︎
  8. Foulk 17.
    Pg. 149 ↩︎
  9. ibid. ↩︎
  10. Horse Corridor to Heaven. (2010, January 18). Shambala Times. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://shambhalatimes.org/2010/01/18/horse-corridor-in-heaven/
    See, “The Tibetan Connection”. ↩︎
  11. Sandy. (2017, January 17). How to bless Tea. Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. https://www.lamayeshe.com/advice/how-bless-tea ↩︎
  12. Brahm, A. (1990, September). VINAYA – The time and place for eating. BuddhaSasana. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://www.budsas.org/ebud/ebsut035.htm
    Noted towards the bottom, regarding medicines. ↩︎
  13. Bhikkhu, Ṭ. (n.d.). Pācittiya Six: The Alcoholic Drink Chapter | The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volumes I & II. https://www.dhammatalks.org/vinaya/bmc/Section0021.html ↩︎
  14. ibid. ↩︎
  15. Ajahn Brahmali, & Thanissaro. (n.d.). Food and the Vinaya. https://vinaya-class.github.io/includes/docs/food-and-the-vinaya.pdf (See the section, “Medicines”) ↩︎
  16. Bhikkhu, Ṭ. (n.d.-a). Medicine | The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volumes I & II. https://www.dhammatalks.org/vinaya/bmc/Section0044.html ↩︎
  17. The Buddhist World: Lay Buddhist’s Guide to the Monk’s Rules. (n.d.). https://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/layguide.htm ↩︎
  18. The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A guide for laypeople. (n.d.). https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ariyesako/layguide.html#faq ↩︎
  19. The Buddhist Monk’s Discipline: Some points explained for laypeople. (n.d.). https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/khantipalo/wheel130.html ↩︎
  20. ibid. ↩︎