tao of tea

The Chinese tea ceremony -- "Tao of Tea" chinese characters for tao of tea (Cha Dao) is essentially a form of social etiquette using tea as a medium. It is a pathway to cultivating one's morality, nature and heart through the steeping, appreciating and drinking of tea, and to promoting friendship in a neutral, harmonious and beautiful ceremony.

The myriad regional variations of the Cha Dao all embody the central principle that through the appreciation of tea and the orderly ceremonial structure of the Cha Dao, we come to be lifted above our base, daily worries and concerns and develop an inner, peaceful connection with ourselves. This is a subjective experience which the Western 'hurry hurry' culture all too easily dismisses.

Cha Dao is over 1,000 years old, its history being traceable to the Tang (618 to 917 AD) and possibly pre-Tang dynasties. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhist monks drank tea to slake the thirst of the body and calm the disturbances of the mind, during their very lengthy and demanding chanting rituals. Outside the monasteries, banquets were common amongst rich, important officials who enjoyed exquisite teas while debating topics of the day.

The custom of drinking tea, first for medicinal purposes, and then for reasons of pure pleasure, was already widespread throughout China. In the early 9th century, Chinese "tea saint" Lu Yu wrote the classic Cha Jing, a treatise on on the cultivation and preparation of tea. Lu Yu was heavily influenced by Buddhist thought, particularly Zen. His ideas would have a strong influence in the development of the Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies.

During the Tang and the Song (960 to 1279 AD) dynasties, the Chinese evolved their ideas and thinking about tea drinking, the actions and rituals around it, the atmosphere in which it must be conducted, the care and attention which are the proper attitude to bring to it, and the role of all of these thoughts, ideas and behaviours in promoting tranquility and balance in the human organism, both at the personal and (importantly, in eastern philosophy) the social level.

Meanwhile in Japan, by the 16th century, tea drinking had spread to all levels of society. Takeno Joo and his pupil, the monk Sen no Rikyu, developed the concept of ichi-go ichi-e (chinese characters for one moment one opportunity), a belief that each meeting should be treasured for it can never be reproduced. Ichi-go ichi-e is linked with Zen Buddhism and concepts of transience. The term is particularly associated with the tea ceremony, and is often brushed on to scrolls which are hung in Japanese tea rooms. Ichi-go ichi-e reminds participants that each tea meeting is unique.

'Wabi' (meaning quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste) is the essence of the Japanese tea ceremony (Chado), characterised by restraint, simplicity and purity, qualities which the Japanese cultivated equally in other fields, such as architecture, garden design and the fine arts.

While these concepts were developed based on the influence of the Chinese Tao of Tea, it is important to note that the original thrusts of these concepts originates from China. Some people say that it is regrettable that while the Chinese Cha Dao was developed hundreds of years before the Japanese Chado, they are unable to proudly wave the flag of the Tao of Tea nor were they able to derive its own culturally rich tea ceremony.

Chinese tea culture is older than the Japanese by several centuries and lays emphasis more on the spiritual elements and less on the ritual. These elements have been summarized as:

  • Beauty and Order chinese characters for beauty and order (Mei Lu). All elements - the leaves of the tea plant, the water, implements, ambience and company should be pleasing and exude a sense of harmony, purity and tranquility. The process of tea making should be full of ease and grace and proceed in a smooth, flowing order resulting in the best possible atmosphere for appreciating tea.
  • Health chinese characters for health (Jian Kang). Tea drinking is a wonderful, voracious, life enhancing, chlorophyll and anti-oxidant packed experience.
  • Cultivate Inner Peace and Harmony (Yang Xing). Understanding the attributes of tea, and fully experiencing the tea drinking, engages us in a pleasurable activity, cultivating and purifying our soul and returning us to our original true self.
  • Relations chinese characters for relations (Ming Lun). Respect is the basis of all relationships and tea drinking promotes trust, loyalty, sincerity and respect between parents, children, spouses, siblings, friends, superiors and colleagues.
Making a cup of tea is after all a very simple matter; one only needs to add some hot water to a pinch of tea leaves. While rituals of Cha Dao may appear to be too refined for such a common daily enjoyment, it is important to know that Cha Dao emphasizes more of the spiritual aspects and less of the forms or ritualistic aspects of the tea ceremony.

If you can take time out from a busy schedule to sit down with your friends and family, appreciate the ichi-go ichi-e concept and treasure that precise moment, even if you just enjoy your own company while imbibing the wonderful liquor that is tea, your mind and body deserve that rest and recuperation and will benefit hugely.


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