How did you become a tea ceremony master?

tea master tyas sosen

I never intended to become a tea master. I began learning the rite of tea when I came on student exchange to Japan 12 years ago. At the time I had been interested in martial arts and focused on training while in Japan as well. To learn more about Japanese culture as a whole I decided to also train in different cultural traditions such as the Noh theatre, study poetry and literature, philosophy and the board game iGo.

The rite of tea too I started learning out of general interest in Japanese culture. Soon I realized that it wasn’t just about tea, but that on macro-scale the rite of tea encompasses almost the whole of Japanese culture and tradition. That is to say, to understand the rite of tea properly an adept learns about the various crafts, pottery, lacquer work, garden design, architecture, etc. One learns to read calligraphic scrolls and discern the literary meaning behind the writing. Flower arrangement too is an important aspect of the practice. And attention to the ever changing seasons and the cultural celebrations they bring about is of equal importance for the tea master as this allows him to select the right theme for the occasion.

I quickly learned that through dedicated study of the rite of tea I could learn about the entire cultural tradition of Japan. And that is what I did. For 12 years now I have maintained my regular practice and study of the ritual and 4 years ago I was accredited the rank of full instructor (tea master) in the way of tea as taught by the Enshu school by the Grandmaster of our school.

How was your life before you came to Japan?

During elementary school I was the kid that was always sent out of the classroom for punishment. In high school I made a game out of getting the largest number of bad grades. My parents had lost all hope in me and I had no vision at all for what I wanted to do with my life.

Until I entered 5th grade. Around this time I discovered Japanese fencing, also known as Kendo. For the first time I had found something that I was immensely interested in. Practice in the martial art grew my interest in the philosophy and culture behind it, and inspired me to read the first book I really read in years. This was the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa on the famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.

I resolved to visit Japan and experience the country first hand, and as a means to do so I decided to major in Japanology at university. My parents on the other hand were hesitant. I remain grateful to them for having given me this opportunity to totally reshape my life.

Would you say that Japan and the Japanese tea culture helped you to lead a better life?

Most definitely. Not only have I been able to put my life back on the right track by discovering Japanese culture and moving here; I strongly feel that practice in the rite of tea connects me to a set of valuable social principles that are more and more being neglected in the present age – and to the lack of which I rebelled during my youth.

Since the rite of tea is at the core a compressed form of Japanese everyday life I strongly feel that it maintains the most valuable aspects and (universal and timeless) wisdom we need in our lives, while it removes all the clutter around it. Training in both martial arts and the rite of tea has allowed me to develop myself further intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I strongly feel that it is now my turn to return the favor and make this wisdom accessible again.

tea master tyas sosen outdoor

Please tell us about your project with a 3D Designer. Are there other ways around the tea ceremony where innovative technology and tradition is combined?

Technology doesn’t have a place in the rite of tea. Many traditional tea pavilions that are constructed specifically for the ritual don’t make use of even electricity.

When I did an experiment with a 3D designer who had created a 3D tea chamber, which could be displayed in an empty space through the use of Augmented Reality goggles, I sensed that it could be a good tool for learning purposes. Such technology could allow us to experience and relive the interiors of old places, which due to their age have now become inaccessible to the public. On the contrary however, I felt that a vital component of the ritual went missing, which is the interpersonal connection between the host and his guests, and the real life contact with the surroundings, the utensils, etc. Technology has the capacity to show us an image of something, but the warmth of true contact can’t (yet?) be recreated.

The same goes for 3D printed utensils. This technology makes it possible to create an exact copy of objects that were valued in the past, but can now only be observed in a museum. But, with such objects the ‘soul’ is lacking. By which I mean, the sweat and tears of the artisan who crafted the object, the skillful eye of the connoisseur who selected the utensil from among many other objects, and the joy that you yourself may gain when you discover and obtain that object, and again when you use it to entertain your guests in a tea ceremony setting.

Technology allows us a superficial experience of something that once was, or in the future could be. But the nature of the tea ceremony aims to dig deeper into the actual experience of what IS, here and now.

Tyas Sōsen

Tea has become a way of life, and a way of viewing the world we live in. I have learned to be more appreciative of the things we have, respectful towards other people, have more reverence for our natural environment, and am more able to be present in the current moment.

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