In discussing Japanese tea ceremony’a Zen flavor, it is appropriate to first consider its special setting that creates a space apart. Tea room and garden maintenance are ongoing. For each tea gathering, the host selects and arranges the scroll, flowers, and utensils keeping the season, particular occasion, and guests in mind. Thus, meditation in action begins well before guests arrive.
The tea room and garden bring a mountain cottage retreat atmosphere into a town or city setting. For all the care that goes into a tea hut’s construction, they are lightly built and are all the more intimate for that acceptance of impermanence. Soft natural lighting create a tranquil mood. There is little to distract beyond naturally arranged flowers and a scroll.
Tea gardens are designed to evoke the essence of purified nature, and often resemble a mossy path in an idealized wood. This path-garden is called roji (literally dewy ground or path in Japanese). A Buddhist interpretation relates to ‘awara‘ or disclosure, not just disclosing the garden to the eye, but disclosure of everything within and without to the heart/mind/body. Before guests approach the tea hut along the path, the host will clean it and water the stepping stones as a sign of welcome. To do that properly, it is necessary to first cleanse oneself of what disturbs and sullies the mind and heart.
Tea garden design begins with opening to what is here. It is a process of emptying the mind and listening to the site and the context in order to allow the design and its aesthetic qualities to grow from the place rather than being applied to it. The garden and the person who tends it are always getting to know each other through a process of action and response that goes both ways. As the relationship deepens, maintenance is not so much imposed from outside but takes place from within that relationship by attuning to what needs doing.
Students of the way of tea learn by observing and copying their teacher, and by being patiently (although sometimes strictly) coached in what is essentially a form of direct transmission. When I first started taking tea lessons, I learned how to walk on tatami mats. I had to master the many sub-procedures of a relatively simple way of preparing tea. A great many steps must all flow together in a natural and unobtrusive way before a student can claim competence. There are many different ways of preparing tea or temae to learn, and all the utensils require special handling. Tea stories make clear that patient practice and goodwill are more important than achieving perfection.
Thus, tea ceremony provides many opportunities to experience beginner’s mind while learning how to retain a sharp embodied focus on what is going on here and now. The way of tea might appear gentle as compared with working on unsolvable riddles under the stern guidance of a Zen master. But because there is so much to learn with body, mind and spirit, serious students of Japanese tea ceremony may find themselves facing the strong doubt, strong faith and strong determination that are said to be requisites for dedicated Zen practice.
In time, applying firm resolution in a context of openness and mutual support can lead to consummate freedom and ease. That a selfless commitment to discipline is required to achieve that flow is one of the many paradoxes of this art (and of life). Learning the formal procedures with total-hearted commitment provides access to deeper levels of perception and being that in turn influence how one performs the art so one returns to where one started very much alive, in touch, and in the moment simply enjoying sharing a bowl of tea with a few others.
Just seeing a demonstration does not reveal the relational quality of this art. Students are taught to always keep the guests tranquility top of mind when preparing a bowl of tea. The flowing generosity and gratitude becomes one and communal awareness arises as guests actively support the host’s intent for sharing the beauty of the particular occasion and of each unique moment.