Matcha Tea was very popular among the monastics in ancient Japan and China. Prone to meditate for more than eight hours at a time, matcha proved a valuable meditation aid that would assist in keeping the monks clearheaded and calm during intense zazen sessions. Matcha tea and the calm mind are synonmous parts of the tea ceremony in Japan.
Though matcha has caffeine, the effects of the caffeine are balanced by the amino acid theanine. The caffeine-theanine combination is part of matcha’s biochemical milieu that energizes and simultaneously calms, creating a unique mental state that can be described as “alert-relaxation.” In the west, having energy is often erroneously associated with being jacked up on speed; a highly stimulated state. But the eastern concept of energy is much more refined and receptive. For a tea master, having appropriate energy is to be totally relaxed, but totally alert. By relaxed they don’t mean sleepy, they promote a state of deep calm and peace. Westerners might also think of calmness as sleepiness. Not so! Matcha tea induces a deep peace in person, but not a sleepiness.
The Zen Buddhist monks of old deeply valued the effect that matcha has on the mind. And the matcha tea tradition is still very alive in Japan today.
One Zen Buddhist Priest Myô-ei Shonin, poetically described “10 Virtues of Tea”, and none mentioned the taste:
Has the blessing of all the Deities.
Promotes filial piety.
Drives away the Devil.
Keeps the Five Organs in harmony.
Wards off disease.
Disciplines body and mind.
Destroys the passions.
Gives a peaceful death.
Rather than also bring back methods of cultivation of the plant, they told us how to cultivate the mind: there is … no … discrimination … no … nose, tongue, body … smell, taste …” in emptiness. It may be a good recipe for enlightenment, but not for gourmands. Murata Shukô (1423 – 1502), renowned among his peers for dozing on the zafu meditation cushion, one day finally woke up, jumped up, declaring, “Chazen ichi mi” – “Tea and Zen are the same taste!” and exchanged the dark, smoky zendo for a life of tea drinking in the secular world. He got points from his iconoclastic teacher priest Ikkyu, also a proponent of chanoyu. (1)
Here we see the incisive wisdom of Shonin, understanding matcha as an aid in the realization of the goal of meditation…freedom from taste, preference and the modifications of the mind-stuff. Matcha is not just a quaint food ingredient, but a sacred plant ally psychoactively engaging the brain to enhance serene awareness.
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1. Sadler, A.L., Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (Tuttle Publishing, Boston, 1962, p. 94)