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A Place for Tea, Serenity and Buddhism

The most bemusing circumstance at the new Pepperdine arts complex is the presence of a Japanese teahouse, which arrived through the exertions of Glenn Webb, director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Asian Cultures. The structure was donated by the Ohara family, which has been building teahouses for generations.

Most people have seen a tea ceremony at least in a travelogue and are thus vaguely familiar with its simple setting--sliding screens and wattle walls interrupted only by a scroll niche, flower arrangement and the utensils of the ceremony. Pepperdine’s teahouse will be accessible to gallery visitors and there will be a public demonstration about once a month.

What is demonstrated looks to the uninitiated like a study in pure serenity. Participants usually dress in traditional kimonos. Unwritten sumptuary laws require subdued hues for men and more colorful and elaborate--but still restrained--costumes for older and married women. The spectacular long-sleeved kimonos that make wearers look like butterflies are donned by young, single women.

Festival demonstrations were carried out by beautifully caparisoned local masters and votaries of the way of tea--mixed with students in cut-offs. On its surface, the ritual looks simple. Most activity was carried on while kneeling and sitting on one’s heels. The host makes the pale green tea deftly, whisking powder, pouring water, wiping utensils with a ceremonially folded silk cloth. Tea is served and quaffed largely in silence interrupted only by bows and murmured expressions of politeness. Movement is so clean and simple the whole thing looks effortless.

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It’s not. Tea is a form of Zen Buddhism that traces its origins to the 12th Century when it was adopted by the tough Japanese samurai warrior class. It’s a discipline aimed at attaining enlightenment through suppression of the ego. Its goals are harmony, purity, respect and tranquillity. In Japan, kids commence their study at age 6. If they get really good they may eventually be invited to study at the world center of the way of tea in Kyoto--the Juilliard of tea schools. It can take decades to earn one’s “tea name,” the mark of a master who can instruct others.

In the end, tea is an aesthetic form surviving from the days when art was an integral part of life. The function of tea, according to its most pious believers, is to contribute to a new world peace. There is a quality of Zen absurdism in the idea that sharing a bowl of tea can solve the world’s problems. The more deeply the notion is contemplated, however, the more it resonates with the truth of a simple haiku : “If we could but fathom the meaning of this warm bowl we share it would become the Earth.”


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