The Japanese Tea Ceremony

by Stefan Chiarantano, Aug 25, 2005 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

I got to experience the Japanese tea ceremony on cross-cultural day when my home class held a tea ceremony to honour our two international visitors. It was performed by two of my students who were studying chado. I was fortunate to experience one of Japan's treasured traditions and to learn something of its esoteric meaning.

The Japanese tea ceremony (cha no yu or chado or sado) has it origins in Zen Buddhism dating to the thirteenth century. It blends elements of Japanese philosophy and artistic traditions, and interweaves four principles -- harmony with people and nature (wa), everyone is equal in the tearoom, respect for others (kei), purity of heart and mind (sei), and tranquility (jaku).

Over the centuries, the tea ceremony has evolved into the ritualized preparation and serving of powdered green tea (matcha) to guests in a tearoom by a tea practitioner.

In order for a tea practitioner to practice the art of tea ceremony, he or she must become familiar with kimono and with Japanese traditional arts such as calligraphy, flower arranging, and ceramics in addition to his or her school's particular tea practices. The study of the tea ceremony takes many years to master and can last a lifetime. There are two main schools both having its own prescribed rituals. They are the Omotesenke and Urasenke schools.

Guests play an important role in the ceremony and must have some knowledge and understanding of the tea ceremony and/or are given some instruction beforehand. Guests are expected to follow prescribed gestures and phrases to entering, sitting, exiting, taking the tea and eating of the sweets. In an ideal situation, practitioner and guests are involved in a complex choreography of movements and adhere to strict rules of conduct and behaviour.

The ceremony's intended aims are to focus the self in the moment (an objective of Zen Buddhism) and to cleanse the five senses.

The senses are responsible for providing the brain with information about the external world. The five senses act to warn us when we're in danger and to inform us about pleasurable things. The senses inform the brain: the brain informs us.

The ceremony cleanses the five senses as follows:

1) The sense of sight is cleansed by seeing the hanging scroll (tokonoma) and/or the flower arrangement;

2) The sense of hearing is cleansed by the sound of the boiling water to make the tea;

3) The sense of taste is cleansed by tasting and drinking the tea;

4) The sense of touch is cleansed by holding the tea bowl and feeling the glaze of the pottery; and

5) The sense of smell is cleansed by the smell of the tea and from the tatami (straw) flooring of the tearoom.

It has been noted that the tea ceremony can lead to an integrated body-mind experience by balancing both hemispheres of the brain. The left side and right side of the brain have different responsibilities. Functions of the left side of the brain involve analytical thinking, sequential ordering, rational thinking, and verbal skills. Functions resident in the right side of the brain include visual and spatial ability, intuition, and artistic ability.

The left side of the brain is stimulated by the logical sequences of the tea ceremony such as the scooping of powdered green tea from a container, placing it in a ceramic bowl, the ladling of hot water to the bowl, the picking up of a small bamboo whisk, the churning of the mixture to a green froth, the handing of the tea to the guest, and to the way the bowl is picked up and held in the hands of the guest, to its elevation to the lips for drinking and for its return to the host. The left side of the brain is also activated by the factual information about the utensils - the tea bowl (chawan), the bamboo whisk (chasen), and the tea scoop (chashaku).

The right side of the brain is stimulated by the visual-spatial effects of the setting (the environment of the tea room), the awareness of self and others (movements and gestures) and by symbols (the tea room as a place of peace) and feelings evoked by participating in the tea ceremony (tranquility). The right hemisphere of our brain controls most of our emotional expressions and perceptions. Thus, active and cognizant participation in the tea ceremony can lead to an integrated body-mind experience by balancing both hemispheres of the brain.

It was a lovely experience to take part in one of Japan's oldest cultural traditions and to learn of its esoteric meaning. I hope you get a chance to experience too.

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