Tea and Zen Are One

People often ask me if I love Japan, and I usually answer that I love Japan in the way that I might love my arranged husband: it’s a love that has developed over many years, out of respect and necessity and time. But I would not say I “love” Japan or Zen practice in Japan like some people love beautiful women— how could I love something which has nothing to do with my own preference, which demands giving up love and hate itself? That’s how I relate to Zen practice. It’s something I do regardless of how I feel about it. 

Except for tea ceremony. I love tea ceremony foolishly and romantically. I am in love with it. It’s the only aspect of Japanese culture, other than food, that I can honestly say I love. I studied tea ceremony formally for three years, which is nothing, but Japanese culture is infused with tea. There’s tea everywhere. So just by being in Japan, I feel like I am studying tea culture. 

This week my program went to a tea ceremony in Kyoto, and afterwards one of the students asked me why I love tea ceremony. I told her I love it because I love eating and drinking. The focus of tea ceremony is on eating a delicious sweet and then drinking a caffeinated beverage. I love caffeine. Any excuse to drink something caffeinated I will take. I also like eating and drinking with others. Being with others is an important component of tea ceremony. I like being surrounded by beauty. Tea ceremony is always beautiful; there are always flowers, and calligraphy scrolls, and the room is simple and clean, and usually there’s some new and interesting tea bowl or another utensil to look at and talk about. You’re surrounded by beautiful things and the beautiful things are the only socially acceptable thing to talk about. It’s like a religion devoted to beauty, tranquility, and drinking caffeine. 

Tea is something that’s learned through the body. You practice stepping into a room with the correct foot, and wiping the bowls just so, and exactly how far to incline your body when you bow. You practice these things again and again and again, and then it hopefully becomes muscle memory. I have brief moments when I’m serving tea in which I stop thinking and am just concentrating on making tea. There is a profound calm and tranquility which comes when I stop thinking and am only wiping, whisking, placing, bowing.

But tea is fundamentally about connection and relationship, about giving nourishment to others. In my experience, the point of tea ceremony is to make and drink tea. So for me, my feelings about tea cannot be separated from the actual taste of it, and from my memories of the people I’ve shared tea with. 

When I was first at the monastery where I ordained, there were only two or three other monks there. It wasn’t so busy. Sometimes I would clean the abbot’s room and then he would invite me to have tea. He would make loose leaf tea for me in a tiny, grey ceramic pot, brewing it so strong I thought he’d messed up when actually that’s just how good tea is prepared. We would drink tea together, and talk about Japan and Buddhism, in his room which smelled like incense and old wood. Eventually I learned how to serve tea for guests. I learned how to kneel on the ground and open the sliding doors, how to stand up from kneeling while holding a tray of tea, how to place tea on the table without spilling it, how to bow, how to cool the water down before pouring it on the leaves.  

When I went to Nisodo, I wasn’t allowed to make a single cup of tea for a year. Whenever I tried, I’d get yelled at. I waited and studied tea ceremony formally in class for a really long time, and eventually I was deemed worthy of making tea, sometimes, for guests. In my third year, when I was Aoyama Roshi’s personal assistant, I had to make her tea every morning. There was a set pattern to this. After morning service, we’d come back and she would chant the Heart Sutra in a small altar in her room. We’d bow to each other and say good morning, and then I would make her hot water with honey and pickled plum. After breakfast I’d serve a Japanese sweet and a cup of matcha. 

In the three years I was at Nisodo, making tea was the only thing Aoyama Roshi ever said I was good at. That and learning Japanese. She’s a tea teacher herself, and since it’s one of the only compliments she gave me, I took it seriously. Making her tea was the calm oasis in a crazy and hectic day comprised of not understanding and generally being bad at most other things. I loved making her tea. When I would give her tea, sometimes she would stop the work she was doing and teach me something about the tea bowl— the name of the maker, or why the bottom of the bowl was unique. Usually I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, so she’d write it down on a piece of paper for me to look up later. When my period of time as her assistant finished, she gave me a tea bowl, which the abbot of Sojiji had give her. If the building was to ever catch on fire, it’s the one thing I’d want to take with me. That and my okesa. And my passport. Actually, in all honesty I might just grab that tea bowl and my passport and get out of the burning building. I can always make another okesa, but that tea bowl is one of a kind! 

You can study tea your whole life and not scratch the surface of the history, culture, and practice of tea. In this way it’s like studying the Buddha-Way. This is probably why in Japan they say “chazen ichinyo,” or “Tea and Zen are one.” 

I’ve often wondered why “Tea and Zen are one.” I’m not sure they’re the same thing, but then again, I’m not a master of either of them. They’re definitely similar though.

Tea bowl by Raku Kichizaemon
Today, inspired by this week’s tea ceremony, I visited the Urasenke Foundation. After touring the museum and having some tea, I bought a really interesting book of photographs and poems by the ceramics master Raku Kichizaemon. Reading what he wrote, I was really effected by how similar his struggles were to my own. He writes about the anxieties of entering a tradition, his doubts about “self-expression,” the tensions between being an artist, being an apprentice, and merely being a copy-cat, someone going through the motions. I’ve come to see this is a tension running through a lot of Japanese culture, especially in areas like the arts and in Zen, and it’s something I feel poignantly now more than ever, as I am deciding how long I want to stay in Japan, and most crucially, why. Why am I still here? What else is there left for me to absorb here? Is this really going to take ten or twenty years? If that's the case, when do I get to have my own life? If I leave now, who am I disappointing most- my teachers or myself?

It’s fitting that the book is dedicated, “To my two sons and all of youth,” because he portrays learning his craft as something identical to learning how to be an adult, learning how to manifest himself in the world as someone who is inextricably connected to society while being a unique individual within it. He wrote, for the opening of his first solo exhibition in 1983:

Not to narrate, nor express
Neither to be concerned about being traditional or contemporary
Nor again to strive for originality
What matters is to drop a plumb-line into the depths of my being
And grope my way downward
Into the cave of my existence, crammed with the totality of
Past, present and future.


  1. I love tea a puerh cake is my favorite. I also love the green teas especially matcha. I would drink it daily but it is very expensive. I don't know much about tea ceremony but it sounds fun. Thank you for sharing and I hope you have a blessed day.

  2. I lived in Japan for 7 years but the way you write is much more enlightening than being there! I'm learning lots from your blog! Maybe I just played too much Pachinko...

  3. As a tea student of some ten years, the struggle is real. There's not a class I don't question the issues of institution and rigidity and money; yet I keep feeling drawn to it.

  4. Some decades ago, in Hawaii, I think tea ceremony was my first introduction to the practice of ceremony. It then led me to investigate the study and practice of Buddhism. I loved the way it occupied my mind and body in such a delicate precision, bringing awareness so exquisitely to the present. How wonderful that you are discovering and enjoying these things, too, and in your own very unique way. Thank you for sharing. I feel I can hear your voice! Deb J

  5. Your life is this!

    Your life is this!

    Your life is this!

    All just you!
    Now what to do?
    Your life is this!

  6. Hello! I saw the same book at Raku museum and regretted not buying a copy of it. May I know what is the title of the book?


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