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High Mountain Oolong and The Chinese Art of Tea

by Daniel Reid

          Tea, tea pots, and the fine art of preparing tea are one of China's greatest and most enduringly popular contributions to world civilization. Among the many varieties of Chinese tea available on the market today, there is one whose fragrance and flavor surpass all others and make it stand out among teas "like a crane among chickens," as the Chinese would say. This peerless distinction belongs to a noble variety of Oolong ("Black Dragon") tea known as High Mountain Oolong Tea (gao-shan wu-lung cha), which early Chinese settlers brought from mainland China to Taiwan during the late 17th century. Over the centuries, Chinese planters in Taiwan's mountainous central highlands meticulously cultivated this special variety of tea to produce what sophisticated connoisseurs of Chinese tea today regard as the finest tea on earth, the ultimate masterpiece in the Chinese art of tea.

High Mountain Oolong is a semi-fermented tea which retains all of the nutrients and natural healing factors contained in unfermented green tea, but without the "raw" grassy taste and harsh impact on the stomach that make green tea disagreeable to most people. The very brief fermentation process eliminates harsh irritants from the raw tea and creates the subtle fragrances and flavors which distinguish this tea from all other varieties, without producing the tannins and other toxic compounds found in fully fermented black tea. The cultivation and appreciation of High Mountain Oolong is somewhat similar to fine wine, with each plantation and each mountain producing its own unique bouquet of flavors, and each year's harvest yielding its own special character.

          Once you've tasted a fine grade of High Mountain Oolong, properly prepared the traditional Chinese way, you will know exactly what makes it so special. This tea delivers a bouquet of flavors that clearly speaks for itself the moment it touches your tongue and wafts through your nose, creating tastes and after-tastes, tones and over-tones, that cannot be faked or imitated by less well bred teas. A sip of freshly poured High Mountain Oolong introduces itself quietly in the mouth with a dry, slightly astringent foretaste which instantly clears the palate of all other residual flavors. As soon as the sip is swallowed, its marvelous floral aftertaste blooms quickly on the tongue and expands aromatically into the throat and sinuses, unfolding like the fumes of a fragrant flower. This is a very hard act for any other tea to follow, and many tea drinkers become lifelong devotees of High Mountain Oolong after trying it for the first time.


Tea Tidings Newsletter

tea tidings oolong tea newsletter
In conjunction with Oolong-Tea.Org Daniel Reid regularly
authors the "Tea Tidings" Newsletter, the definitive
guide to the world of High Mountain Oolong Tea.

Click here to view Issue #1 now or see the complete archives


The Art of Chinese Tea

           Equally important as the quality of the tea is the Chinese art of properly preparing and appreciating High Mountain Oolong. Small unglazed clay teapots hand-crafted by master potters are used to steep this type of tea, and these are highly treasured collectors items among dedicated drinkers of High Mountain Oolong. Connoisseurs also collect tea cups and tea caddies, tea scoops and tea trays, and other requisite paraphenalia of the ancient art.

          Unlike the stiff formality of the Japanese tea ceremony, in which every move is ritualized and the quality of the tea itself is not very important, the Chinese art of tea focuses entirely on the practical points of savoring the flavor and fragrance of the tea, enjoying the touch and utility of the tea tools, and engaging in the spontaneous exchange of thoughts and feelings which drinking this tea together always inspires among fellow tea drinkers.

          In fact, the Chinese refer to devoted connoisseurs of fine tea as cha ren, literally "tea people," as though they were a unique breed, which indeed they are. There are so many subtle facets to the Chinese art of tea, and particularly High Mountain Oolong Tea, that it takes a lifetime to master them all, but basically it's the expression of a whole way of life, a way that harmonizes the various elements of nature in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing manner that refreshes the body, soothes the mind, and delights the spirit. The Venerable Popchong Sunim of Korea, who cultivates the art of tea as part of his spiritual cultivation, describes the proper appreciation of tea as follows:

To determine whether a tea is good or not, one should examine the color, scent, and taste of the infusion. The perfect color is that of the first leaves in spring; the scent is like that of a young baby. The taste cannot be described but can be appreciated with experience. Tea is drunk to quench the thirst, savor the taste, or simply to spend a quiet hour appreciating the pottery and the general atmosphere that accompanies tea drinking. There is no need to have a special attitude while drinking it, except one of thankfulness.

          In his book Vital Breath of the Tao,  Master Xhongxian Wu notes that the Chinese art of tea "is a way of classical Chinese spiritual cultivation, which we call cha dao (the 'dao of tea').  One may become enlightened by drinking tea."  This is not an overstatement.  Chinese te lore abounds with stories of Buddhist monks and Taoist hermits who suddenly "awakened to the Dao" (wu dao) while savoring a cup of tea, and it was customary for spiritual adepts in China to gather together and "discuss the Dao while tasting tea"  (pin ming lun dao).  Indeed, the proper preparation of tea was highly regarded as a form of esoteric alchemy in which the fundamental elements of nature--fire, water, earth, air, and herbage--were correctly combined to produce an elixir with subtle metaphysical properties and rarefied energies that could purify the vital fluids of the body, boost vitality, and enhance awareness.     

          The traditional method of preparing and drinking High Mountain Oolong Tea has been developed to perfection in Taiwan, where it's known as cha yi ("tea art") or lao-ren cha ("old folk's tea"), names which reflect the two essential elements required to properly appreciate High Mountain Oolong: taste and time. A unique technique in the classical way of preparing this tea is the preliminary "hot bath," whereby hot water is poured onto the dry leaves in the pot and immediately poured out and discarded. This step washes the tea leaves and eliminates all residual traces of dust, oxidation, smog, fumigants, and any other contaminants to which the tea may have been exposed during processing, thereby guaranteeing pure flavor and natural fragrance with each subsequent infusion.

Potent Medicinal Benefits of High Mountain Oolong Tea

          In addition to its value as an epicurean and aesthetic experience, High Mountain Oolong Tea also has potent medicinal benefits and is an excellent elixir for health and longevity. Long known in traditional Chinese medicine for its detoxifying and digestive virtues, this tea has been proven by recent scientific research in Japan to have powerful cleansing and protective properties for the lungs. This effect is produced by the volatile aromatic fumes which give this tea its distinctive fragrance and flavor. As gases suspended within the fluid of the tea, these aromatic elements are excreted from the bloodstream through the lungs, not the kidneys, and as they pass through the delicate lung tissues with each exhalation, they dislodge heavy metals, tars, and other toxic residues from the alveoli (air sacs) and bronchia, allowing the toxins to be coughed up and spit out. As a result of this discovery, High Mountain Oolong has become the beverage of choice for millions of Chinese and Japanese people, who rank among the world's heaviest smokers. Studies have shown that smokers who drink this tea throughout the day have significantly lower rates of lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory ailments than those who don't.

          High Mountain Oolong Tea also has many other health benefits, and these have all been validated by modern scientific research. The most important therapeutic advantages derived from drinking this tea on a daily basis are briefly discussed below:

Antioxidant:   High Mountain Oolong contains abundant supplies of potent antioxidants known as "polyphenols" and "catechins." These compounds, also known as "free radical scavengers," neutralize and eliminate the highly reactive metabolic and environmental toxins known as "free radicals," which destroy cells, corrode tissues, and cause premature degeneration of the internal organs. The antioxidants in the tea provide constant detoxifying activity in the blood and tissues, protecting the body from toxic damage and preventing formation of tumors.

Since the polyphenols and other antioxidants contained in High Mountain Oolong suppress tumor formation, drinking this tea daily provides strong protection against the development of all types of cancer, particularly in the lungs and liver, which suffer the heaviest exposure to toxic contaminants in air, water, and food. This protection against cancer is further enhanced by the tea's strong alkalizing action in the blood and tissues, where it counter-acts the excessive acidity associated with all forms of cancer.

Scientists already know green tea plays a role in preventing cancer, but now they know why: EGCG, or Epigallocatechin gallate. EGCG works in precisely the same way as the chemotherapy drug methotrexate: Both hinder the action of an enzyme that incites cells to divide, according to Spirituality & Health (July/August 2005). Since EGCG causes less damage to healthy cells than chemotherapy, it could become a promising cancer treatment. High Mountain
Oolong has even more potent anti-cancer properties than green tea, and unlike green tea, it can be drunk continuously throughout the day for maximum therapeutic benefits.

Alkaline:   High Mountain Oolong alkalizes the digestive tract, bloodstream, and cellular fluids, neutralizing the acidity which permits formation of cancerous tumors and causes many other degenerative conditions. Blood and tissue acidity is the primary cause of loss of calcium from the bones and teeth, and this in turn leads to osteoporosis and tooth decay. Drinking this tea daily therefore helps prevent these conditions as well as other health problems associated with calcium deficiency.
Diuretic: The tea's mild diuretic properties promote swift elimination of the toxins and acid wastes flushed from the blood and tissues by the antioxidant and alkaline elements in the tea.
Diuretic:   The tea's mild diuretic properties promote swift elimination of the toxins and acid wastes flushed from the blood and tissues by the antioxidant and alkaline elements in the tea.
Deodorant:   By alkalizing the mouth and stomach, this tea eliminates the bacteria responsible for producing foul odors in the breath. The aromatic fumes contained in the tea saturate the blood and bodily fluids with cleansing medicinal elements that help deodorize bodily secretions.
Blood Adaptogen:   High Mountain Oolong contains medicinal factors known as "adaptogens," which adapt the body's vital functions to changing conditions in order to maintain a healthy state of equilibrium. This balancing effect is strongest in the bloodstream, where it regulates blood pressure, balances blood sugar, and prevents thickening of the blood.
Digestive:   High Mountain Oolong assists digestion by neutralizing excess acidity and preventing fermentation and putrefaction in the stomach. It also breaks down fat molecules into smaller particles, making them much easier to digest.
Detoxificant:   Drinking this tea daily produces a continuous detoxifying effect throughout the body, facilitating the elimination of metabolic wastes and toxic residues assimilated from food, air, and water.
Cholesterol Control:   Studies have shown that High Mountain Oolong Tea removes cholesterol deposits and other sticky plaque from the walls of the blood vessels, thereby preventing arteriosclerosis, heart disease, and strokes.
Stimulant:   This tea contains only 0.5% caffeine, plus several other compounds and co-factors which have mild stimulating effects on the central nervous system. Unlike coffee, which stimulates the body by racing the heart, the blend of natural stimulants in High Mountain Oolong Tea directly activates the nervous system, enhancing alertness, improving cerebral functions, and relieving mental fatigue. They also stimulate swift eliminatiion of wastes from the body. Due to the many nutrient co-factors contained in this tea, the stimulation it provides does not enervate the nervous system, as coffee and black tea can do, and its stimulating properties may be enjoyed throughout the day without any negative side-effects.
Nutrient:   High Mountain Oolong contains significant amounts of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as essential minerals and trace elements. These nutritional factors all have potent antioxidant and healing properties, providing additional support for detox and immune responses and increasing the health benefits of the tea.
Antiseptic:   By producing a clean alkaline environment in the body, this tea destoys a wide range of bacteria, fungus, and other microbes, most of which depend on toxic acid conditions in the blood and tissues in order to survive and spread in the human body.

The Most Treasured Tea in the World

Today, the top grades of High Mountain Oolong Tea from Taiwan rank among the most expensive and highly prized teas in the world, with prices ranging as high as US$800 per "catty," or "Chinese pound," equivalent to 600 grams. While fairly good grades of High Mountain Oolong grown from Taiwan tea plants by Chinese planters in Thailand and Vietnam are also available on the market today at lesser cost, the best grades of this aromatic tea can only be found in Taiwan. As this tea becomes better known throughout the world for its unsurpassed flavor and potent protective health properties, demand continues to drive up the cost of limited supplies of the best quality harvests. Nevertheless, since the top grades of this tea are not only the best tasting but also the most therapeutically beneficial, it's never a waste of time to sit down each day to prepare and drink it properly, nor is it ever a waste of money to buy the best quality you can afford.

           For those who cultivate the Chinese art of tea, cha dao ("The way of Tea") soon becomes a whole way of life . The process of preparing and appreciating High Mountain Oolong Tea the traditional way develops a personal refinement and discriminating taste that gradually influence and improve every other aspect of daily life and awaken the mind to subtle nuances of nature that formerly went unnoticed. All of the human senses are pleased by the art of tea, which embraces the most basic elements of nature--earth, water, fire, wood, air--in a harmonious interplay of energies that produces the perfect cup of tea and establishes the perfect state of mind to appreciate its virtues. In his excellent book, The Chinese Art of Tea, the sinologist John Blofeld describes the aesthetic and philosophical appeal of drinking this sort of tea the Chinese way:

One should recognize that drinking tea is something in itself, to be done for its own sake and not to fulfill an ulterior purpose, for only in this way can the drinker come to "taste sunlight, wind, and clouds." This is a typically Taoist and Zen sentiment. . . Tea, unlike powerful drugs or alcohol, increases rather than dulls alertness and carries with it the essence of sunlight and mist, the spirit of sparkling mountain springs and a pleasant earthy tang. . . Tea mysteriously engenders empathy with nature and kinship with one's fellow beings.

          But be forewarned: once you develop a taste for good High Mountain Oolong Tea, you will lose your taste for all other tea, as well as coffee, and after you start collecting tea pots and cultivating the Chinese art of tea, other hobbies will lose much of their appeal, and the Way of Tea will become a new way of life.

Tea Tidings Newsletter

tea tidings oolong tea newsletter
In conjunction with Oolong-Tea.Org Daniel Reid authors
the highly informative "Tea Tidings" Newsletter, the definitive
guide to the world of High Mountain Oolong Tea.

Click here to view




Tea As Soma pt. 1

Tea as Soma

by Frederick R. Dannaway - Bottle Gourd Studio 4-18-09

Dedicated to the scholarship of Joseph Needham and Michel Strickmann.  ..

Visionary Herbalism and Immortality

            Miraculous and holy plants can be traced to the heart of many ancient religions and cultures. The earliest written saga, the Epic of Gilgamesh, climaxes with a frantic, thwarted attempt to secure a plant that will conquer death. The mysterious brews of the ancients Greeks such as the kykeon of Eleusis, or the moly of Homeric myths wove visionary narratives of man’s often precarious role in nature around supernatural plants. The ritual haoma of the Indo-Iranians or Soma of the Vedas participates in the same quests that motivated Chinese emperors to dispatch envoys to Japan in search for the plant of immortality. Daoist and Vedic alchemists sought powerful herbs and fungi from remote regions for their elixirs. The use of magic, entheogenic, or otherwise psychoactive plants can thus be said to be at the core of many mystery traditions from Greece to India.

            Beyond the “psycho-sexual-drug-yoga” that was so common in the various Tantric sects and shamans of Asia was the slightly anomalous idea, (perhaps imported via nomadic Indo-European tribes) of a plant that was what Joseph Needham described as a “passport to heaven.”  To fully understand the context some concepts must be introduced that bring the discussion far afield. Alchemy, a blend of science and art, poses difficult questions in even in the simplest matters and no single definition can properly suffice as to what the goals, methods and cosmological impact consisted. For example, when cupellation was well known, in what way was “alchemical gold” actually understood in its own specific context, or in different specific contexts? (see the works of Joseph Needham particularly volume 5 as cited below). The question is "relatable" here because alchemical elixirs and powders themselves where thought to possibly produce immortality. But can the various terms scholars loosely translate as “immortality” really be defined with any certainty in any given environment? Is it a state of enlightenment, achievement of the “Dao” a state of mind or was it understood, by adepts, as literal everlasting life? Then again, is that everlasting life understood in a corporeal sense or more in line with the modern Christian notions of a heaven after death? The hopelessly muddled semantics of imported ideas and linguistic expressions is by no means constant moving through the ancient world and underneath the various cultural veneers there is little consensus.  It may be these subtleties that are the root of many sectarian and doctrinal discords.

            Prior to Persian influences in later passages, the Old Testament is startling in its lack of conception of an afterlife beyond vague notions of Sheol. There is neither promise of heaven nor threat of hell. Covenants are contracted with the promise of descendants and material goods. The Christian notion of immortality is non-corporeal and decidedly deferred until after death, except for such Old Testament exceptions of Elijah and Enoch. The notions of Greek immortality is bound up with hero cults and mystery traditions that return to magical plants, elixirs or nectars of the earth such as the ambrosia which is synonymous with the Sanskrit Amrita, literally “without death.” But it is still unclear how the adepts understood these concepts in any real sense. Would “without death” imply the same to a priest in Greece as it would to an alchemist in India or nomadic shaman in Asia? Amrita follows an ancient heritage of alchemical arts and magical herbs back to the Soma plant itself, but as the adepts passed away in physical form the “deathlessness” must have be seen as spiritual.Beyond this, particularly in the Indian and Asian contexts,  “immortality” may have been achieved by cognizing the “mind-only” basis of existence which neither begins nor ends. Immortality, enlightenment and nirvana reconcile in the ineffable profundity of such a doctrine.  Bodhidharma’s few surviving works while profound in pointing to the ultimate “emptiness” doesn’t deny such things as demons nor the punishments of many hells, which may have crept into Buddhism through Persian influences as well.Some of have suggested, including Chinese contemorary with him, that Bodhidharma himself may have been Persian.

            Defining “immortality” for anyone sect or school would be daunting so there is little hope for a broad consensus on the idea as it evolved. There would be a profane understanding of the myths and alchemical lore despite adepts cautioning profusely to avoid literal interpretations. This would tend to an understanding of the term immortality in terms of eternal youth or simply never dying. Such notions would be complicated by intense ascetic practices that are still practiced to this day. These include burying oneself alive in extreme sensory deprivation situations for prolonged periods of time that would seem as if a person was suddenly “born again” or “raised from the dead.” Then there is a quasi-physical immortality that is non-corporeal or trans-corporeal. Examples blend with legends in cases of sudden death from an elixir or tonic, or even the gradual wasting away such as from mercury-laced potions, which were often seen by some as confirmation of progress or eminent success. Immortality can be seen, even briefly, to be rather more complicated than the term first appears. 

            The adepts of all alchemical traditions fairly plead with their readers that the ingredients and techniques listed are not to be understood literally or in a mundane sense. This suggests a more “spiritual” nature to the understanding of the concept, with a nod towards "convenient designations," that are fraught with the theological and cultural taints. What was the goal of the wise, and better yet, what how is this goal of immortality to be understood as it became a relatively cohesive system that arose from indigenous shamanism, metallurgical (proto-alchemical) guilds and proto-Tantra to various schools of esoteric Buddhism and Daoism? Core themes are retained through the contact with Islamic and eventually European Christian mystics, all of whom cloak alchemical metaphors in the garments of their own faiths. The sorting out of the primary influence is difficult and will hopefully be fleshed out in another paper.

            One hypothesis that is slowly gaining academic acceptance is that visionary plants are at the root of much of these myths. The research of enthnobotanists and ethnomycologists such as Carl Ruck and Gordon Wasson systematically explored the ritual plant use of various mystery traditions. There most persuasive arguments unlock long disputed historical puzzles as the identification of various magical plants found in the myths and scriptures of Greece, Persia and India. The identification of the active ingredient in the kykeon that was so profoundly praised by all initiates and enshrined in the myths reveals the poetic life-giving grain with its secret psychedelic infection of ergot. The Vedic Soma, fought for by gods and exclusively used by the Brahmin caste, was suggested to be the Amanita muscaria mushroom that invokes a visionary state.

            The implications are profound in terms of philosophy and cosmology if the secrets of the ancients were the result of ingesting “psychoactive” plants. Their experiences of entities and other worlds, of ecstasy and terror, would literally make these plants or mushrooms, magic. The concept of tasting of the fruit of immortality, understood in the sense of having traveled like the shaman into the otherworld, is one of participating in the realm of the gods and by doing so the adept is transformed. Reality is split apart to reveal an occult world just below the surface populated by shape-shifting beings from magical landscapes. These concepts simply become more subtle in the profound grasp of dhyana/chan/s’on/zen (or the Daoist “sitting in oblivion” zuowang) of adepts from India, China, Korea and Japan respectively. Tea is not hallucinogenic, but it is certainly psychoactive with numerous medicinal and physiological properties producing energies and sensations far beyond what a reductionist study of the chemicals and alkaloids could reveal. We lack the vocabulary for substances that instantly give peace, inspire poetry or transport to a dreamy landscape with a single sip.

            The candidates for the Soma plant are many, from the mentioned species of mushroom to other more overtly hallucinogenic varieties containing psilocybin. Other candidates include species of Lotus, Cannabis sativa, ergot, Lagochilus inebrians, as well as morning glory seeds (for their LSA alkaloids that are similar to LSD). Perhaps the three prominent candidates for Soma/Haoma would be the mentioned toadstool mushroom Amanita muscaria, the Syrian Rue or Peganum harmala, and Ephedra sp. because the latter is still used by some Iranians as haoma. Other persuasive cases have been made that Soma was electrum, gold itself, a supernatural plant of mythology, or a plant that has gone extinct. Other frontrunners include water, honey, mead or alcohol of some kind as well as innumerable species of herbs and plants.

            Having been under the influences of rapid infusions of some 1950’s Red Mark Yin-Ji Puerh I feel justified in suggesting tea or Camellia sinensis as a possible candidate or substitute for Soma.  With tiny orbs of qi coursing through my system after each sip I see a vision of the lineage of patriarchs of Esoteric Buddhism and thangkas ofblue Bodhisattvas holding cups of amrita in their palm. Tea may not be the original soma, but the reverence, ritual and perhaps the shape into which it is pressed (especially in Tibet), make it a serious candidate as a soma-substitute or amrita.

Here the medicine Buddha sits upon what looks like an Amanita muscaria shaped throne. Not the “gills” of a mushroom behind him as well. Perhaps he is holding a cup of tea there.


Tibetan Puerh Tea compressed into a mushroom shape 

Tea Myths, or The Grand Plant of the Southern Regions

            The discovery of the tea plant is the subject of many telling myths describing a magical origin associated with a legendary mystical figure. There are many variants, but the most popular center upon the divine emperor Shennong around 2700 BC, one of the Three August Ones, (note first Empress Nu wa, created human beings, second Fu Xi the bringer of Trigrams, third civilization). Known sometimes as the Divine Husbandman, the Red Emperor, Yan Di or the Divine Farmer he brought a balanced civilization. One of his most beneficent feats was to systematically classify the plants into categories as to their medicinal, edible or toxic qualities when he observed the people eating poisonous herbs. He was said to tea leaves, or as the book of medicine, the Shen Nong Ben Chao states "Shen Nong tasted hundreds of herbs, he encountered seventy two poisons daily, he used tea as antidote." (note In Chinese legend, Shen Nong died in Tea Hill (Cha Lin) county of Hunan province.) As a “God of Medicine” his skill in herbal pharmacology were divinely inspired and he is said to have put tea leaves in hot water inside an urn which brought him pleasure and a sense of purification. (other legends have wind blowing water on tea leaves and thus the infusion was accidental, perhaps it was his sanitary concerns which led him to boil water to make it safe for consumption, the addition of herbs, etc. are a logical progression, legend One day, on a trip to a distant region, he and his army stopped to rest. A servant began boiling water for him to drink, and a dead leaf from the wild tea bush fell into the water. It turned a brownish color, but it was unnoticed and presented to the emperor anyway. The emperor drank it and found it very refreshing, and cha (tea) was born.).

            Some traditions have the Buddha or the Buddhist Patriarch Bodhidharma involved in the origin of tea. Their cultivation of the awakened mind was perpetual, though their bodies would become weary from constant, sleepless mediation sessions. Bodhidharma, and less frequently Buddha, is said to have removed the eyelids to remain awake and the discarded tea lids on the earth grew into tea plants. Bodhidharma is something of an immortal as well, and he was witnessed after his death traveling back to India with one sandal tied to his staff. An exhumation of his grave proved empty expect for the other sandal.  Bodhidharma is also linked with the origins martial arts of Gong-Fu, which is also linked with the qi building Chinese tea art (gong-fu cha) that manifests in palpable energy sensations. Bodhidharma’s martial arts, though legendary, may actually have legitimate basis in Kalarippayattu, the Indian martial arts which deals in pressure points. The southern school, the Siddha Vaidya, recognize 108 of these points or marmas. (note on dates to Rig veda and other 108 notes securing Indian origin.) The number 108 seems strongly Indian in flavor, as the footnotes demonstrate further examples, and the veneration in China for this number likely arrived with Buddhism. Most Chinese tea literature will explain away the reverence for the number as indicating the perfect lifespan of 108 years. A crucial scripture to Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese “mind-only” Mahayana Buddhism is the Lankavatara Sutra which emphasizes the 108 steps linking to the 108 prayer beads zen priests wear around their wastes or to 108 beads of the Buddhist rosaries in all traditions. Therefore 108 can be seen to be a very significantly Indian number from their astronomy to yogic/martial postures to metaphysical “steps” and beyond. In this context, note that the Chinese character for tea adds up to 108:

The two strokes on top add to 20, the bottom stroke adds to 88=108.  

These myths are significant as Bodhidharma is the 28th Patriarch in an esoteric form of Buddhism that was steeped in Indian forms of meditation, dhyana and is said to have brought this type of Buddhism to China. Ch’an, or zen in Japanese, must be seen to be a particular sect, perhaps as some suggest a reform movement, in a complex of Esoteric Mahayana Buddhism. It is outside scriptures, texts or verbal artifice and yet there is a clear esoteric lineage of transmission, “mind to mind”. Ch’an might be seen to be the highest form or fiercest doctrinal expression of Mahayana Buddhism that transcends all other ritual embellisments, or what are deemed in a mundane sense as “tantric,” as something of frivolous preliminaries at best or otherwise as dangerous distractions.

            The Tibetan Vajrayana holds the Dzogchen (Dzog-pa Chen-po) teachings of "intrinsic or primordial awareness" as the highest of its “Inner Tantras.” Because of its affinity with Chinese ch’an, Dzogchen, the teacher, was considered a heretic, with a result of some practicing his teachings in secret, such as the 5th Dalai Lama. The language and spirit of Dzogchen, ch’an and zen have led to some to label Dzogchen Tibetan zen, which despite some objections is quite justified. Tibetan theologians point to the spontaneous nature of the “enlightenment” compared to the gradual path of the monastery in defending the uniqueness of this doctrine. There are subtleties, and it serves no purpose to paint them as identical, and yet they both express the penultimate expression of intuited “truths” in stark accord. But there was such a doctrinal split within ch’an Buddhism based on this same controversy of “sudden verses gradual” enlightenment, with the former being the earliest form traced back to Bodhidharma and back through the Patriarchs to the Buddha.

            A doctrine of sudden enlightenment and context of “pure mind,” again using expedient terms, are expressed in various doctrines that in some sense can be traced to Bodhidharma whose eyebrows legendarily produced tea bushes. Indeed, this is why most representations have him portrayed with huge, bulging eyes. The stimulating and yet calming effects of tea became an essential part of meditation that participated in the ancient myths of magical plants perhaps replacing more hallucinogenic or toxic alchemical “soma” or “amrita” substitutes. Tea was even “pressed” or rolled as soma is linguistically linked with “to press.” The psychoactive effects of tea combined with an ascetic diet and rigorous meditation would certainly affect the mind, possibly producing a state of transcendent awareness/bliss/enlightenment, something like the Japanese satori that culminated into a profound insight that synchronized the mundane thought process with the Buddha-mind.

A tea roller from Shaanxi Province used to grind leaves to a powder. A persistent trait of ceremonial Buddhist tea into Japan where powdered tea is known as matcha and is at the center of chanoyu.


            In discussing the philosophical differences of these various schools of Buddhism, if there are really are any below the surface, one is tempted to draw an analogy from the tea itself. The expression of this “truth” in a Buddhist context is like the preparations of tea favored by the groups in question. The Japanese and Chinese, like the zen and ch’an doctrines, for the most part like their tea quite simple and unadulterated. Contrast this to the Tibetan obsession of adding rancid butter, milk, and salt to a tea that is churned with rigorous energy, not unlike the prostrations of the devotees and lavish embellishment/ritual of their Buddhism. (note on Tibetan dangers in tea). The American tea sage David Lee Hoffman, who penetrated the Chinese wilderness in search of the best teas, made it into Tibet and personally sipped the high-grade teas with the Dalai Lama. He is one of the subjects of the superb documentary All in This Tea, where he informs us that the Lamas in the monasteries have the finest, aged puerh teas for their own spiritual use.

            The botanical side of the equation is equally interesting in this jungle of tea creation myths and doctrinal schism within the broader Mahayana tradition. Like Tantra, the precise geographical origins of tea are unknown. Scholars have long debated the geographical location of the mythical Oddiyana  that produced some of the most influential Tantric adepts. Giuseppe Tucci’s speculation with the Swat Valley was accepted for a time but Oddiyana is now thought to encompass a wider range.  The Tantric Goddess worship of these regions of north-western/eastern India were associated with specific locations or pithas (literally “seats” of the goddess)which range from 4 to 110 (there are other variations) depending on the system, are particularly linked to the north western region, thought to be Odiyyana and the north-eastern region of Kamarupa or Assam. It is also precisely this region that the first wild tea plants originated.

            As Mondal writes in the journal article Tea,  "Camellia sinensis originated in southeast Asia, specifically around the intersection of latitude 29°N and longitude 98°E, the point of confluence of the lands of northeast India, north Burma, southwest China and Tibet. The plant was introduced to more than 52 countries, from this ‘centre of origin’." The long asserted theory of a dual origin of the tea plant is proven false by statistical cluster analysis studies “and all appear to demonstrate a single place of origin for Camellia sinensis — the area including the northern part of Burma and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China.” Perhaps it was such wandering mystics, much earlier than Bodhidharma or the even more colorful Tantric adepts, who deserve praise for the early diffusion of tea throughout ancient China. Whoever that nourished, cultivated and propagated tea and tea culture was utterly successful and by the time of the first  real tea monograph, in 760 AD, tea was widespread. This was written by the patron saint of tea, Lu-yu who was born in a Ch’an Buddhist temple and eventually retired from the world as a scholar/recluse. There is a large void in much of the history of tea from the legends attributed to the Emperor Shennong in 2737 BC (some versions say it was an adviser, Tun Jan, to the legendary emperor Huangdi who recommended tea for staying alert) despite some references to its medicinal use in the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and for pleasure or social occasions in the Tang (618–907 AD).

            One early document is the Manual of Zhou Dynasty Rituals (Zhou li) thought to be written around the second century BC, which attest to “religious rituals involving tea, of the preceding eastern Zhou dynasty.”  Again from the utterly elegant and satisfying book Tea of the Sages, “These three uses for tea in early China—as an herb that promotes health, as a means to achieve heightened states of alertness, and as a beverage that, when ritually prepared, allowed communion with divinities—suggest the reason for continued appeal in later ages in both China and Japan” [emphasis added]. Tea’s constant domain within a sacred, often ritual context must be always remembered and it is retained even in the more secular literati circles that treated it as a near sacrament in their microcosmic ways and arts.

            If later examples in tea culture can serve us in deciphering the past diffusion, and by what groups, then there are telling references from which to draw. A primary example of such a later example is found in the dissemination of Buddhism, and tea, to Japan. As Dennis Hirota writes in the monumental work, Wind in the Pines, “it was not until the Kamakura period when Zen master Eisai (1141-1215) actively promoted the use of powdered tea (matcha) for medicinal purposes and as a stimulant during periods of meditation, that tea drinking began to spread.” Eisai was not just a Zen master, but also the founder of the Rinzai sect, and he is said to brought tea seeds and plants from China in 1187 and cultivating them in his temple in northen Kyushu. He is said to have shared them with his friend of the Kegon sect, priest Myoe who planted them at his temple in Kyoto and both no doubt created the atmosphere and tea the produced chanoyu. Note, though previously a brick tea or “dancha” in jap, was introduced in Heian period (9th century).  When contacts and influence with China diminished tea culture in Japan declined as well though, as Tea of the Sages notes, it did not completely die out, but “was preserved in Buddhist temples…and by the 12th century Buddhist monastic rituals routinely included elaborate tea rituals of whipped tea.” Eisai wrote of drinking tea, “not as a stimulant during meditation, but as an esoteric ritual conducive to harmonious functioning of the bodily organs.” These practices, which can be described almost as refined pujas, ritually offered tea to the Buddha (kucha) and, in Japan, offerings to Shinto deities as well (kencha).

            Prior to this was the Tantric adept Kukai, who brought a particular esoteric Buddhism (Mikkyo) to Japan and founded the Shingon sect. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, references to tea in Japan is found in the Kukai Hoken Hyo (Shoryoshu, volume 4) dated to 814 in the Heian period of Japan who traveled to Tang China in 804. He returned with texts, mandalas, statues and, tea seeds. But even before this was Saicho (767–822), who brought esoteric Buddhist teachings from China with tea seeds and formed the Tendai sect. Some suggest that, due to close relationships between Korean and Japanese Zen monks and the close relationship between Korean and Chinese masters, that technical information on tea came via Korea. Whatever the specific routes of transmission, the knowledge of tea and tea itself was always in the province of Buddhists who retained a ritual devotion to it even in sects that disdained ritual. Sen Soshitsu, present leader of the Urasenke tea school of chanoyu in Japan, writes concludes and earlier occurrence of tea in Japan Chakyo Shosetsu “In 729 Emperor Shomu called one hundred priests for a reading of the Hannya Sutra; on the second day, tea was served” which again connects tea with Buddhist liturgical ritual. More discussion on soma/amrita in Buddhism…

            Korean tea addicts I have corresponded with tell of a wild Korean tea that grows between famous Buddhist temples and one can read of a “prehistoric” White mountain tea, Baeksan Cha, made from the leaves of a tree in the azalea family “in the highlands of Mount Baekdu in The Korean Way of Tea. This book also records an interesting legend brought to Korea in the 2nd century of the Common Era that tea was introduced to Korea, not from China as might be expected, but way of India in a gold and silver boat and a tea plant brought Princess Ayodhya. In Korea she is known as Heo Hwang-ok, consort of King Suro, the first king of the little kingdom of Garak-guk, located in south-eastern Korean peninsula. Before marrying the king, she took off her silk trousers and prayed to the mountain spirit.  This King was mythically produced from strange eggs or “balls in a golden box wrapped in red cloth descended from heaven to the mountain peak."

Another legend, found in The Korean Way of Tea, links tea in Korea to the foundations of its earliest Buddhist temples, Bulgap-sa or Bulhui-sa, in 384 or to Hwaeom-sa in 544. The curious and remarkably early legend of tea from India is telling in the context of Buddhism as are the early dates for tea in Korean Buddhist temples. Korean tea culture waxed and waned in popularity but, like Japan, it was always maintained in the Buddhist temples and it is Buddhist monks, such as Ch’o-ŭi, who are credited with the resurgence of popularity of tea and tea cultivation in Korea in 19th century. The first “tea ceremony” in Korea is said to date from 661 AD which was conducted in praise of the spirit of King Suro.

  The vajra, held in the hands of Korean Buddhist master Cho ui and Japanese master Kukai, resembles stylized mushrooms conjoined  by a ball. I have seen examples that seem to have "gills" as well as having the vulva on the stem.

            Tea’s special relationship with Buddhist and Daoist “ritual”, or combinations thereof, and persistent associations with Indian mystics and religious experience were instrumental in the spread of tea throughout ancient China, Korea and Japan. I humbly submit the suggestion that Bodhidharma, having been born of a culture that enshrined an ancient plant as its highest mystery, came to China looking for such an herb and, essentially, for a cup of tea. The continued, and perhaps unsatisfactory substitutions for soma or amrita as it was called in esoteric Buddhist circles, might have compelled many mystics to reevaluate old legends and to set off for the most magical plants. If Bodhidharma indeed rediscovered tea’s mystical associations, than we can agree he succeeded in his quest.


Shennong brewing tea.

The myths of China and India contain many examples of magical fruits and fungi. The "golden melon" or wu-lu gourd are potent symbols of longevity and magic as well as containing the elixir of life. Tea is often pressed into such shapes.


Further Reading

Akahori, Akira. 1989. "Drug Taking and Immortality," in Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, ed. Livia Kohn. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Blank, Les. 2007. http://www.lesblank.com/more/TeaFilm.html

Broughton, Jeffrey L. 1999. The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dannaway, Frederick R. 2009. Thunder Among the Pines: Defining A Pan-Asian Soma. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Volume 41, Number 1 March.

Hirota, Dennis. 2002. Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path.  Asian Humanities Press.

Kyeong-hee,Hong and Brother Anthony of Taize. 2007 The Korean Way of Tea. Seoul: Seoul Selection.

Mondal, T.K. 2007. "Tea", in Pua, E.C.; Davey, M.R., Biotechnology in Agriculture and Forestry, 60: Transgenic Crops V, Berlin: Springer, pp. 519–535

Morris, Dixon V. and Sen Soshitsu. 1998. The Japanese Way of Tea. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Needham, J. 1983. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, pt. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J. 1980. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, pt. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J. 1976. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, pt. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Needham, J.1974. Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 5, pt. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Okakura, Kakuzo. 1964. The Book of Tea. Dover Books.

Ruck, C.A.P. 2007. The Hidden World: Survival of Pagan Shamanic Themes in European Fairytales. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

Ruck, C.A.P.; Staples, B.D. & Heinrich, C. 2001. The Apples of Apollo, Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.

Strickmann, M. 2002. Chinese Magical Medicine. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Strickmann, M. 1966. Notes on mushroom cults in ancient China. Unpublished manuscript, Rijksuniversiteit Gent.

Valery, Paul H. 1995. Tea in JapanL essays on the History of Chanoyu. University of Hawaii Press.

Ware, J. 1984. Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of A.D. 30. London: Dover Books.

Wasson, G. 1968. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Wasson, G.; Kramrisch, S.; Ruck, C. & Ott, J. 1986. Persephone’s Quest. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wasson, G; Hoffman, A.; Ruck, C. & P. Webster, P. 1978. The Road to Eleusis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Watkins, C. 1978. Let us now praise famous grains. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 122 (1): 9-17.

White, D.G. 1996. The Alchemical Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.