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Respect and tranquility in a Japanese tea ceremony



On a cool autumn night in Kyoto, I sit on a bench outside a traditional tea house, with a dozen other guests. A young woman dressed in traditional kimono opens the sliding door and welcomes us inside. Quietly she asks us to remove our shoes; I place mine on a timber rack with the others and follow her into a dimly lit and sparsely furnished room.

Tea ceremonyWe are invited to kneel on soft tatami mats and form a circle around a small collection of pots and utensils including a furo (portable brazier), kama (kettle), cha-ire (tea caddy), chashaku (tea scoop), hishaku (ladle), chasen (bamboo tea whisk) and chakin (white linen napkin).

As I kneel I can see that the room is spotless: prior to our arrival the tatami mats have been cleaned thoroughly with a houki (palm broom) and doors and windows checked for any dirt or holes — hygiene is imperative.

The young woman then introduces an older woman also dressed in traditional kimono; she is the devotee, the teishu (host) who will prepare the tea. A hush falls over the room as the teishu bows, kneels and begins the 'movement'.

The tea ceremony was perfected centuries ago. In 15th Century Japan a young man named Murata Shukou, who was studying for the priesthood, began to practice Zen philosophy. His teacher explained that the spirit of Zen was also present in the practice of tea-making, so Shukou began a journey of discovery into making and serving tea.

He spent the rest of his life refining the ceremony and passing on his knowledge to anyone interested in learning the art of cha-no-yu.

Shukou believed that serving tea should be an intimate affair, a simple act practised in a tranquil atmosphere. And today, a tea ceremony provides just such an opportunity, where guests can relax over a cup of tea with their host. But on another level it is said that participants in a cha-no-yu can reach deep spiritual fulfilment through silent contemplation as they observe the ritual.

Tonight in Kyoto, the Teishu removes lids and pours, wipes and ladles; then she scoops, pours some more, and whisks; folding and refolding the chakin as her hands move delicately, almost melodically. There are almost 40 steps involved in this ancient ritual; time stops and I am mesmerised by the rhythm and the silence, as if I am separated from the world and nought exists save for the movement.


"Upon entering the tearoom, all discrimination between self and other vanishes, a spirit of gentleness prevails, and that peace may be attained when modesty, respect, purity and tranquillity are understood." — Murata Shukou


After an indeterminate time the Teishu pours the brewed tea into a chawan (earthenware bowl) and offers it to me. I lean forward and bow. After receiving the bowl I return to my kneeling position and take a sip. At first I am surprised by the bitter taste of the matcha tea, but I am offered wagashi (sweets) as a welcome remedy. Through all of this there is absolute silence, and I feel an indescribable peace.

As we drink our tea, the teishu proceeds to clean the pots and utensils, almost noiselessly, replacing lids and using the hishaku and the chakin to pour and wipe. She then removes her dogu (tools) and withdraws to another room, leaving us with our tea bowls to linger a while, and ponder over what has been a truly memorable experience.

At last the teishu appears at the door, and bows. It is time for us to leave. I take with me the memory of the movement but more importantly, the desire to replicate this experience and these feelings in my own tea ceremony back home.

Shukou said that 'upon entering the tearoom, all discrimination between self and other vanishes, a spirit of gentleness prevails, and that peace may be attained when modesty, respect, purity and tranquillity are understood'. He was a very smart man.


Penny GarnsworthyPenny Garnsworthy writes for the educational market. She also loves to travel and share her experiences with others. She comes from the beautiful island state of Tasmania and blogs at: creativepennyg.blogspot.com.

Topic tags: Penny Garnsworthy, Japan



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Existing comments

Rituals can have many effects on the human psyche. Like all human formalities there can be a mixture of values attached to them, some of which can be beneficial, neutral, or even deleterious. Apart from the main effect which reflects the value of the object of the ritual, bonds between the participants can be strengthened, which in turn can promote the same gamut of values mentioned earlier. A glorified ritual of serving tea handed down from an era of leisure and lack of challenges might seem, in our tumultuous age, to be a form of escapism, a distraction from tackling the accelerating bombardment of problems that demand our attention lest worse befall us. Sometime, of course, some people need an escape hatch from the too heavy demands thrust upon them.

Robert Liddy | 16 June 2017  

Rather than being a distraction or form of escapism, Robert, I'd suggest the state of mindfulness associated with Japanese tea ceremonies would put someone in better stead to tackle the bombardment of problems in modern life.

AURELIUS | 17 June 2017  

If Jesus had incarnated in Japan, the liturgy of the eucharist would probably be a tea ceremony.

Roy Chen Yee | 19 June 2017  

Penny - well-written and laudable in understanding - your experience of the tea ceremony. Especially considering that MURATA Juko (1423-1502) was creating this atmosphere in a very unstable warring era in Japan. I lived nearly two decades in Japan and was able to enjoy tea ceremony on many occasions - including some with component parts lasting three to four hours. It was a privilege. A century later SEN-no-Rikyu's disciple YAMANOUE Soji created one of the most known maxim's in Japan - hanging as a calligraphic scroll in many a tokonoma (formal Japanese living room focal shelf alcove): "Ichi-go Ichi-e" - literally "One-time One-meeting" suggesting a kind of "carpe diem" sensibility - not wasting the chance which might not come again - or that if indeed it takes place again - that might be the final meeting. Thanks for transporting me back to the quiet place of traditional Japan.

Jim KABLE | 19 June 2017  

Penny's account of the tea making ceremony provides peaceful reading, reflecting the peace of the ceremony itself. Meanwhile in Japanese homes, tea houses and restaurants, people frequently make tea as part of a meal or just to linger a while and refresh, without performing the cha-no-yu ceremony. In our own country, Indigenous Australians, especially in the more traditional communities, look forward to periodic ceremonies as time and place for creative participation and strengthening of culture. All through my childhood and well into my adult years, weekly Mass was compulsory, a ceremony one attended even if not deeply inclined to do so. Nowadays, many Australian Catholics have turned away from regular attendance at Mass, choosing to participate only on the major holy days of Christmas and Easter. While not arguing that these are the only days 'holy enough' to warrant formal celebration in community, I think this change of practice reflects a more personal response to the idea of ceremony. We are invited to participate; we do not feel compelled to be there.

Ian Fraser | 19 June 2017  

In response to Ian Fraser - you'll be interested, Ian - given your references to the Mass - that the sipping from the communion chalice/wiping of the edge is thought to have influenced aspects of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, too - from the latter half of the 16th century when Francis XAVIER SJ and those who followed him as missionaries were in Japan. So I was told. The time of Sen-no-Rikyu and of Yama-no-Ue Soji to whom I referred earlier. Ideas and practices were - and indeed are - transferred backwards and forwards across the world and then translated afresh - adopted and adapted. Like our kids' game Rock-Scissors-Paper - as fair a method of ensuring objective randomness in decision-making as any (better than the short-straw draw method) - as brought back by Australian PoWs observing it used by their Imperial Japanese captors of WWII. Or our footwear - formerly and unselfconsciously known as thongs (flip-flops/NZ jandals)!

Jim KABLE | 19 June 2017  

Lovely article and very informative. Such a relaxing activity and one that we can all seek to incorporate in our lives in other ways.

Chris Ellis | 19 June 2017  

"An intimate affair, a simple act practised in a tranquil atmosphere" as a description of the Zen Tea Ceremony, fits perfectly with another spiritual experience I know, today called "The Christian Meditation Group". Many Christians are simply unaware of this practice or discipline in their tradition, which, originating in the 4th Century, far predates the Tea Ceremony, yet respectfully acknowledges that it shares a spiritual or mystical fellowship with Zen and all the major world and native religions each of which have a precious contemplative practice. It is what we all have in common that can respectfully unite us as spiritual beings. One centre for the renewal of this Christian movement today is the World Community for Christian Meditation, which, when it celebrates the Eucharist together encourages a contemplative, quiet atmosphere (too often missing in our busy Masses) which brings to the surface the contemplative aspect of Christ's Supper - very much like what seems to emerge within the Tea Ceremony.

John O'Donnell | 20 June 2017  

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