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Its name in Japanese is simple – chakai (tea gathering) – but to the rest of the world it is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest mysteries, and is known distinctively as the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

But the chakai (or more formal chaji) is not just about tea, nor is it simply a ceremony, something to be learned, performed and added to one’s list of accomplishments. Chakai is more than that. It is a way of life itself.

While this may sound pretentious, it is actually the opposite: the chakai is a way of living – The Way of Tea – that focuses both the practitioner, who can spend an entire life exploring the action of making and serving tea, and the guest, who will learn something new every time, on the very basics of life: sitting down with friends, boiling water, drinking tea.

In English, we sometimes say that someone is “going through the motions” to indicate that they are just performing rote, routine actions but are not engaged. In chakai, the motions are proscribed down to the slightest movement, but within this ritualized movement is a world of presence, and of understanding.

Chakai is not a religious ritual, and drinking tea is not the point. Instead, it is a gift that raises both the giver and the receivers’ awareness of every moment, in its fullness.

The actual ritual tea ceremony and all it’s variations – called temae in Japanese – would take a book to describe. Such books exist, and they describe every detail, every movement prescribed by tradition, by practicality, by design, by aesthetics. Chakai is endlessly simple, and endlessly sophisticated. But it is not taught by books, nor is it experienced through them. Chakai is all about the direct experience.

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The History
Tea has been drunk and revered in Japan since it came from China in the sixth century, and the bowls and utensils are an ancient art form that in some cases preceded even the connection to China. But the chakai as it is now known arose sometime in the 15th century, during the great cultural flowering of the Muromachi period, which also saw the rise of Noh theater and ikebana, the art of flower arranging.

Like ikebana, chakai was first practiced by Buddhist monks, then was adopted as a sign of reverence by the samurai and by the nobility as a sign of sophistication. It reached the general public slowly, and is still practiced mostly by those with the time and resources to study weekly, as getting even a fundamental understanding of the proper way of serving tea can take many years of weekly practice.

All of that is done with the student’s understanding that, as with life, learning the “right way” to do it is a never-ending process; the trick is to immerse oneself in that process, without attachment to a goal, and to see the lessons embedded in the study.

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The Ritual
The tea ceremony takes two forms, the shorter being chakai, in which tea is served with a small meal, akin to afternoon tea; to say this is less formal is wrong, but it is shorter and somewhat less involved.

The longer version is chaji, and it can take as much as four hours, and will include kaiseki, the multi-course meal that is Japan’s haute cuisine.

But whether chakai or chaji, the ceremony takes place in a small room or tea house that is specially designed for the ceremony. Laid out on a square of exactly four and a half tatami mats, around a sunken brazier on which the water is boiled, the elegant choreography of the chakai or chaji proceeds at a pace that allows host and guests alike to savor the moment.

The whole ceremony is design to focus the attendees’ attention on the process itself, on the utensils and tea bowls, which are admired and even passed around carefully, as they are objects of great reverence. Special, elegant cloths are used to clean each one, and in some cases, even to hold them.

Bowls of tea are shared – beginning with thin (usucha) tea, then with the thicker (koicha) tea, ritually whipped into a gorgeous green froth, then passed ritually from one guest to another. The tea and its qualities are discussed as the tea itself is deeply enjoyed. Presence is focused to a degree that can only be called meditative.

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Likewise, although this is a friendly gathering, a chakai is not the place for idle chit-chat or gossip; tea and the ceremony, as well as the other art in the room – are the topic. Special calligraphed scrolls may be hung on the wall in a place of honor, and their brief legends, often with the four kanjis that express the focus of the chakai.

Those four kanjis say wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity) and jaku (tranquility). These are the main concerns of the chakai, and the host wants to be sure that they are not only discussed, but experienced by each guest. The chakai is a meditation, but it is also a gift, from the host to the guests, as the tea, and life itself, are gifts to everyone present.

Thus, the chakai (and chaji) are ways to honor friends, but also ways to honor life and to make oneself humble before it. As elaborate as its rules and rituals may seem, the essence of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, as the essence of tea itself, is simple, humble and beautiful. As is life itself.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON