Linda Neale's Blog

Japanese Tea Ceremony and the Sweat Lodge

Linda Neale - Friday, November 04, 2011

Please remember that I welcome your comments and insights.  If you're a student of Tea, or attend sweat lodges, feel free to post a comment.


My friend Carolyn Winkler, a student of tea, invited me to my first Japanese tea ceremony a few weeks ago. For years I had longed to attend a tea ceremony -- I was curious about making a ceremony out of something as common and ordinary as making a cup of tea.  I’m an avid tea drinker myself – often drinking 3-4 cups of herbal and black tea in an afternoon.  I put the teabag in my cup, pour boiling water on it, and drink the tea.  No ceremony in that.  Sometimes I’m grateful for the taste of the tea, but often I don’t even think about it.

 

Seven people attended the evening ceremony at a tearoom in a southwest Portland home.  I was unprepared for the many ways in which this ancient Japanese ceremony felt similar to Native American sweat lodge ceremonies.

 

When we entered the tearoom, we crawled in individually, just as we do in the sweat lodge.  I was told that crawling symbolizes humility – no one is above anyone else in the tearoom or in the sweat lodge. The tea room itself is very simple, built with natural plant material, and is only used for the tea ceremony, just as the sweat lodge structure is simple and natural and has a ceremonial purpose.

 

The tea house is often set in a garden, like the sweat lodge is constructed in a natural setting.  In the tearoom, we sat on tatami mats which are made of straw. In the sweat lodge we sit on Mother Earth.  No jewelry or shoes are permitted in either ceremony – again, a sign of humility and connection. In the sweat lodge there are often individual “doors” (intervals when the hot stones are brought into the lodge), that are dedicated to purification, prayer, and healing.  The tea ceremony uses a symbolic purification when the tea utensils are ritually cleansed, and meditation as prayer.  The healing qualities of the green “macha” tea are also emphasized.

 

Both ceremonies emphasize unity and oneness.  One of four principles of tea, Kei, means respect.  “Kei is the ability to accept others for who they are. This principle extends even to those we may not see “eye to eye” with. There should be no attention paid to the class, caste or rank of anyone during a Japanese tea ceremony as all people are equal.”  In the sweat lodge this respect extends out to all of life, and is often summarized in the Lakota phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin”, or “All My Relations”. 

 

In both ceremonies, every action is done for a reason.  There is a reason why people enter the lodge sunwise, why the lodge faces a particular direction, and why antlers are used to place the stones, just as there is a reason why the boiling water for tea is placed in the southwest, and particular utensils are placed in a specific way in the tea ceremony.

 

What surprised me the most, however, was becoming aware that at the heart of both ceremonies is fire and water.  For the sweat lodge ceremony, a fire is built around stones which are heated re-hot, the stones are brought into the lodge with a pitchfork, water is poured into in a bucket then on the hot stones to make steam.  Water is also communally drunk in between rounds.  The one who leads the sweat lodge ceremony is called the “water pourer”.  In most native traditions, water is referred to as the “blood of Mother Earth.”   In tea ceremonies, water represents yin and fire in the hearth yang. The water is held in a jar called the mizusashi. This stoneware jar contains fresh water symbolizing purity, and is touched only by the host. The only object on the floor of the tearoom is the pot of boiling water.  Much attention is paid to the type of pots and cups that contain the water.  The Japanese name of the ceremony itself  “chonoyu” translates as “hot water for tea”.

 

The sweat lodge ceremony and the principles behind it are often referred to as a “way of life” rather than a religion.  The sweat lodge is a place for physical and spiritual healing, a practice that is done often to restore balance, health, and harmony.  Tea drinking and its service are a way of life for many. In fact, rather than referring to it as a “tea ceremony”, many practitioners call it “The Way of Tea” referring to a way of life that involves certain principles and practices.  The Japanese tea ceremony teaches us more than how to brew a pot of tea, but “also how to have the sound mind, body and spirit to truly enjoy it and everything around us.”

 

After attending just that one tea ceremony, I visited World Market and purchased a teapot and loose tea.  I’ll probably never be a tea server, or learn all the elements of that ceremony.  Both the sweat lodge and the tea ceremony take years to learn, and are passed down from elder practitioners.  But how I look at a cup of tea, and my intention in preparing and drinking it have been permanently changed.

Comments
Carolyn Winkler commented on 05-Nov-2011 06:21 AM
I am both a student of The Way of Tea and have been participating in the Medicine Wheel for 5 years. Both have been very influential in my life on deep levels. Both have helped me to stop, notice and appreciate the beauty of being alive. I am grateful
for the wisdom of these ancient practices and what they teach me and bring to my life. First rule of tea, make a good cup of tea. Last rule of tea, prepare for rain. Good advice for living. The Medicine Wheel shows me how to honor the earth and the flow of
changes that turn the wheel. It helps me open my heart and share with 8 other women the beauty of being here and honoring it all. I am blessed to have both in my life.

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