Calming the mind in a Japanese teahouse

Calming the mind in a Japanese teahouse

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When we went to a Japanese tea ceremony, known as chado, it was an immersion in Japanese culture. We had an enjoyable and instructive time at the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University even if it was for only 30 minutes this past Sunday afternoon. By reservation, the center offers an authentic experience in a charming bamboo teahouse on the first floor, hosted by a kimono-clad lady who holds such sessions for a maximum of four people at a time.

We arrived early, signed in and waited until the session before ours ended. The hostess then welcomed us with a bow, which we returned, and she explained that the design of two doors, a low one and a higher one, in the teahouse was deliberate. The guests, by bending to enter through the lower or “crawling in” door, were assured that all were of equal importance. None was to be considered more worthy. She then pointed out that because the sliding door was open slightly, it meant that the guests should enter. Had it been closed, we were to wait.

We left our shoes outside the little house and sat on one of the four low stools placed inside for us on the tatami mats. The hostess then entered through the higher door and began preparations. Her movements were deliberate and scripted into a traditional procedure, called temae. She was following a centuries-old ritual of making and serving the powdered green tea called matcha.

As the tea ceremony developed in Japan and was practiced by the monks, it was influenced by Zen Buddhism and embraced by the samurai or warrior class. The quiet ambience, the spare furnishings inside the teahouse, the unhurried and predictable movements of the hostess, the decorative scrolls emphasizing virtues like harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, helped calm the mind and push away fear before battle. Even the sound of water slowly boiling for the tea was soothing. The little bamboo teahouse was constructed in the midst of the modern Wang Center, yet we could leave behind our busy thoughts and worldly concerns with our shoes and purses as we entered this special space.

Speaking quietly to us, the hostess explained the equipment to make the tea: bowls, the green tea powder that was not artificially colored but naturally bright green, the delicate whisk carved from bamboo to mix the powder with the hot water in the bowls, the tea caddy, the scoops — the smaller one to measure out the powder, the larger to bring the water to the pot.

Each tool was beautifully and simply crafted from the unadorned wood. She gave us a fruit candy first, then handed each of us a bowl with tea, pointing out that the sweet was intended to offset the bitterness of the tea or perhaps emphasize them both.

There was a simple mindfulness to the whole process. We were there with her, in the moment, watching her mix the tea, wipe clean each bowl before we drank, then again afterward, with the hot water and special cloth she kept in the belt of her kimono for that purpose. Nothing else intruded. The effect was almost hypnotic.

And then it was over. We left the bamboo teahouse, put on our shoes, shouldered our purses and re-entered the outside world. It was a quiet interlude in an otherwise busy and hectic day. A nice cup of tea will always call me back.

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