D30: Tea Ceremony

“The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle.  Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

~The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura, 1906

Today we had the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony – two tea ceremonies, actually. First, we participated in a very formal ceremony in a tea house, and “enjoyed thick tea,” and then we not only participated in a less formal ceremony with thin tea, but had the chance to prepare the tea ourselves at the end.

Much academic work has been devoted to the Tea Ceremony, and Kakuzo Okakura’s 1906 essay, quoted above and elsewhere in this post, is so elegant and eloquent (not to mention hilarious and spot-on in its criticism of Western arrogance. Plus, allegedly this book inspired Heidegger’s concept of dasein), that there seems to be nothing more I could possibly contribute to the discussion.

Nevertheless, I will provide a super-brief explanation for those of you unfamiliar with the Japanese Tea Ceremony – since, until I read the essay two days ago and participated in a ceremony today myself, I had no clue what to expect.  But if you find yourself interested, I urge you to read The Book of Tea – it is a short, quick read and so wonderfully written I just might end up assigning it in my Religion, Dialogue and Society class this coming spring quarter.

“Tea with us became more than an idealization of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life. The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane.”

In China and Japan, the art of drinking tea developed closely with Confucian and Taoist principles, but in Japan, the Tea Ceremony really takes shape through – and takes off with- the influence of Zen Buddhism.  One of the major contributions Zen brings to Teaism, as Okakura refers to it, is the notion that the mundane, the everyday, is just as important as the spiritual or sacred, and that in fact, it is through the mundane we can come to know the sacred/perfection/truth/enlightenment: “there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe.” Okakura further describes it as “this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.”

To that end, every single step of the Tea Ceremony is performed with careful attention and intention, and every action a part of the ritual process. This includes the construction of the tea room itself, designed to evoke the harmony and purity of the Tea Ceremony and to enhance the experience, as well as the surrounding tea gardens; the preparation and cleaning of the tea room; and even the careful presentation of the room, decorations (including flowers and any artwork) selected specifically for that particular tea ceremony, all done well before the ceremony begins.

Guests wait in the garden until called by the Tea Master to enter the house (usually signified by the smell of incense wafting out of the tea house).  Symbolically, the garden serves to begin separating the mundane everyday world from the world of Tea Ceremony one is about to enter.  In the middle of the garden where we were, was a long bamboo tube leading to a rock, in the middle of which was carved a bowl-like shape holding water. Our translator told us typically we would purify our hands and mouth there before entering (similar to the way one purifies oneself before entering Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples). This particular one was looking a little stagnant, so she said we’d just skip that part.

The entrance to the tea room is through a tiny square door, no more than three feet tall (and the one through which we entered seemed much smaller than three feet). Don explained that this is actually difficult (and he was right! You enter on your knees, but without bringing your feet in, remove your shoes while still halfway out the door, place them to the side against the tea room building, turn around and scoot yourself in on your knees) – but that it is intentionally difficult for everyone. No matter who you are – emperor, samurai, monk, lay person – this is a challenge, or as Okakura says, requires an act of humility for everyone. In the tea room, it does not matter who you are in the mundane world – you are all equals, brought together in harmony.

The Tea Ceremony itself involves a lot of very precise, specific ritual (and since I love me some ritual, you know I loved all of it! Even if I bungled quite a bit of the Japanese instructions). One acknowledges the flower arrangements in a specific way, you pick up, eat and pass the sweets (in the formal ceremony, a red bean paste-filled cake shaped like a maple leaf, symbolizing fall; in the less-formal ceremony, mochi-style rice sweets) in a very particular way; the Tea Master warms the tea bowl, prepares the tea, and passes the tea in a particular way; each guest receives, drinks, and cleans the lip of, and passes the tea bowl to the next guest in a particular way.  Even the conversation is proscribed – questions about the kind of tea, who made the tea, and the tea instruments are very specific. After drinking the tea, the bowl is passed to the guests to inspect, as is the tea container, and the guests inspect it in a very specific way, lifting the lid of the tea and placing it beside the tea container on the right side, turning bowls just so, elbows touching thighs as one observes the fine laquerware, and so on. There is definitely an art to participating in the Tea Ceremony (not to mention in becoming a Tea Master!), but thankfully today our Tea Master and the more experienced participants were very forgiving of any mistakes!

“For Teasism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humor itself – the smile of philosophy.”

In the first, very formal ceremony, we drank “thick tea” (koicha), a very thick (as you might guess from the name!) green tea almost the consistency of, well, sludge (I wish I could think of something beautiful to say here, or at least something less yucky, but the only other thing I’m coming up with is mud. Ah well, beauty and truth in the mundane, right?!). And the Tea Master told us she made it thinner than usual, since she knew we would not be accustomed to thick tea! It is made with the tea from an older tree; in the less formal ceremony, we drank “thin tea” (usucha), which is still much thicker and greener than any green tea I’ve ever had (except once in a tea shop in Meguro last week), but much less so than thick tea. The first sip of thin tea tasted like seaweed to me (which, from me, is not a good thing – I detest sea weed), but it definitely grew on me, and by the second or third sip, I liked it.

And both teas were an unbelievably beautiful shade of green, also unlike any tea I’ve ever seen: just bold, bright, and opaque grass green – “liquid jade,” as Okakura describes it.

OK, enough on and on, here are some pictures (The pictures are all from that informal session at the end; I did not take any photographs during the ceremonies as that would have been rude – and defeat one of the harmonious aims of being present in the moment! And we are in the less-formal tatami room, not in the tea house at all):

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“Why not consecrate ourselves to the queen of the Camelias, and revel in the warm stream of sympathy that flows from her altar? In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiate may touch the reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself.”


3 thoughts on “D30: Tea Ceremony

  1. I love the Book of Tea. Chris and I are HUGE tea-o-philes. If you’re ever in the Bay Area we MUST do a tour of our fave tea houses. You know, like a pub crawl, for tea. Every sentence dorkier than the last… 😉

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