Eileen McCormick recently participated in a Japanese tea ceremony and experienced a Zen-like feeling of calmness and peace.
Like most city denizens I start my day with copious amounts of coffee. It’s hard not to, living in a country with such a rich history of coffee makers. Not to mention the amount of cafes per square kilometre in this vibrant coffee utopia we call Phnom Penh.
Through the magic of Facebook events I heard about a traditional Japanese tea ceremony taking place at YK house on street 830 off street 21. So, I took a break from my coffee addiction to participate in it.
Once I entered the tea master’s room I was hit by a fantastic energy. I arrived first, which allowed me some time to take in the vibes. Rays of sunlight entered the room as the tea master meticulously cleaned and then placed his tools in accordance with the arrangement of the “heavens”.
What exactly is a Japanese tea ceremony? The simple answer is that it is a very structured way of preparing green tea, or what the Japanese call matcha tea. The complicated answer is that it is a disciplined practice that goes beyond just making tea.
The ceremony itself is said to be an art that incorporates body movement. This is because the practice of making tea emphasises the connection between mind and body.
In traditional Japan, in the age of the shoguns, tea must be prepared by a qualified tea master. Outside Japan you would be hard pressed to find someone who has heard of such a person.
The tea master is Kodo Tenco and he is also a Shoka or calligrapher. Master Tenco, unlike most tea masters, has dedicated his practice to serve people outside Japan so that they may benefit from these sacred traditions. He spent 15 years learning the art of the tea ceremony and studied at a tea room in Yashio-shi province with the Master Sage Sette who in Japanese is known as “bottom of the snow”. Sage Settei was also a director of Daitokuji, a famous temple in Kyoto where he has been teaching Zen.
They both belong to the Omote Senke School, which is a part of Sansenke – one of the major three schools of the tea ceremony. Omote Senke School has the second largest following of students.
Before the tea ceremony began, Master Tenco asked everyone to focus on nothing and enter into a Zen form of mediation. Relaxation soon set in and we felt different. It was as though we had entered a different space and felt peace within ourselves
The tea master then explained about the history of tea and why it became a ritual.
Green tea was taken from China but the ceremonial aspects became a political strategy among the warrior class.
In the 16th century, there were two warriors who have historically been given credit to ending the Warring States period (Sengoku Jidai) that led to the creation of the Tokugawa shogunate. Both of them hired well-known tea merchants who were tasked with training the young warriors.
Both performed tea ceremonies differently and over time it developed into different schools of rituals and teachings. One thing however did remain the same – the tea ceremonies were used as a way to control mind over body.
This for obvious reasons was a prized state to attain as a warrior. It was used through millenniums to help prepare warriors for battle.
“Tea is to empty the mind so that there is no fear of death,” said Master Tenco.
The master explained to us there are many tools required for a proper tea ceremony and each touch or swipe that may go unnoticed to the guest has significance.
All the tea devices are set on top of a tatami mat made out of straw.
“What makes this word tatami so powerful is that it embodies the word for universe. The water may be kept boiling in the universe while the cups are situated in the heavens,” said Master Tenco.
The tea master is not so much of a god but goes beyond time and space while making the tea. Each object is situated to help with the flow of energy and symbolise important elements.
“The steel pot that holds the water represents gold while the charcoal inside the fire represents the sun. Even the cups that the tea is served in, is crafted with exquisite beauty,” Master Tenco added.
The tea master then pointed out that three is a key number used throughout the ceremony.
“Stirring three times or cleaning the bowl three times is to exemplify life, death and emptiness.”
There was some time before the water was ready for the tea and Master Tenco used the opportunity to show us his calligraphy skills.
First he displayed his brushes and the type of paper needed. After that he proceeded to transcribe three different Zen sayings:
A mountain is a mountain and water is water,
From one there is nothing,
When a flower has bloomed spring has come.
We each picked one of his samples and followed it to the best of our ability admiring his superb strokes and brushwork.
Soon the water was boiled to near perfection and all of us reconvened back at the tatami mat where the tea master passed around teacakes (Omogashi), which is part of the traditional ceremony.
While eating our cakes, Master Tenco asked us to listen to the sound the steel pot was making.
“There are five types of steam and each has a different meaning. When the water makes more of a hissing sound it is time to add more water in because in the Zen way of life, silence is important and giving back is even more important,” he explained.
Before tea can be prepared the master must clean his tools gracefully. The master is to have proper posture and be silent not just in words but in body language as well.
I noticed that Master Tenco added three spoons of green tea powder and then hot water, after which he whisks them into a thin paste. When offering the tea to us he bowed and lowered the bowl directly in front of us.
For the guest receiving the tea it is customary to say: “Otemae chodai itashimasu (Thank you for making tea).”
After we finished our tea, we had a bit of time to have a short question and answer session with Master Tenco.
Guests: Why did you get interested in this? Does your family also preform ceremonies?
Master Tenco: I see that ancient traditions are dying and not many of the ones that still exist are being shared outside Japan. I am the first and only one in my family to do this. When I practice I feel I know what absolute beauty is. Tea rituals have taught me the essence of life and things beyond that.
Guests: How many years does it take before you are considered a master?
Master Tenco: There’s no need to count years. If you can become enlightened in one day then so be it. However, the chances are that it will take a long time before you make your mind quiet and go beyond time and space.
Guests: How do you select the tea to use?
Master Tenco: Most tea is collected in summertime. I buy my tea from a boutique green tea shop. You can look inside the lid to see if the green tea you are buying is high quality green tea. For our ceremony today I used green tea called “Wind between the Trees”. I bought the tea from a place outside Tokyo.
Guests: Can both women and men preform tea ceremonies?
Master Tenco: Before no but after World War 2, it is accepted. They can do everything the same as men in the ritual but both women and men must use different colour fabric. If you notice, I use purple. This colour is only for men and embodies enlightenment. The colour for women is red or orange, and it means beauty.
Guests: Do you plan to teach Cambodians?
Master Tenco: Yes. Now I am splitting my time between Japan and overseas. I have plans to teach university students how to perform the tea ceremony and I have something planned at the end of January.