“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
– Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
After fifty good years of an international marriage, you might expect we would have worked out all the cultural diversity issues. And we have. But then there is the matter of tea. Japanese tea ceremony is a state of mind. As my wife was taught in her youth in Tokyo, it is a ritual to calm the spirit, slow down the senses so that you can enter into an aesthetic, enlightened moment. Her mindset regarding tea is at odds with my own.
Japanese embarking on their aesthetic tea voyage are assisted by a rustic tea house, austere in its quiet simplicity. Then there are the artifacts; an ornate container for the powder tea, a bamboo spoon, a well used water ladle and a mixing whisk. Of course, there must also be teacup that will be exquisite but unpretentious. You must hold and contemplate the cup while you discuss it’s feel. You must dote over it. Then to demonstrate your mindset of contrition and show respect for the tea you get down on the floor mat, seat yourself on your knees and bow a deep bow.
Without belaboring all the rituals, I will just say you can easily pass an hour or more fussing over the teakettle, the right water temperature and right charcoal for the heat source. Then drinking involves more rituals of raising the cup with two hands, rotate it three times to the right, sip and finally rotate the cup back again, wipe the rim before replacing the cup on the tatami mat. It is all very Zen, and with luck, you will become one with the universe.
The Styrofoam cup goes in the plastic cup holder and I’m out of there. Am I at one with the universe? No. But in 45 seconds I am back on the highway.
For myself, I do not pass hours raising and rotating teacups. I live in the world of fast food. I place my order for a bag of Lipton at the speaker, drive forward to the payment window and on to the pickup window. The Styrofoam cup goes in the plastic cup holder and I’m out of there. Am I at one with the universe? No. But in 45 seconds I am back on the highway. No bowing, or even getting out of the car. Am I surrounded with artifacts or aesthetics?
Yes if you count the radio blaring and the colorful dazzling neon as art forms.
My wife and I have an industrial strength clash of values associated with tea. Our respective cultures have their own ways of seeing the same drink. There is no working out a compromise. The Japanese tea masters will never switch to Styrofoam and tea bags. And if the fast food drive thru took an hour to serve you tea they would be history.
I am now imagining you refined and elegant ladies, getting all squishy and judgmental about my philistine world. We business guys say time is money. That is a legitimate choice that millions of us make at the pickup window. We are not seeking calm aesthetics, – we go to “fill up”. There is nothing faster or less expensive when it comes to the food and beverage business.
Time and money are valid values in our lives and our culture. That is how we measure many or our values. Chanoyu or tea ceremony is out of touch with our reality. It has no connection to time or money. It concentrates on ritual, living in a refined artistic moment and restoring the soul.
Time and money business is a mindset. It cannot be reconciled with the tea Master restoring the soul. Nevertheless, my wife and I have come to an accommodation. We sip tea every night and in our own way try to “set a jewel of infinity in the single moment”.