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Tea and Religion

One of the reasons why tea has surpasses normal beverages to become a spiritual good is because of its close relationship with religion.

There is a miraculous legend about the link between tea and Buddhism. Bodhidharma, who was credited for transmitting Buddhism to China, was meditating on Mount Song. He vowed that he would meditate for nine consecutive years without sleep and everyday he silently sat cross-legged in the lotus position in a cave facing the wall In the first three years, his meditation was very successful. None of the outside distractions interfered. But as time went on, he could no longer hold on, and eventually he fell asleep. After waking up, Bodhidarma was ashamed of his failure and angry at his lack of perseverance. To show his determination for Zen, he cut eyelids, threw them on the ground, and continued his meditation. Interestingly, his eyelids grew into a tea tree. In the next five years, Bodhidarma kept his head clear, and his meditation was also successful. The nine-year meditation finally reached its final year. Sleepiness again crept into his head. He plucked a couple of leaves off the tea tree beside him and began chewing. He suddenly became sober again. Bodhidarma was finally able to keep his vow and complete nine years of meditation. all thanks to that tea tree.

Tea, of course, existed in China long before any monks brought Buddhism. Then why does Buddhism favour tea so much? There are three major reasons for this. Firstly,tea keeps the monks alert when they are meditating. Secondly, tea helps digestion. And thirdly, tea calms the mind and suppresses desires. Tea became an integral part of Buddhist practice in China, so much so that it is said that "tea and Zen have the same flavour", and some have come to interpret it to mean that tea and Zen are the same thing.

Buddhist monasteries in China promote the combination of farming and meditation. Many monasteries grow tea trees. Besides for their own consumption, they also offer their tea to common people at various philanthropic events at the monasteries, so everyone may enjoy the love of the Buddha. Throughout the thousands of years of tea drinking history, Buddhism was very influential in its shaping. During the Tang and Song dynasties, Buddhism was particularly prosperous. The popularity of planting tea trees and drinking tea among the Buddhist monks helped spreading the custom of tea drinking to the common people.

The spread of tea drinking was in no way contained to China. In fact, Buddhism brought the entire Chinese tea culture all the way to Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the popularity of planting tea trees and producing tea substantially contributed to the development of tea production techniques. Many famous varieties of tea were first invented by monks,The most significant contribution of Buddhism to tea culture is the infusion of Buddhist philosophy into tea drinking, making it a pleasure far beyond the mere physical. Zhaozhou, a Zen master in the late Tang dynasty, is the best example. Whenever someone asked him a question, he would always answer "Go have tea!" From Zhaozhou's point of view, questions of Zen and Buddhism often cannot be answered with language. His answer "Go have tea!" was meant to disrupt the questioner's habitual thinking, so that the questioner could put aside the troubles and worries that surrounded him, allowing him to face life with a clear and relaxed mind. This is perhaps the true insight behind the saying that tea and Zen have the same flavour.

Beside Buddhism, many of China's indigenous religions view tea as a heavenly drink that allows people to acquaint deities, to dispel illnesses, and to have surreal experiences beyond this world.

Meanwhile, Islam and Christianity both have a long history with tea as well. Islam believes that tea can make people live in harmony. This is why Islam prohibits alcohol but promotes tea. Many of the Muslim communities in Northwestern China '"would rather live one day without rice, but cannot live one day without tea." They also view drinking tea as a moral practice, because they believe that tea can make people calm, friendly, and kind and it can unite people under the preachings of Allah.

The relationship between tea and Christianity developed as tea spread west towards Europe. Since the Yuan dynasty, European missionaries began spreading Christianity in China. In 1556 AD, Portuguese missionary Caspar da Cruz first introduced Catholicism to China. When he returned to Europe in 1560, he brought with him Chinese tea and a set of knowledge about tea drinking. He said, "In China, wealthy families usually treat their guests with tea. Tea is slightly bitter. It appears red. It can treat illnesses. After infusion, the juice of tea can be drunk as a beverage. Since then, Italian missionary Matteo Ricci and philosopher Giovanni Botero both visited China and returned with the custom of drinking tea. They also recommended that Catholics drink tea. Botero wrote in his Della Cause della grandezza della citta (The Cause of the Greatness of Cities), "The Chinese brews a kind of plant for its juice, and drink it instead of alcohol. It enhances health, prevents sickness, and treats the ills of drinking alcohol."