A chashitsu (tearoom) in autumn

Someone asked me on another forum: “Since you allow me to ask, I would like to know what can drive someone to study Chadou, the japanese way of tea? I mean it is a long, never-ending journey. You not only make tea, you have to explore every aspect of japanese tea culture. It is physically demanding, practice can be fastidious, it is time- and money-consuming. Would you share your personal impulse?”

I’m a little embarrassed to say that my interest began with Japanese design and textiles, rather than Chadou (the Way of Tea) per se. I attended a public tea presentation largely so that I could take a peek at the kimono and obi! But I quickly became intrigued by the ceremony itself. In particular, I loved the slow and meditative pace, the beauty of the movements, and the graciousness with which tea was served to all of the guests (including me). A second tea presentation took place a couple of weeks later, and thanks to that one I was completely enchanted. I asked the tea sensei whether I might become a student, she said Yes, and that was that.

As a new student, I struggled with – but also enjoyed – the physical precision that is required for learning the various temae, or tea procedures. (I’m not a naturally graceful person, so this really was work at times!) To perform the movements right, you really have to be mindful. I often describe the Way of Tea as a moving meditation, and that’s really what it is: when you slow down your movements and bring mindfulness to them, the mind naturally calms down and becomes concentrated. In that sense, I find that Tea is also a spiritually refreshing practice.

Gradually, I also came to appreciate the heart of Tea, its philosophy or motivation, which is all about graciousness and generosity. The aim of the host is to do everything he or she can to make the guests’ experience in the tearoom as perfect and beautiful as possible. (Every movement should be imbued with this aspiration.) The aim of the guests is to watch appreciatively and to receive everything mindfully and with gratitude. When the two come together over a bowl of tea, you have a communion of hearts which is very lovely indeed.

Ultimately I noticed that that the practice of Tea was having an effect on my behaviour in daily life. Basically, I began thinking more about how to be considerate of others. I also began treating the objects I use in daily life with more care and deliberation, as though they were/are objects as precious as tea utensils. This wasn’t intentional, just a by-product of Tea practice. But having even a little taste of “tea mind” in daily life is a really welcome thing!

I’m lucky to have a teacher who embodies the heart of Tea – she is endlessly patient, considerate, and loving with her students. She is not at all attached to the beauty of the implements used in the tearoom, but uses them only as a way of welcoming the guests and making their experience in the tearoom a delightful one. So I never had the impression (as I think some people do) that tea ceremony is an empty practice that is performed by rote in a mechanical way. “Good” Tea really is the opposite of this.

When I was first asked this question, I thought for a long time about how to answer. The “easy” answer is that Tea is a microcosm of Japanese culture, or even a doorway to it. It’s often said that to master Tea one must also learn about incense, calligraphy, kimono, lacquerware, pottery and so forth… all of which are very enjoyable studies. And this is certainly true; I love learning about all these things (with pottery, kimono and incense at the top of the list). But to be honest, I learned to appreciate these things as deeply as I do only because I discovered Tea first.