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Tea Ceremony


vergie_teaFrom Kyoto to Starbucks

Both the formal Tea Ceremony and informal tea are offered regularly at ZCOC as one means of learning, practicing, and experiencing awareness in simple, everyday activities.

I’ve opened shop this time On the banks of the Kamo. Customers, sitting idly, Forget host and guest. They drink a cup of tea, Their long sleep is over; Awake they realize They’re the same as before. (Baisao)

At ZCOC, Tea Ceremonies are usually scheduled during retreats.  They are occasionally offered at other times:  dates will be posted as they become available.

Depending upon scheduling, private teas for small groups or demonstrations may be provided, either at the Zen Center or at other locations.  Contact the Zen Center.

Sr. Virgie Luchsinger, a teacher at ZCOC, offers formal tea ceremony several times a year at ZCOC. She is a teacher in the Urasenke School of Chanoyu.

A monk asked Yun-Men: “What are the words of the venerable buddhas and great ancestors? “Sesame Cake,” the master replied.

A tea exercise is offered each month as part of our Introduction to Zen Meditation Workshop to teach mindfulness practices in daily life.

Informal tea and socializing are offered by ZCOC practitioners after all Zen Center sitting periods.

Zen Practice and Tea

By Virgie Luchsinger (2003)

Chanoyu is the Japanese word for tea ceremony.  Tea in western tradition is a time of tasteful enjoyment of a hot, steeped drink with crumpets or cookies of some sort.  Conversation is thoughtful and appreciative of the company present.  In the end there is a sense of elegance and of time well spent.  In some venues there is a sense of a lot of money well spent, such as at High Tea at the Drake Hotel in Chicago.

Japanese tradition has devised its own way of presenting tea.  Green powdered tea, the blend used in Chanoyu, was brought from China by Esai, the Rinzai monk who lived in 12th century Japan.  At that time the monks drank tea as part of their meditation schedule to give them strength and increase their stamina.

Briefly, Chanoyu in the United States carries on some of this monastic tradition.  It presents a time set aside to appreciate the One thing: this moment.  A way of honoring a guest (or guests) in this moment is carried out by following minute gestures and carefully outlined tasks of preparation, mixing, presentation, followed by admiring the utensils, cleansing them, and putting them away.  Attention is focused on the beauty and simplicity of what is seen.  Each action deserves reverence, portraying that this moment will not come again and “I must make the best tea for you.”  This time is the One time.

Observers of Chanoyu sometimes come reluctantly, thinking this is another boring ritual.  They are surprised to be drawn into graceful activity which sculpts space with a memorable exchange between tea master and guests present.  Those who regularly practice zazen (sitting meditation) or other meditation styles immediately recognize the transformational quality of the Chanoyu experience that occurs in this One time.

Rikyu’s Seven Rules

By Virgie Luchsinger (Talk given at ZCOC, May 2005)

Senu Rikyu was known as the central master who organized tea practice in the 16th Century.   He became a kind of consultant for both the civil and monastic practitioners.  The monks included tea in their daily life pattern as a part of their sitting regimen.  It offered relaxation and refreshment as a balance to sitting practice.

A good monk and practitioner, Rikyu was known for his humble view of himself and the stories handed down are usually reflections of common living and humility.  There was no way he would consider himself or his ways as “better than” others but just “a way of tea.”  When asked what he considered most important teachings of tea, he replied simply:

First, you must make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so
the water boils; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in the summer
suggest coolness, in the winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time;
prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every

To this kind of answer there would be some disappointment because there are no secret formulas here.  Rikyu added that if the student could already do these things then Rikyu would offer to be the student who could now be the teacher.

Clearly there are two standards here:  one searching for a more esoteric way satisfying the ego, and the other referred to everyday practice.  Because we are Zen practitioners we can appreciate this story.  We can sit everyday and know that it is not the glorious moments or dramatic moments which enrich us, but the evenness of our practice which does not deceive us.  The guideline taught here is to value things as they are.  And making tea is a metaphor for whatever we do.  Making and drinking tea translates into the quality we give each moment.  My flower practice, Ikebana, is a way of attending to nature so that I am attentive each moment.  Tea practice is a reverent attention to details of making tea within the limits of utensils and the seasons of nature.  Sitting practice is an intense presence to this moment in a quiet environment where I can notice inward busy-ness and be quietly strengthened in wholehearted giving.

So what Rikyu has to say is of interest to all of us.  Tea practice is not time to drift.  It is not just “time to spend” or “an interlude” to pass through.  Out lazy mind can say, “Oh yes, tea ceremony, I’ve seen that before.”  Or,  “Oh yes, sesshin, I sat one before.”  This thinking indicates once was enough. It indicates I was present physically or I saw a tea ceremony with my eyes.  In truth I was not fully present to the full realization of practice.    Rikyu is telling us to erase the fact or memory that we were ever at a tea practice or sesshin before.  This moment is new and it will not be repeated.  Ichi Go Ichi.  This one time is the only time there is and it will never come again.   So let us look carefully at each of these qualities.

First, make a delicious bowl of tea.  The bowl of tea that I make is attentiveness to this moment.  I am giving a gift and I want it to taste good.  I sift the green tea so that the tea will be smooth.  I use hot water, not lukewarm water, and fresh tea, which produces a fine color and together they bring about a nice froth on the surface.  However, there are times all the elements do not bring about the expected perfect bowl of tea.  The disappointment of this achievement brings about a humble heart.  With even more reverence I take the bowl, turn it with new compassion and offer it to my guest.  I bow to this moment.  Ichi Go Ichi. 

Lay the charcoal so the water boils.  Learning this process is very complicated because the pieces of charcoal are various sizes and each has a different name and placement.  But I enter into the task with energy, knowing this is the foundation for the fire which will provide the hot water and ultimately make a fine bowl of tea.  So it is with everyday practice.  I stop the mind games: “why do it this way?”  “why not eliminate that?”  Just lay the charcoal so the water boils.  Do the task and see the beauty of this moment.

The small parts of a task seem boring if we are looking for greater rewards, or the bigger task beyond it.  Caring for tools and utensils take time.  Our practice helps us know that is the present task which cannot be omitted.  Time out for five days in sesshin seems like “a lot for what?” our friends say and we also say so in a weak  moment.  Instead we concentrate on learning the small task because it is the foundation for the deeper fire in us.  There are places inside our hearts that we have not visited and which will distract us from turning the bowl with reverence, from redeeming this moment.  We take time to experience the darker side of our heart so that we can treat ourselves and our guest with our best tea in all kinds of weather and disappointment

Arrange the flowers as they are in the fields.  This is not the study of Ikebana now but the task of Chabana, flowers for tea.  In the fields there are various heights, colors, sizes and clusters of flowers.  Pick one or two and place them in the small vase leaning forward for dimension.  Chabana, flowers for tea is a graphic reminder of the flow and spontaneity of nature.  Be open.  Be flexible.  Be attentive.

In the summer, suggest coolness; in the winter, warmth.  The utensils in tea practice are different in summer and winter.  Various positions are changed so that the space is larger in summer, and cozier in winter.  The kettle is more open in winter so that heat can reach out to the guests, and in the summer heat is confined.  The harmony of seasons passing is a contrasting picture to how easily we get stuck, or attached, and busy about preserving and possessing.  Dragging our feet is another form of resistance. These plans prepare us for needless sorrow and disaster.  There is no room for change and impermanence.  As the time passes from one to five days in sesshin subtle opportunity arises to shake ourselves free and mesh with the lessons of the seasons.

Do everything ahead of time.   Reviewing the schedule prepares my tea practice to go smoothly so that  “I can make the best tea for you.”   Keeping it simple in the time I have is a good way to start. The best tea is made with reverence and attention.  High plans will only draw attention to me and my ego.  During sesshin I will notice emerging all the high hopes and grandeur I plan for myself.  Even my good intentions can set me up.  Doing everything ahead of time means attention to the middle path and steadiness.  I wish to make the best tea for you.  In the midst of ruin, I remember that I can turn the bowl with reverence and resume focus.  Self worth has a different measure.

Prepare for rain.  If there is sun, the welcome for guests is simple.  We often think that sun and warmth are less problematic.  Rain, snow or wind are limiting and a challenge.  Isn’t that a stuck attitude?  Preparing for rain is a reminder that rain brings cleansing and growth. This advice has wider dimensions of keeping an even spirit, open attitude and extending protection to guests so that harmony is maintained.  We want the best for this moment and practicing whole heartedness requires flexibility and freedom to make choices.  Do the necessary thing toward the common goal.  Keep focused.

Give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.  Careful attention to the way of tea is instructive for the qualities of hospitality and respect for each other.  Cleaning the utensils, handling them with respect, beautifying each movement with a clean rhythm is like making music.  It is a dance of gestures carefully choreographed to show the specialness of this moment, our guests and nature around us.

These seven rules from Rikyu are straightforward statements that are all inclusive and for all times.  In fact we can say Rikyu pre-dated the valuable little volume  All I Needed to Learn I learned in Kindergarten.   In this wisdom we are taught to gather our work, our family, our community, our world, all nature and the wider planet in reverence and caring.  All sentient beings are celebrated and brought to mind in offering a bowl of tea and in sitting sesshin.  Rikyu is asking us to be wholehearted and not to miss out on the experience of this moment.  Ichi Go Ichi.    This moment I am attentive.  This  moment will never be repeated.

History and Meaning of Ikebana and Chanoyu

By Virgie Luchsinger  (Talk given at ZCOC, March, 2008)

Looking at the history of Japan, and the volumes of poetry, literature and art, not to mention specifically those in Ikebana and Chanoyu, I cannot be surprised that there is such beauty and simplicity primarily connected to nature in the cultural practices of Japan.

The heritage of Japan is related to ancient strands rooted in China which are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.  Confucius, born around 550 BCE stressed a well-ordered society with moral standards based on respect for authority and deep reverence for the ancestors and the past.  Taoism began during 300’s BCE. and it encouraged withdrawal from everyday life to instead live in harmony with nature.  Buddhism reached China around l00 BE, teaching  meditation and compassion.  So these values of ancestors, order, nature and meditation arrived in Japan from China and Korea during the late 400’s CE and early 500’s.

Now Japan already had its own ancient and prehistoric practices based on Shinto teachings.  Shinto taught appreciation of ancestors, and believed the gods were found in mountains, rivers, rocks, trees and other aspects of nature.  Later sociologists studying the ways of life in Japan summed up Japanese life simply as “love of cleanliness and of simple, natural things.”  This routine of life would be natural blend with the orderliness, harmony with nature and ways of meditation coming across from overseas.

Japan, however, would take traditions and build on them with their own distinctive mark.  For instance, Ikebana, which is flowering arrangement, began when the Japanese man, Ikenobo visited China and admired the beauty of mountains, streams and trees.  On his return to Japan he wished to create miniature designs of nature.  These were arrangements of branch material and flowers first used in the temples. They were tall with many parts representing the cosmos: sky, mountains, hills, streams, monasteries and village people.

Later the aristocrats created arrangements for their large houses. Much later flower arrangements were brought into the ordinary home on a smaller scale.  Every home had a tokonoma, which was an alcove or niche where the arrangements were placed beside an artistic hanging.  The smaller scale of designed followed the rules of nature with just three major lines: Shin, Soe and Tai.  Shin is the dominant line, Soe complements it and Tai is shortest in contrast to Shin.  In this way these essential patterns of nature and in all created things is maintained.  When Ikebana maintains this simplicity it retains the distinctive character of Japan.

The same can be said of Chanoyu, the way of tea.  Tea practice was current in Japan since 800 when Esai brought the leaves from China.  Since he was a monk, drinking tea was continued in monasteries for restoring strength between meditation just as it had been used in China.  As it developed in Japan, the warriors took it up for the same restoration reasons.  However, when Rikyu (1522-1591), who was connected to the ruling powers, began to formulate the way of tea, he established practices which brought tea making and sharing to a level representative of Japan’s history or minimalism and simplicity.  Tea houses were small huts.  The door entryway was low so that warriors had to leave their swords outside, noblemen had to stoop and all entered the tatami floor with a humble spirit.  Peace and a nurturing spirit was maintained in an atmosphere of dim light and quiet.  Passing the time in orderliness and respect brought renewal and new appreciation of the evening moon and the garden awaiting outside.  Yasunari Kawabata in his Nobel Lecture for Literature in 1968, says that in the way of tea “there lies concealed a great richness of spirit; and the tea room, so rigidly confined and simple, contains boundless space and unlimited elegance.”

By using less a great deal more is said.  But that “more” may be better understood by the spirit within.  We are continually challenged by Ikebana, which is rooted in only three lines, and Chanoyu, based on a simple cup of tea, to find solutions in a more earthy and human manner:  flowers and tea.  These Japanese traditions become our own human traditions because they make us elevate the ordinary to extraordinary.  Then they are not just Japanese traditions, the way of life for one group of people.  They are ours. They make us one with life.  As D. T. Suzuki notes:

I have been reading all day, confined to my room
and feel tired.  I raise the screen and face the
broad daylight.  I move the chair on the veranda
and look at the blue mountains.  I draw a long
breath, fill my lungs with fresh air and feel
entirely refreshed.  I make tea and drink a cup or
two of it.  Who would say that I am not living in the
light of eternity?

This next essay, by the 15th Generation Urasenke Grand Tea Master,  highlights the use of the “imperfect” in presentation of Chanoyu.  The imperfect acknowledges the impermance of life:

A Withered Tree Flowering

By Sen Soshitsu XV (Chanoyu Quarterly, No. 63)

As some of you may know a new edition of Okakura Kakuzo’s classic,  The Book of Tea, came out last year, and for this new edition I had the honor of contributing the Foreword and Afterward. (Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International, 1989).

As I wrote in the Afterward, I dare say that the scope of my life’s work might have been different if it had not been for Okakura’s original writing of his book, for, long before I made my first trip to America not many years after World War II, there were people there who, though they perhaps knew very little else about Japan, had read The Book of Tea , and, through it, already knew something about chanoyu, the way of tea.  Furthermore, Okakura’s insightful and beautifully written book had stirred in many of them a keen interest in learning more about this tradition—this “religion of aestheticism” or “religion of the art of life,” as Okakura put it—that I had set out to share with people outside of Japan.

Today I would like to talk a little about the aesthetic of wabi (Wabi refers to that which shows some imperfection, wear, tear, use) — that we enjoy and appreciate so much in chanoyu—an aesthetic that, if described in terms of the months of the year, has been said to be embodied in the month referred to, on the old lunar calendar, as the “month of no gods” (kannazuki) , which would be about the month of November on our modern solar calendar.  In terms of the time of day, it would be the feeling of evening.  Let us imagine, for instance, the scene described in the following poem by Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241), often quoted as expressive of the atmosphere of wabi:

Gazing long to the shore,
There are no blossoms
Or crimson leaves:
Out at sea’s edge, a rush hut
In autumn dusk.

Takeno Joo (1502-55) , who identified wabi as the sentiment or aesthetic underlying chanoyu, chose the above poem to express his concept of wabi.

Since Okakura’s time, the word wabi has become widely established throughout the world.  I think it has become a part of many people’s vocabulary, though I tend to wonder how many people have a true grasp of its meaning.  Okakura himself does not mention the term in his book, but those of you who have read The Book of Tea will probably remember the following statement found toward the early part:

[Teaism] is a cult founded on the adoration of the
beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday
existence….  It is essentially a worship of the
imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish
something possible in this impossible thing we
know as life

If I were allowed to be so bold, I would prefer to say “the appreciation of…” rather than “a worship of…”, but this notwithstanding, I think Okakura’s  statement gives us a wonderfully poetic insight into the nature of the aesthetic of wabi, and helps us to understand the poem selected by Joo.

By carefully reading Okakura’s book, one will understand that wabi is not synonymous with “the Imperfect,” as seems to be a   prevalent conception. Rather, imperfection might be said to be one inevitable facet of wabi.  For instance, I mentioned above that wabi is most keenly felt in the month of November, or in the evening.  There are many people for whom the coming of winter or the coming of night represent negative concepts, just as imperfection is commonly regarded as a negative, undesirable quality.  The month of no gods, November, as well as evening, are the times that tend to put us in a rather forlorn and dismal mood, and indeed these sorts of emotions are pivotal elements in the aesthetic of wabi.

As the term “aesthetic” indicates, however, there is a beauty of a high order to be discovered in this seeming wretchedness; a beauty that is all the more exquisite precisely because we discover it in the wretched or “imperfect.”  Thus, the negative always embodies the positive; the imperfect always embodies the perfect.  By realizing this, we can enjoy a beauty of a most exquisite kind even among “the sordid facts of everyday existence.”

Toward the end of his book, Okakura says: “perfection is everywhere if we only choose to recognize it.”  He adds a poem by Fujiwara Ietaka (1158-1237) which, in contrast to the still rather negative poem selected by Joo, Sen Rikyu chose as expressive of the wabi aesthetic.  Though I also often quote this poem, Okakura’s lovely English rendition is as follows:

To those who long only for flowers,
Fain would I show the full-blown spring
Which abides in the toiling buds of snow-covered hills.

I would like to add one more poem here that I think is appropriate for this season, and which also well expresses the chanoyu aesthetic of wabi:

On a branch tip of a withered tree,
A single blossom!

This following essay presents Chanoyu, the way of tea, as a time of sharing deeply with a guest the unseen, or spiritual message of life’s purpose.  By the practice of Chanoyu, one takes the time in this setting to better discern one’s own spirit and ways it can be shared.

The Grain Beneath the Bark

By Sen Soshitsu XV, 15th Generation Urasenke Grand Tea Master (From Chanoyu Quarterly,  No. 59)

Everything in life may be said to have two aspects:  its appearance, meaning its outwardly visible aspect, and its inner, physically invisible character.  Both of these, combined, form what in Japanese is called sugata or “form.”  Normally, the kanji (Japanese letter) to write this word is that used to describe the beautiful “silhouette” of Mount Fuji, or the gentle “sight” of a mother’s instinctive compassion.  However the kanji is sometimes used to refer to a thing’s inner character.  Then the kanji has two parts meaning “tree” or “wood” and “eye” or “grain.”  A tree’s sugata, “form” depends upon its grain, which lies unseen beneath its bark.  One can say the same for a person or for chanoyu which is the way of tea: the most important part lies in their grain—in the kokoro, “spirit” that forms their character—invisible on the surface, but apparent in the overall sugata, “form.”

Kokoro, also translated as “heart” in English, is a simple word, but a very difficult term to grasp.  Human beings usually spend time stumbling around in the dark looking for their own “heart” or “spirit.”  This why I often say that when one looks at oneself in a mirror, it is not enough to see one’s outer features; the important thing is to notice whether the eyes of one’s heart are open or not.  Though it is difficult to know how one’s sugata is perceived by others, one can easily see one’s own reflection in a mirror.  No matter how well-molded and polished one’s outer features may be, if their beauty is only skin-deep, the image in the mirror cannot be said to reflect one’s real self.

As a way to enable one to find one’s self—one’s true inner spirit—the practice of chanoyu, the way of tea, takes on a profound meaning.  Chanoyu does have its rules and procedures; for example, one examines the bamboo whisk, handles the bowl, purifies the tea container, and even offers salutations, all in certain prescribed ways.  These rules are the manifestation of the form created and systematized in the process of making tea over the last five hundred years.  By following this form, both the heart of Tea, as well as one’s own heart, will gradually be found.

There are two more words in Japanese for “form” often used interchangeably.  One is kata and the other is katachi.  Kata might be translated as “shape” or “mold,” while chi literally means “blood,” and refers to the human spirit.  In terms of chanoyu, the way of tea, when kataI joins with chi as in katachi ; it refers to form imbued with a person’s spirit.  Here the purpose of the chanoyu, the way of tea, procedures comes to life, and one’s chanoyu, way of tea, takes on true character.

A polished technique or splendid collection of tea utensils do not necessarily indicate a pure heart.

Sen Rikyu was once invited by Kambayashi Chikuan of Uji for tea, and arrived at Kambayashi’s house on the appointed day with a few of his followers.  Although Kambayashi had himself invited Rikyu, he doubted whether he was up to the honor of a visit by the great tea master, and the excitement and pleasure of having Rikyu as his guest prevented him from preparing tea in a tranquil state of mind.  During his presentation, his hand hit the tea scoop, making it fall from the top of the tea container, and causing the tea whisk to fall over as well.  While those who were with Rikkyu laughed at his ineptitude, Rikyu was pleased and said, “This is the best tea I have ever experienced!”

On their way back from Uji, one of the group asked Rikyu, “Why did you praise such ineptness, saying it was the best tea you had ever experienced?”  He replied, “This man did not invite me with the idea of showing off his skill. He simply wanted to serve me tea with his whole heart. He devoted himself completely to making tea for me, not worrying about making errors.  I was struck by that sincerity.”

There are a lot of people who practice kata, but few who combine it with chi.  Recently, people seem to have almost forgotten about the existence of chi. Recently, people seem to have almost forgotten about the existence of chi.  We should practice kata for the purpose of attaining katachi, for chanoyu’s grain or character is really a matter of the spirit, and it is for this for which we should strive.

Sr. Virgie Luchsinger

Sr. Virgie Luchsinger is a teacher at ZCOC. She is a Professor of Ikebana in the Ikenobo tradition (flower arranging) and she is a chanoyu (tea ceremony) teacher in the Urasenke tradition. She is a registered nurse. She has an M.A. degree in theology from Loyola University, Chicago. Sr. Virgie’s spiritual background is as a cloistered Carmelite nun, and currently as a Sister For Christian Community.

Though well-grounded in the classical Christian contemplative and mystical tradition, she has been a pioneer in contemporary forms of contemplation and spirituality, especially in relating Zen to apophatic prayer. She offers tea and flower arranging on a regular basis at ZCOC and is available for individual meetings in person, by phone or email. Email messages can be left at Luchsinger@zcoc.org

Virgie’s interests include travel, piano, calligraphy, modern art, astronomy, and architecture.