Tag Archives: Society

Raising the Bowl of Tea

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.

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The Maliciousness Of Agricultural Chemicals.

Kamo [加茂(かも)] is a small town situated on the southern flanks of Kyoto’s most meridional mountains through which the Kizu river [木津川(きづがわ)] makes its way smoothly-curving towards Osaka. As a former member of the Sōraku District [相楽郡(そうらくぐん)] (with member towns Kasagi [笠木町(かさぎちょう)], Minamiyamashiro [南山城村(みなみやましろむら)], Seika [精華町(せいかちょう)] and Wazuka [和束町(わづかちょう)]) this town is the final stop on the border of Kyoto before reaching Nara prefecture, and simultaneously the most southern tea producing area of Kyoto. It is in this area that Tokuya Yamazaki [山崎(やまざき)徳哉(とくや)] manufactures his naturally produced tea.

The name of the farm, Kamo Natural Tea-farm [加茂自然農園(かもしぜんのうえん)], resourcefully alludes to his stern belief in the use of natural methods only, and the specific area where this farm is situated. As the son of a tea farmer, he grew up amidst the tea gardens in this rural area, and quickly became acknowledged with the orthodox farming routines in this region. In between harvests, weeds should be extinguished employing ample extinguisher; in summer, bugs should be prevented bestowing plentiful pesticides on the bushes; and the soil should be kept thoroughly fertilized with artificial nourishment for the best results of harvest. Such approaches have become common sense, and as a young beginning farmer, aspiring to take over certain parts of his family’s plantation, he learned how to efficiently apply these chemical substances as part of his daily training.

It wasn’t for long however, before these practices started to take its toll on Tokuya’s health. During his youth, he had suffered various illnesses, some of which included acute stomachaches, or numbness and trembling in hands and feet. He frequented doctors, but was never able to gain insight about the source of these recurring issues. The puzzling thing was that they somehow appeared each year during the same period in summer; a period, of which he later found out, the application of pesticides, was at its peak. When he started taking over the methods of his predecessors, and began taking chemicals in his own hands, these issues and illnesses began to appear more frequently and more severely. His struggles now also included severe backache, stress, loss of sight, etc. Yet, doctors remained clueless as to what the essence of the problem was.

His issues became so troublesome that it had started to limit his quality of life, and continuously receiving the same response from doctors also started to work frustrating. He decided to singlehandedly look into the source of his suffering and, to his surprise, Tokuya discovered that others had also experienced similar symptoms. Furthermore, distinct research has pointed to one particular source as the reason of this suffering, a chemical component named ‘Dioxin’ [ダイオキシン] that could cause identical manifestations in the human body as he had been coping with. Digging further, he was able to identify this chemical as an active substance that is strongly represented in herbicides of the kind he had been using in excess. Further research pointed out that most of these symptoms were related to a chronic addiction or intake of an agrochemical [農薬(のうやく)] with the name ‘organophosphorus’ [有機(ゆうき)リン] of which the main component is ‘sarin’ [サリン]. To illustrate the poisonousness of this particular chemical, sarin is the substance that was employed by the attackers during the sarin gas-attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 [地下鉄(ちかてつ)サリン事件(じけん)], killing 12 people, severely injuring 50, and causing vision problems for nearly 5,000 other persons.

Having realized that the cause for his suffering was induced by the over-usage of chemicals by himself and the farmers in his surroundings, and having discovered that these chemicals contain absolutely deadly and dreadfully harming components, he felt urged to rid himself and his tea-bushes of these malicious products. As a means to detox and recover his body, he took up sports again and began to rebuild his muscle.

The impact of this discovery was so great that he immediately terminated the use of fertilizers, pesticides and any other sort of chemicals to his gardens, this however, to the discontent of the subjected plants. The abrupt lack of nourishment, which the trees were used to, made them weak and vulnerable. Moreover, the fertilization that was still remaining in the soil and thus in the leaf of the bushes attracted a variety of insects, which, since he had also omitted any kind of pesticide, were now free to indulge in a feast. In effect, this sudden act almost left one whole farm dead. Taking this as a learning experience, Tokuya opted for a more gentle approach with his remaining farms and decided to first quit the use of fertilizer, and only in a later stage omit pesticides as well. Now, all of his farms have been transferred to natural cultivation methods, and the farm that had almost gone extinct, has also revived to a healthy natural tea garden.

Today, Tokuya continues his efforts to produce a truly healthy and poison-free tea, and has begun to apply the same method on other agricultural products. His experience, and what this taught him is valuable information, which he thrives to share with others in order to raise awareness about the existence of the issues he suffered. His hopes are that this may aid more people to recognize the source of certain discomforts, and in the long run that no one more needs to endure similar hardship.

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About Nostalgia

The future is what lies ahead of us. It is the only direction we can go. But what the future will become is not set in stone. It is what we do today that will affect the course we take in shaping the day of tomorrow. The past is what is done, and cannot be changed. But that does not mean that it isn’t valuable. The past is a resource we can rely upon for insight and information that will help us to create a brighter future.

If we look to the past, it allows us to discover what we like and what we don’t like. It gives opportunity to assess what we want for our own lives and what we prefer to avoid. In addition, history can tell us which actions lead to certain results, and in effect teach us which exercises we should eschew and which we must nurture to reach our desired destiny.

It is my feeling that our world today is not headed in a positive direction. Too much precedence is given to materialism and other things of a human nature, while we are forgetting about the natural environment that encapsulates us. We work hard for the accumulation of money and the ability to buy luxury items that temporarily soothe our personal needs, but in no way enhance our human existence. We pursue beauty to the extent that we change our appearance to become someone that other people will like, while we try to cover up who we in essence are. We not only try to control nature, we even attempt to change it.

Society has imposed values on us that stand in contradiction with our human nature, and instead of helping us for the better; it has created opportunity for new illnesses of a mental origin, with related side effects such as suicide and aversion to increase. We are made to believe in one approach, while we realize deep inside that this doesn’t stroke with our actual human convictions. This internal conflict is what makes us suffer, and what for some of us may prove to be ultimately fatal.

I look to the past, because to me it looks brighter than the future. I look to the past because I feel that as a human race we are headed in the wrong direction. I look to the past to learn from it what we can use to change course towards a brighter prospective.

To me, learning the rite of tea is an opportunity to re-learn our fundamental human values. It doesn’t only show us the fundamental beauty of things, regardless of whether items are seemingly perfect or imperfect, it also teaches us the way to appreciate and to be respectful of someone’s intentions, the course of an event, and what we have been presented with, before we make judgments about whether or not we like or dislike it.

We learn to take things as they come and to be grateful for exactly just that. We learn to respect people for who they are and not to be judgmental about their personality. And today, it are exactly those aspects of life that we struggle with most to maintain. In learning the art of tea, I wish to better understand the core of our human existence, and to become a better person myself. In the course of doing so, if my actions or beliefs may result to even inspire one person to do the same, I may never be able to fully repay my gratitude.

Entry into the Realm of Compassion – The ‘Nijiri guchi’.

After having passed through the tea garden and under the inner-gate, we climb through a tiny door measuring merely 66.7cm square to enter the tea-pavilion. This ‘crawl-through’ entrance (JP: Nijiri guchi) is used by anyone (regardless of social standing). Some tea pavilions may also have a larger entrance, which can be used standing upright, but it is uncommon for anyone apart from the truly eminent (for example the Dalai Lama) to use this passage. Why would anyone choose to construct such an inconveniently small door for the praxis of tea? Several explanations can be given, but I believe that the most prominent reason can be found in the idea that during a tea-occasion everyone is perceived as equal to each other.

In a previous post I have briefly referred to the possible functions of a crawl-through entrance (See here for the full post). In this entry I would like to recount the three major purposes of such an entrance, and discuss the last item a little further.

  1. From a practical point of view, the limited size of such an entrance obliges a samurai warrior to take his sword out of his sash for otherwise he would not be able to crawl through this door.
  2. Secondly, it is said that when crawling through this entry the guest inevitably has to bend forward and is (willy-nilly) forced to enter the room taking a respectful posture. – I however feel that this approach may have been a later forgery by contemporary students of the rite of tea.
  3. Finally, this narrow entrance resembles the entrance that characterized the above-deck cabin of a sea-going boat of the medieval period. Such an entrance was made so small to prevent the cabin becoming flooded by high seas. In the case of a Tea-hermitage, however, an entrance of this size reminds them that, just as refraining from violent conflict is on such a boat essential to the survival of all on board, so each guest is just as responsible as is any other participant for ensuring that this once-and-once-only voyage attains its intended conclusion.

To enter the tea-compound, participants temporarily disrobe themselves from their social cloaks, and for just a moment become relieved from social status, rank, prejudice and complementary boundaries. This stage marks the process of self-purification. In the tea-hermitage or tea-chamber participants gather together, and this is where everyone collaborates with each other to bring the event to a fruitful ending.

In the tea-area, even rivals should be able to share a bowl of tea. While such a happening would be unthinkable in the common world, a tea-occasion provides a space where participants can reveal the person underneath their mundane coverings and metaphorically become naked. In the tea-chamber, there is room for understanding, empathy and respect for others, regardless of who they are and what they believe in. The tea-occasion constitutes a moment to share a bowl of tea in a friendly and respectful manner, allowing each other to be who they are through showing compassion, empathy and understanding.

Yet, it is therefore not necessary to agree with the beliefs or values that the other person proclaims in the day-to-day world, but it at the very least it is a world-changing thing to try to understand their position and motifs, even if that person may seem as your worst enemy.

It is this world that I envision for the future, and my wish that this beautiful form of interaction should not stay hidden behind bushes, gardens and earthen walls. For, allowing a moment of time to show empathy with someone and to fully try to understand that person’s being can change the world we live in. And in allowing other people to be who they are, instead of forcing them in a set social pattern, can only be the beginning of a chain of freedom in which everyone is able to have full possession of their person and act according to their own strengths and traits.

In the tea-area participants don’t have to be someone. They are simply who they are, and in that, they again allow others to be who they are. The tea chamber is the medium through which this becomes possible. From my point of view, in order to allow such a world to become possible, it is our responsibility to introduce this medium into everyday society. Start with yourself. Trust in who you are and allow (and empower) others to be who they are. Only so can we inspire others to do the same, and only so can we move towards a peaceful and harmonious world. Find the little ‘nijiri guchi’ in your heart and open it to let love and compassion fill our human lives.

The Tea-area Constitutes an Area of Peace.

When you enter the compound that comprises the tea-area, you first pass through a rustic garden paved with stepping-stones, lined with moss and greenery. Next you step under the inner gate before reaching the primitive hermitage in which tea is served. This preliminary area serves as the boundary that simultaneously separates and connects the outer everyday world, and the inner rustic and sacred tea-area. Its meaning and purpose is as well symbolic as practical.

While such a tea-compound may most commonly be found in city centers, surrounded by bustling streets and office buildings, advancing through a tea garden symbolizes the transition a participant makes from the hectic everyday world into the unworldly and austere area of tea. Surprisingly somehow, the busyness of the mundane and the sounds of its immediate outer precincts are completely shut out in this enclosure.

Practically, the garden allows the participant to envision this journey as a means to relax, temporarily take distance from practical matters and for a moment is freed from worldly conceptions and boundaries. In the past, the rite of tea was mostly a practice enjoyed by the samurai warrior-caste. For them, being part of an uncompromising vertical hierarchy must have been burdensome. In this respect, the tea area provided a relief from the strict modes of conduct that were associated with their social status. Moreover, a tea-occasion accommodated interaction with persons whom the participant would otherwise not be able to speak face to face with, allowed for personal expression which would on the other hand be unacceptable, and constituted an area of peace in which even foes would be able to share a bowl of tea.

For the warrior, participating in a tea gathering meant that he would enter the area of tea unarmed. Considering that the tea-chamber is a peaceful establishment, this corresponds to the necessity to guarantee every participant’s safety. However, while in the secular world a warrior would never leave his sword unattended (not even when asleep), why would he agree to do so in the tea area?

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The sword rack outside a tea hermitage where a warrior would leave his sword and temporarily take distance from his social status.

In the materialistic world, the sword is not only the highest token of his warrior status; a warrior would care for it as if it were his heart and soul. Society implies that without it, his worth is nihil and that should he loose his soul, he would be no one. In the tea-area however, participants are temporarily freed from social shackles, and are allowed to be the person who they in essence are. When the warrior leaves his sword at the entrance, he symbolically parts from his material self and civil obligations.

What this illustrates is that the rite of tea is not only a means to relax and refresh ourselves; it also implies that we take up the burden of social roles and status to the extent that we suppress or try to cover up the human being we essentially are. Moreover, considering that the tea-chamber is constructed in a space that is explicitly unworldly, it suggests that ‘being who we essentially are’ is unacceptable or inconvenient for society, and that we are obliged to distance ourselves from social standing in order to have peace.

It is my wish that someday we no longer need to explicitly seek for remote environments in order to be allowed the freedom to be the human being we at our core are, and to be respected, and respect others for it. It is my belief that such a world, rich in understanding, compassion and empathy can constitute a peaceful and better world, just as it has proven to be possible within the compounds of a small tea hermitage. It is my dream that I can contribute to realizing this world by introducing the peaceful atmosphere of the exclusive tea-area into our daily lives.