2009 Lecture: The Buddhist Arts of Tea in Medieval China
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Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Los Angeles CA 90095
The relatively rapid change in drinking habits that occurred in late medieval China (Tang dynasty, 618–907) cannot be understood without appreciating the crucial role of Buddhist ideas, institutions, and practitioners. While Buddhist texts vividly depicted the dangers of imbibing intoxicating substances, Buddhist monks were also active in spreading an alternative to alcohol—tea—throughout the empire. By the end of the ninth century, tea had become a vital component in the Chinese economy and an essential commodity of everyday life. Tea was valued for its ability to sustain long periods of meditation and for its health-giving properties. It was considered an appropriate offering for Buddhist deities, and a suitable gift for monks and laypeople to exchange. Tea, like alcohol before it, stimulated and inspired poets and connoisseurs.
This lecture will look closely at the surviving artistic, material, and literary evidence for Buddhist involvement in the promotion of tea drinking and the invention of a Chinese tea culture.
James A. Benn (PhD, UCLA 2001) is Associate Professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions at McMaster University. He studies Buddhism and Taoism in medieval China. He has focused on three major areas of research: bodily practice in Chinese religions; how people create and transmit new religious practices and doctrines; and the religious dimensions of commodity culture. He has published on self-immolation, spontaneous human combustion, Buddhist apocryphal scriptures, and tea and alcohol in medieval China. He is the author of Burning for the Buddha: Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism, and is currently completing a second book, Tea in China: A Religious and Cultural History.
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