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The Japanese Tea Ceremony (with video)

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The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also called the “Way of Tea,” is a solemn and deliberate Japanese cultural activity that while highly ceremonial in nature, neither implies nor evokes anything beyond itself. Traced to Zen Buddhist monks of the 9th Cent

As nearly everyone recognizes, most of the world’s rituals are intended to connect those individuals involved with some ancestral spiritual tradition, reach a higher level of consciousness, or act as a communion with some element of nature. By their very design, rituals are meant to accomplish, either symbolically or actually, a connection with some perceived meaning of life.  Not all rituals, however, set out nor seek to accomplish this end.  In fact, one ritual known virtually the world over has no meaning whatsoever.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also called Chado or the “Way of Tea,” is a solemn and deliberate Japanese cultural activity that while highly ceremonial in nature, neither implies nor evokes anything beyond itself. 

Traced to Zen Buddhist monks of the ninth century (though it may have earlier origins), to formal tea-tasting gatherings, the ceremony focuses around the preparation and presentation of matcha, a powdered green tea, the art of its performance the primary objective.  Perfected and popularized by Sen no Rikyu in the sixteenth century, the traditional tea ceremony has been deeply related to Zen Buddhism, and contains many aspects that teach a Zen way of life including the attainment of selflessness and a calm state of mind.  The symbolism of the ceremony is intended to inspire both the preparer and the observer to look to the ordinary not as a manifestation of a divine principle, but as the divine itself.

Traditionally taking place in a specially designated Japanese Tea Room (often within a formal teahouse), the mood is one establishing the universal principles of harmony, purity, respect, and tranquility. The guests enter one by one through a low “humble entrance,” met by the smell of sandalwood and the sound of the kettle singing over glowing coals. Those who have participated in this ritual express a sense of harmony, with personal facades and cultural individuality left at the door. Traditionally, participants bow before a hanging wall calligraphy, an ever-changing Japanese character expressing the mood and prevailing thought for the day.

The host enters and bows low to all, bringing special tea utensils into the room, placing them beside the coal-laden brazier. Taking a silk napkin from his belt, they symbolically dusts the utensils clean.  After rinsing the tea-bowl with water, two scoops of green matcha powder and hot water are added, which is then whisked with a bamboo whisk to a jade-colored froth. This bowl is then passed to the first guest (if there are several attending).  The host and guest bow together, after which the guest slowly sips.  When finished, the guest then slowly turns the bowl in his/her hands, closely admiring the intricate design set into the glaze. (The creation of these designs is an art-form in and of itself.) The guest returns the bowl to the host who then ceremonially repeats this process with each guest. When all who are present have shared in the tea, the host purifies the utensils once again, bows, and leaves the room just as he entered (traditionally, backing out). The guests then remain a few moments to absorb the peaceful atmosphere, each leaving just as they entered.

From its historic inception, the Japanese Tea Ceremony has been a ritual of awareness. It was believed that as awareness deepens with successive tea ceremonies, awareness would come to "consume" the individual; replacing the subject/object perspective with that of pure awareness.  Those who have experienced the ceremony numerous times say that a moment arrives when host and guest, time and space merge; the attainment of enlightenment.  

But from the ancient Japanese aesthetic, the true essence of the ceremony is in its beauty; beauty defined by its four distinct aspects: wabi (quiet and stark refinement), sabi (cosmic aloneness; withered beauty), and yugen (profound grace and subtlety; the hidden and unknowable).  Of course, ritual is to be experienced first-hand.





Images via Wikipedia.org

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James R. Coffey

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