The Japanese have a penchant for turning the seemingly ordinary into the sacred. The tea culture, more appropriately called The Way of Tea, is one of Japan’s richest traditional practices. Called Chado, it finds sublime expression in the deceptively simple act of brewing and serving tea. The appellation, Way, is neither accidental nor random in its evolution, as it extols the ritual as a centuries- old, and life-long exercise in self-discipline and studious discipleship, both of which are indispensable for mastering this finest of the Oriental arts your highest truth. Indeed, the fact that entire family lineages of training and knowledge exist exclusively for the ritual is sheer and eloquent testimony to the reverence and awe with which it is held in Japan.
The tea ceremony itself is called chanoyu, and it literally translates to “hot water for tea.” From sixteenth century Japanese folklore comes a story that beautifully illustrates the quaint essence of chanoyu as a revered and learned art. Sen Rikyu was a great tea master. History, in fact, accords him eminence as the master of all tea masters, much in the same way some people are regarded as captains of fraternity captains! This amusing conversation once took place between the master and one of his students.
Tea student: “Master, what is the secret of tea?”
Rikyu: “Suggest coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter. Set the charcoal so that water will boil. Flowers should be arranged as if they were still in their natural habitat, the field.”
Tea student: “Anyone can do that,” he scoffed.
Rikyu: “If that is so, then I will become your student and you will be my teacher!”
All aspects of chanoyu are really quite compelling in their simplicity and depth:
• The meticulous cleaning and impeccable decoration of the room.
• The various stages of psychological and spiritual preparation.
• The choice of utensils.
• The actual serving of the tea.
The Way of Tea is, ultimately, for its practitioners, a way of life that encompasses a total philosophy of being and doing that is infused with the tools for genuine spiritual awareness. Additionally, it focuses on doing as the predominant means of expression in which two things are achieved:-
• The activity seeks to highlight the ultimate beauty in all things, animate and inanimate.
• The activity represents a vibrant form of spiritual discipline.
All these, and more, were revealed to me at my first attendance at a tea ceremony sometime in the early 1980s as a student at Oxford, in the English West Midlands. I had struck an uncommonly close friendship with a Japanese youth of roughly my age, named Tokushi Hirohito. His parents were in Britain on their annual summer vacation, and he had invited me to visit with them at their well-appointed town mansion in London’s smart West End. The elder Hirohito, a wealthy industrialist in his early sixties, had decided to infuse an oriental flavor into his weekend entertainment of a party of twelve house guests by hosting a chanoyu in the ballroom of his Park Lane home. The mood and ambience in the ballroom was serene and cool, as six kimono-clad attendants and a few well-stationed oriental objects d’art- an intricately sculpted Budhha and jade vases of impeccably arranged flowers- all made heroic attempts to bring Japan home to us in London’s West End.