Because I am interested in kaiseki, the high-end multi-course meal, I wanted to learn more about its origins in cha-kaiseki, the tea ceremony preceded by a very rudimentary small meal. One day, I found a posting for such an experience at a very low price with no reviews, and I thought that I would take a chance. I was rewarded with something extraordinary.
I went to a traditional house near Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto. I was greeted by the owner, Dairik-san, an architect who studied in the United States for a long time and whose English is native, and who became interested in the tea ceremony and simply wants to share his experience with his friends. The house was beautiful, with a tasteful calligraphy. Around the new year, the items in the tokonoma were charcoal, paper, and a type of fern that stays green for two weeks after being cut.
I was served sake that we shared. I was then served one dried sardine (from the sea) and two grilled shitake mushrooms (from the mountains) with salt. Then, the host started the preparations to make the tea, and made the matcha tea which I drank, and then I left.
But this series of event only tells part of the story. Over two hours, Dairik-san who is around my age shared with me the mechanics and the philosophy of the tea ceremony. I could tell that he was attracted by the same elements that were now attracting me.
The tea ceremony is like a moving meditation. The matcha tea is the end product, but not the central focus. For the host, the most important thing is to be totally present in the moment, during each step. In fact, the tea ceremony started before I entered the house. Dairik-san had gone to a shrine to get and bring back some of their water (he sometimes goes to a temple, but they make him do work like cleaning their garden, which takes more time). Being present at every moment, physically carrying the water once a week, is more difficult than it would seem.
In zazen (sitting) meditation, you are told to focus on a point in front of you. In the tea ceremony, the point is moving. Dairik-san showed me where the points were in the objects, and how the points and the objects were aligned on the tatami floor. While the host is making tea, he or she focuses their attention on the points that they are moving around them. When you become good, the movements become second-nature and you can totally focus your mind on the points. It is like a moving meditation.
I asked about his rock garden, and Dairik-san told me that he got most of his rocks from the Kamo river in Kyoto, transporting them one by one, experiencing the process of choosing and taking something, feeling its weight, only taking what you need.
I was touched by Dairik-san’s incredible and undeserved hospitality. I was also grateful that he answered my questions about Zen Buddhism. I could tell that he had similar questions to mine years ago. His tea ceremony teacher used to be a Buddhist monk and I found his outlook incredibly attractive. Zen Buddhism allows different abbots to reach different conclusions and employ different methods, it does not preach a particular answer or try to convert people to its religion, nor is it particularly commercialized. It is introspective and challenging. It has many teachings, but it emphasizes that you have to discover them yourself through experience and intuition, not logic or reason. This is why, for example, they use koans.
Reservations: I do not know if Dairik-san will accept to make a tea ceremony for you, but you can ask him. This is his website.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Kasumicho Suetomi, Sushi Kimura, Tempura Matsu, Hayashi, Saito, Mizai, Jiro (revisited), Shukubo temple stay, Ren, Tsukiya ryokan.