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A Celebration of Tea: Learning the Art

Posted by
GJC (Kyoto, Japan) on 8 December 2011 in People & Portrait.

This image is part of a short series, A Celebration of Tea, which began here.

We return to the tea ceremony at Shōren-in temple that started this series on Monday. This young girl was practicing how to properly close the shōji paper-and-wooden screen upon leaving the teahouse. Of course the tea ceremony is not simply about learning to make a tasty bowl of tea, important though that is. Instead, it is a kind of practice, engaging the mind, the hand and the heart in all the tasks necessary to embodying the way of tea.

While from the outside the exquisitely regulated nature of a proper tea ceremony may seem rigid and stifling, those who practice the art see it differently. Traditional Japanese arts rely heavily on a method of learning that emphasizes memorizing a prescribed form (often called a kata; 形): carefully coordinated, predetermined movements that are handed down from teacher to student and from generation to generation. In the tea ceremony every movement, from the way to wipe the tea bowl to the proper way to whisk the tea, is prescribed by the particular school (or senke) to which you belong. The goal of learning the kata is not self-expression or the discovery of new ways of doing ancient things. Instead, at first the kata is rote memorization. Only after long practice does it become a living, fluid, intuitive expression of the deeper spirit the kata embodies. To put it another way, you learn with your hands first, and then understand with your heart. This takes many years.

This young girl is doing a simple task: closing a door. But in learning to get it just right she is also on a path of finding beauty and meaning in performing even this small and simple thing.

NIKON D300 1/50 second F/4.5 ISO 500 72 mm (35mm equiv.)

1/50 second
ISO 500
72 mm (35mm equiv.)