Before writing about Chado – the classical Japanese Tea-ceremony, or for that matter, anything that is related to Japan today, one is likely to recall the recent hit of earthquake and tsunami on the 11th of March which caused tremendous losses of life and property in North-Eastern Japan. Meantime, you will also most likely remember that much of the media coverage on the disaster mentioned and praised the discipline and spirit the Japanese people displayed in coping with the disaster, something rarely seen in any other part of the world before.
While we express our deepest sympathies to our Japanese friends who suffer because of the disaster, we also salute them for the courage and discipline they have displayed.
But why is it that I mention this in relation to Chado – the classical Japanese Tea-ceremony?
It is because the display of aforementioned discipline and spirit in response to disasters has been inbuilt in the Japanese people as a part of their culture.
Certainly, other factors such as successful national education, regular drills etc. do play a part. Nevertheless, in a broader sense, these can be seen as a form of culture as well.
To gain a glimpse into the Japanese culture, Chado is one of the primarily interesting and important ways. Through presentation of tea, Chado is about cultivating a gesture to show a high degree of respect for people. It seeks a harmonious and calm way towards mutual communication. It helps you acquire a sense of appreciation for good and positive things in life.
One may find the word “ceremony” in the phrase of “Japanese Tea-ceremony”, as a way it is translated into English, somewhat rigid and formal. In fact, it is better to see it as a “Tea-gathering” instead. Since a conduct of Chado should be something very natural, “gathering” should therefore be a better word to describe it.
With this understanding, one who is a layman like me is able to approach this beautiful culture without too much of worry of what is seen as “complexity” in it.
As an example, I recall that when I had been first exposed to a Tea-gathering in Japan, some 30 years ago when I was an undergraduate studying in a Japanese University, I was taught that after lifting the bowl containing tea presented to me, I was supposed to turn it three times (clockwise or anti-clockwise, I have forgotten) before drinking. And after drinking, I had to turn the bowl three times again in the other direction before returning it. Then, more than ten years later, in Singapore, I again had a chance to attend a Tea-ceremony subsequently. During the process, I began to feel nervous when I lifted the bowl because I had forgotten how I should turn it first, clockwise or anti-clockwise. I felt that I had “forgotten the rule” and was rather embarrassed by it.
Then I had a chance to listen to a talk by a tea master, and learned that the direction in which to turn the bowl is not that important if one has forgotten it. Instead, being natural and relaxed is most important as that was the state at which you could benefit most from a Tea-gathering.
Going on, I further realized that Chadou, the Tea-gathering, as a classical culture of Japan, is also a form of art. It has much to offer and many elements for us to appreciate. The beauty and fineness of movement, handling of tea utensils, condition of the starter fire, etiquette for the preparation of tea, the arrangement of tea room, communication between host and guest etc. are all though performed in a tea room, essences not limited to the tea room but have become an integral part related to one’s daily life.
It makes you a more calm, considerate and elegant person knowing better what respect for people is all about, and how a more effective exchange and communication with people can be achieved.
It is my wish that this culture and form of art could blossom in this land as well. And you and I, even though we are laymen, could easily join the gathering and cultivation, and become better people.
By Tan Jong Lek
The author is a former President of The Japanese University Graduates Association of Singapore (JUGAS) and the current Vice President of The Japanese Cultural Society, Singapore (JCS)