The idea for making an occidental tea ceremony isnt new. It came to me as a teenager of perhaps fifteen after I read Okakura Kakusos The Book of Tea some twenty years ago. It occurred to me that the way of tea, Chanoyu, was doomed for most westerners, myself included, to be just a complex and elitist ritual. Yet this was in direct contradiction to its ideals. Was not the tea ceremony thereby reduced to a mere foreign exotica much like tea itself when first imported from China to Japan?
What if like the great early teamaster, Takeno Jo-o (1502-1555) and Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), one chose to modify the tea cermony outer form to order preserve its inner nature? Much as he chose to use many simple tea utincils based on the humble peasant origins rather than using exculsively, the rich and costly implements imported from China. Could not the spirit if not the letter of chanoyu also be revived for westerners using simple things from our collective occidental (western) present and near past? Simple, ubiquitous objects consigned at garage sales to the cardboard boxs marked 50 cents each. Cups and baskets so ordinary, they arent considered individually.
Yes, with time such humble bits and pieces might, like depression-era glass or peasant objects used by Rikyu himself, become expensive collectors items. Yet would they not retain, even as a liberty quilt above a billionaires mantle retains, its dignity by virtue of the viewers memory of its origin? Indeed was this not a hidden wisdom of a ceremony that placed so much emphasis on material objects, yet connects itself intimately with Zen?
There was nothing in my background or disposition to suggest the conviction I felt and still feel about the tea ceremony. The only tea I had ever drunk at that point in my life was Lipton. I had never even spoken with anyone Japanese or for that matter French. The French have a phrase for such things I found in the dictionary, science infusion, knowledge that comes without training or experience.
Still this western tea ceremony has hovered unmade for more the twenty years.
One literal translation of word most often used to describe the esthetic of Chanoyu, wabi, is worry. I worried that my idea would be construed as disrespectful or undisciplined. Perhaps after a trip to Japan or studying with a tea master. Perhaps. Each time the idea came forward it was pushed back in politesse.
So this idea might have forever floated incomplete if I had not come to spend so much of my life in France. Here was the spark.
Soon after we moved to France, I was invited by my neighbors for the first time over for a coup (drink) the following afternoon at their cave. My husband and I arrived to find our neighbors waiting around long rough homemade table in the cool dim light. The table was covered with an amazing assortment of finger food. After we were seated, drinks were poured for us and I noted that each person had a full untouched glass. We sat there for almost 20 minutes while no one touched the food or their glasses. I knew just enough about French manners not to drink until a toast was given. My meager French was long exhausted and I took a cracker so that I would have a brief excuse not to talk. Immediately everyone else took some food and the host proposed a toast.
In a small village in the Loir valley I had discovered a living embodiment to the tea ideal. Here was a formality without ostentation. No one was trying to impress or intimidate us. The group was still dressed the work clothes worn that day to tend their gardens. The glasses, although spotlessly clean, were unmatched and hardly crystal. The delicious hors doeuves were not made with caviar or expensive ingredients but simple food lovingly prepared. No one scolded me afterwards by word or gesture for taking 20 minutes to figure out the obvious. The wait was meant to honor me as a special guest not to score etiquette points.
So this floating idea, this chanoyu occidental, delicately condensed around particularly Gallic bundle of sensations: long lunches that taste like colors, the scent Prousts Aubepines and searching for lime blossom tea at the pharmacy, picking through rusty spoons and mysterious hand tools at a brocante, treasure hunting in old barns, the smile of a farmer in his blue cap who needs nothing from me and so gives me all.
Above all else Chanoyu, western or otherwise is the art of suggestion. No words, explanations, diagrams or formulas can do it justice so it follows naturally that what follows is little more than words, explanations, diagrams and formulas