It is said that whenever students would ask him a question, Zen master Joju (Jpn. Joshu) would answer, “Go drink tea.” Although seemingly random, his pithy instruction points to the most salient tenets of Zen: return to the moment, accept the truth just as it is, and trust your experience of it. It’s as simple as drinking tea.
Yet as we know, it’s not that easy. Being the creatures that we are, endowed with this strange and wondrous thing called “mind,” we fall prey to what in Buddhist parlance is referred to as the five hindrances: desire, aversion, sloth, restlessness, and doubt. We can easily recognize these as the mental or emotional traps that separate us from what’s happening in the moment, resulting in a perennial sense of dis-ease.
So I’d like to try out a little meditation experiment. What if we took Master Joju literally and regarded his directive of drinking tea not only as a semi-cryptic metaphor for Zen but also as an actual remedy whenever we are beset by overwhelming craving, restless anxiety, or a debilitating loss of belief in ourselves? Drinking tea, and I mean really drinking tea—tasting and savoring it as well as paying attention to making and serving it, the way they do in Korea and Japan at tea ceremonies—might offer us a way to return to the moment and help us get grounded again.
As a practitioner of Korean Zen, I have chosen traditional Korean teas for the purpose of this experiment. The following tea “remedies” are suggested (and tasty) antidotes for each of the hindrances. There are undoubtedly other favorites out there that can easily substitute for the teas listed here. And of course, none of these remedies amount to any medical advice. Ultimately, the most important aspect of these remedies is not so much what kind of tea you are imbibing, but what kind of mind you are keeping while engaging with Joju’s instruction to “go drink tea.”
Hindrance: Sensual Desire
When we attach to something or somebody, we experience desire that seeks fulfilment. Traditionally, it is recommended to counteract desire with sharp mental focus by reflecting on the consequences of what would happen if your desire were actually fulfilled. In order to cut through the veils of desire, we need to regain clarity of mind.
Remedy: Chrysanthemum Tea
Made of chrysanthemum flowers, this herbal tea has been hailed for its medicinal properties since ancient times and is widely drunk in the Far East. Its detoxifying and cooling effects help soothe and calm the nerves. Caffeine-free, this tea has a clear, bright, floral taste that cleanses the palate and cuts through the cloying tangles of desire.
As you are drinking the tea, reflect on the object of your desire. Try to recognize the desire or craving, and “lean into” it. What does it feel like? Once you have a good sense of the craving, imagine letting go of it with every sip of tea.
Recipe for Chrysanthemum Tea
15–25 chrysanthemum flowers
4 cups of boiling water
Any sweetener to taste
Pick the flowers and rinse thoroughly in cold water. You can also use dried flowers.
Place the flowers in a teapot. Heat water, and once it boils, pour it into the teapot over the flower. Steep the tea for 2-3 minutes, or if you prefer a stronger taste, up to 5 minutes. Decant tea into a cup. Add a sweetener like honey if you like. This tea is also delicious chilled.
Hindrance: Aversion or Ill Will
We viscerally feel aversion when we cannot or do not want to accept the way things are. Aversion escalates into ill will when we wish to harm somebody or something because they stand in the way of us getting what we want. In the throes of aversion, we tend to one-sidedly focus on what is unpleasant and irritating rather than look at the situation from a more global and balanced perspective. The traditional counteraction to aversion is lovingkindness practice, which broadens our view of things.
Straddling the line between drink and dessert, this sweet Korean cinnamon and ginger punch is a delicious chilled treat served, somewhat counterintuitively, in the winter months. It also can be served as an icy slush. Dried persimmons that have been pre-soaked so that they are soft and chewy are added to the tea at the end, enriching the taste experience. To me, the delectable sweetness of Sujeongwa amounts to the equivalent of lovingkindness in drinkable form. It’s difficult not to smile after taking a sip of this lovely drink.
When experiencing the tightening sensation of aversion or ill will, breathe deeply into your belly. Do this a couple of times and feel your rib cage expanding as you breathe in. Doing this will create some space within. Keep paying attention to your breathing while preparing the tea. When you sit down to drink the tea, engage in lovingkindness meditation. Taking inspiration from the Tibetan practice of tonglen [sending and receiving], with every sip of tea, imagine filling yourself up with loving energy. With every out breath, send this same energy to a person toward whom you feel ill will. If it is difficult to imagine a “culprit,” start out with yourself or any sentient being you easily feel affection for and then gradually move onto the more difficult cases.
Recipe for Sujeongwa
5 cups of water
1 oz fresh ginger
2-3 cinnamon sticks
¼ cup (or less) light brown sugar
Optional: dried persimmons (gotgam)
Peel fresh ginger and cut into thin slices. Add to a pot filled with 5 cups of water along with the cinnamon sticks. Bring to boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain the ginger and cinnamon water to filter out any debris. Clean the pot. Put the strained liquid back into the cleaned pot and add the sugar. Bring to boil and simmer for another 3 minutes. Cool and then chill in the refrigerator.
If you want to serve the tea with dried persimmons, soak whole dried persimmons (including the stem) in the punch for at least 2 hours before serving. Make sure not to over-soak the persimmons, as they will start to disintegrate. Also, not removing the stem will keep the fruit intact. Add one persimmon per cup and serve cold. For an extra refreshing treat, put the tea in the freezer for 3-4 hours, which will turn it into an icy slush.
Hindrance: Sloth and Torpor
Sloth is the state when our bodies feel heavy and lethargic, while torpor is the term used when our minds feel fatigued, dull, and foggy. It is the opposite of feeling alert, and one of the common pitfalls in meditation can be mistaking torpor for tranquility.
Sloth and torpor are indications for mental habits that prevent us from engaging life with energy, purpose, and direction. Meditation allows us to carefully sift through our mental habits, allowing us to restore a sense of direction and the enthusiasm of “beginner’s mind.”
Remedy: Ginseng Tea
The most famed of Korean homeopathic remedies, ginseng tea (insam-cha) is technically not a tea but a concoction made from red ginseng root (panax or Korean ginseng). Koreans traditionally serve this tea with jujubes and dried Korean chestnuts. Its remedial properties border on the miraculous: ginseng is used to alleviate depression, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. As an energizer and immunity-booster, ginseng tea seems to be perfectly primed to overcome the third hindrance.
When you feel a lack of energy, be it mental or physical, explore its roots. What part of you feels dull and lethargic? Try to differentiate a real need to rest from the desire to sleep as a form of avoidance. Also, pay attention to whether the apparent lack of energy results from anxiety and stress. Our bodies and minds often shut down when we feel overwhelmed.
As you slowly drink the tea, imagine its energizing properties with every sip you take. Having a direction and a clear map—an aspiration toward some attainable and inspiring end rather than a rigid or specific goal—can work as an effective counteraction to this hindrance. Once you start feeling a little more refreshed, begin to contemplate engaging in an activity that you know to be joyful and inspiring. Then go do it.
Recipe for Ginseng Tea
2–3 grams chopped ginseng root (about 5–8 slices of ginseng root or 1 tsp ginseng powder)
1 cup water
Optional: fresh ginger, jujubes and/or dried chestnuts for taste
Any sweetener to taste
Chop the ginseng and add to a cup. Pour hot, not boiling, water over the ginseng and steep for at least 5 minutes. If you want a bolder taste, steep longer. Add sweetener to taste.
Hindrance: Restlessness, Worry, or Anxiety
We usually become restless when we are either stuck in the past or anxiously anticipating the future. A restless mind is an unhappy mind, because true happiness can only arise in the present. As far as restlessness goes, our energy tends to get entangled in obsessive thinking. Our mind resembles a glass of water in which debris keeps floating around through constant stirring, thereby muddying the water. The counteraction is to stop stirring the water in the glass. When the particles settle at the bottom, we can see clearly through the glass again.
Misugaru is a nutritious multi-grain mix that can be added to about anything, from beverages to sweet treats such as Korean rice cakes. Containing finely milled grains and seeds such as barley, brown rice, black beans and sesame, it contains lots of vitamins and nutrients. When added to cow or coconut milk, it makes for a quick and nourishing shake, and because of its high protein content, it leaves you feeling sated. The sweet, nutty flavor as well as the viscous texture provide a sense of grounding to dispel restlessness and worry.
Sit straight in a chair, or better yet, sit on the floor and feel the ground beneath you. Relax into the safety of gravity. Then begin to take slow and measured sips of the shake. Remaining seated, savor its thick texture and mild sweetness. Really pay attention to the sensation of the drink as it touches your tongue and makes its way down your throat and into your belly. Rather than narrow your mental focus, imagine you are opening yourself to all sensory perception, including sound, smell, sight, and taste.
Recipe for Vegan Misugaru Latte
4 Tbsp Misugaru
2 cups coconut milk
couple of ice cubes
1 Tbsp honey or to taste
The easiest way to make this drink is in a blender by adding all ingredients at once and blending everything on a high setting. If you don’t have a blender on hand, pour a little coconut milk into a tall glass and mix in the Misugaru and honey and make a paste. Then add the remaining coconut milk, top off with ice cubes, and give the contents a good stir.
When we doubt, we may feel uncertain, indecisive, or lacking in confidence. Considered the most corrosive of hindrances, doubt can make us question the very validity of our meditation practice, which exacerbates our sense of feeling lost and inadequate. A common experience amongst meditators is wondering whether you are “doing it right.”
“Hindering” doubt lacks the constructive thrust that is usually associated with “questioning” doubt, which can actually spur us out of our complacency and into action by making us delve deeper. When beset by hindering doubt, our mind feels agitated and finds itself in an endless and debilitating cycle of discursive thinking.
Remedy: Roasted Corn Tea
Roasted corn or barley tea is ubiquitous in Korea. It is the main staple drink served at Zen retreats in Korean temples. In our temple, it is an important component in the formal meal, used at the end to clean out the bowls. Caffeine-free, it can be served hot or cold and has a natural nutty sweetness that leaves the palate cleansed and refreshed. The roasted grain gives this tea its earthy flavor. In the summertime, chilled corn tea is an excellent thirst quencher.
When you are overcome with doubt, first try to isolate whether you are dealing with hindering or questioning doubt. Does this doubting voice feel discouraging? Or does it make you want to further investigate whatever question is arising? In moments of great uncertainty, rather than trying to suppress the feeling of losing control, try to settle into it. Hindering doubt can be transmuted into questioning doubt when you let go of the urgency to find an answer or a solution. By following your breath instead, you can embrace what the late Korean Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim called “Don’t-Know-Mind.”
As you drink this tea, quietly recite the mantra “clear mind, clear mind.” When breathing out, quietly say the words, “Don’t know.” Repeat this mantra as long as you need to. Imagine the thirst of doubt being quenched by the tea.
Recipe for Roasted Corn Tea
2 Tbsp roasted corn or barley
8 cups water
Place the water in a kettle and add the roasted grain (corn or barley). Bring to a boil and let the tea steep in the hot water for at least 10–15 minutes. The tea can be served hot or cold.
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