Tea and Buddhism: Much More Than Just Contemplation

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At one level, the association of Buddhism and tea seems natural and obvious. The ethos and practices of its many schools and their impact on modern modes of yoga, Zen, meditation, nutrition and daily living conjure up images associated with tea: calm, cleansing, meditative and ceremonial. Somehow, the link doesn’t quite seem the same for other beverages: seek karma with a languorous double latte caffeine jolt, a contemplative soda sugar boost or a double rye on the rocks.

But the impact goes much further and shaped almost every basic element of tea production and much of its social context. There are two great traditions of tea: Buddhist and English. They are marked by what may be called The Great Sugar Divide. Basically, Buddhism drove the methods of producing great teas pre-sugar, giving us the legacy of mainly greens and oolongs. It’s hard to put dates on the 4,000 or more years of tea in China, but by 800 CE, it was a mature agricultural activity in China, and had been introduced into Japan and Korea. At that stage, it was in essence Buddhist-driven.

Buddhist monks and English merchants: The two great traditions of tea

The British created the later tea culture of the West, but their role was very much that of trading: building the global supply chains, blending, packaging and branding that have made tea a consistent, cheap and convenient commodity, now mostly in tea bags.

This was built on scale and integration: the consolidation of small growers’ harvests through centralized auctions, the magnificent tea clipper ships that raced the Pacific to cut weeks off the many months of journey, the monopoly control of the East India Company, and the creation of large farms in Assam and Ceylon.

When Napoleon mocked Britain as a nation of shopkeepers, he was spot on in terms of tea. (He was a tea lover himself, as is apparent in his letters to Josephine – “I cannot have a cup of tea without cursing the glory and the ambition which keep me away from the love of my life,” etc., etc. He commissioned stunning Sevres tea sets and the ornate tea samovar captured from his tent after Waterloo.)

Sir Thomas J. Lipton, (1848-1931), the creator of the Lipton Tea brand, next to memorial to David Kennison, last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. Ca. 1927 / Source Shutterstock

Sir Thomas J. Lipton, (1848-1931), the creator of the Lipton Tea brand, next to memorial to David Kennison, last survivor of the Boston Tea Party. Ca. 1927 / Source Shutterstock.com

The shopkeepers democratized tea and systematized quality. Thomas Lipton, the grocer who was the Sam Walton of his age; Thomas Twinings, founder of tea’s equivalent of Starbucks; the Tetley brothers, its first global merchant and “brand”; and John Horniman who built the largest trading company in the world by being the first to use machines to blend and package tea and guarantee quality, driven by his Quaker commitment to social good, to make tea “pure and cheap.” All of them shaped how tea was marketed sold and, except for Horniman, remain dominant players in the global market. His company was sold off piecemeal after his death.

Buddhism was just as or even more far-reaching in its impacts on tea in general – growing, professionalizing practices, disseminating powerful information and guidebooks, shaping the ceremonies and accoutrements of cups, pots and tea preparation. Tea drinking became part of the daily routines in temples during the Tang dynasty, around twelve hundred years ago.

The monasteries and temples were social businesses and they made substantial contributions to how tea was made. As they expanded in location, size and impact, they spread tea to the masses. Their tradition of wandering monks spread tea growing to Japan, developed pan-frying as an alternative to steaming in making tea, formalized the ceremony and ritual that became a core to upper class social norms, introduced bamboo tree-shading and produced the superior teas that attracted the attention of the royal court – and funding.

Buddhists domesticated the wild tea tree, which could grow to 20 feet. They reduced it to a 1-meter shrub, rounding its “table” so that it could be formed into uniform rows that were at the right height for plucking. The best-selling and for centuries definitive book, Cha Ching (The Classic of Tea), by, of course, a Buddhist monk, published around 720 AD is a very comprehensive and sophisticated guide to soil, harvesting, utensils, even the height at which to hold the pot to pour boiling water into the cup.

It is not at all coincidental that so many of the major tea regions remain Buddhism at the core of their communities and that so many temples are located up in their hills. Perhaps the most outstanding illustration is Adam’s Peak, in Sri Lanka. The temple is ecumenical and somewhat remote. It produces one of the most superb whites in the world, a unique and unsurpassable drink. It turns out that this mountaintop is an ideal terrain for tea growing but the tea is there only because of the temple. There is no way any farmer would single it out.

There are other Buddhist-created teas that have maintained a continuous reputation for 500-1,500 hundred years, despite the invasions, civil wars, famines and rebellions that mark Chinese history. (The Mongol invasions basically unraveled the social fabric of tea tribute, ritual, and imperial gardens but the artisan craft was self-sustaining.)

One noted example is Big Red Robe (Da Hong Pao), the famously expensive and sublime oolong that sold for as much as $35,000 for an ounce in 1988 and still commands absurd prices for its top-of-the-line leaf perfectly picked at the right instant with the right clouds overhead, etc. Excellent Big Red Robes are easy to find for $8 an ounce or less.

Pi Lo Chun, Green Snail Spring, is a long-established temple tea that is now grown in other provinces and in Taiwan. Wuyi rock tea, the source of so many great oolongs, developed as small farmers moved to the monastery areas, following an imperial edict requiring all tea be leaf not brick. They created new techniques that are among the most complex and produce some of the best oolongs in the world.

The temples of China had become refugee centers for peasants fleeing the devastation of their lands and their being forced into serving as battle fodder for the marauding armies. The havens offered safety and sustenance. Increasingly, emperors and their officials gave them taxing authority and granted them lands. They developed their own agricultural trade, handicrafts and medical services. In the fifth century BCE, it is estimated that the breakaway Northern Wei kingdom, today’s China north of the Yangtse river, contained 40,000 monasteries with 2 million monks and nuns.

The driving force in Buddhism’s adoption of the tea expertise and methods of the Taoist religion of which it was very much an evolution, (as was Confucianism), was the very opposite of the sit-and-meditate stereotype. It was get-up-and-go energizing. The daily routines of the monks’ life aimed at combining physical labor and mental contemplation.

Tea was vital as the only non-alcoholic drink that mildly energized – the caffeine positive – and could be safely consumed all day. As it became more and more embedded in Buddhist philosophy, the pragmatic extended to the spiritual. Tea ceremonies were built around the tenets of respect, harmony, purity and peace and infused the Noble Eightway Path.

The pragmatics were powerful in themselves. Tea offered the first alternative to alcohol. It also used little of the scarce farmland demanded for wine and beers. (In England, around an eighth of the total land area went to growing wheat for bread and ale; tea provided a working class food that was imported, high in vitamins and minerals.) China’s lowlands were committed to rice-growing with population pressures; tea could be produced on the idle mountain slopes.

The Chinese Big Red Robe tea. Photograph by Pavels Rumme/ Shutterstock

The Chinese Big Red Robe tea. Photograph by Pavels Rumme/ Shutterstock.com

The most consequential pragmatic impact of the temples’ encouragement, diffusion and professionalizing of tea growing was to counter one of the greatest killers in society: water. We have the notion that in whatever Good Old Days we weave nostalgia regrets for, water was so, so much better than in our polluted times. Uh, no. The easiest way to get sick and the fastest way to spread disease was the water available to crowded clusters of populations. That mountain stream and shimmery lake looks great, except under a microscope.

China adopted the routine of drinking only boiling water long before tea, which was initially eaten as a herb or mixed with other ingredients as a paste or broth. Several of the myths of its origin illustrate this: Emperor Shen Nong, who had ordered that all his subjects drink only boiled water, woke up when he was heating his to see a leaf fall from the tree into the bubbling pot. He was captivated by the totally new flavor it added. A myth, obviously, but it is intriguing that it so directly relates tea to water.

There’s an emerging body of research that suggests this was a very key contribution of Buddhist tea growing. Historical mortality rates in the crowded cities from dysentery and typhoid seem, from limited data, to have been much lower in the major tea growing regions. There are correlations, too, between tea consumption and population growth and disease in Japan, and in England they rose in high tax and dropped in low tax periods which affected the affordability of tea.

It is an entertaining irony that tea was the safe alternative to the dangers of water.

The militant side of tea and Buddhism

Buddhist expansion from India, to China, Japan and across East Asia was not just a matter of sages sitting in isolation in temples that were centers for learning and ceremony. Its evolution and expansion was as a social movement and many of its sects built substantial military capabilities.

In the times of war lords, they provided shelter, ran farms and provided schooling. Over time, these communal roots weakened and tea became associated with the aristocracy and military. Ornate tea competitions were court events. The rituals that are associated with tea as pomp (and tea-talk as pomposity) became more and more rigid. The Imperial Court imposed cruel burdens on entire communities to produce luxury “tribute” teas. One of these was the pumpkin size brick puehr tea known as “Hunan-heads”; they were a reference to the severed human heads that were ritually also presented in tribute to the Emperor.

In Japan, tea and Buddhism together became identified with the ethos of the samurai to the degree that monks were routinely “military advisers” attached to clans in their battle campaigns. Here’s an extract from the obituary of a famed general: “He defended the castle of Kishiwada and personally took 208 heads. He was also a noted tea master.”

The Great Sugar Divide

There is one single factor that is entirely different in the Buddhist tea tradition and that of Europe and the Middle East: sugar. It’s hard for us to even imagine a sugarless society, but until the 1700s it was a luxury spice made in small quantities as a preserve of Arab society. For the historically-minded, it seems to have been first produced in Papua, New Guinea, around 8,000 BCE and in India where it spread to China and Persia. It was limited in production and trade by its weight, heavy water demands, depletion of the soil and its labor-intensive costs (which, of course, came to mean slaves).

While sugar is entirely absent from the Buddhist tea history, it is a dominant part of British tea. It is, alas, the very essence of the worst US mass market beverage: iced tea.  A “sugar sweetened” one contains 4-5 teaspoons per cup.

Sugar marks the post-Buddhist tea cultures. Turkey has the largest per capita consumption in the world, almost three times that of the UK, with lots of sweeteners. Morocco is second – more “lots” with mint in green tea — and Ireland third, all black teas and ever more lots. Russia and Iran are large import markets – tea for drinking with sugar and cakes. Add in the UK, which for long combined the highest per capita tea consumption with the highest for candy and chocolate, and India’s giant domestic chai market, and the Great Divide is very apparent.

Sugar changed the opportunity space for British growers and merchants. (The term “English” seems too embedded in tea marketing to displace with the more accurate “British.” Thomas Lipton was a Scot, as was Robert Fortune, the botanist-explorer-spy who successfully brought Chinese seed to India. English Breakfast was created in Edinburgh. Ireland has a far higher per capita tea consumption than England, where tea drinking has dropped by 40% over the past two decades.)

The major tea myth, still widely accepted, is that “English” tea was marked by elegance, quality and good taste. In reality, it was pretty dreadful: rough, adulterated, stale, chemically enhanced, with “wet and warm” its main attraction – with plenty of milk and sugar.

The challenge that early growers faced was one that remains a concern for tea lovers and tea avoiders: bitterness. Tea is inherently astringent: the sharp, pucker and drying taste you get in wine and many fruits and vegetables, such as pears and cauliflower. Astringency is pleasant but not when it increases to bitterness.

It’s not too much of a simplification to summarize the Buddhist Chinese/Japanese evolution of tea production as softening and mellowing the leaf and brewing in order to minimize bitterness and the British Indian/Ceylon/African one as using milk and sugar to soften it.

This lay behind the emergence of very heavy Assam and Kenyan black teas as the core of branded blends and bags, the move to what is basically lawnmower (CTC) harvesting of bushes – crush, tear and curl – and making it easy to use the lower and more bitter leaves and twigs on the branch for the awful iced tea that amounts to 85% of US “tea.”

Some tea drinkers still prefer to add milk as softener and sugar as sweetener but that’s fading. In general, the lighter and more aromatic the tea, the stronger the consensus that it be drunk neat. That applies to the estate teas of Darjeeling, the excellent highland Ceylons fron gardens such as Kenilworth, or Chinese congous, the black teas that are decidedly post-Buddhist. (These emerged in the mid-19th century in response to the British demand for black teas.)

Fine green tea remains very much today Buddhist in its methods, locations and even names. Of course, many new factors came into play. By the late Middle Ages, tea had moved from the localized cultivation of regional teas to their role in trade, national government, and then the arrival of Europeans eager to buy the new beverage in shiploads. Buddhism played some role in this.

For enlightenment or for money?

One of the most intriguing economic and military developments was the massive trade with Nepal, then a powerful kingdom of the high plateaus of what are now India, Sikkim and Tibet. The core weakness of China was its lack of horses, which were both abundant in these territories and the advantage of the ever-invading barbarian hordes – Scythian, Mongol and tribes of many syllable names.

The still-traveled Tea Horse Road runs 3,000 mountainous miles from Yunnan, where the compressed brick and bing chas of puehr remain predominantly made, to Bengal, Sichuan, Tibet and Burma. It is somewhat winding. Puehrs became in effect a trade currency, with complex negotiations on price and terms.

Lijiang old town, now a UNESCO Heritage Site and once an important stop on the Old Tea Horse road.

Lijiang old town, now a UNESCO Heritage Site and once, an important stop on the Old Tea Horse road. Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com

To some degree, the contrast between the Buddhist and later world is tea is the Spiritual and pragmatic versus the Social and commercial. Religion was never part of the British tea tradition. It was central to that of China and Japan. In both instances, the organization, education and expansion of Buddhism added a lasting practicality.

There is some parallel with the role of Catholicism with alcoholic beverages: the genius of Dom Perignon, who turned the mediocre sparkling wines of England into French national identity, the monks of Corsedonk whose Belgium beers could bring a horse to its knees, Benedictine, Chambord and other exotic cordials. The monks of both faiths made very good drinks, were innovators and shaped their wider society.

Of course, the timelines of history have converged. The strength of the Buddhist tea tradition is also its weakness: localization. Today, very little of the best tea of Japan, Taiwan and Japan is exported. It’s ironic that Lipton has three times the national branded tea market than the largest Chinese player. An article asks “Why is Lipton more powerful than 70,000 Chinese tea companies?” History.

The British tradition was built on exports. Every elite tea maker in the world is linked into the global supply chains. Interestingly, it is reaching limits that are moving many growers back into the pre-Sugar era: they are recognizing that the commoditization of tea as a bulk ingredient is increasingly a marginal business and “premiumization” is the new goal. In Darjeeling, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan,, small is becoming very beautiful. Darjeeling’s green and oolong teas, mediocre just a few years ago, are beginning to stand out in their distinctive styles.

Japan’s smallholders are setting the highest levels of productivity and its many localized senchas are exquisite. In Sri Lanka, the large farms are facing near-disaster in the drop in quality of the teas from their aging plant stock and depleted soil; official government studies show that it is the elite smallholders that are innovating and investing.

What is most striking in the Buddhist tradition’s history and legacy is just how much tea paced very basic elements of daily life: water, wakefulness and productivity, nutrition for the poor, rural income earning, and social conventions. Too often, tea marketing emphasizes the luxury, snobbery, elegance and special event aspects of tea. In the end, though, its centrality is the simple enjoyment of everyday life. The elegance is an addition, as is the spirituality.

The featured banner shows a tea plantation at the foot of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. Photo source Shutterstock.com

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