Taking Tea & Making Meaning – The Way Tea Ceremony Brings Us Together

This is the essence of Japanese Tea Ceremony

Incense burns. A single scroll resides in a modest alcove with a flower to compliment it. But for the whoosh of the bamboo whisk, the room is silent. A bowl is placed in front of you.

You pick up the bowl, turn it in your hand, take a sip of the tea, and pass it to the next person. As the matcha travels down your gullet, you taste the complexities of the fine tea powder. The person next to you experiences the same sensation in turn, and for a brief time you are connected.

You do not acknowledge the connection, but it is felt by each of you. In the silence of the room, in the presence of your host and one another, with the tea flowing through each of you, you have found a cause for union. The tea has brought you together, and together you will savor it before parting ways once again.

I have attended Tea Ceremonies before, and for me each of them were potent sensory experiences. Particularly during my second one, I found myself truly living in the moment, even if only briefly.

As the ceremony unfolded, I experienced each of the five senses in a serenely visceral fashion. Seated in seiza, the traditional Japanese fashion, I lost feeling in my legs. Incense brought forth the smells of winter flowers. The sound of the wooden whisk in the bowl shattered the silence of the room. As I watched my friend, JP Wojciechowski, make the tea, I wondered at the intricacies of the techniques.

And when the tea was finally placed in front of me, I tasted the matcha and savored the complex notes as if I were drinking a finely aged Scotch.

It was a truly unique experience, and it’s one that I feel all people in Japan should experience while they are here. To say that it perfectly exemplifies all aspects of Japanese culture would be a drastic understatement.

The Timelessness of Tea Ceremony

For over 400 years Tea Ceremony has influenced Japanese society. Even before tea gatherings were made ceremonious by Sen No Rikyu in the late 1500s they were still seen as an occasion to come together, and when Rikyu changed the fashion of these gatherings he made the people at the gathering and their relationships the centerpiece of the event.

Audacious and elaborate parties in a grand hall were instead replaced by small groups of no more than five or six people who gathered in a small room bare of all decorations save those which were brought in by the Tea Master to serve a specific aesthetic purpose. Within the room, all things remained constant yet all things changed as well.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

In his magnum opus, The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzo outlines the role of this deeply Zen principle in the philosophy of Tea Ceremony:


The simplicity and purism of the tea-room resulted from emulation of the Zen monastery. A Zen monastery differs from those of other Buddhist sects inasmuch as it is meant only to be a dwelling place for the monks.

Essentially, the room is to function as nothing more than a venue for the Tea Master and their guests to meet and foster their temporary bonds of fellowship. In the absence of any other meaning for the room, the guests may now find meaning in the minutia of each aspect of the room.

Yes, a Tea Ceremony may be conducted in a living room, dining hall, or classroom, but for the ceremony to have the proper effect it must be conducted in the Tea House. In this place alone, all distractions are cast off and naught but the company of your fellows is present in the room.

Meaning in the Meeting

Anna Willmann from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Asian Art commented on this communal nature of the Tea Ceremony a 2011 essay on the topic:

In the tea room, the emphasis is on the interaction between the host, guests, and tea utensils. The host will choose an assemblage of objects specific to that gathering and use those utensils to perform the tea preparations in front of the guests. Each tea gathering is a unique experience, so a particular assemblage of objects and people is never repeated.

And even if each aspect of that ceremony was replicated once more, the experience would not be the same. Time will have aged the guests, and they will not have the same thoughts as they did before. That one ceremony was the only one of its kind, and once it ends it may never again happen.

This dynamic nature of enjoying the ceremony is not lost on the Tea Master who conducts it. Randy Channel Soei, a Canadian expatriate, has spent 30 years studying Tea Ceremony with the Urasenke House, one of the three oldest Tea Ceremony schools in Japan. He has achieved the title of “Soei,” designating him as a professor in the art of Tea Ceremony.

He talked about Tea Ceremony in a 2016 interview with the blog Why Kyoto?

Everyone enjoys chanoyu in a different way. The host does his utmost to prepare various items for the guests of the day and puts his whole heart into whisking the tea. Guests should enjoy the space the way they want to enjoy it. One guest may feel it is tranquil and quiet, while another may think that the atmosphere is exciting, and that is fine.

Yet, while everyone may take different things from the ceremony, there is one commonality that exists in the experience of each guest and Tea Master: they are dragged out of their minds and into the moment.

Time for Tea in the Moment

Historically, all who entered the room were to leave their swords and belongings outside the Tea House as they entered, carrying nothing but themselves and their company into the humble lodging. With the burdens of the outside left at the door, all guests, no matter their quarrels, were able to bask in the noble peace of the ceremony before returning to the world again.

In my interview with JP, we talked about Tea Ceremony, and he is strikingly aware of the its power to pull you back from the minutia of your own life.

I wanted a time where everything else could fade away and I could focus on one single thing, so I would devote myself to each and every lesson of Tea Ceremony. My cell phone was off and in my backpack, and each lesson was more relaxing and meaningful because of it.

While we may not have swords to leave outside the door, instead we have phones to set down before we are granted a reprieve from the anxieties of everyday life. The matcha, incense, sweets, scrolls, flowers, and techniques are the same as they have ever been and ever will be. Through a consistency of form, Tea Ceremony is able to tap into the peace within all of us regardless of our epoch, nationality, or circumstance.

Making Connections in the Minutia

Those who cannot feel the littleness of the great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others

This was written in The Book of Tea, and to me this surmises the importance of Tea Ceremony, and why it is so impactful.

Tea Ceremony strips away all but the essentials, and those are simple: yourself, your companions, and the bond you share. With nothing to distract you, you examine yourself and those around you, and in doing this you come to know each party better. By the end of the ceremony, you have created a momentary bond that is individual and temporary, but that is what all bonds are in the end.

And when it is done, you step back out into the world and return to your daily lives, leaving that shared moment behind but never forgetting what it was to experience it.

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I have found Tea Ceremony interesting for years, so this is something I have wanted to write about for a long time. I feel like this helped me better understand how I think about the Ceremony, and I hope it helped you understand it as well!

I hope you liked this week’s post, and please consider sharing it with someone you know! Every little bit helps.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent overview, you are living events I had only the good fortune to read about, other than English High Tea. The ceremony’s pared down yet ample focus does indeed transport us to the now, that one moment that cuts time life a knife. Wonderful read.

  2. Sarah French Brennan

    March 13, 2019 at 12:38 am

    This is the first post I’m reading (your mom sent me your website– heeeey Ms. Dooher!!) and I LOVE it. Seriously, you should go get yourself a degree in Anthro– we need more awesome writers like you 😉

    • Wow Sarah, thank you so much for your support! I really like learning about culture, but Anthropology was never something I had considered. I’ll definitely keep it in mind! Thanksgiving again for your support, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog!

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