Tea ia a sacred drink in Japan. Its use originated in China and its real discoverers were two disciples of Lao Tzu. In their intuition they discovered tea-leaves, made an infusion of them and presented it to their master, Lao Tzu, in the morning as he entered the gate of the city. He blessed it. A short outline of the meaning of the tea ceremony is attempted below.
The Japanese arts of tea ceremony and flower arrangement are based on four principles’—Harmony, Respect Purity and Tranquillity.
Basho walked in the tea room as if he was not walkings saying nothing. Everything is nothing and nothing is everything, is the art of tea.
There must be perfect harmony among the guests who sit in the specially appointed tea-room to taste the holy liquid. The tea-room is usually situated in a grove of pine-trees. The guests commune with the trickling water, under the pine trees, and try to find harmony in their hearts, in nature and in the simmering of the tea-kettle. The guests treat each other with respect. There is an old proverb which says : “ All men are equal in the tea-room.’’ The master of the ceremony is held in great respect, in a kind of hero-worship. The flowers in the room are also looked upon with great respect. It is a picture of simplicity and perfection : there is harmony in the mats, in the posts and the roof, and in the motes that play in the sunbeams. Purity abides not only in the body and things around, but also in the mind. If there is any feeling of competition, of enmity with nature, of desire to use things instead of having them be, that anything is wanted, purity is not there.
Tranquillity comes from nature to us and we return it to nature ; it is not something artificial ,or assumed. We have to convert our inner nature into incessant tranquillity under all circumstances. The Japanese have cultivated tranquillity well in their nature. Their art of fencing, sword-play and jujitsu, have all, as their key-note, inner tranquillity. The object of relaxation, mental and nervous, is to create tranquillity. Excessive talking, nervous behaviour, useless twisting of fingers, all show want of tranquillity and the fact is that such people are not to be sought after as friends or even as companions. You become tranquil when you give up all desire of having anything from anybody and your mind becomes like a sea in which innumerable rivers run all the time without leading to its overflow.
In tea ceremony you have to adopt the spirit of Rikyu and Roshi, two great tea masters who were also Zen masters in the fifteenth century in Japan. From the very beginning of its introduction, tea was associated with Zen. It was introduced in Japan by Eisai, a great expert in meditation who lived from 1141 to 1215.
The founder of the tea ceremony was Juko, a scholarly monk devoted to meditation, who died in the year 1502. The close connection between the tea ceremony and Zen is indicated by a story of the text of meditation given by Juko to Ikkyu. This relationship is not grasped by our intellect, like many other great and good things which evade the element of rationalism in man.
Ikkyu asked Juko : “ O master, what is the essential element in tea-drinking ? ”
The master replied : “ My son, it is the quiet mind of tea-drinking ”.
Then Ikkyu said : “ Have a cup of tea ”, and Juko was silent.
Then Ikkyu had a cup of tea brought and presented it to his guest.
As he was about to drink it Ikkyu shouted “ Hold it ! ” and smashed it with his iron rod.
Juko remained quiet and unperturbed. Thus he showed the power to drink tea-less tea.
The tea offered at the ceremony is bitter and rather warm, not hot. It represents the world and its contents which have to be taken in great inner tranquillity, without any desire and without expecting any real pleasure out of them.
The great poet Basho was also a great tea master. In 1671 Basho went to his native place and stayed with his brother.
There he wrote his famous verses about the holy tea ceremony. Here is one of them :
Cleaning the room
When the goad is flicked
Charcoal dust arises.
This verse contains a deep truth for meditation. During the cleaning and flicking with a duster, the charcoal container creates dust. Dust here represents energy.
Basho returned to Tokyo which was then called Yedo and performed his meditation and tea ceremony. It was at this time that he became a great poetical genius.
To-day he is held to be the greatest Japanese poet. In his verses there are many references to tea. He never lost his interest in tea to the end of his life.
The form of Japanese poetry called Haiku owes much of its development to the great Basho.
In a letter written shortly before his death, Basho was invited by a fellow Zen master, Yowa, to his house.
There he received great aesthetic pleasure from the harmony of nature and the tranquil, uplifting disposition of his host. He expressed it in the following verse :
Autumn is near
I jeel drawn towards
The four-and-a-half mat room.
The four-and-a-half mat room means the room for tea ceremony. The approach of autumn is the time of year most inspiring to Japanese poets. In this verse, the great poet and Zen master turns especially towards the tea-room, because there is great tranquillity in it and his tranquil mind finds unity with the tranquillity of nature.
The world of sound, sight and feeling is turned by Basho into a world of perfect peace and tranquillity.
He expresses it in the following letter :
Please come together with the wind
In the pine tree
To my hut.
The highest art of an artist is to hide rather than to reveal beauty. Such is the case with artistic friendship also. This is, in short, the connection between the tea ceremony, poetry and Zen meditation in Japan.
If any tea master of old Japan were alive to-day and were to see the people in the West drinking tea, gossiping, laughing, and exchanging insincere conversation, he would be ashamed of the sight for, according to him, our tea drinking is a vulgarisation of holy tea.
In every Japanese house I was offered milk-less and sugar-less green tea, with great ceremony and calmness. When I compare it with the way in which tea is prepared and offered here, I wish they could learn the art of Japanese tea-drinking.
There is a song in Japanese concerning the tea ceremony ; a part of it is :
Rise in tranquillity,
Walk in peace,
Stay in harmony.
Tea ceremony has a great moral bearing. It is a reminder of the value of inner tranquillity and the uselessness of agitation, loud talking and extravagant gestures,
What a waste of energy these are !
What a vulgar way of living !
A person who is invited to a tea ceremony has to learn the proper way of drinking the tea. The essence of the instruction is :
Sit motionless in complete mental relaxation.
Focus the mind on ‘ nothingness ’ when the tea is being prepared in ceremony.
When it is offered, make three bows to your host and ceremoniously, without speaking a word, without any haste, drink the tea in three sips.
Bow again to your host and put the cup in its place very quietly.
The experience of tea ceremony is of such a nature that it is simplicity itself.
Its profundity lies in its silence and want of any expression or explanation.