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).