Rituals, Rites and the Religion of TeaThe leaf offers spiritual connection
By Kennedy Smith
Donna Fellman vividly remembers the first time she witnessed a Japanese tea ceremony, or chado. How could she forget it? It changed her life. “When I saw the Japanese tea ceremony, I was literally moved to tears,” she remembers. “I thought it was so beautiful, and I found comfort and solace in some of the things they talked about.”
For Fellman—author of “Tea Here Now”—that was the beginning of a path that led her to become a student of the Japanese way of tea. “I discovered that by moving in a certain way and re-enacting the wisdom in the movement of these masters, I would be connecting to the past. And as I pursued my study in tea, I find that there is a whole body of wisdom that comes with the practice. It can teach me a lot about how to be a better person in my life. It is a way of life.”
In American culture, tea can be taken for social reasons or for solitary enjoyment. It is offered at gatherings, to extend laurels to acquaintances and to relax on a rainy Sunday. Even children know what fun a tea party can be, even if the tea is imaginary. “It has this whole spirit of hospitality that has carried forth throughout the ages,” says Fellman. “If you say to a little child, ‘Let’s have a tea party,’ even if they’ve never been to one, they get so excited, and they have a sense of what that is. It’s part of our human psyche.”
But tea spans more than social functions. For many, tea is an integral part of human connection, spiritual enhancement and religious expression.
A Religious Tea Experience in the High Desert
This summer a celebration of tea in art and religion will take place in Santa Fe, N.M. The opera, “Tea: A Mirror of Soul,” will be staged in conjunction with Tea Immersion Week, a six-day exploration of tea and Taoism. Tea Immersion Week participants will stay at Sunrise Springs, a 70-acre resort retreat near Santa Fe, which will be the site of Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies, a kaiseki-ryori dinner, tea-bowl making in the raku pottery tradition, and poetry writing workshops. Participants will also attend a dress rehearsal for “Tea” and a private meet-the-cast event, culminating with the opening night performance.
Dates for Tea Immersion Week: July 16-22
Performance dates for “Tea”: July 21 and 25;
August 3, 9, 15 and 23
To purchase tickets:
800/280-4654 or santafeopera.org
TEA AND RELIGION THROUGH THE AGES
“Tea, like most art forms in Japan is considered to be a way of life,” says Scott McDougall, a teacher at the Zen Center in San Francisco. “Much like being a musician, you never stop studying, so even if you teach, you still continue to study and learn and progress on the ways of tea.” McDougall says one of the reasons tea has lasted for centuries is that it is a constant learning experience.
The tea ritual was devised in China by Zen Buddhist monks during the 12th century. Japanese monks, who were studying in China, brought the tea back to Japan, and by the 16th century, chado was widely practiced there. In fact, early references to tea and tea ceremonies in Japan can be found in a text written by a Buddhist monk in the ninth century, where it was said to be a drink of the religious classes in the country. It soon became a drink of the royal classes when Emperor Saga began to encourage the growth of tea plants in Japan. Seeds were imported from China, and cultivation in Japan was soon a staple of the country’s agriculture.
“Zen monks developed and practiced tea, kind of like a mindfulness exercise,” says Fellman. “That’s what we would call it now: mindfulness. The actual process of chanoyu (“the way of tea”) was codified in the 1500s by Sen no Rikyu,” an influential historical figure who studied tea. “Rikyu coined a phrase that roughly translates to, ‘You can either sit on a cushion to gain enlightenment or you can make a bowl of tea,’” she says.
During a tea ceremony, emphasis is placed on the precision of the preparer’s movements, its beauty of simplicity, the sound of the water being poured and the warmth of the beverage—not just in temperature, but throughout one’s body. According to a paper published by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Conversation in the tearoom is focused on these subjects. The guests will not engage in small talk or gossip, but limit their conversation to a discussion of the origin of utensils and praise for the beauty of natural manifestations.”
The Ministry goes on to state: “The objective of a tea gathering is that of Zen Buddhism—to live in this moment—and the entire ritual is designed to focus the senses so that one is totally involved in the occasion and not distracted by mundane thoughts.”
Much like in Japan, tea in China plays a major cultural role, and for centuries the ritual of preparing tea has held strong. Yet in China, drinking tea is more akin to the U.S. practice of wine tasting, where enthusiasts pay acute attention to the taste, smell, texture and subtleties of the tea. But even so, each sensory perception is meant to give the drinker a heightened sense of being.
In Korea, historical documents indicate that tea was offered to an ancestral god, the spirit of King Suro, founder of the Geumgwan Gaya Kingdom. In later dynasties, tea offerings were made in Buddhist temples. During the Joseon Dynasty, the royal Yi family created the “Day Tea Rite,” a daytime ceremony, and a “Special Tea Rite,” reserved for special occasions. But tea isn’t always about meditation and spiritual fulfillment. Another tea ritual is all about community; it’s what we in the United States are most familiar with. And this ritual has its roots in England.
TEA MOVES WEST
Though tea is arguably the quintessential English drink, it came relatively late to the island’s shores, in the mid-17th century. The use of tea spread slowly from its Asian homeland, reaching Europe by way of Venice around 1560, although Portuguese trading ships may have made contact with the Chinese as early as 1515, according to the United Kingdom Tea Council.
Englanders owe their regular afternoon tea to Anna, the seventh duchess of Bedford, and a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria in the first part of the 1800s. Anna, who traveled extensively during her life, said she drank tea to counteract what she called a “sinking feeling” late in the afternoon after lunch and before supper.
Eventually, Queen Victoria caught on, and by the 1840s she was hosting formal-dress tea parties every day. Of course, the elite rich followed suit, and the practice trickled down to all classes of English society.
Although the origins of Japan’s traditional tea ceremonies and England’s daily afternoon teas are vastly different, they both can be considered forms of ceremonial practice.
Although not technically a religion, tasseography is the art of tea leaf reading, often associated with Eastern European gypsies, but it also can be traced to Scotland and Ireland. Tasseography has been practiced in various New Age philosophies for a few decades now.
Leaf readers are likened to tarot card readers, interpreting the leaves left at the bottom of a cup of tea to determine some kind of significance to the drinker. For example, triangles are a sign of good karma, squares indicate the need for caution, and circles predict success. Letters refer to the names of friends and relatives, and numbers indicate spans of time. Tea leaf clumps get even more complicated. If your leaves resemble a ladder, they indicate success in business; an arrow means bad news in the love department; and an iceberg means the drinker has a lack of inner self.
The issue of tea and religious freedom came into the spotlight last year when the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a small congregation in New Mexico would be allowed to use hallucinogenic tea as part of a ritual intended to connect with God.
The tea, which contains an illegal drug known as dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is considered sacred to members of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, which blends Christian beliefs and South American traditions. Members believe they can understand God only by drinking the tea, which is consumed twice a month during four-hour ceremonies.
Justice John Roberts said in his decision that the Bush administration—which argued that the drug violates federal narcotics laws—didn’t meet its burden of proof under the Constitution’s religious freedom amendment, and therefore could not ban the group’s “sincere religious practice.”
THE MODERN TEA INDUSTRY
Inevitably, today’s tea companies have caught onto the idea of tea as a spiritual practice. Just think of the names of their products, such as Tazo’s Awake, Zen, Om and Envy.
But, says Fellman, the industry and the practice are completely separate entities. “I’m in the tea industry, and yet I practice chanoyu,” she explains. “They’re separate parts of my life, but they both stem from my love of tea, and I work on having my mindfulness and love of tea permeate my whole life.” But, she finishes, “I still have to write an invoice when I provide a service or a good.”
SPANNING THE RELIGIOUS SPECTRUM
While it’s widely accepted that Buddhism spawned the “way of tea,” religions around the world incorporate tea into their practices. And some, noticeably, leave it out all together. Here are a few religions that have connections to tea:
Islam. Although tea isn’t a regular part of Islamic practice, there is a 28-day span of spiritual fasting when coffee or tea is restricted for Muslims. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is marked by spiritual fasting. From dawn until dusk, no food or drink is allowed, including water.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). Here, tea is not forbidden, but for many practicing Mormons, caffeine is. Some Mormons drink no tea or coffee, as hot drinks are believed to be bad for the body. The Latter-day Saints church has no official stance on whether its followers should or should not drink tea, caffeinated or not.
Judaism. The only rule on tea drinking within the Jewish faith is that it be prepared kosher. Tea and coffee are both naturally kosher, but certain flavors, creams and syrups may not be. Furthermore, the process of making decaffeinated coffee usually includes the use of ethyl acetate, of which ethanol is a component. Ethanol comes from grain, which is forbidden during Passover.
Seventh-Day Adventist. As with the Mormon faith, Seventh-Day Adventists believe that the body should not be exposed to alcohol or stimulants. Once officially prohibited, the practice of drinking caffeinated beverages is now only strongly discouraged.
Rastafarianism. In the Rastafarian faith, followers adhere to a strict diet, which prohibits coffee, tea, alcohol, salt, tobacco, meat and processed foods. Rastafarians generally eat grains and vegetables.
Christianity. The umbrella term for several religions based on the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God has no formal restrictions on drinking tea and contains no tea rituals to speak of.
Wicca. Wiccan tea is any tea used by followers of the Wiccan belief in cleansing and blessing rituals. Wiccan tea is not a specific type of tea; it can be made from a variety of herbs, such as star anise, St. John’s Wort, calamus root, catnip, hops and various flowers.
International Society of Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna). Those associated with the mantra Hare Krishna believe in complete sobriety, meaning no drugs, no liquor, no coffee, no tea and no cigarettes. The society adheres to the belief that material substances that alter the body are useless for spiritual realization.
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