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A Cleaner Tea Space, A Purer Tea Mind

Text by: Aaron Fisher

Rikyu's on once spent all morning sweeping up the dewy path (roji), plucking all the weeds and pruning all the trees and bushes. Satisfied that not one stray plant or leaf was evident, he summoned his father to inspect his work. Rikyu just clucked his tongue to show his son that he had failed. Thinking that he missed some spots, the boy returned to his work with a greater verve than before, noticing even smaller weeds and the occasional stray leaf. After some time, he again summoned the old master. Rikyu sighed, "You obviously haven't understood why you failed before, and the hour is getting late. The guests will arrive soon. Therefore, let me show you how to clean the raji." And the master promptly grabbed the thickest branch of an autumn tree and gave it three brisk shakes, scattering fallen leaves over the path in a rain of graceful, unpretentious life.

The art of Zen gardening is not based on the idea that the artist enter the garden and form it according to the image in her mind, but that she guide it along natural, spontaneous expressions that appear as artless as any wild scenery - in fact, suggesting such mountains, beaches and cliff trees in miniature. Nor does the artist attempt to hide their influence, which would be shallow and ineffectively contrived. The idea is that the gardener herself is also a part of that same natural world; a living being that expresses Nature as profoundly as any animal, bird or tree. When a person is free of ego, growing out of one's spontaneous inner-self - flowing with the Dao - one acts in the same way a wild tree grows, according to an inner flow of unprompted, unplanned movements. In that way, the gardener is as much a part of the garden as any shrub or bush. The same could be said for all of the arts, if they are to be Zen arcs - painting, poetry, theater, archery and even tea.

While a greatly-skilled artist could potentially copy the great Zen masters to such an extent that even experts would be fooled, to do so would be to miss the point: for the Dao is a journey, not a destination. The effect of the painting is in its creation, not the result. The enjoyment and transcendence found in the sharing of tea, with each other or with oneself, is in the time spent with the tea itself, not the parting words when the gathering is over. While the imitation painting, poem or even tea session may have the "same", or relatively similar substance, the journey getting there is lost; and that was the whole point.

A person could, consequently, study tea for many years, learning a lot about its processing, history and even how to brew a proper cup. But without the inner, spiritual growth the resulting cup is bland in an indescribable way - only apparent when one drinks another, deeper cup poured by the hands of one who has walked the Dao, rather than imitated it. The greatest tea, in other words, isn't about the brewing parameters, the teaware, the leaves, etc. It is about the journey itself, and its transformative power. Most of us swim against the current of the River Dao, though it still carries us with it no matter how hard we swim, but if we turn and let it carry us, we have all its power flowing through all that we do. There are many small aspects of the art of tea that are often overlooked, even though they are important factors in learning how to brew the Dao, rather than brew tea. Tea lovers often spend time learning about the externals, like the "six kinds of tea" or "where to buy a zisha teapot"; while ignoring the small things like how to clean the tea space properly. "God is in the details", as they say.

Many of the principles of living a tea life have been proven through aeons of monastic practice and its marriage to tea. Rikyu defined the four characteristics of a tea life as: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. Each one of these is deep enough to fill volumes, difficult enough to last a lifetime of practice; and even then, ultimately, ineffable qualities that are best articulated through the tea one brews, not parroted words. Rather than explore all of them,which we be but a cursory introduction to topics better learned experimentally, let us focus on one alone: purity. And, again let us narrow our discussion to some simple, real ways we can apply it to our tea. We might, for instance, view Rikyu's "purity" as, in part, the cleanliness of the tea space and all that inhabits it.

Long ago in Japan, one's ability to host a tea gathering was in part judged by the cleanliness of the tea room. Every corner was swept, the dust removed; even the garden was cleaned and sprayed with water, suggesting Nature's own refreshing hand. This cleanliness is not about a tidying up of unwanted refuse. In fact, the spontaneity of all Zen art, as we mentioned above, means that the creator should be a part of the natural creation, rather than molding an inanimate medium to his or her will. The cleanliness, like all of the tea life, is within. The sweeping of the tea room is the sweeping of the mind; the wiping of the dust like polishing the "mind mirror" - until one reaches the state of realization that there is no dust and nothing for it to cling to.

It may seem silly at first, but cleaning the tea space will take as many decades to master as learning how to pour the kettle, gauge the amount of leaves or any other skill one normally associates with tea preparation. This is because cleaning isn't just about sweeping, mopping and washing the tea towels - cleaning also involves removing unnecessary furniture and decoration so that the tea space is uncluttered, for example; and ultimately, like all principles that lead to a concordance with the Dao, cleaning is a mental and spiritual exercise. As the above story showed, the real master cleans without any distinction between what is "dirty" and "clean" allowing Nature's own inner-purity to shine; and sometimes this purity might be demonstrated, paradoxically in a pile of dirt ". For example the morning dew dripping from a camellia bush onto the dark, loamy earth that now smells of things growing. The very image inspires purity of mind and cleanliness. Consequently, cleaning is an art form, especially when it comes to Zen, tea, and Zen tea.

Beyond the preparatory cleaning of the tea room and garden, there is also the quasi-symbolic washing of the hands and feet of the guests before they enter the tea space. Halfway down the roji, there is a stone basin filled with water (tsukubai) - cool in summer, warm in winter - and a dipper that the guests use to clean their hands, face and/or feet. Then again, when the guests finally enter the tea room, the utensils are all thoroughly cleaned before their eyes. This has its equivalent in the Chinese gong fu tea ceremony, which also suggests that the host rinse all the teaware, and tea, before the guests.

The fact that this cleaning is not done before the guests arrive is more than just a gesture to show them that the utensils are hygienic. After all, the thorough cleaning of the tea space and garden occurs long before they arrive. There is a much deeper aspect to the rinsing of the teaware, and even the tea leaves themselves.

The washing of the hands and face, the rinsing of all the teaware and tea is about washing off the "Dust of the World." The idea is that the tea space is otherworldly, beyond the realm of the ordinary. In fact, the gate and dewy path (roji) are also designed to impart the feeling of traveling away from the ordinary world, perhaps hiking up to the abode of the ancient hermits: lost up among the cliff trails, wandering above the clouds. Ancient Daoist mendicants called the life of laypeople below the "World of Dust", and leaving it behind "shaking off the Dust". The metaphor was more literal back then, before the invention of paved roads when Chinese towns were actually quite often dusty. The rinsing of the teaware and tea isn't just a symbol of this leaving the world behind, though it can be viewed that way, but a literal practice of it. Until we can learn to clean our minds, we instead clean the space within which we practice. Eventually the purity inside and outside dissolves, the discipline becomes natural and the whole relativity of pure versus impure vanishes; after which there is still cleaning, but only for its own sake; and that then sometimes means shaking leaves over the path, as Rikyn taught his son.

Washing off all the cups, pots, pitchers and then rinsing the tea itself is further a practice of purifying the tea space of all ego. It is, in effect, saying to your guests that here we are free to be ourselves. We don 't need to carry on with any of the pretension or competition that is going on in our ordinary, business lives. Sometimes in the West this kind of "escapism" is viewed as unhealthy, but traditional Buddhist and Daoist culture viewed it as something quite natural: taking a break from the doldrums of ordinary life to, even for an hour, be like the Daoist monk who wanders about "like a cloud" with nothing more pressing to do than listen to the birds or the song of a river - all this is viewed as something necessary and healthy to a living being. Nature also alternates periods of release with those of stillness, and the idea that even a business man needs some time to wash off the dust of the world and relax into the deep repose of an old, gnarly tree is something the West is finding a taste for, coming to understand how this very lack of stillness has harmed our health.

Furthermore, the cleaning of your tea utensils also serves to wash away all the previous tea sessions you have had. This is central to the idea that each tea session is a unique gathering of unique individuals that will never meet again. The Japanese tea masters expressed this in the words "one encounter, one chance (ichie go ichie))". According to Buddhist and Daoist philosophy, even if you and I share tea every day (and it is the same tea) each encounter will still be unique in every possible way, including the fact that you and I will be changed - completely different people, actually. This forces us to remain present, to focus on the matchless, irreplaceable chance that is here before us: to connect to each other, to ourselves and to the Dao. By washing off your teaware, carefully rinsing each cup, saucer and utensil, you are washing away all the other lost sessions and refreshing this one, further exclaiming its distinctness. For this same reason, you might want to practice washing off all the teaware at the end of the session as well, showing not only a care for your teaware, but also as an expression of the fact that the tea gathering we have shared now echoes in eternity, singular and complete forever.

Some tips for realizing purity through the cleanliness of the tea space

Zen art has always faced the criticism of absurdity. On the one hand, there is no "pure" or "impure", no need to distinguish them, and many times what is ordinarily considered "impure" can be pure, like Rikyu's leaves scattered about the garden. At the same time, one is asked to clean, to focus one's attention on cleaning up the tea space. Though paradoxical, the experience itself is meant to go beyond logic, and as a result the more absurd it is, the more it works - confusing the rational mind. The idea is that you just clean. In the beginning there is a distinction between that which is "clean" and that which is "unclean", but over time the duality vanishes and there is just cleaning. And that is when mastery can be achieved; when you too can scatter leaves around your tea table without making it look contrived - when your unaffected, spontaneous aware of the difference, as I myself have two tea rooms: one is a more "social" room with a table and benches. I keep my tea and teaware in room, and it is also decorated. My other tea room is very simple and empty. When serving tea in the former, guests rarely ever settle down - looking about at all the tea, teaware and decorations, and sometimes even getting up repeatedly to examine this or that. In such environs, how can the murky waters of the mind ever settle to purity?

However big your tea space - whether a tea room or just the corner of a room - try starting the cleaning Process removing as many decorations, tea, teaware and furniture as possible. If you only have the corner of a room, you may want to think about separating it, perhaps with an Asian changing screen. Try using a low table and sitting on the floor, which removes the need for chairs. You can decorate the space later, recognizing that before an artist can begin painting, he or she requires an empty canvas. Actually, the use of space is one of the most difficult techniques for an artist to master, and often it is the space of the ink painting, the empty suggestion of the theater stage, that say more than the parts that are painted. At this stage, take out everything you can - in fact, go beyond what you feel comfortable removing. Extend the emptiness as far as possible to start - it is always easier to add than to take away. Try keeping your tea and teaware in another place, and bringing it into the tea space as you serve it. In purifying your space in this way, you will find the emptiness immediately contrasts this area with the rest of your house and life, which makes it feel relieving. Indeed, it is amazing how much of a relief it is to enter an empty space, where our mind is free to settle down. In such a cluttered world, a bit of empty space is a rare find.

Once your tea space is emptied of all clutter, you can scour it. The more you clean, the more the act of cleaning becomes part of your tea practice. Don't leave any detail undone. It doesn't matter if your guests notice that the underside of the tatami is dean, or that the windowsills are recently dusted. As I mentioned before, you aren't cleaning for the end result anyway. Cleaning is like breathing, as soon as you breath in, you must breathe out. In other words, you clean the tea space spotlessly, but the tea gathering only spoils it again. The practice is the journey, not the contrast between "clean" and "dirty . it is a good idea to clean the tea space before and every session, every time. Even if you are having tea alone, don't neglect this practice. Many of our defilements revolve around a lack of discipline: laziness. Slouching, for example is always a sign of mental impurities. Just as we must sit up straight to meditate properly (or make tea for that matter), we mustn't neglect the cleaning of our tea space just because we are too lazy to do it. The tea space is a reflection of our minds. If our space is a mess, so are our lives. So much can be read in the way a person organizes their home. If the tea space isn't cleaned, neither arc we. In meditation, one cannot leave a single speck of dust anywhere in the mind. Use the cleaning of the tea space as an expression of that same wisdom.

The art of decorating the tea space will also take decades to master. Mostly we are here discussing the "purity" of the tea space, which for most of us is a negation of unwanted things in our lives. While it is possible for purity, of space and of mind, to be an affirmative action, in this modern world purity is mostly about removing obstacles, abstaining from unhealthy practices and allowing all the turmoil in our minds to settle down so that the water is pure and fresh, which others will then also wish to drink from. Try decorating as minimally as possible in the beginning. Arrange some flowers or hang a single scroll painting. These are good places to start. One important thing to note is that, generally, more lasting, permanent decorations go against the aesthetic of tea, which is why flowers are always great. The fleeting spirit of flowers have always lent them a special place in the poetry and practice of Eastern spirituality, and of course in tea as well. By changing the decorations repeatedly, one is recognizing the exclusiveness of the tea session, unlike any other in all eternity. Changing the decorations also makes the guests feel as if you care for them all that much more. They will recognize that care has been taken to enhance their experience of the tea. It will also refresh the tea space, rewarding your own sessions as well.

During tea preparation, rinse all the teaware and even the tea. Similarly, if you are alone, this washing of the tea things is useful. Many of us don't have a tea garden, a dewy path (roji) or a washbasin (tsukubai). There are simple ways around this, though. One way is to simply wash your hands and face before entering the tea space. At my house, we serve guests a moist towel - cool in summer, warm in winter - to wash off their face and hands before tea. As the pores of the skin open up, one feels more relaxed, clean and openhearted: the mud has already started to settle down. I slowly rinse each cup in a circular motion. being sure to clean it thoroughly, so that all past tea sessions are rinsed away - leaving only this present tea mind.

After finishing a tea session, I also clean up my teaware thoroughly. One of the biggest problems with this modern world is that we have lost all respect for the "objects" we take into our lives. Even the creation of simple things was radically transformed by the industrial revolution. One reason antique teaware works so much better is that it was made with pride, as with anything. In our great-grandfather's day, adults bought one pair of shoes to last them their lives. These shoes were handmade, with pride, and repaired by equally skilled craftsman whenever they were damaged. All of our environmental problems stem from a lack of respect for objects, which we use and cast aside at an amazing pace. If your tea is drunk in a similar fashion, as you work on the computer - or other "multi-tasking", which is only a synonym for clutter - it only furthers the very worldly stress and dilemma you are trying to relieve. Take care of your teaware. It is a precious companion on your tea journey. Don't t leave your teaware dirty, staining it with neglect. Wash, dry and replace it with care each time you use it, so that it may find in you a friendship equal to that which it gives.

After your guests leave, or after you finish your session, dean up the tea space and teaware thoroughly. Ancient masters suggested that we use this rime to sit in the tea space for a few minutes and quietly reflect on the tea session that just occurred: the ways it changed us and our guests, fondly remembering its grace and wishing the guests who have come and gone a pleasant journey through life, hopefully cheered by the company and tea.

At first you may find these exercises tedious. Discipline is always thus. My teacher says that meditation is like a tree: when it is a sprout, we must give it constant attention: watering, fertilizing it and even building a fence around it to protect it from predators (distractions). Later, it becomes a sapling and needs less and less attention from us, as it begins to grow its own roots in our lives, and a bit of a crown beneath the sky (wisdom). Finally, way down the road, our tree becomes a great banyan that is completely independent; and not only that, it provides shade and fruit for others, as well as propagating seeds ail around. Caring for the tea space is much the same.

You will soon find that cleaning is not something dreary, boring or wearisome. It will become a part of your tea, as much as selecting the leaves or pot to use that day. And, what's more, you will find your tea all the more delicious, not to mention spiritually rewarding, for the very reason that it was enjoyed in a clean, empty and pure space. And as your mind purifies, your tea space will begin to take on a natural sheen of clarity that extends beyond just the simple, obvious fact that it is clean. And it will be at this moment, when your tea space is sparkling, that you too will smile, reach up and scatter a mess of leaves over it.

You will have created a tea space that has the power to lead to transcendence, affecting all those who come to it. In such a place, each cup will be steeped in the Dao, and people will go home feeling as if they have left the world and returned refreshed, as if Spring herself had come in unawares and spread dewdrops over their lives, each one reflecting the moon.