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Some early history of Tea | Introduction of tea to Japan | The spirit of Chanoyu | Zen & the Tea Ceremony
To Keep Harmony with Nature | The Creative Mind | An Invitation to a Japanese Tea Ceremony


It is thought that tea was first brought to Japan from China in the 8th century. At the time Japan sent envoys to China and enthusiastically absorbed Tang culture. Tea was also brought to Japan as part of the latest Tang culture.

The first authentic records of tea in Japan are from the beginning of the 9th century during the time of Emperor Saga (785-842). However, the custom of drinking tea had not really taken root at this time, but was rather part of the world of furyu (refined elegance) found in poetry. Then, as the admiration for Chinese culture gradually declined, tea was also forgotten. After the 10th century, when envoys were no longer sent to China and the age of national culture arrived, tea became confined to its use in the special ceremony held at the Imperial Palace twice a year when Buddhist priests chanted sutras 'Kinomi Dokkyo' and there was almost a complete break in the history of tea.

Chanoyu which literally means "hot water for tea," is known in English as the tea ceremony and has as its objective a relaxed communion between the host and his guests. It is based in part on the etiquette of sewing tea, but it also includes the aesthetic contemplation of landscape gardens, tea utensils, paintings, flower arrangement and all the other elements that coexist in a harmonious relationship with the ceremony. Its ultimate aim is the attainment of a deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and through silent contemplation.

Some Early History of Tea.

image Early History of Tea Reliance on China Tea did not grow in Japan until the first seeds were brought from China during the Tang dynasty (618-907), when cultural interchange between the two countries reached a peak. The first mention of a formal ceremony involving the drinkingof tea is found in the eighth century, when Emperor Shomu (reign, 724-49) is reported to have invited the monks who had participated in one of his religious services to take tea in his palace.'

At about the same time in China (760), a Buddhist priest by thename of Lu Wu completed the first book on tea called Cha Ching, which out-lined all the rules for the correct method of making tea, such as the temperature of the hot water and the proper use of tea vessels. It was largely through the influence of this classic that the form and style of today's tea ceremony evolved in Japan.

It is almost certain that if tea had been native to Japan, or had been more readily available, the Japanese tea ceremony might not have been created, since its rules and formalities are based on the concept of tea as rare and valuable.

Introduction of Tea to Japan

image The Kamakura period in Japanese history coincided to a large extent with the Southern Sung dynasty (1126-1279) of China, an epoch charactersized by a high level of culture both in the fine and applied arts. A new systematic approach to studying philosophy and religion attracted a number of Japanese priests and scholars to travel to China. Priests were also among the first to appreciate tea as a beverage, especially Myoe of the Kozan-ji temple in Toganoo.

By the 13th century, tea plantations spread to various parts of Japan to meet the growing demand for tea. The number of tea drinkers increased rapidly, especially among the upstart samurai. This warrior class, which was beginning to seek a legal basis of government to counteract the aristocratic regime in Kyoto, turned eagerly to everything offered by the Sung dynasty: legal and political systems, religion, and, naturally, tea.

The Spirit of Chanoyu

image Misunderstandings in tea ceremony comes from the mistaken impression that it is the purely physical act of making and drinking tea, a pleasant past time in which a beverage is enjoyed. However, this is only the superficial aspect of the tea ceremony. What cannot easily be observed is the spiritual side of the ceremony implied in the chanoyu. Besides the very disciplined frame of mind that is a prerequisite for performing tea, there is a special code of ethics shared by the host and guests that makes chanoyu adistinctly Japanese art.

The first tea masters emphasized the spiritual aspect of the tea ceremony to the importance of the right frame of mind. He claimed that purity of mind, rather than a superficial appearance of cleanliness, should be aimed for at all times. In relations between the host and his guests, self-restraint and consideration are the key attributes, and a person of a lower social status should be given the same degree of respect as one who comes from a high social level.

Zen Philosophy and the Tea Ceremony

image It was the Zen priest who first brought the idea of drinking powdered green tea to Japan and encouraged tea drinking among his fellow priests. He is believed to have planted tea bushes around his temple in an effort to achieve this end while he spread Zen teachings. Since the first teachers of tea were Zen priests, the connection between Zen and tea was unavoidable. Many of the preparations involved in tea are a reflection of Zen thought and in later days the expression was coined that "Zen and Tea are one and the same." Yamanoue Soji went even further, saying that since chanoyu derived from Zen, it was obligatory for all tea masters to study the philosophy.

Other factors that linked Zen and chanoyu was the development of calligraphy, painting, and pottery. The first scrolls (kakemono) to hang in the tea room alcove were specimens of highly prized calligraphy executed by the Sung and Yuan priests of China. These scrolls were also hung in Zen temples, for the priests had great respect for the Chinese Zen monks. Rikyu began to decorate his tea room with his teacher Kokei's calligraphy, a great honour for Kokei since it was usual at the time for calligraphy only tobe displayed posthumously. Later as the popularity of the tea ceremony increased, chagake,or "tea scrolls," were made for the tea room. Included among these were the ichigyo sho, which contained a single line calligraphy, and the ji-gasan, a scroll painting with commentary by the painter.

The close affinity between Zen teachings and the tea ceremony helped mold the rules and rituals of chanoyu, and the simplicity and purity inherent in the religion influenced the form that the tea ceremony took In effect, the same harmony of mind attained upon entering a Zen temple could now be achieved in the serene atmosphere that pervaded the tea room.

The close relationship between the ethics of the Zen religion and chanoyu, can differ in that Zen calls for enlightenment of the individual through meditation and detachment chanoyu is first an art of communication between people, undertaken in the Zen spirit of sincerity and purity of mind.

To Keep Harmony with Nature.

Harmony with nature is the basis of chanoyu, for it is regarded by its originators as the ultimate means of awakening aesthetic appreciation. The special styles of tea houses and gardens are an indication of this ideal, and unlike Western homes and gardens, which are for the most part built to stand apart from nature, Japanese tea rooms and gardens are designed to blending with their surroundings.

Tea houses can be made from wooden logs with their bark still intact, or from unpolished wooden pillars bent naturally with age. Their walls are plastered with mud. In the gardens, natural stones are used to build paths and rock gardens, and some tea arbors seemed to be built next to trees, as if to give the impression of a more rustic setting. The weather, the movement of the sun, and the change in seasons all play a major role in the interplay between the tea ceremony and nature.

The Creative Mind.

image Although harmony and beauty are both necessary in the art of the tea ceremony, the entire arrangement will not be successful without the application of the creative sense known as hataraki. Without hata-raki the act of preparing and serving tea becomes dull.

In early times, the custom was to begin the tea ceremony after the room had been decorated with all the adornments and the meal served. Some time later, a small change was made and the alcove was only filled with a few chosen items. The host would bring in the other articles as the ceremony progressed. Later, the guests were invited to rest in the tea garden while the host changed the arrangement of the tea room, and then prepared the thick tea after they returned. With each stage an element of freshness was introduced into the ceremony.

The creativity of a host was expressed in the originality of his choice of decorations for the tea room and tea utensils. There are many anecdotes about the display of flowers in the alcove, and aside from the influence of Buddhist tradition, flower arrangement developed hand in hand with the advancement of the tea ceremony.

Creativity in chanoyu cannot be taught; it comes from within the tea master as they tried to teach pupils to think for themselves, being creative was up to the individual. To assist in expanding the minds of students to become creative, Zen inscriptions were chosen to decorate tea rooms, since the Buddhist idea of enlightenment through self-knowledge is said to be the only real way for the student to learn to think independently.

An Invitation to a Japanese Tea Ceremony

To the Japanese, the custom of drinking tea is a formal affair with roots that spring from an inherited past that has influenced the habits and manners of the people. To those who are not acquainted with what may seem to be a strange pastime.

When visiting someone it would be polite to phone first and arrange a time to call to give them time to prepare. Once there, remove shoes before stepping into the house, and arrange them neatly at the entrance, as per Japanese custom.

In the tea room, the seat in front of the alcove is reserved for the guest of honour, and a few articles might be all that the alcove contains. This may seem austere, but it is specially decorated in this fashion, so that each item can receive the proper attention. The same combination of items is never repeated.

When food is served, it does not fill the whole plate, since the plate itself is considered to be art to be appreciated by the guest. Great pains are taken to ensure that tea and food containers are displayed to allow the full appreciation. The kaiseki meal consists of several dishes brought out one at a time rather than all at once. The host will appreciate comments made on the beauty of the vessels and the flavour of the food. The ingredients of the kaiseki food are especially chosen and prepared to suit the season or occasion.

* All the information above comes from the book "The Tea Ceremony" by Seno Tanaka.