Category Archives: Ritual

ON RITUAL: A Sip of Tea

The Japanese Tea Ceremony
In an earlier post I wrote about how rituals could easily lose their juice on the one hand, or be gateways to an incarnate beauty on the other. I spoke of the Catholic Mass and its climax in the Consecration. Today, I would like to reflect upon the Japanese Tea Ceremony since I think that the analogy between the Tea Ceremony and the Catholic Mass is particularly apt. Truth to tell, most Americans and many Japanese find the tea ceremony a crashing bore. One finds oneself kneeling uncomfortably while watching an unsmiling and perhaps nervous young woman whisk tea into a bilious froth. Being asked to eat an over-the-top sweet while feeling large and clumsy in one’s ignorance of the proper ritual can be a nerve-racking experience. “What’s all the fuss about?” is a perfectly good question.

Imagine how partial and mechanical it would be to isolate the five minutes of the consecration from its context within the Catholic Mass. Even more profoundly, it would be a jarring dislocation to view the consecration outside of the encompassing rich spirituality of its tradition and of the masters of that tradition. The same is true of the Tea Ceremony. What most of us witness is a small slice cut from the rich texture of the complete ceremony and its ancient tradition.

Before outlining a few of the values inherent in the Tea Ceremony, I’d like to share a couple of my experiences in Kyoto, where I lived for many years. I was once invited to participate in a formal Tea Ceremony at one of the venerable villas in the Higashiyama district, close to the Silver Pavilion. There were 7 guests, six of whom were Tea Masters from various parts of Japan. I was clearly the odd man out. The ceremony itself was offered by two famous Masters from the Urasenke School founded by Sen No Rikyu (about whom I will speak later). I had to memorize four pages of movements and formulas so as not to embarrass my host. The Ceremony lasted for four hours!

The guests first gathered in the garden while we had a chance to get to know each other. We then had formal tea (thick tea) in the main tea room, while the Masters explained the origin and history of the cup from which we drank. This was one of the most important elements of the ceremony. The cup was crafted by a famous potter over four hundred years ago, and had graced many famous tea ceremonies. The feeling of an amazing history living today in this very cup was inexpressible. We next adjourned to a porch overlooking a beautiful Zen garden framed by the borrowed landscape of the Eastern Hills. Here we were served an elaborately simple kaiseki meal of exquisite quality. Finally, we moved to a more simple tea room for an informal tea gathering (thin tea), and shared the recognition that we had been blessed with a rare experience.

On another occasion, my elder son and I spent an afternoon visiting the Daitoku-ji Zen temple on the North side of Kyoto. This was the temple at which Sen no Rikyu lived for most of his life. We wandered into a sub-temple and found the Zen Master giving a lecture laced with great humor to a group of high school students. Luckily my son’s Japanese is much better than mine, so he was able to tell me what was going on. After the students had left, we struck up a conversation with the Sensei, and told him that we were both practitioners of meditation. He got very excited, and brought us into the meditation hall of the monastery where we spent a fascinating hour learning rather esoteric breathing techniques. The man’s enthusiasm was contagious. As we were leaving, he asked us to stop by in the morning for more conversation and some tea. We of course agreed. The next morning he brought us into his study, and we sat on the tatami floor while he chatted away. He picked up a brush and wrote in flowering calligraphy “Cool stream flows over green moss.” He handed it to me with a wink, and said in English, “Japanese air conditioning.” He then continued chatting and joking as he prepared a cup of tea, and he was well into the preparation before I realized that he was perfectly performing the formal motions of the tea ceremony. I have never seen anything like it. D.T. Suzuki says in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, “Tea is Tea only when Tea is No-tea.” Even more than at the formal ceremony described above, I learned that morning what all the fuss was about.

Like the rituals found in every culture, the tea ceremony is a dance of prescribed grace. Each gesture is practiced over and over so that its precision has the flow of nature. Second, the tea ceremony is a form of worship, not of transcendental gods but of the sheer wonder of existence in the here and now. In his Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo puts it this way: “Tea…is a religion of the art of life. It is a 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 (1956, 9. 33). It was a time set apart when like minded souls would “meet to drink from the common spring of art appreciation.” Finally, chanoyu, the tea ceremony itself, can be understood and appreciated only within the broader context of Chado, the Way of Tea, and this more broadly still within the context of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Chazen ichimi: Tea and Zen are One
The Japanese monk Eisai visited China in the late twelfth century of the common era. He returned home in 1191 with two imports of profound significance for Japanese culture: Zen Buddhism and the green tea that Chinese monks drank as an aid to meditation. (Even today, the green tea drunk in Japan carries a terrific wallop of caffeine.) Over the years, the drinking of tea ranged from monastic ritual to opulent tea-tasting competitions in great villas. It was, however, the great Tea Master Sen No Rikyu (1521-1591) who established the art of Tea as a celebration and an embodiment of the Taoist and Buddhist values that lie at the heart of Zen. Under Rikyu’s guidance, wabi-sabi, the feeling of rustic and elegant simplicity, became the soul of tea. And from this ground of wabi-sabi, Sen No Rikyu taught, spring the great flowers of the Tea Ceremony: Harmony, or gentleness of spirit (wa), Reverence (kei), Purity (sei), and Tranquility (jaku). These characteristics are the essence of Chado, and they are the essence of Zen.

Zen and the Tao
Zen is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese Ch’an, which in turn is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit Dhyana, or meditation. When Buddhism made its way into China from India, it took root in the fertile soil of Taoism. In many of his books, Alan Watts says that Zen is as much–or more–Taoism than Buddhism, and there is some truth in this assertion. I hesitate to write about the Tao, since Lao Tzu, the most famous voice of Taoism, states at the beginning of his book that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”   The minute one begins to talk about the Tao, the Tao is lost.  There is a central insight of Taoism, however, that relates directly to our discussion of ritual. This is the notion of “wu-wei,” not-doing, or non-action. In verse 43 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says:

The softest thing in the universe (water)
overcomes the hardest thing in the universe (rock).
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words, and work without doing
are understood by very few.

A Sip of Tea
Dhyana-Ch’an-Zen Buddhism is redolent with the spirit of wu-wei.  It is this spirit that flows through, and is embodied by, the great Zen arts, each of which is manifested within a particular ritual. To become a student of these arts–tea, poetry, ikebana (living flowers), or sumi-e painting–is to devote oneself to a path that leads to an awakened mind, a peaceful spirit, and a compassionate heart. At their best, they embody the Taoist ideal of Wu Wei, as did the Sensei at Daitoku-ji. In the act of painting, or poetry, or the pouring of tea, the ego falls away, and the one pouring is the pouring. In that instant, time and eternity, the subject and the object, the pourer and the pouring, merge into non-dualistic unity.

Thus, the very same ritual can be a shoddy, empty waste of time, or the sacred embodiment of egoless love. It depends upon the intention, attention, and the attainment of the practitioner. Simply going through the motions because they are the “right” thing to do is dehumanizing. But to bring loving dedication to one’s practice is to approach the tranquil realms of the Tao. Okakura Kakuzo captures this with eloquent simplicity: “…Let us have a sip of tea. 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.”

Sacred Arrow Haiku

byudo center Kyoto City Budo Center

Whenever I went into central Kyoto, the martial arts center was one of my favorite stops, especially the range for Kyudo–the Art of Archery.

Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen and the Art of Archery was my very first introduction to Zen Buddhism, and I can still feel the excitement I felt as I read the book in the Spring of 1968.  I don’t think it is accurate to call the Zen arts in general, and the Art of Archery in particular, “religious.” The use of the word “religious” is problematic when applied to Japanese culture.  For most Westerners, the word carries the connotation of rigid dogma, exclusivity, and strict moralism.  None of these characteristics applies consistently to Buddhism or Shinto, which from the Nara period (8th century CE) have been marked with a syncretism only occasionally marred by feuds or Nationalistic cooptation. During the six years I taught in a Japanese University, I had a fascinating time explaining why Westerners took Religion so seriously.

Still, as with all things Zen, there is a marvelous ritual and spirituality in the Art of Archery. Practitioners wear special dress and approach the line with reverential short steps. They first kneel sideways to the targets, and, as in the tea ceremony, every movement is prescribed, from the stringing of the bow, to taking aim, to releasing the arrow:

kyudo kneeling

Here is another picture from the Kyoto Center:

girls kyudo

On every visit, I was transported by the grace and beauty of the Art.  It was truly a marvelous dance.  I was also amazed at the distance to the small target:


One day as I was enjoying the artistry of the archers, I noticed a man who seemed about my age (at the time, 72), moving with exceptional grace and apparent lack of control, who hit on or near the bullseye every time.  It was a privilege to watch him, and I felt his centered concentration seep into my own mind and heart.  When he finished, I approached him to offer my gratitude and appreciation.  He was most gracious in return–but then he said “Nansai desuka? (how old are you?)” Nanajunisai desu (72) I answered.”  He smiled.  “Kodomo (a child!)” he said. Pointing to his nose, he said “Kyujunisai desu (I am 92).”   I was swept away by the wonder of artistic mastery and the relativity of age:

grace smoothly flowing

his back straight as an arrow

old man disappears

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

Personal Rituals: Lectio Divina

There are certainly serendipitous turnings on the road to Wisdom. The phone rings, a stranger is kind, you are really seen by someone at a party, or exactly the right book falls off a shelf into your hands. These are moments of grace, telling us we are not alone. The road to wisdom, however, also calls for intentional practices, called Sadhana in Eastern traditions. These are practices that are aimed at becoming more self-aware and less self-conscious, and at deepening the beliefs that create a more ample and generous world in which to live. In subsequent essays, I will be writing about practices from various traditions, but for today I would like to share one of the rituals that enriches the lives of Carolyn and me. I realize that the rituals we weave into the fabric of our lives are ultimately highly personal, but it is also helpful, I think, to glean ideas from glimpses into each other’s lives.
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Sentō (銭湯): A Japanese Public Bath

The cicadas of July were singing wildly as I made my way through the streets of Kyoto. It was 1987, and this was my first trip to Japan. I had been lucky enough to receive a grant to study Japanese language and culture for a year in an American college, and then to spend a full month in any part of Japan I chose. Since my interests centered on Japanese religions, I of course headed straight for Kyoto. Reading Chinese characters, or kanji, was far beyond me, although I did have a tenuous grasp of the Japanese syllabary. Reading the street signs, however, was out of the question, and I had a feeling, both terrifying and liberating, of being an illiterate three year old.

I had arranged to stay at a temple lodging, a shukubo called Myoren-ji, in the Nishijin area on the northwestern side of town. After wandering the neighborhood for an hour or so, I luckily discovered a narrow wooden temple gate opening onto a long stone path that I followed to the door of the lodging. On my calling hello, the door was opened by a smiling woman of about 60. Her name was Iida-san, and during this and subsequent stays at her temple, we became good friends.

She poured me a cup of tea, and in very good English explained that I would be sleeping on a futon in a lovely tatami room opening onto an inner garden. She continued that I could assist the priests with chanting in the morning at 6:30, and she would serve breakfast at 8. So far so good, but then the idyll ended, and my neophyte’s heart skipped a beat. There were no bathing facilities at the temple, she said, but she would give me a bathing bucket, soap, a towel, and a ticket each day for the sento just around the corner. I was going to become much more intimate with the Japanese people than I had anticipated.

That evening at around 6 o’clock, I found the sento. I pushed through the noren curtain at the entrance, having no idea what I would find on the other side. I immediately found myself facing a high desk manned (and I use that word advisedly) by a Japanese woman in her 80’s. She immediately sensed my discomfort, imperiously snatched the ticket out of my hand, and disdainfully tossed her head in the direction of a door to her right. The pink door on her left was clearly not for me, so I figured I would at least be spared a bi-sexual bath.

I passed through the blue door, and found myself in a small locker room. This wasn’t too different from my high school, so I quickly and completely disrobed, locked my locker, and hanging the key on my wrist, opened the door at the other end of room.


Now I was in another world. Along one wall there was a series of spigots perhaps a foot off the floor. Along the other side of the room were three steaming tubs that I will describe in a minute. Four naked men were each sitting in front of a spigot on a tiny plastic stool on which one was expected to sit while washing. My first fear was that I would never make it down to the stool, and look foolish suspended in mid-air. I did make it, however, and then tried surreptitiously to watch the other men in order to learn the protocol. You filled your bucket with water and poured it over yourself, and soaped vigorously from head to foot. It then required many buckets full of water to rinse. I can’t tell you how awkward I felt, sitting cheek to jowl with a bunch of strangers, trying to bathe in a tiny bucket.


At least I had remembered that one washed thoroughly before getting into a tub. But now it was tub time. There were three tubs from which to choose. The first was filled with a bilious looking green concoction. The second was filled with clear water, but one finger told me it was beyond hot. As I stuck my hand into the third tub, I was literally shocked by a pulsing current of electricity coursing through the water. My only option was green, and it was actually quite relaxing. After a ten minute soak, I met the final challenge of the night: drying myself with a tiny wet towel. Believe it or not, it worked, and I headed out into the Kyoto night with a feeling of accomplishment.

The second night went off without a hitch, and on the third night I confidently strode into the sento like a seasoned Japan hand. The old woman even greeted me with what seemed like a friendly nod, and chatted away. Her lack of teeth, however, did not help my fledgling understanding of Japanese. At any rate, i was walking tall as I entered the locker room and began to undress. Suddenly my fingers froze on the third button of my shirt. The outer door of the room burst open, and the ancient ticket-taker walked in trailing three of her cronies. They were carrying folding chairs that they set up right behind me, and settled in for their evening’s entertainment. I didn’t have the nerve to bolt into the night, so the only thing for it was to continue disrobing with as much aplomb as I could muster. Every piece of clothing that disappeared into my locker was greeted by hoots, waves of laughter, and a running commentary in Japanese whose meaning was both unintelligible and unmistakable. I finally turned to them and offered the full monty with a deep formal bow. They applauded my performance like school girls, and their raucous laughter pursued me as I escaped into the tub room with a red face and a white bottom.

I soaked for as long as I could, and was relieved to find that they were nowhere to be seen as I dressed in the locker room. On returning to the temple, I recounted the story to Iida-san, and she began to laugh as hard as the sento ladies had. “Oh John-san,” she said. “They are not used to seeing western men naked, and they were enjoying your hairy body.” A week later, I told the story to my American friend, Birger. He, too, laughed, and then asked “Did you understand anything at all?” “Well,” I said, “I did pick up the word ‘saru,’ which means monkey.” “Well, old buddy,” he said, “at least they got something right.”

ON RITUAL #1: A Young Monk’s Awakening

The word “Ritual” might well cause a visceral reaction among those of us who were brought up in the Pre-Vatican II Catholic Church. In fact, the words “empty” and “ritual” are often used in combination. Much of our childhood was spent attending Latin Masses performed by bored and boring priests. I tried to pay attention and to follow the goings-on in the prayer books, but the sacerdotal mumbling combined with the hawk eyes of the Nuns (always ready to snap their little frog clickers) created a maelstrom of feelings: boredom, anxiety, curiosity, and confusion, coupled with a sense of rightness and of “being good.” In due time, I became an altar boy, learning the Latin phrases, wearing cool outfits, and being close to the priest. Even then, it seemed the point was to say the Mass as fast as one could. I could rattle off the “Confiteor” in under 30 seconds and feel the approval of the priest waiting for me to get done with the seemingly meaningless words. The “best” priests could say the entire Mass in 20 minutes.

There was a deep comfort, however, in performing these formulaic words and movements. Being part of an ancient and transcendental tradition enabled me to feel very much in synch with the Divine Reality. At the time, I thought of this reality as the traditional “God,” and the only road I knew that could lead me closer to this God was the Path to Rome. So at age 19 I joined the Dominican Order, and for the next five years I lived the life of a Medieval Monk.

Monasticism brought ritual to an entirely different level. Our classroom lectures, textbooks and exams were all in Latin, so it became like a second language. This allowed meaningful words to fill the three to four hours a day we spent in choir singing a High Mass and the Divine Office. The Gregorian Chant was sublime. At the beginning of my Novitiate, I was invested with the Dominican habit. During this ceremony, the choir sang the “Veni Creator Spiritus,” and to this day that soaring melody brings a sense of comfort and peace.

The high point of these years, ritually and spiritually, was acting as a server for the morning Mass of my novice master, Fr. Ferrer Cassidy. He had spent many years during the 1920’s and 30’s as a missionary in rural China, and it seemed to me that the experience had altered him profoundly. When we celebrated Mass together, we were alone at 5 AM in a tiny, isolated chapel lighted only by sputtering candles. I was always transported by the deep spiritual charge in that room as he immersed himself in the ritual. Each gesture, each position of the body, eyes, hands, arms, and fingers was prescribed. The consecration of the host, the centerpiece of the entire ritual, was especially moving. Every word, “Hoc est enim corpus meum…,” came from the very soles of his feet and the depths of his soul. His absolute presence gave me chills, finally teaching me the value and the meaning of ritual as an art form. For, at its best, ritual is indeed a dance that embodies cherished values, grounds soaring ideals, and incarnates the grace of Beauty.

Just as in my essay on Shoddy Virtues, I hope it has become clear that the very same ritual can be a shoddy, empty waste of time, or the sacred embodiment of egoless love. It depends upon the intention, the attention, and the attainment of the practitioner. Simply going through the motions because they are the correct thing to do is dehumanizing. But to bring loving dedication to one’s practice is to enter the tranquil realms of the Tao. Tomorrow I will reflect on these ideas in relation to the Japanese Tea Ceremony.