The Way of Tea


The Japanese Tea Ceremony, or ‘Way of Tea’, is one of the most fascinating practices in the tea world.

Dating back to the 15th Century,

“The Way of Tea is a cult founded on the love of beauty in even the most basic pursuits of our daily life. [T]he philosophy of tea expresses, at the same time as an ethic and a religion, our global concept of man and of nature.”

Okakura Kakuzō

It involves the ceremonial preparation of matcha, which was first used in Zen Buddhist monasteries to keep monks awake during meditation. At the heart of this practice is the understanding that emptiness and unity are the key to true enlightenment.

During this practice, it is not simply about drinking tea, but the principles behind it that make this truly unique. The main distinction is between sabi and wabi – that is, between the outer or material life and the inner spiritual experience. This is what Kakuzō meant when he said that the it is the love of beauty in the ‘most basic pursuits’. Wabi is translated as ‘desolation’, which in this context refers to the belief that true enlightenment comes from freeing the mind of the distractions of the material world and living in a state of simplicity. To reflect this, when visiting a tea house – chashitsu in Japanese – there is very sparse decoration. Everything that is present is necessary, so as not to divert attention from the ceremony. 

There are 4 principles underlying the Japanese tea ceremony – harmony (wa), respect (kei), purity (sei) and tranquility (jaku).

Wa is the relationship between the host and the guest. The whole tea ceremony is mainly conducted for the pleasure and peace of mind of the guests, so this is a very important part of the whole process. It also relates more generally to the harmony of humans and nature, and the way that we live and exist in the world.

Kei denotes the respect of others and the world, and suggests that to truly become at peace individuals must practice humility and unselfishness.

Sei is all about cleanliness, both physically and spiritually. Physical cleanliness is adhered to in the ritual of washing before entering the teahouse, whereas spiritual cleanliness or purity is achieved through the tea making and drinking process.

Jaku, lastly, is the internal tranquility and stillness of mind that is gained through the ritual of the tea ceremony, where you can become truly selfless.

The utensils used in the tea making process are an integral part as well. The key parts are the natsume (tea caddy for storing the matcha), the chawan (tea bowl), the chashaku (small bamboo tea scoop) and finally the chasen (bamboo whisk used to get the matcha powder to the correct consistency.

To become a host of a tea ceremony, it is very important to master each of the movements necessary during the tea making process, from heating the water over a charcoal fire to the precise way that the tea is scooped into the tea bowl. Each step is accounted for, and getting the correct order is a must. The method of learning isn’t just simply memorising – the movements must be learned with the body and not just the mind, so that it becomes a natural state. Because of this, it can take years to practice the art of tea.

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.

Japanese Proverb

Image via Morten Rand-Hendriksen

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