Friday, December 27, 2013

Bodhi Dharma's Eyelids

The ancient Chinese were masters of observing coincidence and understanding connections between the synchronicity of events in space and time. When and where are phenomena most likely to coincide.

One of the world's wonderful "coincidences" is the merging of Buddhism and tea in China. And as both are full of legends and sometimes far-fetched tales, it's not surprising that there would be a legend or two involving both.

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Enter Bodhi Dharma, a 5th-6th Century Buddhist monk from India, founder of Chan Buddhism (aka Zen) in China, and legendary creator of tea.

Legends abound surrounding Bodhi Dharma's existence already, many involving the loss of body parts, even 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 another legend, after becoming disgusted with himself for falling asleep during meditation, he cut off his eyelids not to let it happen again. A friend of mine, who is a monk, suggested that this legend probably arose from him possibly having the biggest eyes anyone had ever seen in China, and he probably didn't actually tear them out...

In Japan, where Zen and tea share a heavenly regard, they extended the legend, adding that when he flung the eyelids to the ground, the first two tea plants sprouted instantaneously from where they landed. He plucked a couple of leaves to chew, recognized their awakening ability, brewed some tea, and continued with his meditation.

Obviously, this creation myth isn't to be taken literally, for one tea had already been around for a few thousand years before Bodhi Dharma traveled to the East, but it shows the cultural importance of the two, taken into the realm of deities. There is very little record of Bodhi Dharma's actually life, but supposedly, he did recognize tea's usefulness for helping to sustain alertness during meditation and made tea an integral part of his daily routine. To this day, Buddhism and tea have maintained a strong bond, even if a few monk have switched to coffee...

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