Calligraphy of “ichigo ichie” by Judy Chen.
By Andrea Miller
A writer and Lion’s Roar editor on holding a teabowl with your whole self
The only thing tea was good for was telling fortunes. That’s what I thought when I was a kid. My great aunt would look in my teacup and see my future laid out in the leaves. She said, “You will marry an Irishman one day. You’ll have five children, all girls. You’ll visit an island. You’ll be happy.”
My great aunt used the future tense. She did not add “maybe.” So, I looked forward to this sunny, certain future. I thought about the boy in Ireland destined to be my husband. I wondered what he was doing, what he was thinking. I dreamed up flowery names for our daughters.
My grandmother, without the aid of divination, had her own prediction. She told me that when I grew up, I would drink tea or coffee—or both. I was maybe ten at the time and wrinkled my nose. “Yuck! Never!”
“Oh, don’t be so sure,” she said, putting on the kettle.
When I reached my twenties, still without tea or coffee in my cupboards, I was smug with I told you so.
I was living in Japan at the time and was curious about all things Zen. In truth I hadn’t the foggiest idea what real Zen was. To me, Zen was everything calm, uncluttered, and clean—smelling of incense and the pleasant, undecayed parts of nature. Of course, I wanted to study the Zen arts, and tea ceremony, which didn’t sound like any other art I’d ever heard of, was especially intriguing.
At the language school where I worked in Osaka, I met a tea teacher, Hideko, and we decided on an exchange: once a week, I’d give her English instruction and she’d give me tea lessons. Hideko was probably in her forties. That seemed old to me at the time, and it took me aback when she asked if I could find her a foreigner boyfriend. She was hoping for a husband.
Meanwhile, Hideko was living with her parents, occupying the top floor of their home, and she had her own tea room up there, set apart with a sliding door. From the first time I crossed the threshold, I was delighted by how Zen it felt—the quiet color scheme, the tatami floors with the brazier built into them, and the one simple scroll on the wall.
I had a Hello Kitty notebook to jot down Hideko’s many detailed instructions, and week by week it filled up. There were two roles to learn: host and guest, server and served. In both roles, every step, every gesture was precisely prescribed. In fact, remembering everything required so much concentration on my part that, without even realizing it, I got a taste of actual Zen. This was 1999, and “mindfulness” was not yet a buzzword—I don’t think I’d even heard of it. But the word wasn’t required.
Just before I moved back to Canada, Hideko invited me over, along with four of her other students. The plan was we’d all dress in kimonos. We’d have a series of short tea ceremonies, with each of us taking a turn at being the host. And afterwards, we’d go out for a celebratory French dinner.
When I arrived, Hideko and her mother already had kimono undergarments and split toed socks laid out for me. They wrapped me in a floral-print kimono—pink and purple—then tied me with the constricting bow of an obi. Take shallow breaths, they advised. But the advice was unnecessary. There was clearly no space for deep breaths in this sumptuous garden of silk flowers.
Hideko was the first host of the day. We, her students, sat on the tatami, our backs straight, our legs tucked underneath us, and bowed to her. Then she carried in the trays of sweets and powdered tea. Using a long-handled wooden spoon, she put one-and-a-half scoops of tea into a bowl. She poured in hot water and frothed the vibrant green mixture with a bamboo whisk.
When Hideko placed the bowl on the floor, I slid toward it, exactly as I’d learned to do. I picked it up with my right hand and repositioned it by a few inches. Then I slid back to my original place and once again repositioned the bowl slightly, bringing it closer to my left knee. Each action was subtle and no one spoke. I could understand why, for some people, tea ceremony is like watching paint dry.
I excused myself for drinking first, picked up the bowl with my right hand, and rested it in my left palm. With both hands, I brought the rim to my lips.
If, as a kid, I’d thought orange pekoe was bitter, I would have been blown greenly away by matcha, the type of tea used in tea ceremony. Unlike other teas, it isn’t made by steeping and discarding leaves. The leaves are instead ground into powder. Nothing is discarded; the full bitter intensity is present.
For the ceremony, I had to choke down this swampy drink in three-and-a-half sips. But because I never managed to drink enough in the first three, my final half sip was always a gulp. The flavor was so peculiar, so bracing, so off putting.
And, yet, I had to admit it. There was something about it.
Many thinkers have tried to describe tea, its subtle charms. Okakura Kakuzo, author of the 1906 classic The Book of Tea, claimed, “It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa.”
Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang went deeper. “There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life,” he said.
And then there was tea ceremony pioneer Murata Juko who put it this way: “Zen and tea are of one taste.”
Early in the ninth century, the Japanese monks Saicho and Kukai crossed the sea to China. It’s believed that on their return voyages, they carried with them not just Buddhist teachings but also tea seeds, and in Japan they found fertile soil for both.
Tea, with its kick of caffeine, was widely embraced as a performance-enhancing drug for meditation and was used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. There was, in fact, so much monastic tea drinking that someone decided the stamp of lineage was required. So, a story was brewed.
Bodhidharma is the semi-mythical, Indian monk who’s celebrated as the first patriarch of Chan, that is, the sect commonly known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen. Legend has it that Bodhidharma meditated facing a wall for nine years straight. For the first seven he stayed alert, but then he nodded off. To ensure this would not happen again, Bodhidharma sliced off his own eyelids. The bits of flesh hit the ground, took root, and grew into the world’s first tea plants.
Murata Juko (1423–1502) could have been just another Zen adherent drinking tea to keep himself from yawning. But the drink meant much more to him than that.
In his youth, Juko had witnessed tocha, ostentatious tea tournaments popular in Japan during the medieval period. At these events, people would gather, drink ten, fifty, a hundred cups of tea—plus often booze—and they’d place bets, trying to determine where the teas were grown. I can only imagine everyone left these tournaments with their teeth floating. Those who made good guesses also left with lavish prizes: silks, weapons, and jewelry.
Juko wasn’t interested in this tea-flavored gambling, nor was he seduced by the pristinely glazed Chinese tea ware, which was such a status symbol for his contemporaries. What touched Juko was when his Zen teacher, the iconoclastic poet Ikkyu Sojun, told him that the buddhadharma is present in the Way of Tea. In other words, there really is truth in a teacup, because the true and sacred nature of reality is expressed in everyday acts and objects.
Juko became the originator of Japanese tea ceremony steeped in wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic, which values age and imperfection. He celebrated rustic, made-in-Japan tea ware and, in leading others to likewise see the value of these pieces, he inspired a radical cultural shift that helped define Japan’s national identity. But at the same time, Juko didn’t reject Chinese finery. For him, there was space enough for all things, simple or ornate, just as they are.
“When you hear the water splash into the tea bowl, the dust in your mind is washed away,” said Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). But, I’d add, you have to really hear it. You have to listen.
Rikyu, who’d studied Zen at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, was the luminary of tea who influenced the development of tea ceremony more than anyone else. For this, he paid a high price.
The de facto leader of Japan at the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, hoped to use tea ceremony as a political tool, so he welcomed Rikyu into his inner circle. But the two men did not see eye to eye. While Hideyoshi showed off his gold tea utensils and a tearoom with walls luminous with gold leaf, Rikyu used a fisherman’s creel for a flower container.
Over time, Hideyoshi began to see Rikyu’s minimalism as a reproach. Resentment grew. Then Hideyoshi heard a rumor that Rikyu planned to slip poison in his tea, and he ordered Rikyu’s death by hara-kiri, ritual suicide.
Rikyu invited guests for one last poignant tea ceremony. After serving his guests, he shattered the bowl, declaring, “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.”
All the guests departed except one who stayed with Rikyu as he died.
Rikyu’s last tea ceremony was ichigo ichie. That is, it was “one time, one meeting”—an event never to be repeated. But Rikyu taught that every tea ceremony—and every moment of our lives—is ichigo ichie. You may frequently gather with the same friends for tea, but each time is unique, precious, fleeting. Each time is a moment to appreciate, to drink in.
Tea ceremony is the art of holding a tea bowl with your whole self.
I never did grow up to marry an Irishman or to have five daughters, though it is true that I am happy, generally speaking. And I have indeed visited islands and sipped many cups of tea. Some of those cups—black with a splash of milk and accompanied by several buttery cookies—I enjoyed with my grandmother, before she died. Some—tiny ones—I drank in the presence of the celebrated Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately known as Thay.
Several years after leaving Japan, I became a Buddhist journalist and, on the job, I attended several of Thay’s retreats. I remember once, in 2013, at Blue Cliff Monastery in the Catskill region, he spoke of tea.
“When you look into tea, what do you see?” he asked in his feathery soft voice. “I see a cloud. Yesterday the tea was a cloud up in the sky. But today it has become the tea in my glass. When you look up at the blue sky and you don’t see your cloud anymore, you might say, ‘Oh, my cloud has died.’ But in fact, it has not. When I look mindfully into my tea, I see the cloud, and when I drink my tea, I drink the cloud.”
Every time I attended a retreat with Thay, I had the pleasure of interviewing him. At each of these interviews, a young attendant with a shaved head and brown robes would serve tea, and it was always delicious, more delicious than other I’ve ever tasted. Once I spoke with the attendant afterwards: “What kind of tea was that?”
When she said it was just regular tea—oolong, if I’m remembering correctly—I didn’t quite believe her. But maybe she was right and it was actually the light, lovely flavor of ichigo ichie that I was tasting. This cup, these leaves, this precise gathering of monks and nuns and me will never be again. Maybe Thay’s deep mindfulness was connecting me with my own.
At one of my interviews with Thay, Sister Chan Khong, his collaborator of more than fifty years, laid out a selection of Thay’s modern, English-language calligraphies. “We’d like to give you one,” she said.
I was a little overwhelmed by their generosity, the number of options, and the pressure of choosing as they watched. Any of the black-ink messages would be inspiring on a wall: “Be beautiful, be yourself.” “Peace is the way.” “A cloud never dies.” “Be still and see.”
Then I saw the message I needed most. It said simply, “Are you sure?” The calligraphic execution wasn’t as pretty as the others, and at first blush the meaning struck me as no warm hug, and yet, when I contemplated it more deeply, it was a loving message. Like an empty teacup, full of possibility, it offered a vision of spaciousness, of not having all the answers. We humans so often think we know what’s what. We think we have other people—and ourselves—all figured out. Isn’t it a gift to self and other when we relax our knowing?
“This one,” I said, holding my chosen sheet of rice paper with both hands. “Thank you so much.”
My new calligraphy, like every calligraphy that Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh created, contained tea from his own cup. He’d poured the tea into his inkstone and mixed it with the ink.
Black, green, white, oolong, pu’er—they are all tea. They’re all Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub that likely originated in northern Burma/southwestern China. The shrub’s lanceolate leaves are dark green, glossy, thick. Its flowers are cream-colored, fragrant. Though there are different varieties of the species, the various kinds of tea are distinct from each other in large part because they’re processed differently.
I put water in a pot and add a knob of fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cardamom pods, cloves like tiny nails, and a whole star of anise. I let the mixture simmer, then add tea leaves. The technical term for their unfurling is “the agony of the leaves,” but why make such an exquisite opening sound painful? I strain, pour in milk, stir in sugar.
D.T. Suzuki, the scholar who’s known for introducing Zen to the West, said, “When I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it . . . this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space.”
Me? I don’t have a tearoom; I have a condo with a dining nook. And right now, I don’t have a classic tea bowl with simple lines and clear, green liquid inside. I have chai—black tea with decadent extras—and I’ve ladled it into a modern mug festooned with cartoon mermaids. In other words, while ideas about Zen have a certain smell, this mug of tea doesn’t even have the faintest whiff of it. But my tea, warm to the touch, does hold the universe. And that is very special, but not at all unique.
Your coffee and cocoa, your water and milk—the universe is in them, too.
I breathe in. I breathe out. And I take a long, sweet sip.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Andrea Miller is an editor and staff writer at Lion’s Roar magazine and the editor of three anthologies, including Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West.
She’s also the author of two picture books: The Day the Buddha Woke Up and My First Book of Canadian Birds. Her newest book, which is for adults, is Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life. Miller has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and her writing has appeared in many publications, including Mindful and the Best Buddhist Writing series. She lives in Nova Scotia with her husband and two children.