Spirit of the heart, quietness and tranquility — this is what links together the concepts of Zen and Tea. Going into their history and background would take a long time. However, devotees of Tea are reminded that the art was founded in a troubled period of civil war in the eras of Onin and Bummei (1467-1480). One of the points of etiquette that developed was that no one should take part in the tea ceremony with a sword in his belt.
When we are sitting in meditation Za-Zen, we are getting rid of all things inside of us. We center ourselves and strive to make ourselves completely empty. Through our own efforts we calm our heart and spirits. To sit very quietly and have your mind empty is difficult. You will get sleepy. You will think of many things — what you will have for dinner, the stock market, etc. Do away with all these things. Some will strive to hear the soundless sound of one hand clapping, or of two hands clapping. Others will be more realistic and say it is the sound itself, or the meeting of the right and the left hand.
The tatami mat is source of Japanese way of life. All interior life is conducted on the tatami mat. It is important that the mats are arranged in a special way, so that everyone knows where the guests sit and where the host sits, not on the edges of the binding. It is important that everything be done properly with proper intent. There is the concept that if one is properly trained, then it will be properly done. Tatamu means folding, and from here hence the idea of the tatami mats, properly folded.
When the host prepares the tea, he or she uses various procedures learned over a period of time . Everything is done for the guest’s sake; this is the spirit of hospitality. There also is in this the spirit of peacefulness wherein one demonstrates consideration for other persons. By doing this the participants show that mankind is one.
The Way of Tea is expressed in four Japanese characters: Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility. Fighting against each other is very wasteful. We must calm ourselves and enter the pure space with a clear heart.
The tea room has been designed with a very small entrance so that it is necessary to enter the small room on hands and knees. In this way all are put on equal status, whether they be the most powerful Shogun or a common laborer. There is a feeling of being all one.
Before you drink the tea you ask the person who drank before you, “Would you like another bowl of tea?” To the person who will drink after you, you say, “Please excuse me for going before you.” And to the host you say, “Thank you for making the tea.” We put our hearts and spirits into order. Through these concepts the culture of Tea is born and established. There is born a feeling of tranquility, a purification of our human spirits. We are confronted with our common humanity. Please look very deeply into the tea bowl. It represents the essence of pure Nature and becoming one with Nature. To do so involves creating an environment of peace.
Some characteristics of the tea ceremony are the beauty of imperfection. This is the spirit in which the host invites the guests but because we’re human we’ll never be perfect. Another characteristic is simplicity. This involves the limitation of things, the opposite of luxury. Be aware of your basic limitations and do not extend yourself beyond what you’re capable of doing. There also is the feeling wherein host and guests become one — an inclusiveness, a wholeness. There is a deep spirit of charity.
Finally there is the idea of service, the idea of doing things for the other person, which is at the heart of the way of Tea.
Normally there is a garden — Roji or “path of dew” or “place of dew”. As the guests enter the garden they forgot about their earthly cares and prepare to receive host’s hospitality with an open heart.
The guests slide into the tea room on hands and knees to show respect. Each guest examines the Tokonoma, an alcove featuring a hanging scroll and flower arrangement, the natural “tea flowers”, which the host has prepared for them. The orthodox way to experience a Japanese tea ceremony is sitting on one’s knees in a kimono. As the guests position themselves, they place their fans in back of them; this marks out their space in the tea room. Many bows are exchanged between the guests and the host.
Chaji (tea ceremony with food) normally lasts 3-1/2 to 4 hours. The meal part of the tea ceremony takes about two hours; sake is also served. The meal is just enough to satisfy the guests’ hunger while they wait for the tea, “like a small stone in one’s kimono” as one says in Japan. Before the guests arrive the host prepares a charcoal fire in the brazier to heat the water.
After all guests have appeared and partaken of the small meal, the host appears with sweets that are eaten before tea. Japanese tea is not prepared with sugar, so the sweets ensure that there is a lingering sweetness in one’s mouth prior to tasting the tea. The guest excuses himself or herself before taking the sweets and eating them.
The host appears at the entrance and says, “I will offer you a bowl of tea.” This is the time for all to calm their spirits, a time to concentrate on the point in front of us.
There are three stages to the tea ceremony: the purification of utensils, serving tea, and the purification and putting away of the utensils. The host slowly and consciously cleans the tea utensils with a silk cloth which represents the spirit of the host. Two scoops of powdered tea (matcha) are added to a bowl of hot water and whisked with a tea whisk made of bamboo into a frothy drink that looks like a green milkshake. Matcha originally came from China in the Tung period, over 800 years ago. After preparing the tea the host turns the bowl so that the most beautiful front is toward the first guest. The guest turns the bowl twice so the front is turned back, as if offering to the gods. This is a manifestation of humility. All drink from a single container.
The first guest asks the host about the scroll and then the flowers. The flowers in the Tokonoma express the host’s heart, and are the only living things that are in the tea room.
The second guest asks the first guest, “Would you like another bowl of tea?” The second guest turns to the third guest and says, “Excuse me for going before you.” Then the second guest thanks the host for making the tea. The tea preparation process is repeated and a bowl of tea is prepared for the second guest.
The first guest inquires about the tea bowl. In Japan objects with great esteem are often given a poetic phrase. The guest examines the tea bowl close to the tatami mat so that the bowl will not sustain damage should it fall. The host prepares a third bowl of tea until all guests have been served. The second guest examines the tea bowl.
The first guest asks the host to stop as the polite host will continue to serve tea until asked to finish. The third guest examines the tea bowl. The host commences purifying the tea utensils after tea making and refills the water container. The host puts the utensils back where they were when the guests first entered and the host’s assistant comes to take away the utensils. In the process the objects are turned so the front faces the person receiving it. The first guest asks about the utensils and the host explains. There is more bowing between the guests and the host. At the end of the tea ceremony, the guests will bow and then go home. Before they leave they first go one at a time to the alcove to again examine the scroll and flowers.
And so concludes the tea ceremony. It is one meeting, one opportunity — a very special occasion that will happen this one time only. This concept is the essence of the phrase, “Ichi-go, Ichi-e,” or “one time, one meeting.” The tea ceremony harmonizes with the Zen concept of living fully in the present. This furthers Dr. Sen’s idea and life’s work expressed as “Peacefulness through a bowl of tea.”
Dr. Sen (born 1923) retired as the fifteenth-generation head of the Urasenke school of tea in December 2002. Urasenke is one of three schools that trace their lineage directly to Japan’s most important tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). In addition to his studies in the Way of Tea with his father, Dr. Sen also trained as Zen Buddhist monk for more than 30 years at Dairokuji. He holds an undergraduate degree in economics and a Ph.D. in Philosophy for his research on the early history of tea drinking in China and its influence on the development of the Japanese way of tea. He has devoted much of his energies to the promotion of world peace. He is the President of the United Nations Association of Japan and has visited more than 60 countries to spread “peacefulness through a bowl of tea,” the motto of his life’s work.