‘Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.’
Much more than a simple art representation, the way of tea is a way of life. For Okakura Kakuzô (the writer behind The Book of Tea), the ‘way of tea’ symbolizes the true democratic spirit of the Orient nations, making their connoisseurs the aristocrats of taste. He sees this path as a spiritual culture that can metamorphose itself on ‘art of life’.
The first documented evidence of tea in Japan dates to the 9th century, when a Buddhist monk passed by the land of the rising sun on his way back to China. Before it became a beverage, tea was alone prepared for medical purposes. Lu Yu, the first known tea poet wrote the The Classic of Tea, a treatise on cultivating, making and drinking tea. His book breed from the Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism way of thinking and for him, tea symbolized the harmony and the mysterious unity of the universe.
In its beginning, tea was merely used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. But, by the 13th century, when the Kamakura Shogunate ruled, tea was already perceived as a status symbol among the warrior class.
There were those who criticized the use of tea as a beverage, claiming that it would diminish the charm and status of the men and the beauty of women. Fortunately for us, those conceits did not go far and in the 15th century, Japan grant tea with the signature of nobility, creating a truthful aesthetic religion: The Way of Tea.
It derived from Taoism by its acceptance of the world as it is and by the Zen Buddhism for realizing that greatness can be achieved in little things and simple pleasures. We can say that Taoism fundamentals give the way of tea its aesthetical ideal and Zen put it to practice.
Japanese customs, garments, cooking, paintings, architecture and literature were influenced by the way of tea. For Japanese, tea’s philosophy can express their global conception of human and nature. By this time, tea was considered one of the pleasures of refined society and its cult was founded through the adoration of beauty in the triviality of everyday life.
The Way of Tea found its expression with the Chanoyu – Japanese tea ceremony.
“(…) The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane. The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travelers could meet to drink from the common spring of art-appreciation (…) Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surroundings, all movements to be performed simply and naturally – such were the aims of the tea-ceremony (…).”
In Okakura’s words it’s easy to say that the tea ceremony has a strongly defined procedure. If you want to know more about it, click here.
Apart from the ritual of the tea ceremony, the Chanoyu was structured bearing in mind five fundamentals:
- Hanging Scroll: they play a central role in tea ceremony. Often written by famous calligraphers or Buddhist monks, they inform the guests about the theme of the tea gathering (for example: wa-kei-sei-jaku, which literally translated means ‘harmony’, ‘respect’, ‘purity’ and ‘tranquility’, the four key principles of the Way of Tea).
- Flower arrangements: “We eat, drink, sing, dance, and flirt with them. We wed and christen with flowers. We dare not die without them.” Okakura says everything. It’s unthinkable to have a tea ceremony without the presence of flowers.
- Meal: There’s a meal served in the tea ceremony. Only fresh seasonal ingredients are used and are prepared in ways to enhance their flavor.
- Clothing: Man, and woman are dressed with the kimono, because many of the movements and components of tea ceremony require it.
- Tea Room: The use of tatami flooring is of utmost importance. When walking on a tatami it is customary to shuffle. Shuffling forces one to slow down, to maintain erect posture and walk quietly.
The tea ceremony is a much wider and complex subject matter. And, although I cannot explain all of it to you in this article, Sen no Rikyu (the one who determined the way of tea as we know nowadays) as said in few words the real essence of it: ‘The art of tea consists in nothing else but boiling water, making tea, and sipping it.’