The Tea Lesson

One thing that I enjoyed about the years I spent in Japan is how adept the Japanese are at turning everyday activities into art forms. Such routine tasks as making tea, arranging flowers, gardening, and raking rocks have been transformed into cultural and spiritual experiences. I admire how they hold on to and appreciate the beauty of the simple tasks of life.

It is said that the tea ceremony is the culmination of all the arts. In the Japanese town where I lived, an annual public tea ceremony is held at a teahouse that was constructed in the local castle especially for this purpose. The not-to-be-missed experience unfolds like this:

As we enter the hushed interior and remove our shoes, a woman dressed in a traditional kimono welcomes us. Her relaxed manner, her graceful movements, and the absence of all clutter in the room have a calming effect. The straw tatami mats gently massage the soles of our feet. The tearoom has large rice-paper doors that have been opened to reveal a lush garden with a fountain. The sound of trickling water soothes our nerves. On the wall is a poem extolling the beauties of the magnolia, and beneath it is a flower arrangement that is stunning in its stark simplicity. The angle at which each flower was placed has significance; together they illustrate the relationship between heaven and earth.

Our hostess prepares the tea with the dexterity of a dancer. Each motion—the tuck of the napkin in her oversized belt, the whisk of the brush in the tea, the swirling of the hot brew in the bowl—has been carefully choreographed and refined over a thousand years by the tea masters. Our hostess has practiced her role ever since she was a girl.

We take the handmade, intentionally rough bowls and make the customary polite comments on their beauty. There is a front and a back to these bowls and a specific direction and manner in which they should be turned. Cakes are served on leaves. We exchange the usual pleasantries with our hostess about simple things and eventually leave as quietly and respectfully as we arrived. Somehow we feel different.

What the Japanese tea masters and others like them have discovered is that simple tasks can be turned into joyous, meaningful occasions.