It’s the end of the year, things are starting to get hectic, and work is piling on. To combat (or at least be temporarily distracted from) my stress, I decided to pay a visit to the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies—an ancient ritual that was new to me.
Stephen A. Morrell, who designed the Freeman Family Japanese Garden, led the demonstration. Morrell has been at the University for 17 years and, in addition to designing and running the garden at Wesleyan, has also been the director of a Japanese garden on Long Island for 30 years.
Morrell’s interest in both Zen Buddhism and Japanese tea gardens grew out of his combined love of landscape architecture, meditation, and yoga, the latter two of which were popular when he was young.
“Originally, I got interested because it was kind of the ‘in thing,’ but something connected [for me],” Morrell said. “I found that it was not only about my career path, but also about cultivating spirituality.”
The type of ceremony he demonstrated last Monday was one that attempted to draw in all of a person’s focus.
“The idea is to be aware of the subtlety, of everything that’s involved,” Morrell said.
Part of the challenge of performing the tea ceremony is this intense focus on every detail. The entire performance requires that you move your body in a certain way, paying attention to each particular moment of the ceremony. The tea ritual follows a very specific order that dictates how items should be brought out, handled, and put away.
Despite this rigidity, however, Morrell allowed that there is room for mistakes.
“Nothing is perfect,” he said. “And in a sense, everything is perfect. Dropping the bowl is perfect. It’s all in how you respond.”
He also noted that there was more complexity to his actions than met the eye.
“There’s a lot of subtlety that’s not really that visible,” Morrell said. “But it’s for the person that’s doing it to focus the mind.”
Indeed, Morrell performed most of the ceremony in silence, only speaking to explain specific aspects and moments. Morrell explained that, traditionally, nobody speaks until after they are served. When they do speak, they talk about the ceremony itself and the surrounding tearoom: the focus remains on the present.
He performed the ceremony with a student volunteer, who followed his instructions as the rest of us watched.
The ceremony involved pouring the tea, serving and eating small sweets, bowing, and finally drinking the tea.
The objects used in the ceremony included a bowl, brush, Japanese-style tea bowl, and a wood-handled scoop used to transfer the tea from one vessel to another. Morrell treated each item and action with deliberation, drawing attention to the respect he has for the historic rite.
After the ceremony, Morrell explained that, traditionally, each utensil has a past and a history. He said that the people performing the ceremony would be aware of the previous owners of the utensils and of any stories surrounding them.
Morrell also explained a little bit of the history of tea and how it came to Japan through cultural exchange with China. By the eighth century, he said, tea had become the most popular drink in China.
“Tea was the Pepsi of the time,” Morrell said. “It was the national drink of China, basically. It was considered an elixir—a health-benefitting elixir.”
In addition to its health benefits, tea also gained popularity as a way to combat drowsiness when people practiced Buddhist meditation.
Morrell invited everyone to see the Japanese garden after the ceremony. When designing the garden, he found inspiration in the topography of the Connecticut River Valley and the hills of Middlesex County.
“What I tried to do here was adapt the ideas [of Japanese garden design] but realize that we’re not in Japan,” Morrell said.
He also incorporated elements of Zen thought and philosophy in his design. He used the Japanese artistic elements of subtlety, rhythm, and visual dynamism in his decision to focus the color palette of the garden on shades of green, instead of using colorful flowers. He also reminded onlookers that the stepping stones placed amidst the raked gravel represented an attempt to stay focused and in the present moment amid life’s turbulence.
As exams approach, that sense of turbulence is something that students will find all too familiar. The ceremony and the garden both served as refreshing reminders to me to appreciate the beauty of each moment and not to let subtle beauty go unnoticed.
Morrell reflected that the values of the tea ceremony extend far beyond the literal ritual itself.
“Yes, it’s making tea,” Morrell said. “But there’s a lesson there.”