Tea Down The History Lane

Legendary tales abound the origins of almost every phenomenon or system on earth. And the birth of tea is no exception. There are three very widely believed stories, and by most accounts the accidental discovery of the beverage occurred after energizing mankind in their first taste with an unknown drink. Hitherto, it has taken the human race to a new high with freshness amidst different moods. Let us see how it influenced those who tasted tea for the first time.

The Legend Of Emperor Shen Nung

According to Chinese legends, tea was discovered by Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C.E. While boiling water one morning, leaves from a nearby plant fell into the pot. He liked the taste and discovered that not only did this new infusion of herbs quench thirst, but also reduced the need for sleep and cheered the heart. He continued to drink that we now know as tea, and shared the beverage with others.

The Legend of Bohdidharma

Another legend on tea's origin tells the story of Bodhidharma, an East Indian Bodhisattva who came to China in the 6th Century B.C.E. to teach Buddhism. Bodhidharma is considered the founder of Martial Arts in China, or at least for changing it radically from warring techniques to a practice of spiritual and health exercise.

It is said that when he came to China, in order to attract students he sat in meditation in front of a cave for nine years. During the first three years, people would come by and mimic or ridicule him or even play tricks on him. Sometimes they would defile him, much like children making fun of someone odd. During the second three years, people grew tired of bothering an un-reacting statue sitting in meditative repose, and they ignored him. In the final three years, some individuals realized his great accomplishment of sitting in meditation for so long despite the hardship and began to join him in sitting meditation. By the end of the nine years, Bodhidharma spoke in front of thousands of totally receptive students, every one of them became instantly enlightened.

The Sermon he gave was called the Lotus Sutra, Lotus being the flower that represents man's striving quest to find meaning to life and rise above a world of pain and suffering just as the white lotus rises above the muddy water from which it grows. This sudden enlightenment method became known as Ch'an Buddhism. To prepare for this marathon meditation, Bodhidharma would sit for long hours each day. One day he fell asleep. This made him so annoyed at himself that he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground, so that he would never close his eyes again during meditation and fall asleep. To this day, C'han meditation practice always employs an open eyes method and Bodhidharma is always depicted with large, round, saucer like eyes. Legend states that where Bodhidharma's eyelids fell, the first tea plant grew. The quality of tea, which keeps one awake, is Bodhidharma's gift to the Buddhist world of mediators, establishing the drinking of tea as an aid to alert meditation and spiritual development. This explains both the invigorating effects of tea and the eyelid shape of the leaf.

The Legend of Tieguanyin

Centuries ago in Sand County, Fujian Province, China, lived a tea farmer named Mr. Wei. Each morning and evening he used to pass by a temple dedicated to the Goddess T'ieh-Kuan-Yin. He was a poor farmer, but was often moved by the poorer condition of the temple. So he would regularly burn incense inside the temple, sweep the floors and clean the statue of the Goddess.

Understanding Mr. Wei's deep devotion to her temple, T'ieh-Kuan-Yin appeared to him in a dream and said: "Behind the temple, deep in a cave is a treasure that will last you for generations, but for it to be valuable you must share it with all of your neighbors."

Waking up and rushing to the cave behind the temple, Mr. Wei searched and searched for the treasure. But the only thing he found was a small sprig of a tea bush. Unhappily he took this sprig and planted it in his tea garden. Over the next few years it grew into a bush. When he made tea from the leaves of this bush, he noticed a unique fragrance and amber infusion which last over many subsequent steeps of the same leaves.

Mr. Wei propagated the bush further into hundreds of tea bushes and, remembering the instructions of the Goddess gave shoots and seeds to all of his neighbors. Traders in the Capital heard of the famous tea named after T'ieh-Kuan-Yin and the region which specialized in growing it. Soon all the farmers in Sand County became prosperous and Tieguanyin Oolong developed a national reputation. The temple was repaired and funds put aside for its upkeep.

The next legend describes one of the stories of the origin of tea. Of particular interest is the use of tea as an aid to meditation. The spread of tea throughout Asia closely followed the spread of Buddhism. We really appreciate tea's ability to create a calm yet alert state in each of us.