The Tea Ceremony and Zen: A Shared Journey

The formal tea ceremony holds a special place in Japanese culture, deeply woven into its lifestyle for centuries. It has become even more prevalent in Japan than in its country of origin, China, where it was borrowed from nearly 900 years ago. The tea ceremony and Zen are closely intertwined, arriving in Japan together and sharing profound connections.

The term “tea ceremony” does not fully capture the essence of chado, which translates to “tea way” in Japanese. Chado, also known as cha no yu, goes beyond a mere ceremonial act with tea. It embodies the art of tea as a way of life—a practice of being fully present in this moment and savoring it completely. Through meticulous attention to every step of preparing and sipping tea, participants embark on a shared and intimate tea experience.

Tea has long been cherished by Ch’an monks in China, who relied on it to stay awake during meditation. Legend has it that Bodhidharma, the founder of Ch’an (Zen), even went to the extreme of tearing off his eyelids, from which tea plants were said to have sprouted.

In the 9th century, Japanese Buddhist monks traveling to China to study brought back tea, marking the beginning of its journey in Japan. It was in the 12th century that Eisai (1141-1215), the first Zen master in Japan, returned from China with not only Rinzai Zen teachings but also a new method of making tea. This involved mixing powdered green tea with hot water in a bowl using a whisk. This tea-making approach, still practiced in chado today, became an integral part of Japanese culture.

The tea ceremony and Zen share a profound history, intertwining their paths in Japan. As participants engage in the tea ceremony, they connect with the essence of Zen philosophy and embrace the beauty of the present moment through the art of tea.

The Power of Mindfulness in Zen

Mindfulness plays a crucial role in Zen practice, extending beyond seated meditation (zazen) to encompass various arts and ceremonial rituals. These practices demand unwavering attention and precision. Whether it’s folding a monk’s bowing cloth, arranging oryoki bowls and chopsticks, or composing a flower arrangement, each action follows specific forms. A distracted mind can lead to errors in execution.

The same principle applies to the brewing and drinking of tea. Zen monks recognized the profound value of tea in their practice, incorporating it as a means to cultivate mindfulness. They embraced the meticulous attention to every aspect of tea’s creation and consumption, recognizing it as an opportunity for deep presence and focus.

Wabi-cha: The Birth of Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony, as we know it today, owes its origins to Murata Shuko, a former Zen monk who became an advisor to Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a powerful shogun. Shuko’s innovative approach to tea transformed it into a spiritual practice and introduced the aesthetic concept of wabi, emphasizing simplicity and austere beauty. This form of tea ceremony came to be known as wabi-cha.

In his master’s opulent villa, Shuko served tea in a modest, unadorned room, replacing extravagant porcelain with humble earthen bowls. He also pioneered the tradition of hanging Zen calligraphy scrolls in the tea room, creating an ambiance of serene contemplation. Shuko’s influence extended to the physical layout of the tea ceremony room, where he partitioned a large space into a cozy four-and-a-half tatami mat area, a size that has since become the traditional standard. Additionally, he insisted on a low entrance door, requiring all who entered to bow in respect. Shuko’s visionary innovations continue to shape the essence of tea ceremony to this day.

Rikyu and Raku: Masters of Tea

Among the tea masters who followed in the footsteps of Murata Shuko, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) stands out as a revered figure. Like Shuko, Rikyu departed from his Zen monastery to become the tea master of a prominent individual, the warlord Oda Nobunaga. When Nobunaga passed away, Rikyu entered the service of Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. As the ruler of Japan, Hideyoshi held a deep appreciation for the tea ceremony and Rikyu became his favored tea master.

Under Rikyu’s guidance, wabi-cha evolved into a comprehensive art form, encompassing ceramics, utensils, architecture, textiles, flower arranging, and other crafts that enriched the tea experience as a whole.

One of Rikyu’s notable contributions was the creation of a distinct style of tea bowl known as raku. These unassuming and irregular bowls were believed to directly reflect the mindset of the bowl artist. Hand-shaped and typically adorned in red or black, each raku bowl possessed its own unique imperfections in shape, color, and texture, elevating them to the status of coveted art pieces.

The exact reasons for Rikyu’s falling out of favor with Hideyoshi remain uncertain, but in 1591, the elderly tea master was ordered to perform ritual suicide. Before carrying out the decree, Rikyu composed a poignant poem:

“With sword held high, This blade of mine, Long in my possession, The time has finally come. Skyward I cast it!”

The Way of Tea: Embracing Ceremony and Presence

In a traditional tea ceremony, there are various elements at play, but one common practice involves guests cleansing their mouths and hands while removing their shoes before entering the ceremonial room. A meal may be served beforehand, setting the stage for what is to come. The host takes on the task of igniting a charcoal fire to warm the water in a kettle, carefully tending to the cleaning of the tea tools. With precision and grace, the host skillfully combines powdered tea and water using a bamboo whisk. These actions are imbued with ritual significance, and for the full immersion in the ceremony, the guests must be fully present.

The tea is served in a single bowl, passed among the guests in adherence to the established rituals. Every bow, every word spoken, and every handling of the bowl follows exact forms. When all participants wholeheartedly engage in the experience, the ritual invokes a profound sense of peace and clarity. It transcends dualistic thinking and fosters a deep connection with oneself and with others in the present moment, nurturing a profound sense of intimacy.

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