Posted in Kafevend Blog
Heard the one about the Chinese emperor who was boiling water to drink when a leaf blew in? On tasting the water he detects an improved flavour and a restorative effect to boot. Thus, some five thousand years ago the Emperor Shennong discovered tea. He's not the only legendary figure to be credited with this landmark discovery either. Let's take a look next at a story that's rather more gruesome in the telling!
This story centres on Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who is generally seen as the initiator of Chán Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan. Having travelled from India to China, he begins a nine year long meditation. Drifting off to sleep at some point, he is so angry with himself for his lapse in concentration that he cuts off his own eyelids to prevent them from ever closing again. He throws his eyelids to the ground in disgust and where they fall the first tea plant springs up. Bodhidharma discovers that the plant's leaves are capable of producing a drink that leaves him refreshed, revived and better able to concentrate his mind on his meditations; thus tea is born.
As well as these legends that explain tea's general emergence, there are those that deal with individual teas. One example concerns the oolong, Ti Kuan Yin. The story goes that a farmer regularly visits a rather run down temple dedicated to the goddess Guanyin. He always tidies the place up as best he can, burns incense and settles down to pray by her iron statue. On one occasion Guanyin's statue appears to come to life, revealing to him that the key to his future happiness and prosperity lies just outside the temple door. On investigation the farmer discovers a plant, which over time and with due care results in his first crop of the oolong which is named in honour of the goddess.
We first looked at the religious and cultural importance of tea in the Far East during a series of blog posts back in the spring. Chadō, or The Way of Tea has very strong links to Zen Buddhism. The monks used the tea ceremony as an aid to meditation and were also responsible for the widespread development of tea cultivation and use amongst their surrounding communities. Little surprise then that the legends surrounding tea's beginnings have significant religious or royal characters at their heart.
Despite tea's strong role in British society, and let's face it – visitors from abroad expect to see us sipping tea just as much as they expect to see men in bowler hats with stiff upper lips carrying umbrellas, it isn't accorded any level of spiritual status. The same is true of tea in Western civilisation as a whole. We came too late to tea for it to have been woven into the fabric of our religious stories and cultural legends. Wine, on the other hand, with its far more deeply rooted past in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean has a deeply significant role to play in religious ritual. There it is in the story of the Last Supper and as time went on it came to have very close links to Catholicism, and not just because of its use in the celebration of Mass. Through its monasteries the Catholic church maintained ownership of an extensive range of vineyards and its monks gained considerable expertise in the cultivation of fine wines. Dom Pérignon champagne, for instance, is named for the Benedictine monk of the same name; an expert in the field of quality wine making, he pioneered champagne production techniques.
No matter where your beliefs lie then, nor whether your favourite tipple is tea or wine, it seems we owe a debt of gratitude to monks for their dedication in the field. Now there's something to meditate on!