'Served with a respectful heart and received with gratitude'

Tea to soothe the soul
Text and photographs by ERIC PRIDEAUX

Outside, evening commuters splash through the Tokyo rain and a train conductor is shouting to be heard above the rush-hour din.

Inside tea-ceremony instructor Taeko Shiozawa's room, nothing -- not even the water bubbling in the kettle -- disturbs the tranquility.

Outside, politicians plot and scheme. Businessmen argue over boardroom tables. Whole economies heave and gasp.

Inside, however, things are kept simple. Shiozawa prepares the ceramic bowls and adjusts a flower in its vase, just so. This is a time to focus not on the hurly-burly beyond these walls but on tasks immediately at hand. Everything, after all, must be precisely in order for the guests coming to tea.

Remove your shoes, forget your everyday worries and step into the otherworld of sado -- the Way of Tea -- where a steaming bowl of frothy green matcha represents far more than mere refreshment. Serious students of this ancient art spend their lives striving to perfect a ritual that some see as a path to spiritual transcendence.

"Doing the same routine over and over, always paying attention to detail, you understand your own mind better by the day," explains 69-year-old Shiozawa, who has been practicing sado for more than five decades. "It's a lifelong study."

Tea ceremony is one of Japan's most important cultural institutions, a system of choreographed movement and actions designed -- like India's yoga and the Chinese martial art tai chi -- to impart on its practitioners a sense of wholeness and calm. Its centuries-old notion that the tearoom, like the mind, should be an uncluttered space has influenced almost every other form of Japanese creative expression, from architecture to haiku.

Though once practiced mainly by the leisured classes, tea ceremony is far from being a leisure activity. As well as encompassing elements of esoteric belief, it also embodies a strict code of ethics -- a guideline for personal bearing and social interaction that today boasts more than 3 million followers in Japan and the rest of the world. The vast majority of practitioners in Japan are female.

"The trickling sound of tea water fills me with a great silence deep down inside," said Tokyo office employee Minako Tahira, 30, who has practiced sado for six months "to balance work with enjoyment." "But there's more to it than that. I also want to find a place for Japanese tradition in my life."

Measured routine

It takes decades to master the countless forms of tea ceremony, some of them so complex that they are performed only by the highest-ranked tea-school officials. However, even a novice attending an hourlong practice session can feel something of its rapture.

The uninitiated are advised to stretch their legs first, as the five or so guests are obliged to sit in seiza (on folded knees), a position many people find uncomfortable if not downright painful. They may find some consolation, though, in the traditional omogashi sweets -- often in hues suggestive of the season -- offered before tea.

With the reverence of a nun, the hostess makes her entrance in the doorway. She approaches the water kettle and, having also assumed the seiza position, removes a cloth from her belt and folds it so methodically that it seems she is searching for imperfections in the weave. She wipes the cloth over a jar containing the powdered green tea, carefully scoops a few heaps into her bowl, ladles in hot water and then, with a pear-shaped whisk, whips the concoction into a bubbly lather. The bowl is placed on the tatami with the decorative pattern gracing its side facing the guest.

The first guest, following a similarly measured routine, walks -- or, if space is limited, crawls -- to fetch the bowl. Bowing to the others present, she holds the bowl slightly aloft as a sign of thanks, turns its decorative pattern away from herself in two measured mini-rotations, and brings the rim to her lips to drink.

This is perhaps the most sublime moment. The slightly bitter tea mingles with the sweet aftertaste of omogashi before warming the body on the way down. As the guest tips the bowl to her mouth the bottom fills her field of vision with a slow cascade of green froth. It is stress-therapy at work: Any tension the guest may have brought vanishes with the bubbles.

"Served with a respectful heart and received with gratitude, a bowl of tea satisfies both physical and spiritual thirst," Soshitsu Sen XV, grand master of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony -- the country's largest -- recently wrote.

If it sounds like religion, that's because in some respects it is. Though most forms of tea ceremony do not involve any particular form of worship (some do include offerings to the Buddha or to Shinto deities), it nevertheless borrows philosophical concepts from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Some authorities even believe the use of the cloth may have been inspired by the pall that covers the chalice in the Mass introduced by early Roman Catholic missionaries from the West.

Jennifer L. Anderson, a Stanford University anthropologist and tea-ceremony devotee, wrote in her 1991 book "An Introduction to Japanese Tea Ritual" that many followers are attracted to the repetitive, formal nature of the tea ceremony because it assures them that the universe has maintained its " 'correct' order" -- a reflection of Confucian thought. Meanwhile, mystical symbolism in the ceremony allows participants to draw elements of the cosmic into their own lives. As an example, Anderson cites the use of fire, water, wood, metal and earth -- the five elements of Taoism -- throughout the ritual.

Everlasting life

Rather than focus on any external sacred realm, however, some votaries of the Way of Tea pursue the sudden, inner transformation known in Buddhist philosophy as satori -- enlightenment. For this reason, the ritual has long occupied a central position in Zen.

Most comprehensible to outsiders, perhaps, is sado's attention to seasonal changes -- the budding of new leaves in the spring or their withering in the autumn -- which followers say helps them accept their own mortality as a natural part of life.

"It teaches us how to live and it teaches us how to die. To die beautifully," said Urasenke representative Takeya Yamasaki.

Tea-drinking was closely associated with spiritual life long before it ever came to Japan. Sometime midway through the first millennium, the belief arose among Taoist scholars in China that potions with tea as an ingredient could bring everlasting life, and monks began incorporating it into Buddhist ritual. After being brought from China by monks and priests, the elixir debuted centerstage in Japan in 729, when Emperor Shomu invited 100 monks to share the beverage at his palace.

For centuries after that, tea was primarily consumed by monks who wanted help staying awake during grueling meditation sessions. Common folk rarely had access to the delicacy, though one 13th-century holy man, the priest Eison, did give it to sick villagers as a health tonic.

In the following centuries, the elite, bored with their lives in the court and desperate for novel forms of entertainment, threw parties where attendants competed for expensive prizes by guessing the origin of tea samples. A depiction of the Buddha or other religious imagery was often on display, but otherwise these were very secular affairs.

It was all getting too worldly, decided Zen monks. They began exhorting sado disciples to use their study as a means of keeping swelled egos in check rather than an excuse to show off erudition. One avid follower of this minimalist approach to tea was a 16th-century aficionado named Sen Soeki Rikyu -- today better known as Sen no Rikyu, the most influential figure in the history of the tea ceremony.

Rikyu, born into a powerful merchant family in 1522, studied sado as a young man and, impressing top masters of the art with his innate talent, quickly rose to fame. Due to both his pedigree and his skill, he was appointed as tea master to two shogun, Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, both credited with putting Japan on the road to nationhood. A warrior, Hideyoshi nevertheless took his tea very seriously: During battles, he is said to have performed the ceremony in plain view of his enemies to awe them with his calm.

Rikyu exploited his position under Hideyoshi to create a standardized national system of tea ceremony based on the principles of his Zen role models. His campaign included quiet, but risky, opposition to the severe class-segregation of the times. Many of Rikyu's samurai guests surely grumbled on being asked to remove their swords and then having to crouch to get through the tiny nijiriguchi tearoom entryways -- requirements designed to humble haughty visitors from the ruling strata. There is speculation that the policy may have played a role in Hideyoshi's demand, in 1591, that Rikyu commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment) -- an event whose true circumstances largely remain a mystery.

Today, Rikyu's spiritual descendants, as heads of Japan's three main schools of tea ceremony (which also include Omotesenke and Mushanokojisenke), are still the guiding force in the world of sado. And the challenge to keep alive their famous ancestor's legacy is greater than ever.

For one, tea has coffee to compete with, since meeting at Starbuck's for a caffe latte is considered far more chic than enduring the seiza position for a bowl of matcha. And generations raised on action movies and Nintendo generally don't have the patience for anything as subtle as tea ceremony.

"Turning the bowl a set number of times and all that, the whole thing is such a formal pain in the butt," scoffs 18-year-old college student Hitomi, interviewed as she emerged from a video-game parlor in a Tokyo suburb. Her girlfriend Shiori, also 18, nods in agreement. "I tried tea ceremony once when I was in junior high school, but only because I knew they'd serve sweets. It wasn't fun, so I quit."

Tea for the times

But a freshened-up look may now be giving the ancient art of sado what it needs to face-off with flashier pastimes. For example, the angled exteriors of up-and-coming designer Kimiko Nakamura's stainless-steel sado vessels are evocative of ultra-modern architecture. And trendsetting old Rikyu -- who is said to have used earthy, rough-hewn bowls -- would perhaps be pleasantly surprised if he were to see people today drinking from an ice-like glass vessel crafted by Hiroshi Kojitani, another designer experimenting with materials previously alien to tea ceremony.

"Rikyu understood eccentric things. I think he would've gone for glass," chuckled Kojitani, 64. People today are no less open-minded, he said. "Japanese realize that change is necessary."

Changing, too, is the profile of tea ceremony's following. During the early decades of the Showa Era (1926-89), the once male-dominated ritual became the domain of women, who were required to study it as a prerequisite for marriage. The women's liberation movement subsequently left tea ceremony with a reputation as an old-fashioned hobby for elderly women. Now, however, growing numbers of working women manage to fit tea ceremony between corporate meetings. And, Urasenke school's Yamasaki says, males -- mostly businessmen -- now appear to be returning to the tradition as well.

No matter their gender, new adherents seem to be looking for the same thing: a way of coping with the uncertainties and frantic pace of 21st-century life. And the way things are going out there, says Yamasaki, demand for the calm, formal certitudes of the tea ceremony can only rise.

"When Sen no Rikyu was alive, the country was plagued by war. Well, it's war out there today, too. There's competition between corporations, competition between workers . . . Japanese don't have time to breathe." He pauses. "People are coming to tea ceremony to get some peace of mind."

The Japan Times: May 26, 2002
(C) All rights reserved

This story originally appeared in a Japan Times package on tea:

Previous features

Riding with
the right

Innocent victims

Geisha for a day

Dance inside the surreal

New frame of mind

When you need a hand

for hire