Japanese Tea Ceremony

Western tourist taking part in tea ceremony in Kyoto (Lori Erickson photo)

Of all my experiences in Japan, the most intriguing was my introduction to the tea ceremony, that quintessential Japanese art form. The tea ceremony is simply that:  the preparation of tea that is served to guests. But within that most ordinary of activities, a wealth of ritual and an entire religious philosophy are contained.

Tea came to Japan from China in the tenth century, and the popular new drink soon became another way for the upper classes to display their wealth by using expensive utensils arranged in elaborate settings. Beginning in the fourteenth century, however, Buddhist masters developed the tea ceremony as a spiritual practice, a ritual that embodied the Zen esthetic and philosophy. Using plain implements and delicate, graceful movements, a student practiced the ritual to awaken to the beauty to be found in the everyday. While the tea ceremony demands total attention to detail, in that focus there is a kind of paradoxical freedom of the spirit.

What looks simple from the outside is actually very difficult to practice, I discovered when I participated in a tea ceremony class. As my teacher patiently explained the precise order of the ritual, I proceeded to make a fool of myself, clanging the utensils together, spilling some of the tea, and immediately forgetting the steps that I had been told to follow. My legs hurt from kneeling and my borrowed kimono kept coming undone. If ever there was an activity designed to make one feel like a graceless clod, surely the tea ceremony is it, I concluded. And yet at the end when I was finally able to sit back and observe the teacher do the ritual properly, I found myself transported by the elegant beauty of her movements. I could see why someone would study this spiritual practice for years, for in the actions there was a meditative ease that I had never encountered before.

One of the first Western descriptions of the tea ceremony, written by Portuguese Jesuit Juan Rodriguez, is still a good summation of its essential nature:  the ritual is designed to “produce courtesy, politeness, modesty, exterior moderation, calmness, peace of body and soul without any pride or arrogance, fleeing from all ostentation, pomp, external grandeur and magnificence.”

We in the West who are relentlessly busy and perpetually stressed, who feed ourselves with food and drink so rapidly that we barely notice what we are wolfing down, would do well to heed the lessons of the tea ceremony.

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