Tea, and How Bodhidharma Stayed Awake

The founder of Zen Buddhism was a sage from southern India whose Sanskrit name was Bodhidharma, which means “teachings of the Buddha.” In China he is called Damo, and in Japan he is Daruma. The son of a Tamil king, Bodhidharma lived in the fifth or sixth century c.e. and became a Buddhist monk. He introduced his school of Buddhism during his travels in China, where it is known as Ch'an Buddhism. This version of Buddhism entered Japan during the Kamakura era (1185–1333); Zen is its Japanese name.

There are countless stories about Bodhidharma. One tells that the sage kept falling asleep while meditating. This so enraged him that he cut off his own eyelids to ensure that he would never sleep again. He threw his eyelids onto the ground and where they landed the first tea plants grew. An alternative legend holds that he carried tea plants with him when he walked from India to China. Buddhist practice centers on meditation, and Zen monks spend hours on end meditating. One monk spends each session observing the others and striking any who doze off with a stick. In some monasteries the monks also drink green tea at intervals to help keep them awake. The new teaching quickly became popular among the samurai (warrior) class, and the serving of tea led to the development of the tea ceremony.

After his death, some people reported seeing Bodhidharma walking in the direction of India carrying one shoe in his hand. When his grave was opened it was found to contain the shoe he had left behind.