BOOK REVIEW – Don’t look for any advice on how to source the best Matcha in the Kyoto region in this book. Soshitsu Sen XV’s ‘Tea Life, Tea Mind’ is all about the Way of Tea, the Japanese tea ceremony, and the why behind it.
Soshitsu Sen XV, born in 1923, is the retired 15th grandmaster of the Urasenke school, one of three main schools in the Japanese tea ceremony, and tells the story of his way into the tea ceremony. As a son of a grandmaster the tea ceremony was a big part of his youth, but it was not an easy path laid out by his father. After carefully discovering the spirit behind the tea ceremony, Shoshitsu Sen XV becomes a traveler after WWII, spreading the knowledge on tea ceremony to countries like the United States.
Next to his way in to tea, the book also contains firsthand information on the history and symbolics of the Way of Tea, the spiritual philosophy of the ceremony that goes hand in hand with the Zen philosophy and the why behind certain the practices and utensils used during the tea ceremony.
This book was first published in the late 70s but is just as applicable at modern times. Soshitsu Sen XV tackles the problems with the modernization of Japan by using the Way of Tea. If you didn’t know this book was written almost four decades ago, you probably thought he talks about the distractions of mobile phones, social media and other kinds of easy (and addictive) in-your-face entertainment of modern times. In the following quote, Soshitsu Sen XV writes about the importance of (seasonal) awareness of your surroundings in tea ceremonies: in winter, warmth should be a crucial part of the scene, while in summer that should be coolness.
“One of [Sen] Rikyu’s seven rules is ‘in summer suggest coolness, in winter, warmth.’ Of course we all seek coolness in the heat of the summer, but there is more than one way to obtain it. One is the short-lived coolness of air conditioning; then there is the longer-lasting coolness that comes from adjusting one’s state of mind to take advantage of whatever coolness nature provides. The practice of Tea leads us to appreciate this second coolness. However, many people today may find it difficult to understand this, having lost the will and ability to control their craving for material comfort. Trying to modify civilization for the better, industrial development is quickly separating man from nature. Accustomed to doing whatever we want easily and quickly, we find ourselves increasingly alienated from nature. Prior to the industrial revolution in Japan, the Japanese lived in harmony with nature and developed the custom of becoming one with it, and one with each other, through sharing a bowl of tea. We can learn much from their experience.”
As non-Zen and an admirer but not a practitioner of the tea ceremony, I cannot lecture you on the spiritual mindset that goes hand in hand with the Way of Tea. I think ‘Tea Life, Tea Mind’ is an excellent step-in-guide for beginners for that. But how do I apply the lessons learned from this book in my own (tea)life? Recently inside me a little movement started that told me to focus more on my tea sessions. I deeply believe that the tea I brew (Japanese, Chinese or whatever origin) tastes better when I do it with complete dedication. The Bi Luo Chun brewed in front of the television never tastes as good as the same Bi Luo Chun brewed in a tea session with my full attention. A Matcha whisked while taking pictures for Instagram or the blog just isn’t as good as a Matcha whisked for the simple reason of drinking that Matcha. Same for the setting: the enjoyment and the appreciation of the tea you drink is so much higher when drinking it at a lakeside without the buzz of a city distracting you from what it is about: the tea and the moment.
During my months working as a cleaner in a cozy little guesthouse in Gion, Kyoto, in late winter, beginning of spring of 2016, I experienced this myself. Growing an interest in Japanese tea and the tea ceremony, I decided to book an English-language ceremony at En, close to my guesthouse. It was my first experience with a Japanese Tea Ceremony and besides the fact that it was interesting to see how the Matcha is prepared ceremonial style, it wasn’t a good experience. The Japanese style room was overfull with about 20 people and the sounds of people waiting outside for the next ceremony didn’t help either. It was plain: I saw the Matcha being made, I made a bowl myself, but there were too many noises and too many things going on to really feel what I was doing and seeing.
How different was it at Urasenke, yes, the school of Soshitsu Sen XV. I went to visit the Urasenke School a few days before I left Kyoto and it was no doubt the best tea experience I had during my time in Japan. Next to the head office of Urasenke, the school opens his doors for visitors with a few exhibition rooms and a place to experience the tea ceremony, Urasenke style. Incredibly enough, they charge you nothing for it. You buy a ticket (by that time 700 yen, about 6 euros) for the exhibitions and for access to the library and if you book ahead, you can attend the free tea ceremony experience of about an hour.
I was incredibly lucky that day, because usually these ceremonies are given in Japanese, but this day I was the only visitor attending the ceremony and the instructor spoke very good English. Having a personal tea ceremony experience with a skilled woman who was able to explain me everything in a slow pace… How fortunate I was. It was Sakura season in Kyoto so I was offered a wagashi wrapped in Sakura leaf, and then learned how to play the role of host and guest in the tea ceremony. The hour went fast, the Matcha was delicious and the experience unforgettable. Afterwards I went up to the library to watch the films on the Urasenke tea ceremony and by the time I wanted to leave, the lady walked up to me to explain more about what I had seen in the films and offered me another Matcha in the room where visitors who didn’t book a tea ceremony could see a quick version on how a Matcha is made.
I asked the instructor where I could buy the books that I had seen in the library and she gave me directions to a bookshop (they are not selling their own publications in the museum) before waving me off. On the way to the bookshop I passed temple gardens, cherry blossoms and deserted small alleyways in the north of Kyoto while revising the experiences of that day. In this city, even in its modern version, enjoying the non-materialistic is so easy….