Japanese Culture: The Way of the Tea

茶道 (The Way of the Tea)

a.k.a. The Japanese Tea Ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony began based on Chinese tea drinking rituals imported into Japan by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century A.D. Legend states that drinking tea had been known to China for thousands of years. So you see, Asian legends apply even from one Asian country to the next. There are plenty of “legends” to make something seem grander and to impress the neighbors.

At any rate, the Japanese tea ceremony, as it is primarily known in the West, truly began only with the use of matcha (Japanese: 抹茶まっちゃ、”maccha” as typed). This began in the 12th century A.D. (I am specifying A.D. because I don’t want any confusion with Japanese calendar eras at all. – J) This is powdered green tea, which is really unfermented tea powder from the same plant as that used for black tea.

The Tea Experience

It is important to first detail the experience.

A single “ceremony” is referred to as 茶の湯 (cha no yu), “Hot Tea Water.” We should understand this as an idiomatic expression; small wonder Westerners prefer referring to it as the tea ceremony, as they regard it as a ceremony, and about tea. Also, a direct translation seems hopeless. Tea ceremony it is!

Guests at a tea ceremony are served a 懐石 (かいせきkaiseki), a traditional Japanese meal brought in courses. It is a light meal rather than a banquet level one. The word itself combines the kanji for “nostalgia” with “stone.” I imagine the meaning is idiomatic; a meal as an “old stone” suggests old traditions.

This meal is followed by (さけsake), traditional Japanese rice wine. Sake is not used to wash down rice (being derived from rice), but is consumed separately so that it can be appreciated on its own merits. Thus, the guests have had their hunger sated and have had alcohol that dulls the senses to a degree.

This is followed – or should the ceremony be of a type to skip meals, begins – with the eating of a sweet or sweets, eaten off a special paper called 懐紙 (かいしkaishi). The last kanji stands for “paper” in general. The first kanji is the same as in “kaiseki.” Thus, the dulled taste buds experience sweetness on the tongue.

Each utensil – the tea bowl, the tea whisk, and the tea scoop – is ritually cleaned in the presence of the guests. This accomplished, the host will place the green tea powder in the bowl and add the precise amount of hot water that his specific tradition demands. He will then whisk the tea with precise motions. The guests are able to observe all of this before their very eyes.

The decorations of the room where the tea ceremony takes place are simple and old-fashioned. Conversation is kept to a minimum as the guests enjoy the sound of water, the whiff of incense and the tea itself, and the sight of the host’s labors and the simplicity of the environment.

Finally, the tea is served. The host and the guest of honor (初客, shokyaku, “first guest”) exchange bows. The guest of honor bows to the second guest, and then raises the bowl, as with all traditional Japanese meals, to honor the host and ascribe importance to his gift. He then rotates the bowl slightly to not sip from the very front of it, takes three careful sips, wipes the bowl clean for cleanliness’ sake, and then passes the bowl to the second guest, and on it goes.

This tea is very bitter!!

Two types of tea are served.

  • 濃茶, こいちゃ、koicha. This is literally thick tea
  • 薄茶、うすちゃ、usucha. This is literally thin tea

So, the power of the tea is relative to these two. The former can be followed by the latter, depending on the ceremony and so forth.

Depending on if a meal is served, the number of guests, the type of ceremony etc., the tea ceremony can last between ONE and FIVE HOURS.

Now, to its role a bit:

Tea Ceremony: A Zen Slap in the Face

The physical experience of drinking the tea, with all that preparation, is intended to allow the person to focus all of his attention on one thing: the pure kick of the tea experience. It’s like a slap in the face.

After all, why else would you eat something sweet prior to this? To increase the contrast on the taste buds. This makes the experience stark, a massive wake-up call that provides a physical component to the principle at the heart of Zen Buddhism: stop thinking and smell the co… er, taste the green tea!!!

In addition, this whole business exalts the simplicity of the whole thing and makes simplicity into an art and a virtue.

Sen no Rikyu, the most revered tea ceremony guru in Japanese history, introduced a concept called 一期一会ichi-go ichi-e, which means, in kanji, single meeting, single occasion. That is to say, each meeting is a unique occasion that only occurs once, and should be treasured as such.

Thus, the tea ceremony became a formal shared experience between members of Japanese high society, a great expression of comradeship. The guest of honor (and his companions) felt truly honored because of the importance that sharing this experience had.

Also, even long before our modern, ultra stressed civilization, taking the time to get this right was itself understood as a virtue.

A Religious Experience

With the Zen Buddhist elements, the tea ceremony really did come to represent a condensed version of the entire Zen philosophy. Thus, we may call the tea ceremony, without irony, a religious experience for those who partook of it.

As Zen is not a centrally organized religion, and is thought of more as a way of life, we should not think of this as exclusive or sectarian. Rather, the people practicing the Way of the Tea believe it to represent some sort of innate, universal human value that all people should experience at least once in their lives. Not all may agree with the conclusion, but the purity of the intention calls for respect and acceptance on its own merits.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: jeremiahbourque@gmail.com
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