It calls for a leap of faith to understand why students in a Seattle University Fine Arts ceramics class would choose to take part in an authentic Japanese tea ceremony.
Yet this particular class, with its focus on the world vessel tradition, is an especially fine fit for exploring what is essentially a deeply meditative and ritualistic Zen practice.
Prior to conducting the ceremony, Philosophy Professor Jason Wirth, an ordained Sōtō Zen priest, described how each of the seven most famous pottery-making villages in Japan has its own distinctive style and personality. Ceramic tea bowls, humble though they may appear, are regarded as cultural treasures and highly esteemed works of art in Japan.
Wirth carefully unwrapped several of these tea vessels-some more than a century old-from his personal collection to show students the various glazes, shapes and other characteristics.
"The lip is the hardest to get right," said Wirth as he examined the rim of one of his tea bowls. "In the West, symmetry has its pleasures. In Japan, there's a dynamic asymmetry, a desired 'offness' that allows you to see the depths of yourself in the depths of your bowl.
"You can see in the work of an artist the thickness of the past, the depth of life and the sensitivity to time. In great art, if you're generous in what you see, it becomes religious. The depths to which religion aspires are the depths from which art comes forth."
He inspected the tea bowls created by the ceramics students of Department of Fine Arts Chair Josef Venker, S.J. For the occasion, students would use their tea bowls to drink matcha, the traditional fine powder green tea served with great care by Wirth.
"It's not speedy," Wirth warned. "This is not fast food."
Wirth's concentration intensified once he stopped talking and asked others to do the same.
"Silence has the power of letting things come as they really are," he later explained. "Silence cuts through the thickness of our self-deception."
He sat at the front of the room, wearing no shoes, dressed in all black with a striking white sash. Attached to his sash was his purple silk fukusa, a ceremonial cloth used to clean some of the tea implements. To his left was a steaming black cast-iron teakettle and bamboo water ladle. A white cloth for cleaning the tea bowls, a lacquer matcha tea canister, a slender bamboo spoon to scoop the matcha and a stout bamboo whisk to blend the tea were in front of him. To his right, a deep ceramic container held water for cleaning the bowls and adding to the kettle when needed.
The "way of tea" or chadō is a spiritual path-ritual at its most refined. Each motion Wirth made was mindful, purposeful. Not once did both of his arms move simultaneously, all in keeping with the tradition.
There is a specified way for the recipient to hold a tea vessel, with the left hand underneath, and a proper way to drink ceremonial tea. It must be done in either three or five sips, leaving not a drop behind, expressing one's deep gratitude for and appreciation of tea and one's life.
Given how long it took to serve just one person, the thought of watching the ritual performed nine times was daunting at first. True enough, a tea ceremony is customarily shared for half as many people. Yet, as Fr. Venker later remarked, the experience became so meditative, by the time tea was served to the eighth person, there was a sense of sadness and regret that the ceremony would soon end.
In Japanese culture, beauty is not eternal, Wirth noted, but has a touch of sadness and a deep sensitivity to time and transience.
Fr. Venker said he'd like to feature the tea ceremony each time this class is offered. His ceramics students, given a few days to reflect, had plenty to say about it. Rebecca Richards, '16, described the experience as a mind-cleansing meditation that also made her feel more culturally competent.
Samantha de Caussin, '15, added: "This is so different from how quickly and unnoticed we live most of our lives. It made me feel focused and connected to the moment and experience."
"The silence was an awakening of all the senses," said Maxine Cole, '15.
Cassandra Cottrell, '16, said she felt her self-conscious fears dissolve as participants fell into the pattern of the ritual. "A seemingly simple practice taught me so much about how to perceive life," Cottrell said.
The Japanese tea ceremony or chanoyu began with Yabunouchi Kenchū Jōchi, who lived from 1536-1627.
"Why do any spiritual exercises survive? They push against the tempo of time," Wirth said, adding that the tea ceremony is a matter of living completely in the moment, being completely present.
"There's a similarity to the ritual of the old Latin Mass where every gesture is prescribed," Fr. Venker said.
Wirth noted that Catholic reforms of Vatican II opened the door for Jesuits to embrace Zen teachings and practices. As with meditation, clearing the mind is also central to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he said.
"If you live your life like a tea ceremony, it's a different life-one of attentiveness, peace, equanimity and passion. It rewires your brain to process the world differently. In this hyperactive age of incessant distractions, it can seem boring to some, yet the quality of mind and heart that practices like this cultivate are awesome because you're at the depths of life in all its beauty and ephemerality. Tea is a way of slowing down and being in a different world-the one we live in, not the one we run away from."
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Jason Wirth, Core Philosophy Lecturer Elizabeth Sikes and Eddie Salazar in Jesuit Mission and Identity lead a weekly Zen meditation group called the Seattle University EcoSangha Thursday evenings in the Narthex of the Chapel of St. Ignatius. Newcomers are welcome. They also offer a four-week Zen meditation workshop on campus each quarter. Contact Jason Wirth ( firstname.lastname@example.org) or Eddie Salazar ( email@example.com)to find out more.