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Tea in the Prism of Zen Buddhism and Health

The Japanese tea ceremony is considered as a cultural asset and has genuinely distinctive features. The tea ceremony is uniquely Japanese because it is formed from a blend of ideas borrowed from sources outside of Japan. It is a ritual that has helped to fashion an emerging Japanese cultural identity (Keane, 2016, p. 33). According to Keane (2016), Buddhism came to Japan during the early part of the sixth century. Years later, in 586, Emperor Yōmei declared that he considered the coexistence of native and foreign deities to be good both for the country and for himself (Keane, 2016, p. 32). Since then, Buddhism has gradually entered the life of the Japanese, changing its usual routine and philosophy. The tea ceremony, which will be discussed in detail in this paper, is closely related to Zen Buddhism. However, tea culture in Japan has not only ceremonial but also practical significance. Japanese tea is known for its many positive qualities and has a general healing and preventive effect on the human body (Hara, Yang, Isemura, & Tomita, 2017). This aspect of the Japanese tea tradition will be considered from the point of view of modern science.

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The tea ceremony is connected with Zen Buddhism not only in its actual development but mainly in preserving the spirit with which it is imbued. Thus, in conjunction with the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, tea became the basis of a complex spiritual practice which had to do with changing the self and the attitude to the world. In terms of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony can be considered as a way to achieve enlightenment, associated with distancing from the shallowness and unimportance of worldly vanity. Concerning the fact that the tea ceremony is deeply entrenched in the Japanese tradition due to its ideology, it is possible to trace its beneficial impact on the health of the Japanese population. This paper will explore both the health impact of tea and its cultural interconnection with Zen Buddhism.

Philosophy of Zen Buddhism

When considering Zen philosophy, it is impossible not to turn to the simplest concepts to further understand the subject. Thus, Zen Buddhism is a school of Mahayana Buddhism widely spread in China after being introduced to Indian Buddhism in the first century A.D. According to Roper (2018), from a linguistic perspective, the word Zen is simply the Japanese translation of the Chinese word Ch’an, signifying meditation, or a meditative state. It is considered that these teachings were brought by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma in the fifth century A.D. (Roper, 2018). It is believed that he laid the foundations and determined the developmental direction of Zen Buddhism.

As follows from Roper’s text (2018), Zen focuses on making spiritual practices and enlightenment accessible to ordinary people. Thereby, Zen Buddhism does not pay much attention to the study of concepts that are not related to its practical aspects (Suzuki, 2019). This feature is rooted in the clash of minds between China and India, as the Chinese adapted the Indian worldview for their practical purposes (Suzuki, 2019). Hence, Zen monks were knowledgeable in many practical aspects of life, such as politics and economics (Suzuki, 2019). In turn, this is evidenced even by the word Zen itself mentioned earlier.

The core of Zen is directly related to spiritual practices and meditation, since Zen philosophy is based on the fact that the human mind is a powerful tool for achieving inner balance, tranquility, and confidence (Suzuki, 2019). Zen Buddhism does not rely on classic Buddhist sutras. Personal experience and practice are considered primary in Zen Buddhism, and known philosophical concepts and various texts have almost no weight (Suzuki, 2019). Zen Buddhism aspires to simple life truths that can make everyone happy and lead to evolution.

Interconnection between Zen Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony

Moving forward with the acquired knowledge about what Zen Buddhism is, it is possible to see how Zen’s fundamental aspects influence the tea ceremony. As follows from the last section, the tea ceremony symbolizes simplification, first of all, in the form of a tea house (chashitsu) and the area in which it is located (roji). As stated by Sen Sōshitsu XIV, “There will be no tearoom without a garden, and no tea ceremony without a tearoom either” (as cited in Di Berardino, 2018, p. 2). Both tearooms and tea houses became sacred symbols whose purpose was to connect practitioners to the more extensive cosmology of Zen and, in doing so, lead them to an experience of satori, or enlightenment (Roper, 2018). In this way, the human act of organizing the tea ceremony and following all its orders was a direct manifestation of Zen philosophy.

However, despite the simplicity that Zen strives for, the tea ceremony simultaneously represents something sacred and solemn, and distant from everyday life. The tea ceremony highlights noble ideas among people who perform this ritual (Keane, 2016). These principles imply harmony, serenity, tenderness, and beauty. It is a mistake to think that the tea ceremony’s goal is to strive for perfect beauty. The highest achievement is considered to be the attaining of naturalness and equilibrium (Di Berardino, 2018). That is why it is entirely wrong to think of the tea ceremony as just a sophisticated and pretentious ritual.

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The principle of the ceremony is perfect obedience to the original idea which underlies it: the concept of getting rid of everything unnecessary (Suzuki, 2019). Zen and the tea ceremony are united by a constant desire for simplification. Zen eliminates all unnecessary distractions in its relationship to a higher reality, as does the tea ceremony in everyday life. Zen also seeks to strip away the husk of artificiality with which humanity has covered itself. In Di Berardino’s dissertation (2018), the tea ceremony is described as “a religion of the art of life,” and “a sacred function at which the host and guest join to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane” (p. 21). This is the best way to describe the immediate essence of the ritual, which can still be explained further with more new terms.

History of the Tea Ceremony

As it was already said, the Japanese tea ceremony has its origins in China. The ritual of tea drinking was brought to Japan to foster a climate of peace during a time of constant warfare (Keane, 2016). As a result of intricacies and modifications, the Japanese tea ceremony has become a kind of blend of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian moral ideals (Di Berardino, 2018). Taoism plays a large part in seeing the fostering of relationships among all things by teaching that whatever happens to one thing affects something else in the universe which is considered to be a single living organism (Keane, 2016). The social consciousness of Confucianism also played a great role in the development of the tea ceremony (Di Berardino, 2018). Both Taoism and Confucianism promote a spirit of harmony, but, at the same time, philosophical Taoism is more focused on how things interact with each other (Keane, 2016).

In the sixteenth century, the most famous of all tea masters, Sen Rikyū (1522–1592), emerged. He was a Buddhist layman who emphasized Zen training for anyone wishing to perform the tea ceremony (Keane, 2016). He called his technique wabi tea. Sen Rikyū also performed a ritual called shoin tea, a more formal, elaborate style of the tea ceremony, which was practiced by the military and the nobility (Keane, 2016). After his death, Rikyū’s three sons established three separate tea ceremony schools. However, during the Meiji Era (1868–1912), an aspiration to learn Western culture led to a decay of these schools (Keane, 2016). Either way, Rikyū was the guiding hand that created a systematic ritual for the tea ceremony. He skillfully introduced three essential elements into the ritual: action, order, and position (Keane, 2016). These rules allowed Rikyu to create a sense of entirety that all three schools of tea ceremony faithfully followed.

Order of the Tea Ceremony

Prior to the tea ceremony itself, much preparation is required. The first visible act the host should perform is to carry water to the tea garden. The guest uses this water to wash away the impurities of the world (Keane, 2016). The entrance into a small tearoom through a door (nijiriguchi) requires all who pass to bend low so that everyone entering goes in at the same height, thereby indicating symbolically that no one is more important than anyone else (Keane, 2016). Before entering the tearoom with tatami (straw flooring), everyone must remove their shoes. Military personnel also had to leave their swords outside (Keane, 2016). Upon entering a tearoom, the guest bows before a hanging scroll (kakemono) containing a Buddhist moral principle (Keane, 2016). After admiring a flower arrangement (ikebana), which is placed below the hanging scroll, the guest bows again and goes to their place (Keane, 2016). Once all the guests are seated, the host appears and lights charcoal.

Various tea tools are carried in for the ceremony, such as a water jar, a small, sturdy brush used to mix tea with hot water, and a number of tea bowls (Keane, 2016). Finally, each guest is given tea to drink. It is the most important part of the entire ceremony, as it represents its essence. As Suzuki (2019) mentions, drinking tea is an art of cultivating the inner field of consciousness (p. 295). Tea serving demands long preparation, intensive training, and the wisdom of a master (Keane, 2016). In the end, as in many customs, it is considered polite to thank the host.

Impact on Human Health

Considering the benefits of green tea used in Japanese culture, it is possible to find many sources confirming its miraculous qualities. The first mention of tea’s medicinal properties dates back to the 8th century A.D (Hara et al., 2017). Since then, this issue has continued to be covered, for example, in the book of Li Shizhen of the 16th century (Hara et al., 2017). The criteria for the reliability of scientific research have changed significantly since then, and today, people have a better basis for judging the true benefits of tea.

There has been a growing trend in recent years toward dividing the potential health advantages of food products into three primary categories and green tea encompasses all of these (Hara et al., 2017). The various antioxidative, antimutagenic, antitumor, and antibacterial activities of tea catechins (types of natural phenols) have been thoroughly documented (Hara et al., 2017). Japanese green tea is also a good source of beta-carotene, which is converted to important for the growth and development vitamin A (Hara et al., 2017). Moreover, green tea contains high amounts of the vitamin B complex, as well as vitamin C, E, P, and U, becoming an invaluable source of healthy and vital compounds (Hara et al., 2017). Thus, in addition to its cultural value, tea also has great curative properties.

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In conclusion, it is necessary to emphasize how complex yet simple at its core Zen Buddhism and the art of tea are. Their simplicity is expressed the path that must be followed to achieve the final purpose. In this paper, the subjects of research were divided into simple concepts and combined into one common idea in order to understand their value for Japanese culture. Expressing its striving for enlightenment, the tea ceremony is a sacred process for achieving this, as well as true human joy. In addition to the cultural importance, there is an undeniable practical advantage of tea tradition. The paper provides sufficient evidence for this fact.

In speaking about the significance of the tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism in general, it is worth noting that only in Japan has tea drinking become a sacred rite with the strictest rules and precise actions. The tea ceremony occupies an important place among Japan’s citizens, being a cultural treasure passed down through the years. Tea for the Japanese is a unique fount of spiritual values and a source of longevity. Furthermore, the tea ceremony is a beautiful art form. It is continuously being improved as beauty must always evolve to perfect the world and the people around it, creating harmony between them.


  1. Di Berardino, F. (2018). The abode of fancy, of vacancy, and of the unsymmetrical: how Shinto, Daoism, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism interplay in the ritual space of Japanese tea ceremony.
  2. Hara, Y., Yang, C. S., Isemura, M., & Tomita, I. (Eds.). (2017). Health benefits of green tea: an evidence-based approach. Wallingford, United Kingdom: CABI.
  3. Keane, J. J. (2016). Cultural and theological reflections on the Japanese quest for divinity. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
  4. Roper, K. A. (2018). Medieval Japanese Zen: Catalyst for symbol system formation.
  5. Suzuki, D. T. (2019). Zen and Japanese culture (Vol. 334). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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