For centuries Tea has been associated with health, medicine and longevity. Both Buddhist and Taoist prescriptions include tea in their repertoire of medical herbs and longevity is not simply achieved by discovering some secret elixir to life but is pragmatically achieved by leading a healthy, happy and balanced life and avoiding harm.
I am still surprised that many Western views of tea as a stimulating beverage prevail over its benefits. Traditional tea cultures tend to use tea to relax and structure “time-out” not to achieve stimulation, a social drink that builds relationships and creates harmony. Use of tea to enhance meditation practice has often been mis-interpreted as relying on its stimulating effect, but these opinions ignore the Buddha’s teachings on avoiding stimulants and intoxicants. In reality tea use in Buddhism is far more complex than this and certainly the same is true of Taoist practice. Tea can be offering, food and medicine and easily slips between such categories in various ritual and practice. Like other entheogens (any psychoactive substance that induces a spiritual experience and is aimed at spiritual development), tea is imbued not only with pharmaceutical value and properties but cultural properties that makes its use both potentially dynamic and adaptive to both individual and social environments. For example Tibetan butter tea is both a meal, a medicine and an offering to gods, Bodhisattvas and demons. It can be sustenance for long practices or act as mediator between sentient beings. Yaks can consecrated and blessed with tea and journeys both spiritual and physical can be supported by it and even promoted by it.
Therefore we can begin to appreciate that if longevity is the ability to live a long happy, healthy and balanced life then tea is intimately entwined. For a traditional tea culture tea becomes a way of sustaining this balance either through drinking, consuming, sharing or offering tea in many formats and upon many social or spiritual ritual platforms.
In earlier posts I have discussed about the medical value of tea and its pharmaceutical components but perhaps its true value as an elixir for longevity is its holistic value. I do sometimes wonder that when we start removing the pharmaceutical value away from its traditionally valued properties we start to lose its efficacy. The production and consumption of green tea extract in pills surely has less benefits from daily green tea drinking in a social setting in that the benefits of sharing and attention to the tea with all the senses (taste, scent, feeling, touch, sight etc.) is absent in popping a pill. Its akin to eating a hearty healthy meal in pill or powder format where all the nutrition and vitamins are still present but without the experience or even the time to enjoy it. Even when I undertake solo tea sessions the benefits of experiencing the tea and taking time to focus my attention on the act from leaf to cup to mouth is an incredibly enriching experience as well as providing a mindful act of meditation and relaxation from the daily cycles of life.
MarshalN touches upon this idea of drinking with your body as a concept of enjoying the tea as a total experience http://www.marshaln.com/2012/05/drinking-with-your-body/. By embracing the experience of tea in its total bodily sense we also achieve opportunity for the tea session to embed into our current state of being and into both a social and environmental locus. In doing this we allow the benefits of the tea medicine to maintain and balance not just our internal physiological self but our social, emotional and environmental well-being that therefore contributes to longevity.
We are perhaps already aware that the pursuit for longevity isn’t a new concept or endeavour. The 16th Century novel of Wu Cheng En tells includes the tale of the Monkey King and the peaches of immortality that confer 3,000 years of life whilst the practice of long-life deities such as Amitayus and White Tara have a long history in Tibetan Buddhism. In classical culture we hear tales of Greek ambrosia consumed by the gods that confer immortality and longevity.
As technology advances our search for the recipe for longevity continues with more sophistication, equally as we see lifespans improve with better outcomes of disease we see an increased fear of longer life spent with decline in quality of well being. Dementia and Alzheimers being one of the most significant fears alongside cancer for the decline in quality of life. Aging of populations globally is perhaps the most powerful driver of age-related disease and risk of disease.
Recent research has shown the benefits of tea as an neuro-protective agent in
pathogenesis of brain aging and neuro-degenerative diseases (Gumay, Bakri & Utomo 2018). Outcomes from a recent systematic review by Panza et al (2015) further suggest that most studies show that tea may have a protective role on neuro-degeneration.
Perhaps, though, more importantly is the social ritual and benefits of consuming not just the pharmaceutical value of tea in regard to longevity but the social, emotional and environmental value. There is evidence that maintaining social ritual and activities, such as that that surrounds tea culture, into later life can lead to quality of life for dementia sufferers (Milte et al 2017). As previously mentioned in an earlier post the involvement of dementia sufferers in the delivery and design of traditional tea ceremony in Japan has demonstrated an improvement in well being (Doi et al 2015).
The point therefore is that increasing studies continue to expose the benefits of tea medicine on physiological long-term health , however it is the application of tea medicine in its holistic sense through social ritual and context that is likely to confer the most benefits. I am reminded of the story of the Monkey King in which the immortality peach is not consumed in isolation but at a banquet with many guests, equally how it is written that the scent of the peach confers 360 years of life and 47,000 years upon eating. Hence it reminds us that perhaps longevity isn’t just embedded in consuming an object but is within its consumption within a social framework that enjoins multiple sense experiences.