Mindfulness, to me, is the essence of the tea ceremony. The woman making our matcha paid close attention to every detail. She washed each cup with care, out of respect for the creator of the bowl and generosity to us. Every moment she concentrated on the present. She served us tea while in quiet meditation and practice. We were allowed to be part of her discipline, her lifelong journey with the art of tea. The tea ceremony is about concentrating on the moment and liberation from the outside world. In Zen Buddhism it is said that the whole universe can be experienced in the drinking of a bowl of tea. This experience comes from giving yourself over completely to the here and now and fully participating in the tea with a heart free from selfish desires.
The tea ceremony sprung forth from Zen Buddhism. The monks ritualized the drinking of their tea. This ritual provided for alertness through the caffeine found in matcha, which aided their concentration during long hours of meditation. Everyone in the tea ceremony practices Buddhist ideals throughout the ritual. It is the principles in action; generosity in serving another person, mindfulness towards being gracious guest, and non-attachment in letting go of your rank and distinction. All aspects of the tea ceremony contain Buddhist significance. In a traditional tea ceremony you enter the garden through a gate. This gate represents kire (cutting) it is a direct cut from the outside world. It defines a change in the environment from public to private and allows a moment to reflect on leaving behind the “dust of the world” and entering into sacred space. Along the walk down the roji (dewy path) is another opportunity to reflect. “[The] roji [is] to be a place for abandoning the entanglements of this world.”(The Book of Tea, Sen Soshitsu XV and Asano Akira, Pg.233) After walking down the dewy path you come upon the teahouse, there may be a basin of water for ritual purification. In this you are literally washing away the dust of the world, preparing yourself for the inner sacred space. Each pause in the journey to the tea ceremony is a moment for reflection. If you are aware of Buddhist symbolism you will be able to read a narrative in the landscape, a story told through images, numbers, juxtaposition’s of materials and calligraphy. Once through the garden you enter into the teahouse. This moment is meant to inspect the chosen scroll and contemplate the theme chosen by your host. Next you venture through a very small door, at the base of the tearoom, everyone must go through this door to enter the tearoom. This is the humbling hole, so named because everyone must get to the same level before entering. This allows a moment to symbolically rid yourself of the hierarchies and distinctions of the material world. Once inside everyone is on equal ground, patiently sitting to receive the hospitality of the host. You cast of you social status to enter a tearoom. In the oasis of the steamy tea room there is no hierarchy. Along with your status all detritus of the outside world should be cast off. The walk down the roji, washing in the basin, and time in the gathering room are meant to serve as cleansing experiences. Giving you time to reflect and clean your mind from the distractions of the world. Leave the mundane world and enter a place of reflection, a place of seasonality where meticulous preparation has been done in anticipation of the fleeting moment that is teatime. Every detail has been considered to guide your thoughts and conversations.
My first experience with the Japanese tea ceremony was focused on etiquette. We were told about the technique and reasons for each aesthetic decision. We were briefed on procedure; clean white socks, pants without rivets, shoes off at the front door, dirty socks off, clean white socks on, and slippers on before leaving the entryway. Slippers were worn in the gathering room and carefully removed before stepping onto the tatami. I was in a class entitled “Zen and the Japanese Garden”. This experience was of a more clinical nature than the experience I had on Friday. In that context details and specifics were important. In the context of this class the more conceptual, broad strokes were appropriate. The woman leading our tea gave us more information on the concepts behind the tea ceremony rather than the technical execution of it. We were given very little in regards to etiquette and prescribed ritual. We were allowed to contemplate the scroll and enjoy the experience without complicated explanations and rules.
I appreciated the involvement of being the first guest; I had the pleasure of sitting closest to the boiling water. I could feel the steam, hear the boiling and see the glow of the coals beneath. The Shinto purification materials of water and fire were right in front of me. At one point a burst of sparks caught me off guard and made me think about the fragility of the structure around me. A single ember could bring this place to ashes. The structure has an ephemeral quality because of the materials used in its construction. Its walls are made of extremely fragile paper. A drip of water on them would surely distort the paper, a careless hand could punch right through. This materiality emphasizes the ephemeral nature of the tea experience and the care that must be taken in all aspects of the ceremony. We will have this tea but once and the experience will be gone, never again to happen in the same way. The level of care instilled in the student of the tea ceremony is meant as a way to cultivate a thoughtful interaction that extends far beyond the utensils used in tea. This instills a way of being that is mindful, kind, generous and appreciative, a view of oneself as a caretaker.
We are only caretakers. Each object, each place, is not truly possessed, it is merely looked after for the next generation. The most poignant thing that Karen said was that she does not really own the Lacquer box, she is simple taking care of it for its real owner 200 years from now.