The Japanese have a penchant for turning the seemingly ordinary into the sacred. The tea culture, more appropriately called The Way of Tea, is one of Japan’s richest traditional practices. Called Chado, it finds sublime expression in the deceptively simple act of brewing and serving tea. The appellation, Way, is neither accidental nor random in its evolution, as it extols the ritual as a centuries- old, and life-long exercise in self-discipline and studious discipleship, both of which are indispensable for mastering this finest of the Oriental arts. Indeed, the fact that entire family lineages of training and knowledge exist exclusively for the ritual is sheer and eloquent testimony to the reverence and awe with which it is held in Japan.
The tea ceremony itself is called chanoyu, and it literally translates to “hot water for tea.” From sixteenth century Japanese folklore comes a story surveyforcustomers that beautifully illustrates the quaint essence of chanoyu as a revered and learned art. Sen Rikyu was a great tea master. History, in fact, accords him eminence as the master of all tea masters, much in the same way some people are regarded as captains of fraternity captains! This amusing conversation once took place between the master and one of his students.
Tea student: “Master, what is the secret of tea?”
Rikyu: “Suggest coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter. Set the charcoal so that water will boil. Flowers should be arranged as if they were still in their natural habitat, the field.”
Tea student: “Anyone can do that,” he scoffed.
Rikyu: “If that is so, then I will become your student and you will be my teacher!”
All aspects of chanoyu are really quite compelling in their simplicity and depth:
• The meticulous cleaning and impeccable decoration of the room.
• The various stages of psychological and spiritual preparation.
• The choice of utensils.
• The actual serving of the tea.
The Way of Tea is, ultimately, for its practitioners, a way of life that encompasses a total philosophy of being and doing that is infused with the tools for genuine spiritual awareness. Additionally, it focuses on doing as the predominant means of expression in which two things are achieved:-
• The activity seeks to highlight the ultimate beauty in all things, animate and inanimate.
• The activity represents a vibrant form of spiritual discipline.
All these, and more, were revealed to me at my first attendance at a tea ceremony sometime in the early 1980s as a student at Oxford, in the English West Midlands. I had struck an uncommonly close friendship with a Japanese youth of roughly my age, named Tokushi Hirohito. His parents were in Britain on their annual summer vacation, and he had invited me to visit with them at their well-appointed town mansion in London’s smart West End. The elder Hirohito, a wealthy industrialist in his early sixties, had decided to infuse an oriental flavor into his weekend entertainment of a party of twelve house guests by hosting a chanoyu in the ballroom of his Park Lane home. The mood and ambience in the ballroom was serene and cool, as six kimono-clad attendants and a few well-stationed oriental objects d’art- an intricately sculpted Budhha and jade vases of impeccably arranged flowers- all made heroic attempts to bring Japan home to us in London’s West End.
After the customary courteous bows, we were all asked to seat down on floor mats. An elderly Japanese man, clad in a crimson kimono, emerged from behind a parchment partition emblazoned with long-limbed storks, pelicans and tall grass. He greeted us with a deep bow and proceeded to conduct the ceremony. As I was later informed, what followed was actually a shortened and less formal version of the real chanoyu, many improvisations having been made to compensate for the inadequacies that were inevitable in a setting that was alien to the ceremony. Be that as it may, I was sufficiently inspired to learn more about this five hundred year old- practice.
Monks returning from their studies at China’s Zen monasteries in the twelfth century had brought back with them matcha, the powdered green tea. While initially, it was used primarily for medicinal purposes, its stimulant properties, however, soon appealed to monks who used it to stay awake during Zen study and meditations. By the fourteenth century, Japan’s Shoguns, the Japanese equivalent of the British Dukes, Barons and Earls, had turned tea into a party beverage of sorts, especially at tea-tasting contests hosted by these ruling members of the aristocracy.
At the turn of the fifteenth century, the Zen priest, Murata Shuko, decided to infuse more spirituality into chanoyu, and introduced much more serenity, refinement and thoughtfulness into the practice, in the process replacing the great tea halls of the day with smaller, intimate rooms, and the ostentatious, gaudy serving utensils with simpler ones. It is said that Shuko valued human relationships and emotions much more than sensuous objects.
If Shuko’s style was minimalist, Takeno Jo-o, another tea master, was to refine it with even more rustiness when he introduced his own concept, wabi, the art of imperfection. Wabi, by his definition, was crude, low-grade Japanese ceramics, whose plain, unpolished beauty found expression in irregular and unfinished, and or, poorly finished qualities of an object. In pursuing his concept, he would pair a rough, dull brown Bizen water jug with a beautiful, pristine Chinese tea bowl, and would set freshly gathered flowers in a cracked and misshapen Shigaraki vase.
The concept of wabi appeared to be all about elevating the ordinary to the pedestal of the noble, and then discovering beauty in the common-place, and in the pursuit of this ideal, these tea masters were apparently more interested in the contents of the local farmer’s kitchen than the rare Chinese bowls and water kettles in the kitchens of the aristocratic class.
Sen Rikyu was Takena Jo-o’s student, and while he made his master’s wabi the centerpiece of chanoyu, contributing greatly to the aesthetics of the tea ceremony, it is in his legendary articulation of the principles behind The Way of Tea that he finds pre-eminence.
He authoritatively stated that the true spirit of chado encompasses four characteristics:-
• harmony (wa)
• respect (kei)
• purity (sei)
• tranquility (jaku)
These four qualities, which represent not just the practical nature of tea but its highest ideals, must be all present for a tea ceremony to be considered truly successful. Perhaps more significantly, they are also supposed to guide the daily thoughts and activities of students of chado. Someone once declared: “The Way of Tea cannot really be taught. It is a state of mind, a living tradition, and the tea ceremony is merely the most visible expression of that path.”
Let us briefly examine each of these qualities in some detail.
Harmony implies a fluidity and seamless balance of activity and purposeful energy: between tea master and his guests; and between him and his utensils.
Respect, in a tea ceremony, lays the ground rules for etiquette and structure, which consists of: what to wear, how to enter the tea room, how to bow, where to seat, how to hold the cup and how to sip the tea.
Purity refers to the cleanliness and meticulous order that the tea master deploys to the preparation of the tea room, his utensils, the serving of the tea, storage of the utensils and exit from the tea room.
Tranquility is a necessary fall-out of practicing the first three principles with diligence and can be likened to a state of mind in which one is “in the world but not of the world.” It would seem that what the practitioners of chado seek to achieve is a deepening of mutual tranquility when people join themselves and their host in contemplation over a bowl of tea.
The lessons contained in chanoyu seek a spiritual relevance that goes well beyond the ceremony itself. Take the principle of harmony, for instance. It is correctly said: “as without, so within.” For harmony to be achieved between people, harmony must be present in the hearts and minds of individuals. How true this is!
Shoshitsu Sen XV, Grand Master of the Urasenke School of Tea said: “The principle of harmony means to be free of pretensions, walking the path of moderation, becoming neither heated or cold, and never forgetting the attitude of humility.”
The respect of chanoyu allows us to look deeply into the hearts of others, and implies acceptance in the most profound sense. When we truly accept others, regardless of their status, or whatever it is they present to us in the present moment, we can only see and honor them as fellow humans, and in the process, we honor ourselves.
The third principle of chanoyu, purity, connotes a clearing process which leaves a spiritual space that we internalize to allow us to recognize the divine essence of our fellow being, and thereby engage the rest of the world from a position of wisdom and compassion.
An abiding commitment to the practice of the first three principles will confer validity on these principles:
DIRECTING OUR MIND TO PROVIDING FOR OTHERS LEAVES NO ROOM FOR GREED OR VANITY.
A TOTAL AND SINCERE CONSIDERATION FOR OTHER PEOPLE, AS DISPLAYED IN THE WAY OF TEA, IS AN EXPRESSION OF TRUE HUMAN COMPASSION.
THE FOCUS AND DISCIPLINE INHERENT IN THE WAY OF TEA IS THE SAME FOCUS AND DISCIPLINE THAT WE SHOULD BRING TO BEAR ON OUR ACTIVITIES, FOR IF OUR MIND IS NOT PROPERLY DIRECTED TO THE TASK AT HAND, IT WILL WANDER TO OTHER THINGS, RENDERING OUR EXECUTION INEFFECTIVE.
HOW CAN YOU DRIVE SAFELY IN HEAVY TRAFFIC IF YOU ARE LOST IN THOUGHT?
ALL WE DO OUGHT TO BE WITH SINGLE-MINDED EFFORT.
INDEED, JUST LIKE BREWING AND SERVING TEA, CULTIVATING GOOD RELATIONSHIPS TAKES TIME AND FOCUSED ATTENTION.
May I recommend ten ways by which we can show focused love for people, and which are guaranteed to bring out the best flavor from them?
• Always have a cheerful word of greeting for others.
• Smile at people.
• Remain friendly, helpful and solicitous.
• Address people by their name. The sweetest music to the ear is the sound of one’s own name.
• Maintain cordiality. Speak and act as if all you do is pleasurable.
• Be generous with praise, and economical with criticism.
• Be considerate of the feelings and sensibilities of others. They will appreciate it.
• Be considerate and thoughtful of the opinions of others.
• Be genuinely interested in people. They will reciprocate the interest.
• Finally, let service to others be your constant watchword. What counts most in life is what we do for others. We are blessed to the extent that we are a blessing to others. Consider the day lost in which you have not done something kind for another person.