Most JICA trainees and other visitors to Japan would have had the opportunity to participate in a Tea Ceremony. To take part in a Tea Ceremony is considered a privilege and Japanese hosts often go out of their way to organize a tea ceremony for their guests. But the foreigners, with little understanding of the actual significance of Tea Ceremony, often end up complaining about the ordeal of sitting on the floor in traditional Japanese style and following endless etiquette.
Understood in the right perspective, participating in a Tea Ceremony can be a very enriching experience. Tea Ceremony is known as Sado which literally means ‘the Way of the Tea’. It can be a lifelong pursuit for those aspiring to master the art, but in
very simple terms, the main aim of Tea Ceremony is to, for a moment, forget all disturbing thoughts, and cherish the encounter between hosts and guests in a relaxed, calm, peaceful and tranquil atmosphere over a cup of tea.
The ceremony itself consists of a traditional ritual in which powdered green tea called matcha is ceremonially prepared by a skilled practitioner and served to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting. The Great Tea Master of the sixteenth century, Sen Rikyu, identified the spirit of Tea Ceremony with four basic principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
The austere setting of the tea room, the prescribed method of handling utensils and preparing the tea, the tea master’s manners and the guests’ etiquette are all set to enhance these four basic principles, as Okakura Tenshin mentions in “the Book of Tea”:
“Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally – such were the aims of the tea ceremony.”
Tea is a very special beverage that has gained universal appeal. Tea originated in China long time ago and was introduced into Japan by Buddhist monks in the ninth century. It was not until the seventeenth century that tea drinking spread in Europe. There are many kinds of tea, but they all come from mainly two varieties of the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis and Camellia assamica.
Coming back to the Tea Ceremony, one of its key objectives is to value human encounters. Each encounter is unique and must be cherished. In the words of Tea Master Soshitsu Sen XV, “Encounters are extremely vital for human beings. Particularly, encounters through a bowl of tea enable us to communicate heart-to-heart with people who are new to us, in the same way that we can with old acquaintances, by means of our showing each other empathy and consideration.”
However, for the more serious practitioners, Tea Ceremony is also a way to discipline oneself and acquire fresh perspectives on life such as nurturing the ability to face hardships with composure.
Last year at the local Toast Master’s club, I listened to a Japanese man, who in his speech talked about how his late aunt, a Tea Ceremony enthusiast, requested her attendants to conduct Tea Ceremony by her bedside in the hospital, and how it helped her to face her agonizing fight against cancer with serenity until her last breath.
Tea Master Soshitsu Sen XV has made spreading the message of peace through Tea Ceremony his life’s mission. He says, “I have toured the world for more than fifty years with the goal ‘Peace through sharing a bowl of tea.’ This peace can be spread by offering a bowl of tea to another.”
Now that we have understood a little bit about the significance of the Tea Ceremony, we may be able to enjoy it better if we have a chance to participate in it in future. But meanwhile, even when we drink tea at home, would it not be nice to enjoy it in the spirit of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility? Tea Ceremony is a message of love and peace. Let us understand this message and spread it further.
Written by Tshering Cigay Dorji in 2007, when he was studying in Tokushima University, Japan, for his Masters degree in Engineering.
This article first appeared in the JICA Alumni Association of Bhutan’s Annual Magazine in 2007.