I’ve recently broken form and written about a different subject in my tea blog, about my son becoming a samanane, or Thai Buddhist novice monk. That was for a special two-week program, covered him ordaining (here), and also how it worked out (here). People tend to write about the overlap between Buddhism or Taoism and tea, perhaps due to having an interest in both. I typically don’t but will make the same exception here.
Conventional forms of connection
Buddhism is often connected with tea in relation to the Japanese tea ceremony. Participants prepare and serve matcha according to a very precise, structured series of steps, and per my understanding, there is also a brewed-tea ceremony version. I participated in two such ceremonies while attending Colorado State Universities and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while studying Buddhism at both. One source I read stood out for claiming the practice was relatively recent (within a century or so), and not really connected to prior rituals, religious or otherwise. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter either way how old the ceremony form is, or the origins.
Taoism is one of the two predecessors to Zen Buddhism, and predates the Cha-an Chinese form of Buddhism that Zen originated from. It’s also connected with tea practices and ritual, although I’m not clear on how it all links. I studied Buddhism and Taoism as religion and philosophy but related more to teachings and theory, not religious rituals or forms.
My own connections with the two subjects
I ordained as a Thai Buddhist monk myself just over ten years ago, in Bangkok, where I still live, but only for two months. There was very little connection there to tea, and I wasn’t really into tea back then. Monks would often have tea there as part of the ceremonies, but just as something to drink, with no emphasis on type or quality, and with no ceremonial role played by it. If you weren’t thirsty there was no need to drink it. I did a good bit of chanting in Pali back then, but what I knew of that original sutra chanting content was quite limited in comparison with the full-time monks.
I’ve retained close contact with a few of those monks and give them tea sometimes, since it now has become a personal interest. People can give offerings to monks, with limitations on the form of what can be offered and when, but tea is not a problem. There are a lot of restrictions about food offerings, about what can be given to monks and when, and what they can retain, or choose not to eat, but a beverage is a different thing.
In a strange twist, one monk shared Da Hong Pao with me a while back. Monks can give away the little that they possess with others (which typically isn’t much). The Thai Buddhist monastic tradition isn’t set up for much in the way of personal relationships to factor in, but monks are people too, and they need to maintain contact with lay-persons to perform their basic functions, teaching others Buddhism, maintaining the temples, performing rituals, etc.
I’ve seen really interesting teaware on public display in the temple we go to most in Bangkok, Wat Pho, the one I was ordained in. Most were just ornate versions of ceramic pots and cups, very beautiful but functionally basic Western brewing gear. I recently ran across some gaiwans in a more secluded area, a curious stock of teaware given that it was reportedly very old. It makes you wonder who was brewing what tea in it, related to what rituals, and when. Lots of the more isolated and older parts of the temple are like that; there are surely stories to the artifacts there, some of which are lost from living memory.
I was surprised in visiting a temple in Hawaii with my Thai wife–then a Thai girlfriend, and a fellow UH grad student–that the monks gave us food that grew naturally on the temple grounds. It seemed backwards that they shouldn’t be giving us anything. I just looked up how that works out related to precepts (monk’s rules) related to food offerings, which I summarized in a Quora answer. The short version: Monks can’t farm, and even picking an apple and eating it could be counter to one interpretation of those rules. The practices are set up for monks to live entirely off offerings (alms), not even storing food contributed from day to day.
Of course, we didn’t bring my son and those other 87 novice monks tea, since it’s a judgment call giving kids any caffeine at all. We brought ice cream to their retreat instead, on two separate weekends.
Images provided by author.