I’ve been drinking tea in earnest since 2011, when I discovered whole leaf tea during a trip to Darjeeling. A few years prior to that I had begun a regular meditation practice. Interestingly, I’ve found that both tea and meditation give me a similar feeling that I might describe as “awakened relaxation.”
I’ve deepened my meditation practice by sitting with the Rock Blossom Sanga in Brooklyn and attending retreats at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. The Sangha periodically has a “tea ceremony,” in which we practice mindful eating and drinking as a community.
The histories of tea and meditation are closely linked. There is a Buddhist myth, extant in various forms, that explains the origins of tea. It recounts that the monk Bodhidharma was so intent on staying awake during his meditation, that he peeled off his eyelids (eyebrows or eyelashes, in some versions) and threw them to the ground; and from the spots where they landed, tea began to grow.
Mythology aside, there is historical evidence that even prior to the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE), Chinese Buddhist monks were cultivating and drinking tea. During the Tang Dynasty, tea became embedded in the daily routines and religious practices of the monks.
Japanese Buddhist monks brought tea back with them after visiting China in the early 9th century. In the 15th century, from Zen ritual the Japanese developed a secular ceremony centered around tea, called Chanoyu, itself a sort of contemplative meditative practice incorporating the esthetic of wabi-sabi (finding beauty in imperfection).
We know the historical facts, but I’ve often wondered why tea and meditation became so closely intertwined. The answer may not come from mythology, history or culture, but from physiology.
Studies have shown that both tea and certain types of meditation increase alpha brain waves, which correspond to a relaxed but alert mental state. According to researchers, tea contains an amino acid, called L-theanine, that increases alpha waves.
So is drinking tea a shortcut to enlightenment? My limited experience, as well as common sense, would suggest it surely isn’t. But tea can support the development of a good meditation practice.
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. -Thích Nhât Hạnh
Mair, Victor H., & Erling Hoh. 2009. The True History of Tea. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Okakura, Kakuzo. 1906. The Book of Tea.
Trafton, Anne. “The Benefits of Meditation.” MIT News. 5 May, 2011. Web. 31 Dec 2015.
Nobre, Anna C., Anling Rao, and Gail N. Owen. “L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state.” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 17 (SI) (2008): 167-168. PDF.
Nhât Hạnh, Thích. The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh. 2012. Boston: Shambhala Publications.