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Zen Garden Tea Ceremony

We gather in the Zen garden at Dartington for the tea ceremony, about forty of us, in the hot, bright mid-June sun.  The early birds have already taken the shadiest seats inside the open-sided dark wooden hut overlooking the garden.  Others are in the sun, arrayed around the garden’s light grey gravel with its scattering of large rocks reminiscent of massive islands rising out of a gently rippled sea. We are in a classic Zen garden, far from Japan, here in England.

We wait patiently, knowing that something valuable, of interest, is about to take place.  Bamboo flute music, ethereal, rolls in from the laurel hedge at the right hand edge the garden.  As soon as I hear it – a stillness – a dramatic change of mood, from one of idle curiosity about another culture’s customs, from an expectation of a light cultural entertainment – to the palpable appearance of some kind of presence.

The bamboo flute transforms the garden into a place where everything is suddenly alive - rocks, gravel, bushes, other plants.  A family of Gods a Great Spirit, have descended, called here by the flute: a vegetation God, a river God, Gods of trees, of rocks, of birds, of light itself. Called by the flute, a deliciously healing sense of being known by all these beings, by the very air itself comes upon me. I feel myself in the company of these other-than-human persons, of these other styles of psyche so different from my own, whose power now breaks apart the four hundred year old spell of our culture which make us believe that the universe and everything in it, including our own bodies, are merely machines totally devoid of meaning.

I wonder to myself: are these visitors to Dartington  from Japan, Usubaro, the famous clothes maker and his group of musicians, his tea ceremony master, his dancers, all wearing his flowing hand dyed, handmade garments, large crystals held by vine-like thongs around their necks covering their hearts - are they visitors from another planet? A planet where humans have long ago mastered the art of living as highly conscious people of Earth, a mode of consciousness not academic, not intellectual, but deeply rooted in their animal bodies and in the Earth, a consciousness of soil, bacteria, fungi – a truly Gaian awareness in a style that I had not imagined or perceived until this moment, and which I so much want to bring alive in the world?  Is this how highly attuned Gaian humans are: respectful, contented, deeply friendly, reverent, observant of every detail in nature? 

The flute falls silent. Japanese helpers in Usubaro clothes offer each of us a white paper serviette holding five coloured sweets. One of mine, 10p sized, has embossed images of a house with the moon above. The others are two little fish and two purple globular clusters of what seem to be fish roe.  No one knows what to do with them, so we wait. The sweets are in the ceremony. We’ll find out in good time what they are for.

A figure in black Usubaro clothes enters from the left – a man in his late thirties, black hair tied in a bundle at the back, dignified and slow, wearing those curious Japanese socks that wrap around each individual toe, black above with striking white soles beneath. His clothing makes a big impression. Handmade, held together by cloth belts, loose, comfortable, but not too loose. He moves with great respect for those Gods,  Beings, Spirit, call them what you will, that have appeared in the Zen garden with such potency at the call of the flute.  His face, deeply calm and composed beyond all artifice or pretence. His eyes look down, barely open - a face I shall never forget, so deep is the teaching it communicates.

He begins to move slowly, at first only his fingers, then his hands.  Every move is a gesture and a homage to that invisible yet deeply palpable more-than-human presence – that ‘Spirit’ (let’s call it that, although it is of course beyond name or description) now fully present in the Zen garden.  Now his arms move, now his torso and legs in a dignified Tai Chi, his movements transmuting that Spirit into human form. Spellbound, I watch the dance unfold, developing from those slight finger movements into whole body movements in this slow Tai Chi, his ever dignified face full of the deepest awareness, deference and respect.  How long the dance? I cannot say for sure.  Twenty minutes perhaps, He leaves as beautifully as he had arrived, after dancing under that hot, bright sun for so long.

Now the tea master enters from the left. Not the strict sort of master you might be imagining, but a deeply simple, open, friendly man, late thirties, dressed in Usubaro clothes of very pale dyed pale purple and blue. Short cropped hair, carrying a tray with materials for the ceremony. With deepest respect, he slowly kneels down in the gravel of the Zen garden facing us and removes a purple handkerchief from the left side of his cloth belt.  Folding it in a ritual way, he passes it through one hand, folding it again as it goes. Now with the purple cloth carefully folded, he passes a single finger stroke across its surface. With graceful movements he cleans a large ceramic bowl with the handkerchief having first poured hot water into it from a modern stainless steel thermos jug sitting nearby. He pours this water into a large ceramic vessel by his side before wiping the bowl again, into which he places some green tea powder scooped up with a long, thin shard of bamboo from a small, round laquered box.  I am struck by his respect for this more-than-human consciousness, for this ‘Spirit’ as we’ll call it, which is also taking part in the ceremony, brought to even greater presence here by every one of his movements and by the relaxation in his gentle face.

Now Usubaro appears, sitting at a respectful distance from the tea master, who continues his tea making as Usubaro chats to us about the ceremony, about his clothes, inviting questions from the participants, chatting to two Japanese women from Totnes, all under the bright, glaring sun, both of them kneeling in the gravel of the Zen garden in their thick Usubaro clothing.  I roasted in a hat, light shirt and trousers before moving into some shade, but they show not the slightest sign of discomfort.  Usubaro intvites us to eat our sweets, explaining the importance of tasting sweet before savouring tea.  Very sweet - pure castor sugar perhaps. The sweetness seems to carry a message.

By now the tea master has prepared many bowls of tea and each person is being given their own bowl to drink. The black dancer - the Tai Chi master – walks towards me.  With immense respect, with down turned eyes, his face calm, serene, deeply present, he hands me a bowl of tea. It’s a wide ceramic bowl, green and brown, in which a green frothy skin floats above a deep brown liquid, almost black.  I bring this to my lips and drink.  Immensely bitter, warm, comforting. I experience the contrast with sweetness. The opposites –  ying and yang, darkness and light – suddenly become palpably real, not as intellectual concepts, but via the simple bodily sense of taste.  The black dancer kneels before me with profound reverence for the deepest nature within myself, which I’m now able to sense quite naturally, like the sun appearing from behind the clouds. The tea’s dark bitterness enters deeply into my psyche, penetrating far down into my psychological entrails, doing who knows what good there with its bitter darkness.

Soon enough, one of Usubaro’s helpers comes to retrieve my bowl. As he had instructed, I twist it twice in my hand, half a turn each time, signifying that one should not attempt to reach the centre of oneself by a direct route – that one should always circumnavigate that centre carefully and with respect before approaching, hoping for the grace of its opening like a flower.

As the last bowls of tea are consumed Usubaro’s musician walks onto the gravel with that same poise and respect.  He carries a digeridoo painted with huge red amoeboid shapes.  Kneeling in the gravel under the intense brightness of the sun, he awakens his digeridoo to sound – a flute and a metal drum playing far away on either side of him.  The deep earth sounding vibration carries his human voice too as he chants into his instrument.  When the sounding stops, the tea master begins to put away the last of his implements – his bamboo whisk, rather like my shaving brush, the thin angled sliver of bamboo for extracting green tea powder from that round lacquered box.

Now, with the ceremony about to end, the energy of a vibrant young child rushes out of me towards the tea master and his ceremonial implements. The child, full of love and excitement, recognises the ‘Spirit’ – that One we can feel but cannot name - invited here by the ceremony, The child sees clearly how this ‘Spirit’ permeates everything, enlivens everything, how it pours itself out of everything with a strange invisible luminescence.   I take this chance to look deeply into the centre of life. The treasure I am seeking, or which seeks me –  is here again in a new guise – a wider, primordial awareness, an expansion of consciousness, beyond description – a blessing – an epiphany.

For as long as possible I stay sitting on the ground with my eyes closed, dwelling in this discovery. All around me people are getting up, chatting, leaving.  For a little while, I am as still as a statue, grateful for this immense happening in experience.  Eventually, I get up, shake myself down and plunge back into daily life. I join in the happy chatter. Then, slowly, in the company of trees and sunlight, I walk back home, a new presence in my soul.