The rite of tea is a condensed form of daily life. It comprises the vital values that make human existence meaningful and allows us to maintain and remember the old values that in contemporary society have been rendered seemingly trivial or have been forgotten. A great deal of what has been of great importance in the past has become common sense today, which only brings us further from the true core of our existence.
By remembering and practicing this tradition, we re-align ourselves with those values and bring true meaning back into our current situation. The one practice that embodies this elementary knowledge most significantly is when we raise the bowl of tea before drinking from it. What this gesture signifies is commonly described as thanking the gods and Buddha’s, or the one god, or the universe for providing it. But this religiously sounding connotation does not resonate with us any longer since over time we have distanced ourselves from religion in today’s secular political environment.
We do however realize that gratitude and being grateful for the things that are bestowed on us is important, but most often we don’t remember what it is we should be grateful towards. Is it the labors of the people who contributed to farming and producing the tea? Is it the environment in which the tea grew? Is it the host who prepared the tea? Yes, it is all of them, including the religious precedent we believe (or don’t believe) in.
Nevertheless, none of them actually captures truly what it is in essence we should be thanking for. Receiving a bowl of tea is receiving life. By consuming a bowl of tea we consume the life of another living organism in order to support our own. It is because we recognize this that in order to sustain our own lives we are dependent on the life that resides in other organisms, and therefore we express gratitude, but also respect for that organism, by lifting the bowl up before consuming. This action also expresses our humility, because we place our own being second to another.
It is this notion that life resides in every being present in nature that is strongest in Japan’s tradition. In pre-modern Japan it was common practice to raise a bowl or plate before receiving something, because this understanding was strong, and life and co-existence was ever valued. The Shinto tradition, most often referred to as Japan’s indigenous belief-system makes mention of eight million gods, which is interpreted as a number equal to infinity, in fact stating that every organism in nature is of god-like status, and should be treated as such. And when we take the life of such a being in support of our own life, we should be aware of our interdependence while being grateful, respectful and humble in receipt.
Nature has always played a tremendous role in Japan where earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and similar natural disasters are not uncommon, and certainly not only something contemporary. The Japanese people have always lived with the knowledge that someday nature may have a destroying effect on life, and while we cannot avoid it, we can only be prepared. Our lives are affected by nature and sometimes we fully depend on it in support of our existence. But nature also depends on us to observe the natural laws and treat it with respect. The co-existence between man and nature is a matter of give and take and should be conducted in harmony with each other. This harmony originates in us by respecting nature and being grateful for what we take from it, and through being humble in doing so, not being wasteful, but only take what we need.
Practice in the rite of tea allows us to remember this co-existence, and provides training-ground for us to reconsider our vulnerable yet valuable position on this earth. Raising the bowl before we consume tea may seem as a trivial gesture, but in essence it engraves in our hearts the knowledge we need to gratefully and respectfully build our interdependent relationship with mother earth.