Chado for Thanksgiving

For the last six-and-a-half years, I have facilitated a class of about 25 on Tuesday mornings, what I call a “community of deep meaning,” where we discuss issues at the intersection of Religion and Culture, following Paul Tillich’s well-known comment from his book of the same name: “Culture is the form of religion; religion is the substance of culture.”

And so last Tuesday, the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, I shared with the class a 27-minute YouTube of one of my favorite places in the world, the Seiwa-en Japanese Gardens in the Missouri Botanical Gardens (Shaw’s Garden), in south St. Louis, the largest such garden in North America. Click here to view it.

It was dedicated in 1977 on 14 acres overlooking a serene 4 ½ acre lake; children love feeding the koi from the Togetsukyo Flat Bridge, and the annual Japanese Festival over Labor Day draws thousands of visitors. So it was 40+ years ago, shortly after its opening, I had the privilege of joining the Zen Master of St. Louis (and my Zen teacher), Dr. Rosan Yoshida, and a few others at the Japanese Garden for my first experience of Chado, the “Way of Tea.” The YouTube that we viewed in Tuesday’s class was Chado at the Japanese Gardens.

Chado is mischaracterized as a “tea ceremony” – there is no ceremony, it’s just tea; “cha” means “tea,” “do” (tao) means “way.” Chado is a sensual connection, all five senses, fully awake, present to the moment, in the preparation and drinking of tea, as well as the never-to-be-repeated intimacy with the one(s) with whom one drinks the tea. Attentive to the one thing, the one person in front of you, following precise rubrics, fully present to each other. All in the shared experience of tea.

Accompanying the full experience of the “Way of Tea” – a scroll with calligraphy“wa-kei-sei-jaku,” the four values of Chado (“harmony,” “respect,” “purity,” “tranquility”). Also, a simple flower arrangement, chabana (literally, “tea flower”), a form of ikebana, often a single blossom, the kimono, ceremonial clothing, each fold and tuck allows for fluidity of movement, and kaiseki, the simple, multi-course meal of small portions.

 A few thoughts from Tuesday’s class:

  1. I used to tell my students that Zen is easy to understand – it is simply to be where you are and nowhere else. To be where you are – not fixated on where you’ve come from nor worried about what lies ahead, to be utterly right here, right now.
  2. A central feature of the Way of Tea is wabi sabi; focusing on the now brings with it the realization that it truly is an unrepeatable moment, that transience is truth, that change is permanent, and that beauty can be found in a thing’s natural state, that everything is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” And this not only is true about the world around us, our relationships, our families, but it’s also true about our perceptions, our understanding of reality, it’s also true about our lives. To embrace the world, this life, your life as compellingly, beautifully imperfect even as you work to transform it, heal it. Wabi sabi humbles us.
  3. Traditionally, the door to the tearoom is low so that all who enter must bow. Each step requires bowing throughout the preparation – to the room, the tea bowl, fan, ladle, whisk, and other utensils, to the tea itself, and most important, bowing to one’s guest(s). Humility, respect, welcome, placing the other at a place of honor, even the elements and each movement, too – the essence of the Way of Tea. The bowing reminds the participants that it’s all a gift, this moment, the moment, one’s life, everything is a gift.
  4. Freedom, liberation, release. Discipline, rubrics, ritual is often viewed as an obstacle to freedom, but students of Chado learn temae, the simple yet exact rubrics, the step-by-step movements. One pays meticulous attention to every detail of preparing and drinking tea, each motion reflecting the respect of the tradition. There’s just one thing, the most important thing, the only thing, at least at this unique, unrepeatable moment – extravagant hospitality, complete openness to that very thing you’re doing, to the person right in front of you. There will be other moments to love, but now, in this moment, it’s this one. Loving the world, this world, this life, this one just might be the most important, the most revolutionary thing that you can do. Chado’s very discipline is the most intimate of dances.
  5. I was asked, “What in the world made you think of Chado for Thanksgiving?” Gratitude, gratis, grace. Gratis, Latin for “thanks” – in Greek, it’s “eucharisteo,” “to give thanks. Whose root is “charis,” grace, “charism,” gift, and “chara,” abundant joy. All interconnected.

Eucharist à charis à grace/bounty à charism à gift, creative energy à chara à deep joy!

  • So what does the Way of Tea have to do with Thanksgiving? The perfect question. To be perfectly awake, present to each moment, this moment, the person in front of us – grateful, even, for this moment, this person. Even if you didn’t choose this life, to welcome it, this moment, this person, this experience because without it, without them, you wouldn’t be the person you have come to be.
  • Chado is Eucharisto, both extravagant hospitality, both deeply personal and intimate, both life-changing and world-transforming. Jesus took bread, gave thanks (eucharisteo), broke it … this is my body … ” The Way of Tea, humbly receiving the most personal of gifts, this moment, your life, the one in front of you, receiving them into yourself, deeply, intimately, loving them. Chado is Eucharisto – it’s all a gift.
  • So for this Thanksgiving, a gift to you – Kahlil Gibran’s On Love:

When Love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden. 
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. 

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast. 

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge

become a fragment of Life's heart. 

But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep,

but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love. 

When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, "I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of Love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. 

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

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