Many expressions of Japanese tend to be understated and simple, but carry complex layers of meaning. The tea ceremony follows in this tradition. To outward appearances, it seems to be a ceremony of strict decorum and plainness. In reality, it is a richly meaningful meditational experience.
I recently had the fortune to witness a tea ceremony of the Omoto senke school. performed by Mrs. Mikami Soa and her students at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Lodi's Micke Grove Park. Each step of the ceremony was explained by a narrator, providing a wealth of meaning to what would otherwise have been an incomprehensible tradition.
The tea ceremony itself is meant to be a meditation on the ideals of harmony with the season, the environment and one's people. Harmony, tranquility and respect are all emphasized. The ceremony's origins in the highly stratified Japanese courts of antiquity provided an opportunity for equality not found outside the tea house. In a society where rank and display were so highly emphasized, the tea ceremony was a place where flaunting position and wealth was not permitted, and a place where all men were equal. These Buddhist ideals are what drive the symbolism of the tea ceremony, both in the actions and the environment of the ceremony.
The ceremony actually begins outside the tea house, where guests rinse their mouths and hands before entering, a symbolic purification. The doors of the tea house are very small, so that guests must crouch to enter. In the demonstration I witnessed, the participants knelt and slid themselves forward in a graceful movement. This act is symbolic of all who enter the tea house being required to bow to the same level and is an act of equalizing the guests.
Once inside, the host offers the guests sweets and prepares them tea. Every movement and word is carefully considered and meaningful. When served, the guest who receives the refreshments first apologizes to his fellow guests for being served before them. Tea bowls are presented with the main design facing toward whomever it is being handed to as a sign of respect, and so that they might appreciate the significance of the design. Before a guest sips from the tea bowl, they will rotate it once more so that their lips do not touch the main design.
Ample opportunity is given for the guests of the tea ceremony to examine the few but carefully chosen objects in the tea house. A display area called the tokonoma contains samples of meaningful calligraphy or flower displays. For the Cherry Blossom Festival, an event meant to celebrate spring and promote cultural understanding, the tokonoma contained a traditional ikebana flower arrangement of seasonal blooms and a work of calligraphy that read, "spring is permeating through the universe".
The tea set itself was also carefully chosen for its significance. The tea bowl depicted the willow, a symbol of spring. The tea caddy was made of cherry bark, appropriate for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Surprisingly, however, the plain looking bamboo scoop used to extract the powdered green tea from the caddy was of great importance also. The scoops are made from curving straight pieces of bamboo and must be soaked in oil as long as two years to make them supple enough to shape. They are always made by master artists, and they have names given to them. Some of the names are whimsical, but most, like the one used in this ceremony, "Cherry Blossom Floating Like Snow Flakes in Wind," are given names that are meaningful and lovely. No detail in the tea ceremony is overlooked as even the way the powdered tea is heaped in the tea caddy (to represent a mountain or a cliff) is noted for its significance and admired by the guests.
In deference to the Zen virtue of maintaining a state of readiness, the materials of the ceremony are cleaned and replenished as part of the ritual of the ceremony. When all is complete, the tea house stands as ready as when the ceremony was begun.
What seems to be a silent and formal ceremony is actually a rich opportunity to contemplate the history, philosophy and artistic achievements of a great culture, and to consider one's own place in that framework and the surrounding world.