One Moment, One Meeting: A Japanese Tea Ceremony
I went with my family on Sunday to the Sakuru Matsuri festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. We had a great time appreciating the cherry blossoms and doing a series of activities. And as synchronicity would have it, we ended up at a presentation and demonstration of a Japanese Sohen style tea ceremony by Soukyo Shimizu.
Soukyo described the principals of the tea ceremony being harmony (wa), respect (ken), purity (sen) and tranquility (jkaku). These guiding principles are based on wabi sabi. Wabi is serene intentional beauty and sabi is transient, imperfect external beauty.
The green tea used is called Matcha tea. It has many benefits including fat-burning properties, it combats aging, aids relaxation, stimulates brain activity, aids skin health, prevents heart disease and may lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.
It amazed me how every detail of the tea ceremony was thought through. As a newbie I probably missed a lot of it but I hope to bring you some of the basic highlights and then you can contact Soukyo and take her classes for more.
The tea ceremony was originally from China but it came to Japan by way of monk Eisai in 1195. The tea house is a beautiful little house with a small opening so that people have to kneel to slide into the room, which may be a sign of humility and respect. It’s also a metaphor for going back to the womb. The 5 senses are used in the tea ceremony: eyes (to see the beauty), nose (to smell the aroma), touch (to feel the tools), taste (to eat and drink) and hearing (to hear the water steeping).
The host or performer invites a guest, who in turn may ask to invite others. Tea ceremonies can often be 2-3 people or in a large space 20-30 people. The ceremony can last 15 minutes or all day long. It’s often done in the morning or can be done at midnight, depending on the host. Guests either wear kimonos or nice clothes that are comfortable because they may be kneeling for a while. People take off their watches to forget about the time. If there is conversation it is usually about the tea, the tea tools or a beautiful flower or scroll. Politics or daily life is put out of the tea room.
The host prepares the tea in an intricate process of purity and respect. First, the tea tools are admired by each guest. Here are a few of the tools: chawan (tea cup), chashaku (tea scoop), chasen (whisk, suiko (cold water jar), kama (hot water kettle), kensui (holds waste water), tea caddie (to hold the powdered green tea), tokonoma (add beauty to the ceremony like a flower), a hanging scroll (which sets the philosophical tone), a ladle (to pour water), a water jar (to balance the temperature) and more. Every tool has a purpose and place in the tea room.
First the host offers the guests some sweets to prepare the stomach. Tea is like medicine so it’s best to eat first. The sweets offered can’t have a strong aroma or they will compete with the aroma of the tea. Likewise, if there is a flower in the ceremony space it should not be a rose or a smell that will overpower the aroma of the tea. Things like dark chocolate work well. Guests do not eat the sweets until they are told to do so and even the eating the sweet is done in a very specific manner. Afterwards, the host tells the first guest that she will give them a cup of tea. When making the tea the host takes a handkerchief to clean the tea caddy and a white cloth to clean the cup and then she centers herself. This is an important moment. If the first guest says the tea is, ‘very good,’ then the others guests will drink tea. If the first guest doesn’t like the tea, then the tea ceremony is over! Also, according to Soukyo, the first guest sets the tone for the conversation. At the end of drinking your tea, it’s okay to slurp it because this shows the host that you are enjoying your tea to the last drop.
Volunteer participants in this tea ceremony reported feeling serene, tranquil and balanced. This is an important achievement in this day and age and it is needed.
My 5 year old daughter and 7 year old son sat through the demonstration. My son spaced out on the floor towards the end but my daughter Sera was quite taken with the whole thing. She ran up to get Soukyo’s card at the end. Soukyo does tea ceremonies for families with kids on the upper west side in Manhattan. My daughter wants to take a class with me as a ‘girls day.’ Soukyo says that some people have learned to perform a basic tea ceremony in a year-long period but that you can keep learning about it for a lifetime.
To reach Soukyo about her Sohen Style Tea Ceremony classes, contact her at : Soukyo Shimizu; 917-202-2001.
My upcoming book, The Book of Sacred Baths has a simple tea ritual at the end of every sacred bath with a tea that matches that bath’s intention. This simple tea ritual is meant to relax you, center you and bring you into the moment in purity and harmony. It was nice to discover a new ritual (other than my daily sacred baths I do) that also brings peace and well-being into our daily lives. You can get my book here: http://amzn.to/1KbnMwb or go to www.sacredbathing.com to learn more.