tea ceremony etiquette

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Meiya Wender, Head of Tea, Green Gulch Farm & Zen Center
"The tea room is a laboratory for studying the self and our relationship with others," said Meiya Wender, Head of Tea at Green Gulch Zen Center in Muir Beach, CA several years ago when I interviewed her for my book The Way to Tea.

Yesterday, Meiya hosted a public tea ceremony at the Center's Sowing the Moon Teahouse, which gave me an opportunity to "experiment" firsthand.

The beauty of the tea room is distinguished not only by the carefully placed flowers, tea scroll, and tea implements, but also by the behavior of the host(ess) and guests.  

As the ten or so of us filed into the tea room, on our knees as prescribed by tradition, we entered a sanctuary where the norms of the external world fall away to a breathtaking humility and community that is tea and zen. 

It is the art of the guest, in this case, most specifically the "first guest" (and the only one among us who knows tea ceremony etiquette in detail), to match the hostess' kindness, and whose job it is to compliment and draw out the virtues and efforts of the hostess in creating the ceremony by requesting information about the tea art and tea ware used in the ceremony.

 

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Chashaku resting on natsume
"I see you have chosen a special piece for this tea gathering. Please tell us about this lovely tea scroll," says the first guest to Meiya.  Meiya initially explains to us that each object in the tea room has both a practical and poetic function.  For example, she says, the chashaku (tea scoop) is functional in that it scoops the tea, but it also has a poetic function, which reinforces the theme of the tea experience. In this case, the chashaku was carved by Meiya herself, and was named by a Zen priest.  The tea scoop's name--"Swift And Unbridled"-- comes from a Zen poem and also reinforces the message of early spring, the season in which we are gathering for tea. 

As for the tea scroll, Meiya translates the calligraphy for us: "No highs or lows in the colors of spring," which echos the Buddhist appeal for people to follow the "Middle Path" in which one does not identify oneself with extremes in order to find balance and harmony within.
 
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Sowing The Moon Teahouse
It occurs to me that the guest also has both a practical and poetic function in the tea ceremony. The guest is needed as the one who receives the gift of tea, but (s)he also serves the function of bringing delight and awareness to the gathering. Just as we sometimes learn more when we share our thoughts, the guest serves as the facilitator for the expression of the hostess. Our "first guest" continues to request information, while complimenting the hostess:  "And the flowers that you have chosen and arranged so artfully are lovely. Could you tell us about them?"

Meiya tells us the tight white bud surrounded by high gloss, forest green leaves is a camellia, about to bloom. The camellia is from the same species as the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), and so has significance in the tea ceremony.  The other flower in the iron vase is a small-fisted bud of pink-orange quince, one of the transient delights of this season.  Neither opulent nor strongly fragrant, the flowers too reinforce the message of simplicity, humility, and the temporal nature of the moment and of the season. 

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So too might a guest come to tea simply, humbly, and not flashy or full of himself and his ego. The tea room is not a place for heated discussions or demonstrations of one's own knowledge, virtues or abilities. The guest's role, in particular, is to put the focus of discussion on the hostess' efforts and to ask about the objects used in the ceremony.

Subjects considered oafish to raise in conversation in the tea room include anything divisive (most especially politics), gossip (particularly speaking badly of others when they are not present), and money (which creates disharmony, jealousy, and stratification).  The tea room is a place for equals (which is why everyone enters on their knees),  and while certainly no two people have equal abilities or qualities, the appreciation of each others' kindness, intentions, abilities and actions (not one's own), is what creates delight, peace, and harmony.

The guest's role is to compliment the hostess, to draw her out, to put the focus on the inspiring objects created and/or used in the ceremony for the benefit and enjoyment of all present. This  intention by the guest of bringing harmony and inspiration to the tea room heightens the experience for all, and reinforces the meaning of the tea ceremony,  to which is traditionally attributed four words that are as much intentions of awareness: Tranquility. Respect. Harmony. Purity.

Were that the whole world engaged in tea room etiquette throughout all interactions.
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what a beautiful procession. now if we could all practice this etiquette in everyday life. I think I'll get my tea sets out and have a special tea time with my daughter and teach her some of this.

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