What’s really happening during a tea ceremony

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A bowl of green tea with powdered green tea (what the tea looks like before it’s prepared) and a tea whisk.

By Courtney Coppernoll

“Pretend you have eggs in your armpits” is a piece of advice I receive from my tea ceremony teacher almost every week because, even though I’ve been studying tea ceremony for about a year and a half, sometimes I still don’t hold my arms juuust right.

This attention to detail is why the first thing many people notice about tea ceremony is, well, the ceremonial aspect. Every movement is carefully choreographed, every word scripted, and every utensil ritually purified before the tea can be served. Participants are also expected to wear formal attire (kimono), sit in the traditional formal style (seiza), and bow several times throughout the ceremony.

Yet, the primary reason many people choose to study tea ceremony (including more than two dozen of my own classmates both in Japan and the U.S.) is relaxation. You see, there’s an unfortunate misconception going around that tea ceremony is a very serious, very rigid sort of practice. However, there’s a great deal more to the art than the formal presentation most people are familiar with.

First and foremost, tea ceremony is a powerful sensory experience meant to stimulate all five senses. Upon entering the tea room guests are greeted by the smell of incense. As they move about the room, they will take in the sight of the hanging scroll and flower arrangement. They will feel the heat from the kama (kettle for boiling water) and the smooth texture of the tatami when they take their seats. During the ceremony they’ll enjoy the contrasting sweet and bitter tastes of the tea sweet and tea.

Then there’s sound, which in my opinion is the strongest sensation experienced during a tea ceremony. This might seem strange considering that most of the ceremony is performed in complete silence, but that silence is essential because it attunes the mind to the more subtle sounds of the ceremony. For example, the sound of the shouji (paper door) being opened or the unique, soft tread of tabi (split-toe socks) sliding across the tatami. There is even a poetic name for the sound of steam rising from the kama; matsukaze, or the sound of wind blowing in the pine trees. Aside from being pleasing to hear, these sounds, as well as those of the tea being whisked and water being poured into the tea bowl or kama, also serve the practical purpose of signaling the various stages of the tea ceremony for guests who have poor eyesight.

Giving oneself over to the experience of these senses creates a very peaceful atmosphere in the tea room. My classmates, for instance, universally agreed that tea ceremony allows them to slow down and take a break from the busyness of everyday life. One can enjoy the quiet stimulation of the senses and leave stressful feelings behind. This is the reason why no matter how busy I may be, I have never missed a single lesson since I began studying tea ceremony more than a year ago.

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Hot water is poured into the tea bowl.

In addition to the peaceful state of mind it creates, tea ceremony also has deep spiritual and philosophical aspects. The practice of tea ceremony is called chado, or “the Way of Tea,” and its name uses the kanji for “tea” (茶) and “road” or “path” (道). This naming draws attention to the fact that students do not simply learn the ritualistic steps of the ceremony, but adopt chado as a lifestyle, as a “path” they follow in their daily lives.

One important principle of this path is that of ichi-go ichi-e (“one time, one meeting”). In chado, ichi-go ichi-e is the idea that every tea ceremony is a unique event that can never be repeated in exactly the same way. This emphasis on change reminds those who study chado that nothing lasts forever, so it’s important to appreciate each meeting (and the people you share it with) as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

An example of how this is practiced in tea ceremony also happens to be one of my classmate’s favorite reasons for studying chado: the changing seasons. The flower arrangements placed in the tea room, the type of tea bowl used, and even the method in which the tea is prepared all change with the seasons. These differences emphasize the passage of time and also serve as reminders to appreciate the moments we have since we will never experience the same ones again.

Another fundamental aspect of chado is the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, for which there is no direct English translation. It can be described as finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence, but it has a distinctly sorrowful connotation. One common example is the tsubaki flower (Japanese camellia), which survives the cold and blossoms near the end of winter, yet dies after only a short bloom. Wabi-sabi is recognizing the flower’s death as a sad event, but also as a beautiful and meaningful reflection of the impermanence of all things (particularly in regard to the contrast between winter and spring). This idea manifests itself in chado through the simplicity and imperfection of the tea utensils. Tea bowls, for instance, are sometimes deliberately chipped, or formed into the shape of asymmetrical circles. The purpose of these “flaws” is to remind the participants in the ceremony that nothing is perfect or permanent.

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Tea is whisked.

Likewise, the simple designs of tea bowls and utensils are meant to de-emphasize the material aspect of the ceremony and, instead, direct the focus to the interaction between the host and guests. Contrary to what the name suggests, tea ceremony is not just about tea. It’s about sharing an experience and creating a connection between the persons involved. Tea ceremony follows the ideal that people of all backgrounds – no matter their religion, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. – can sit down and enjoy a simple bowl of tea together. Here, the general lack of conversation taking place during the ceremony (the lack of sound) places emphasis on a type of human interaction that is spiritual rather than verbal.

One of my classmates described tea ceremony as a “precious art close to the hearts of many Japanese.” It’s an art that’s about enjoying the present without worrying about the future or the past; about using your senses to appreciate the world around you; and about connecting with other people on a spiritual level (even if you don’t share the same spiritual beliefs). At the same time it’s about making jokes, laughing with your friends, and arguing over who really should’ve won last night’s sumo match. No matter what type of interaction is taking place, human relationships – and particularly the desire for everyone to be able to peacefully share a bowl of tea – will always be at the core of every tea ceremony.

So, the next time you have a chance to participate in a tea ceremony, see if you’re able to pick up on all the subtle, yet powerful sensations that are taking place. And, if the host is able to maintain a graceful posture as she performs all the steps of the ceremony, try not to laugh when you realize that it might be because she’s pretending to have eggs in her armpits.

6 thoughts on “What’s really happening during a tea ceremony

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  3. Thank you for this wonderfully put together write-up…it’s a piece of literature. This gives me (a foreigner looking in) a nice perspective in this culture 🙂

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