The Japanese Tea Ceremony Explained

The founder of tea ceremony Sen no Rikyu stated that tea ceremony can be explained by this simple phrase: ichi go ichi e : one time – one meeting. Tea ceremony is not about the taste, it is all about enjoying the moment and remembering that this moment will never come back again.
We have to forget about everything and just focus on drinking tea in harmony. In this sense, tea ceremony is quite similar to meditation. The tea meeting, which may seem like a simple routine, should be deeply enjoyed as that particular moment will never come back again. Building on this philosophy, Rikyu introduced the 4 main principles of tea ceremony: WA, KE, SEI and JAKU (harmony, respect, purity and tranquility). At Maikoya, we do our best to teach the meaning, purpose and symbolism in tea ceremony as follow:
 tea ceremony wa harmony
 Wa: harmony. The whole process is how a host and guest beautifully enjoy a bowl of tea in harmony. It is extremely important in the Japanese culture that the kanji character of Japanese (和) is the same with the kanji character of harmony (和). Harmony is the foundation of Japanese culture and Japanese people believe harmony is not limited to humans, it can be between humans and objects and humans and nature.
Kei: respect. Tea ceremony may look simple but during the whole procedure the host does everything to please the guest and the guest responds with continued appreciation. Every little thing from the flower arrangement to the scroll on the wall indicates the utmost attention paid to the preparation for the ritual. One of the many aspects of the tea ceremony that the foreign guests may not realize is the ritualistic way of showing appreciation by the guests. For instance, the person that is sitting close to the hanging scroll must make some positive comments about the room design prepared for that day. After drinking the tea, the guests should put their bowl on the floor and then pick them up and take a close look and then make some positive comments about how interesting and unique the bowls are. This is all to show the respect and appreciation. As stated in the book cha no yu “The guest must fully realize the pains taken by the host, to give him as little trouble as possible. The ideal relation between them is a mutual understanding and appreciation that needs no words to express.”
Sei: purity. Even though the utensils used in tea ceremony are usually prepared and cleaned in advance one goes through the tedious process of cleaning the utensils in front of the guests over and over again. The guests wash their hands before entering the tea room purifying themselves from the worldly things. The host purifies his heart and mind while cleaning the tea utensils.  Everything must imply purity from the sound of hot water pouring into the bowl to the smell of freshly powdered matcha. The tea ceremony in general is heavily influenced by Zen buddhism but the ritualistic purity aspect has no doubt been influenced by Shintoism as well.
Jaku: Tranquility. Jaku is not an effortful process, it is the natural result of practicing harmony, respect and purification that leads to peacefulness and calmness that give people the power of controlling their worldly desires. The zen philosophy suggests that simple actions in daily life (e.g. carving the wood, brushing a script, etc.) leads to awakening. When performing tea ceremony, a simple action of preparing tea with the clear mind paves a way to the awakening of our souls. One does not have to think about intricate processes of tea ceremony and smoothly moves with nothing in mind that creates inner peace the realization of self.  We should remember that the ultimate rule of awakening is the “presence” at the moment and understanding the true “self.” Thus, tea ceremony helps individuals deepen their connection to their inner spirit.
Wabi-Sabi. Wabi means seeing beauty in imperfectness and impermanence of the nature. Sabi means things that are old and covered are more appealing than new things or things that stand out. Together, wabi-sabi usually refer to beauty in simplicity. “Elegant simplicity” is present in all aspects of the tea ceremony. At the same time, one must note that tea ceremony is not only appreciating simple things (e.g. a simple cup) but also simple routines (e.g. cleaning the cup).
Yugen: profound awareness of the universe. True beauty is deep and difficult to understand on the surface. Tea ceremony may first look boring and simple but the movements in the ritual are uniquely beautiful and can be enjoyed only after practicing it or observing a true master. Tea ceremony helps people learn to discover the aesthetics in mundane things. Tea ceremony involves using all 5 senses simulatenously (tate, touch, sound, smell and sight).
Geido: Everything must follow a form, kata, a certain procedure, a clearly established set of rules. Everything has a right and proper way to do which is called “do” in Japanese. That is why most Japanese arts and traditions end with -do: aikido, judo, bushido, sado, kado, etc. Tea ceremony is not about the taste but about the protocol. When boiling and serving the tea, one does not necessarily take the easiest and most practical way. In the tea ceremony, nothing is a detail, nothing is unimportant, nothing is nuisance.
Satori: Mindfulness of oneself, awakening. Tea ceremony is a form of meditation. Participants have to leave everything outside, forget about the worldly things, get rid of materialistic desires, take their watches off and put aside their smart phones. Talking should be kept to the minimum and only at the beginning and the end. Tea ceremony is all about appreciating the moment also known as “ichi-go-ichi-e” in Japanese. In this way one can see his-her true nature and gradually experience awakening. Even the mundane task of cleaning the utensils can help one be enlightened by concentration of the task.
Kizukai: Mindfulness of others. As the reflection of respect (kei) and the Japanese omote nashii spirit (subjugation of self for the service of the guest ) selflessness is demonstrated by both the host and the guest during the tea ceremony. First, the host enters the room from a tiny low-level gate by kneeling down and serves the tea before drinking it. The guest who receives it first should say “osakini” (if you don’t mind I’ll drink it) to the guest next to him/her. The receiver should rotate the tea bowl twice to drink from the most beautiful side of the bowl because the host makes sure the most beautiful side faces the guest. The receiver holds the bowl and slightly bows while sitting before taking the first sip. The guest makes the slurping sound after finishing the tea to show appreciation. The server feels happy and relaxed by serving others and making sure others are satisfied.
Gaman: Self-control, enduring difficulties. It is known that one of the main goals of martial arts is to create a strong mind by practicing self-control. Similarly, tea ceremony also promotes self-control in various aspects. For example , participants are served Japanese sweets at the beginning but they have to wait for the right moment to have their sweets. The host and the guests must wait for their turns to enjoy the tea. Participants must sit on their knees firmly bent on the hard floor.
Shizen: Preserving the nature, naturalness. The environment of the tea ceremony must be interconnected to the nature. Tea rooms are usually set up next to a Japanese garden the participants have to pass through. The wagashi served in the ceremony are supposed to be not sweet in order to enjoy the natural taste of the tea. Display of metal, plastic and artificial things should be abstained.
Shibumi: Simple but still elegant. Like kaiseki meals, kimono, tatami rooms or anything in Japan, the design of tea ceremony rooms and the utensils tend to be simple yet very elegant. These concepts are similar to wabi-sabi but not necessarily giving the nature-made feeling.   The zen proposes that we should not judge things immediately and we should not judge things based on how they first appear to our eyes (including objects). Tea ceremony rooms tend to have a simple design compared to the architecture from other countries yet Japanese or foreigners all feel calming and relaxing after spending some time in a tea ceremony room driven by the simple but elegant design.
Chinmoku: Silence. In many cultures it may be considered a bit strange if adults come together and drink tea in a quiet small room. In Japanese culture however, chinmoku (silence) has a positive meaning. Silence is perfectly normal and should be cherished. The true meaning of things are usually hidden in words that are not spoken.
Ishin-denshin: Communication from heart-to-heart. Many tea ceremony scholars believe that the biggest overarching goal of tea ceremony is to create a bonding between the participants as in the original ceremony people had to share the same bowl in a tiny  2-tatami room (4m2). In Japan, meetings are usually for bonding and updating others, not to make decisions; while for Westerners, it is difficult to understand how bonding can occur without much talking. The explanation is ishin denshin where Japanese people can sense the needs and thoughts of others after spending time with them. Similarly, during the tea ceremony there is little eye contact between the parties as communication is from heart to heart.
Kisetsu: Seasonality. Seasons influence peoples’ lives in all cultures but perhaps not as much as they do in Japan. Tea ceremony, along with  kaiseki meal, is the epitome of the impact of seasonality on daily life. Tea ceremony in the summer and winter will be quiet different as every season many aspects of the ceremony change, including but not limited to, the scroll on the wall (seasonally relevant scrolls should be put up), the flower arrangement on the floor (seasonal flowers should be displayed), the tea bowl (deep bowls for the winter and shallow bowls for the summer), the sweets (seasonal sweets should be served), the matcha (thin or thick matcha), the way the kama and chashuku are placed on the utensils (upside down or backwards) and the way tatami floors are configured, and so on. All these changes imply how much effort put into the preparation of the room for the guests.
Kanpeki-shugi: Perfection in mastery. Perfection can be reached after countless performances and one should do everything possible to be perfect at what he/she is trying to do. While the Western culture emphasizes the importance of progress, Japanese culture focuses on the importance of perfection and mastery. Kampeki-shugi is not the opposite of wabi-sabi as it usually refers to processes, not things.
Jo-ha-kyu: Slow start-accelaretion-sudden finish. Just like many Japanese movies, the tea ceremony also follows the jo ha kyu routine where the preparations take time in a quiet atmosphere while drinking the tea in 3 sips and passing back the bow is rather fast.

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