June 12, 2013

Consider the Source: Why Did Tea Come to Symbolize Enlightenment?

Andy Ferguson

The great Zen master Zhaozhou (Joshu)’s advice to seekers of the Way was “Go drink tea.” Zhaozhou’s contemporary, Zen Master Jiashan Shanhui, famously uttered, “Tea, Zen: one taste,” a phrase that adorns countless tea houses in China. What’s the story behind Chinese Zen and tea culture’s intimate relationship?


Both Zen and tea gained widespread popularity around the same time in ancient China. Historical records reveal that around the year 713, a certain Zen master named Xiangmo allowed his monks to drink tea in order to stay awake while meditating. Monks and laypeople throughout China then enthusiastically adopted this practice. Yet this alone is not the reason why tea came to symbolize enlightenment. It is also because drinking tea was seen as an ordinary, “signless” activity—just like enlightenment itself.

Years ago I visited Jiashan Shanhui’s temple, the famous Lingquan ("Spiritual Springs") monastery in Hunan that was home to both Jiashan and the great master Foguo, composer of the koan collection Blue Cliff Record. In the abbot’s quarters hung a couplet, written by Jiashan upon his enlightenment:

The gibbon clutches her baby and returns to the mountain
Birds drop flowers on the Blue Cliff Spring

I worked with this for a long time before I understood it. As with many koans, the fundamental Zen teaching of signlessness provides the key. To understand this couplet, it is first necessary to know that the clear-flowing waters of the Blue Cliff Spring were renowned as an excellent source of water for tea.

“The gibbon clutches her baby and returns to the mountain” represents Jiashan’s signless enlightenment. Jiashan gave birth (in a sense), but there is no sign left from the experience (the ape “disappeared” into the mountain). The birds dropping flowers on the Blue Cliff Spring refers to a story about the Oxhead Master of Zen History, Niutou Farong, who was said to be so holy prior to his complete enlightenment that birds dropped flowers on his house. After his complete (signless) enlightenment, the birds stopped, because there was no sign left by which he could be seen as holy. So when the birds drop flowers on the Blue Cliff Spring, they pay homage not directly to Jiashan, but to the tea that represents his enlightenment.

—Andy Ferguson


This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson's new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, China, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.

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mahakala's picture

"Yes," said G. "A great deal can be found by reading. For instance, take yourself: you might already know a great deal if you knew how to read. I mean that, if you understood everything you have read in your life, you would already know what you are looking for now. If you understood everything you have written in your own book, what is it called?"—he made something altogether impossible out of the words "Tertium Organum"—"I should come and bow down to you and beg you to teach me. But you do not understand either what you read or what you write. You do not even understand what the word 'understand' means. Yet understanding is essential, and reading can be useful only if you understand what you read. But, of course, no book can give real preparation. So it is impossible to say which is better. What a man knows well" (he emphasized the word "well")—"that is his preparation. If a man knows how to make coffee well or how to make boots well, then it is already possible to talk to him. The trouble is that nobody knows anything well. Everything is known just anyhow, superficially."

karladiane's picture

Oh, I'm so happy to see this feature - thank you.

celticpassage's picture

It isn't just tea that's associated with enlightenment is it? What about calligraphy, poetry, and flower arranging?

moleary93's picture

Tea may symbolize enlightenment, but for real awakening, you need COFFEE!

Dominic Gomez's picture

For Beats in the '50's, enlightenment was coffee, poetry and jazz, man. Tea was what you smoked...