Words cannot pin down the meaning of enlightenment, nor can rites and rituals, nor can music and dance. Every human action, however, may be performed in such a way to suggest the ineffable. Moreover, every human action may be undertaken as an exercise toward enlightenment.
—MEDITATION IN MOVEMENT, by Sun Ock Lee and John Chang McCurdy
Japanese tea ceremony, flower arranging, martial arts, calligraphy and Japanese gardening—these are all “meditative arts,” disciplines that have evolved as part of spiritual life and practice. Each of them, in its own way, helps to bring mindfulness into daily life. The two that I know best are tea and Japanese flower arranging, also known as “ikebana.” Both originated in Buddhist monasteries, where monks would drink green tea to stay awake during intensive meditation practice, and where it was customary to place offerings of flowers before the Buddha. These activities eventually developed their own aesthetics and became artistic expressions of the dharma.
“Awakening in the case of Zen may take place on any occasion, for every condition of the actual world may serve to create the possibility for such an event. Talking, silence, physical motion, a utensil or something in nature may lead to awakening. Thus the occasions and ways of attaining awakening are numberless.”
“For the Zen calligrapher, the point is not how to write beautifully, but how to be awakened through writing.”
— ZEN AND THE ART OF CALLIGRAPHY
Tea mind is an expression that means the qualities of mind inspired by the art of tea—purity, respect, harmony and simplicity—are attitudes cultivated in the practice of tea.
As my tea practice deepens I experience “tea mind” spilling over more often from the tea room into daily life.
Tea is layman’s Zen. “Tea is a result of the Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life.”
—BOOK OF TEA
The simplicity of the tea room gives the eyes and mind a rest. One can have a true appreciation of the few objects that are brought into the room. Sen Rikyu, the great tea master of the late sixteenth century, is said to have grown gorgeous morning glories, at the time a rare flower in Japan, in the garden by his teahouse. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ruthless ruler who had made Kyoto his capital, sought an invitation to tea so that he could see the flowers. Rikyu demurred but Hideyoshi persisted until he received his invitation. Arriving at the garden, Hideyoshi saw not a single morning glory; they had been removed. Enraged, Hideyoshi stormed into the teahouse, the worst of manners in a guest at tea.
Once inside, though, Hideyoshi’s anger gave way to calm delight. For there, in the alcove of the teahouse, was a single morning glory, the most perfect of its kind.
That morning glory is an apt emblem for the aesthetic of tea, which has a way of putting ordinary things in a fresh light. The Japanese use the term mitate, which translates as “re-seeing.” It is a way of transforming the mundane to a high spiritual aesthetic plane.
Conversation during tea, for example, deals only with matters pertaining to the moment, so that attention stays focused in the here and now. That makes it easier to savor the subtle details of the occasion: the taste of the tea, the aroma of the incense, the sound of the whisk as the host mixes the green tea powder into a frothy brew.
[from TEA LIFE, TEA MIND by Soshitsu Sen XV]
“After being silently greeted by the host, the assembled guests one by one proceed along the path toward the tea hut. Near its entrance is a low stone basin; each guest stoops to rinse his hands and mouth in a symbolic act of purification. The guests proceed to the tea hut and enter by crawling through a small doorway. . . .
Upon entering, each guest appreciates the scroll, the fire, the arranged ash, the kettle, and any other utensils that might be displayed. . . . The host opens the sliding door panel, welcomes each guest, returns to the preparation room, and begins serving a small meal. . . . Ingredients are seasonal, fresh and simple. There is a selection of foods, some from the ocean and some from the mountains.
These are beautifully arranged and served on specially selected plates. The guest not only enjoys the taste of the food, but also appreciates the way it is presented. The food is thus “tasted” in three ways: with eyes, tongue and heart . . . .
After partaking of the meal, the guests watch the host lay fresh charcoal in the fire. Then they are served a moist sweet. They go out into the garden to refresh themselves while the host replaces the scroll with a flower and completes the preparations for serving tea. The host strikes a gong to indicate that the guests may reenter for thick tea. . . .
Though all utensils have been cleaned in the preparation room, each will be symbolically purified again in the presence of the guests. The willing attitude of the host to serve allows him to harmonize his breathing and movements so that he and his guests may jointly concentrate on this act of making tea. The ceramic tea container and bamboo tea scoop are wiped with a silk cloth. With the bamboo water ladle, hot water is drawn from the kettle and poured into the tea bowl. The bamboo whisk is rinsed and examined carefully. The water is emptied out, and the bowl is wiped with a dampened linen cloth.
Wisps of steam rise from the kettle. The simmering water sounds like the wind as it blows through pines.
The host puts a measured amount of powdered tea into the bowl, adds some hot water, blends the tea with the tea whisk, adds a bit more water, blends it again, and gives it to the first guest.
In the stillness wafts the fragrance of the tea. All the guests share this one bowl of thick dark green tea. Afterward they may request a closer viewing of the tea container, its silk bag, and utensils. . . . After this exchange, the host picks up these utensils, leaves the room, and bows to the guests from the door.
Soon the host reenters, carrying the utensils with which to serve thin tea. The mood now is much lighter and the pace quicker. He makes each guest a separate bowl of tea. Light sweets are eaten just before the host whisks the tea. During this time there may be some light conversation, and the guests may request a closer examination of the thin-tea container and tea scoop. They might ask about the lacquer, the shape of the container, and the maker and name of the tea scoop. After this they will quietly once again view flowers and brazier and then leave.
The host opens the guest’s entrance and makes a farewell bow to his guests, remaining in the doorway until they are out of sight.
He sits for a moment reflecting on the gathering and then removes all utensils and cleans them, takes down the flower from the alcove, and gives the room a final cleaning. The tearoom is empty. Nothing extraordinary has happened from the perspective of the casual onlooker, but at its best, the experience of both host and guests has been a microcosm of life itself.”
The tea aesthetic at its highest is what is called wabi, which connotes poverty surpassing riches. The teahouse, a completely simple structure, is the essence. The beams are unfinished logs; the floor is simple straw tatami; the walls are made of mud and straw. The bowls can look unfinished and rough, but these are some of the most highly valued.
Wabi is an appreciation of the rustic, but it is also a state of mind. It includes a deep reverence for the way things are in nature, as well as a frugality, simplicity and humility. Wabi is also the particular essence found in objects. For example, tea utensils—bowls and water containers—are chosen for their wabi. And as my husband and I search the woods for stones for a tea garden, we look for rocks with wabi—rocks with character, seasoned with age.
On a recent trip to Japan I sensed the spirit of wabi at Daitoku-ji, the temple where Rikyu, the originator of the Way of Tea, practiced Zen. The abbot at the temple invited my husband and me into his quarters to serve us a bowl of tea. Being a proper student, I expected all the formalities and ritual order of serving tea. But the abbot left out details, made up his own movements and rearranged the order of everything. And he improvised: Instead of wiping the wooden tea scoop on a silk napkin, as is usual, he used a Kleenex.
At first I was taken aback and thought . . . “This is all wrong . . . He forgot to . . . ” But as I watched him I noticed he paid perfect attention to what he was doing, and broke the rules in the most natural way. The tea was delicious, and lovingly served. In the abbot’s tea was the essence of wabi.
The tearoom may be in the midst of the city, but has a feeling of a mountain retreat.
Bringing tea mind into the world includes having a deep peace in oneself that is undisturbed by small annoyances. Hisashi, one of my tea instructors, tells of the time he hailed a cab in midtown Manhattan. As the cab stopped in front of him and he was about to open the door, a woman dashed in front of him, taking the cab for herself. Hisashi, instead of getting angry and berating her, simply opened the door for her—a Japanese man in full kimono dress—bowed as she rode off.
You don’t have to go to the country to find peace, Hisashi says; you can be in the city and find peace within yourself. He says that to see if tea is cultivating peace within, his students should test themselves in three ways: Walk through Times Square, then through Grand Central Station at rush hour, and then go on to a sale at Bloomingdale’s. He also advises that when you are riding a crowded subway with people pushing you in all directions, instead of resisting, “be pushed.”
Sometimes I’ll be rushing through Manhattan in order to be on time for my tea lesson. I get to the tea school, slightly frazzled from the rush. I take off my shoes and put on my white socks, silently walking past the stillness of the tea rooms, pausing to see the tea garden, then going to prepare the utensils to serve tea. I find that cleaning the utensils has a purifying effect on my mind. Suddenly there is a quiet island in the midst of Manhattan. No sound except for an occasional cricket chirping from the tea garden.
During tea, we slow down to the gracefulness of the moments; the silent communication, the simplicity of the room, the beauty of each tea object. The mind empties . . . each movement becomes more full . . . nestled in a timelessness . . . attention wraps itself intimately around each moment.
Tea lesson is over. Two hours could have been two weeks or two minutes. Leaving the tea school, the light of the late afternoon glows. Stepping slowly, mindfully down city streets; sounds, sights, smells, sensations are no longer distractions which pull the mind in all directions at once. They are simply objects to engage the senses one after the other . . . seeing each thing as it comes . . . and goes . . . delighting in it all, from a center within.
“When one offers a bowl of tea there are many people who would give it a wide berth, saying that they were busy or didn’t have the time. . . . But the busier such people are, the more they need to be invited for a bowl of tea.”
—IEMOTO SOSHITSU SEN
A Zen insult:
“This person has no tea in him!”
I have noticed “tea mind” having an effect on the tendency in the mind to cling to rigid, habitual thinking. When inspired by the qualities of tea mind, small obsessions dissolve into the spaciousness of big mind and awareness is turned toward the true nature of things.
Once Rikyu invited a Zen master for tea in his tea hut. After making all the preparations Rikyu waited for his guest, and waited, and waited. But the Zen master did not arrive until after Rikyu had left. So on that day Rikyu named his tea house Ichigo Ichie, an expression in Japanese which means “one chance, one meeting.”
While serving and drinking tea, one is inspired by “ichigo ichie” to be fully in the moment because that moment will never come again.
After I had been studying tea for some time, my tea instructor asked me to come a half hour early before my next lesson. I wondered if I was perhaps ready for a more advanced lesson, the complexity of which would require more time. Upon arriving before my next lesson, I was told I had been given the honor of washing the mats.
Not a particle of dust will be found even in the darkest corner of the tea room. A tea master knows the art of cleaning and dusting.
—THE BOOK OF TEA
This has been an important lesson for me from tea. The preparing and cleaning up are as important as the serving of tea. Even in the tea room’s anteroom, the mizuya—where no one sees you—there is a proper way to clean the bowls, to prepare the sweet trays, trays, a correct posture as you are filling the tea containers in preparation for entering the tea room. You act as mindfully there, when you are alone, as you would when you are with your guests in the tea room.
When I’m at home there is a natural carry-over of this attitude. Standing at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, I’ll be washing a bowl and suddenly make a movement that is reminiscent of cleaning the tea bowl in the mizuya, and I’ll feel a shift in awareness: Any resistance I have to doing the dishes will dissolve into seeing it as an opportunity to be mindful. Instead of my conscience nagging me to be more mindful, there is a spontaneous enthusiasm to engage in the art of dishwashing.
One of the joys of intensive meditation practice is being deeply immersed in the spirit of solitude. However, sometimes in retreat I go through periods of feeling disconnected from other people. Tea has created for me a balance to the solitude, allowing me to share with others a still mind and an appreciation of the moment.
“In my own hands I hold a bowl of tea; I see all of nature represented in its green color. Closing my eyes I find green mountains and pure water within my own heart. Silently sitting and drinking tea, I feel these become part of me . . . the most wonderful thing for people who follow the Way of Tea is the oneness of host and guest created through meeting heart to heart and sharing a bowl of tea.”
—TEA LIFE, TEA MIND
I can feel a difference in the rooms in my house that are “tea spaces”—simplified, uncluttered—and the rooms that are more disorganized and cluttered. I can feel my consciousness change as I walk through these different rooms. I notice that the ones that are more cluttered make my mind more agitated; the well-ordered, clean ones center and calm me. Having a tea room in my house, a space set aside just for the practice of tea, is a constant reminder of tea mind.
One of the pleasures of tea for me is creating a poetic name or gomei, for the bamboo tea scoop. During tea, the guest asks the host the name for the tea scoop, which changes to fit each season and occasion.
There is a subtle tuning to the natural timing of the seasons and a spacious, creative play in the mind as it searches for poetic expression. An appropriate gomei for the end of winter just before spring begins would be, “yukima no kusa” which means, in Japanese, “grass growing through snow.”
One of the principles of tea which guides choosing the name is, “In summer suggest coolness, in winter warmth.” On a hot day, the calligraphy scroll in the tearoom might say “The one taste of coolness;” the flower arrangement might be a single white lily misted with water to suggest a light dew. The tea scoop might have a name such as “cool breeze” or “light rain.”
When nothing idle weighs heavy on the mind, this then is man’s favorite season.
What is important, particularly in Chabana (flowers for Tea, the simplified version of Ikebana) is that there is Zen activity, rather than adhering to a set of rules . . . Everything is done in a timeless silence; every movement of the hand is executed precisely and soundlessly.
—ZEN IN THE ART OF FLOWER ARRANGING
The mood of the flower arrangement is also attuned to nature’s timing. Entering a tearoom in late winter, you may see a slender spray of wild cherries in combination with a budding camellia; it is an echo of departing winter coupled with the prophecy of spring.
“The truth of nature can be known in the life of a flower. Rikyu found this same truth in the Way of Tea . . . . It is only natural to appreciate the beauty of flowers in their season, but it requires a finer sense to uncover the beauty of the grasses beneath the snow.”
—TEA LIFE, TEA MIND
In ikebana, the flowers in the arrangement are to be appreciated during the whole life cycle, from the first bud, to full bloom, to the last dying petal, fallen off the stem. The changes of the flower are part of the beauty of the arrangement.
Flowers are arranged as they are in nature. The art of ikebana is in allowing the flowers to arrange themselves. The state of mind of the arranger is captured in the simplicity of the arrangement. When someone looks at the arrangement, it stills the mind—another way of sharing dharma.
“Even the general
Took off his armor
To gaze at the peonies.”
Ikebana produces a great respect for flowers. There is a story of a laborer who, struggling along a stony mountain path on a scorching day, discovered a thirsty flower perishing with heat between the glowing boulders. Despite his load, he knelt down and poured his last drops of tea over the parched roots so that the flower might survive the heat. Then he hastened onward, unperturbed, to his distant goal.
“Here I am
On a mountain top
Isn’t that great?”
—A Zen Master
Hopefully I have been able to convey to you some of the meaning and spirit that I have found in the meditative arts. Just how these dharma practices spill over into everyday activities is subtle and hard to express—trying to capture a fleeting moment in words. I suppose this is one reason to turn to poetry, trusting that what is not said will be heard as clearly as the written word, just as in a flower arrangement the empty spaces between the flowers are as significant and essential to the arrangement as the stems themselves.
As I sit here writing
Through the window
Evergreens against the tinted autumn cedars
Soft mist peeks through open spaces of branches
Light rain sprays from grey sky forming fresh dew on trees.
A single leaf falls.