You enter on your knees, your white socked feet tucked under you, your head low, bowing, a curled, almost embryonic posture, signalling humility. The small tatami room is cozy, a bronze kettle peeps out, bubbling in its space just under the level of the floor, and adds a soothing warmth. Here you become small and soft. Shed the ego & the facades you use in the outside world. Relieve yourself of your swords. No defences can enter with you. Here, simply be, natural and calm.
To be welcomed in this humble space is a chance to remember yourself. Sit up straight, relax, breathe. This is a world within a world. A space apart. In this ancient, tradition-refined ceremony there are hidden complexities that, over time, release ever more flavours and fragrances. They cannot be forced but, like happiness or the alighting of a butterfly, are glimpsed, recognised, (somehow, – impossibly – ) real. In their wake, gratitude ruptures, wearing away the old, bringing something fresh into the soul.
What is it? I don’t know. I only love it. Therefore, I praise. I am no expert; I do not study the way of tea, but I take great delight in the stories of the friends who do. It is a tempering art: you go through the fire before you begin to take shape at it. There is so much that has to be dropped to become self-effacing enough to adequately perform the ritual. Fidelity to the practice is all.
The room is, in its way, spare. Each item is freighted – with history, meaning, purpose, play. Nothing is superfluous. This makes for coherence. Our recent narrative theme for the spring ceremony was that of the local legendary hero, Momotaro. The hanging scroll was an old calligraphed poem and likeness of the founder of the ceremony, Rikyu. The Master decided we would use Rikyu to stand in for Momotaro. There was a small porcelain pheasant ornament in the alcove, on the right, perched on a folded sky-blue paper pillow, an incense burner. The vase in which the pale pink peony stood, a petal fallen onto a lower leaf and dew still quivering on it in drops, was tall, dark and rough-hewn: this was the arm of the demon with whom Momotaro does battle in the legend, protruding from below.
The chawan (tea bowls) are all different and uniquely precious pieces: each bearing a story, of origins, of ceramic artists, of design. Having entered the room, and before sitting down, an elaborate twittering dance between the participants takes place, one from which I, thankfully, as an outsider, am exempt. The more experienced the guest, the closer to the Master, s/he is seated. It is considered etiquette not to appear knowledgeable; hence the twittering. I sat, a bit reluctantly, but obediently, in the third position, recommended by my friend, a teacher of ceremony herself, who sat in fourth, she having whispered— like this was a good thing—that the third guest gets one of the really good tea bowls … (Ah, well, as the only foreigner in the room, I was standing out already. Might as well enjoy it! 😉)
Everyone knows that the guest nearest the Master has to perform the most. Usually this guest has been chosen and notified in advance and is experienced in the forms necessary to the cultivation of the atmosphere. Their duties include just the right kind of admiration (of the art, in particular), the right kind of comment and/or conversation, light and easy and effortless, exercising, where called for, wit that does not draw attention to itself, but contributes to the relaxation of all, the kind of words that enter the flow, maintain ease and heighten the enjoyment.
I, as third guest, did indeed get a beautiful bowl which fitted, in shape and weight and size, comfortably in my hand. It was watery in design and was made by a third generation potter of a lineage whose founding eccentric artist’s story, I had first heard a week before. As I finished my dark green tea in the requisite three gulps, out of the depths, the opening lotus blossoms appeared.