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Peace in a Cup of Tea

Originally published in Alternative Medicine, January 2006 © Kenneth S. Cohen

“A cup of tea is a cup of peace.” These words were spoken to me some thirty years ago by Soshitsu Sen XV, descendant of the sixteenth century founder of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. I was a beginner in Japanese Tea Ceremony, and it has taken me a long time to realize the depth in that simple sentence. I believe that Sen was talking about far more than mental tranquility or the biological effects of theanine, the mood-altering amino acid concentrated in green tea. He was speaking about tea as a Tao, a path in life, a way to realize peace in every aspect of one’s life– in one’s own mind, with one’s family and community, and as a communion that can bring peace in the world. A cup of tea is a celebration of the mystery of the ordinary, beauty found in the simplicity of the everyday. After thirty years practicing this beautiful art perhaps I am finally an advanced beginner.

Thirty years to learn how to drink tea? You’ve got to be kidding. Let me put this in context. A student of a great Japanese tea master spent more than ten years perfecting the choreography– how to clean the utensils, handle the tea bowl, whisk the powdered tea, arrange the flowers, even how to bow. One day he asked his teacher to reveal the deepest secrets in Tea Ceremony. The master explained, “First you boil the water, then prepare the tea, then drink it. That is all.” The student looked disappointed and somewhat perplexed. The master continued, “Show me someone who can truly do these things, and I will become their disciple.” This is the challenge of Tea, and it is the challenge of life. How can we be so present that we perform each action with our whole body, mind, and spirit? Normally, when we do one thing, part of us is doing something else. We reach for the pot of soup, but the body is so disorganized that we tense our jaws more than our arms. We decide to sit “quietly” for a few minutes but our minds are alternating between the shopping list and the morning news. As multitasking is extolled as a virtue, we lose the deep satisfaction that comes of doing one thing truly well.

But the repercussions of complexity go beyond this. A person who cannot be truly attentive communicates confusion. “What you are speaks so loudly,” said Emerson, “I cannot hear what you are saying.” Through a kind of energetic contagion — scientist Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphogenetic field”–many of us feel compelled to a life of haste and waste. At some unconscious level we may believe that not-doing, leisure, and — dare I say it– loafing!– are sins against society. Tea is the antidote. By slowing down, we become aware of beauty and capable of creating beauty around us. “Slowness is beauty,” said the artist Rodin. I am not talking about beauty only in clothes, complexion, and home design, but beauty in every aspect of life. Yes, it is possible. As the Navajo Indians say in their prayer, “Beauty above, beauty below, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty all around.” A commitment to beauty includes speaking and behaving with care and respect and preserving the beauty of the natural world, not by keeping some areas pristine and sacrificing other regions to industrial waste, but by considering the entire world our home.

Tea is ultimately an exercise in awareness. It assures awareness far more certainly than a Zen Master checking the posture and presence of seated monks. A chajin (tea person) whose mind wanders spoils the tea, and the guests can taste it. Tea is more than a cup of peace; it is a cup of your deepest Self. As Tea Master Rikyu (1520-1591) said, “When water is ladled from the depths of Mind, whose bottom is beyond measure, then we really have what is called Tea Ceremony.”

An Invitation to Japanese Tea Ceremony

The mood in the tearoom is rustic simplicity– tatami (bamboo) mats, wooden posts, gentle light passing through rice paper screens, perhaps only candlelight. The air has just a hint of the woodsy and peaty scent of aloeswood incense. The cast iron brazier and kettle rest on a tile on the tatami. The water is simmering over glowing charcoal embers in the brazier, making a prolonged “shu,” like the sound of the wind in pine trees. In the corner alcove hangs a calligraphy to suggest through style and meaning the mood for the day. Today, it consists of two Chinese characters in a cursive script that makes the words look like flowing water. They say qing feng, “pure, fresh breeze,” reminiscent of the Zen Buddhist saying, “At every step, a pure breeze rises.”

Two or three guests enter the room one by one and sit on a mat facing the brazier. The host enters the room and bows low with the guests, a way of yielding to a mystery. In the tea room there is no high or low, only Buddha bowing to Buddha. She gradually brings the tea utensils into the room: sweet crispy wafers to complement the bitterness of the tea– yin and yang, sweet and bitter like life–, a jar filled with cold water, the fine glazed teabowl, lacquered tea caddie, bamboo teascoop, bamboo whisk, bamboo ladle, and metal waste water container. Once all of the utensils are on the mat, she sits for a moment of silence, a space in which host and guest tune in to each other and create a foundation for harmony.

Next she removes the fukusa, orange silk napkin, from her sash and folds it in a specific manner that communicates grace and efficiency. She uses the fukusa to lightly clean the tea caddie and tea scoop, cleansing at the same time all dust from her mirror mind. Host and guest share a common goal: to open the senses and perceive without preconception, like a mirror that, itself colorless, can reflect all colors. Next, the hostess uses the tea scoop to lift out two small scoops of the powdered natural green tea. The guests notice the beautiful pattern left behind in the caddie. The tea which had been shaped like a mountain in the center or the caddie now, with two scoops removed, looks like sheer green cliffs. The hostess gently ladles water into the teabowl and then whisks it into a jade froth. The bowl is served to the first guest, who bows first with the guest who has not yet had tea and then with the hostess. The guest sips the tea and notices how as the tea disappears he can see more and more of the inside of the bowl. Finishing the last bit of tea with a slurp– to complement the hostess- he then turns the bowl slowly in his hands to appreciate its color, size, and texture. He returns the bowl to the hostess, who cleans it and prepares tea for the next guest, until all have enjoyed the tea.

“Please finish the ceremony,” says the last guest with a bow. The hostess cleans the utensils then ladles cool water into the simmering kettle. Suddenly the room is completely quiet. The hostess takes the teabowl and other utensils out of the room. At the end she turns, kneels, and bows with the guests. The guests are once again in an empty room, savoring the tranquility.


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