Tea Ceremony (茶道 Cha-do)- The Art of Tea, The Way of Life

There is a well known ancient Japanese tale about a tea master and a samurai. Centuries ago, there was a tea master who served a great lord. The tea master was able to perform the tea ceremony to such a perfection that the lord was awestruck by his skills and bestowed on the tea master the rank and robes of a Samurai warrior. One time while traveling with the lord, the tea master encountered a Samurai warrior and offended him by pure misunderstanding. Because of the robes, the tea master was wearing, the Samurai warrior thought he was also a Samurai, only to find out he was a mere tea master, it only angered the Samurai warrior further, so he challenged the tea master to a duel the following day. Terrified by his inevitable failure and death from battling a trained Samurai, the tea master accepted his fate turned to his master and asked to learn how to die with the honor of a Samurai. The lord replied, “I will teach you as you request, but before I do so, I’d like to ask you to perform the way of the tea for me one last time.” The tea master agreed and started the ceremony. He performed the ceremony with such confidence, tranquility, grace, and honor, all the fear disappeared. Instead through his every move he perfectly demonstrated the true peace and humility within him just like a true Samurai warrior does. “There you have it.” The great lord smiled and said, “No need to learn anything of the way of death. Your state of mind when you perform the tea ceremony is all that is required. When you see your opponent tomorrow, imagine that you are about to serve tea for him. Salute him courteously, prepare yourself for the battle with the same serenity as you did when preparing for the tea ritual. Draw your sword and hold it high above your head, gaze into your opponent’s eyes with the same concentration as you have while preparing tea. Then you are ready for combat.” The following day, the tea master followed exactly as the great lord instructed. The Samurai warrior was astounded by every move and even the gaze of the tea master, he bowed respectfully and, asked for forgiveness and retreated from the battle without even raising his sword.

Chao-Do in Japanese means the way of tea. Similar to martial arts and any other forms of art that’s considered a Do, to study this art, it is more than the study of tea or the ritual, Japanese tea ceremony and the art of tea has very deep philosophical meanings as well. For one to become a master of the tea ceremony, it takes years of disciplined practice, even a whole life time of true dedication and devotion to become a true master. Aside from mastering the rich knowledge of the art of tea, mastering the art of tea ceremony is also a practice of unlocking one’s inner peace or Zen if you will.

The ceremony I booked at Camellia (the flower location) consists of three parts. Introduction of the tea ceremony, watching the teacher making tea, and learn how to make Matcha ourselves. The tea house is tucked away in a quiet alley near the Kiyomizu-dera. There were 3 other girls from Saudi and myself booked the first appointment on that day. As soon as all parties arrived, we were led to one of the tea rooms in the upstairs. Authentic tea rooms are very small, only consist of 4 and a half tatami mats, and can only fit maximum 5 guests. The entrance to a tea room is only 60cm high and wide, why? Because everyone in a tea room is to be equally respected. For one to enter the tea room, one must bow in order to fit through the door to get in. The Same rule applies to even Kings or Queens, for obvious reasons, you’ve gotta bow to even get through the door. So now you know, if you ever see a tiny door in a shrine or a temple, you now know that’s a tea room behind that tiny door. Quickly we sat on the cushions placed on the tatami mat, cell phones silenced, minds quieted, we were ready for the ceremony to begin.

Our teacher’s name is Norie, sweet and gentle. She greeted us with a traditional Japanese bow, we briefly introduced ourselves, then the teaching began. 

Our teacher’s name is Norie, sweet and gentle. She greeted us with a traditional Japanese bow, we briefly introduced ourselves, then the teaching began. 

The teaching began with some brief background introduction of the tea ceremony. One thing I found interesting and rather mind boggling was the Sensu- Japanese folding fan used when taking a bow as a symbol of respect. Here is a funny notion, this fan is never to be opened and only to be carried and placed in front of you or on you while taking a bow. If it’s hot in the room and you had to use a fan, bring another one. You just can’t use this one.

In the teaching of Cha-do, there are four principles of Chado, 和(Wa-harmony): a sense of oneness with nature, people, and the utensils. 敬 (Kei-respect): respect for one another in the tea room, as well as the utensils. 清 (Sei-purity): in a formal tea gathering, everyone attends the ceremony must purify oneself before entering the tea room. Similar to the purification ritual people do before entering a Shinto shrine. One must enter a tea room with clean hands, a clean mouth, and a clean mind. 寂 (Jaku-tranquility): the essential purpose of practicing the way of tea, or attending a tea ceremony is to find one’s inner peace like a form of meditation if you will. Coming from the busy world outside, after entering the room, this space is for one to quiet down the mind and eventually reach the tranquil state of the mind. What I found rather profound was this. Jaku is the point in one's training and practice where a level of selflessness is reached. While on the one hand, it is the ultimate goal, on the other it is the beginning once again. A true master reaches this highest level and then putting the ideals of harmony, respect, and purity into practice, begins again with a fresh and enlightened heart. At this point, the endless possibilities of life can be realized. This tranquility is far from the stillness and nothingness we interpret. It is a dynamic force of one’s innermost being that infuses the practice of Tea and gives significance to the tea ceremony, and a deeper understanding of life. 

The interesting thing was, as soon as Norie began the tea ceremony, I lifted my camera and got myself in position ready to shoot, but it didn’t take long before I lowered my camera and just purely focused on watching her. I began to be so drawn to her, drawn to the way she moved, the steps she took while making the tea. Her movements were swift, gentle, yet even to the smallest details of her motion was….. significant and with purpose. It wasn’t just her, it was the unity of her and the utensils she held, the room we were in, and the presence of the four of us strangers. 

tea-ceremony2.jpg

Because I sat closest to the scroll that was hanging in the room, supposedly the seat of the guest of honor, (thank you very much :)) I got to have the tea prepared by the teacher. Honored indeed I felt when Norie presented me with the bowl. I held the bowl with my left hand, hugged the side of the bowl with my right hand (which is the right way to hold a tea bowl, FYI). I took two big gulps and finished the tea quickly. Instantly, I felt the caffeine kicked in. It was some powerful stuff if you gulp it down like that, just a friendly warning. In the end, as instructed, I lifted the bowl up and slurped to get the very last drop of the tea as a gesture to pay my compliment of how delicious the tea was. The tea was so creamy and thick with a very rich flavor. Took me by surprise considering it was made by hand not some fancy powerful espresso machine. We were told is the thinner form of Matcha called Usucha, there is another type, which is called Koicha, it’s much thicker with a paste consistency and much more flavorful. Usucha is meant for individuals to enjoy, where Koicha is meant to be shared because of its thick consistency.

tea-ceremony3.jpg

Now we have watched the teacher making tea, it was our turn to make tea. We were each given a bowl and a Chasen (the tea-whisks). 

Each bowl has a front, or the face, normally indicated by a beautiful pattern printed on the bowl. If the front of the bowl is a bit tricky to identify, look for a seal, that could be the front of the bowl. The purpose of identifying the face of the bowl is that, when you drink from the bowl, it is important to rotate the bowl twice clockwise to avoid drinking from the front of the bowl. Why? The face of the bowl is the most beautiful part of the bowl, and so to pay respect one must avoid drinking directly from that side.

Each bowl has a front, or the face, normally indicated by a beautiful pattern printed on the bowl. If the front of the bowl is a bit tricky to identify, look for a seal, that could be the front of the bowl. The purpose of identifying the face of the bowl is that, when you drink from the bowl, it is important to rotate the bowl twice clockwise to avoid drinking from the front of the bowl. Why? The face of the bowl is the most beautiful part of the bowl, and so to pay respect one must avoid drinking directly from that side.

The process of making the tea is harder than I thought. Kneeling on the floor, body up straight, with one hand holding the bowl, the other holding the tea-whisk. You see, all that vertical (has to be vertical only, as instructed by the teacher) whisking motion was all in the right wrist, also considering the posture I was in, which was awkward, not to mention I was whisking in a small shallow bowl, with firmness, precision, and as much grace as I could manage. It truly is an art, to make a bowl of beautiful looking tea with the right consistency and the creaminess, and to do so beautifully, and effortlessly.

tea-ceremony5.jpg
Thank you muscles and flexible right wrist. I WHIIIIIIIISKED that tea, I whisked it so hard!! 

Thank you muscles and flexible right wrist. I WHIIIIIIIISKED that tea, I whisked it so hard!! 

A type of sweet that compliments the Matcha flavor, made from seaweed, but tastes nothing like it. It's got this crystal sugar outer layer and a soft center. Not very sweet, ohhhhh soooo delish.. 

A type of sweet that compliments the Matcha flavor, made from seaweed, but tastes nothing like it. It's got this crystal sugar outer layer and a soft center. Not very sweet, ohhhhh soooo delish.. 

While we enjoyed our own cup of creamy Matcha tea with some sweets, the teacher closed the session with the explanation of the hanging scroll on the wall and the philosophical meanings behind the decorations in the room. For each gathering, a different scroll is hung, a different flower arrangement is prepared to create a particular theme. For this one, the scroll reads “無心“, meaning empty mind or free mind. A message from the host, “spend each moment in life with a clear mind free from fear, anxiety, and desires.”

tea-ceremony7.jpg

Before our departure, the teacher shared one last Zen philosophy, “一期一會“, meaning “once in a life time opportunity”. Each encounter happens only once in our lives, and each encounter happens in its own unique way. Even in the same tea room, everything about each gathering changes, the room decors, the guests, even the state of being of the same host. So as nature intended, everything in life changes, so treasure each moment in life, as it only happens once in a life time.

As a foreigner, it might take me more than a life time to have a full understanding or even a good grasp of Chado. But from this short 30-minute encounter of the art, I think it’s a rather beautiful thing for one to never fully understand it, instead to continue discovering the art and the endless philosophy behind it. Because as that Zen phrase states, each tea ceremony is once in a life time event, so is everyday life. Each moment can evolve organically and each moment can change its own course so differently from the previous moment to the next. And that is the beauty and the fun of life. It is an once in a life time opportunity for us to live and appreciate each and every moment. Appreciate it with a free mind clear from fear and anxiety, ready to create the next moment from a brand new you!

Jenny Cadwallader is a photographer and traveler. Follow her blog Espresso Yoga Traveler.