The Japanese Tea Ceremony Ritual

Rooted in the Zen principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, the ritual Japanese tea ceremony provides participants a respite from their daily routines.

The Japanese tea ceremony is not a ceremony at all, if that word is taken to mean an unchanging program of actions and rituals. Rather, it is a subtly variable way to commune with nature and with friends. Deeply rooted in Chinese Zen philosophy, it is a way to remove oneself from the mundane affairs of day-to-day living and to achieve, if only for a time, serenity and inner peace.

On the surface, chanoyu - the Japanese term for what is known in the West as the tea ceremony - is a gathering of friends for a simple meal. Every element of chanoyu, no matter how tiny, is chosen to build on and reflect the principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.

Chanoyu takes place in a small hut apart from the main house. Guests gather in a porch called the machiai and wait until they are summoned. To reach the teahouse, guests walk from the machiai along the roji, or garden path. This path represents a transition, a break from the outside world. The walkway is sprinkled with water as an act of purification before the guests arrive. The teahouse is quite small - about ten feet square - and made of unassuming materials. Although guests enter the house in a predetermined order according to rank, the entryway is small and low - about three feet high. This serves to bring each guest to the same level, a reminder that we are humble beings in a vast universe. The windows of the hut are papered, the floors are covered with tatami mats, and the lighting is dim. Flowers adorn an alcove in which is hung a scroll with words of Zen philosophy. The host does not enter the room until all the guests are seated.

The teahouse changes with the seasons. In warm weather, guests arrive before the heat of the day. Water for tea is prepared on a brazier. Guests arrive in the evening when the weather is colder, and water is heated on a sunken hearth. All the utensils and accessories are chosen with the four Zen principles in mind. Lacquer, bamboo, and ceramics are used together to achieve harmony through contrast. As Kakuzo Okakura wrote in the 1906 classic, The Book of Tea, "Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally - such were the aims of the tea ceremony."

The host serves kaiseki, a meal composed of seven light courses. Typically, the serving dishes are ceramic and are presented on black lacquer trays. For an intentional contrast, the fifth course, or Hassun, may be served on a tray made of cedar. Soup, rice, fish, and pickles comprise the usual menu, served with small portions of sake, or rice wine. The final course is a sweet, often made with a bean paste.

After kaiseki is completed, the host prepares the tea. The Matcha, or finely powdered green tea, is kept in a ceramic container in a silk bag. The host scoops a portion of the tea into a ceramic tea bowl and carefully adds simmering water. With a small bamboo whisk the host mixes the tea and the water until the drink is frothy and green. And finally, the tea is served.

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