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Tazo Zen™ Tea

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Tazo’s partnership with Starbucks means that a lot of people are familiar with their Zen™ tea, which combines green tea with lemongrass and spearmint. According to the packaging, the resulting flavor is “nearly impossible to express in words,” so people should “simply experience its sweet, lingering taste.” This idea of ineffability recalls the Zen maxim about not relying on language, and reflects the idea that Zen is about pure experience rather than words. Of course, this attitude can be found among Zen Buddhists, but that hasn’t stopped them from writing copious records.

We also learn from the packaging that the green tea in Zen comes from China (maybe it should be called Chan, the Chinese pronunciation of Zen). A text box on the side of the package states:

Did you know?

In the Kunlun Mountains of China, monks spend days meditating in hopes of reaching enlightenment. Periodically they stop for a cup of tea quite like this.

The Kunlun Mountains stretch along the far western part of China in primarily Tibetan areas, making it unlikely that those meditating monks belong to a Zen (Chan) lineage. However, it is certainly true that tea has been an important part of East Asian Buddhism since the 8th century. John Kieschnick’s book, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, includes the translation of this passage on the growing popularity of tea:

[Originally] southerners were fond of drinking tea, but at first few northerners drank it. During the Kaiyuan era [713-41] there was one Master Xiangmo of the Lingyan Monastery at Mount Tai who propagated the teachings of Chan with great success. When practicing meditation he emphasized the importance of staving off sleep. Also, he did not eat in the evening. For this reason, the Master allowed all [of his followers] to drink tea. Everyone then adopted [the habit], and tea was boiled everywhere. (p. 267)

In other words, monks like caffeine.

Tazo’s Zen™ tea packaging might reinforce some stereotypes about Zen being about pure experience beyond words, or mystical mountain monks, but the product isn’t too far from what Zen monks actually drank. Plus, Tazo notes that they’ve teamed up with Mercy Corps (another Portland, OR, institution!) to help tea-growing villages with water sanitation and economic development, so their claim to good karma might be legit, too.

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