According to legend, Sen Rikyu, the great 16th-century Japanese tea master, was asked to explain what the Way of Tea entails. He replied that it was a matter of observing but seven rules: make a satisfying bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that the water boils efficiently; provide a sense of warmth in winter and coolness in summer; arrange the flowers as though they were in the field; be ready ahead of time; be prepared in case it should rain; act with the utmost consideration toward your guests.
"But those are simple matters that anyone could handle," the questioner replied.
"If you can host a tea ceremony and carry out these rules without fail," said the master, "then I will become your disciple."
This story illustrates the mystery of Chado, or the Way of Tea. As with most things called a Way (Way of the Samurai, Way of the Tao, etc.) the instructions that guide the tea ceremony are deceptively simple. The Way of Tea is influenced heavily by Zen Buddhism. While it may seem easy to make a satisfying bowl of tea and be courteous to your guests, seeking perfection in these small acts of hospitality requires a focused and deep understanding of much more than tea. And by practicing the tea ceremony, the participants engage in a meditation on the present, and on respect and harmony among people.
The tea room itself provides some clues as to the true nature of the ceremony. The tea room at the Japan House was built with great care to convey the style and functionality of a genuine Japanese tea room. Guests enter through the garden, which is carefully designed to put them in a peaceful frame of mind and convey the idea that man is a being surrounded by nature.
"Japanese tea gardens are small," said architect Mike Marshall, who visited Japan to get a first-hand understanding of the structures before he began work on UWF’s Japan House. "They are walled to stop your view and make you concentrate on smaller things. It’s like you are entering a small version of the world."
A typical teahouse in Japan, although built with great care and often at great expense, looks like a ramshackle, rustic hut. It emphasizes simplicity and austerity. The door through which the guests enter is very small, so that they must almost crawl through. The idea here is that they are leaving all worldly things behind—even in the days of samurai, then men were forced to remove their swords and hang them on a hook, otherwise they would not fit through the door.
The entrance to the tea room at Japan House is not as small as a traditional tea house, but guests still must stoop down to enter. Once inside, the room is bare except for a small alcove, braced by a rustic wood post on one side and decorated with a simple scroll and flowers. In accordance with Zen teaching, all that is not necessary is excluded. All that remains is simple, tranquil beauty.
Only the bowls and utensils needed for the ceremony are brought into the room. After the host feeds his guest some small sweets, the tea preparation begins. The water is boiled over a sunken hearth in the floor, and the host makes the tea, which is made from powdered tealeaves, and hands the bowl to the first guest. All of the movements are carefully scripted, and in every step the ceremony emphasizes courtesy and respect.
For instance, when the host hands the bowl of tea to the first guest, that guest politely declines to drink and offers it instead to the second guest. In subtle moments like this throughout the ceremony, the participants display humility and courtesy toward each other regardless of what their station in life might be outside the tearoom.