Most Westerners think of tea as a breakfast drink or something to enjoy with crumpets at four o'clock in the afternoon. Most drink tea in a cup with a bag or an infuser and maybe a garnish of lemon and honey or a little bit of milk and sugar. In Zen Buddhism, tea is a ritual. Once you experience tea the Zen way, you will never look at a cup of tea quite the same way. Tea is ceremony itself.
Tea was originally used as a medicine, not a beverage. It was not only taken internally, but externally as well. Rubbing some tea in paste form on joints was thought to alleviate joint pain.
The tea ceremony is called chanoyu. It translates into “hot water for tea.” Chanoyu is based on the principles of respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility. If you could bring these qualities into your everyday life, your life would be filled with utter peace. Everyone in the tearoom is equal, and great respect is paid to each person present. Everything in the tearoom matters, from the air you breathe to the flower arrangement to the actual space it is served in — everything contributes to the enjoyment of each moment of the tea ceremony.
The rules for the tea ceremony are to be followed exactly. Each moment matters, and the sequence of events is laid out rigidly. The ceremony flows, and there is meaning in every gesture; each moment is to be savored. The tea ceremony is the way of life itself. It captures the essence of Zen — life in the moment with great attention.
In this regard, the tea ceremony is a mindfulness meditation. It is a moving meditation, practiced to cultivate samadhi. The repetition and rigidity of action allows you to enter a deep meditative state, as you know each movement. As you perform each part of the ceremony, you do so with mindfulness, paying careful attention to each and every movement. When you whisk, you whisk. When you pour, you pour. When you drink, you drink.
“In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Lao-Tzu, and the ethereal aroma of Shakyamuni himself.” — Okakura Kakuzo
In The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, the author says there are actually schools of tea. These schools can be classified as Boiled Tea, Whipped Tea, and Steeped Tea. Practioners in the West would fall into the latter category. Caked tea is boiled, powdered tea is whipped, and leaf tea is steeped.
First is an introduction to the vocabulary of the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony takes place in the chashitsu — a room designed for the tea ceremony. This room is usually in the teahouse itself, which is usually within the gardens. Here are some other words you will want to familiarize yourself with:
Sayu — hot water with which to make tea
Furo — brazier (a pan for holding hot or burning coals)
Chabana — tea flower arrangement
Fukusa — a cleansing cloth, usually a square of silk, folded into a triangle, which hangs from the host's sash
Kama — a container for boiling water (kettle)
Kashi — sweet candy snack
Mizusashi — container for cold water
Chawan — tea bowl
Chakin — napkin
Chashaku — scoop for tea
Chaki — tea container
Kensui — water waste container with futaoki (lid rest)
Hishaku — water ladle
In order to have a tea ceremony, you will also need the tea and charcoal for the fire.
The guests are greeted by the host and ushered into the tearoom. The guests take their seats and the kashi is served and eaten. The kama has been set on the furo so that the water can boil. Then the host brings items necessary to start preparation of the tea. First he brings over the tea bowl containing the wiping napkin, the whisk, the tea scoop, and the container holding the tea. He then brings over the wastewater container, which holds the lid rest and the water ladle. The lid rest should be placed near the kettle with the water ladle on top of it. The lid rest is used to hold the lid of the kettle and is usually made of green bamboo. Now the host is ready to start preparations.
The host takes the fukusa and wipes the tea scoop and the tea container. This is done with intense concentration as the host's focus on meditation increases. This cleansing gesture signifies to the guests that everything is clean and the host cares about the purity of the service. Taking the ladle in hand, he scoops hot water out of the kettle and pours it into the tea bowl, and the whisk is then rinsed in the water. The water is then poured into the wastewater container, the bowl is cleaned with the wiping cloth, and the cloth is put back in its place. Now the tea can be made.
The tea used in the tea ceremony is powdered tea, so it has to be whipped. The host picks up the tea container in his left hand and the scoop in his right, and puts three scoops of tea into the tea bowl from the tea container. The water ladle is filled nearly to the brim with hot water, and enough water is added to the tea to make a paste. More water is added as necessary to get the correct consistency for the tea. The tea is briskly whisked, and then the host picks up the tea bowl and places it on top of his left palm. He holds the right side of the bowl with his right hand, then turns it twice away from himself, a full turn of the wrist each time, so that the front of the bowl is facing away from the host. Then the tea bowl is placed in front of the guests, and the first guest picks up the bowl and holds it the same way.
The tea ceremony traces its origins to the fifteenth century and conversations between Zen monks and the nobility. The goal is to combine aesthetics with meditative calm. The monk Shuko formulated the four principles. Sen no Rikyu changed the chanoyu from opulence to elegant simplicity in the sixteenth century. The door to the newly designed chashitsu was so low that participants had to bow on their way in. Samurai were asked to leave their swords outside. The interior was blank with the exception of a single piece of art.
The first guest to pick up the bowl will turn to the next guest, gassho, and offer the tea bowl. The guest will bow back and decline. Then she will gassho to the host, pick up the bowl and hold it in the same way. She raises it a little bit while bowing again to show gratitude, then turns the bowl toward herself. She then drinks from the side of the bowl.
She wipes off the bowl with her thumb and finger and then turns the bowl back to the front. She admires the craftsmanship of the bowl — tea bowls are a work of art and the choosing of the tea bowl is part of the beauty of the ceremony — and returns the bowl to the host, turning it so the front of the bowl faces the host. Before she returns the bowl, she can ask questions about the bowl, such as “Where was this bowl made?” and “Does this bowl have a name?” The host pours water into the tea bowl, swirling it around to cleanse the bowl, then pours the water into the wastewater container.
The process is repeated for the next guest. When the last guest has had tea, the host cleans the tea bowl with the cold water and reverses the process. In the winter and spring months, a ro (a sunken hearth) is used instead of the furo, which is used the rest of the year so that the tearoom does not get uncomfortably hot.
This is a basic explanation of the tea ceremony. If you are interested in learning more, you can often take classes on tea ceremonies at a university in your area, or perhaps visit a monastery for instruction. Also see the bibliography for resources on the tea ceremony.