My post ‘Taiko and tea’ shares my first impressions about the relationship between tea and the elements in Japan. My concluding comments were ‘Five elements and six senses. A heady mix.’ Since then I have had many more opportunities related to tea, thanks mostly to Allan Halyk, a Urasenke Tea Master based in Hobart. In October 2016 I spent 10 days in Japan with Allan, two of his students and a friend. We walked many miles in Osaka, Kyoto and Uji to immerse ourselves in tea. It helps to be with those who are familiar with the way.
Now the time has come to write more about tea. I have learnt much since the first post was written in June 2016. That’s why this entry is long, detailed and has many photographs. As always this post shares my impressions as I undertake research for my book on elemental Japan. My appreciation of the story of tea in relation to the elements is bound to evolve as the journey of discovery continues and I receive input from others. The tea tour followed immediately on the footsteps of a Contemporary Art & Architecture Tour (CA&AT), another enlightening elemental experience.
Chado/Chanoyu, the way of tea, is said to epitomise Japanese culture. Allan refers to the tea ceremony as moving meditation. Maraini (1971), in his book on patterns of continuity in Japan, likens it to a dance of the hands. One that evokes Buddhist mudra through a regulated, harmonious, elegant litany of gestures and positions. Each tea event is unique, designed to cleanse the mind of daily concerns, share a bowl of tea in a gracious manner and live in the moment. Beauty, simplicity, harmony, calmness and ritual are the order of the day.
The October tea tour in Japan, and my experiences since, have made me appreciate that there is more to tea than meets the eye. The number of places we visited that sell tea (both to drink and buy), tea sweets and tea utensils indicates the importance of tea in Japan. Allan took us to many small shops with long traditions of selling tea-related items. The care and pride taken by the people working there was palpable.
In my first post, the tea I referred to was the ground variety (matcha) that is whisked with water in a tea bowl until frothy, and served with a seasonal sweet. This ‘thin’ tea is called usucha and is the type of matcha usually served in a tea shop. It is what many people, including myself, think of as the tea ceremony. It could be described as the public or informal face of tea.
The essence of the formal tea ceremony, I have since learnt, is a thick tea called koicha. Sen no Rikyu, who had a profound influence on tea ritual and practice, considered koicha the Finished Style. The full length tea ceremony is called Chaji. Following a multi-course meal, each person partaking of the ceremony drinks koicha from the same bowl. Only the highest grade matcha is used to make this tea which is a gorgeous, viscose, sumptuous drink. It has amazing energy. And colour. I have had the pleasure of drinking koicha three times in relatively casual settings. Three and a half sips each time, as advocated by certain tea traditions. I look forward one day to participating in the full tea ceremony, which can take several hours. It is in this context that (matcha) tea and the elements gains full expression.
It is the formal tea ceremony, conducted in a tearoom with tatami mats, that Plutschow (1999, An anthrolopological perspective on the Japanese Tea Ceremony) discusses in relation to yin yang and the five Chinese elements. His observations on the Japanese tearoom in this context were quoted in my first post on tea. Plutschow’s book ‘Rediscovering Rikyu and the Beginnings of the Japanese Tea Ceremony’ (2003) also goes into detail about yin yang and the five elements (water, wood, fire, earth and metal) and the way of tea. One section reflects on the importance of drawing the water for tea at dawn regardless of what time of day it will be served. Plutschow goes onto say:
“Water is basically yang and corresponds to the zodiacal sign ‘Tiger’ representing the beginning of the year and the day. The water thus drawn is fresh, new water, the water of yang, the first element that came into existence in the universe.”
Plutschow also cites a theoretical treatise on Chado written by Gengasai, a Urasenke Grand Tea Master, that he believes reflects earlier thinking on the symbolism of the tea room:
“Originally the four-an-a-half mat room was modelled on the yin-yang and Five-Elements, containing the entire universe in a single room. People claim that this came from Zen but, in fact, it originated in the Book of Changes and the Book of Rites.”
In the many books on tea I have explored since, so far I have only found one that goes into similar depth. This book is about the I Ching in Tokugawa Japan (Wai-ming Ng 2000), not one that focuses on tea. The I Ching is also known the Book of Changes. Here is an excerpt from Ng (2000), where wu-hsing refers to the five Chinese elements.
“The tea ceremony is a microcosm manifesting the principle of yin-yang wu-hsing. All its aspects – from the architecture and decoration of the teahouse and tearoom to the tools and utensils used in preparing the tea, the season, the date, and time of gathering, and the gestures, regulations, and food and drink served – reflect the principle of yin-yang wu-hsing.”
The author goes onto discuss the relationship between the elements and the stone lanterns around the teahouse. I have also read that the gardens that play an integral role in the formal tea ceremony are often designed in accord with yin yang and the five elements. The way tea is grown is related to the elements as well, this time in a physical sense. The amount of sunlight/shade, warmth, water/mist, the nature of the soil and the quality of the air all have an impact on the nature and taste of the tea.
Tea utensils are broadly related to the elements as described by the two authors above. For example, the pottery tea bowl represents earth (and in its making fire, water and air as well). There are other utensils that have an explicit connection to the elements. On my previous visit to Japan I had learnt about the Gogyo Dana, or the ‘Table of the Five Elements/Five Element shelf’ used in the tea ceremony. I have since seen that Plutschow refers to it in his book. The tray was developed by the 11th Urasenke Grand Tea Master as a miniature version of the universe. I asked at one of the tea-ware shops whether they had a Gogyo Dana as I was interested to see one in person. Unfortunately they were out of stock.
I first learnt about the Gogyo Dana from Randy Channell, a famous Canadian Master and Professor of tea based in Kyoto. He comes from the Urasenke school of tea. When our tea group visited Randy to partake in a tea lesson he told us that he was just about to publish a book on tea. From what he showed us, it looked good with lots of images. When I asked Randy if he referred to the five elements in the book he said that he had decided to focus on the five senses instead. This surprised me as the first time we had met Randy had said how important the five elements were to the way of tea.
On further questioning about why they weren’t referred to in his new book, Randy said you could write a whole book about the five elements and tea. Perhaps this is one of the reasons many of the tea books in my collection give the elements passing reference or make no reference to them at all (e.g. the book on the tea ceremony by Sadler). Or perhaps not everyone subscribes to the influence of Daoism and the I Ching on the tea ceremony. I hope that someday someone bites the bullet and writes the definitive book on tea and the elements.
Another item I saw in the tea-ware shop was just as intriguing as the out-of-stock Gogyo Dana. It was a lacquer-ware tray with the 8 trigrams of the Bagua inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The trigrams are an essential part of the I Ching and strongly related to the five Chinese elements. When I asked Allan about the tray, he said that it was used in some higher level versions of the tea ceremony.
Further inquiry found that it is called the Hakkebon tray which is used for Gyo-no-gyo daisu temae (daisu is the tea utensil stand and temae the ritual preparation of tea). There are many types of temae as it turns out. An article titled ‘The Epic of Tea’, published in the first issue of The Kyoto Journal in 1987, uses the Hakkebon as an example of the connection between the I Ching and tea. The article, which has the sub-title ‘Tea Ceremony as the Mythological Journey of Hero’ makes fascinating reading. Written from the perspective of a Zen practitioner, I refer to the article further in my blog ‘Zen and the five elements‘.
Descriptions of the tea ceremony refer indirectly to the elements when the critical role of seasonality is explored. Throughout the year different ceremonies are held that vary with the time of day, the occasion or the season. Each ceremony has a name. As we are heading into summer in the southern hemisphere, an “Asa-cha”, or early-morning summer tea ceremony could be held.
Tea utensils change seasonally as do the sweets served and the flowers and scrolls displayed in the tokonama. Each month has many names (Mei) to apply to the tea scoop (Chasaku) . Examples in December include Kangetsu, which means Winter Moon, and Hatsugori which means first ice of the season. Thanks goes to Shinichi Takeishi from Rikyucha in Fukoaka for that information. I am sure there are other examples of seasonal changes that accompany the tea ceremony. The tea ritual makes sure that the seasons will not fall out of harmony, affirming the cosmic order. This philosophy has its origins in Daoism which came to Japan from China (Plutschow 2003).
A voluminous amount has been written about the tea ceremony that Sen no Rikyu influenced so profoundly. The importance to Japanese culture and arts is indisputable and drinking matcha is a special and grounding experience. In terms of everyday drinking though, the most popular tea in Japan is sencha where whole tea leaves are infused in water. It is closer to every day life. According to Wikipedia sencha represents about 80% of the tea produced in Japan. It is said that sencha fulfilled the need for a tea product for those who could not afford the expensive utensils used in chado or had no interest in the elaborate etiquette. As it turns out, rituals developed around the formal preparation and serving of sencha as well. I’ve read that the sencha ceremony is more relaxed as the guests do not need to follow a prescribed ritual for drinking as they do in chado.
Despite the widespread use and enjoyment of sencha, in Japan and abroad, little has been written about its long history and philosophy in English. I was’t aware for example that sencha was the ‘way of tea’ in Japan before the matcha tea ceremony gained prominence.
Thanks goes again to Allan for referring me to the book “Tea of the sages: The Art of Sencha” that helps to address this gap. It was exactly what I was looking for. The author, citing a book on sencha preparation published in 1857, refers to the association of fire, water and wind with tea. The author of this treatise on tea believed that sencha was a living entity for which systematic preparation methods existed in nature. Uncovering these could be accomplished by devising a ritualistic presentation that adhered to the principles and respected the elements – yin-yang (in-yo), fire, water and wind – which regulated the natural order of the universe and the calendar.
My aim is to learn more about sencha and the elements. I would like to attend one of the sencha ceremonies held at Manpuku-ji Temple at Obaku, near Uji. The Temple is considered the sacred ground for Sencha-do, the school of the sencha tea ceremony. It is the headquarters of the Obaku Zen sect who came from China to Japan in the 1600s. The Sect’s architecture and teachings have a strong Chinese influence. For example, the prayer papers for Buddha are put in coloured bags that represent the five Chinese elements. I would be interested to find out how the use of the five elements translates to their approach to sencha tea.
My final example of tea and the elements is the tea practice of a contemporary Australian called Adam Wojcinski. He comes from the Ueda Soko Samurai Tradition of tea, a practice that has continued unbroken for over 400 years. Adam is adapting the tea ceremony for a modern audience using performance art as a medium. His aim is to raise the status of Tea to a high art worldwide, to use the spirit of tea to communicate the beauty of nature and our closeness to it, as well as enhance our love and compassion for each other.
Adam uses yin-yang and the five Chinese elements as a reference point. I have seen images of Adam with the yin-yang symbol on his jacket and the colours of the five elements on his advertising material. At least two of the posts on Adam’s Pictaram site refer to this framework. Here is an example that describes a “five colour esoteric flag” (a multicoloured ribbon) on a bamboo tea whisk (chasen). “Purple, red, white, yellow and green representing the five elements and the qualities of love.” I’m keen to learn more about tea and the elements from Adam’s perspective.
In September 2017 I had the pleasure of participating in a Uedo Soko tea ceremony at the Sydney Contemporary Art fair. It was performed by Peter, one of Adam’s students. Peter told me that Adam was translating material related to their style of tea into English. I look forward to discovering what this source says about tea and the elements at some stage.
Adam’s website (the link is above) also shows a butoh performance based on the six element mudra of Dainichi Nyorai, the cosmic Buddha. The sixth element is consciousness, one which is embraced by Esoteric Shingon Buddhism in Japan. I wrote about consciousness as an element nearly two years ago on my sister blog ‘FireupWaterdown.com’. Consciousness as an element is also addressed in my post on ‘The elements at your fingertips‘, my most popular blog in terms of the number of views.
There is much more to tea than meets the eye. You could spend your life studying it. The material I’ve referred to so far on tea and the elements relates to yin-yang and wu hsing, or the five Chinese elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Given the intimate connection between tea and Buddhism I am wondering where the five Buddhist elements might fit in this story of tea. Perhaps as the basic building blocks of life they are represented by the participants at the tea tasting. I imagine that the topic is covered somewhere in the numerous books and articles I have accumulated on tea in Japan. We will see what is revealed when I delve into them in more depth.
After all of these explorations into tea, the sentiment I expressed at the end of my first post still stands.
Five elements and six senses. A heady mix.
I leave you with some more images from the tea tour to illustrate the ubiquity of tea in the places we visited.