“Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom, I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending
time and space?”
How deep is a cup of tea?
Chadō or sadō, the Japanese tea ceremony, or "the way of tea", was established about 400 years ago and promoted by the ruling samurai. It is one of the traditional art forms in Japan, alongside kadō (flower arrangement) and kodō (incense appreciation). It has maintained its popularity throughout the centuries as its underlying principles are timeless and still very pertinent to our present day.
Drinking tea was never just a way to get hydrated. In fact, it is deeply embedded in philosophical thinking influenced by Zen Buddhism and Shintoism. It reflects on profound aspects of life itself, such as the passing of time, and our fleeting presence on earth. It also touches on the simple yet intricate beauty of nature, skilled craftsmanship, relationships, hospitality, presence and transcendence.
So how does a cup of tea contain all of this?
The tea ceremony encompasses all these layered elements in one ritual, and the intentions behind everything are carefully considered and meaningful. When kimono are worn the selected patterns, colours, accessories, etc. carry meaning and demonstrate the effort made. Arriving at the tea house, the guest leaves the outside world behind and takes delight in treading on a rickety stone path whilst absorbing in the natural tranquility along the way. When entering the tea house, the guest bows upon entering the space, and expresses gratitude for the invitation towards the host. Furthermore, the ceremony includes preparing the tools and heating water, serving light bites to accompany the tea, and tasting different cups of tea. In addition, the flower arrangement and hanging scrolls are admired, as well as the view of the garden, or the matcha bowl in which the tea was served.
In essence, it is a concentrated exercise in mindful presence, demonstrated by drinking a cup of tea. Discover below the critical elements that can be applied to everyday life.
Slow the f––k down. Be present.
A Japanese saying, ichi go ichi e, expresses the preciousness of every moment -- as that moment will never occur again in one’s lifetime. It is attributed to the tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū who instructed his students to treat every encounter as a precious moment and to always be fully present as a host who enables a special experience for their guests. This thoughtfulness is thoroughly woven into the fabric of the world of Japanese tea.
For example, the placement of the chashitsu (tea house or tea room) in a traditional Japanese estate is very important and carefully thought out. They are usually built separately from the main house where daily life is enjoyed and business conducted. The tea room is a place to live in the moment, where yesterday's problems and tomorrow's uncertainty are not to be brought along. To prepare the guest to be in the right mindset, the roji (garden and path leading to the tea room) is made of uneven stones, which invite the guests to carefully pay attention to where they walk. This frees their minds from what happened before or what could happen next, and prepares them to truly be in the moment.
While you probably do not have a tea house in your backyard, by carefully brewing a cup of tea it gives your mind a break from the noise and a true appreciation of the moment.
Moments to be shared.
A Japanese tea ceremony is all about sharing moments in the presence of others. Everything is designed to be enjoyed by someone; its existence is fruitless without being in service. Beauty wants to be seen to come to its full expression.
There is a simplicity and depth to drinking tea - an everyday task represents so much more, it is a key to living life fully. It asks of us to appreciate the things that create this world, like the nuances of the flavours depending on the temperatures and brewing techniques, the subtle textures of the tea wares in our hands, the stories and efforts of the people behind the tea leaves, the enjoyment of meeting with friends and catching up.
As with anything, the enjoyment of great things are magnified when shared with others.
The four principals of sadō | The way of tea
“When you hear the splash
Of the water drops that fall Into the stone bowl
You will feel that all the dust
Of your mind is washed away.”
Sen no Rikyu
Originally, the Japanese tea ceremony was founded by Shukō, a Buddhist monk in the 15th century. Zen monks drank tea to stay awake in their long meditations, and over time it evolved into an enjoyable gathering of friends to drink tea and discuss the aesthetic merits of paintings, calligraphy and flower arrangements.
In the 16th century however, a man named Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) formalised and completely redefined the way the tea ceremonies were conducted. He introduced a rustic simplicity to be known as wabi cha, and developed the four principles of the tea ceremony: wa (harmony), ke (respect), sei (purity) and jaku (tranquillity).
Harmony lies at the heart of the Japanese spirit. It is expressed by a strong sensitivity of considering how our actions impact others. This relating to the world outside of our own individual perception, and instead to be part of a collective in relationship with each other, is a strong element of Japanese society.
This feeling of interconnectedness and oneness is not limited to only humans, but also applies to nature or objects.
In the tea ceremony this principle comes to life as the entire ritual is created around the guest to enjoy. Furthermore, the tools and tea ware are treated respectfully by using and admiring them, the artful decorations and gardens are being enjoyed, the sweets served are both beautiful and delicious. All of this brings harmony, serenity and a sense of peace.
It is naturally pesticide and fertilizer-free, and the tea cultivar is zairai (a wild tree) that grows in the highland forests. The tea yields different flavors depending on the harvest location and season.
A distinctly Japanese way of showing respect is to follow a formalized sequence of actions that convey the desired message. The tea ceremony is such an example that includes many such codified signs of respect, and not all of them are expressed in words but in precise gestures. For example, when receiving the bowl of tea, the guest bows and accepts it. Before drinking from it, the guest turns the bowl twice. The reason for doing so is that the bowl is presented by the host from its most beautiful angle, and the guest expresses that this beauty will not be selfishly claimed for themselves, but diffused by turning the angle slightly.
Drinking your daily tea does not have to be this dramatic, but this principle can still be put into practice. This could be by taking a moment to enjoy the fact that you are treating yourself with a high quality cup of tea, from a beautiful cup, and perhaps even decorating your space with some seasonal flowers.
In the Shintō tradition, the act of purifying oneself before entering a shrine is of utmost importance. It symbolises the purity of heart and mind. Similarly, the tea ceremony guests cleanse their hands and mouth before entering the tea house, and the tools used are ritually cleaned by the ceremony host. The matcha powder, the sound of boiling water, the sweets served, all evoke purity in a serene space removed and untainted from the messy world outside.
Sei also means purity to be free from material attachments and status.
It is said that through the constant practice of the other three principles, tranquillity can be attained as a natural consequence. It is a meditative directive informed by Zen Buddhism, where the practice of harmony, respect, and purification is an active state of stillness. This also explains the extensive ritualistic preparation of the tea and its accompanying activities; it creates tranquillity once one is able to be present in the moment. The resulting gifts of calm and serenity allow us to be the best versions of ourselves, even within a hectic modern world.