This week I was blessed with the opportunity to attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Serving tea is an art form in Japan, and every action is dripping with symbolism and purpose. The practice of the tea ceremony is based on Zen Buddhist principles, however, if you identify as a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., the ideals expressed in the tea ceremony are applicable to all.
Zen Buddhists compare the ritual of drinking a cup of tea with friends to experiencing the entire universe in the here and now. I don't know about you, but living in the present is something with which I daily struggle. I'm constantly thinking about what's next, where I need to be, what I need to do. Oftentimes, I don't focus completely on the people with whom I'm communing, because I'm living in my head instead of being present in our relationship and allowing myself to truly connect.
In Japanese culture, it is not just the drinking of the tea that is meaningful; the process of making the tea itself is filled with purpose. The heart and thought poured into the simple acts of selecting utensils, boiling water and mixing tea for the ceremony is just as important, as it helps the host show the guests that he or she wants to give them the very best. The act of hosting tea is a selfless process, one of generosity but also of fellowship and connection. It is a beautiful, humbling experience.
Throughout the tea ceremony, the host performs very specific movements and actions in accordance with tradition and ritual. Everything has purpose, because there are goals and mindsets that come from the performance of the ceremony. There are four emphases of a basic tea ceremony: Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku, in English-harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, respectively.
"Wa” stands for harmony. As there is harmony in nature, the host will try to bring this quality into the tea room. The utensils used during the tea ceremony are in harmony with each other, just as the guests and host are in harmony with one another. For me, harmony is rare in my daily encounters. I am often frazzled, overwhelmed, or scattered, but the ease with which our host moved within her surroundings reminded me that harmony is achievable if your prioritize focus and concentration.
“Kei” stands for respect. In everyday life, people are prey to status or position in life. In the tea room, all are equals. The guests and host must respect all things: the tea and each other being the obvious examples of respect. In the ceremony itself, respect is shown by carefully handling and observing the tea bowl. In traditional tea houses, you often have to climb through a small door to enter. This shows your humility and equality once in the tea house. You also bow to your host and they bow to you. The Japanese culture is general is highly respectful of their fellow human beings. It's quite lovely, and a beautiful testament to what is possible when we make a conscientious choice to love and honor one another.
“Sei” stands for purity. Entering into the tea room, one is to leave behind all thoughts and worries of daily life. The tea room is a separate world, a place to slow down, revitalize, and enjoy the presence of friends. The gesture of purity is symbolized in the ritual cleaning of all the instruments used in the ceremony. Our host says she hopes to always perform the ceremony from a pure heart, and we as her guests are to receive our tea and time together with the same.
“Jaku” stands for tranquility. Only after the first three concepts (harmony, respect, and purity) are discovered, experienced and embraced, can people finally embody tranquility. This is the hardest for me to understand, and maybe for many Americans. We are so "busy." I don't always know what I'm busy with, but I know calming my spirit down long enough to become tranquil seems out of the question. However, watching our host perform the ceremony is a Zen experience. If you allow yourself to focus only on the people and the experience you are encountering, your heart starts to calm and to find peace. It's quite magical.
Cultural experiences are often edifying, but this is one I will not soon forget. And even though I don't (yet) have the patience to take ten minutes for a bowl of tea every morning, I know I will strive to focus more on harmony, respect, purity and tranquility in my everyday life, because if a simple cup of tea can encourage such thoughts, I know I am capable of living them out.
Until next time,