In World War II, Soshitsu Sen, who would become a 15th-generation Japanese grand tea master, packed his tea box and utensils into his luggage and headed off to war, trained as a kamikaze pilot. He performed tea ceremonies for fellow pilots before they flew their suicide missions against the United States and its allies in the Pacific. The war ended before his number was called.
Sen, now 79, was in Los Angeles the other day on a mission of peace, having come from Kyoto to share an ancient Japanese cultural tradition that remains mysterious to most Americans: Chado, or the Way of Tea.
“For those of you seeing the practice of tea for the first time,” Sen told a full house at his lecture and tea demonstration in the Bing Auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on Sunday afternoon, “You will wonder, ‘Why is this being done?’ ‘Why is it so complicated?’ ”
A blend of Zen and Taoist principles, the Way of Tea celebrates the beauty in the mundane, the superiority of spirit over matter, tranquillity within busy lives. UC Irvine anthropology professor Robert Garfias, who is president of the L.A. chapter of Chado Urasenke (the particular school of tea ceremony that Sen teaches), said tea is an immutable part of Japanese culture.
“There is nothing quite like it in our culture,” Garfias said. “Really, it is the artistic essence of how you move through life. They say in Japan, ‘You have tea.’ That means someone who not just has the tea ceremony, but someone who has mastered it in the sense of getting beyond the rules, the rituals, the procedures, so that it becomes like second nature. You can tell by the way someone moves into the room, just by the way the person kneels and slides the door, whether they have tea or not.”
Wearing a dark kimono, the distinguished, gray-haired Sen stood on a stage Sunday that had been transformed into a replica of a Japanese tearoom, complete with tatami mats, screens, iron kettle, an alcove with a scroll and a vase of California wildflowers. The delicate fragrance of sandalwood incense wafted into the audience.
In contrast to a Western-style tea bag dipped in hot water, which takes about 30 unfocused seconds to make, the elegant Urasenke tea ceremony takes closer to 30 minutes. The ceremony is traditionally performed in an intimate room made for that purpose. The ceremony can be performed for a single guest in a private residence, or for a small group in a temple, or teahouse. The point of the ceremony is for the server to honor the guest, to unite the host and guest in a concert of harmony. The ceremony involves precise etiquette on the part of both the guests and the server. During Sen’s demonstrations, “guests” (played by students and teachers of Urasenke) entered a tiny imaginary door on hands and knees, bowed to the flowers and the hanging scroll that are an indispensable part of the ceremony, and sat on their heels in the Seiza position to wait for their host. They drank their tea deliberately with both hands, staring deep into the ceramic bowl as they sipped.
For the host, the ritual involves numerous elaborate utensils laden with meaning and history, and the quiet mastery of hundreds of prescribed movements that govern everything from how one enters the room and moves one’s feet across the floor, to the exquisitely straight line of the back when ladling water from the kettle and the delicacy with which one whisks the tea.
For a Japanese, witnessing a perfect tea ceremony by a friend can be one of life’s sweetest moments--the savoring of a unique place, time and relationship between people.
“It is not coffee,” Sen explained on Friday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, as he imitated the casual, one-armed drinking style of Americans imbibing their favorite caffeinated hot beverage while reading, working, driving or talking. “Coffee is just a drink. With tea there is a style, training. There are many rules. Behind tea there is a philosophy....”
A virtual cult figure among his followers, many of whom wave and wilt like groupies when he passes, Sen also attended the firstNorth American Tea Convention, which drew more than 700 tea practitioners and curious Japanophiles. At LACMA on Sunday, Sen lectured on the relationship between the Way of Tea and the arts of Japan, and to perform an offertory tea ceremony for peace to open the World Festival of Sacred Music.
“He sees this as one of his big, continuing ways of proselytizing,” said Garfias. “He would like to see more non-Japanese people involved. He sees tea as a way to peace.”
Zen monks first brought green tea back from China in the 12th century. The tea, mixed from a vivid green powder of ground leaves, was used by the monks as a stimulant to aid study and meditation.
The tea was also valued for its medicinal properties. (A 1994 joint study of Shanghai residents by the National Cancer Institute and the Shanghai Cancer Institute found that green tea consumption cut the risk of developing stomach cancer by as much as half.)
Fifty years ago, Sen created the first Urasenke tea groups outside Japan. Today there are Urasenke associations in 32 countries. The Los Angeles Urasenke Assn. is the largest and oldest group in North America.
Students of the Way of Tea say it is hard to understand the power of the ritual until one studies it. The preparation of the tea is a form of meditation. Many practitioners say the carefully scripted movements allow them to enter a state of deep concentration much like that which athletes describe when they talk of entering the zone--a place where the individual can find freedom, effortlessness and grace within movements that have been practiced thousands and thousands of times.
Many Americans have been seduced by the Way of Tea. Susan Becker, 53, of Thousand Oaks witnessed her first tea ceremony in a park in Boston on an autumn day years ago.
“The woman folded the fukusa (silk napkin) in such a way it brought tears to my eyes,” Becker recalled. “She communicated her heart and soul in the way she folded that napkin.” Becker has studied tea for 14 years now. When her father turned 70 she made tea to honor him.
At the convention on Saturday, and again at LACMA on Sunday, hundreds of people partook in tea ceremony. First they ate the seasonal sweets, served on tiny white napkins by kimono-clad women. Then, while the sweetness still lingered on their tongues, they sipped the frothy, bright green tea, with its slightly bitter flavor of sweet, spring grass.
“You have now drunk the tea,” Sen said to a small group of guests on Sunday. “How was the taste? You have probably got a lot of energy!”