What the way of tea is, and how it relates to wabi sabi.
What is the Way of Tea? | Roots
of Tea | A Little Deeper | Harmony
| Respect | Purity | Tranquility
1. What is the Way of Tea?
The tea master Sen Sotan (1578-1658) once advised: If someone asks you what
the nature of the tea ceremony is, tell him, "it's the sound of windblown
pines in a painting."
Teaism, or the Way of Tea, developed as a way to practice mindfulness. Actually,
the early tea masters took the practice of mindfulness and infused it into
the drinking of tea.
Most of the early tea masters where Zen priests who saw in tea a way to express
the difficult-to-express ideas contained in their way of life. These ideas,
rooted in Buddhist and also Taoist teachings, are part of a world view that
takes actions, posture, and thoughts seriously. Unlike other world views the
tea-view sees conscious alignment with reality as the antidote for the imbalance,
pain, and grief in life. In this way, tea can be a spiritual aspirin, the
quintessential water soluble pain reliever, the answer to the imbalance of
delusion and fear.
Herbert Plutschow, in his article An Anthropological Perspective on the Japanese
Tea Ceremony, suggests that Teaism has all the necessary elements to make
it a powerful and effective ritual. As Plutschow says, "What distinguishes
ritual from ordinary behavior is art." And the tea ceremony is both art and
an art. Okakura Kakuzo, in his famous book, "The Book of Tea" calls Teaism,
"the art of life." Here are some of the reasons the tea ceremony is an effective
||It controls violence. The tea ceremony was originally sponsored
by a powerful shogun as an instrument of peace and maintains its attraction
over time due to its peace-giving quality.
|| It involves ritualistic class-leveling actions undertaken by all participants.
||Those who participate experience unity and transition from ‘me
and you’ to ‘us’.
||It focuses on beauty.
||It involves a special meal with a symbolic life giving element. The
health benefits of tea are multiple. See the Still In The Stream article,
Tea and Health for more details.
||Students of tea masters were originally chosen and instructed over
long periods. Students today are required to commit large amounts of time
and discipline to learn all the subtle nuances of each gesture and action.
||Practitioners focus on their guests completely and in so doing, manifest
humility and selflessness. Guests return the attention.
||It takes place in a specific separate space.
||All the elements of the ceremony, including every aspect of building
and garden have symbolic meaning.
||It has been embraced outside its country of origin.
||It changes people’s lives and brings them into a state of
appreciation and harmony with nature.
Here are some excellent books that describe the tea ceremony in detail and explain
the symbolic and ritualistic meanings involved: Chapter 5 of Wabi
Plutschow’s Rediscovering Rikyu: And the Beginnings of the Japanese Tea
, and A.L.
Sadler’ Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony
2. Roots of Tea.
It is possible that tea can be viewed as a highly evolved and crafted extension of the oldest axial age religion, Buddhism.
But within the culture of tea is a great deal of the intuitive way described in the Tao Te Ching and other Taoist writings. What is more, westerners have adopted the practice,
adding it to, and adding to it, Christian ideas. It is possible that Tea is one of the few universal ways open to all and profoundly meaningful to those who integrate its subtle wisdom into their lives.
3. A Little Deeper.
Whenever pride and
power shift into the hands of those who misuse it, there will be quiet opposition
in ways that avoid competition with those in power, but contain a respectable
air of self composure and individuality. In other words, there will always be
those who choose to distance themselves from the wheeling and dealing that takes
place in the offices of grandeur and control. These individuals stick to their
principles because they know that power without wisdom corrupts. This 'sticking
to one's principles,' especially the principles of equanimity and consideration,
has a self-evident rightness, what used to be called righteousness, until that
term was forever contaminated by "self-righteousness" which is, of course, the
opposite of righteousness. Interestingly, people of integrity are drawn to those
who practice their principles without imposing them on others, and eventually
when enough of these like-minded people join together a different kind of power,
a paradoxical power of weakness, takes form.
In the case of tea, the stated principles at first appear conventional and unlikely to ruffle any feathers. Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), the greatest sixteenth century tea master,
identified four basic principles: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. These words have an air of bland niceness, for most people until it is understood just what each of them really means.
The tea ceremony can be seen
as "each particular's attuning itself to every other particular in the given
field of organization"1
. ...Don't go to sleep just
yet. This statement is an understanding of harmony that is derived from Taoist
teachings. Rather than the imposition of an ethical system with connotations
of conformity and control, the tea ceremony emphasizes harmony and integration.
What this means is that in the way of tea, harmony is not a loss of individuality
or uniqueness, but a balance of unique components, including people, that brings
out beauty and peace. It is not the elimination of tension, but the correct
engineering of it.
Yuriko Saito writes: "One of the hallmarks of the traditional Japanese aesthetic
design principle is harmony brought about by juxtaposing disparate, often contrasting,
elements. The unity of the whole is designed to emerge spontaneously from the
contribution of each element, rather than each part subsumed under a preconceived,
overall plan. For example, Japanese gardens in general are created by arranging
various rocks and trees so as to articulate their individual characteristics.
This is often accomplished by juxtaposing materials of contrasting qualities
for mutual enhancement, such as a vertical rock with a horizontal rock, or a
smooth-textured rock with a rough-textured rock.
Similarly, one of the techniques of composing haiku is to juxtapose disparate
and unrelated objects, such as a tiny flower and a vast sky or a present phenomenon
and an ancient event, in order to give rise to an ineffable atmosphere which
would color the whole verse."2
Rikyu, the tea master who is credited with creating the current form of tea
ceremony used today, lived in a time when there were two kinds of tea ceremony.
One was the large and ornate Shoin style and the other was the small and intimate
wabi style. Rikyu knew the protocols for each form of tea ceremony and served
each at the invitation of powerful leaders. Today much focus is placed on wabi
tea and little attention is placed on the more ornate form. Rikyu understood,
however, that in order to appreciate wabi tea, one must appreciate Shoin tea
as well. Wabi tea, the style Rikyu preferred, involves respect for all, including
those who prefer Shoin tea. The contemporary world has many forms of elaborate
and ornate celebrations, as ornate and elaborate as anything Rikyu experienced.
The need for a balance to this culture of excess is stronger than ever, but
it must be done with respect and care.
All are invited to enter the tea hut where each individual can be appreciated
without the distraction of rank, position, status, or economic bracket. But
participation in the ceremony can not be forced or coerced. Every action of
the ceremony must convey this understanding of the privilege to drink tea
with another human being. Sharing a cup of tea can be an act of respect. The
early wabi tea masters created simple cups with subtle beauty to illustrate
not only that refinement and precision are not ultimately important, but also
to show that everyone and everything can serve a useful purpose and that no
matter how plain or ornate an object, it should be treated with the same care
Purity has two faces. The one
is best represented by clear water uncontaminated by pollutants and waste. The
other is of the racist who preserves bloodlines to avoid contamination. Tea,
if misunderstood, can seem like water made un-pure by the addition of dead leaves.
But in tea we discern what kind of purity is most useful. Pure tea is not polluted
water, but water enhanced by contact with carefully cultivated and prepared
leaves. The process of make tea uses pure ingredients and is made with pure
intentions. It is purity of heart and purity of mind, which one finds in tea.
It is the purity of nature itself. Unlike a chemist purifying a substance to
remove all unwanted traces, the purity of tea is in the process itself. It is
pure tea, not pure water. This is the difference.
Jaku, the Japanese word usually translated as tranquility, is a state of utter
stillness and silence where self (or ego) is lost. If Jaku is experienced, then
the other 3 principles can manifest in action. The tranquility is always there
at your heart, but through tea, it can be experienced and brought into consciousness.
Tranquility is not the goal of the tea ceremony, specifically, but if Zen is
followed, it will be the natural result of all mindful actions. The actions
of tea simply facilitate the appearance of tranquility more than some other
The practice of tea
is not just a quaint tradition or beautiful cultural activity. Tea, teaism,
and the formalized tea ceremony are ways of practicing mindfulness and developing
peace and consideration of others. As an antidote to competition, class distinction,
and pride, the powerful ritual is a tangible expression of intuitive and difficult
to describe concepts and ideas. As Okakura Kakuzo says, “The ancient sages
never put their teachings in systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they
were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended
by making their hearers wise. Lao Tse himself, with his quaint humor, says,
‘if people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely.
It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.” In the same way tea
might seem silly or amusing to some, but for those who enter into it as an experience
beyond words it can be an avenue of deep personal growth.
One of the main ideas behind the ceremony is the concept of non-self, or anatman.
In Japan, this concept is carried into many arts including ikebana (floral arrangement),
the noh play, painting, music, archery, gardening, and haiku. Even if you never
experience the tea ceremony, you can understand the spirit of the ceremony and
extend its wabi sabi beauty into other areas of your life until you become as
authentic as a simple cup of tea.
9. Tea Quote.
“In the common parlance we speak of the man ‘with no tea’
in him, when he is insusceptible to the seriocomic interests of the personal
drama. Again we stigmatize the untamed aesthete who, regardless of the mundane
tragedy, runs riot in the springtide of emancipated emotions, as one ‘with
too much tea’ in him.” – Okakura Kakuzo
© Richard R. Powell
Reconsidered: A Proposal to Abandon the Language of
Self- And Other-Control And to Adopt the Language of "Attunement"
Heesoon Bai at Simon Fraser University
2. The Japanese aesthetics of imperfection and insufficiency.,
Saito, Yuriko , Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, Fall97, Vol. 55 Issue
4, p377, 9p