On Wednesday night, Columbia’s Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture hosted Dr. Genshitsu Sen, the former Grand Master of the Urasenke school of the Japanese tea ceremony. Bwog, recognizing that there is such a thing as too much coffee, spent the evening in the audience at Casa Italiana, to learn about the Japanese tea ceremony, from the master himself.
Some sense of the gravitas of the occasion was immediately conveyed when I walked into the room, full with people dressed in either traditional Japanese garb, or formal evening attire. Dr. Sen was warmly introduced with the endorsement for the next Nobel Peace Prize, and received sincere demonstrations of appreciation from the well-heeled crowd. His opening remarks consisted of courteous compliments and thanks to New York, Columbia, and the Keene Center, making the evening seem that much more decorous and sincere. Despite only understanding through his translator, it was obvious that he was far more youthful and vigorous than one might expect from his 87 years. Constantly gesticulating, grinning and cracking jokes, his presence was warm and inviting, alleviating any sense of alienation that could arise from such formalities.
Dr. Sen sketched a brief history of the culture of tea in Japan, (which they inherited from China), but spent most of the lecture explaining the timelessness of the tea ceremony, and the importance of the ritual in everyday, modern life. “It’s just a beverage, of course,” he said of matcha, the powdered green tea that is served, “but when I drink it, I look at the deep green tea, and the round bowl. I think of it as symbolic of our planet.”
The lecture was followed by a demonstration of the ritual tea ceremony by several former students of the Urasenke school, a process entirely made up of symbolic demonstrations of thoughtfulness and consideration. Each specific tool is symbolically purified with a silk cloth by the host, who then uses them to prepare a bowl of tea for each guest. Each element and step of the process is acknowledged by the guest, who repeatedly bows in appreciation. I was particularly struck by the laboriousness of the preparation, whisking the tea with a bamboo tool to create bubbles, straining it with a linen cloth. As the tea was served, the guest would either turn the bowl and pass it to the next guest, saying “after you,” or acknowledging that they were about to drink it. It is essential that the guests and hosts acknowledge each other, and make each other feel welcome, a surprisingly simple sentiment often disregarded in daily life.
Rather than feeling distanced and unwelcome by this extreme formality, I was rather heartened by the rigorousness with which the process was adhered to. Dr. Sen repeatedly emphasized the importance of the symbolic actions, from thinking about your individual place in the world, to the integrity of setting yourself a complicated task instead of taking the easy route, like drinking Snapple. Neither boring, nor kitschy, it was a genuinely thoughtful occasion, with much more modern resonance than one might expect from an antiquated practice.