Thursday, January 12, 2012

Anderson JL, "Japanese tea ritual: religion in practice".

I haven't been able to get to tea class in months, since the past semester started; either class or something else is always standing between me and the park. But recently I've been missing it, and I've found myself in idle moments looking through the Urasenke book, talking myself through ryakubon, and practicing folds with my "fukusa" (which is, in fact, the silk curtain from a toy magic show I had as a kid—since I foolishly left my fukusa, fan, and papers at class last time—but the proportions are about the same).

I have access to scads of journals online through the university, and today while meandering through some publications on traditional Japanese arts/crafts I found a really good read about tea ceremony. It's an early publication by Jennifer L. Anderson, a PhD anthropologist and long-time Urasenke-style tea practitioner (who, as it happens, now teaches at SJSU, with my friend and former college advisor, who loves it there). The piece is called "Japanese tea ritual: religion in practice", and it explores the ritual/philosophical/religious elements of chanoyu in a way that apparently until that time (1987) really hadn't been done in a structured way, at least in Western anthropology.

I find the spiritual elements of shuuji and tea elusive. My background is Anglo-Catholic but really secular, and although I've done some reading on the concepts, my understanding is only superficial. So, this was a very helpful read for me. Anderson takes us through the whole process of a chaji, pausing now and then to explore the deeper meanings of apparently simple actions:

The high point of the entire ritual takes place as the main guest tastes his initial sip of koicha tea. If host and guest are to experience a deep sense of shared tranquillity, it will be now. Ideally, the guest feels deep gratitude for everything that has gone into creating the wonderful experience epitomised by the first sip of tea. And the host senses that he has successfully communicated something deeply important to someone who understands the meaning of his effort. For one moment, both have the opportunity to experience an unfathomable sense of 'wholeness, health, and holiness'.... Chado exists to make this moment plausible. Symbols which link host and guest to their forebears, to society, to various philosophies, to the phenomenal world, and ultimately, to the cosmos are concentrated in this one cup of tea.
There's a lot of other gold in the piece, too, such as the elemental and "virtual" associations of the nine segments of a four-and-a-half-mat tearoom, the communicative intent of the host's actions (such as placing bound stones and sprinkling water on the roji path), and the beautiful "和敬清寂" (wa-kei-sei-jaku, peace/respect/purity/tranquility), "the central litany of tea values". It's an expression I'd never heard before, and googling it pops up all kinds of Japanese 茶道 sites. (If I'm feeling ambitious sometime, maybe I'll try to write it; I've written wa and sei before, but the other two are daunting!)

Some of the piece is mainly academic (literature review on definitions of ritual), but it's a rewarding read, and I recommend it if you're interested in tea.
Anderson JL. Japanese tea ritual: religion in practice. Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. 1987;22:475-498.

the article is online here

Dr Anderson has a page of nifty chanoyu resources, here

Her An Introduction to Japanese Tea Ritual is on Amazon, here

If you can't access the article, let me know, and I'll try to e-mail it to you.


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