|Not Your Ordinary Cup of Tea
by Gale Barlow
The outsider may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a teacup! Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea
What could be more ordinary than drinking a cup of tea? Even coffee is more highfalutin' these days, with coffeehouses of different decors and blends to choose from in every neighborhood in town. The traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which takes so many years to learn and many words to explain, is nothing more than the preparing and serving of a bowl of tea. What do tea devotees find extraordinary in this celebration of the everyday?
Participants in the Japanese tea ceremony cultivate a certain attitude toward each ceremony and toward life outside the tearoom. This attitude demands awareness that although the steps of the ritual have not changed over the centuries, every time people come together over a bowl of tea, they create an original experience. The Japanese expression for this honoring of the experience that can never be repeated is ichigo, ichieone cup, one moment.Like many aspects of the tea ceremony, the origins of ichigo, ichie are found in Zen Buddhist philosophy. It was students of Buddhism, after all, who first brought the custom of enjoying tea as a beverage, from China to eighth century Japan. Many books have been written about this history and about the diaries, biographies, and associated arts of tea: the calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer ware, bamboo, and metalwork. However, although intellectual study of the tea ceremony is worthwhile, it is not a requisite to the full experience of the tea ceremony.
Long before the tea ceremony became a topic of study, it was experienced as a sensory delight.
From the fragrance of the incense set into the charcoal beneath the hot water kettle to the aroma of freshly whisked tea.
From the sound of water coming to a boil to the sound of soft cotton socks gliding over tatami.
From the handling of pottery, silk, and lacquerware; from the visual beauty of the calligraphy hanging beside the flower arrangement and, ultimately, from the taste of sweet bean cakes to the flavor of bitter green tea, the tea ceremony engages all the senses.
There is a synthesis of physical sensation in the Japanese tea ceremony. In Japanese, the verb "to smell," when referring to incense, is the same as the verb "to hear." Participants in the tea ceremony "smell the incense."
Similarly, the taste of the tea is associated with the sound of bamboo on ceramic. The host prepares each bowl of tea with a bamboo whisk. When the guests hear that part of the tea ceremony, they can already taste the tea.
As the guest walks toward the tokonoma alcove where a vase and a scroll are on display, the feel of his white tabi socks on tatami anticipates the visual pleasure of examining the flower arrangement.
This mixing of sensory impressions, where in everyday life one at a time will do, is one of the qualities of the tea ceremony that achieves the feeling of ichigo, ichie. In other words, although incense always rises and water in the kettle eventually boils, the combination of sound, taste, smell, and of tactile and visual pleasures of today's tea ceremony will never be reproduced exactly this way again.
Another aspect of the physical nature of the tea ceremony is the interrelationship of three basic elements: monosuki, furumai, and chashitsu, or things, behavior, and setting.
Monosuki refers to discrimination or personal taste in the appreciation of the tea ceremony utensils. When the host selects objects of bamboo, ceramic, and lacquerware to use for a particular ceremony, he is careful not to match glazes or styles. Instead, he seeks to create a harmonizing effect by balancing contrasting elements. If the host is a master of "things," even the shapes between objects can be seen in the tearoom.
Furumai refers to the etiquette practices in the tearoom, the behavior of the host and guests toward each other, and their handling of the tea things. Mutual respect is always practiced among people who share the small space of a tearoom. No one hurries to be served or to conclude the ceremony. Every object, whether a simple tea scoop carved by the host or an antique bowl crafted by a famous artist, is treated with appreciation.
Chashitsu is the defined interior space, the tearoom or detached teahouse, which provides an intimate setting for the sharing of a bowl of tea. The chashitsu features materials of unpainted wood and paper as a reminder of our relationship to the natural world.
When we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears... we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea cup. Mankind has done worse.
Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of TeaGale Barlow is a student of San Diego tea master Kawasaki Soso, who was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure cultural medal by the Emperor of Japan.
Gale Fox, Gale Barlow Communications
GlossaryThe Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura, Soshitsu Sen (Designer)
A detailed description of the history, philosophy and practice of the Japanese tea ceremony examines the meaning of tea in traditional Japanese culture and evokes the spirit of Oriental culture as a whole.
The Japanese Tea Ceremony Gift Set by Anthony Man-Tu Lee. Explore the Mysteries and Traditions of the Ancient Japanese Tea Ceremony. The gift set includes The Japanese Tea Ceremony book, a traditional style cup, a whisk fashioned from a single piece of split bamboo, and a packet of powdered green tea.
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