The Culture of Tea

There are certain aspects of Japanese culture that seem uniquely Japanese, especially if they evoke a more Zen-like approach to the subject. Some of these activities make sense to us in the West, even if we can’t immediately identify the difference between the Japanese approach versus the Western approach. For example, ikebana (flower arranging) at least has a counterpart in Western culture, in that florists are trained to arrange flowers according to a certain aesthetic. But other Japanese activities are a bit more obscure and have no clear Western counterpart.

There are certain aspects of Japanese culture that seem uniquely Japanese, especially if they evoke a more Zen-like approach to the subject. Some of these activities make sense to us in the West, even if we can’t immediately identify the difference between the Japanese approach versus the Western approach. For example, ikebana (flower arranging) at least has a counterpart in Western culture, in that florists are trained to arrange flowers according to a certain aesthetic. But other Japanese activities are a bit more obscure and have no clear Western counterpart.

The Japanese tea ceremony is one of these activities. The spirit and aesthetic of the tea ceremony permeates much of Japanese culture, even though the ceremony itself consists of little more than the preparation and serving of tea to guests. But, as with other traditional Japanese activities, there is a great deal more to the tea ceremony (chado).

Chado includes the preparation and serving of powdered green tea to guests, and it may also include a full meal. While the serving of green tea probably came from China around the 12th century, it began as a primarily aristocratic pastime, with parties where guests would try to guess the type of tea by its taste. The service of green tea also began to appear in monasteries, where it helped monks stay awake during long hours of meditation. As time passed, the service of tea began to be influence by Zen Buddhism, which had a simpler and starker aesthetic.

In the 15th century, Zen master Marata Juko created an entirely new tea ceremony, intended to be performed for aristocrats in a small 4-1/2 tatami mat room. But it was Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) who developed the tea ceremony that is recognized today, with its simple movements and basic implements and decorations. His style of tea ceremony became known as wabi-cha, and the two largest schools of tea ceremony in Japan today, Urasenke and Omotesenke, were founded by Rikyu’s great-grandsons and follow the wabi-cha style.

The essence of the tea ceremony lies in the Japanese word “wabi,” which means “desolation.” In Zen philosophy, wabi is a positive thing, and as embodied by poverty is a great treasure, because it forces us to focus inside ourselves rather than on material goods to which we can become attached. In a Rikyu-style tearoom, the only decoration is a single vase with flowers, or a hanging scroll. In wabi-cha, the utensils are all very simple, and the aesthetic is kept very simple.

The actual conduct of the tea ceremony is one of high attention to detail, to be carried out simply and naturally. The person serving the tea ensures that the guests are take care of, by making sure that all details have been carefully anticipated and practiced. There is no aspect of the ceremony that is left to chance. The charcoal fire that heats the water for the tea must be prepared in a specific manner, the individual tea bowels that the guests drink from are cleaned and prepared in a certain way, the tea powder is added in a certain way, the water is added a certain way, and the tea is mixed a certain way. The guests enjoy the simple beauty of the preparations, and participate themselves by drinking the tea according to prescribed ritual.

While the host is obviously very focused on the task of serving tea, the guests are also engaged in appreciation of the simple beauties found in their surroundings. The spare decorations, quiet conversation, and focused actions of the ceremony itself lend an atmosphere that makes self-awareness and contemplation much easier in this environment. And therein lies the Zen aspect of being both the host and the guest in the tea ceremony.

The focus required for the host is legendary. There is a famous story of a tea master who was challenged to a duel by a samurai. Unable to refuse, the tea master went to a master swordsman, who suggested that he approach the duel as if he were about to perform the tea ceremony. Resigned, the tea master did as the master swordsman suggested. To his shock, the opposing samurai withdrew his demand for the duel and apologized for having caused offense. This story has long served to illustrate that there are many ways to understand Zen, and that martial arts is just one path. In Japan, the tea ceremony is another.

 

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 10/21/05. Author retains all copyrights.)

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