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A Glimpse at Chanoyu

by Diana Rosen

When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of mind
Whose bottom is beyond measure,
We really have what is called cha-no-yu.

--Toyotomi Hideyoshi, patron of the art of tea, 16th century

The Japanese way of tea is synonymous with serenity, order and calm, and that may explain its growing popularity to the Western world. My first experience into this peaceful world of tea was a visit to a tea master Los Angeles where I observed a class in Urasenke chanoyu, one of several tea schools in the Japanese culture.

That day, rainy weather precluded the usual step of washing one's hands before entering the tatami room from the beautiful traditional Japanese garden, designed by the teacher's husband. Instead of tramping through the forbidding muddy mess, and blemishing the tea rooms, we entered through the front door of the home/center, removed boots and soggy umbrellas and coats, and with dry socks on, padded through the conventional living room to the rear of the house where we came to the two tatami rooms, named for the tatami rugs laid on the floor.

Among the weeds growing along the wall
The crickets are hiding, as if forsaken,
From the garden wet with autumnal showers.

(An example of the idea of wabi, or living a life of "imperfection.")

We were greeted by our hostess and teacher, who was very petite, under five feet tall, with beautiful skin and strong teeth (features she attributed to years of drinking green tea). Her ramrod posture, enveloped in a beautiful silk kimono, belied her 70+ years, no doubt a result of years of sitting in the typical way on one's legs, folded at the knees, buttocks resting on one's heels.

As guests, my friend and I were allowed to sit on observation benches but still partake of the bean-paste sweets, the astringent green tea and feel a critical part of this disciplined ceremony.

Graciously yet firmly, the teacher guided her woman student in the correctness of each gesture, from setting the water to boil on the sunken brazier, to gathering the accouterments of the tea ceremony in smooth gracious movements up and down to the cupboard discreetly hidden behind the rice paper screen. The student then demonstrated folding the napkin, whisking the frothy matcha tea, turning the tea bowl to show off its exquisite design to our eyes. The entire process took less than an hour, but its calming effect lasted with me for several weeks afterwards.

Years later, I observed another chanoyu, this time at the Urasenke Foundation Center in San Francisco where I, and a group of tea vendors, sat on tatami mats and observed two tea masters demonstrate the intricate step-by-step ceremony.

These hosts, as did my previous host, pointed out the simple decoration for us to observe. Usually it is a solitary flower, or a painting or, in this case, a lovely calligraphied scroll (kakemono), which hung in the recessed alcove softly lit with a lamp from below and framed with graceful reeds.

This display sets the tone for the four principles of the tearoom: harmony (wa), reverence (kei), purity (sei) and tranquility (jaku).

Daisetz T. Suzuki in "Zen and Japanese Culture" describes the end result of drinking tea in a tea room thus: "Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space? The art of tea really teaches us far more than the harmony of things, or keeping them free from contamination, or just sinking down into a state of contemplative tranquility."

"The (Japanese) character for harmony," Suzuki goes on to say, "also reads 'gentleness of spirit' (yawaragi) and to my mind 'gentleness of spirit' seems to describe better the spirit governing the whole procedure of the art of tea."

The second chanoyu experience was more "show and tell," with two non-Japanese teachers explaining the centuries-old tradition, while a third hostess passed out beautifully shaped "sweets" and frothy bowls of green tea slowly and methodically prepared by our hosts. The tea was astringent but not harsh at all. Slowly, as we nibbled on the foods and sipped our tea, I was once again reminded of how this apparently contrived ceremony to make tea results in a soothing, spiritual time, a genuine "tea life, tea mind experience."

When both the host and guest
have exchanged their minds,
Only then does the water truly boil.

Since the garden path is a way
Beyond this transient world
Why not shake off the dust
Which soils the mind?

What is tea? Simply boiling water,
Making tea and drinking it.
Know that this is fundamental.

The garden path, the hut,
the hosts and guests--
All are whipped together
in the tea and are without distractions.
--Sen no Rikiyu, (1521-91)
(Rikiyu is often referred to as the founder of chanoyu.)

Urasenke Foundation Centers offer classes in chanoyu, tea gatherings that honor the seasons, and other tea-related events. Chanoyu is a remarkable tea experience not to be missed. Many Urasenke centers offer ikabana (flower arranging), bonsai, and other Japanese arts.

For most chanoyu gatherings, shoes are removed, so it is suggested that socks be worn. For both comfort and discretion, women may want to wear pants while sitting in observance of a tea ceremony. If you will be sitting on tatami, practicing sitting on one’s knees prior to your visit is a good way to help you sit gracefully with the proper posture, not easy for first timers! You can always ask to sit on a chair or stand nearby if are unable to sit with knees tucked under you.

Urasenke Foundation™ Centers are located throughout the world and in principal cities of the U.S. For a listing, visit www.urasenkeny.org



Diana Rosen is a freelance writer for web site copy and print magazine articles on food, beverage, and other lifestyle topics. The veteran journalist is co-author of three books and author of 10 nonfiction books the latest of which is MEDITATIONS WITH TEA, Paths to Inner Peace, available wherever books are sold.  For more information, write dianalrosen@aol.com.

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