You Must Offer Serenity
I have wanted to write about my #teaceremony practice for the longest time but did not have a clue what to say. Japanese tea ceremony is something to be experienced, as I learned quickly, not something you can learn by reading books or even watching videos. You should find a teacher near you and practice regularly if at all possible. Eventually I determined that short of hosting a tea demonstration myself which is hard to do in written form, I will have to settle for an anecdotal collection of observations: what happens in the margins, little things that add to the whole and that might not be obvious to the casual observer.
My first lesson was in spring, one year ago. With one year under my belt, I feel more or less qualified to tell of my experiences although I might expand this article as I gather more experience and knowledge around Japanese tea ceremony.
Tea in a Bowl
I am always enchanted by the look of green matcha in a beautiful tea bowl. Thin tea which I experienced first has a different look and feel to it than thick tea.
If you take a black tea bowl, the light green hue of thin tea with its layer of foam provides a refreshing and elegant contrast. In Nogami Yaeko‘s historical fiction novel Hideyoshi and Rikyu, translated by Mariko Nishi LaFleur and Morgan Beard, Sen no Rikyu makes thin tea for his disciple Soji in a black raku bowl.
The whipped tea looked glossy and fresh inside the black tea bowl, which had a wide top and a narrow bottom. Just as a fresh, clear spring bubbles up from the ground, or the blooming flower opens, or the moon peeps through the clouds, the flavor changed to suit the moment. It was simply natural, as if it was produced by some force beyond the human hand.
Thick tea, on the other hand, is prepared with less water and kneaded rather than whisked. It is darker and thicker in texture with no foam. In a black tea bowl it looks like a dark forest pond full of faeries and secrets. Someone once told me they associate thick tea with winter because that is when they had their first taste of it and I can see how thick tea might fit the darker months of the year.
The Sound of Water
It was during my first ro (winter) season that I noticed how different water sounds depending on its temperature. Water is an essential component of every tea ceremony: It is used to rinse the bowl and bamboo whisk before and after preparing the tea and of course it is also an essential ingredient for the tea itself. You work with what you get but soft water seems to be ideal. Japan is a country rich with mountains, rivers and springs so it might not come as a surprise that good water quality is valued in tea ceremony.
Back to hot vs. cold water: I only noticed it after my teacher made an offhand remark during practice. When all guests have drunk their tea and the bowl is brought back to the host, it is rinsed first with hot water from the kettle, then with cold water from the mizusashi. That was when I noticed the difference for the first time: Hot water sounds deeper, more muffled whereas cold water sounds lighter, higher in tone, louder even. Shortly after I noticed it for the second time when ladling cold water into the kettle to cool it down.
This has since been confirmed to me by acquaintances who worked as baristas but it is especially noticeable in a quiet tearoom where everything is focused on the action of making a single delicious bowl of tea.
As time went on, I met other members of the local tea school chapter and got to enjoy tea with them. I noticed that different people move in different ways even when performing the exact same type of tea ceremony and it has been exciting to watch and experience different styles.
My teacher, for example, is very decisive but not hasty. Watching him work is overwhelming in a good way because there is no time to process consciously. It just leaves you in awe. He is always telling me that even if I make a mistake, it is best to carry on as if nothing had happened. Even if the guests are experienced tea practitioners, it is likely that they will never notice anyway. He embodies this mindset perfectly.
My fellow practitioner, on the other hand, is very deliberate and mindful. Her movements are almost too slow but the careful deliberation that she puts into every gesture is beautiful to watch too. New practitioners and those who do not practice regularly are often jerky and awkward. As for myself, I imagine my movements to be quite fluid, bleeding into each other but I also fear I am not as precise as I should be. This is likely because I take inspiration from yoga flows and because of how I move in general.
However, individual style is not something one should think about but rather something that arises naturally from continued practice. As Noriko Morishita writes in The Wisdom of Tea, translated by Eleanor Goldsmith:
In Tea, form comes first. You shape the form first to provide a vessel for the spirit, which comes later.
The World in a Tearoom
With continued tea practice, I also learn to appreciate the nuance of what goes into each cup of tea and everything that happens in the tearoom. This in turn makes me curious to learn even more and perpetuates a sort of joyous cycle of learning and experiencing tea.
Surprisingly, I found Angela Duckworth describing this exact feeling when she writes about why gritty people sustain interest in their chosen field of expertise in her book Grit (quoting Paul Silvia).
The key (...) is that novelty for the beginner comes in one form, and novelty for the expert in another. For the beginner, novelty is anything that hasn't been encountered before. For the expert, novelty is nuance.
This is rings true for tea as well: When you first begin practicing, you have your hands full with memorizing the procedure, what comes when, which utensil goes where at which time and how to move correctly.
As you keep immersing yourself into the world of tea and meeting other practitioners, maybe even different teachers, details are added to your repository of tea knowledge. For example that the decorative flower arrangement is always placed on the side of the tokonoma closest to wherever the mizuya (kitchen) is located outside the tearoom. Or that aoi (blue-green) which often crops up in poetic seasonal words for spring means fresh greenery as opposed to midori (green) which refers to mature greenery in summer.
Tea ceremony is a traditional Japanese art and comprised of many different aspects. Practitioners I have met are often proficient in similar arts like calligraphy, flower arrangement or making traditional Japanese sweets. All of them have their place in the tearoom as well and can add to the experience.
Again, one aspect my teacher emphasizes a lot is that your tea ceremony needs to appear effortless. Mistakes are inevitable as you keep learning and improving. If you prepare tea for guests, however, you must stay calm at all times. If you happen to make a mistake, nobody should notice and you should carry on as if everything was perfectly fine. This is how his teacher taught him, a Japanese lady famous for passionately exclaiming: “You must offer serenity!”
Another facet of this principle might be making tea in such a way that the tea seems to prepare itself. As Nogami Yaeko writes:
Each utensil, that was carried into the tearoom, even the wooden waste-water bucket, responded. Rikyu had only to touch the ladle, the tea whisk, the eggplant-shaped tea container, and the tea scoop and, just as pure water springs out from between rocks in a forest, tea the color of fresh, young leaves in May swelled softly from the bottom of the white Chinese-style tea bowl, bitter but sweet, thick and warm. That was Rikyu's way of making tea – not to prepare tea, but for the tea to prepare itself.
The Tea outside the Tearoom
Practicing tea has influenced how I see and experience the world even when not in the tearoom. Tea ceremony changes with the seasons, the most obvious transition being the one from brazier (furo) in summer to kettle (ro) in winter. In winter, the kettle is placed between host and guests so the latter do not feel cold. This arrangement changes how tea is prepared.
During formal tea ceremony, the host selects utensils, flowers and other decorations according to a theme of their choosing. More often than not, this theme is seasonal. Every week I find myself looking to nature and the weather for inspiration. Thanks to my tea practice, I feel more attuned to nature. I notice details because I am paying attention to my environment in new ways. Practicing tea seems to have strengthened my aesthetic sensibilities in new and exciting ways.
I might not be thinking about it, but tea is with me wherever I go.