Tea For All Nations

In memory of Brother Joseph Keenan

by Brother Joseph Keenan, Ph.D., FSC

In the middle of the 16th century the first Westerners, the Jesuits, arrived in Japan, and at that same time a Japanese man named Rikyu was developing a new approach to the ancient practice of serving tea with some food. It did not take long for the Jesuits to discover and develop an admiration for tea practices and to incorporate them into their everyday life in Japan. But the relationship between western civilization and the tea ceremony came to an abrupt halt when Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Shogun, forced Westerners out of Japan and shut the doors on them for almost 300 years. Although the doors re-opened in 1868, it took almost 100 years for Westerners to develop an interest in the tea ceremony to the extent that they would begin to practice it and not simply view it as a quaint, inscrutable custom of the Japanese. In view of this renewed interest in many nations, three questions will be raised in this booklet:

1)What are people doing when they do tea?
2) Why should anyone in the world want to do such a difficult thing? and
3) How can people from different religions and cultural backgrounds benefit from the way of tea?

1) What Is Tea?

The experience of a tea ceremony can have 3 dimensions to it:
it is a social event;
it stresses aesthetics very much;
it can have a religious dimension.

That it is a social event is obvious. Guests gather at an appointed time to be served food and drink. This can be an informal tea which consists of serving a sweet and some tea, or even a small meal with the sweet and tea. This is called a chakai and can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or so. The number of guests for this sort of tea can be as small as one, and the highest number of guests is determined only by the limitations of the host’s facilities. Guests also can be invited to a much more formal gathering called a chaji which involves highly structured gathering rituals, the serving of a meal in multiple courses, an intermission in a garden, and then a solemn thick tea ceremony followed by the less solemn thin tea ceremony. A chaji will last from 3 to 5 hours and only 5 guests at most will be present. Both the chakai and the chaji have the same purpose which is to serve food and drink to guests. The difference lies in the quantity of food and drink, and the increased amount of ritualized movement that is necessary when you are serving more and doing it in your finest fashion. As with any serving of food and drink in the world, a sensible host will invite people who are compatible, for no one sits down with enemies to share a meal. In English we have the word “companion” which means a friend who does things with you. Etymologically “companion” came from 2 Latin words, cum which means with, and pan which means bread. Thus the original meaning of the word was the one with whom you were willing to share food. I believe that all nations can readily associate the sharing of food and drink as a symbol of friendly acceptance. The tea ceremony is definitely this sort of social event.

Let’s turn now to the aesthetic dimension of tea. All great cultures in the history of civilization take care to serve a meal in a proscribed manner, and that prescription will always involve a certain amount of beauty. The appearance of the food, the utensils used in serving the food, and the decoration of the eating place should be quite appealing to the eyes. This is common throughout the world. In the tea ceremony this concern for beauty is so deeply pursued that tea can truly be referred to as an art form. Body movement is completely choreographed, even down to finger positions. Tea utensils can be of such a high quality that you will find them in art museums throughout the world. This is true also of tea architecture. (The Philadelphia and Los Angeles museums have complete tea house complexes which they display with great pride.) The arrangement of food in a chakai or a chaji can be so striking in beauty and so subtle in choice and form that it is almost on the level of poetry. The Japanese say that food must be tasted with the eyes before it is tasted with the mouth.

People frequently ask, “How long does it take to learn the tea ceremony?” This is like asking, “How long does it take to learn to play the piano? “If you are a fast learner, you will be able to play a simple tune within 10 weeks, but if you really want to play well, count more on 10 years. There is an old Latin saying, Ars est celare arlem. This means that true art is so subtle that it looks quite natural and simple — it does not look contrived. This is true of the art of tea also, and thus it takes years of study and practice in order to master it. People are surprised when you tell them that it takes years to learn tea, but think about how long it took you to learn proper table manners, and these, though refined, are certainly not on the level of an art form. And think too about the many years any good cook has spent in developing the ability to gracefully prepare and serve a good meal.

The tea ceremony as an art form cuts through a whole spectrum of Japanese culture because it embraces many art forms such as architecture, gardening, ceramics, textiles, calligraphy, flower arrangement, and cuisine, plus a few rather arcane art forms such as the sculpting of ashes and the building of a beautiful fire. Certain arrangements of ashes on which charcoal is placed can take as long as two hours to prepare. Other than the tea ceremony, where else can you find humble ashes raised to such a level of refinement and beauty? Indeed, they are the finest ashes in the world. A story is told about three tea masters who had a magnificent tea room with much valuable equipment. One day the house caught fire and the 3 tea masters rushed in to save what they could. The first thing they saved was the ashes! The point being made with this story is that everything involved in a tea ceremony has been given careful aesthetic attention, even the ashes. Going to a high quality tea ceremony can be every bit as much of an aesthetic experience as going to an art museum or the theater.

The third dimension of tea is the religious dimension, and it is optional. I would compare this to meals in Muslim or Jewish, or Christian homes, and many other religious homes. Pious people in these religious traditions will bring a religious mentality to meals and thus experience the meal as a religious event. The religious mentality which is frequently brought to a tea ceremony is that of Zen Buddhism. Zen people talk about the whole universe being experienced in the drinking of a bowl of tea. This experience comes from giving yourself over totally to the here and now and fully participating in the tea with a heart free from selfish desires. But this is up to the individuals participating in the tea. As Mr. Yamada, the director of Urasenke in New York, says, “Zen people (particularly of the Rinzai sect) are often interested in tea, and tea people are often interested in Zen, but tea is tea and Zen is Zen.” One could just as easily bring a Christian or Islamic mentality to a tea ceremony, and in fact Soshitsu Sen XV, the present Grand Master, highly encourages just this sort of thing. Giving oneself over to the here and now with a heart free from selfish desire is a thought quite acceptable to all the major religions of the world. Christians speak about experiencing Christ at the supper table; he can also be experienced at tea. Jews speak of living out their covenant with God by keeping his law. Tea can be quite kosher. And Muslims can accept the will of Allah while sharing food and tea. Tea is for all nations, all cultures, and all religious traditions.

2) Why Do Something As Difficult As Tea?

Hasn’t life already become crammed with work and niggling little details to be accomplished on a daily basis? Why take on this extra burden which requires discipline of self right down to finger positions? Am I not tense enough from the anxieties of modern living? This sort of question would be typical in the United States, and I suspect it would be typical in any country which has given itself over to the high tech competitiveness of the computerized and industrialized modern world. The tensions and anxieties are of such acuteness that quick fixes and fast escapes from the rat race of life are looked for. Drugs and alcohol provide such escapes for many, but with disastrous consequences. Other forms of escape such as mindless TV staring might relieve the tension without causing bodily harm like the drugs do, but this form of escape after work does nothing to change the tension-filled work hours. Indeed such escapes can readily turn into vapid moments without any genuine joy, and reality is experienced as the boring walls which face you after the TV is turned off.

But why has modern living become this way? Perhaps the problem now is from the industrial revolution which began in the 19th century and has swept over the entire world. With machines doing the work for humans, the end product became the most important thing. Henry Ford’s assembly line may have done much to lift many out of poverty, but at the same time it sounded a death knell for pride in craftsmanship, and for the art of doing things in a beautiful way. The end product, the final goal, the bottom line, these are bothersome at best, and at worst a necessary evil. The end product and the objectives to be achieved have so pervaded modern mentalities that even vacations are approached this way. For example, a person might decide to vacation at the seashore. Getting there is nuisance. If only we could be like Spock in Star Trek and be beamed instantly from one place to another. The great technology of jet planes has done much to enable us to reach more places in a lifetime, but hasn’t it at the same time robbed us of some of the great joys that used to be involved in travel? For example, the beautiful experience of the sky and sea in the by gone days of ship travel, and the viewing of the countryside from the windows of a train. I would maintain that at times the journey itself can be more rewarding that the destination reached. For example, a friend of mine once traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend a huge religion convention. Other than the fact that about 17,000 people were there, he remembers nothing of that convention. But he still tells funny stories about the night spent in Hannibal while en route to the convention. The circus was in town and all the motels were filled up with circus people leaving my friend with an ancient hotel, quite run down, as his only option. His stories about the 70 year old bell boy dressed in long johns and red suspenders, and the 65 year old maid making goo-goo eyes at him while she exposed her knee still evoke much laughter from his listeners. And his remembrance of his first taste of fresh caught Mississippi catfish itself makes his mouth water. This friend of mine is one of those lucky people who realize that the trip can be an end in itself, and that the final goal of the trip should not by the only focus of the trip.

Let me tell you another story to illustrate my point. A Catholic brother, one of my confreres, was standing before a wash basin and mirror in his room 15 minutes before his first class of the day. His radio was playing as he spread shaving cream over his face and proceeded to shave while he puffed on a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and simultaneously was glancing at the lesson plan he had taped onto the mirror. At that moment another brother glanced into the room, sized up the situation and suggested that if he tied a broom to his back he could also be sweeping the floor. Shaving was just a task to be done, so why not accomplish something else at the same time like reviewing the lesson plan and then mellow it all with the cigarette and the music? This jumbled, frenetic approach to life is self defeating and eventually leads to the short circuiting of sensitivity and an onslaught of tension and jitters. But to this brother, shaving is so lacking in felt meaning and seems like such a waste of time. But are there really any other options for him? A really authentic tea person would answer immediately with a hearty, “Yes!”

This same Brother later took up the study of tea, and once did a tea ceremony for his mother who had come from a typical lrish-American 20th century background. She paid very careful attention to the tea ceremony, but when her son finished she simply said, “Well, dear, you did that very gracefully, but I must say that I can get a cup of tea together much quicker than that.” The cup of tea, the end product was the important thing to her. The making of it is just work, and thus speed becomes the chief concern in doing the task necessary for reaching the goal. But in the world of tea each movement in the making of the tea has nobility and meaningfulness. The mundane, trivial acts of setting a fire, boiling some water, and making a bowl of tea are lifted to the level of an art form, and these actions of the host say to the guests, “I really want the very best for you.” An Urasenke teacher,wanting to convey this same sort of thought: once asked his students, “Where else on earth do people bring the kitchen stove into the room of the guests and do the work of a servant before them?” And this is precisely what the way of tea has to offer the world, namely, how to transform daily tasks which most people consider drudgery into beautiful expressions of concern for others. In the way of tea this type of transformation is not restricted just to the making or serving of tea, but it can spill over into all of one’s daily actions and transform the entire day. The making of a bed, the folding of laundry, walking down stairs, driving a car to work — instead of racing through these actions with the mind — set of simply getting them done, savor them as present moments which contain hidden riches, and do them in the most beautiful way. Do them not from egotistical motives of self fulfillment, but rather as gifts to the world that express to those you meet that you really want to present the best to them. In this approach to life even in today’s world (or should I say especially in today’s world) the niggling details of the daily grind can become moments of joy, moments filled with sweet nectar to be savored rather than tension filled tasks. With this sort of attention to mundane actions, you can open yourself and others to a greater awareness of what is around you in the here and now.

3) How Can All Nations With Disparate Religions Benefit From The Way Of Tea?

Many if not most of the major religions of the world talk about a way, a path to be followed, or a journey to be taken. Many Christians today will refer to this same sort of thing as a spirituality. It is not my intention to suggest that any one of these is better for you than the others, and I certainly am not saying that the way of tea should replace the spiritual path which you may have already taken. All of these ways, however, do have something in common. These ways or spiritualities are designed to knit together all of our daily actions and turn them into moments which will move us toward a destiny, be it the experience of Nirvana, becoming one with Brahman, being united with the heavenly Father, or living in Allah’s garden of delights. What I would like to suggest to you is that the way of tea might assist you to enjoy a bit more the great spiritual journey which you have already set out on. You can journey on any path you choose, and you may walk, run, skip or jump along the way. May I suggest to you that Chado, the way of tea, just might help you to walk, run, skip or jump in a more beautiful and joyfilled fashion.

Many religious traditions emphasize the importance of each moment I was taught as a Christian that every moment of the day could be a source of grace, i.e., a moment which if utilized well, would bring me closer to God. My novice master referred to this as “the sacrament of the moment,” and there was a great deal of wisdom in his teaching. But the moment was sacramentalized or made holy by the use of offering prayers, or by bringing to mind an appropriate saying from the Bible, or by doing it with a motive of faith or charity. This sort ofspiritual thinking takes faith statements and cloaks the ordinary moment in a faith wrapper of verbalized meaning. The moment may indeed become God’s grace giving moment, but that verbalized faith wrapper does little to rescue the ordinary moment from dryness and tedium. Indeed, as a young Brother I was warned to expect tediousness in the daily schedule. There will always be suffering in life, but too often we write off life as a valley of tears, and say that suffering and ennui are the necessary bitterness of the medicine that cures, when the simple fact of the matter is that often we have imposed it on ourselves, of needlessly have allowed society to impose it on us, and in the process we destroy ourselves rather than bring about growth.

There are two developments in modern society which I believe have entrapped us in the above sort of situation. One is the trivialization of moments in life. I already talked about that when speaking about the bottom line, the end goal, the destination as being the important things, and the means of getting there as trivial. The second development which I want to address now concerns an overaccent on verbalized meaning and verbalized truth to such an extent that the nonverbal moments and aspects of life are ignored or trivialized. I believe that the deep roots of both of these developments are in the 18th century western movement referred to in history books as the Enlightenment, the philosophical movement which gave rise to the empirical sciences which in turn gave rise to technology and has culminated in our present day computerized world. The machinery made the actions of the workman to be no longer an expression of himself, and this robs his work of its significance. In addition to this, empirical sciences took the place of truth in the public forum. Religion and philosophy became privatized things which the individual could subjectively accept or reject. The so-called objective truths of science are expressed in carefully chosen words. And if you do not use the precise words, you are not uttering the truth. With this mind-set poetry and art are relegated to even lesser levels of significance than religion and philosophy. What Shakespeare or other great poets say about water might delight the ear, but the simple fact of the matter is that water is H20, and that’s that. It’s been demonstrated in the lab!! I am convinced that this science movement has led many to believe that meaning is somehow contained in things rather than given to things, and that meaning is just waiting to be discovered and communicated by being couched in words that are the correct words describing what is there. Thus the ordinary person must turn to these words in order to know the truth.

The good aspects of technology which we have all experienced, such as modern medicine and the rise of large technological societies, have enabled us to live longer lives, to rise to higher levels of education, and to have more leisure to pursue humanizing activities. But this has lured many into accepting scientific words as the supreme source of truth. These developments have also affected religions in cultures that have been deeply affected by the empirical sciences and modern technology. For example, Christians in the West for the past few centuries have been overstressing the importance of the verbal in spite of the fact that some gospel stories depict Jesus revealing himself in nonverbal ways. There is a beautiful story about two of Jesus’ followers walking along the road toward the town of Emmaus, and the resurrected Jesus joins them, but they do not recognize him. He talks with them all along the way explaining the Scriptures to them, but they still do not recognize him. They invite him to spend the night with them at an inn, and while at supper Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and gives it to them. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they knew him. It wasn’t the words which enlightened these disciples, it was a nonverbal experience of bread breaking. But with the Enlightenment children, the verbal reigns so supreme that both their secular and religious lives have been awash in a flood of words. Mark Twain once said that there is no death worse than being talked to death!

It is not my intention to take away the significance of verbal communication, but rather to focus on the significance of nonverbalized experience and how it not only has its own meaning, but also can give new dimensions of meaning to human experience which has already been verbalized.

Comic strips for decades have used the image of a light bulb going on over someone’s head to convey the notion of sudden understanding or comprehension. In more serious forms of communication, such as religions, this sort of experience is referred to as enlightenment which need not be associated with the verbal at all. There is an understanding, a knowledge, a truth the body can grasp which can be every bit as enlightening as verbalized cognition. In nonverbal musical compositions the patterns of notes strung together are referred to as sentences, phrases, questions and answers. Educated musicians when listening to a new piece of music as it reaches a climax in performance have been known to utter, “That’s true!” In the more bloody arena of the bull fight, the final plunging of the sword into the poor beast is known as the moment of truth for the toreador. These are moments of vivid consciousness in which the illumination of the consciousness has its own meaning which is experienced as truth. And yet it is nonverbal, not because of any lack of speech skills, but simply because it is another mode of understanding which defies verbalization. Lovers of the fine arts, for example, will glow in the remembrance of an occasional catharsis and will insist that the catharsis was filled with meaning and truth. But the meaning and truth of a Beethoven symphony or a painting by Braque can only be expressed through musical sounds and colorful pigments. Perhaps this nonverbalized truth is what Paschal was talking about when he said, “The heart has reasons which reason does not comprehend.”

As children of the Enlightenment who have devalued the nonverbal, whatever truth we might begrudgingly give to nonverbal understanding falls quite short of the persuasiveness and credibility of a modern scientist’s words. On another level of lesser sophistication, some parishioners will insist that the truth of the Eroica Symphony, if it has any at all, cannot begin to compare with the verbalized truths in the pastor’s occasional dogmatic droppings. Again, I am not trying to take anything away from the statements of the scientist or the pastor, but I am saying that in writing off a consciousness which is not tied up with verbalization, we effectively eliminate at least half of the moments in the journey of life as sources for enlightenment and truth. In doing so, we run the risk of losing them as moments in which our destination can be joyfully realized. This can drain much of our life of its rich nectar and leave it in dryness and a state of tedium. When this happens, the dreaded daily grind is best gotten through quickly in order to escape such painful desiccation. This is when Chado, the way of tea, comes to our rescue.

A tea mind can help us to rescue moments in life from trivialization and to experience the depth and truth of those moments in a nonverbalized manner. Very early on in my tea ceremony lessons, my teacher, Mr. Yamada, was watching me fold the silk napkin used for wiping utensils. “No, No!” he said. “When you do that you are not just folding a cloth, you are embracing the whole universe.” Although there is a climactic point in the doing of the tea ceremony, the climax does not rob the preparation and denouement of their meaningfulness, nor does it reduce them to a level of less significance than its own. The whole universe can be experienced not just in the peak moment of making and drinking the tea, but in all the other moments before and after — even in the folding of the napkin and in cleaning up after the guests have gone. Some minds with a strong empirical bent might dismiss this as religious nonsense. However, that the whole can be experienced in all of its parts is not just a wild mystical thought or pious piffle. Modern physics has demonstrated the same sort of idea with holograms, and biologists have pointed to it in the DNA molecule. And, of course, if science says it, it must be true!!

When people fold a cloth as though they were embracing the universe, much more attention is given to the action so that it will be done well and beautifully. In other words, the meaning which we give to something will affect the way we treat it. For example, Let’s look at different types of meals. At a Saturday noon lunch with just the immediate family, the average American will go about this informally and will not hesitate to put bread in its wrapper on the kitchen table. At the weekly family dinner, usually on Sunday, they will move to the dining room, the good china will be used, and the bread will be served on a dish. For a banquet a special hall will be used, flowers and candles will be placed on the tables, and the bread might be wrapped in fine linen and served on a silver platter. A sociologist could point out how these structures of lunch, dinner, and banquet are expressions of group identity and understanding. The lunch group is a far less serious expression of a social unit’s identity than that of the banquet. Sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists could point out how the participation of people in these ritualized meals can jog them into re-experiencing and understanding their own social identity in the group. Meaning does influence the structuring of rituals, but the experiences of rituals can serve to initiate such meaning and to sustain and reinforce it throughout life. A great deal of the understanding of traditional meanings given to life by societies is grasped not just by the verbalized meaning being told to an individual, but by the individual’s living out of life in the midst of that society which expresses itself through rituals, and many of those rituals are nonverbal. So too, if folding a silk napkin is approached as a moment of considerable importance, in the proper folding of that napkin one just might experience an embrace of the universe. When tea people refer to experiencing the entire universe, those words are not intended as an empirical fact — that is obvious. Nor are they intended as a metaphor which will give meaning to an action by way of a verbal wrapper. They are more in the nature of a pointer telling the listener that there is rich experience of great depth to be had in the ordinary events of life such as drinking a bowl of tea or folding a cloth.

Meanings given to things are value laden, and when we get these all together, they tend to fall into a neat pyramid from the most valuable to the least valuable. The least valuable, then, is not given much attention. Lunch is not so important as a banquet. But the way of tea is saying that all moments are important. It is a thought very similar to the sacrament of the moment which I mentioned earlier, but Chado is not telling us to wrap the moment with an extraneous meaning, but to savor the moment and to delight in its sweetness by giving it careful attention in a beautiful way. It is in this approach that the deepest meaning will be revealed as truth experienced, and the fullness of that truth will defy verbalization. As the tea mind permeates more and more actions of your daily life, you may find yourself opening the china closet doors with more consciousness of that action at hand, and in a manner which strives for beauty in your movement. With that approach you may one day open those china closet doors only to realize that you have just opened the doors to the kingdom of heaven.

As this point someone might say, “Surely there are other ways than Chado to achieve this end;” — what one might call tea substitutes. I would not maintain that the tea ceremony is the only vehicle for developing a mentality and approach to life which might help to transform the mundane. Perhaps any discipline which involves body movement, full concentration on the present moment, and a concern for aesthetics might be employed. The marvelous experiences in highly skilled singing, or the disciplined digging of fingers into a correct playing of the piano (even just scales), or the thrill of beautiful movement across the ice with good skating technique which calls for total concentration — those who have had any of these or similar experiences can readily understand how deeply felt and how uplifting such experiences can be. They have verve, they energize, they fill one with joy and are experienced as meaningful even though the meaning is not verbalized. Somehow in the disciplined doing of the action with full concentration which is anxiety free, and a careful attention to the aesthetics of the action, that act is lifted from the mundane and raised to a royal level. Having realized this in one small area of life, you are then in a much better position to extend the discipline, attention, and aesthetics to the rest of life, and the deadening tedium can be transformed and filled with a rich liveliness. However, in my own experience, tea has taught me this much better than music or skating.

Life is often compared to a journey. But to be exciting, that journey need not be far in space. It might only be from the kitchen to the back garden. And you don’t really need much for the trip, for what you need and where you are going are already there in front of you and within you. And what is already there can flash forth its brilliant lights as you gracefully walk down a night of steps, or careful]y fold laundered clothing, or beautifully serve a cup of tea. But this flashing forth is more likely to occur in the ordinary moments of life’s journey when those moments are lived with discipline, attentiveness, and a concern for beauty.

In conclusion, Let me say to you that whatever nation and culture you come from, and whatever traditions you embrace, I hope that your journey in life will be filled with joy. But no matter how or where you follow your path, don’t forget to take the tea!

(Adapted from a talk delivered in Kyoto, Japan, October, 1990.)

Brother Joseph Keenan, Ph.D., FSC
Associate Professor
Department of Religion
Founder and Director
Urasenke-La Salle Tea Ceremony School
La Salle University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Permanent link to this article: https://issoantea.com/tea-for-all-nations/

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