People tend to ask me what attracts me in tea ceremony.
Isn’t it restricting to be controlled by set movements and ways of doing things? Doesn’t that limit your freedom to be creative?
I feel that having those set rules is in fact more freeing than to have the freedom to choose whichever approach we like. It frees us from having to think about what we are going to do, and provides room to focus on other more important things. The creation has already happened. There is no need to be creative anymore. The practice now lies in the re-creation of the process, and in learning and refining your skill in doing so. Doing this, the practice takes on a whole new dimension.
That dimension is one of self-cultivation. This is something that traditional pursuits in the East have in common. Continuous repetition of similar processes brings you in contact with your true being. It allows you to evaluate yourself and learn about how you react in certain situations; discover how you improve in areas that you initially didn’t know were improvable; and how difference in your physical state of the moment can affect your performance; to name a few. Ultimately you learn about yourself, and this understanding is not limited to the practice of the art alone. On the contrary, it is extremely valuable knowledge that can be applied to any area of life.
For example, when you understand that when you are physically weaker when you catch a cold, and have experienced that your attention wanes easily when at that time you engage in your practice, you may use this understanding to see that in other situations too you will be less alert, and may perhaps make unexpected mistakes. Knowing this will bring you humility, and perhaps help you to evaluate situations differently for the better.
And such experience in the practice of self-cultivation can only be had when you engage in repetitive practice of similar actions. This needn’t be limited to tea or traditional arts in specific. I have learned that professional sports people too have similar experiences. Through repetition and diligent practice and training, you don’t only get to train the body, but also the mind. You gain an understanding of who you are, and how you can improve in areas that you feel you are lacking.
And it is through this form of self-cultivation and generating an understanding of your being, that you can become able to live better and function more effectively within your social environment. The self is the foundation for your security. Without a sound understanding of who you are, and what you stand for, there is no way that we can build strong and enduring relationships with people, or have the emotional stability to deal with difficult situations.
It begins with YOU
Everything begins with you. When you take life in your own hands, and begin a practice that helps you to objectively look at who you in essence are, then naturally your surroundings will positively react to the changes you have made. And only when you have laid the foundation within yourself, and have come face to face with your true being, only then you can confidently and effectively interact with people in a respectful unselfish and helpful way. Because by that time you will know that a positive synergistic interaction between people will always be greater than whatever can be selfishly gained out of any situation.
What is the value of practicing the rite of tea?
The rite of tea is not about enduring long hours being seated on one’s knees and enduring the pain of being in that position. Nor is it simply about repetition of forms and movements. Although they may be part of the approach in which the rite is taught; what we actually obtain from learning this cultural ritual lies deeper. It in fact transcends culture.
The knowledge we obtain from perfecting our mastery of the art is none that is, or should be new to us. Instead, it is a reaffirmation and realignment with the deeper existential values that lie at the foundation of our universal and timeless being.
“Conscience is the moral law within. It is the overlapping of moral law and behavior. You may recognize that there is an innate sense of fairness and justice, an innate sense of right and wrong, of what is kind and what is unkind, of what contributes and what detracts, of what beautifies and what destroys, of what is true and what is false. Admittedly, culture translates this basic moral sense into different kinds of practices and words, but this translation does not negate the underlying sense of right and wrong.”(Stephen Covey; The 8th Habit, pp. 77)
Self-evident moral principles
The rite of tea is one such cultural practice that translates our basic moral sense into a practice. And although the rite itself is uniquely Japanese, we can see that the underlying conscience is revealed time and time again throughout different cultures in different nations; that this conscience is universal and timeless.
“There really is a set of values, a sense of fairness, honesty, respect, and contribution that transcends culture–something that is timeless, which transcends the ages and is also self-evident.”(ibid. pp. 78)
Understanding the rite of tea is really to understand the basic underlying moral principles that create the basis for our human existence. And it is because the rite of tea is founded on those universal and timeless principles, that the praxis is valid and meaningful in whichever time. Engaging in the practice is a gateway to rediscover the most basic archaic principles that give meaning to our lives.
How do you become a tea master?
You study for 12 years; for 20 years; for 50 years. You practice everyday for the rest of your life.
It is ironic to say, but in reality you don’t ‘become’ a tea master. Becoming a tea master is really ‘to be’ a tea master. You either are a master or you aren’t.
It isn’t as riding a bicycle. First you don’t know how to ride. Then you practice. And then you figure it out and you remember this skill for the rest of your life. You are a tea master when you figure out how to live your life like one, and then live that way, everyday for the rest of your life. You are a tea master for as long as you maintain your practice.
It isn’t so that you follow a course and study hard to then suddenly become a master. You may receive a permit or title from your master. But what is important is what comes after. It is important to look at what you do as a master. I summarize the essence of ‘being a tea master’ as follows:
“Mastership is the constant maintenance of your practice.”