Tea and sincerity

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We were easily the houseguests from hell…

On a particularly sweltering day in July, we arrive, all hot and sweaty, a quarter-hour before the designated time for chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony of preparing and drinking hot matcha (powdered green tea).

Nonetheless, our tea ceremony teacher, Teruko Shin, graciously invites us into her three-level home in North York, where tatami (mats made from rice straw) on the floor offer us instant relief from the oppressive heat outside.

Honouring the custom in Japan (and in Canada), we remove our shoes upon entering and we follow Teruko-san to the mezzanine that looks out onto a well-tended Japanese garden. She invites us to sit with her on the floor, seiza style (the traditional way of sitting on one’s lower legs).

Teruko-san hardly looks 85, and she radiates wisdom. She is curious about my interest in chanoyu. I tell her that I want to learn more about what tea represents. I muse about how, in today’s world, tea is considered hip and cool, and people consume it with nary a thought about its history or other aspects. I also want to experience what others have said, that to participate in a tea ceremony is to slow down and step away in time.

I ask Teruko-san if I may turn on my tape recorder so that I won’t have to take notes. She doesn’t give me an outright “no,” but says, “A tea ceremony is a heart-to-heart exchange. I want you to experience it, instead of hearing me say what it is.” I put my gadget away, with a momentary panic about not being able to remember terms and the names of utensils used in the ceremony.

As if reading my mind, Teruko-san says that a tea ceremony is not about using the best bowls from Japan or the most expensive utensils.

I could buy a $10 bowl from IKEA, but I picked [a bowl] especially for you. It’s the thought and the sincerity behind it that matters, she says.

Neither is tea ceremony about mastery, she adds, “because learning is a life-long quest.” She smiles at the memory of a student who kept badgering her for a certificate each time he felt he had achieved a certain level in the study of chanoyu. One’s demeanour, she says, is in many ways one’s certificate.

Teruko-san teaches traditional Japanese tea ceremony in her home, which has three different tearooms that vary in size and use, but are all very cozy. She was in her 40s when she studied chanoyu with a tea master in Kyoto.

“I studied pretty late. My classmates were 19,” she says. Away from home for a year, she says she avoided calling her family in Toronto lest she be persuaded by her children to return.

Back in Toronto, she began her quest to introduce the ceremony by teaching its main principles to students in her children’s school: harmony (with one’s self, with other people and with nature), respect (for one’s self and others), purity (of the mind and the senses) and tranquility (peace of mind and appreciation of nature’s gifts and abundance). One can easily apply these principles to one’s parents and grandparents, she told the children.

She spread the same message in prisons, where she and her students were invited to perform chanoyu. Some inmates teared up when they heard these simple but powerful concepts, says Teruko-san.

Teruko-san has performed the tea ceremony countless times, but one occasion is particularly memorable, she says. A blind woman who had heard her speak on TV had asked if she could come to a tea ceremony. The woman arrived in Teruko-san’s home, accompanied by her mother and her seeing-eye dog. The dog kept scratching at the tatami but eventually settled down, recalls Teruko-san. While performing the ceremony, “I had to exaggerate my movements and I explained every step I was making so she could picture it,” she adds. “When I heard her say, ‘Oh, Mom, it’s so beautiful,’ I could feel tears flowing on my cheeks as I made the tea.’ ” When Teruko-san offered her the cup of matcha, the woman remarked that it was the most delicious bowl of tea she’d ever tasted.

With the arrival of one of her students who will be our tea host, Teruko-san asks us to prepare for the ceremony. She looks at my bare feet and asks if I have brought socks. To my horror, I realize that I had forgotten to bring a pair with me. My photographer had the good sense to wear socks, even though they are multi-coloured. We were not specifically told to bring socks for the ceremony, but in my gut I knew that to sully the tatami with the soles of our bare feet or put them in full display was somehow disrespectful. Still, in my rush to be punctual, I had forgotten them.

Teruko-san makes no fuss and hands us two pairs of pure white socks. Sheepishly, we put them on. She asks us to enter the room with the right foot first (or left foot first?—I can’t remember); at the end of the ceremony, we are to leave the room with the opposite foot first, signifying the completion of a cycle.

No other universe exists beyond the four walls of the tearoom, says Teruko-san, as I struggle to get comfortable sitting seiza. “We come in, we just look and talk about what’s inside the room—like the tea, the tea cup, the sweets that are served with tea and the scroll on the wall. There’s no gossip, no talking about our plans for the day.”

I decide right then and there that since my goal isn’t to write a step-by-step guide to a tea ceremony, I will listen deeply to Teruko-san and hope that I emerge with some understanding about this evocative ritual.

Here are some teachings that I remember:

  • Every movement and gesture of the host is always for the benefit of the guest. The host blesses and purifies the bowl in which tea is served by wiping it with a silk cloth. Utensils are always set at an angle that provides guests with a vantage view. An elaborate hand gesture I see is really about inspecting the chasen, or bamboo whisk, used for mixing tea and water, to make sure that no stray bristles fall into the tea. The host always scoops the matcha from one side of the caddy. Why? “So she doesn’t disturb the mound of tea and you can appreciate it better when you see it.”
  • A tea host chooses a shallow bowl when serving tea in the summer, so that heat evaporates easily; in winter, she uses a deep bowl that retains the heat. Even the design on the bowl and the utensils are considered: in our case, the tea caddy had a water-ripple design, reminding us of the coolness of water, a perfect antidote to the summer heat.
  • Guests, too, have roles to play. They must observe proper etiquette. When offered a bowl of tea, a guest lifts it with the right hand and places it on the left palm. The tea-drinker turns the bowl around, so that one’s lips don’t touch the design when sipping.
  • It is not impolite to slurp the tea; in fact, it is a sign of appreciation.
  • Once the bowl is emptied, a tea-drinker may examine and appreciate its beauty. “When you look at a bowl and study its pattern, you’re showing your appreciation for the bowl and for the host, who chose it for you.”
  • When returning the bowl, the pattern must face the tea host.
  • The second guest, when receiving the tea from the host, asks the first guest if she wants more, before proceeding to drink it.
  • When everyone has had tea, the guests may ask questions about the utensils. “You can admire the tea caddy and spoon and ask where they’re from.”
  • The chasaku, or tea scoop—usually carved from bamboo—has a poetic name given by its carver. A guest may inquire, “What’s the poetic name of your tea scoop?” Our host, for instance, used a tea scoop whose poetic name evoked falling snow, again helping us to cool off in the summer heat.
  • The honoured guest is responsible for requesting the host to stop making tea—otherwise, the host will keep making it.


More than anything, however, I remember Teruko-san’s words about mindfulness and transience. Like every other tea ceremony, the one we experienced was unique—it will never happen that way again; we may never again meet. In a tea ceremony, you get “one chance, one feeling, one time,” Teruko-san says. “So you have to cherish the tea, cherish the bowl and cherish the moment.”


About chanoyu

Chanoyu  or The Way of Tea was strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, according to Japanguide.com.

“The tea ceremony is much more than an elaborate ritual to prepare tea; it is a quiet interlude during which the host and guests strive for spiritual refreshment and harmony with nature,” says thefragrantleaf.com. “At its most basic level, taking part in the Japanese tea ceremony involves sitting quietly with several other people and tasting a small sweet offered by the host, who then prepares a bowl of frothy green tea for each guest. The structure and atmosphere of a Japanese teahouse are designed to focus one’s attention on the present moment and promote a feeling of being away from the concerns of the everyday world.”

Drinking green tea was known in China in the fourth century, but tea leaves were not cultivated in Japan until the Nara period (710─794) “and [tea was] mainly consumed by priests and noblemen as medicine,” according to the website, japaneseteaceremony.net. “In 1187, Myoan Eisai, a Japanese priest, travelled to China to study philosophy and religion. When he came back, he became the founder of Zen Buddhism and [built] the first temple of the Rinzai sect. It is said that he was the first one to cultivate tea for religious purposes…”

The tea ceremony as it is known today in Japan emerged in the sixteenth century, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art website. “It was an elite artistic pursuit that provided a forum for the rulers of Japan, the warrior elite, and wealthy merchants to forge and reinforce social ties.”

Befitting its stature, “the first ceramic utensils appreciated in this context were ancient ceramics from China that had been handed down in Japan for generations…Imbued with the potency of age and the glamour of ancient Chinese civilization, which the Japanese had long revered as a source of culture, these objects were treasured in Japan.” In the mid-sixteenth century, “a shift occurred,” it adds, “pioneered by influential tea masters such as Sen no Rikyû (1522─1591). These tea masters began to incorporate rustic ceramic vessels from Korea (1983.557.2) and Japan (25.215.47a,b), and found beauty in unrefined, natural, or imperfect forms.”


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