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Finding Peace Through the Ritual of the Tea Ceremony

Bitter matcha green tea and sweet wagashi complement each other.
Sweets are chosen to match the season, like these for spring.


In this busy society of ours, particularly here in fast-paced New York City, it is sometimes hard to find a moment of quiet. Very often we look to customs of the past for hints when searching for salvation. This is true in the case of the tea ceremony (Cha no Yu), a soothing ritual that was established several centuries ago and still widely practiced in modern Japan.

Tea was brought to Japan from China around 9th century for medicinal purposes. During the Muromachi period (15th century) imported tea goods from China were used as ornaments in living rooms and as tea utensils, and Cha no Yu became firmly established. Finally, it was the 16th century when the tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) gave Cha no Yu its final form.

I had the pleasure of spending time at a tea ceremony with Omote Senke tea instructor Yasuko Hara. Omote Senke is one of the three houses that recognizes Sen no Rikyu as their founder, and are dedicated to preserving the Cha no Yu that he developed. His world was that of the warring states, and the tea ceremony provided respite for townspeople who established a tea room in a hut on the top of a mountain. Their purpose was to cut themselves off from the everyday world, in order to quiet their hearts and gain a moment of peace.

Hara explained that through Cha no Yu, moments of peace can be found in today’s frenetic world as well. One simply has to strive for Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility, the Four Principles of Tea as put forth by Sen no Rikyu. This sounded like a tall order, but Hara insisted that all it takes to incorporate this into your daily life is reaching this mindset via Cha no Yu. Could it be that the key to achieving serenity was as basic as enjoying a bowl of tea?

Well, yes and no. Yes in that Cha no Yu is not as formalized as many of us might think it is. For example, the tea ceremony that I participated in was called “table tea”, meaning that we sat in chairs as opposed to having to endure seiza (sitting on one’s heels). Hara shared why this is allowed: “There are many levels of formality, and despite its casual appearance table tea is just as serious in spirit.

 

Simplicity of the tea utensils represents a “wabi” aesthetic.

However, the world of Cha no Yu is a complex one, and there are certain procedures that must be followed. It was fascinating to watch the person making the tea execute each step carefully and precisely, such as when she held up the prepared tea to offer her gratitude to the gods. Attendees also have to perform their roles accordingly. Before even touching the tea, we ate a wagashi (seasonal Japanese sweet) that would offset the matcha’s bitterness. After receiving our frothy bowls, we had to turn them twice before drinking so as not to put our mouths on the same spot where the gods had drunk from. It was recommended that the entire bowl be finished in 3-4 sips.

Simplicity of the tea utensils represents a “wabi” aesthetic.

Wabi, or beauty not directly visible to the eye but in the atmosphere, is a pervasive part of the Omote Senke tea ceremony. Hara highlighted that the tea tools employed are just practical items, nothing flashy. The ceremony itself is conducted as simply as possible (“as naturally as water flowing”), and with no unnecessary movement. The room is decorated with items reflecting the season and the guests. Hara explained, “This all goes back to the original concept of creating one world, the tea room on top of the mountain.” The next time the city’s honking horns have you feeling stressed, why not find your own peaceful spot by trying Omote Senke Cha no Yu?

————– Reported by Stacy Smith

 

Omotesenke Domonkai, Eastern Region Office
TEL: 212-684-0508
Eastern.usa@omotesenke.us
www.omotesenke.jp (Japanese only)