Tea House Nirvana

Imagine with me: It's a Friday evening; a long week drawing to a close. Perhaps all the tasks and challenges of the week have been accomplished, or maybe not. Maybe there's a sense of being incomplete or being stretched thin. Maybe you want to go somewhere after your yoga session, or tai chi class, or the amazing movie you just saw. You want to prolong that peaceful golden glow in which everything is in harmony and you are at last beginning to get a glimpse of enlightenment. Or maybe you need a quiet space to get your thoughts in order and forget the pressing appointments of time; a place to calm down.
As far as I can tell, tea does this for the Japanese.

Coffee houses have their time and place, as do the tea shops of Downton Abbey's Britain. But they can jar you suddenly out of your meditation with the harsh hissing of the espresso machine or the clink of a cup on the saucer. Also, the atmosphere of your standard hipster coffee house is "noli me tangere," via laptops, earbuds, and even books. The beverage in these venues is tangential, an encouragement to write that paper or catch up with a friend.
While a Japanese tea ceremony, based on my one day of research, seems to have the purpose of catching up or spending time with a friend, an iPad, smartphone, or other electronic device has no place in drinking tea. It's not that the focus is tea, the focus is on the present moment, and in order to focus on the present moment, one must focus on the sound of the water boiling, the whisking of the matcha. One cannot have the latest issue of the New Yorker in the left hand while sipping from a bowl on the right.
After a day worrying about the future of my clients, and have had my iPhone in one hand texting to a co-worker and my other hand tapping out an email to a community partner, this sounds like a holiday.
I became interested in this after reading The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby. Set in 11th century Japan, the fictional Murasaki records her adolescence, some brief affairs, her father's post as governor of a remote province, developing her poetry, and then goes on to her marriage, the birth of her child, her posting to court as a lady-in-waiting to the empress and finally her retirement to a Buddhist convent. Through it, is this dream-like quality, from the 2 line Wakka poems that punctuate the prose and the descriptions of her robes and the color combinations she concocts and named with titles like, "spring dew on grass."
There is something seductive about burdening all details with poetry and purposeful choosing. Murasaki couldn’t just throw on any old robe, mismatching colors as she rushed to post a letter before the last post; her outfits had names. That every detail has significance and sanctity seems therapeutic and punitive all at the same time. It seems reassuring to have a procedure for literally everything.
Continue imagining with me: leave the swish of traffic in the rain and the mindless chatter of others on the street. Go up a flight of stairs to a door removed from ambient noise. It slides with a faint shushing noise, revealing a space you can’t quite explain. The first word that comes to you is quiet; though there is a slight hum of conversation, intertwined with music that plonks into your consciousness as a plump raindrop. The light pools onto the round tables, warm, glowing and pleasing to your eyes after a day of harsh fluorescents. On the walls are large strips of paper with Japanese calligraphy; you have no idea what they mean, but they’re intriguing.

A woman comes up to you and asks if you have booked a tea ceremony, or if you’d like regular tea. Since you’re not sure what that means right now, you say you’re just here for some tea. She nods, and gestures to a table and chair against the wall then moves swiftly away. You sit and sigh, looking around you. There are other people, clustered in groups of 2 or more, a few others on their own looking thoughtfully into the distance. Everyone is hushed in conversation without the nervous compulsion that comes from being in a library or museum, so the impression is of the wind in the pine trees. The woman comes to your table carrying a tray with a small pot and a cup and a little plate with 2 small almond cookies. “Let it steep for 3 minutes,” she says as she sets it all on your table. You thank her, and she nods her head pleasantly in reply.
You feel slightly uncomfortable, but also something new in just sitting here watching the steam rise from the teapot spout. It’s not entirely unpleasant. Your mind begins to unclench; though at times a chore left over from work will try to make you anxious again the rest of your thoughts are here and now. Although you’re not sure how long it’s been, you pour your tea and pick up the cup feeling the warmth of the porcelain with satisfaction in your fingertips. In your mouth it’s hot and slightly bitter, you no longer feel as faded as you did when you came in. Setting the cup down purposefully, you pick up an almond cookie and crunch into it. Its sweetness balances the bitter flavor of the tea. It occurs to you that you may have been sitting here for hours, absorbing the tea, observing your breath, and as an afterthought, you realize that this is not a bad thing.
Behind you comes the sound of another door sliding open. You crane your neck just in time to see a woman rising from kneeling on the floor and 3 other people standing. They shake her hand enthusiastically; their faces are calm with big smiles. “That was wonderful, thank you,” you overhear them say.
“My pleasure,” she responds. “Please come again soon.”  


  1. This brings back a presentation we attended at Vassar by Andrew Watsky years ago. https://artandarchaeology.princeton.edu/people/faculty/andrew-watsky


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