Have a cup
The Daimyo of Seven prefectures, Lord Hideyoshi himself, presided over his annual Chrysanthemum viewing party. The guests included three other daimyos and lords, several high class merchants and a few of his retainers. After an elegant meal, the daimyo led the party outside to his garden to see the chrysanthemums, His gardeners) of course, spared no expense, and the scenery around the Jurakudai palace was exquisite, with lovely walkways, bonsai trees, a stream and Chrysanthemums planted everywhere for the "Festival of Happiness".
The hyperactive daimyo bounced along ahead of his guests, pointing out blossoms he found particularly amazing, sniffing others and then rushing off. He asked each guest what they thought repeatedly, to the point of what would have been rude had he not been the host and such a powerful lord. Hideyoshi was a blunt man, though, and eventually he cornered his retainer Sogei, asking him: "Sogei, tell me plainly and truly, is this not the most magnificent bloom of Chrysanthemums you've ever seen?" Sogei knew that if he was not completely honest, the sharp-witted lord would see it in his eyes, and so he hesitated,
"Come now" said the daimyo, patting his shoulder, "I don't mind. Tell us whose garden is better so that we may go there before the Festival of Happiness is over. Or if it was a past garden you saw, more magnificent than mine, please tell us how we might improve this arrangement."
Sogei bowed repeatedly, before stammering "My-m-my lord, this year Rikyu's garden is full of the most amazing Chrysanthemums I have ever seen. Th-they are truly large and white, beyond belief Not only are they large, my lord, there are so many of them...more than I've ever seen in one place."
"Rikyu?!" He stroked his goatee. "Well, we shall …perhaps you're right. He summoned a servant sent him off to inform Rikyu that the lord was coming for tea first thing the next morning, "Tell him a bold claim has been made. Tell him that I've heard that his Chrysanthemums are the most beautiful in the land, and if it is true, his lord is most eager to see them." As the servant hurried off, Hideyoshi turned to his guests, "In he began energetically," I think I shan't be able to sleep a wink tonight!" Without any more interest in his own garden, he led the guests inside for some refreshments.
Sure enough, Hideyoshi was up before dawn, dressed and racing out the door towards Rikyu's house - full of excitement and anticipation in equal measure. He strode so fast his samurai had to jog to keep up. He rushed through the streets to Rikyu's house, pushing open the gate to the tea garden forcefully, ignoring the mindful way that his teacher had taught him, and strode boldly into the garden with a huge smile, expecting to be greeted by a rush of vibrant white. Instead, the garden was completely bare. Every single blossom had been plucked...not a single Chrysanthemum in sight!
Hideyoshi was agape. He stared around in shock. He could see the Chrysanthemum plants clearly, green and vibrant, but not a blossom anywhere. As this sunk in, the daimyo grew angrier and angrier until he was boiling. He stomped down the path of stones, pausing ever so briefly to splash water on his face - only because he was Japanese and forms and rituals were always upheld, even in fury - though the meaning was lost, beading and rolling off his fuming anger. He threw off his sandals and burst through the rituals were always upheld, even in fury - though the meaning was lost, beading and rolling off his fuming anger. He threw off his sandals and burst through the small entrance into the tea room, a tirade of curses for his teacher hovering near his lips. As he crawled through, he looked up, allowing his irate eyes to grow accustomed to the dimness as he searched for the source of this outrage. His teacher hadn't entered yet, but it didn't matter; for as Hideyoshi looked up he saw it...
...there in the alcove, presented in the most beautiful Ming Dynasty vase he'd ever seen, was one, single absolutely perfect Chrysanthemum blossom - the most beautiful he'd ever seen!
While the next pot is steeping
We must learn to approach our tea by letting go of all the turmoil of the world. The stress of our jobs, our families_even our desires and dreams are left behind. We clean ourselves of the World of Dust and enter a different world altogether, a world of peace - a world of Zen.
Sen No Rikyu clipped all the blossoms as we must cut all worldly ties before entering the tea space, Hideyoshi had come seeking abundance and Rikyu taught him that only with an inner emptiness can one truly appreciate a blossom - and the same can be said of tea. Though we have the best of tea and Chinese style tea sets, if our minds are tainted as we approach the tea space, we will only find fault in even the best of tea. There is no abundance here, for each blossoming tea session is perfect, and only the mind that contains it can be imperfect. The mind has fault, not the tea. We must learn how to appreciate a single blossom before we can admire a garden, a single moment of life before we can live enlightened.
In Japan one follows a "dewy path (roji)" to the tea room, entering through a crude wooden or bamboo gate. This is meant to symbolize a portal to another state of consciousness. We leave behind all our worldly affairs, and make the tea space a complete dimension of its own. You can see through these rickety, old gates. They aren't meant to keep people out, but to remind us that from this point on we are in a sacred space apart from the ordinary humdrum of worldly existence.
There is usually a water basin halfway down the roji that everyone stops at to wash their hands and face, with cool water in the warm months and warm water in the winter. The idea is that we are washing clean the Dust of the World. In ancient times, cities were literally dusty, and this quickly became an important spiritual metaphor - so that renouncing the World for the life of a hermit in the mountains was called "shaking off the Dust." We clean our face and hands of all worldly business, entering the tea space refreshed, clean and open. The Chinese also clean all the teaware - cups, pitchers, teapot, etc. - before beginning to brew tea "gong fu", which means with artistic presence, with mastery. The cleaning of the teaware symbolizes this same sentiment, a washing off of one's cares. It is more than just a hygienic gesture; it is an expression of the purity of the tea space.
We may not have a roji leading to our tea space, or a stone water basin with a bamboo dipper, but we can still practice the essence of cleaning ourselves before we drink tea; and the meaning behind the motion is of far more importance anyway. One way I have found to achieve this at home is to bring your guests white washcloths gently soaked in warm or cool water, depending on the season. I use wooden tongs, and like a stewardess on an airplane or a waitress in a nice restaurant, I serve each of my guests a moist towel.
It humbles me and helps everyone to feel clean and refreshed before tea. And whether they recognize it or not, it is also a token action, intimating purity and a leaving behind of all worldly concerns. As the pores of their skin open, and the face and hands feel fresh, clean and relaxed, their consciousness naturally finds repose and awareness.
I also wash off all the kung fu tea set items thoroughly before and after drinking tea. All the cares of the world are cleaned off; and at the end of our tea, we wash off even the tea we've just drunk and all the wisdom it inculcated. There is no attachment in Zen, even to Zen itself.
A student once asked Master Joshu (Zhao Zhou 趙州從論) the meaning of Zen.
"Have you had your rice?" he replied.
"Then go wash your bowl!"
As the student walked off to wash his bowl, he achieved enlightenment (safari). He understood that he had just been given a great teaching - about life, meditation and also the meaning of Zen.
There is plenty of time for our worldly life, our professional or family life, our past or our plans. Let the tea space be free of all that. Turn off your cell phone before even approaching your tea. Wear some comfortable clothes. Clean off your face, washing the Dust away. Then wash each bowl, each pot; because it is sanitary and healthy; and because here, in this space, ail our cares are also cleaned so that we're free to find calm joy in our tea.