Zen in a Teacup: The Way of Tea

First make your way on down the stone steps, past the trickling pond and small garden hemmed in by cut logs. The tatami room is just beyond the wooden entry gate up ahead. Watch your head as you pass beneath. Now move inside and have a seat on the mat. Turn off that mobile phone and, while you’re at it, your mind as well. They’re both of no use here. This is a place of peace. Your mother’s constant nagging doesn’t exist. As for that gruff office manager sucking air through his teeth, he is in another world, a world you’ve left behind. Just take it easy. You’ve now completed the first step of sado, or the way of tea. 

This particular world comes courtesy of Soshin Terada, who teaches traditional Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu) from her apartment in Tokyo’s Meguro district. Like the sumo dojo, the teahouse is a place of sanctity. It is where one of Japan’s most revered customs takes place. In truth, the entrance to Terada’s teahouse is not quite as grand as initially implied. The garden is plastic and the stones are rubber mats. The gate is merely an enhanced door jam. But the beauty of the tea experience is not in the fineness of the trappings, it lies in capturing a special feeling at a particular time. “This time today will never come back,” says 72-year-old Terada. “This moment is precious. It is not the same as any time yesterday, and will not be repeated tomorrow. You have to relax and enjoy the tea at this moment. That is the mind of the tea.” 

Sound a tad pretentious? Perhaps. But the movement and orchestration of preparation and drinking during chanoyu combine to form a tradition that has been played out for centuries. And even today, with the privacy of folks’ lives being squeezed by technology and work demands alike, experiencing the way of tea still fills a prominent place in the hearts and – more importantly – minds of Japanese, if even for just a moment. 

A mere cup of joe at the corner diner this is not. Each movement in the preparation has been rehearsed thousands of times over the roughly 10 years it takes to become a teacher of the craft. From the seiza position (in which the feet are tucked underneath and behind), the hostess works between the kettle and wood table with the precision of a draftsman and fluidity of a ballerina. The entire process is utilitarian in nature. Everything has a function or purpose – the wood whisks, the thin scoops, the adjustments to the water temperature, the mixing, everything. The relative location of the kettle, table and even the flower vase in the corner are all set by careful measurement down to the centimeter. This attention to detail and effort on the part of the hostess is part of the pleasure. “[Enjoyment] involves appreciation of the teahouse, the utensils, a quiet atmosphere and gratitude for the host’s warm hospitality,” says Yumiko, 35, a secretary, who started participating in tea ceremony at the age of 10 at the urging of her mother, an instructor. 

For the two largest chanoyu styles in Japan, omotesenke and urasenke, the tea starts in a finely ground form, or matcha. After the hostess scoops a few spoonfuls of matcha into a ceramic teacup, a wood ladle is used to add water from the kettle. This is slightly different from other forms of tea drinking in that the tea itself is actually consumed, as opposed to remaining at the bottom of the kettle or inside a tea bag. It is said that because of this distinction, a definitive flavor can be achieved. The water plays a vital role in the flavor as well. “The best-tasting tea is drawn from the best water,” explains Terada, adorned in a yellow kimono with blue obi (belt), as she lifts the lid on a black water kettle nestled in the floor in the center of the room. She says that using pure water with an appropriate mineral content is as important to tea as it is to sake or wine. She then vigorously whisks the concoction with a chasen inside the teacup, or matcha chawan, in the same way a chef will beat an egg. When a white foam forms on the surface, it is ready. 

Guests, seated in the same catcher-blocking-the-plate position, are fanned out opposite the hostess. With a decorative piece of omogashi (a sweet cake) placed before them already eaten, it is now time for the piece d’ resistance – the drinking of the tea itself. After retrieving a teacup and performing a few appropriate bows, each guest holds the cup with both hands so the painted image faces the drinker. At this moment, Terada encourages a peek at the pattern of the floating foam bunched up against the sides of the teacup. 

“You can see the bubbles, but the clear areas resemble islands floating in the ocean in shapes that will never be repeated,” she explains. “This particular tea is unique; it can only be enjoyed this one time. This is part of the command of tea.” The drinking is an aesthetic all its own. With the palm as a pivot point, the teacup is rotated clockwise a quarter turn. Then it is turned once more so that the image faces the hostess – a small sign of respect for her hospitality. Now it’s down the hatch. 

The experience is a form of therapy. “Sometimes a 40-year-old lady will call me,” Terada says. “Overwhelmed by stress at work, she’ll just want to come over for a break. People are attracted to the old-style feeling of the experience; it is healing.”

The stringent codes of conduct seen within the ceremony have not always been the case. Buddhist monks studying in China first brought powdered green tea to Japan in the eighth century. In these days, the tea had various meditation and medicinal uses before centuries later being adopted by the upper classes and shoguns for times of celebration and entertainment. 

Sen no Rikyu, a Monk born into a wealthy trading family, completely revolutionized green tea in the 16th century. After being appointed as tea master to shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great unifier of Japan during a time of intense civil strife, he worked to develop an egalitarian image for the tea ceremony. This began with the implementation of a strict set of rules. As a result, he stripped the teahouse of all excesses, added defined codes of behavior and emphasized the Zen principles of finding internal worth within oneself. The results of his work are the same principles and values that the tea schools teach today.

Terada insists that for introspection on the part of her guests to take place it is important that her teahouse reflect the spirit of the season. In spring, a guest may be found holding a teacup featuring a picture of rabbits frolicking in a meadow with a painted scroll hanging on her back wall reading, “One flower blooms, spring is coming.” The text of a scroll suitable for summer might describe the shrill cry from a golden pheasant in a tall tree as “resonating through a quiet, cool summer dawn.” This feeling will be complemented perhaps by teacups adorned with images of flowing rivers and mountain scenes. Such attention to the yearly changes in the natural world combine to contribute to “the mind of the hosting,” she says. 

For Terada, she feels lucky to be involved in such a rewarding job. Her 32 years as an instructor have allowed her to see women’s roles within society change. She notes that when she began teaching – during Japan’s period of great economic growth – most of her students were hobby-seeking housewives with grown children. Today she teaches primarily young, single women and even a few men in her weekday classes.

The image of tea itself has undergone a transformation as well. Bottled teas produced from a variety of leaves are available by the dozens. Fueled by media reports on the health benefits commonly associated with antioxidants and polyphenols found in green tea, the yearly consumption of all bottled tea products doubled during the latter half of the previous decade. Additionally, green tea flavored ice cream and lattes are now standard fare in many fashionable coffee shops. 

To view the tea ceremony as a bit of an anachronism in contemporary Japan, however, doesn’t take much deep thinking. The hardly Zen-like elements that make up most of modern life, such as ringing mobile phones and convenience stores on nearly every street corner, can make it difficult to form a link between the meditating monks of 400 years ago and a significant relevance for the tea ceremony today. But balance is the key to making the connection. There is, after all, time for everything these days, even Zen. “The important thing is to savor the richness of your own spirit,” explains Yumiko, the tea ceremony student. “It is totally different from having a coffee at Starbucks. Though I do like Starbucks’ cappuccino.”

Story and Photos by Brett Bull

From J SELECT Magazine, July 2004