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the Buddha serves tea

Eileen McCormick / Khmer Times Share:
Master Tenco and his disciple in the art of tea-making. Eileen McCormick

Tea ceremonies in Japan go beyond pouring hot water over powdered tea. The practice is considered not just a tradition, but a beautiful art that requires years of studies and execution to perfect. Eileen McCormick joins a Japanese tea ceremony with Cambodian students at JICA College, outside Phnom Penh, to discover the beauty of the craft.

A few weeks back, I gave up coffee for a day in exchange for a spiritual awakening through a traditional Japanese tea ceremony with Kodo Tenco, a tea-virtuoso and calligrapher who spends most of his time teaching Cambodian students the art of tea making.

What exactly is a Japanese tea ceremony? It is a very structured way of preparing Japanese green tea called Matcha. It’s a disciplined practice that goes beyond the physical practice itself. Japanese believe that a traditional tea ceremony is an art performance of body movements. The practice of making tea emphasises the connection of the mind and body, and their synchronisation is the key to serve a good Matcha.

Tea master Kodo Tenco. Photo: Eileen McCormick

Master Tenco, as he is called, teaches at the JCIA College where he introduces to Cambodian youth the Zen ways of making traditional tea.

I ventured on the outskirts of the city with the master to the school where he would introduce me to the traditional tea ceremony. When we arrived at JCIA in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district, the master and I parted ways. He prepared his tea room for our ceremony, while I, the excited observer, was given a pair of Japanese slippers. I was then led to another room where the beauty and solemnity of tea making would transpire.

What laid before me was a Zen circle not too big in circumference. I had to duck in order to enter into the portable opening that led into a room that served as our Japanese tea house. I discovered that most tea room entrances were made so small so even generals would have to crawl to get through the opening, forcing them to leave their swords outside.

While there are many styles of tea houses and rooms in Japan, the kind of the room I was in has existed in the East Asian country for over 400 years. It is considered the most famous style because of its rustic and simple nature that fits with the ideals of traditional tea making. The room was made of exquisite wood utilising the finest craftsmanship. Tatami mats laid across the floor and at one side of the room was alcove, which hung special calligraphy.

Before the ceremony began, Master Tenco told everyone in the room that we were all Buddha and that the tea itself was Buddha. The divinity that came from making tea also made our souls divine.

Seeking the blessing of the Master before the tea-making ritual begins. Photo: Eileen McCormick

As the master’s guest, I was seated next to him. With us were four students who mimicked the master’s perfect posture. As in the previous ceremony I attended, a comfortable silence was set as he meticulously cleaned his tools with his sacred purple cloth.

His first batch of tea, which must be prepared one cup at a time, was given to a student who has been studying with him for over a year. I noticed that she kept the cup to her face, which made me ask if she must drink it in one go. The class all laughed and said no as the tea was very hot.

During the ceremony, I discovered that one of the students is going to Japan very soon to work in a hotel. Since I was the newest addition to that time’s tea ceremony, the master felt I was the perfect subject the girl can practice with.

Master Tenco gleamed confidently while telling me that Yari Chrin will be the first Cambodian to make traditional Japanese tea. But the girl, in traditional Japanese manner, admitted she still needs more practice.

Chrin was about to clean her tools and perform the same mesmerising rituals as the master when the latter realised that she did not have the correct colour of sacred cloth. He brought out a very bright orange-colored cloth and said that the orange and purple colours represent enlightenment and beauty.

While watching Chrin make my cup of tea, it became more apparent why it takes years to become a master. What I perceived were graceful movements turned out to have flaws only the master recognised. He frequently instructed and guided Chrin’s hand before she served me my cup.

Preparing Matcha. Photo: Eileen McCormick

Then I noticed a fan lying in front of me and asked why nobody was using it. The people in the room shared that the fan was a representation of a sword, and no one would ever want to use it to himself.

When my bowl was set in front of me, I understood that it was my turn to show gratitude and appreciation that Buddha had just served me tea. I picked up my tea with my right hand while placing my left hand under the cup and rotated it twice in clockwise.

I have to admit that the amount of work that goes into making the tea is not that much. But it was symbolic and divine in some ways. I did enjoy my tea.

The master asked one of his students to clean up my bowl, which had its own rituals, too.

After the beautiful ceremony, I pushed my luck a bit and asked the audience some curious questions.

Why do you want to go to Japan?

Two students told me that they have always loved the beauty and culture of Japan. Growing up with Japanese culture left them dreaming of a life in the country. A boy from Kampong Cham shared that he grew up in a very poor, rural area and Japan always donated resources to his school. His respect and appreciation to Japan is what drives him to return the favor by working with Japanese people.

Have you ever performed a tea ceremony for anyone?

They all said no, but they would like to make it for their parents one day. One girl said she likes to do tea-making as a business in Battambang. She said that the number of tourists and Cambodians who are wealthy enough can make her future Japanese tea house a success.

Why did you want to study Japanese tea ceremony?

One of the students said he came to the school to learn Japanese language but he realised that it was also necessary for him to study Japanese culture. Learning about Japanese tea, he said, was a good way to understand Japan in general. The students also shared that they are required to finish the two-year course before they can work in Japan.

Where does the school get funds?

Master Tenco said the school’s funding depends on the donations from private sectors. The master added that he hopes to find people who can give the students traditional dresses. But the master and the students are nevertheless happy to do their passion in tea making despite unstable funding.

Is the tea ceremony performed in Cambodia?

My translator told me that Cambodia’s way of making tea does not strictly follow the same rituals and steps. In the Kingdom, people do it for fun to connect with family. Only the monks and the priests are following the exact process.

When you go to Japan, will you work in a tea house?

The students all said they want to join after-school activities that would allow them to build their skills and become masters someday. They dream of teaching the practice to other Cambodians. Master Tenco admitted that it’s unlikely for students to get hired in Japan to perform the ceremony because most tea houses do not openly accept outsiders. But the students, he said, had the chance to do tea ceremonies at temples around Japan.

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