For many of us, the world is going through unrest. It is easy to get overwhelmed with stress, anxiety, and loss of stability. At times it can seem as though we are no longer in control of our own life. Our daily reality is constantly plagued by war, inflation, COVID, street and school violence, or social division. The mere thought of those disasters can be hard to bear. It puts our minds and souls under constant pressure. In times like these, the simple action of drinking tea with mindfulness can be a remedy at hand. Let's explore how drinking tea for focusing evolved from ancient times to nowadays in China's most important philosophical movements. We will also learn ways to take advantage of those practices to quiet the bustling thoughts, achieve mindfulness, and shift to a better state of calm and gratitude.
Drinking tea for focusing: the origins
The origins of tea supposedly date back about five millennia ago in ancient China. Ever since, tea leaves have gradually made their way into virtually every domain of society. Their usage is prevalent within the various religious denominations in China. Tea is also seen as a precious medicine throughout Chinese history. It has become a way of life that embodies a specific set of customs, culture, aesthetics, and philosophy. They shine through in every aspect of society and largely shape the psyche and mental image of the Chinese civilization to this day.
Drinking tea for focusing: a religious practice
The habit and culture of drinking tea are present in all three major spiritual movements in China, i.e. Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The monks appreciate tea's ability to provide mental clearness and calm focus. They are drinking tea for focusing, staying awake and mindful, and sustaining themselves during the long hours of meditation. They also embody different spiritual aspects of tea drinking that are in line with their own system of beliefs.
Tea and mindfulness: Buddhism
There is a strong connection between tea and Buddhism. In China, there is a famous saying that probably best conveys its meaning. Its author is Yuanwu Keqin, an eminent monk who lived during the reign of the Song dynasty. In a calligraphy session, he once wrote: "Cha Chan Yi Wei" (茶禅一味 – "Tea and Zen are one") with elegant brushstrokes.
Chan is the Chinese term for deep meditation and contemplation, referred to as Zen in Japan and the rest of the world.
To this day, 茶禅一味 remains one of the most popular connotations of how tea and Zen are connected. In 1191, monk Eisai (also known as Yosai) brought this calligraphy scripture to Japan, along with the Chan (Zen) concept and green tea knowledge. He founded the Rinzai school of Buddhism and became known as the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Buddhism strongly advocates drinking tea. In Buddhism, "Chan" (or Zen) calls for quiet contemplation and cultivation of the mind. "Tea and Zen are one" means that tea culture and Zen culture share a common ground – namely, the pursuit of spiritual improvement. Tea and meditation wash away the dust from the heart and quiet the noise in the mind. They clear the turbid world affairs and help to achieve spontaneous inner happiness. Tasting tea is like tasting the ups and downs of life and reaching the realm of enlightenment.
Tea and Mindfulness: Daoism
The Daoist tea ceremony pays attention to the harmony between man and nature. Its basic principles include respect for life, honoring nature, "sit and forget", the absence of self, follow the spirit of Dao.
Daoism incorporates the concept of "Heaven and Man are one" into the tea ceremony. At the same time, it also advocates nature, simplicity, and frugal aesthetics. It also emphasizes rebirth, the value of life, and health preservation.
The idea of the merging between humans and nature is especially alive in Daoism. It is a representation of the view that "heaven and earth coexist with me, and I am one with all things". In Daoist thought, when tasting tea, people seek to become one with the surrounding nature and surrender their thoughts, feelings, and desires to the cosmos.
The idea of the harmony between man and nature also manifests in the personification of all things that surround us. Daoism sees all things in nature as beings with human character and emotions that can communicate with people spiritually. Therefore, in the eyes of Chinese tea people, every mountain, river, stone, and tree are living things with their own persona. In the Chinese tea ceremony, this idea shines through the personification of the tea tasting environment – like landscapes, plants, and trees. It also includes the humanization of tea and tea utensils. The poet Zheng Banqiao invited "the green mountain to sit down". Li Ying describes the tea "like a cloud is protecting the solitary people". All things in nature share a connection with the people.
The Daoist philosophy of "harmony between man and nature" is deeply integrated into the spirit of the tea ceremony. Because of it, Chinese tea people have an expressed love for nature. They strongly desire to get close and return to nature, where the original state of pure harmony – or Dao – awaits.
Daoism and tea: cherish life
GuiSheng（贵生）is a central notion in Daoism. It is part of the concept to "preserve life, preserve health, and make life happy" (贵生，养生，乐生). Under this influence, the Chinese tea ceremony pays special attention to "the power of tea" for health care and preservation, as well as its function of nourishing certain emotions. In Daoism, tea tasting does not focus on rules. Instead, it emphasizes the health value of tea.
Daoism and tea: sit and forget
"Sit and forget" (Zuo Wang – 坐忘) is a way to achieve the state of "extreme emptiness and quietness" in the tea ceremony. It consists in forgetting one's own body and mind, melting the boundaries between things and people.
Daoism and tea: no self
The "no-self" (WuWo – 无我) in Daoism is closely related to the tea ceremony. It doesn't seek to eliminate the physical body but rather the internal contradictions and outward conflicts so as to conform to nature and accept all things in the heart. "No-self" is the highest state of mind in the Chinese tea ceremony. "WuWo" tea gatherings are prevalent in Taiwan. Japanese and Korean tea people also actively participate in them.
Daoism and tea: return to the original state
In Buddhism, one has to climb his way to enlightenment. In Daoism, it's rather a way backward. One has to return to its original state to become one with the Dao, the state of supreme harmony.
Daoism strongly emphasizes "the way of nature". Thus, every element in the tea ceremony should conform to the natural ways. When planting, picking, and processing the leaves, it is necessary to follow the laws of nature to produce good tea. The best surroundings for a tea ritual are among the clouds and forests, in the mountain, and near flowing water. The mind is still like the mountains and rocks, the mood is joyous like spring flowers blooming, and the words are like the murmur of the mountain springs. Every movement and gesture should conform to nature and draw inspiration from it. Daoism pursues returning to simplicity. It is a state of complete liberation, making one's own state of mind free and unrestrained. The fragrance of tea fills the soul, letting it merge with the universe and achieve self-realization.
Tea and Mindfulness: Confucianism
Confucianism advocates the middle way, social hierarchy, and rites. It emphasizes creating a harmonious atmosphere and refined feelings. The unique atmosphere of tea tasting creates inner peace and a dignified mood so that people can calmly deal with daily affairs.
There is an image of the "virtuous and frugal," which is very Confucianist. It refers to the people who excel in their deeds and have a restrained and dignified morality. Lu Yu himself mentions that "tea is frugal in nature, and most suits the virtuous and frugal people to drink".
The Chinese people attach great importance to etiquette and social rites. Because of Confucian thought, China has become a state of etiquette. Confucian thought emphasizes the ritual in the tea ceremony, which is similar to the Confucian rites and rituals. Lu Yu even says that when conducting the tea ceremony, "if one of the twenty-four utensils is missing, the tea will be useless".
In China, tea was part of important rituals as early as the period before the Southern and Northern Dynasties. During Tang Dynasty, all important activities in the court included a tea ceremony showing respect (f.ex. Spring and Autumn Festival, Palace Exams, banquets held by the royal family and ministers, etc.).
In the Song Dynasty, tea drinking spread into the daily life of ordinary people. Tea ceremonies also become part of major family events, such as weddings and funerals, building a house, meeting and entertaining guests, etc. There is even a saying that "no rite is completed without tea". It shows the deep connection between the tea culture and Confucianism in the society at that time.
That's all for today. In the second part of this article we will explore the benefits of drinking tea for focusing, backed by science. We will also guide you through an exercise on how to drink tea with mindfulness, ease anxiety, and enjoy stress-free mornings and positive and productive days!