“Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism: Teaism.
Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life”.
Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913). Japanese writer, philosopher and historian. Fragment from The Book of Tea.
The magical journey of tea from China to Japan goes back to the IX century. The Buddhist monks brought the drink to this island, using it exclusively in their ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. In the XIV century, it was diffused into various sectors of the Japanese society, and a century later, it reached a noble status. In some circles, the preparation of tea acquired the position as a philosophy and a spiritual practice; it became associated with elevated values, and it became converted into a ceremony. As time progressed, the humility, naturalness, harmony, neatness, sobriety, concentration and slowness, characteristics that were established in the tea ceremony were extended into diverse areas such as architecture, martial arts, gardening, calligraphy and painting.
Today this ceremony is still taught and practiced in some schools in Japan. The training involves knowledge about tea, floral arrangement and protocols amongst others, and the formation and perfection of this art can take up to a whole lifetime to master. Apart from the velocity of modern Japan and the abandonment of the traditional practices, the traditional Japanese culture understands the power of this ceremony to establish a connection with deepened states of consciousness.
But beyond a cultural curiosity or an anachronism, does the tea ceremony have a message for our lives? This ancient practice can guide us towards three virtues for our growth that can be summarized in three words: mastery, beauty and service. Mastery: over our thoughts, words and activities, with a detailed attention paid to the small acts. Beauty: as a foundation of our existence and a practice to imprint grace and delicacy in our actions. And service: as an essential medium for our self-perfection and a vehicle to manifest in the world the most sacred part of our nature.
In the first of these cases, the message of mastery is relevant owing to the velocity of our times and the dispersion of our minds in many directions. Each day it is more difficult to find opportunities to take care of ourselves and we have forgotten the capacity of just being; indeed even in our rest and or recreational times, we feel the necessity to do. These realities of the exterior life are reflected in our inner state: if we close our eyes we perceive the rapidity of our mind, and if we pay attention to our emotions we see that they move towards the future with anxiety. And although we know that these accelerated rhythms guarantee us certain privileges, we are also conscious that our life in the present is absent of all the calmness, quietude, and fulfillment that we long for.
This scenario presents the challenge to recover the mastery of our self and find inner serenity in daily life. The tea ceremony and its capacity to center the attention of the mind invites us to incorporate concentration and slowness in our activities, as a means to reduce the velocity. The exercise to unite thoughts and actions in one direction; the disposition to reduce our rhythms to observe the movement; and the will to be in the present are powerful tools that the tea ceremony provides for us. In the beginning, we need discipline to mold our habits, but little by little, we will find that it is possible to be and maintain the silence, even in dynamic situations. This mastery of our being, that comes from the attention, the slowness and the care in the small actions can be extended to complex activities. And eventually with the practice, the mastery can convert itself into our way of being in the world, in the same way that the spirituality of tea has extended itself into the various arts and transformed the soul of Japan.
In the second case, the tea ceremony presents us a path to establish beauty as the center of life itself. It teaches us how to direct our will towards values such as harmony, delicacy and simplicity. The ceremony requires an environment that is capable of moving our heart; the flowers and the gardens invite the human soul to aspire to a perfection; the simple lines of the paintings, architecture and calligraphy inspire subtlety and an emptiness in the mind, and the movements of the martial arts, or dance, invoke grace and fluidity of existence. These voices of unity, simplicity and humility are essential for our epoch of disconnection, ostentation and excesses. Therefore the search for beauty in thoughts, emotions, words and actions can be a key to give a twist to our reality, that at times is absent of these harmonious qualities. The contact with the beauty in nature, in others and in the transcendental reality has the capability to transform our perception of the present. The tea ceremony and its philosophy teach us to see the beauty around us and, beyond this, to assume beauty as a practice. This means to think and feel with beauty, create beauty and act with beauty.
Finally, this art speaks to us of service. With the difference in our societies where the art of service represents a lesser activity, in Teaism (spirituality of tea) service is an elevated action and is the way to honor the existence of the person being served. Those who have worked in the conquest of their being understand that service represents the manifestation of the nature of his or her consciousness. In the consecration of this ceremony and in this giving to the Other, the person practicing becomes elevated into a state where he can connect with the Source of inspiration. Thanks to a connection with the inner purity and decided effort to serve in the perfect spirit, the soul receives the reward of the effort rendered. In service, with humility and the honoring the other person, the practitioner finds a door towards lightness, fulfillment and delight.
The message of the tea ceremony inspires us to recuperate a complete mastery, to situate beauty as the center of our existence, and incorporate a selfless and loving service as essential parts of our lives. These teachings urge us to adopt a generous spirit that sees in the act of giving, an offering to the transcendental force. Like this we accept the invitation of entering into the enigmatic and sacred game of making existence more perfect from the imperfect.