Tea is naught but this:
First you heat the water,
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.
Sen no Rikyu

I recently came across the above lines immortalized by Sen no Rikyu, the great master of the Japanese tea ceremony. Sure, I had heard them before but for some reason they shouted out to me strongly this time. And I began to wonder: Have we needlessly and destructively complicated the process of drinking tea? After all, one might ask straight away, “Yes Rikyu, but how hot should the water be?”[1]

I am one who loves the ephemera of tea and Rikyu’s observation could be mistaken as stricture. I mean really, does anyone need to know when Oriental Beauty came into being, how Wenshan bao zhong has changed over the years or when and how the now familiar process of ball rolling began, in order to drink tea “properly?”[2] Of course not. These pursuits of mine are ones that I find interesting and enjoyable.[3] They certainly add to the pleasure I derive from drinking tea but they are definitely not required at all.

Rikyu was a student of wabi-cha, the school of preparing and drinking tea that originated with Murata Juk­ō during the 15th century. Wabi-cha emphasizes simplicity in our approach to all things tea. It stresses the temporary and transitory nature of life and things and when we debate things such as water temperature, each of us insisting our way is the correct one, or when we participate at length in discussions of the correct teapot to use when brewing thus and such tea, we are debating the transitory, the non-essential. The essential, according to Rikyu, is to drink tea “properly.” But whatever does that mean?

Here, Rikyu is not considering such trivia as whether the milk goes in first or last, whether you have the “appropriate” tasting cup, or even whether or not you actually like a given tea. He is telling us to drink our tea “properly.” That is, we must drink this simple beverage mindfully, with undivided attention, so we can learn. Drinking tea is not simply a hedonistic experience (though it certainly can be that as well) but a moment to learn about the tea itself and, in doing so, to learn something about ourselves as well.  In a world where everything is impermanent, transitory, changing can we find something “universal” in a simple cup of tea? And in so doing, can we find something of the universal in ourselves.

I do not know anyone who always drinks their tea “properly”, I certainly don’t. And I don’t think there is an expectation that we should always do so. Sometimes we can, and should, fret about water temperature and the like. But there is the expectation that often, not always, we will drink our tea simply, directly and with honesty and appreciation for the self and joy in the presence of the other.

That’s my take. What’s your view?

[1] I have been involved in exactly this discussion recently on a social media thread.

[2] For the story on Oriental Beauty see https://tillermantea.net/2017/11/orientalbeauty/. For Wenshan Bao Zhong see https://tillermantea.net/2018/05/wenshan-bao-zhong-part-1/ and https://tillermantea.net/2018/06/wenshan-bao-zhong-part-2/ and for the history of “ball rolling see https://tillermantea.net/2018/02/ball/.

[3] And I am happy when others do as well.



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