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A Glimpse Into the Tea Ceremony (Part 1)

Sadou, chadou or even cha-no-yu--as it is often called--is the beautiful, meditative, and serene Japanese ritual of ceremonial tea. It’s also a life’s work for those attempting to master it. But one can never master sadou because it is an on-going meditative practice and there is actually nothing to master except the mind itself. 

With three main schools of practice, Urasenke is the most well-known. The other two main schools are Omotesenke and Mushakoujisenke.  These three are known as the san-senke, and have lineage to the so-called founding father, Sen Rikyu. Many other schools exist but aren’t known as “senke”. 

Sadly I had to give up the practice due to a pinched nerve from sitting on the floor, causing all feeling to leave my right leg for three months! But while living in Kyushu, I’ve taken it up again with a modern-thinking sensei who turns a blind eye when I shift my position. If you want to study, I highly suggest finding a modern sensei. 

If you are interested in reading up on the tea ceremony in much more detail--and from one of the most respected experts--I suggest Kakuzou Okakura’s classic "The Book of Tea" written in English. 

But for now, I will attempt to give you a brief glance into this wonderful, beguiling world. 

Created by a Zen Buddhist priest named Ikkyu, it was his student, Sen Rikyu (Sen-no-Soueki Rikyu Kouji) who perfected the tea ceremony by refining it into rustic simplicity: Meaning no-frills which could hinder the path to enlightenment. This concept has reverberated into modern architecture, seen in breathtaking homes with beautiful floors, walls, sliding doors, and interiors containing nothing but a vase of flowers. Even a photo of a Japanese interior exudes calmness, which works its magic on you from the pages of a magazine or coffee table book.

It is Sen Rikyu who is often regarded as the father of the tea ceremony, and not Ikkyu. Sen Rikyu is also said to be the father of “wabi-sabi”, or imperfect beauty; and what many in the Western world consider as “old stuff”, missing the point completely. 

The tea ceremony was first used as a meditative practice. It wasn’t about the tea at all. The ritual was about mindfulness, simplicity, and respect for the self. The main purpose of Zen, and of the tea ceremony, is to eliminate the unnecessary in life (and we could all use a little bit of that!). After all, the ritual consists of nothing more than “the simple act of boiling water, making tea and drinking it”, to quote Sen Rikyu. As the greatest tea master of all time, he believed that if we all did a bit of navel gazing, we would realize that our human lives are filled with a plethora of ridiculous and superfluous thoughts, cluttering our minds and causing confusion.  To get back to basics by boiling water, making tea, and sipping it we are helping rid ourselves of fantasy and illusion, enabling us to live a more harmonious and balanced life. 

Westerners are curious about the tea ceremony because it is just so unlike anything we know or do. But mostly what attracts Westerners is the beauty, serenity, and tradition of the ritual and only a few do it to drink the tea. The ceremony incorporates special handmade instruments used in a choreographed ritual with theatrical precision that centers the mind. Exquisite hand-made bowls are adorned with the finest tea in Japan, whisked into a frothy three-sip gesture of respect. 

When the President of Osawarouho Tea Company casually mentioned that the tea bowl from which I was sipping was worth as much as a Ferrari, I nearly spewed the tea on his tatami floor!

We will delve deeper into the styles of tea ceremony in our next blog next month, so stay tuned…and keep whisking!

>> READ PART 2

About Holly Helt

Holly is American and grew up in Japan drinking Japanese tea from age-three. She has studied two methods of tea ceremony, Urasenke and the lesser-known Yabunouchi, which has a direct lineage to Sen-no Rikyu (known as the father of the tea ceremony) ; it's also the school of practice for samurai. In 2012 she founded Chiki Tea - an online retailer of Japanese green teas, all sourced directly from small farms in Japan. Splitting her time between Japan and her home in Texas, Holly strives to bring the best teas from Japan to as many people as she can find to share in her life's passion.