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May You Find the 'Way of Tea'
The Japanese Tea Ceremony is an involvement of appreciation and understanding of a way of life
Merian Kiernan
7/11/2006

In the spirit of the Japanese tea ceremony, delicious tea is not just a matter of the taste of the tea, but an involvement of appreciation and understanding of a way of life. Eiko Mouri, originally from Shikoui, Japan, volunteers at the Nichibei-Kai of San Francisco Cultural Center's "Way of Tea" program. Living now in Santa Rosa, she has been teaching the tea ceremony for 34 years to anyone interested. She misses her culture and wants to retain it for others. She was one of the hostesses of a tea ceremony in which she graciously and traditionally served tea to about 30 interested novices in San Francisco last week.

In a one and a half hour session, participants learned the history and tradition of tea etiquette and were able to partake in a tea ceremony. Mouri, in traditional kimono dress, explained that the building at 1759 Sutter St. has two teahouses and has for the last 20 years been used for teaching. She explained that "special tea ceremonies are given to celebrate weddings, holidays, or when somebody passes away for memories, even moon viewing in August, that kind of thing."

The tea room itself is intended to be "separate from the outside world." Lecturer Yuji Matsumoto said, "There is a famous story to emphasis this saying, in which within a four and one half matt room, a man had served 84,000 disciples of Buddha. This was to emphasize that space and time are irrelevant in the tea room. The emphasis on the loneliness and restiveness enforces a tranquil elegance of beauty with certain elements that are indescribable." In other words it is a beauty that is perceived by the heart rather than the eye.

Zen is the primary form of Buddhism practiced in Japan. The Zen Buddhist principles that encourage one not to rush through a moment, where every moment is as valuable as the next are utilized within the tea ceremony. To be in harmony with everything, not competing, but closely respecting each item within the house as well as the guests, and to do everything with great care and patience and thankfulness towards one another are some of the ceremony's valuable lessons.

The powdered green tea that is drunk is call 'matcha' and was being consumed in China around the 12th century, but is now drunk only in Japan. It is extremely good for the health. One host stated, "One cup makes you feel good, 10 cups takes you to nirvana."

Matsumoto, now 20 years old, was given an opportunity as a teenager to learn the ceremony from an Aunt. He was captivated by some of the philosophy and now lectures and continues to learn about the history of the ceremonies.

According to Matsumoto, although there are many rituals, there is no real 'right' way to drink tea. One is simply there in a tea ceremony to experience the tea and to experience the actual event in that room, which emphasizes the notion of transience. "Japanese thought evolution is always striving for perfection, but once attaining it, one attains stagnation since nothing will now evolve from it…striving for perfection is the ultimate philosophy." The appreciation for every moment in life is what the tea room epitomizes.

Etiquette for a tea room is to remove all prominent features from oneself: jewelry and perfumes are frowned upon. To compete with the scent of the tea and the sacred, unique atmosphere of the teahouse shows disrespect.

In ancient Japan, one way to disarm a hefty Samurai warrior was to invite him to a tea ceremony. The doorway to the traditional teahouse was only 3 ft. by 3 ft., forcing the entrant to humble himself by kneeling down and crawling on his knees. A fan was given as a replacement weapon, which the samurai used to defend himself symbolically, as well allowing him to show honor to the host giving the tea, depending upon where he placed his fan.

There are only several utensils used in making tea, and each plays an important role. The fan, given to the head guest; the tea bowls, which can vary with the theme of the ceremony; the bamboo scoop, some having incredible value due to being used and passed down for centuries; the tea whisk, made from a single bamboo stalk, cut into minute slivers that spiral and whip the powdered tea and boiling water into a foamy green froth; and lastly the special silk handkerchief, intricately folded for purifying and cleansing the utensils in a profound and artistic manner; are all highly honored.

In understanding the Buddhist belief that all things are alive in their own form, great respect, honor and thankfulness is given when the "death" of these tea utensils occurs. Matsumoto spoke of an old Japanese saying in which, "Anything that's created is destined to be destroyed. Its destiny in its creation is ultimately to meet its own demise—this is a notion that life is nothing without death."

But Matsumoto also emphasizes that all that is required to have a tea ceremony is hot water, tea and friends. "The peripheral tea room, nice utensils and specific tools can be superfluous to the experience of the tea ceremony." The living experience is most valuable.

The Zen Buddhist philosophy of "this moment only once", allows tea participants to fully honor the moment of time in which they share and honor the tea. "One needs to fully understanding the moment will occur only once, never being able to duplicate the experience ever again, for all things are in a transient state, always changing and moving forward." explains Matsumoto.

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