“The Taste of a Bowl of Emptiness”

Tea is not a game and not an art;
one taste of tea refreshes and purifies
and gives enlightenment to the universal law.

–Murata Shukô (1423-1502)

I settled my attention on a lone chrysanthemum in a ceramic vase perched in a tiny alcove: stained yellow by a setting autumn sun, ephemeral as a falling star.

We had arrived an hour earlier, three invitees, to a home situated on a rock promontory overlooking the Puget Sound. The Japanese parents of an exchange student, who was a neighbor of mine, had invited us to their Seattle home for dinner. Ushered inside, we took off our shoes and entered a small tea room: shoji screen doors closed, transporting us into a foreign world of Japanese antiquity and aesthetics.

Though the tea ceremony we engaged in was adapted to the modern lives of our Japanese hosts, many traditional aspects of the ritual remained in tact.
Seated on straw tatami mats around a low wooden table, we first sipped a powdered green tea called usucha, or thin tea. Our host dipped a bamboo scoop (chashaku) into a small container and revealed a tea so brilliant green that we were stricken with curiosity. It was the color of early spring, when translucent shoots and vivid grasses creep from the composting remnants of fall. It was the color of renewal. The tea was astringent and cleansing to the palate with a hint of mint at the finish. We then ate a light meal of steamed vegetables and seaweed salad mixed with black sesame seeds.

After the meal we were served another round of tea, this time in a ceramic bowl that was passed from person to person. Called koicha, or thick tea; it was noticeably sweeter than our first bowl, with earthy and umami tones. I felt energized and intensely alert, but simultaneously a deep vein of calmness was tapped within, which was wonderful, since I was a novice in an ancient ritual in an unknown home with new friends. Though I had been practicing vipassana meditation and qigong for many years, I had not meditated that day, and I was surprised by my heightened senses. And then it dawned on me…this tea is psychoactive. I left that night with a deep respect for the tea ceremony and for the clear point of it in my mind: an altered state conducive to quiet alertness.

In approximately 1192, the Buddhist monk Eisai (1141-1215) returned to Japan after a lengthy sojourn in China, bringing powdered green tea and seeds of the tea plant with him. He had observed Chan Buddhists imbibing finely powdered green tea at a monastery on Tiantai mountain near Ningbo, and likely knew a myth of the origin of the tea plant surrounding Bodhidharma.

The acknowledged progenitor of what would become Chan in China and Zen in Japan, Bodhidharma (470-543) reportedly came to China from India more than six hundred years before Eisai’s arrival. Legend holds that after falling asleep during a nine-year cave meditation, Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids in frustration…where they fell in the soil, tea plants flourished. Monks had used tea as a medicine, meditation aid and stimulant for more than a thousand years in China before Japanese Buddhist monks began traveling there during the Tang dynasty. A Daoist myth proposes that Kuan Yin gave Laozi a cup of tea before she requested he record his wisdom in the Daodejing.

Along with the seeds of the Camellia Sinensis plant, Eisai returned with the origins of the Rinzai school of Zen. After establishing several Zen temples in Japan, he resided in Kyoto. Eisai originally was a practitioner of the Tendai school and continued some of the Tendai practices even after he took up Zen. Tea gardens still remain in and around Kyoto, and near Mount Hiei, the site of the original Tendai monastery, founded by Saicho (767-822). The cultural center and imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, Kyoto is still famous for the quality tea it produces.

The Japanese called the powdered tea, matcha. “Cha” means tea and “ma” means powder. The monk Kukai had also gone to China at the end of the 9th century, and while both Kukai and Saicho purportedly brought back tea and tea seeds, scholars tell us that the form of the tea differed. In Tang dynasty (618-907) China, the preference was for tea dried and formed into bricks. Pieces were broken off and steeped in hot water, but the leaf was not ingested. By the Song dynasty (960-1269), Chinese Buddhists had taken up the practice of powdering green tea leaves, and whisking them into a frothy emerald brew, before consuming the entire mixture.

During the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan, not only Buddhists, but merchants, aristocrats, farmers and warriors took up tea culture, but only for a short time, and tea use declined until it was resurrected with Eisai. It is likely that Eisai’s book on tea, Drinking Tea and Maintaining Health (Kissa yojoki), published around 1214, helped promote tea for health purposes, and was instrumental in re-popularizing tea use all over Japan.

Though the Chinese first invented powdered green tea, the Japanese took tea cultivation and matcha preparation to a high art. Formalizing a position for tea masters, and codifying the rituals and ideas of tea practice, a majority of tea practitioners were practicing Buddhists. From the early 13th century onwards, tea flowered in Japanese art and culture. An early form of the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu (literally “hot water for tea”), was developed after Eisai returned, and the tea ceremony was refined and redefined, over hundreds of years. Tea and Zen were inextricably linked. And Zen simplicity and thought penetrated chanoyu in ritualized ways.

Chado, translated as “the way of tea”, is often as a synonym for chanoyu. But chanoyu more specifically refers to the elaborated tea ceremony that gained prominence during the Muromachi period (1337 – 1573 CE) in Japan. Chanoyu continues today in Japan and all over the world: an estimated two million plus people practice the ceremonial tea ritual.

In each Japanese historical period, Buddhists shaped tea culture in response to, and often proactively against the prevailing social constructs of the times. For nearly three hundred years after Eisai introduced it, genuine tea practices mingled with ostentatious displays of rank and wealth, the antithesis of the spirit of Zen. At times, wealthy merchants and humble Zen monks practiced side by side, acknowledging the social complexity of the period, acutely aware of social rank in a feudal and imperial age.

In a simple way, as the pendulum swung towards the inauthentic, authentic practitioners guided the ceremony back into harmony with the ways of Zen thought. And at the heart of the Japanese spirit of Zen was wabi-sabi.

The Wabi-Sabi of Tea

In his book, Wabi Sabi Simple, Richard Powell writes, “Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Wabi-sabi is more of a feeling-sensation than an abstract idea. It is the interplay of awareness with the beauty of the natural world. The original character for wabi, shared by both Chinese and Japanese writing can be translated as “despondence” or “chill” and implies a sublimity tinged with forlornness. Sabi can be translated as “loneliness”, “solitude”, “lean” or “withered.” In a short essay titled Wabi Sabi: Learning to See the Invisible, Dr. Tim Wong and Dr. Akiko Hirano write,

“What is wabi-sabi? Ask a Japanese this question and there will likely be a long silence. Pose the same question to an American, however, the answer will often be quick and sure: ‘It is beauty of things imperfect!’ Why do the Japanese struggle for an answer to the meaning of wabi-sabi that seems to come easily to Westerners? Could they be searching for a different answer altogether?”

As a stance against an over-emphasis on Chinese arts, a preference for local craft, and simplicity in art also returned with the wabi-sabi spirit. Wabi-sabi was a truly unique contribution of Zen thought and experience to the tea ceremony and still guides it today.

The Japanese word, suki, can translate as taste or discrimination, and early Buddhist practitioners of tea often treasured Chinese tea utensils as highly refined art masterpieces. Some pieces were sequestered in Zen monasteries and symbolized the perfection of enlightenment. That enlightenment should be a lofty state, difficult to obtain and represented by high art went against the experiential focus and do it yourself spirit of Zen Buddhists in Japan. The suki of wabi-sabi increasingly influenced tea utensils and ceramics. For instance, a simple black raku tea bowl, with a conspicuous crack, became a favorite of an early practitioner of the wabi-sabi aesthetic in tea practice. Such bowls or chawans, used by influential tea masters, had a lasting impact on tea aesthetics.

But wabi-sabi as conceived by Zen practitioners was more than just a love of the imperfect in art and life, it was an attitude of equanimity, a freedom of mind and appreciation in the shadows and springs of life as much as it was a reaction to power and wealth.

Addressing pretense in chanoyu, around 1488, Murata Shuko wrote “Letter of the Heart” to a disciple, clarifying issues of taste and discrimination in the tea ceremony. Shuko was a Zen practitioner and a student of Zen master Ikkyu, and is considered one of the early pioneers and developers of what is known as wabi-cha, or the attempt to bring the wabi-sabi state of mind to tea practice.

He advised an integral approach to tea and suggested harmonizing the utilization of fine tea accessories of Chinese origin, with an understanding of the principles behind the return of the “cold and withered” that had become fashionable in the ceremony. Shuko recommended the ability to transcend fads and an appreciation of both the highly refined and the utterly natural. He was not simply responding to the ostentations of his times, but suggesting a middle way, free from any staid approach. The essence of “Letter of the Heart “ was balance between the human impulse for perfection in art and consciousness and the apparent imperfection and contradictions of life. Shuko suggested that in conscious reflection an appreciation of the dark and withered could arise spontaneously. After all, death was imminent for all beings.

And this was the spirit of simplicity within complexity that the acknowledged father of the modern tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, grounded his lasting version of chanoyu in the 16th century. There are three major families which are schools of the tea ceremony in Japan today, the Urasenke, Omotesenke, and the Mushakōjisenke, and all trace their ancestry back to Rikyu. These families, since around the late seventeenth century, have founded their schools on the iemoto system. The iemoto is the patriarch of a given family and spearheads the organization of the tea school while running the daily operations. Passing his lineage and teachings directly to the next heir, a son, in secret, the iemoto confers and maintains authority within the family nucleus. In contrast, during Rikyu’s time, multiple disciples received the teachings openly, and many schools and opinions flourished as a result.

Rikyu received training in Zen at Daitoku-ji, a complex of Buddhist temples in Kyoto, and though not a monk, he was a dedicated zazen practitioner his entire life. He saw the tea ceremony as a means for enacting the Zen teachings in all aspects of day to day affairs. Chanoyu was a politically equalizing factor where humans met as humans, unencumbered by roles and conventions of society. Doing away with privileged entranceways for dignitaries, he revisioned the role of architecture in tea. Tiny tea houses, some twelve feet by twelve feet, and resembling the solitary grass-thatched huts of Zen hermits, became the setting for transmitting tea. Small and lowered entrances required a person to kneel and crawl into the tea house after unloading personal effects such as weapons and shoes. He emphasized humility in wabi-cha, locating the tea house at the end of a winding path through a garden, creating an atmosphere blending wild nature with awakened cultivation. Rikyu also pioneered the use of the bamboo scoop, or chasaku, in matcha preparation. Prior to this innovation, chasakus were made of ivory or precious metals. Bamboo emphasized locality and simplicity, and by leaving the knot of the bamboo in the center of the scoop, Rikyu’s sense of the wabi aesthetic was revealed.

Rikyu was the tea master of the powerful feudal lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. For Hideyoshi, tea gatherings were a political tool, and he sponsored large gatherings, bought expensive utensils, and hired Rikyu as close confidant and tea sage. When Rikyu was seventy, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide by disembowlment. Though the precise reason is unknown, scholars suggest that conflicts existed between Rikyu’s wabi sense and Hideyoshi’s extravagance, though there was a time when Hideyoshi’s solid gold tea room stood near Rikyu’s thatched hermit hut, and all were invited, whether rich or poor to practice tea. For Hideyoshi, bent on consolidating power over peasants, this seems to have been an overture of control, as he later ordered all peasant weapons confiscated, melting them to create a giant statue of the Buddha.

In addition to his political significance and influence before his ordered suicide, Rikyu was the progenitor of practicing tea as an expression of peace, as a way of self-realization. In spirit, Rikyu was much like the early Buddhist harbingers of tea culture who visited China, he was a spiritual man. And since the primary essence of authentic Zen Buddhism is the transmission of a state of consciousness, the tea ceremony was reoriented in such a way as to call forth the possibility of a transformation of an ordinary state of awareness into an awakened one. Rikyu recast the art of tea as an expression of the universal principles of:

Wa (harmony)
Kei (respect)
Sei (purity)
Jaku (tranquility)

He was recognized as a living example of wabi practiced as a way of life. In tea houses, a kakemono, or hanging scroll, was typically placed in a small alcove displaying a strategic poem, or calligraphic saying of a Zen master. The art enhanced the ideal of Zen awakening. Realizing each moment to be one of a kind and fleeting, an idea expressed in the Japanese phrase: ichigo ichie, or “one meeting, one time”, the guest was revered. Rikyu’s sense of wabi-cha mirrors the wisdom of carpe diem, yet it tends to stillness. To get a sense for Rikyu’s wabi-consciousness, first consider a short poem by the Greek philosopher and rhetorician, Libanius, who lived in the 4th century CE:

comes from
plants and springs
and gardens and gentle winds
and flowers and the songs of birds.

Libanius here is a master of the obvious. The Japanese conception of wabi-sabi is more subtle and reflective. Rikyu’s tea mentor Takeno Jo-o, who highly influenced his understanding of tea wrote this poem to convey the essence of wabi-consciousness:

As I look about,
Neither flowers nor autumn-tinted leaves
Near the grass-thatched hut
That stands alone by the shore.
The autumn dusk.

While Jo-o’s poem is austere and dark, Rikyu recast wabi as a melding of the yin of solitariness with the yang of early spring. He suggested balance when he wrote:

To those who long for the
Flowers of spring
Show the young grasses
That push up among the snowy hills.

Rikyu almost seems to be responding directly to Libanius. He encouraged practitioners to find the attitude of the young grasses within and recognize it in the world. He found a middle way in wabi-cha, a wisdom born of awareness in the simple actions that compose every ordinary life, rendering the extraordinary ordinary and vice versa. When asked about the essence of the tea ceremony, Rikyu said:

Tea is nought but this:
First you heat the water,
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.

For the advanced practitioner, the etiqutte of chanoyu is liberation. Far from being rote or mechanical, the rules and ways of the tea ceremony are designed to transform. Rikyu’s grandson, the tea master Sen Sotan, later said “the taste of tea and Zen are one and the same.”

Your Brain on Matcha Green Tea

Rikyu taught that happiness is uncaused and non-circumstantial. He infused chanoyu with an appreciation for the duality of life, by finding the sun of awareness within that never diminishes. But why is matcha the form of tea that was chosen to help facilitate this extraordinary-ordinary act of awareness? Why not sencha green tea, gyokuro, brick tea, or any of the many other possible forms of tea in Japan? Indisputably, matcha tea is the ceremonial choice, used by a mere 1.5% of the Japanese population. My suspicion is that it is because imbibing matcha bequeaths a state of awareness conducive to the values that the tea ceremony espouses. While other forms of tea have stimulating properties, matcha tea induces stimulation and relaxation simultaneously. I also believe that the Zen monks received knowledge of growing and harvesting techniques from Chinese Buddhists that allowed them to enhance the psychoactive effects of the Camellia Sinensis plant. The Japanese expounded on this botanical knowledge, an example of natural biotechnology, over many centuries to produce tea leaves capable of being ground into high quality matcha.

Throughout human history plants have been used to achieve physiological effects and changes in order to enhance a biological function or in the case of shamanic ritual, alter perception. And if the essence of the tea ceremony is the attainment of awareness immersed in the present moment, then matcha is the psychoactive plant symbiotically paired with the human mind for that result. Just like innumerable plant centered rituals from shamanic-animistic cultures throughout history, a symbolic act was able to either activate and transform a person into a receptacle of spiritual transmission or become a rote mechanistic ceremony devoid of life changing spiritual power.

As any good medicine must be potent to achieve a pharmacological effect, a good ceremony must begin with a high quality tea, one that will activate the mind and augment awareness. But if matcha alters perception in such a way as to magnify the senses, how does it do so? How does it interface with the brain and body biochemically to induce a state of heightened sensitivity to the present moment?

An analysis of the biochemistry of matcha green tea gives us new insights into why matcha might have been chosen as the centerpiece of the tea ceremony.

One of the keys to matcha’s effect on the mind is the ratio of caffeine to the amino acid, L-theanine. While caffeine heightens visual acuity and acts as a stimulant, enhancing cognitive function, L-theanine acts as an antagonist to the caffeine, and relaxes the body and the mind. The two are complementary to achieving a state of calm-alertness, or attentive-relaxation. While the amount of caffeine in matcha is about a third of the amount in a cup of coffee, the L-theanine in matcha modulates caffeine’s stimulating effects. While eyesight is sharper and the senses are more alert, L-theanine lends a deep relaxation to the body. With the mind alert and the body relaxed you basically have the blueprint and foundation for effective meditation. With matcha, you get the focus and the alertness of coffee without the jitters. Matcha and the brain are perfectly suited for eachother because the brain does not like stress. Matcha gives you alert focus and deep relaxation at the same time.

The peer reviewed journal, Nutrition Reviews, published a comprehensive analysis of the scientific literature and research on green tea in 2008 titled, Psychological effects of dietary components of tea: caffeine and L-theanine.

The author of the review concluded:

“The studies reviewed suggest that caffeinated tea, when ingested at regular intervals, may maintain alertness, focused attention, and accuracy and may modulate the more acute effects of higher doses of caffeine. These findings concur with the neurochemical effects of L-theanine on the brain. L-theanine may interact with caffeine to enhance performance in terms of attention switching and the ability to ignore distraction; this is likely to be reflective of higher-level cognitive activity and may be sensitive to the detrimental effects of overstimulation”

While this review was not specific to matcha, the fact that matcha is powdered green tea, make the conclusion particularly relevant to it. Multiple studies have assessed how L-theanine affects cognitive processing, but few people know that matcha green tea has a higher L-theanine content than any other form of tea. In fact, a very specific growing and harvesting knowledge is responsible for increasing L-theanine. Shade growing tea plants for 2-3 weeks, and harvesting in early spring increases the amino acid’s content in the leaves many times over. Zen monks discovered a way to cultivate the tea plant over time to achieve and enhance a particular neurological effect by shade growing.

In the 1950’s in Japan, a researcher and biochemist was the first to isolate L-theanine from tea leaves. Today, L-theanine is used as a nutraceutcial additive in many supplements that promote an anxiety-free, relaxed state of mind. One of the ways that L-theanine promotes relaxation is by increasing alpha brain waves. Alpha waves are associated with feelings of well-being and relaxation. When people swim with dolphins, meditate, or engage in a creative act like painting, their brains exhibit more alpha brain wave activity.

When one experiences for themselves the state of alert relaxation that matcha induces in the bodymind, it becomes evident why Zen monks would use matcha to meditate, but what is being elucidated by scientific research is that it not only enhances alpha brain waves, but it does so in regions of the brain used for attention and concentration.

A 2009 study on the amino acid L-theanine, published in Brain Topography concluded:

“This pattern of results implies that L-theanine plays a more general role in attentional processing, facilitating longer-lasting processes responsible for sustaining attention across the timeframe of a difficult task, rather than affecting specific moment-to-moment phasic deployment processes.”

The tea ceremony can be seen as a way to enlightenment, a ritual designed to heighten the senses and wake us up from routines that numb us to the extraordinary beauty of everyday life. Zen practitioners found that matcha enhances meditation, in ways that transcend the obvious stimulatory effects of the leaf of the Camellia Sinensis plant. If the irony that the ceremony of today is taught in hierarchical schools with powerful male iemotos at the head is distasteful and if the rigors and culture of the Japanese tea ceremony are out of reach, drinking matcha remains a do it yourself way to alter neurochemistry…to shift perception…and if grace allows, to realize that the taste of Zen and tea are one.


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