Yanagi, Soetsu (1889-1961). The Way of Tea. (Honolulu, Hawaii: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1953--copyright not renewed).

This essay is one of the best I have ever read about chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. Most writings about chanoyu tend to focus on the kind of trappings you need to pull the thing off: lacquered trays, pricey tea bowls, where to purchase authentic tea, and so on. Soetsu Yanagi knows better than this. At one point he says: "How numerous are those who covet things, and how few are those who devote themselves to the enlightenment of their spirits." And also: "The Cult of Tea is another Gospel of Holy Poverty. Woe unto extravagant Tea rooms, Tea utensils, and numberless false adherents of Tea today, who violate the ritual of Tea!" These are concepts which are difficult to understand in our yuppified America, where you are supposed to be able to purchase whatever you want, up to and including the metaphysics of the Japanese tea ceremony.

Well, spending money is probably the last thing you will want to do after reading this essay. Instead you will more likely wish you possessed all the spiritual qualities that Yanagi stresses: intensity of perception, aesthetic sensibility, and the ability to experience a moment of time as deeply as possible. These are the virtues that matter in chanoyu. Consider the idea of perception. Says Yanagi about ancient tea masters: "They saw; before all else, they saw. They were able to see. Ancient mysteries flow out of this spring of seeing." This is not your ordinary, normal perception, but a way to see directly, without preconceptions. Not letting your intellect or emotions or beliefs getting in the way of what's really there. This is something which very few of us truly possess, but it is also something which we can learn through a simple ceremony like chanoyu.

Chanoyu can also show us a way to find beauty in our lives. Yanagi writes "To live beauty in our daily lives is the genuine way of Tea." How many of us go through day after day of our lives without noticing or experiencing anything beautiful? Why do we think that beauty can only be found in "artistic" efforts, such as a painting or a sculpture? Beauty is always around us every minute of our existence. The Japanese tea ceremony can show us how to find beauty in the ordinary, even in the most ordinary of our utensils, which become objects of wonder when we really take a look at them. If you want to find beauty in your existence, why don't you simply jettison all your preconceptions, open your eyes, and take a good hard look at what you've already got? You might be surprised at what you discover.

The tea ceremony can also give us something which is most needed in a world filled with vanity and ego, namely humility. Says Yanagi: "The Way will have nothing to do with self-conceit." What is necessary in chanoyu is to be "immaculate in spirit." The ceremony has always had a leveling effect: over the centuries all who participated in it were considered equals, regardless of their social or financial standing. They all understood that the ceremony would provide them with a way to shed their strident egos and surrender to a moment of beauty and peace. Something which is needed even more in today's world than it was five centuries ago.

So if you are able learn the lessons of chanoyu, you will find yourself living a more harmonious existence, even if you don't always have a packet of matcha tea in the cupboard.

Read The Way of Tea here