Cleaning My Tea Garden


Tea garden cleaning is not too serious an enterprise. It is said that young boys and old men are perfect cleaners of tea gardens because they are not too careful. In fact there is a story that Sen no Rikyu, who was a great tea ceremony master and setter of standards, shook a tree to scatter a few leaves into a too-perfectly-cleaned tea garden.

When I am cleaning my tea garden, I often get lost in what I am doing and before I know it, an hour or more has passed. I allow myself the luxury of taking my time. I stop to check if the few remaining weeds in the moss are distracting rather than enhancing and natural looking.

As I work, I notice the pattern of shadows and whether there is a breeze or a light covering of snow on the evergreens. I notice the color of a single fallen leaf. Sometimes I sweep the moss with a broom. I may replace a fallen twig I have removed. I “listen” to the garden and what it tells me should be done.

I water everything carefully, and the moss fills out and deepens in color before my eyes. I scour the rough granite water basin and fill it with pure water. Then I place the delicate bamboo dipper diagonally across the round opening. If it is evening, I light the lanterns not to provide light, but to enhance the growing darkness and to mark the path.

In winter, I carefully clear the stepping stones trying not to disturb the snow around them. This is a beautiful time of year in the garden as the snow mounds on the evergreens and lanterns and the bare branches of the trees enhance the solitude.

Normally cleaning the garden has the effect of taking me far from the mundane frustrations of life and bringing me to a state of peace, openness and gratitude. There is also the joy of anticipating the remaining tasks yet to be done inside the teahouse. These tasks include selecting the scroll for the tearoom, arranging the flowers, and preparing the tea utensils for the particular occasion.

I usually select a scroll that suggests the coming season. One or two simple flowers from my yard are arranged in a basket or mud-colored vase. I place odd numbers of molded sweets or dried fruits in an abalone shell. Sometimes I place them on a wooden plate with a leaf.

Tea bowls, jars and containers, bamboo scoops, pieces of cloth used in cleansing, and a special tea whisk are all selected. My appreciation of the beauty, simplicity and functional rightness of the tea utensils continues to grow over time.

This is just one example of how tea grows deeper in meaning the longer one practices. Many aspects of tea are both simple and profound. Its values, which are only implied indirectly in this article, are particularly true and precious to me.

One of the very last steps in preparing for a tea ceremony is to wet the stepping stones just before guests arrive to create a feeling of freshness and as a sign of respect and greeting.

This article was originally published in the March, April 1999 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening.

A Personal Garden Refuge

It takes many years to really get to know a garden so that you are in each other’s bones. I encouraged the moss that already liked to grow here. I added stepping stones and a tea hut. I watched for the new maple leaves, and took their portraits in the fall. Children jumped on the stepping stones. Raccoons drank from the water basin. The garden and I bless each other with mutual nurturance even as we continually change. Peace gathered and peace extended.






An Invitation to Tea

A heightened awareness of what is going on around the tea hut is part of tea. There may be rain drops falling on the roof, rustling leaves, bird song, falling dusk with the crickets starting up, or a cold, bright winter day.

It was chilly that afternoon in February though record high temperatures had kept the snow away. Sun was streaming in through the naked branches of overhead trees and the evergreens seemed to be drinking it in.


Modern houses block us off from nature. The tea hut does create an interior meditative world, but it is not cut off in the same way and in that sense brings us back to our roots.

Shadows on tatami 021812

Within the hut, natural light creates a restful mood as do the tatami mats and simple space. The kettle/hibachi waits on the host mat with steam just beginning to rise. I also directed a small space heater toward where guests would sit.


The light (and therefore the mood), varies by time of day, weather conditions and with the seasons. It also changes constantly during the course of a practice. It was particularly bright and mysterious that afternoon.

Tea provides a place to slow down enough to appreciate ordinary things that are not so ordinary. Being awake in the moment also allows for a deep rapport between host and guests.


I stage the utensils in a corner of my one-room hut. A talented friend cut the clam-shell shelf to my specifications, using a board that once served as a desk. The basket holds a blanket that was useful on this occasion.

Although blueberries are not appropriate for a winter ceremony, I knew that my friend is particularly fond of them, so I made an exception.


At the beginning of the ceremony, guests come up to look more closely at the scroll and flowers. A guest might look down from above to see this view of the flowers that seem to be bursting with promise of the energy of spring.


The scroll I selected suggests the coming season as did the crocus that decided to bloom in a protected area of my front yard that day. I was told that this calligraphy is of a type that might have been made for sale by a monk at a Buddhist Temple.


My friend is holding the delicate water scoop. Later the kettle lid will be placed on the rest. Notice the contrasting weights and textures among the various utensils. I was taught that I should lift bamboo utensils as if they were the heavy ones.


Dense steam rises as the kettle water gets quite hot. The heat is especially welcome on a chilly winter afternoon. A modern summer ice tea variation uses a glass tea bowl.


I am using a cloth with a pattern and holding it out before starting to fold it. This is a centering and respectful gesture. The tea container is positioned so it may be easily lifted for purification. The cloth will be refolded before the tea scoop is gently wiped as well.


After mixing the tea into the water, the whisk, made from a single piece of bamboo, looks like this. Tea scoops come in many variations in size, and shape. There are also scoops made out of other materials such as ceramic.

While the whisk is often admired for its design, the bamboo tea scoop has understated elegance. After using one for a while, it becomes clear just how perfectly this small utensil fulfills its function.


You can see a lovely demonstration together with an explanation in this brief video.

Chanoyu Lore


When I first began studying the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony I was interested in its aesthetics. There were subtle delights in abundance from resilient tatami mats underfoot; the soothing sound of water heating in the iron kettle; and the scent of cedar bark incense.

I quickly learned that humility was involved as well. The seemingly effortless movements required much practice to master. We were taught to pay attention to the season, the particular circumstances of the day, and what was happening in the tea garden. There is, for instance, a particular beauty to a day with a hint of snow in the air when the leaves have fallen and a few linger on the moss.

I came across several stories recorded in chanoyu lore where tea masters combined ingenuity with an extreme sensitivity to nature to produce transcendent experiences for their guests. Three of my favorites involve Sen no Rikyu, probably the most famous of tea masters. Rikyu was known for his exquisite taste and sense for the fitness of things. He simplified the tea ceremony while at the same time introducing many innovations. His manner of making tea was said to be totally natural and unaffected so that one could not pick out any one part as being the most beautiful.

In one of the most famous tea stories, Rikyu’s patron, the regent Hideyoshi, had heard about the morning glories that Rikyu planted in his garden that year and wanted to see them. When Hideyoshi arrived in the morning, there was not a single morning glory to be seen anywhere. However, when the guests entered the tea room, a single perfect morning glory was displayed in the tokonoma alcove. Hideyoshi and the other guests found this refreshing. I was taught never to use morning glories during tea practice for this reason.

In another example, Hideyoshi supposedly had a large golden basin filled with water and a single flowering red plum branch placed beside it. How would Rikyu create a suitable flower arrangement using just these two elements? Rikyu approached the tokonoma and lifted up the branch. He then gently stripped the buds and flowers so that they fell into the basin and floated on the water. After that, Rikyu quietly returned to his seat carrying the bare branch. Hideyoshi admired this elegant resolution.

At a dawn tea attended by Rikyu, as the guests took their seats there was no light at all in the tea room, only the sound of the tea kettle boiling. A profound peace prevailed. Just as they were all wondering about the host’s intentions, Rikyu noticed a glow on the shoji behind him and slid open the panel. The moon framed in the opening sent its light to the tokonoma. Just legible there was a scroll with the following poem: When I lift my eyes / To the quarter of the sky / Where the cuckoo cried / There is nothing to be seen / Except the early morning moon (From The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler, p. 143).

I was lucky to attend a tea practice with something of this magical quality. My sensei had conceived the idea of a fall moon-viewing practice. Each student was given a lit candle in a small glass holder, and we were instructed to walk slowly up the wooded hill behind her house, leaving space between us along the path. I waited so I could see my fellow students winding their way up through the trees at dusk. As I reached the top, the moon was covered by clouds and then briefly appeared as a misty presence. Nature was very close all around us. We conducted the tea ceremony on a felt mat where all the utensils had been arranged in advance. Looking back, it was like walking into a Japanese print. I am sure we will all never forget the beauty and poignancy of that experience.

Although a tea master’s touch is always appreciated at a tea gathering, I have learned that special effects are not needed. The essence of chanoyu is present no matter how simple and quiet the tea practice is. Each is a “one time, one meeting” opportunity and all the wonders of nature and human ingenuity apply.

For more stories from Chanoyu lore, you may wish to read Stories from a Tearoom Window by Shigenori Chikamatsu.

This article originally appeared in the March, April 2010 issue of Sukiya Living, Journal of Japanese Gardening.

The Mood of Tea


In the tea hut, you can be yourself while at the same time seeking true empathy. At the heart of tea is the expectation that the host will put himself in the place of the guest and the guests will put themselves in the place of the host.

A stroll through the garden to the hut allows the guests to clear their heads and hearts of “the dust of the world.” The host will have arranged things in keeping with the season, the time of day and occasion. For example, to send a friend off on a trip a dawn tea may be conducted, with a scroll featuring a river and tea sweets with a flavor appropriate to the trip.

The scroll, flowers, and carefully selected utensils create a silent song. The wood of the hut, and the fragrant bark incense provide an elegant rustic undertone. Raindrops on the roof, melting snow, or rustling leaves add their essence. The mood is carefully orchestrated down to drops of water on the flower petals.

Such subtle pleasures inspire us to relax and perceive even more. Thus, one becomes increasingly open to the ritual to follow and to intimacy with the others present.

Over many years of practicing, we come to anticipate the meditative mood where breathing slows, time seems abundant, and hearts open to each other. Simple things are given the appreciation they deserve. There is no limit to the ability to expand one’s taste and to grow in humility and respect. Tea is not about ritual for its own sake, and it is not about religion. It is about living and taking the time to share what is truly important.

Once while traveling in Japan, the tour leader asked me to provide an impromptu talk about the tea ceremony as we travelled on a bus to a formal tea demonstration. I thought of my first exposure to chanoyu. I was wrapped up in trying to understand the ritual and could not even glimpse a hint of the meaning of tea. The number of people in the room and the strained environment further removed any possibility of intimacy or harmony.

To explain tea to my group, I decided to try an analogy that conveys my mood when anticipating a tea ceremony practice. I began by reciting Basho’s famous haiku: Old pond / Frog jumps in / Water sound.

I said, “Put yourself in an old boat drifting on that pond. You are content, almost dozing. You hear the crickets, the wind in the trees, and feel the slight rocking. You watch the ripples. A squirrel comes down an overhanging branch and stares at you and you stare back. You see an old friend unexpectedly on the shore but do not move or call out. Your friend sees you and the squirrel and waits, understanding.”

I told them, “Tea is about the heightened awareness of beauty associated with the transience of all things. The squirrel will leave, your friend will eventually leave, you will die, the pond will dry up, but let’s hope that frog of Basho’s will be around for a while.” I did go on to explain some of what they could expect from the ritual and that it was basically about sharing a bowl of tea with a few friends.

Afterwards, the woman doing the demonstration said that she was surprised that the group was so quiet, that normally she gets a lot of questions and interruptions. This pleased me. Maybe my squirrel analogy helped.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening (Now Sukiya Living, The Journal of Japanese Gardening).