Chanoyu The Art of Tea

If you feel the 20th Century separating you and your gentle feelings, Chanoyu – the Japanese art of Tea – might reunite you with harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. A simple social custom that mushroomed into ostentations observance, Teas was performed by Buddhist monk Murata Shuko and restored to an art form by another Zen priest Sen Rikyu. Stamina and perseverance are the requisites in the art of Tea.

For the past year I have been going to Teas as a clumsy student. By studying the 500-year-old Japanese Art of Chanoyu, I had been hoping to find the serenity sorely lacking in my 20th century life. I found, first, that making a simple bowl of tea required the strength of an elephant, a dancer’s grace and the precision of a tightrope walker.

Then, I received an invitation to Tea from my teacher, Sobie M Kubose, who had received her training in Kyoto, Japan, the city where Rikyu had spent his last days. It was Rikyu who had, in the 16th century, established the rules of behavior we would be following.

Observing the first of these rules, I knelt at the door of the Tea room and slid in on my knuckles. In ancient days even high-ranking nobles and arrogant Samurai (who checked their swords outside) had humbled themselves in a similar manner, for in a Tea room there is neither prestige nor power. This strenuous way of entering had been impossible for me. As a fellow student had said when she first realized she would be traveling on her knuckles, “I’m going to have to take up calesthetics!”

The guest of honor, properly called the head guest, for all guests are honorable at Tea, had entered the room first and was doing haiken (which means “appreciation”) before the flower arrangement and hanging scroll. He was briefly, but intensely, absorbed not just in looking at but seeing the flowers and scroll. The flowers (sparse by Western standards) and scroll (a few black brush strokes on white paper) were the only ornaments in the room. Translated, the scroll read, “First, know yourself.”

After Haiken, the two other guests and I settled, side-by-side, in a kneeling position on the floor and waited for our hostess to enter. There was no conversation, though we knew each other well. Silence, while not mandatory in informal Tea, is customary.

The prolonged silence in Tea had been hard, at first, to endure. Like most busy talkative Americans, I had always regarded silence as a vacuum to be filled, even with idle chatter. And one compulsive talker, who had taken Tea to become quieter, confided , “I distinctly remember thinking that I was going to scream. The only question in my mind was, ‘Shall I scream now or later?’”

The door of the Tea room opened and our hostess, carrying the tea-making utensils, knelt at the entrance. We all bowed in mutual greeting. Then Kubose-sensei rose, entered the room and knelt in front of the charcoal brazier that housed the kettle of hot water.

The kneeling, rising, kneeling was the Waterloo that had led me to daily calisthenics. When I first enrolled for Tea lessons, I had been confident that I was young and sound enough of body for such a gentle pursuit. (After all, wasn’t one of Sensei’s most accomplished students 73 years old?) I quickly found that the proverbial “bull in the china shop” know no cultural barriers. I was a bull in the Tea room. I could not kneel and rise gracefully while carrying fragile Tea utensils in both hands. I did not have the balance, control and real physical strength I needed. Eventually, after much practice and fifteen minutes of exercise every day for several months, I learned to kneel rather than crash-land and to rise instead of lurch.

Our hostess brought out her fukusa, a colored, two-ply, silk square. The making of Tea began with the ritual folding of this napkin. The fukusa, used to wipe utensils and to protect the finger from the hot kettle lid, is not as manageable as it looks. Because it is silk, it is very springy, and many a student has despaired of ever learning to master its precise folding. aptly called “taming the fukusa.”

For today’s Tea, Sensei had chosen a deep Tea bowl, suggesting warmth. A cup never appears in the art of Tea. Rather, the tea is mixed and served in a single bowl called a chawan. Like all Tea utensils, the chawan is both beautiful and functional. The student learns not only to drink from it, but enjoy and admire it as well. Each chawan is hand-made and individually glazed. No two are alike, and even the humblest is a work of art. Some Tea bowls are priceless antiques.

Chawans are made according to a tradition of Tea pottery dating back 500 years. Tea bowls are not symmetrical, near-perfect china. They are understated, simple and natural. Some bowls look as if they had grown rather than been shaped by human hands.

A well-known anecdote illustrates this aesthetic ideal. Several hundred years ago a wealthy and powerful Japanese nobleman commissioned a potter to make him a chawan; perfect in every detail. He paid a huge sum for the bowl. When the finished bowl was delivered, the proud nobleman invited, among other guests, a Tea Master to Tea. The host served the Tea Master, who politely accepted and drank from the bowl, but returned it silently without regarding its beauty. After all the guests had left, the disappointed nobleman took his expensive bowl and threw it into the courtyard where it broke into pieces. A knowing guest gathered up the pieces, took them to a potter and had them carefully glued together and the bowl reglazed. some time later he invited the Tea Master, the bowl’s owner and other guests to Tea. On viewing the reconstituted bowl, the Tea Master announced, “A masterpiece!” Selecting the chawan that will harmonize with (never match) the other Tea utensils is an art in itself and requires great subtlety. I never thought china in sets was boring – until I studied Tea.

Sensei offered us some Japanese candy, for a sweet is eaten before drinking the bitter tea, and then she performed the deceptively simple steps of making Tea. Making the tea is a little like performing ballet. Each motion is precise, beautiful and takes practice. And each utensil, a work of art I its own right, is handled in a prescribed order and manner. Sensei used a bamboo spoon to scoop some green powdered tea from a lacquerware tea caddy into the chawan. She added hot water from the kettle and whipped the tea with a bamboo whisk until it was foamy.

The tea powder is made from ground, dried, unfermented leaves of the green tea plant grown in Japan. According to Kida Taiichi, former chief research chemist of Kyoto Tea Research Laboratory in Japan, this tea has a significant vitamin C content even after the high temperatures used in drying and processing. In preparation of tea in the Tea room the water temperature is carefully regulated so that tea given to guests is never too hot, never too cold, just right for drinking. It tastes herbal, less bitter than coffee but just as bracing. Enjoying it was the only part of Tea lessons I found easy.

The first bowl of tea was offered to the head guest, who slid forward on his knuckles to receive it, then slid backward to his seat with it. In this case grace is the difference between a guest who slides smoothly and one who moves like a snail with hiccups. Back in his place, the head guest placed the bowl of tea between himself and the next guest and said, “Osakini” meaning, “Excuse me for preceding you.” He then bowed to the hostess and said, “Otemae chodai itashimasu,” meaning, “I gratefully accept the tea you have prepared for me.” After raising the chawan in respect, he turned the front away from his lips and drank from the back of the bowl.

The usual amount of tea in the bowl is, by coffee cup standards, exceedingly small, about three and one-half sips of dark green frothy brew. The last sip is taken with an audible “slu-u-u-u-rp!” Far from being considered rude, this noise is a sign of true enjoyment.

After drinking his tea, the head guest, as tradition requires, examined the bowl at close range, noting its shape, its color, its texture. He did this quickly, however, for other guests were waiting t be served.

When the last guest had finished her tea, the head guest asked Kubose-sensei to “Please conclude,” and our hostess performed the closing acts of Tea.

First she cleaned all the utensils. At a coffee klatch, cleanup is considered ignoble and is postponed until the guests have left. In Chanoyu, the host or hostess turns cleanup into an art. Sensei put the cleaned utensils back in their original order and rose to carry them out.

During the entire Tea, about an hour, we had all remained kneeling. This position is the last physical obstacle to be over come, for until one’s body becomes accustomed, it is a test of endurance. Numb feet are nothing new at Tea. I usually discovered mine at the end of the lesson when I was ready to rise with the tea utensils and couldn’t. Whether or not discreet toe-wiggling will ever be an accepted part of the art of Tea is debatable, but I found it a great circulation restorer.

At the door our hostess knelt and bowed farewell. We bowed in return, and Tea was over.

But we did not leave the Tea room empty-handed. We took with us the four principles of Tea: Harmony, Respect, Purity, and Tranquility. Harmony had been in the room and in the people, for Sensei had chosen not only her Tea utensils, but her guests, for compatibility. Respect was evident among the hostess and guests; hadn’t we saluted even the Tea bowl with respect before drinking? Purity, in Tea, is a state of mind that results from leaving worries, vanity, anxiety and other mental burdens outside the Tea room door. Once inside, our thoughts were completely absorbed in the art of Tea. In such a state of mind and such surroundings, how could we be other than tranquil?

It is this very tranquility that attracts increasing numbers of Americans to study the art of Tea. Chanoyu is growing in the Midwest, and I already very popular on the West Coast where, in addition to its practice among the large Japanese-American population, it is taught at Zen Buddhist centers as a part of training. Hisashi Yamada, director of the Urasenke Tea Society headquarters in New York City, said that two-thirds of the enrolled students were Caucasian.

I had taken Tea lessons to cultivate serenity and was rewarded with unexpected benefits. First, I had learned two arts, not one. In learning to make tea, I had learned the art of taking tea, for the role of the guest is part of the art. Then came a long list of personal changes. Daily exercise, so necessary in my case to cope with the rigors of Tea, had resulted in increased physical grace and stamina. Tea helped me develop an almost unshakable social poise; the reason was simple: for me, no social situation was as demanding as mastering the precise etiquette of Tea. Heightened awareness and sensitivity to sight and sound were another outgrowth of learning Tea. The aesthetic training of haiken had sharpened my perception to the point where I could regard an art exhibit or brick wall with appreciation. Also my ability to concentrate had doubled. I found that any mental wandering during Tea lessons resulted in an immediate and obvious mistake.

But the most surprising change was in my attitude. I could undertake difficult tasks and trying situations with less anxiety and see them through with greater ease. Hadn’t I learned in the Tea room that whatever one does in life can only be done, as tea is made, one step at a time? Even so-called drudgery had acquired new dignity.

Just as it was natural and necessary to clean and put away the Tea utensils after making tea, so it was natural and necessary to clean up my own environment regularly.

Tea can be a lifetime art, for there are many forms of Tea beyond the simple one I learned. But whether I continued lessons or not, I felt I had acquired a new perspective on life. That, after all, I thought was the real goal of Tea.

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