Tea Ceremony – Zen Philosophy and the Way of the Tea

The Japanese tea ceremony is more than the act of drinking tea – it is an aesthetic pleasure, an opportunity to experience inner peace and quietness through the subliminal messages that the whole ritual passes on.

The room, the clothes that the hosts wear, the utensils and the movements during the preparation of the tea, symbolize a process of purification of the senses. However, it is not possible to understand the tea ceremony without looking at the zen philosophy that influenced this ancient art.

The Way of the Tea (Chanoyu or Chado) and Zen Buddhism

Brought to Japan in the ninth century from China, the tea became widely appreciated in the region of Kinki, where tea plantations began to spread under the orders of the emperor Saga. By the thirteenth century, the tea was already considered a symbol of status among the warrior classes, which were partially responsible for associating tea drinking with luxurious utensils.

Later, the tea drinking parties promoted by the samurais evolved into a more simple ceremony, becoming influenced by Zen Buddhism through Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who used the philosophical principles of ichi-go ichi-e to develop the chado, or the way of the tea. This was when drinking tea became a philosophical practice associated to the Zen.

Tea Ceremony – Purpose, Meaning and Symbolism

Every tea ceremony is different. In the universe, an event is never completely like another, which means that the act of drinking tea with the guests is an unique opportunity, as it will never be repeated in the same way. The utensils, the clothes, the architecture of the tea house, the drawings on the walls and the movements of the hosts hide an important message – it is a way to remind the consciousness of its origins and a way to demonstrate that beauty and proper conduct can be imprinted in the daily life.

Zen philosophy holds that the right concentration in everything a person does can lead to serenity and happiness. The tea ritual is also an opportunity to exercise the noble eightfold path which constitute the foundations of the Buddhist philosophy:

  • Right view – the beautiful kimonos and refined tools used to prepare the tea may purify the senses and provide a connection between ordinary and sacred;
  • Right intention – if the hosts' intentions are not corrupted by the lower passions, the tea ceremony will be successful;
  • Right speech – every word spoken during the tea ceremony must be well thought. Poetry and music serve as a bridge to elevate the senses. Useless words, gossip and calumny during conversations are prohibited;
  • Right action – during the tea ceremony, a movement that goes wrong can ruin the ritual, as it means that the host wasn't focused in his or her task;
  • Right livelihood – the tool, clothes and environment must be compatible to one's possibilities. Not more than can be afforded, and not less;
  • Right effort – the tea ceremony must be planned many days before it happens so that everything goes as planned, little effort and excessive effort will result in disharmony, and;
  • Right concentration and right mindfulness – when a person is fully engaged and focused in whatever he or she is doing, this means a person has mastered the mind.

So, the tea ceremony is not only a meeting to drink tea – it carries meaning and symbolism, it also teaches people important values and philosophical systems, but most importantly, it provides an opportunity for people to abandon the mediocrity of the daily life in order to experience something greater.

If everyone applied the principles of the tea ceremony in their every day actions, life would be much more pleasant.