Formalized in the 16th century by practitioner Sen no Rikyū, the practice of the Japanese tea ceremony, called chadō (“the way of tea”), is one of the most famous aspects of Japanese tea culture. Key to chadō is the concept of wabi-sabi, an essential component of Zen Buddhist philosophy.
Wabi-sabi is based on the acceptance of the beautiful impermanence of the natural world, and of the virtues of simplicity and imperfect form. Through the lens of wabi-sabi, a rough clay cup or rustic iron teapot – ordinarily so mundane and easy to overlook – becomes beautiful, transcendent, and worthy of meditation.
Adapting to the principles of wabi-sabi is not easy, especially in our modern and hyperconnected world. This mindset requires patience, quiet, and separation from the hustle of the daily grind. The aim of chadō is to facilitate such a transition. Every part of the tea ceremony, from its setting and architecture to its precisely choreographed rituals and equipment, is designed to assist practitioners in releasing themselves from the cares of the material world and the egotism of the self.
A space set up for chadō must possess elegant simplicity. Traditional tea ceremony rooms emphasize minimalism, decorated with no more than a calligraphy wall scroll and a delicate flower arrangement. But even these seemingly small details must be selected with care. The calligraphy scroll may contain famous axioms, or seasonally appropriate meditations to serve as the theme of the ceremony. The floral arrangement is done in chabana, a style of ikebana specifically for tea ceremonies. Japanese mats, known as tatami, cover the floor. Tatami not only provides a surface for kneeling, but also forces participants to slow down and walk carefully as they move through the room.
Utensils for chadō are known as chadōgu. To the master chadō practitioner, these highly prized tools must be carefully handled, as well as meticulously cleaned before and after each use. While many specific chadōgu vary according to occasion, school, and season, the most essential to the tea ceremony include: a chawan (tea bowl), chaki (a caddy for matcha powder), chashaku (bamboo scoop), and chasen (bamboo whisk). The ritual usage and specific movements associated with each tool are designed to promote a meditative and familiar experience for the practitioner.
But beyond setting, styling, and tools, the most important aspect of chadō is the tea itself. For this, chadō masters reach for ceremonial grade matcha. This highest-quality matcha has been hand-harvested and ground on granite stones. Its rich complexity and character pairs perfectly with the careful and deliberate pace of a chadō ceremony, with bright grassy flavors undergirded with a bold umami body and a sweet finish that is designed to be savored slowly. During the ceremony, the matcha is typically served in both koicha (thick) and usucha (thin), allowing participants to experience its wonderful variety of flavors in different presentations.
From its overarching philosophy to the smallest details of aesthetics, the practice of chadō is rooted in the expression of wabi-sabi and Zen Buddhist contemplation. In all the hectic busyness of daily life, perhaps there are lessons we, too, can learn from the tranquil art of tea appreciation.
By: Jen Coate