The universe of the Way of TeaMonserrat Loyde*

For Karla S. and Sasha S., grateful they have entered the path blindly.

The first bowl moistens my lips and throat.
The second bowl banishes my loneliness and melancholy.
The third bowl penetrates my withered entrails,
finding nothing except a literary core of five thousand scrolls.
The fourth bowl raises a light perspiration,
casting life’s inequities out through my pores.
The fifth bowl purifies my flesh and bones.
The sixth bowl makes me one with the immortal, feathered spirits.
The seventh bowl I need not drink,
feeling only a pure wind rushing beneath my wings.
—Extract from “Song of Tea” by Lu Tong, 9th century Taoist poet.

Besides Japan, to hear of someone dedicating part of their days to the practice or study of the tea ceremony not only produces a skeptic and uninterested expression, but it tends to a create a unique image: a person sitting on a table serving tea in a cup.


Photographs by Monserrat Loyde

However, in Japan, the tea ceremony is an art in itself, and at the same time a ritual; those who practice it dedicate their study to the esthetic discipline in three aspects: training the mind, learning and specialization through daily practice. There are two ways of referring to the tea ceremony in Japanese: chanoyu, which literally means “hot water for tea,” or chado, “the path or way of tea.” Both expressions refer to preparing tea in a ceramics bowl with hot water, with the sole purpose and meaning of the ceremony.

Know that chanoyu
is a matter of simply boiling water,
making the tea, and drinking it.
—Rikyû, grand master and founder of Chanoyu.

To reach this goal, both master and apprentice have to go through the path of an entire universe of languages that revolve around the preparation of a bowl of tea to offer it to every one of their guests. One must master about 3000 words throughout their study. The ceremony is a ritual of “languages,” in plural because they enter into communion with an aesthetic, artistic, philosophical, moral, social, historic, religious, architectonic language; a language of tools, a cosmic, nature, culinary, and most of all, a poetic and literary language.

The ritual begins with the harvesting and preparation of the tea leaf. In every ceremony, only one type of green tea powder is used, the most cherished of all. In Japan, the process dates back to the 8th century, emulating one of the tea methods used during the Song Dynasty. There are two kinds of powder for this type of tea: one is condensed (thick), the other one is light. The condensed one is for very formal occasions. Both have a bitter taste after the first sip, they have a strong smell, similar to that of fresh herb.


Unlike black, white or semi-green tea, green tea powder (like other varieties of green tea) is not fermented and tends to be of the highest quality because it comes from tea plants that have grown in the shade of bamboo mats to prevent them from receiving direct light.

Only the young leaves and a sprout are harvested from each stem, steamed, dried and stored in clay vases. Over the course of a year, the leaves are crushed with a stone mill until they reach a talc-like consistency. Unlike tea leaves that are dipped in hot water and strained, tea powder is stirred into hot water and the tea is drunk, meaning you literally eat it.


Tea consumption and the Japanese ceremony originated in China. But unlike China, where tea has lost all its ceremonial meaning and is a mere brew offered to assiduous consumers in tea houses, in Japan, it improved so much that it became a tradition that trespassed the borders of the temples and elites, to become a life style and social activity. Certain steps, settings and tools have been added to adapt to the changes and preferences of each period of time. For example, during westernization at the end of the 19th century, tea masters devised a ceremony ad hoc to the European spirit of the Meiji Reform to introduce the tea ritual to foreigners. The characteristic was that it took place on a table, with the participants sitting in chairs instead of on the floor as is done in the traditional way.

Let us go back to the origins to understand a little bit better what the way of tea is about. The first monograph on tea, the Cha-ching or “Tea Classic,” was written during the Tang Dynasty by the poet and Confucian aesthete Lu Yu. It contains three volumes on the origin and medicinal properties of the plant, its varieties, harvesting and preparation methods, as well as a series of instructions and tools for better use.


Buddhist monks introduced tea to Japan after passing through Chinese courts and monasteries between the 8th and 9th century. Although Chinese influence decreased in Japanese aristocratic circles during the Heian period, it remained a practice in the temples to drink it because of its medicinal properties to prevent sleepiness during meditation and certain religious acts. In fact, Chado, pronounced Sato in Chinese, is the abbreviation of the Buddhist expression ten cha ten, which means “tea offering for Buddha or the ancient spirits.”

Since the 13th century, devout Zen monks in Japan prepared and drank tea as part of their ascetic practices, creating the universe we know today as tea ceremony. Almost all tea masters are related to Zen. In fact, the expression chazen-ichimi, “the way of tea and Zen are one,” indicates the nature of self-discipline and spiritual experience they both share.


In 1211, the Zen monk Eisai wrote the first book on tea in Japan, Kissayôki, “Health preservation through tea” (based on the Chinese “Tea Classic”). It was also Eisai who, following Chinese Buddhist practices, initiated the ritual of offering tea to Buddha on his altar, and created a similar ceremony for the Shinto (native Japanese religion) deities.

Tea is the elixir of life
and the magic key to longevity.
—Eisai. Zen monk

Legend has it this book and a cup of tea reached Shogun Minamoto no Sanemoto at a time when he endured serious ailments after a large alcohol intake; after feeling cured thanks to the beverage, he became interested in the study and practice of tea. From then on, a close relationship begins between the military class of feudal times and Zen masters, through the teachings and practices of the tea ceremony.

Before turning into a ritual ceremony as it is known today, it used to be a show of skills among the court and feudal lords, to distinguish between the different types of tea leaves. They tried to emulate the renowned Incense Ceremonies of the Heian period, which still remain today and serve as competitions to differentiate between the various incenses of Japanese origin and those brought back from remote and exotic places such as India, the kingdom of Siam (modern day Thailand, Cambodia and Laos), among others.

The great tea masters and architects of the ceremony which has been practiced for over 500 years, were three Zen monks: Shukô, Jôô and Rikyû; the three founded a lineage of tea masters that still exists today; they created a life style through tea, one that seeks spiritual growth, artistic expression and balance between human beings and nature.

The three monks lived in turbulent times of intrigue and excess in the shogun castles which sought to unify Japan at all cost, to strengthen its own identity in the name of the sword, shedding blood and through discipline. Together, they found the elements that would form the way of tea in Confucian philosophy, Taoist mysticism, in Chinese and Indian Buddhist inheritance, in the core of Shinto teachings, Japanese Zen Buddhism, as well as in classic Chinese and Japanese poetry.

There are over twenty different kinds of tea ceremonies. Depending on the time of the year, the motive and the guests invited, they tend to take place in a room made of wood, bamboo or other materials (there are more than 15 different styles) whose common characteristic is that the floor is made of straw mats, known as tatami, which vary in size according to the architectural design. There are also modern rooms where the ceremony takes place on a table.


The simplest ceremony consists of a sequence of about 120 steps and lasts up to 20 minutes. There are more complex ones that can last up to four hours and their distinctive trait depends on the hour of day or the season of the year. A meal is served; two rituals take place, one to light the fire that heats the water and the other to put it out; two types of candy are offered before each tea; two types of tea, a thick one, and a light one; and there is a conversation between the host and his guests on the aesthetic appreciation of calligraphy, the flowers used for the occasion, and the main tools that are used (there are about 10 tools that the guests can see during the ceremony, including the cup and bowls).

The celebration of a ceremony is the perfect excuse for the host to share a bowl of tea with his guest(s) in a specific moment and place in time. Each celebration includes a variety of styles and tools according to the individual practice of the different schools; it shares similarities in the origin and form of the ritual, where four principles of the spirit of the way of tea must be included: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

The tea ceremony is also the representation of a dance – imperceptible to a newcomer-  that the host and guests are invited to. Upon arrival to the meeting, the guest leaves his shoes and belongings to wear some light sandals made of wheat or rice straw. He must write downs his name with a paintbrush in a notebook and head to a waiting room.

All guests are gathered in that waiting room; one by one, they kneel before the calligraphy taken from a class poem or a painting that the host has hanged on a wall for the occasion. They then form a circle and drink a flower-scented tea in a small Chinese porcelain cup (sometimes it is only water), hot or cold (depending on the time of the year) that will clean their palate.


They will then walk to the garden and wait for the host to water the path of irregularly aligned stones, which leads to the main room where the ceremony will take place. It is time for the guests stand up and cross a small bamboo door in the middle of the path, which is the boudary between the profane and the sacred world. They will wash their hands and mouth in a stone jar on the way, the same way one does before entering a Shinto sanctuary – previously purified – before kneeling before the gods.

The garden they walk through is called roji, “dewy path.” Its design varies but it always has a path of stepping stones through which one walks and contemplates the sand garden on one side and the vegetation on the other: dryness and humidity, death and life, yin and yang, the duality of the path.

The roji is a way
Apart from this bustling world
And its many cares.
How will that path sweep away
The dust from within our hearts?
—Sôgi, Zen monk and poet.

 They will enter the tea room on their knees through a minute door. It is a sign of humility to the sacred space where the ceremony will take place. Hierarchy does not exist there; even in feudal times, the Shoguns, feudal lords and samurais left their swords outside. Immediately after entering, the guests look up to the chamber where the calligraphy is placed, a Zen expression that gives meaning to the ceremony. In ancient and modern houses, this chamber can be found where the Buddhist altar is placed.


A succulent and simple meal is offered to prepare the stomach for the first sip of condensed tea. The shape and ingredients of the meal have Buddhist as well as Shintoist elements and usually consist of a soup and three dishes that are served on a black lacquered tray used by the monks in the temples. While the guests eat, the host goes from one to the other, offering rice wine, a piece of fish and vegetable. Those dishes symbolize the sea and the mountain, the form of Japan’s identity. It is an offering to the guests, just as it is done for the Shinto gods since ancient times.

The guests exit the room to walk in one more time. The setting of the room changes a bit to now witness the fire ceremony which will heat the water for the tea. It is a brief ritual where incense is used to purify the air. Then, each guest that is now sitting in their assigned seat, receives the first sweet (rice pastries filled with sweet beans) which, according to the shape, color and name, symbolize the season of the year, a weekly festivity based on the lunar calendar, an element of nature; it can even conjure a word out of a poem from a book or a classic poem.


They once again exit the room and wait on a bench until they hear the sound of a bell that varies depending on the hour of day and seasonal temperature; it is the call to go back to the room. A deep sound invokes the power of yin during daytime or warm days; a high-pitched sound is for the yang in the afternoon, at night, or in times of cold.

A jar and seasonal flowers substitute the Zen calligraphy. The place where the fire lighting ceremony took place earlier, is now replaced by a metal pot with hot water resting on a ceramics heater, on top of a black lacquered table, and next to it, a ceramics pot with cold water. The host walks in with a ceramics bowl containing a damp cloth, a spatula and a bamboo beater, as well as a small container, also made of ceramics, with the powdered tea inside. He places them in front of the heater and the container with the cold water. The 5 elements are present: metal, earth, fire, water and wood. The first ceremony of condensed tea begins.


Each and every one of the tools are purified through a series of steps using the hands and a silk checkered handkerchief. The ceramics bowl used is the most important and of highest rank in the range of tea bowls that the host owns. Usually, black or red raku style is used, which is handmade in the traditional Japanese way, used for over 500 years by the same family and oven. The tea powder and hot water are added and stirred. Powder and water, two opposite elements unite with the movement of the right hand in an empty bowl, held by the left hand and made by a craftsman.

The host spins the tea bowl twice (the direction depends on the school of tea) before crossing the center of the room to offer it to the guests. The reason: the bowl has a face that is directed to the guest. They spin the bowl twice more, the guests take two or three sips of the thick beverage, it is spun once more and passed from hand to hand among the guests. They all repeat the same movements. The same bowl is shared as an act of communion.

After admiring the tools, the host and guests begin a conversation about their aesthetics: their characteristics, who made them, the family tradition they come from, the poetic name the artist or master has assigned to each one, etc. Then, the fire is put out and once again, a new type of sweet is offered along with another bowl of tea, this time, a light one. All the guests exit the room and cross the garden “of the Dewy Path” one more time but in the opposite direction. The ceremony has ended.

It is hard for the newcomers who are invited as guests to a formal or casual ceremony to notice each of the details of the ritual that involves the preparation of a pot of tea, which I have briefly mentioned here. It is normal for them to get the wrong impression because they don’t know the codes or symbology that involves all the steps, as well as the setting the host creates.


Surely, someone with artistic and aesthetic sensitivity will be impressed not only by the solemnity of the ceremony, but might feel a bit intimidated by the gestures that take place because he or she will not fully grasp their meaning, or be able to identify the hundreds of movements that take place there, much less know the movements they are entitled to make. Even the bitterness of the tea might taste completely strange and unpleasant.

However, the master or host does not expect any different, since the origin and final goal, as was mentioned in the beginning, is to offer a ceramics pot of hot tea. That being said, the host and guests know their heart will be purified.

Many though there be,
Who with words or even hands
Know the Way of Tea.
Few there are or none at all,
Who can serve it from their heart?
—Rikyû, master and founder of Chanoyu

· Genshitsu Sen & Sôshitsu Sen (2011) Urasenke Chado. Tankosha.
· Sadler, A.L. (2008) The Japanese Tea Ceremony, Tuttle Classics.
· Author’s notes from classes and tea ceremonies she has attended in Kyoto since 2011.



*Monserrat Loyde. Lives in Kyoto, Japan. Internationalist. Collaborates in different media on politics, art, culture and Japanese society. She studies the tea ceremony and the conservation of ceramics. Twitter: @lamonse

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