A philosophical cup of tea

Tea drinking is an 5000 year old pastime, with origins which have been lost the mists of time and the mysteries of ancient China.

There is an anecdote which relates that the Chinese emperor Shen Nung once sought shade under a tree after a day’s journey. As he was boiling water to drink, a leaf from a tea bush fell into his cup. This became the world’s fist cup of tea.

Tea came to Japan around the year 800 AD with monks who brought it with them after studying Buddhism in China. In the 1200s, after taking such a trip, the Japanese much Eisai wrote of how tea improves health and prolongs life.

After this, tea drinking became a popular pastime in all layers of Japanese society. Tea is nonetheless thought to have a connection to religion, ceremony, and thought. Maybe this is because monks drank tea to avoid falling asleep while meditating.

The following anecdote could point to such origins: The Chinese monk Bodhidarma became so angry after falling asleep during meditation that he cut off his eyelids. They fell to the earth, where they took root and became the first tea bush. Ever since then, tea has protected monks, and others, from falling asleep.

We will not delve too deep into the chronology of tea drinking, but there is some truth in the stories. Tea contains the substances theophylline and theobromine which are related to caffeine, which is known to have stimulating, and habit forming, effects. Tea’s content of theanine should also be named in this discussion. It increases the brains alpha waves and therefore our ability to concentrate and learn, as well as decreasing stress.

In 1200s in Japan, Zen monks developed a ritual around tea drinking with the purpose of transforming a daily occurrence to a pure aesthetic in order to achieve inner balance and clarity. It is called “the way to the tea,” where the preparation, boiling, and enjoyment of a cup of tea with one or more guests is raised to what the author Aage Marcus has called “a complete paradox of complex and refined simplicity.”

Full command of the tea ceremony can take many years, and it is often assumed that a Japanese woman should be familiar in some degree in the discipline of the tea ceremony if she wants high status in the marriage market.

The English drank primarily coffee until the end of the 1700s. Afterwards, tea took the throne as the favourite drink of the English. Five o’clock tea is still an institution in many English homes. In its pure form, it also bears hints of ceremony and ritual. It is still an experience to drink five o’clock tea at the Hotel Ritz or the Hotel Savoy in London. The sought after teas, the comfortable chairs, and the polite and discrete service contribute together to put one into a philosophical state of mind.

You don’t have to be Buddhist or a hotel guest to enjoy a good cup of tea. You don’t even have to be philosophically gifted. A good cup of tea is something we can all have. If you also want to be very healthy and prevent disease, choose green tea. Green tea is fresh tea leaves which have been steamed and dried. Black tea is fermented before being heated whereby some of its good properties are lost. If you want to maintain tea’s good effects, it is also important not to add milk.

But what should you philosophise over when you are sitting with a good cup of tea? The answer to this question normally comes all by itself, but as a Zen monk would probably have suggested; just enjoy your tea!