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.”