Dear Readers…this is Norwood Pratt’s last post with T Ching for now. We thank Norwood for his poetic descriptions of the history of tea as well as of tea itself over the past several years. His posts every Tuesday have been anticipated and enjoyed by all of you. We are hoping that Norwood will join T Ching again soon with a new batch of posts providing insight that only he can into the amazing world of tea. Stay tuned!
The full ceremony involves a meal and two servings of tea and takes almost half a day. It is usually practiced in a shortened form bequeathed by Rikyu which takes about 45 minutes. Guests enter the teahouse and admire the host’s hanging scroll, flower arrangement, brazier and tea utensils, then seat themselves by kneeling in a row. The host enters the room and sets a container of sweets before the guests; then he departs and returns carrying the tea bowl and additional implements. He seats himself opposite the guests and proceeds to prepare and serve a bitter, frothy tea – matcha – of a vivid green color. Each guest eats a sweet while observing the preparation.
Each mime-like gesture, from the host’s folding of a silk napkin, pouring the water, and whisking the tea, to the guests’ acceptance of the bowl, admiring it before sipping, and showing appreciation for other tea utensils, is designed to be simple, natural and beautiful. At the same time, this fastidious adherence to form leaves nothing to choice. The placement of the tea bowl must correspond to a certain row of stitching in the tatami mat. When entering the room, guests must cross the threshold with the right foot, and when leaving, with the left. It requires years of untiring discipline of body and mind, obviously, to become an accomplished chajin, or “tea person.”
“It puts you in a calm, quiet place. You have to focus on what you’re doing, so the rest of the world disappears. Sometimes I’ll walk out of the tearoom and my whole day will be changed,” said Linda Morse, a San Francisco jewel appraiser who had studied tea for two years. More and more Americans have been drawn to study chanoyu either with private teachers or at the different branches of the Urasenke Foundation, one of the largest tea schools. In San Francisco, there is a waiting list for its ten-session introductory course. The Way of Tea leads to the peace and poetry of life which we all seek, and students of the Way eventually realize its formalities and rules are not meant as obstacles, far less as an end in themselves, but are intended to be like a finger pointing at the moon.
The life of Rikyu is inseparable from his teachings, and his death by seppuku or ritual suicide is the central event in the history of chanoyu. It is a story the great Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara devoted years to filming and the resulting movie, Rikyu, probably captures the man and his work better than any book. Rikyu’s teaching may be summarized in the untranslatable words wabi-sabi, which mean much more than “simple and natural.” It is an attitude not only toward beauty but toward seeing itself, and life.
At one point the shogun learned Rikyu grew wonderful morning glories and that everybody marveled at his garden in bloom. Having sent word to Rikyu of his intention to pay a visit, the shogun duly arrived but found not a single morning glory to be seen. Only once he was inside the tearoom did he behold in the alcove a single morning glory of the most exquisite beauty. Earlier that morning Rikyu had torn up all the others, preserving just this one flower. Another time Rikyu called on a humble friend whom he found busy working in his field. They went home together and entered the house. There, standing in the alcove, Rikyu was greeted by the hoe his friend had just been using in the field, still wet and dirty. Setting it up in such a place of honor as the tearoom alcove showed its importance to its owner, and Rikyu found such taste admirable. Prettiness has no place in the wabi-sabi ideal of beauty.
Why do we long for beauty? Rikyu would reply that the world of beauty is our home and that we are born with a love for home. But home, he might add, is the realm of non-duality: everything that has been divided longs to be reunited; everything has been divided in order to long to be one again. Regarding a beautiful object, then, is like looking at one’s own native home, the original nature of Man himself. To acquire a thing of beauty is really buying oneself, and to look at a beautiful object is to see in it one’s completed, primordial self. The Japanese cult of the Tea Ceremony aims beyond beauty, whether of objects or of comportment, to attain glimpses like this, of the Ultimate.