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tea ceremony

January 28, 2006

I seem to have fallen into practicing the Japanese tea ceremony. It’s something that I’ve wanted, at the back of my mind, to try at least once while I’m in Japan, but the opportunity hasn’t come up (it was never terribly likely to on a tiny Okinawan island), and the fact that for me, sitting in the proper seiza position for more than five minutes is as close to torture as makes no difference has scared me off any more active attempt to try it.

But there are a bunch of third-year girls who practice it every Monday at my current school, and last week I was invited along. I thought it was a one-off, but it turned out I was expected this week too, so I suspect I’m a tea-ceremony regular for the rest of term.

The tea ceremony is an extreme formalisation of a social situation – the making, presenting, and drinking of tea. I knew this. What I didn’t realise until I tried it was the extent to which it feels not so much like a formalisation of a general social situation, but an abstraction of a specific one, if that makes any sense… Not just the tea-related movements – picking up the cup, washing it, placing the green powdered tea in it – but all the movements involved – which foot goes forwards first when you step into the room or stand up – are specifed and equally important. So it feels like the point is not so much the perfection of a meaningful act as the perfect enacting or re-enacting of an ideal scene.

It made me think of Plato’s idea that all actual things are flawed variants of a perfect ‘form’. The ceremony feels like an attempt to capture the ‘form’ of making and drinking tea. The fact that this is impossible gives the ceremony a dizzying (and for me, unexpected) feeling of endlessness: the feeling that you really could spend your whole life practicing it and you’d still be an infinite distance from ‘getting it right’. I think I understand better now why it’s also used as a form of Zen meditation – I’d assumed it was primarily that it involves sitting still and focussing on the body’s movement. I hadn’t imagined this dizzying, almost depressing feeling of imperfectability and abstraction.

It also reminded me of one of Philip K. Dick’s madder novels (I can’t remember which one), in which (if I’ve remembered right) everyone living on Mars participates in a daily semi-religious ritual that involves playing with a particular type of doll while watching a particular television programme. And a Borges short story about a man rewriting Don Quixote word for word.

I should say that the first time made a much more profound impression on me than the second: the second time I was much more focussed on the excruciating physical pain in my legs.

On a completely different topic, these were just what I needed to rekindle my excitement about travelling in China at a time when boredom with organising visas and the mental resources devoted to thinking about preparations for leaving Japan, and plans for when I get back to the UK were beginning to eclipse or dilute (depending on whether excitement is a light or a liquid — I’m not entirely clear on this matter) my excitement about passing through China on the way back. [Via Antipixel]

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