The Legends of Tea: Eyelids of Bodhidharma,The Fabled Origins of the World’s Favorite Drink Part I

 

Buddhism and tea in China go way, way back, so deeply intertwined with each other that even in their origin stories they’re both prominent characters.

 

In one legend of the origin of tea, the most eminent figure in Buddhism takes the lead, where in a fantastical way, the first tea leaves grew out of his rage. 


Eyelids of Bodhidharma


This curiously titled legend is centered around Bodhidharma was an Indian monk ,who, according to the records of the time, lived around the 5th-6h century. Even before he became legendary for being the reason why tea existed, the man was already something of a mystical figure of the time.

 

During his time stories were abound of how he existed despite the loss of many body parts and encounters with monsters of legend. In one particular tale he even lost his entire body in one of them, after he stepped out of it for a moment to move a giant snake that blocked his path, only to come back to find it had been stolen.

 

He made due with haggard body of the thief that was left sitting next to where his original body had been.


In the legend of the Eyelids of Bodhidharma, Bodhidharma set out to meditate in a cave for nine years in a quest to reach enlightenment. However, during the long period of being alone and away from the madding noise of everyday life, the silence crept up to him, and during his meditation, he was lulled into a deep sleep.

 

Upon waking up, he realized how he failed, virtually rendering years’ worth of meditation useless.

 

Out for frustration,  Bodhidharma tore off his own eyelids in a fit of rage to ensure that it would never happen again. The tale ends here, but not quite.


In the Japanese extended version of the tale, Bodhidharma flung the torn off eyelids to the ground. Where his eyelids hit the ground, tea plants are said to have appeared. He plucked some leaves off the bush and steeped them in hot water. When he tasted the beverage, he was granted enlightenment, his weariness was suddenly gone, and his spirits were raised.

 

Ever since monks have been drinking tea during their long hours of meditation, and tea is known as “the beverage of Darma’s eyes” in India.


Bodhidharma is honored to this day in the Zen tea ceremony because of his legendary role in the origin of tea.

 

As the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma’s place is solidified in Japan, a place where Zen and tea share a heavenly regard. To this day, Bodhidharma is honored in the Zen tea ceremony because of his legendary role in the origin of tea


As it goes with legends, the Eyelids of Bodhidharma shouldn’t be taken literally, because tea had already been around for a few thousand years before Bodhidharma travelled to the East.

 

There exists little recorded biographical evidence of Bodhidharma’s life.

 

What we have of him are stories just like these, but the fact that he was one of the first to recognize tea’s usefulness for sustaining alertness during meditation and made tea an integral part of his daily routine should not be lost to the colorful stories that surrounded his life.