Other Theories on the Origin of Tea

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Similar stories to the tale of Shen-Nung have cropped up from within Chinese tradition; while it is unknown if any of these legends have a true basis in fact, their effect upon Chinese culture and the origins of tea itself remains worthy of remark.

Another tea origin tale about Shen-Nung also sprung forth into legend, this time particularly due to his qualities as a herbalist. It is told that he wished to unlock any medical properties and applications particular herbs would offer, and so he would, almost without discrimination, pick the leaves, roots and stems from plants and chew them. Tea was among the herbs found, however the curious emperor would sometimes chew upon a poisonous plant variety. He soon found that, apparently, tea worked as a good remedy for the poison he had consumed.

Similar legend – originally found in Cha Jing, a very early manuscript by Lu Yu – has recorded the above myth but with the God of Agriculture in place of Shen-Nung.

The only other well-known myth that does not depict Shen-Nung (or what could very well be a form of him, as with the fabled God of Agriculture described by Lu Yu) is a rather irksome myth that appears to have first been told from within the Tang Dynasty. This dynasty stretched from the years 618 to 907 AD. In this legend, the founder of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma, was under a very strict meditation regime that had lasted for nine years in front of a wall. He ended this session when he accidentally fell asleep, and when he woke up again he became ashamed by his weakness. He then made the assertion that if he couldn’t close his eyes, then he wouldn’t have nearly as much of an issue with accidentally falling asleep again, and so cut off his very own eyelids as a preventative measure. These eyelids were then left abandoned on the ground, where they grew roots and became the first seeds of tea bushes. Two tea plants then grew where Bodhidharma’s eyelids once lay.

Much in the same manner that the God of Agriculture took the place of Shen-Nung during his medical-property testing myth, the Guatama Buddha sometimes takes the place of Bodhidharma in the previous myth.

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535 BCE: Buddhism and Tea

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As Buddhism grew, so did the Buddhist habit of drinking tea. Traditionally, Buddhist monks were never allowed to consume animal products or the animals themselves, and were thus left with only vegetation to eat. Alcohol was also off the table, as its very nature violated their principles. Tea, however, was a different story. As a vegetative drink itself, it was considered quite okay to consume for Buddhist monks – even preferable. The caffeine found within the brew was a useful aid to meditation, providing a natural lift in awareness and a helpful way to combat accidentally falling asleep during a meditative state.

It is told that many tea shrubs were nurtured and cared for around ancient Chinese Buddhist temples; the drink was also seen from a somewhat metaphorical viewpoint. The suffering of a Buddhist monk was represented in the bitterness of tea, and calmness was in much the same way linked to the tea’s clear, translucent liquid. Many teas were apparently cultivated around the temples, with enormous amounts of variety.

One of the creation myths of tea names the creator of the tea plant as the founder of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma. This tale details how, in his frustration at falling asleep during a long meditation session, Bodhidharma cut his own eyelids off in order to make up for his weakness. These eyelids, according to myth, grew into the first two tea plants.

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