“The art of tea is no secret. Just boiling water, making the tea, and drinking it. That’s all there is to it.” The wise words of Sen Rikyū, poet and tea master, as he concisely defines his art in the 16th century. A wooden ladle, silk cloth, spatula and a tea caddy; a spartan spread for what is deemed a mystifying ceremony in the eyes of the profane. A school of virtue, patience and precision, the tea ceremony is entrenched in codes. The bubbling water must be poured at just the right temperature, while the green tea powder (matcha) is delicately placed at the bottom of the bowl using a scoop, and stirred with a small bamboo whisk, not too fast, nor too slow. The art of tea is defined by balance and measure. In the hushed silence of a tea house, on weaved bamboo mats, a moment of devotion and meditation ensues. Bowing to the sacred beverage, it is time to take a moment to contemplate the serene drink, which is a work of art in itself. No haste nor sudden movements; everything is measured, the ultimate in confinement, the senses heightened amid the rustle of tatami mats and the clink of utensils.
The Way of Tea requires restraint. Originating in China in the Zen temples, this age-old tradition was introduced to Japan by zen priest Eisai (1141-1215), founder of the Zen Buddhist movement in Japan. Yet the ceremony we know today only really took hold much later in the 14th century, and is accredited to the priest Murata Jukō. And we have Jukō to thank for this suspended moment in time, in a simple, confined space, conducive to meditation. Since that time, tea masters traditionally show their allegiance to the Zen Buddhist movement. For practitioners, the Way of Tea has a spiritual dimension, of which harmony, purity and peace constitute the core values. “The highest representation of the ritual of the present moment,” according to writer Shūichi Katō, the tea ceremony symbolises individual and social accomplishment, and casts aside hierarchical status. A paradigm of life in sharp contrast to the chaotic buzz of modern japan, and its quest for speed, technology and frenetic existence. A whole new world opens up to its followers, which just like origami, releases a vast array of bitter sweet flavours, extended further by the visual presence of the ritual, its sounds and the touch of its equipment. An all-consuming art, engaging all the senses, further enhanced by the hushed silence all around. And just like the first sip of Champagne, the senses are stirred, delighting in new sensations; our entire being suddenly reaches out for the precious elixir, savours its goodness and makes it their own.
The tea ceremony is not complicated: “It’s simply about appreciating the tea”, resumes Sôzan Tatsuta, one of three Tea Masters at the Omote-Senke School in Paris, who also hosts tasting ceremonies at the Japanese Cultural Centre and Guimot Museum. But as the gestures become more precise, so life is transformed. “All the moves involved permeate spiritual existence and everyday life and we are transformed as a result”. Respect and patience are virtues that become more refined with this practice, which requires deep, heartfelt commitment, and for the grand masters, may take a whole lifetime. It requires memorising a series of movements, combined with mental gymnastics and spiritual development lifted directly from Zen philosophy. This way, preparing and serving tea is ruled by four fundamental character traits of wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity) and jaku (tranquillity). A way of simplicity revealing inner peace, the art of tea has nothing to do with folklore or fad; like the martial arts of old, kendo or aikido, it is a discipline requiring patience and commitment, which will have an overwhelming effect on the practising individual. “Today, i see increasing numbers of young people taking an interest, and who are really enthusiastic, which is fantastic!” Enthuses Sôzan Tatsuta. Mistress of ceremony for more than a decade, she perpetuates the tradition of this ancestral art and Japanese culture, favouring respect for others and the virtues of the passage of time.