There is an old saying that “Tea and Zen are of one taste” (茶禅一味). A bit of a kōan (公案; Chinese: 公案, gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án), the phrase is meant to both give rise to “great doubt” and spark the onset of a meditative mind. At the core of this mindset is the realization of one’s inability to grasp that which is logical, therefore forcing one to inquire withing and rely upon intuition, direct experience and wisdom.
The phrase also alludes to the close link that tea and meditation have had over the centuries. Beginning in the Tang and continuing through the end of the Song (from 500-1300), the rise of both tea culture alongside Buddhist meditation (chán 禪, Chinese for the Sanskrit word dhyāna ध्यान , meaning “meditation”, the Japanese word being zen, seon 선 in Korean) had a profound effect on one another. Commonly produced in monasteries for its medicinal properties, tea was also consumed as a means to wake the mind (through tea’s energizing properties). Paired as an aid to meditation, the physical act of making tea was similarly viewed as meditative, as it requires a certain level of mindfulness to achieve the desired results.
As tea continued to evolve in tandem with Buddhist schools of meditation, it was shaped by the people and cultures it came into contact with. Subsequent practitioners, from the Japanese Zen Buddhists and lay people of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1603) who developed chanoyu (茶の湯, the Japanese tea ceremony), to the Korean Seon Buddhist monks like Cho’ui (writer of the Dashinjeon 다신전(茶神傳, literally “Tea Spirit Record”), 1830) who linked meditation more directly to tea preparation, would continue this trend, pointing the way for modern tea people to follow.
To the tea practitioner, the mere act of making tea can bring about a meditative state of mind, as each tea, vessel, teapot, kettle, cup, and scoop can bring about a myriad of possibilities. From the way a certain clay cools to when or where a tea was harvested, to how one pours water over the tea leaves, or even the temperature of the air, attentiveness to all of these factors and more is the essence of “now-mindedness”.
It is in this moment, the moment of sitting down to make tea, that one must rely upon what they know and how it ultimately bears against what they do not know. It is from this interaction with and inquiry into these dual aspects that great tea can be made.
This morning, as I make a meditation out of preparing tea, I ponder this. Brewing a jakseol (작설, literally “sparrow’s tongue” green tea from Jirisan in Hadong, South Korea), the movements it requires to slowly and mindfully express the tea’s flavor are apparent. Any thoughts of the world around me, of deadlines, of things to do become nothing more than thoughts, things at the moment outside of my control.
The water rises to a quiet boil, the buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teapot, sookwoo (water server), and tea cups (each a gift from a dear friend) are warmed. As I warm the vessels, I roll each slowly within my hand, feeling the radiant heat of the water within them climb up the inside of their earthenware walls, permeating through their dull-colored glazed exteriors.
I carefully place the leaves of the tea within the open mouth of the teapot. The lingering heat trapped within the vessel’s clay walls begins to wake the tea and a slight hint to its flavor rises sweetly into the air.
The water that was momentarily set to cool within the sookwoo is poured into the teapot and the lid is placed upon its top. The tea is left to brew. All visible clues as to the tea’s progress are kept at bay as the teapot sits. All information that one is left to rely upon must come from one’s own intuition and direct experience.
The elegant yet roughly-hewn buncheong-jagi cups sit awaiting the tea. Even at this moment of stillness, of emptiness, there is a sense of meaning as the tea continues to brew.
In a matter of mere seconds, the tea is poured and its light, bright color is exhibited against the soft, mottled grey surface of the teacup’s interior. All of the moment spent sitting in a still and mindful quietude is summed up here. All of colors of a gentle Korean Spring in the mountains of Jirisan are apparent in this cup.
The tea is brewed and the leaves unfurled. The aroma is released and the flavor of the tea becomes, as I become, fully present.