THE JAPANESE TEA CEREMONY
The traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony combines elements of Zen Buddhism into a social context. A bowl of tea is prepared by a host for a guest and shared in the spirit of peacefulness and harmony.
A discipline nourished and refined by the Japanese since the fifteenth century, The Japanese Tea Ceremony is based on the simple act of heating water, making tea, and offering it to others. Served respectfully with a pure and open heart and received with gratitude, a bowl of tea satisfies both a physical and spiritual thirst.
When people are invited to a tea gathering, something like being invited to a friend’s house for dinner, they can anticipate sitting on the floor of a small room somewhat secluded from the everyday world. The room will be immaculate; a calligraphic scroll (a thought-provoking phrase, perhaps written by a Buddhist priest) will have been hung on one of the walls; flowers, fresh from the fields or garden, will have been arranged in a vase or basket. Water, which will be used to make the tea, will be heating in an iron kettle, and at a formal gathering, a light meal will be offered to the guests before they receive the tea.
All this is done with the intention of making the gathering as pleasant as possible for each guest. Sitting quietly together, one’s focus gently and naturally comes into the present moment where the uniqueness of each succeeding moment may be appreciated in its fullness.
Harmony (Wa), Respect (Kei), Purity (Sei), and Tranquility (Jaku) are principles fundamental to Zen Buddhism. Practitioners of tea work to integrate these concepts into their studies and their daily lives as well.
Several schools of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, each with its own discipline, exist today. Among them, the Urasenke School, under the leadership of Sen Soshitsu XVI (the sixteenth generation descendent of Sen Rikyu), is one of the most popular.
Tea, at first, was drunk as both a medicine and a beverage. Its legendary healing properties, combined with its providing an energetic boost, have made tea the most popular beverage in the world, second only to water.
Originally, tea came from the mountains of Southeast Asia and became widely enjoyed in China between the seventh and tenth centuries. There, shavings from a brick of pressed, fermented and roasted tea leaves were mixed with flavorings such as ginger or salt and hot water and drunk. Although tea was introduced into Japan during this same time, it was a very expensive item. Because of this, its use was confined to Buddhist monasteries and the upper levels of the aristocracy.
Sometime in the twelfth century, the Chinese discovered that it wasn’t necessary to ferment and roast leaves in order to make tea. They found that green tea leaves could be steamed soon after picking, dried, aged for about six months, and then ground into a fine powder. The powder could then be whisked together with hot water to make an equally good beverage, but it was green instead of black.
This powdered green tea, called ‘matcha’ in Japanese, was brought to Japan from China in the thirteenth century, and although it was still expensive, its use soon became a part of everyday life in Buddhist monasteries and over time was widely enjoyed by court nobles and the samurai warrior class.
Sen Rikyu and The Japanese Tea Ceremony
In the sixteenth century, the great tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) developed a style of tea preparation reflective of a simple and quiet taste. Called ‘wabicha,’ it’s the style of tea that is practiced and taught in Japan and throughout the world today.
Rikyu began his studies of Zen Buddhism and Tea at an early age. For him, these two disciplines went hand in hand, and he strove to incorporate Buddhist teachings into the Tea Ceremony and thereby eliminate artificial discriminations imposed by the outside world. He believed man and nature to be equals; one did not control the other. He saw no difference between nobleman and commoner; both were human beings. He relegated the terms ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ to mere value judgments and focused on the pure, unadulterated, essential nature of objects.
Rikyu designed tea houses and surrounding gardens to heighten a visitor’s awareness of nature, thereby creating the sense or illusion of traveling into the world of nature without ever actually leaving the city. Entrances to his teahouses were so small that all guests, regardless of their social rank, had to enter by the humble act of crawling. Samurai warriors were even obliged to remove their swords, which ordinarily never left their sides, before entering.
Rikyu favored the simple, everyday, handcrafted wares of the Japanese people and used them with, and even in place of, valuable Chinese or Korean antiques. In the practice of tea, this preference for Japanese utensils has continued into the twenty-first century.
A story may help to illustrate Rikyu’s focus on the simple and essential in the way of tea. A disciple once asked him a question: “What precisely are the most important things that must be understood and kept foremost in the mind at a tea gathering?” Rikyu answered, “Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness and in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.”
The disciple, rather dissatisfied with Rikyu’s answer because he couldn’t find anything in it of such great importance that it should be deemed a secret of the practice, said, “That much I already know.”
Rikyu replied, “If you can host a tea gathering without deviating from any of the rules I have just stated, I will become your disciple.”
Tea as an Experience for the Senses
There is a very important reason for experiencing the Japanese Tea Ceremony somewhat isolated from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There is a very important reason for walking a long and meandering pathway to the place where tea will be served. That reason is directly related to the way in which we human beings learn through the use of our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. In the quiet tearoom, where there is nothing to distract the mind from its concentration on the present moment, we can truly engage all our senses in the acts of making and drinking a bowl of tea.
Allow the eyes to see, really see! Look at the colors in the room and notice how light and shadows affect them. Look at the shapes of objects, and notice how they all combine to create a whole picture. Allow your ears to hear, really hear! Listen to the sounds made by the water heating in the kettle and being poured into the tea bowl. Is there a difference between the sounds made by hot and cold water? Listen to the sound of the tea whisk as it whips the tea into a froth covered suspension. Allow your nose to smell, really smell! Enjoy the perfume of the fine incense used in building the fire. Inhale the clean fragrance of the green tea. Allow your fingers to touch, really touch! Feel the texture of the tea bowl. Is it smooth or rough? And finally, really taste the tea. If it’s an unfamiliar taste, compare it to something familiar. If you experience more than one taste, try to identify them all and how and when they occur.
If we give our senses a chance, they will teach us much about the world in which we live. Remember: nothing our senses reveal to us is inherently good or bad. It just ‘is’! And it is this non-judgmental mind that we attempt to bring into the tearoom with us and to sustain while we are there.