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Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony
Horst Hammitzsch
Spiritual Science
Published by St. Martin's Press/NY in 1980

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2005


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The Tea Ceremony is one of the most inscrutable Japanese customs to the Western mind that I can think of. It consists merely of boiling water and drinking tea. Why would one bother to make a big deal of that? Don't people drink tea in England every day? They boil water and drink tea morning, noon, and night. And yet here is an entire book devoted to this very same process which is called an art in Japan. The official name is the "Tea Way" or sad.

[page 7] The concept 'Way' stands at the very heart of the cultural and intellectual life of Japan. It is the guiding principle of all the multifarious arts of the Japanese islands, and not least of the practice of ceremonial tea drinking. The Way is the tradition of any given art. In the absence of a Way there can be no progress for the practitioner of that art.

I became interested in the tea ceremony after reading a story about a learned Western professor who went to study with a Japanese sage. The wizen old man invited the professor to a tea ceremony. They sat on tatami mats in a bamboo hut. The old man carefully brought in water from a spring, heated the water in a simple pot over hot charcoals, and when it began steaming, he slowly added tea to the pot, carefully whisking it with a bamboo brush. He handed the professor a simple clay cup and began pouring the tea. The tea reached the brim of the cup and the old man continued pouring and the tea spilled onto the professor's hands. He set the cup down quickly and demanded of the old man, "Couldn't you see the cup was already full?"
       The old man smiled and gently answered, "Yes."
       "Then why did you continue pouring?"
       The old man's eyes gazed into those of the learned professor and said, "You came to me to learn something with the tea cup of your mind already full, and yet you wished for me to continue pouring, did you not?"

To do the tea ceremony one must empty one's tea cup of the mind. Here is a brief description of the tea ceremony.

[page 18] The Master sits down in the prescribed attitude, and the actual ceremony now begins. In a precisely predetermined series of gestures and movements, each individual part of the ceremony is performed in its correct sequence. The folding of the teacloth, the grasping of the water-dipper, the rinsing out of the tea-bowl with hot water, the opening of the tea-caddy, the dusting of the tea-scoop, the movements of tea-whisking all this is firmly established by tradition and is carried out strictly according to the rules of the school in question.
       While the host is attending to the initial preparations, the first guest takes one of the proffered sweet cakes and hands on the cake-stand to the next guest in the manner laid down. Then the host places the bowl of thick, green, whisked tea in front of the first guest. Mutual bows ensue, as well as a further bow on the part of the first guest to the one sitting next to him, as though to beg forgiveness for drinking before him. Only then does he take the tea-bowl, placing it on the palm of his left hand and supporting it with his right, He takes one sip, then a second and a third, each time gently swilling the bowl around. With a thin piece of white paper he then wipes clean the place on the rim from which he has drunk, and passes on the bowl to the next guest, the prescribed bows once more being duly exchanged. And so on, in turn.
       One praises the taste of the tea, its strength, its color, and generally speaks of such things as will fill the host with pleasure. All conversation in the tea-room takes place on a level far from everyday things. One speaks of painters, poets, Tea Masters and their achievements, of the tastes and opinions of various periods, of the exquisite tea utensils.

The author shares with us his impressions from his first Tea Ceremony. It reminded him of a time in his native land when he first felt a similar feeling of oneness with his surroundings.

[page 19] What impression did I take away with me from this first Tea Ceremony? It engendered in me a special feeling that reminded me of an experience I had had in my homeland some years before. We were hiking in southern Germany, and visiting one of those especially delightful village-churches. With us was a friend, a musician by calling and profession. He sat down at the organ and began to play Bach. And suddenly, with the music filling the whole body of the church, I felt that space ceased to exist and only the flood of notes still remained. I, too, seemed as though divested of all materiality, totally absorbed in the music. And here in Japan I had now had a similar experience. The effect of the Tea Ceremony was, so strong as to engender a feeling of self-surrender, a feeling of oneness with all others, an extraordinary feeling of satisfaction with myself and with my surroundings . . .

In any Japanese art, the Master teaches merely by supplying a model for one to observe and copy and by expecting one to master the pure skills of the art. But there is no art until one is able to represent what is in one's heart what is in one's soul, mind, and spirit. On that day when mastery is obtained, all the clunkiness of design and technique is gone.

[page 22] Only when the heart has attained maturity does true spontaneity arise. Even art must, like every natural being, grow organically: it can never create by act of will.

Art is the process of destruction of the sameness of design and technique(1). When one has thus emptied one's mind's tea cup from what filled it previously, then one may receive the new tea which flows from one's true heart.

[page 23] It is not conscious composition that makes a picture: far from it. The picture must come from within. from the heart. It is there as soon as the pupil has attained maturity; it comes spontaneously, without anybody's assistance.

The ultimate fulfillment of the Tea Ceremony comes from "the union of reverence, harmony, purity and tranquillity" which the host and guest can embrace together. The decorations inside the Tea Hut or Alcove might be ornate or simple, gorgeous flowers or a simple bamboo grass in a vase, such as Sch was fond of. His taste for simplicity showed everywhere around him.

[page 48] Socho loved a weed-grown garden. He completely devastated his well-laid out garden and sowed rape-seed all over it, later thinning out the young plants. Moreover, when meditating in his little hut, he would hang his constant traveling companion his straw hat in the alcove in place of a picture-scroll. A truly touching sight.

The photo on the book jacket illustrates the poem of the One-Sign-Teacher. There is a truth in this brief story which bears pondering. What is the difference between the two expressions, "a few plum tree branches" and "one plum tree branch"? It is definitely not to be found in the dictionary meanings of the words. The fame accorded the poet who changed from the first expression to the second signals the distinction, but one must find it on one's own. These concrete examples were used in place on long expository texts by the Zen Masters.

Photo of Mud Sculpture of Writer gazing at One Plum Branch at Timberlane. Photo by and Copyright 2005 by Bobby Matherne [page 49] In ancient China, under a certain dynasty, there once lived a poet. One day he wrote:

Hard by the forest in the middle of the deep snow
       a few plum tree branches last night opened their blossoms.

Then he had a friend listen to this poem. For the friend the expression 'a few plum tree branches' was too weak, and so he altered it to 'one plum tree branch'. This earned him the name 'One-Sign Teacher'.

Another marvelous story is the one about the bowl and the plum blossom in the passage below. What does it illustrate about living up to another's expectations? Once again the answer can only come from inside of one who reads and ponders the story. To explain the meaning of the story is like offering someone a peach after eating all the flesh from it. One is left with only the pit remaining from another's meal.

[page 55] One day Hideyoshi summoned Master Rikyu to appear before him. In front of him there stood a golden bowl full of water. Next to it lay a solitary sprig of red plum blossom. 'Arrange this!' commanded Hideyoshi. Rikyu knelt down and, without so much as a moment's hesitation, grasped the sprig with one hand and stripped off all the blossom with the other, so that the petals fell on the water's surface. The petals and buds offered an indescribably beautiful spectacle as they floated on the water. Even Hideyoshi cried out in admiration, 'There was I, hoping to see my Rikyu's troubled face but it stayed quite untroubled! '

Here is a more detailed summary of the rite of the Tea Ceremony which illustrates its simplicity and sacredness. Art has been defined as creating beauty out of a fixed form, and this is certainly true of the beauty which flows out of the fixed form the Tea Ceremony.

[page 59, 60] When guests have arrived at the waiting-lodge and all the like-minded participants are assembled there, the host announces himself by sounding a wooden gong. As far as the washing of the hands is concerned, what really matters on this Way is the purification of the heart. The host must approach the guests with every respect and conduct them to the tea-room. As soon as the boiling water sounds like the wind in the pine trees and the sound of a gong rings out, the guests enter the tea-room for the second time. It is unforgivable to let slip the right moment as regards water and fire. Neither inside nor outside the tea-room let the conversation turn to worldly thing: this is a commandment of old. At a true gathering neither guest nor host has recourse to fine words or smooth airs. A gathering may not exceed two double hours in length. If, however, this time is exceeded in the course of discussion of the Buddha's teachings and aesthetic matters, that is not objectionable.

In this review I have managed only to point to the Tea Ceremony as a ritual of living grace in simple surroundings in which two people, the host and the guest, may meet each other as equals. Do not mistake my description for an actual Tea Ceremony that can only be experienced directly.

[page 97] He who would admire the beauty of the moon
                 should not direct his gaze at the pointing finger!

---------------------------- Footnote -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. See my essay entitled, Art Is the Process of Destruction for more details on this theme.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.



Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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