Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Entering the Way of Tea: The “Dewy Path” to the Tea House

Entering the Way of Tea: The “Dewy Path” to the Tea House

Originally Published in Parabola (Fall 2009)

Since the Dewy Path
Is a way that lies outside,
This most impure world
Shall we not, on entering it,
Cleanse our hearts from earthly mire?[1]
--- Sen no Rikyu

 “Please come for tea.

My invitation to attend a chaji 茶事[2], a formal Japanese tea gathering, offered a poem by the venerable Bashô (1644 – 1694):

Haru nare ya
It has become spring!
Na-mo-naki-yama no
Even on the nameless mountains
A thin mist!

By all accounts, spring, indeed, had arrived! Blossoms were appearing on the plum trees; butterflies were celebrating near rape flowers; earthworms were weaving in and out of bright green new shoots of grasses encouraged forth by the blessings of rain. All proceeding in due time, at a natural pace. The process of chanoyu
(茶の湯) preparing hot water for tea, another name for the ritual, was very appropriate for such an occasion.

Practitioners of “the Way of Tea” (sado[3] 茶道) know that the guest (kyaku 客) arrives in the same way, in due time and with a clear, natural intention: to create a singular union of mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart with the host   (teishu 亭主)and fellow guests. Together we would engage in this once-in-a-lifetime meeting (ichi go ichi e 一期一会).  The Hebrew prayer commonly known as the “Shehechiyanu”, fits the moment perfectly:

Baruch ata Hashem,
Blessed are You,
Eloheinu Melech Haolam
Master of the Universe
Who has kept us alive,
And sustained us,
V’higiyanu lazman hazeh
And enabled us to reach this moment.

The beauty and complexity of the tea event, with its ritualized preparation of matcha (抹茶), the powdered form of the green leaf of camelia sinensis, was codified and inspired in Japan by Zen Buddhists, early in the Muromachi Period. The taste of tea and Zen have been said to be equals in matters of attainment of nothingness, (mu ) and emptiness (kû ). Our modern practice has come to us through an unbroken lineage of  over 16 generations of tea masters, of whom Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591), is considered to be our greatest ancestor.

Chanoyu captivated the imaginations of egomaniacal warlords and their swashbuckling samurai retainers, providing a moment of peace in the midst of battle, and instilled a reasonable amount of refinement and upward social mobility. To be the ultimate action hero of the time, a warrior needed to know how to prepare tea for one’s “enemy” while seated together in a tiny, rustic, no-swords-allowed hut with walls no thicker than a sheet of paper. In later years geisha training included performing the ritual for clients.

Images abound of the host methodically and seemingly mysteriously wiping precious utensils and scooping water from a sunken kettle barely visible above the tatami mat floor, its steamy voice hissing, “matsukaze” (松風), the sound of “wind in the pines”. The quest of the guest is less known. She[4] is usually depicted silently awaiting the tea sitting motionless, on her heels, hands resting in her lap. But in fact, if she’s in the tearoom, she would have just traversed the path of “The Great Way”[5] and is engaged in a liminal journey of rebirth.

Slowing it Down to Promote Social Harmony, Appreciation

"Day and night, with the monastic rules of the Zen temples as my guide ...
I unfolded the world of the Pure Land in the locus of the roji..."
-- Sen no Rikyu "Metsugo" section of Namporoku[6]

Today, while the world is smaller and the battlefields seeming more distant, individuals of all backgrounds throughout the world find in chanoyu practice opportunities for purification and self-refinement. While contemporary technology moves us at the speed of light and multi-tasking is considered a valuable capacity, there are no “short cuts” in chanoyu. We continue to aspire to attain Rikyu’s objectives: to create a condition of tranquility (jaku ), then harmony (wa ), respect (kei ) and purity (sei ). 

in an ideal setting of repose, free from anxiety, where there is “no guest, no host”,[7] our roles are nonetheless specifically defined along the lines of studied procedures learned over many years of practice that foster the communitas we seek.

On the outside, all the bowing might be misconstrued as a duel of humbleness, but in sado, too low is too rude and professing great skills and utensils is nothing short of vulgarity. The essence of this journey is implied in the notion of wabi, わび, a Japanese poetic “ideal that finds surpassing beauty and deep significance in what is humble or commonplace and appears natural or artless.”[8] Combined with the notion of sabi, さび, withered with age, the expanded concept conveys the sentiment of a life well-lived in harmony with the laws of nature.

Along the “Dewy Path”

I was one of a handful of invited guests who had arrived at the location. While the journey is extremely personal, we needed to become a cohesive group. We unanimously invited the respected chanoyu instructor among us to serve as the first guest (shokyaku 正客); she would conduct the prescribed discourse with our host on our behalf.

Chanoyu begins in the roji (露地)[9] the “dewy path” of the garden that leads to the rustic tea hut (chashitsu 茶室).
The feeling is traveling along a metaphorical riverside “mountain” path through a symbolic forest. According to the monk Jakuan Sotaku of the Eastern Capital, “…

“ … ro means “to be disclosed,” “to appear,” and ji,  ground, refers to the heart and mind. Thus, the term actually means “to discloser self-nature.” Eradicating all blind passions, one manifests one’s original nature.”[10]

The roji is designed, constructed and maintained as if it were indeed the path to Buddha’s Pure Land. Like the Israelites fleeing bondage in Egypt in the mystical interpretation of the Exodus, we would progress through a series of progressively smaller and lower gates, our “narrow” places, leaving behind the dusty defilement of the mundane world. Freed of all such encumbrances and purified, we hope to be reborn by the end of this experience.

In its earliest form the roji was an empty space, neither planned nor conceived as a garden. It was void of vegetation, resembling more the barren “open space at a crossroads,” referred to in the third chapter (“Smile and Parable”) of the Lotus Sutra.

Today most rojis include tightly-manicured, low, naturally placed foliage, such as moss, as well as evergreen, bamboo and broad-leafed trees that one would find by a mountain path running adjacent to a year-round creek. Our host’s roji included a “sleeve brushing” pine tree (sode-zuri matsu 袖摺の松) near the path to enhance a feeling of being on a narrow path in a dense forest. The garden sparkled as a result of his having carefully sprinkled water with “refined discrimination” just before we arrived.

Passing through the first gate, that of the outer garden, we reached a rustic roofed waiting arbor (machiai 待合; the bench was covered in dark blue felt upon which were straw cushions. The host was there and with a silent gesture  he opened the small gate to the “inner” garden, then turned and walked away to the tea hut.

The roji footpath itself is a series of elevated, uneven rocks (tobi-ishi, ) and occasional slate pavers naturally set into the bare earth through grass and moss covered areas. The layout subtly coaxed us to turn this way and that, providing views of the tiny garden from many vantages. The sound of our shoes on the rocks gave the host a sense of our progress toward the tea hut. The experience of walking on irregular ground immediately made us mindful of our gross, physical body. Over the three-hour chaji experience, the reminders will become more subtle as we become more attuned to the more spiritual aspects of our journey.

Here and there, our host allowed a small cluster of freshly fallen leaves appropriate for the seasonal, temporal nature of our reality. There were no flowering tress or plants that would otherwise compromise the use of naturally arranged flowers in the tea room itself. in a few feet, the roji path split, the wrong-of-way was indicated through the placement of a “barrier-keeper” stone (sekimori-ishi, 関守石), a fist-sized rock tied with a black straw chord placed in the middle of one of the stepping stones.

Purification of the Body and Mind

In about a minute’s time, we reached the proverbial “river’s edge”, represented by an informal patch of ferns shading the stooping basin rock (tsukubai 蹲踞). A signature elements of a roji, the large, low rock had a natural depression in the top into which fresh, cool water trickled from a system of freshly-cut bright green and yellow bamboo “pipes”, flowing over into the river stones below. Proceeding one by one, we each crouched down to perform the purification ritual (misogi ) of rinsing hands and mouth, and thereby the mind, using the bamboo dipper. A stone lantern (ishi-tuorou 石灯籠, another signature of a roji, stood sentry nearby.
“His body cleansed, the guest passes from one world to another and, with a sense of keen awareness increasing at each step of the way, finally arrives at the teahouse, whose interior has become less the realm of the connoisseur than a sacred space.”
--- Kimakura Isao[11]

After about 15 minutes since we first gathered, the small frame of the chashitsu around the corner, resembling the hermitage o a lone aesthete, was now apparent through the trees. The host intentionally left the sliding hatch door of the guest’s entrance (nijiri-guchi 躙口) slightly ajar. The nijiri-guchi is about 26” high and 25” wide and is yet another “narrow place” for the guests, regardless of rank, to traverse as equals: one must duck inside and slide forward with the hands propelling the knees. In the earliest days of chanoyu the nijiri-guchi was the entrance through the outer wall of the garden – hut complex itself.

Negotiating the large rocks needed to access the raised entrance, one by one, we removed our shoes and made our way through the hatch, pulling one’s head and shoulders and knees up into the space. The last guest slid the door shut, touching the wood to the door frame with a “click” to indicate to the host that we were now inside. inside the room, the host had hung a scroll in the raised alcove (tokonoma 床の間), “Kan. Nan Boku Tô-zai Katsu Ro Tsûzu”,  interpreted as “Barrier. South. North. East. West. Make your escape anyway you can,” setting the mood for the remainder of the gathering.

Together At Last!

“[He] had left the burning house of the three worlds, and dwells now in the pristine garden (byakuroji). To leave the roji and take one’s seat at chanoyu is the same as escaping the afflicted world of desire and becoming a person without rank in this existence. Therein lies true “unconditional freedom.”
-- Hounsai, Sen Soshitsu XV (Daisosho, Genshitsu, 
Retired Grand Master, Urasenke)[12]

The full chanoyu, including the host’s serving a multi-course meal and sweets (and not eating with the guests!), the laying of charcoal to heat the water and two preparations of tea, took an additional three hours. It was a seamless “dance” of give and take, engaging the Taoist paradigms of yin and yang, and the five elements (earth, wind, fire, water and metal). Nothing was lacking in that tiny space.

After the final tea preparation utensils were inspected by the guests and returned to the host, he requested our pardon for having made any mistakes. Then we made a final exchange of bows and prepared to reenter the mundane world from which we came. At once physically tired but spiritually renewed, we wriggled out of the nijiri-guchi, the last guest closing it with a “click”, signaling to the host that the room was empty. The garden sparkled as it did earlier as the host had lightly watered it anew. One by one, we walked back through the “narrow places”, which seemed to be roomier than before. Closing the gates one by one, we left the “Pure Land”. Bidding each other a safe return to our homes, we went our separate ways.

If you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.
When you walk the Way, it is not near, it is not far.
If you are deluded, you are mountains and rivers away from it.[13]

A note from the author: I hope you enjoyed this article written for Parabola, a nonprofit journal. The original publication has many additional photographs. Please consider purchasing a copy of the magazine, (volume 35, no. 3) and support this wonderful publication. (www.parabola.org). Thanks!

[1] Sen no Rikyu quoted in Sadler, A.L., Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (Tuttle, Boston, 1962)
[2] Several sources of kanji, Chinese characters used in Japanese language, were used for this article, including http://japanese-tea-ceremony.net/chashitsu.html\ , http://www.j-prep.com , http://en.wikipedia.org/ and http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/. While one cannot fully acquire the skills and heart to practice chanoyu from any media, it is gratifying to have these language tools to help me go deeper into what I have learned through direct oral transmission of my dear sensei, Sosei Matsumoto.
[3] Also pronounced “cha-do”.
[4] The roles of host and guest in chanoyu are not gender-specific; although, the position of Grand Master and his official agents, gyotei sensei, are male.
[5] ibid, quoting the Nampôroku, the collection of writings about chanoyu attributed to Sen no Rikyu.
[6] http://wiki.chado.no/Roji
[7] ibid.
[8] www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus. A concept that combines the literal notion of “languishing” and the sentiment of “spiritual loneliness”. This is the essence of the legacy of Sen no Rikyu and his teacher Murata Juko of the 16th Century.
[9] Originally roji was written 路次 or 路地 indicating a "path through which one passes" on the way to the chashitsu.
[10] From Zencharoku (The Zen Tea Record) by Jakuan Sotaku of the Eastern Capital, included in Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the way of Tea as a Buddhist Path, Hirota, Dennis, ed. (Asian Humanities Press, Kyoto, 1995)
[11] Kumakura, Isao, “Sen no Rikyu” in Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu

[12] Sen Soshitsu XV (Sen Genshitsu, Hounsai Daisosho, Fifteenth Generation Grand Master of the Urasenke Tradition of Chanoyu) ”Reflections on Chanoyu”, in Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu, Varley, Paul and Kumakura, Isao, eds. (University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1989)
[13] Sandokai (Harmony of Sameness and Difference) by Sekito Kisen (700-790)