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When the sun entered the tea room…

Tea ceremony : the sky, the cups and the guest

In the tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony, one develops a real sensitivity to the seasons, the weather of the day and even the small breeze that come through an open window on a sunny afternoon. Each of these details can be sweeter than a hot bath in winter when one takes notice of them. The Japanese tea ceremony is about creating harmony in a room and in a certain time ; harmony between guests, items and occasion. Just like the stoic philosophers could not give a higher priority between ethic, physic and metaphysic, the Japanese tea ceremony could not exactly prioritize guests over items, items over occasion or occasion over guests — Though, of course, it all starts with one goal : giving a pleasant time to the guest.
I recall very often changing my choice of tea bowls because it started raining and the light would be more agreeable on a different piece than the one I had planned to use. I also recall inviting a very traditional friend to a tea ceremony in winter. For technical reasons, I had to use the summer
kettle and it hurt the feelings of my guest a little — it just could not feel right for her, while others would not mind.
A tea ceremony is a harmonious moment. That also means that a good conversation must go on and everybody must feel satisfied, playing on time and space like on the partition of a concerto.
Each and every little rule invented in tea ceremony can be said to have its purpose in this desire to create harmony. When everybody knows their part, things go well. If you invite a trombone to the orchestra and he has not learned the second movement of your piece, you will probably hear that
there is a problem.

Playing on the weather, playing on the mood

The weather that I mentioned earlier is definitely the most uncontrollable element of a tea ceremony. Although, in some countries, at certain times of the year, it is more reliable than at others. In Scotland, if it has not rained the whole day, it means the day is not over. Since the weather is rather unpredictable, Sen no Rikyu, one of the greatest tea master of all time, advise in his seven maxims for tea to always expect rain. Hence the traditional umbrella, waiting at the entrance of every good tearoom. One would not want to see his or her tea ceremony ruined because of a drenched guest arriving in a poor state !
Although it is said that Hachiken, another famous tea master, apparently set up an actual trap of mud and cold water in front of his house so that his guests would fall into it and Hachiken would come rushing at them to offer them to take a bath. The bath would be already warm and his guests could relax in it before coming to the tea room. A perfect heist for a perfect moment. So perfect that Rikyu himself saw the trap and decided to fall in it on purpose — at least that is what he said.
Well, long story short, to the modern tea adventurer it would be extremely expensive and horribly complex to prepare a bath for his or her guest every time there might be a rain. Preparing an umbrella is much easier.
All this to say that, without even mentioning seasons, the weather plays quite the part in a tea ceremony and a consequent number of details, from the height of the shoes to the shape of the tea bowls, can actually be related to if. Staying in harmony with the sky is not the easiest part of a tea ceremony. The numerous rules concerning how to hold a tea ceremony at different moments of the year is only a rough frame of adaptation that needs to be furthered for each occasion in particular.

The simplest of all miracles

Now, there are these moments, these magical moments when the weather seems to play in your favor. And it is not just that the weather is quite sunny on a winter afternoon. This is quite agreeable, of course, but it is just nice. The story of Hachiken reminds us of something much more delicate : the pleasure of going from a bad moment to good one. Falling in the mud is not nice but having a bath after it is marvelous. Bath without mud : it just feels nice. There are those days when you prepare tea under a grey sky, the light barely spread like a white dull veil around the room, nonchalantly passing over the vapor of the kettle and the paper handkerchiefs as if to turn everything blemish. This kind of sky is very often quite difficult to harmonize with. But then, suddenly, a ray of light. The sun coming through pours a generous and blinding yellow light either on the sliding doors or, sometimes, on the pieces themselves. It truly feels like a christian miracle.
The moment is blessed. And for some reason that, I would easily admit it, has no reason at all, this sunny breakthrough happens quite often at exactly the right time in tea ceremonies.

One day, I was serving tea in one of the rooms I lived in. I was with a friend that was about to go home, very far away. And just as I bowed down to thank her, at the end of the tea ceremony, the sun came through my window and lit the calligraphy in the alcove, reading « May your heart be empty of clouds ». This was the perfect moment and in such a harmonious way with the occasion that we laughed and stared amazed altogether. The sun had entered the room in a way I had never seen before, right on time, as a perfect comment from the sky to our last meeting.
In another room I lived in — in Awaji — it was even a sun ray in the early morning, that reflected on a mirror and came as a rainbow inside my tea bowl…as I was drinking it. I was literally drinking a rainbow with my matcha every morning until the passing of seasons changed the angle of the light, a couple of weeks later.

To live in the moment

I ended up thinking that, whichever the occasion to meet, the true occasion is simply the day we live. If you go around the world of tea ceremony, you probably heard the too many times heard maxim ichigo ichie. It roughly means “One occasion, one moment”. More poetically, it reminds you that an encounter will never happen again in the same way. Samurais used to like these kind of sayings : they were living far from each other in a time of perpetual war. The friend going out of the tea room might never be seen again. But to me, I see ichigo ichie, first and foremost, as an indication : “look at the sky, this light is unique, never again shall you see it shed on your tearoom”. And I am glad that I am making tea on that day, to thank the season, thank the weather and thank, maybe, a small miracle, when the sun suddenly enters the room.

Nessim Cohen Author

Nessim is a student of the Japanese tea ceremony (Sohen Ryu Shoden An). On his journey, he has experienced a lot of Japanese arts such as ceramic, calligraphy, flower arrangement or kendo.
Always between East and West, he promotes multicultural approaches on his blog and bits of thoughts with a cup of tea on his instagram.
His work is mostly focused on introducing and modernizing the Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese crafts around the world. Currently, he is doing outdoor tea ceremonies around Japan, France and Korea, while repairing a tea room on Awaji island.

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