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No one can dispute the influence of sado, the ‘way of tea’, or cha-no-yu ‘tea hot water’ on Japan’s spiritual, artistic, cultural and social heritage. Trying to explain it in several hundred words is, as the sages might say, ‘like hammering nails into tofu’. That is to say, muri! Impossible. But here’s a try.
Born from Zen Buddhist meditative precepts, and popularised among a warrior class that used its silent, private, spaces as a momentary antidote to the ever-present terror of a sudden violent death, tea has always been special. Please note that the word ‘tea’ refers to the drink, the plant, the leaves, the flavor, and, here, the ceremony and practise of the art of cha-no-you. So, tea created some of Japan’s most spectacular works of art. The gardens and teahouses of Kyoto, that city’s incomparable near-priceless raku ceramic tea bowls, its calligraphy, its poetry, indeed, even Japan’s most refined cuisine itself, kaiseki (see the cha-kaiseki post here on Foodies Go Local) – all owe their existence to, and are informed by, the ‘way of tea’.
Cha-no-yu incorporates the delicately rigorous aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the unadorned purity of natural imperfection fused with a relaxed and peaceful satisfaction in being, metaphorically if not literally, alone. It demands awareness of and sensitivity to nature, and the transience inherent in the changing of the seasons, and life. It calls for a spiritual, meditative, reflective quality in its practitioners, and encourages the socialising role of equanimous meeting. The latter is symbolised by the teahouse design, with its low entrances that require each participant to lower their head in humility – and mutual respect -upon entering.
There is an amalgam of complexity and simplicity to every cha-no-yu tea ceremony, and an understated but very real, practical discipline. The mechanics, overtly at least, are none too complex, though these may be difficult for the beginner to master. And even more difficult for the experienced practitioner to refine.
If this all sounds a little daunting, it needn’t be. A tea ceremony can, in fact, be an informal affair among friends. In fact, a Kyoto artist friend holds tea ceremonies in a custom-built teahouse, complete with his naked body print embedded in the clay wall, exquisite tea accessories from Korea and China, Beyoncé on the stereo and a fridge packed full of Yebisu beer for imbibing afterwards. That’s my kind of cha-no-yu.
How are we doing with the explanation? Best, I suspect, to eave it to the Zen masters. Here’s a famous Zen koan riddle:
Before you study Zen, a bowl is a bowl and tea is tea.
While you are studying Zen, a bowl is no longer a bowl and tea is no longer tea.
After you’ve studied Zen, a bowl is again a bowl and tea is tea.
Hope that’s all clear now.