According to Tea Master Tanaka, chanoyu is “an art of communication between people, undertaken in the Zen spirit of sincerity and purity of mind.”
Introduced from China during the Nara period (710-84 CE), tea drinking evolved from an aristocratic pastime to a spiritual practice. While the nobility enjoyed tea as a sophisticated component of entertaining, Buddhist temples used powdered green tea (matcha) as a stimulant during meditation. As the wealthy merchant class adopted tea drinking as a status symbol, Zen Buddhism distilled human activities into opportunities for mindful awareness. Zen masters of chanoyu, the tea ceremony, promulgated the art among their secular disciples as a means of serene detachment and communal harmony. Providing many opportunities for aesthetic expression, chanoyu included traditional arts of calligraphy and painting, flower arranging, ceramics, and naturally, gardening. The traditional tea garden emerged from this unique combination of the middle class lifestyle and aesthetic sensibilities.
Modeled after rustic pavilions in courtly gardens, the tea house and its surrounding garden represented a retreat from worldly distractions. Simple materials and humble actions combined to immerse participants in Sado, the Way of Tea, raising their awareness of spiritual reality.
Guests entered the garden through a simple gate separate from the main entrance of a house. Like their counterparts the world over, merchants typically lived in rooms adjoining their business, possibly with a small yard for household needs. A wealthy family might have enough property for a private garden and shelter, providing a retreat from worldly concerns. This modest gate represents a transition from the bustle of public concerns to the peace of private thoughts.
The path to the tea house meanders through a small naturalistic garden. The mossy, uneven paving stones encourage a slow pace and time to appreciate the quiet beauty of one’s surroundings. No flashy plants or distracting artifacts interrupt the serenity.
A stone water basin and simple lantern allowed guests to pause and symbolically purify themselves by rinsing the hands and mouth before entering the tea house.
The tea house blends into its surroundings, large enough for only a few guests, an alcove for art, and the simple implements for making tea.
After greeting the guests, the host offers a simple dish like this bean paste sweet. The method of preparing and serving tea, as well as the act of receiving and drinking it, are all carefully orchestrated according to traditional teachings.
We enjoyed a tea ceremony at a private residence in Kyoto. Although it was Westernized in many respects, it gave a fascinating glimpse of traditional culture. The precise, sequenced movements closely resembled a religious ritual, serving to quiet the guests and focus their attention.