Secrets of the Japanese Tea Ceremony


(The Black Pearl: Spiritual Illumination in Sufism and East Asian Philosophies was published in 2005. Its first chapter, “Secrets of the Tea Ceremony,” discussed that beautiful Japanese tradition, the Tea Ceremony (cha-no-yu or chado, “the way of tea”), from the standpoint of Sufism. Sufic interpretation can help us to unpack the symbolism hidden in this ceremony. Two excerpts from that chapter are presented below. The Chinese tea ceremony is similar, with differences. Illustrations have been added that were not present in the original.)


The Tea Ceremony

The purpose of the tea ceremony is to cultivate beauty and harmony in the activities of everyday life. Every motion, performed with economy, must flow rhythmically into the next one. In seeing this silent symphony of motion, one is led to rapt adoration of the beautiful that can be manifested in performing the simplest chores.

Let us first describe the various aspects of the Tea Ceremony. One follows a winding garden path through the woods before catching sight of the Tea Room, or Tea Hut. An irregularly arranged series of flagstones leads up to an insignificant-looking, unpretentious hut. One may rinse one’s mouth and wash one’s hands in a stone water basin as a preparatory purification. These ablutions underline the second most essential fact about the ceremony—that the physical body, as well as the heart-mind (kokoro), should be cleansed. Bending over at this instant, one may catch a glimpse of the shimmering sea through the trees, an unexpected glimpse of infinity. Japanese people delight in doing kind deeds in secret, to be discovered only accidentally, if at all. It is the same refinement that leads them to conceal charming things in their garden which only a keen observer can discern.

There is a low aperture, not a door, that leads inside. One must leave all unnecessary trappings outside to crawl through the aperture into the tea-room. The purpose of this form of entrance is to inculcate humility and equality. This is a small bamboo or wooden hut with a low ceiling, sparely furnished, having a plain, unfinished appearance. Even in daytime, the light is subdued. The interior is spotlessly clean. Burning incense lends a soothing fragrance to the interior. In an alcove, there is a piece of calligraphy or a picture. A flower vase contains a single, humble flower. Every item in the room is arranged in harmony.

There is a square hole cut into the floor in which a fire burns. Over it, a heavy iron kettle contains boiling water, and emits a sound like a breeze sighing through a pine grove, adding serenity to the room. The hut does not muffle the sounds coming from the outside environment, but serves only to exclude the harsher elements. This gives a feeling as if one were in communion with nature, with the rustling trees and twittering birds, while being protected by the flimsy hut. The overall effect helps one to realize the beauty of simplicity and purity. The tea-room is the house of peace.

Both the tea ceremony and its host must be approached in a spirit of reverence. Every tea ceremony is a once-in-a-lifetime occurence: even if one participates in others, this unique occasion, in this moment with this host, will never be repeated again. So one must appreciate its worth.

The host first brings the tea utensils—such as the bowls and tea-whisk—into the room. A light meal may precede the serving of tea. The guests are offered sweets, and then tea is prepared and served. The tea is prepared by stirring pulverized tea leaf in hot water with the tea-whisk. It is usually thin and frothy with a mildly astringent flavor. Sometimes, a much thicker “dark tea” is made. After the tea is consumed, the guests may inquire about the various implements. These are then carried out of the room, and the tea ceremony is concluded.

The tea ceremony originated in the principles of Zen Buddhism and came to be considered a method of self-realization. The well-known wakeful effect of imbibing tea helped Zen priests to keep their minds alert during concentration. The myth that the first tea plants were formed from the eyelids of Bodhidharma, who cut them off and dropped them on the ground in his struggle to remain awake, underlines the awakening influence of tea. Monks would gather before an image of Bodhidharma and drink tea out of a single bowl as if it were a sacrament, a holy nectar. The tea-room design resulted from emulation of  the Zen monastery. Zen itself originated as a synthesis of Taoism and Buddhism, and the Taoists claimed tea as an essential ingredient of the Elixir of Immortality.

As one sits sipping tea, one’s mind goes back to the origin of things. One is reminded of the transience of this world, of the evanescence of life. The sharing of tea is not an end in itself but a means to an end—namely, the cultivation of the five essential qualities of courtesy: sincerity, harmony, respect, cleanliness, and tranquillity.


The Symbolism of the Tea Ceremony

We approach the “tea house” or tea hut through a grove or garden. The garden symbolizes the world of nature, the world of multiplicity we normally inhabit with all its kaleidoscopic phenomena. Passing through this world, we are approaching a momentous revelation: a state of higher wakefulness or higher consciousness.

Traveling along the winding path of life, one arrives at length at an unpretentious hut. Yet appearances can be deceptive. We should not be fooled by the humble appearance of the hut or of its host, because it symbolizes the Truth of the universe, and the tea master symbolizes the Master of Wisdom—the sage, or one who has already awakened—who will assist in our own awakening. The true meaning of life will then stand revealed. The hut is a microcosmos, at once the heart of the universe and the heart of man.

One washes using a basin in order to purify oneself physically. One must also purify one’s heart/mind by doing good deeds and meditating on God. The Great Spirit, the spirit of all spirits, is all-purity. One must become pure and white as fresh snow in order to wake up to God’s presence within oneself. To rinse one’s mouth is to “speak no evil,” and to wash one’s hands is to “do no evil.” This has the same meaning in the Ablution (abdest/temizu: literally, “hand-water”) that precedes the Formal Prayer (salat, namaz). In order to approach God, one should be cleansed in heart and mind, and be clean physically from the top of the head to the tip of the toe. That which is impure cannot be united with that which is all purity.

The hut itself may be made of wood obtained from trees. In winter, trees shed their leaves and appear as if dead, yet in the spring they come to life again. Similarly, human beings die but live again in the real world of the Great Spirit. And we may know this true life even while here on earth, if we purify our bodies and minds.

Or the hut may be made of bamboo. Bamboo, because it is hollow, can also be used to make pipes for music. According to legend, the Chinese emperor Huang-ti wanted music to be played that would help establish his empire’s harmony with the universe. Hence he sent a scholar, Ling Lun, to the western mountain to cut bamboo pipes that could emit sounds matching the call of the phoenix bird. The phoenix is a legendary bird that rises from its own ashes, and symbolizes the Perfect Human Being who “dies before s/he dies” to enter a different form of existence. The Complete Human then becomes a bridge between Heaven and Earth, harmonizing both. As for the bamboo pipe, it is a mode of the reed flute (nay) of Sufism, best known to us through its use in Rumi’s poetry.

The sage, Rumi tells us, must make himself empty like a reed (or bamboo) pipe, so that the divine Spirit of God may be breathed into it. Emptiness, in other words, is not a goal but a precondition for the true goal. We must make ourselves empty, passive, receptive like the earth, in order that the Heavenly Lord, the Creative, the active, may enter into our hearts, may work His art within us—may turn us into awakened human beings. “The way of Yang is fullness and the way of Yin is emptiness.”25 Quiescence of the Base Self, humility, so that God’s light may shine through: this is the true meaning of being a servant of God. It is to the reed pipe and this sublime inner meaning that Rumi refers below:


Hearken to this Reed forlorn,

Breathing, ever since ‘twas torn

From its rushy bed, a strain

Of impassioned love and pain.

“The secret of my song, though near,

none can see and none can hear…

‘Tis the flame of Love that fired me,

‘Tis the wine of Love that inspired me.

Wouldst thou know how lovers bleed,

Hearken, hearken to the Reed!” 26


Not just the human being but all of nature, in fact, is animated by the Spirit of God. In a simile, Chuang Tzu describes how the wind makes all the hollows, the nooks and crannies of nature resound and sing. This is no ordinary wind but the Cosmic Wind, corresponding to the “Breath of the All-Compassionate” described by the great Sufi, Ibn Arabi. Though the wind is invisible, we feel its existence through its activity. Even so, we are able to perceive the existence of the Agent through His acts, which go on ceaselessly throughout the entire universe.

Leaving all unnecessary articles outside the entrance, one enters the hut. This is equivalent to leaving behind one’s “excess baggage,” one’s preconceptions and impurities, but especially one’s Base Self. One’s crawl through the entrance signifies humility and is, in Sufic terms, symbolic of Prostration in Formal Prayer, which is the fitting attitude in confronting the Sacred. The natural branch-post at its center is at once identified as the “pillar of the universe,” which supports the entire cosmos. One side of the branch-post is the area where the tea is prepared, the other side is where it is served. The pillar thus separates and unites the spiritual and physical worlds, and events that are decided in the spiritual world later find realization in the physical world, its projection.

The master serves us tea. Even so does the Sufi master impart his spiritual power and blessings (baraka, fayz) to the Hearts of those who visit him with the requisite courtesy. One’s “tea bowl” must be empty; nothing can be poured into it unless there is room. This has been allegorized in Sufi literature as the “tavern” where the owner of the tavern, the Sufi master, serves “divine wine.”

This is not ordinary wine. Rather, it symbolizes the intoxicating fire of love, the love of God, and by extension also the love of everything in the universe. How beautifully an old popular song captures this sense:



Loves a lover

I’m a lover

Everybody loves me

And I love everybody

‘cause I’m in love with You.


This is probably the most important treasure Sufism has to contribute to the rich traditions of the world: the message of all-embracing Love. Emptiness or poverty, self-effacement (faqr, wabi) is the first step. This leads to longing (hasrah). Longing leads to burning (trial by fire—purification by the fire of love). This is the “poverty of poverty” (faqr squared). And when one is emptied of even that (faqr cubed), when even the ashes are removed, when self-annihilation (jakumetsu: “death of tranquillity,” fana, nirvana) is complete, that—according to the great Sufi sage Geylani—yields God. Then, one is sabi with the Sabi, alone with the Alone.

As a Sufi poem puts it, in the state of Unity “There is no one who comes, none who goes.” Rikyu the teamaster has aptly summarized this aloneness of the Absolute:

The snow-covered mountain path

Winding through the rocks

Has come to its end;

Here stands a hut,

The master is all alone;

No visitors he has, nor are any expected.

“When the Uncarved Block shatters, it becomes vessels.”27 When Spirit descends into Multiplicity, it finds its home in the hearts of human beings. As a Sacred Tradition states, “The heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, yet the Heart of My believing servant does.” The tea bowl symbolizes the Heart, or sacred center. Hence, when the Zen Master Chao-chou tells a monk, “Go wash your bowl,” he is, from the Sufic point of view, instructing him to clean out or purify his heart. The tea bowls also stand for man in his totality, or the universe of which man is a reflection.

Look closely into the cup. There are numberless tea grains at its bottom. These represent the infinite multiplicity we behold in the universe. Each grain of the powdered tea represents one of the myriad things in the universe. Taken together, they signify totality. But without the pure water, which represents the Great Spirit of God, they cannot be made into tea that leads to awakening, just as without the sacred, the universe is a great aggregate of dust particles—subject to the laws of statistical mechanics—with no further apparent significance. When the tea-whisk of one’s invocation (dhikr) calls forth the presence of God, then the whole universe will be sacralized, it will be awash with the Divine. Thus the elixir of wakefulness is prepared. The calligraphy serves as an aid to meditation, and the flower points to its fruits.

The sunken hearth is the abode of fire, not immediately visible to the senses. We know of its presence indirectly, through its action, the boiling of the tea kettle. The fire is a symbol for the power of God that energizes the universe. The heat that brings the water to the boil also represents the concentration and effort which will effect one’s spiritual transmutation into a sage. Moreover, although each person drinks from a separate bowl, the kettle from which all the teas are poured is one. The Source is one. Even so does the spiritual power (baraka) of a Sufi sheikh fill the hearts of the disciples—hence the image of the mystical cupbearer, a tavern owner dispensing (spiritual) wine.

In drinking tea together, each person is aided in remembering his own center, which is also the center of every being and of the universe itself. The Divine Spirit is always flowing like water, giving His power and life to everything. The pervading influence of Spirit, like water, is everywhere. The water also reminds us of Lao Tzu: “The softest substance in the world vanquishes the hardest.”28 Water turns rock to sand. If one makes oneself humble and gentle like water, lower than all things, one will become stronger than rock.

Only in being nothing may one become everything, and only then does one realize one’s essential brotherhood with all sentient beings. The person who drinks assists in the sacrifice of his own self, or ego, and is thus enabled to realize the Divine Presence in his own center. To wake up means to perceive that in reality, the little individual self does not exist, and that only the Great Self exists. Then, one can comprehend the true meaning of the following paraphrase from D.T. Suzuki: “when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it, and this very moment of lifting my bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space.”29



25 Ilza Veith (tr.), The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen), Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973 [1949], p. 234.

26 These opening verses of the Mathnawi have been translated by Reynold A. Nicholson—Rumi: Poet and Mystic, London: Allen & Unwin, 1950, p. 31.

27 Tao Te Ching, Chapter 28.

28 Tao Te Ching, Chapter 43.

29 D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971 [1959] (Bollingen Series 64), p. 314.



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