I realized a pet desire last week of being party to a Japanese tea ceremony. The principal difference between the Chinese and Japanese approach to tea is a focus on the substance rather than the aura of tea.
To understand Chinese tea, boil, steep and drink expansively – each chajin cultivating her individual practice immersed in the material of tea and tea pots. To understand Japanese tea, you need to understand the formalism of traditional Japanese culture. The Sadō, or Tea Ceremony, is a symbolic enactment of these formal principles: elegance, self-effacement and beauty as an artefact of imperfection.
Hushed onlookers strained over one another’s shoulders at UBC’s Chance Centre to witness just such a dance between tea and spirit take place. Kobori Sōjitsu, thirteenth Grand Master of the Enshū Sadō School of Tea Ceremony, came all the way from Kyoto to take his partner’s hand-the ground matcha he carried in a lotus caddy-and twirl the essence of zen into being.
A perfect matcha
UBC’s Centre for Japanese Research and Gakushuin Women’s College jointly presented “KIREI-SABI and the World of Enshū Sadō,” offering a small viewfinder into the panorama of the Japanese tea ceremony. With the help of a translator, Sōjitsu explained the that Enshū practice itself is a seventeenth-century twist on Sadō (the Japanese tea ceremony itself being a twelfth-century spin on Sung-era Chinese customs.)
The innovation the shogun clerk Kobori Enshū introduced to the process was wedding it to the zen aesthetics of Kirei-Sabi, the art of grace and simplicity. In this mood, every act, gesture, sound and physical accent is a transcendent and terribly deliberate disruption of the cultivated equanimity of the tea space.
Politeness and obeisance are themselves elevated to the primacy of ceremony: when Master Sōjitsu takes out a silk cloth to wipe down his urn, pot and utensils, it ain’t to clean any physical smudge. The very act of cleansing purifies the tea’s gestalt, and in so doing purifies the spirit of host and his guests of all lingering ego, preconception and mundane weariness, ripening the attitude that receive the tea.
Japanese tea ceremony state of mind
The ritual doesn’t limit itself to the material aspect of the tea, however. Sōjitsu concocted an entire tea venue on the small stage. The Tokonoma, or recess, wherein the tea ceremony unfolds is just as mindfully planned and executed. A small calligraphy scroll paid homage to founder Enshū’s virtues in the thirty-one syllable verse form known as waka. And the Chabana or flower arrangement adds a garnish to reflect the predilections of the tea host.
In this case, Master Sōjitsu offered a bouquet of red and white, the only two colours figuring in both the Japanese and Canadian flags.
The master then humbles himself to the status of student, bowing before his guests and murmurs sententiously: “It is my honour to make you a bowl of tea.” If you’ve ever watched Noh theatre or seen Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, you can imagine the absolute punctilio with which Sōjitsu ladled the the matcha into the bowl, rinsed water from the cauldron and whisked the water and powered tea together into a frothy admixture that has the distinct, verdant hue of great matcha.
Unfortunately, we mere spectators were only privy to the spirit, and not the substance, of Sōjitsu’s alchemy. We were instead ushered into an adjoining room where Vancouver’s carried bowl after bowl of the silky, textured soup. I figured based on the long line out the door that Vancouver tea culture was probably here to stay.
If you missed the presentation, you can catch up with Vancouver’s own Maiko Behr, who offers private ceremonies and classes on Sadō that should be well within the vocabulary of any chajin!