A Moment of Ritual: The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Japanese Tea Ceremony, ink drawing by Mizuno Toshikata (1866 – 1908)

The Japanese tea ceremony gives full voice to the spirit of wabi sabi, the uniquely Japanese philosophy which seeks purity in the simple, humble and imperfect. Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591) , a Zen monk, is often credited as being the father of the tea ceremony. His eye for aesthetic balance and his love of the simple and unadorned helped changed the focus of the tea ceremony from one of ostentatious display of wealth to a communion of kindred spirit seeking beauty in natural imperfections.

Wabi sabi in the tea ceremony begins with the garden path that leads to the tearoom. Every element of the garden – the moss-laden stepping-stones, the sound of water flowing through rustic bamboo into water bowls, and the livid autumn colors of maple leaves – invite guests to abandon the petty world outside and embrace the unrivalled beauty of nature.

There is a story about how Sen no Rikyu asked his son to clean the area surrounding the tea house. This took most of the day, and afterward his son protested that the stepping stones had been scrubbed three times, the floor had been polished, and every twig and leave had been picked up. Rikyu then went over to a maple tree that was crimson with autumn leaves and shook it so that some of the beautiful leaves fell randomly to the earth. In doing so, he was teaching his son that wabi sabi is not about being sterile; it about letting the artistry of nature harmonize with the designs of man.

The design of the tearoom follows that of a Zen monastery, emphasizing simplicity and sobriety to reflect the principle that life evolves from nothing and dissolves to nothing. One will find a tatami mat, a low table, a hanging scroll, and a simple flower arrangement and not much more.

The tea room (chashitsu). The tea flowers (chabana) are seasonal flowers arranged in a simple vase by the host. They are not decorations but a subtle reminder that the tea ceremony is about bringing nature into the formal setting of the Chashitsu.

Once all the preparations are in place, the tea master will uses his or her consummate skills to properly welcome guests and serve them food and tea. The entire tea ceremony might take up to four hours. Every movement of the tea master is pure poetry, the result of many years of practice to bring tea drinking into the realm of art. The tea master’s graceful movements will have a meditative effect on the guests. For a while, the outside world loses its vice-like grip and all are taken to a place of harmony and peace. Here is heaven on earth.

Besides the preparation and serving of tea, the ceremony is also accompanied by a light meal and a small serving of sweets to complement the bitter taste of green tea. Called wagashi , these confections are made of mochi, azuki bean paste and seasonal fruits.
Everything in the tea-room embodies the wabi sabi principle that life is imperfect and transient. Thus, tea bowls may have chips, cracks or be discolored through years of use. Rather than being looked upon as imperfect, they are treasured.

Tea has taught me that life is about returning to our origins. Water, earth and fire — these are the key ingredients that sustain us, as in tea.”

– Tsuruko Hanzawa, tea ceremony master (born 1943)

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