Can the tea ceremony be romantic?

One member of my Tea Dharma Club asked me: “Is the tea ceremony romantic?”  I was surprised by this question, so I checked an English dictionary to find what the word “romantic” means.  One definition is as follows: marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized. Then I think, here “romantic” maybe means the aesthetic ideals of the tea ceremony. It is true that the concept of Wabi passes on the feeling of melancholy and sentimentality to the audience.

A few days later, my Japanese teacher asked me, ”Do you know why the tea ceremony has a romantic meaning in the USA? Some American friends have asked me about the romantic aspect of tea ceremony . . . ”

Then, here, the word “romantic” seems to relate to “sexual”.

I asked the local Americans nearby. They told me that they have never heard of it, although they know that the tea ceremony is now part of the wedding ceremony sometimes in the US. It seems that most Americans do not think of the tea ceremony as having a romantic meaning.

Kissing scene from Karate Kid. Screen capture from the YouTube Video

A romantic tea ceremony in popular media

But one day, when I was looking for information on the Japanese tea ceremony, I found a video on youtube. That short tea ceremony film actually gives me a kind of weird feeling, a kind of romantic meaning! It starts with an enigmatic smile between a young Japanese woman and a young western boy.  The woman begins to make tea in an atmosphere of romance, ending with the two of them sharing a promising kiss.

Karate Kid II Tea Ceremony

Does Japanese tea ceremony have meaning in the United States?

It appears that the tea ceremony has some meanings of romance in USA, and in other Western countries. Why? I cannot help asking myself this question. Suddenly, it reminds me the word of “living in the present” of Zen Buddhism. Actually, “living in the present moment” is a short working definition of meditation in Zen. It is mindfulness which means to pay precise attention, moment by moment, to exactly what you are experiencing, separating out your reactions from the raw sensory event. The purpose of the practice of “living in the present moment” is to gain wisdom. It does not mean to encourage people to “enjoy life”! Often I have heard people say, hey, just live in the present, enjoy life right now – which actually refers to a romantic and extravagant meaning!

Japanese tea ceremony. Woman places her hand on the bamboo scoop that is resting on the container of ceremonial matcha tea.

The principle of Ichigo Ichi’e in Japanese Tea Ceremony

Maybe it is just my guess that the reason why the tea ceremony has a romantic meaning  to some is related to its principle of Ichigo Ichi’e, which literally translates to “one time, one meeting.”  Ichigo Ichi’e refers to the fact that each tea gathering is an opportunity for an experience that will never occur again in one’s life. Thus, one should pay attention to perceptions and events as though none will ever be repeated. Let happiness as well as sorrow be complete and experienced with attention and detachment. I guess, like the fate of Zen meditation, the phrase “living in the present moment,” the principle of Ichigo Ichi’e in the Japanese tea ceremony became a romantic connotation when it arrived in the West.

However, this is just my guess. I will keep my eyes on it.

This article by Lisa Dong has been reformatted and updated from the original December 2, 2013 publication.