Adventures with Japanese Tea Ceremony

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Photo by Flickr’s moonlightbulb

“You CLUMSY fool,” I blurted to myself the other morning when my bulky sweater brushed a hand-painted Japanese bowl, hurling it to the pine floor where it broke into pieces. Frustrated with myself, I began to wonder if studying an art form like tea ceremony years earlier might have actually helped me slow down and move more gracefully. Problem is, while living in Japan, I never had much patience for the tea ceremony. I was told young women often studied the it before marriage to refine themselves and learn to move gracefully. That made it even less attractive to me.

In the fall of 1976, I attended a tea ceremony at a private teahouse in Tokyo that made the old teahouse I was living in at Koenji Temple look like a shack. Seated at one end of the half-circle M-sensei, picked up a shiny black tea bowl in her right hand, shifted it to her left and placed the bowl next to the tea container before the water jar exquisitely glazed with yellow and orange maple leaf designs. My American friend, Kris, introduced me to M-sensei soon after I arrived in Tokyo from Boston. She was in her early seventies and though actively teaching tea ceremony, had agreed to teach me Japanese brush calligraphy.

Only a few minutes into the ceremony, my toes began tingling beneath my fanny from sitting still in zazen, knees tucked beneath me, on the tatami. The ceremony included a litany of rituals comprised of small movements and this was only just the beginning. I found myself trying to appreciate the sanctity of the moment in the Buddhist tradition of the ritual art form. I took in the sweet scent of the new tatami, the beauty of the rustic handmade tea bowls, decoded a few elegant sosho grass-script characters on a scroll in the alcove and reveled in the soft light filtering through the paper fusuma windows that afternoon. But the rest did not draw me in.

M-sensei picked up the ladle in her left hand, held it directly in front of her, extended her right hand to touch the end of it before she picked up the ladle and placed it exactly three tatami stitches from the edge of the mat before bowing to all of us guests. Each little movement or turn of the body was directed by a carefully prescribed framework of rules. Let me outta here, screamed a little voice in my head. But all I could do was wiggle my numb toes and bow in unison each time the teacher bowed.

Once M-sensei began untying the bow on the silk drawstring tea pouch, I figured we were coming close to the climax when she would whip up the powdered macha tea and each of us would enjoy the frothy, aromatic experience. But it seemed like eternity until that moment arrived. First she untied the bow on the green brocade drawstring pouch with the tea container, spread the drawstring gathers first on the far side, then on the near side with the precision of a plastic surgeon. After closely inspecting a bright orange chakin cloth, she wiped the tea container before picking up the bamboo tea whisk with her left hand. We’re in the home stretch, I mused when she scooped water from the kettle, blending the tea slowly and rhythmically with the whisk.

Before receiving tea, each of us received sweets, maple-leaf-shaped candies on crisp, white paper squares. “O saki ni—Excuse me for receiving before you,” I said as the sweets were passed my way, following tea ceremony etiquette. When the tea bowl arrived, steaming with thick, sweet smelling tea, I bowed to the guests to my right, feeling I had reached the promised land.

Cradling the thick-walled bowl in my hand, I took a sip of the aromatic tea. In that meditative moment, I was sure I was close to reaching nirvana before my left foot began to cramp and I began unfurling my leg for relief as everyone stared at me the clumsy gaijin—foreigner. “Daijobu—I’m fine,” I reassured everyone, wanting to crawl into the tatami work.

Though I never formally studied the tea ceremony, I was fascinated by its history, loved ceramic tea ceremony ware and enjoyed quiet afternoons when my friend Kris would pull out one of her hand-made tea bowls and whisk up macha tea that we enjoyed with sweet bean candy. Trouble is, that never slowed me down enough to move more gracefully. Maybe I should try ballet?

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