Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chado - The Way of Tea

The Japanese Festival is one of the premier events at the Missouri Botanical Garden, a/k/a Shaw Garden, after its founder, Henry Shaw. Held every Labor Day weekend, it attracts thousands. When we first visited Shaw Garden last fall we were astonished to find it contains a 14-acre formal Japanese garden. This part of the garden is named Seiwa-en, which means “the garden of pure, clear harmony and peace.” A four-acre lake is complemented with waterfalls, streams, bridges and water-filled basins. Dry gravel gardens are raked into rippling patterns. Carefully placed islands rise from the lake. Largest of these is Nakajima. It crosses the lake, connected to each bank by traditional bridges. We were both drawn to Nakajima, but the entrances were barred.

We learned that Nakajima is a sacred teahouse island reserved for tea ceremonies that are held one weekend each year in a traditional soan, or “farm hut style” teahouse, a gift from Missouri's sister state of Nagano, Japan. This soan was built in Japan, shipped to St. Louis, reassembled by Japanese craftsmen, and dedicated with a Shinto ceremony in 1977.

Merry and I resolved to attend a tea ceremony and see the island. We finally did last Sunday, September 6, but not without a little drama.

Chado, forty minute tea ceremonies, are held on Nakajima 6 times a day for the three days of the Japanese festival. Each seating is restricted to 12 people. Tickets can only be purchased at the entrance to teahouse island one hour before the seating. We planned to go Saturday early.

Saturday dawned gray. Thunder could be heard just before a sustained downpour started. When we reached Shaw Garden at 9 am it was still pouring. We were told at the gate that the three early seatings of Chado had been cancelled. We went in anyway and enjoyed the garden in the rain. We toured the Bonsai exhibit, listened to some traditional drumming, ate, and watched people. Merry has some terrific photos of this visit on her blog

We decided to come back the next day to try again. When we reached the gate we were told due to the threatening weather the ceremony would be held in a room indoors. The disappointment was too much for me. I decided to leave, but Merry wanted to stay and experience Chado, even in a much reduced form. I got in the car and started to exit when I saw Merry running toward me. Plans had changed, the ceremony would be in the teahouse on the island unless it started raining again. Merry ran ahead to stand in line to buy tickets.

An hour later we meet our guide by the Arbor of the Plum Wind. He opens the outer gate that bars the bridge to the island. As we walk he explains the design of the “roji” garden. The outer garden called “soto-roji” is paved with broad stepping stones laid in a sweeping arc. The plants are simple, small shrubs, no flowers. This is a transition area where we can walk without being required to pay much attention as we leave our daily cares behind.

At the end of the arc we come to two parallel rows of thick trimmed bamboo that narrows the focus dramatically. Now the path is paved with uneven tobi-ishi stones, slowing the gait and encouraging much closer attention. An inner gate opens to a courtyard of raked brown gravel. A stone basin filled with water sits by the entrance for symbolic cleansing. Three boulders rise from the gravel sea, two bigger ones on the right, a smaller on the left.

The teahouse is a small room in a simple hut with a tile roof, rough wooden pillars and mud walls. Bamboo hedges screen it entirely from any view off the island. The room has an alcove with a calligraphy scroll and some fresh flowers, and an alcove for the host to prepare tea. The scroll is white, with only four characters: wa [harmony], kei [respect], sei [purity], jaku [tranquility]. The floor is covered by four and a half bamboo tatami mats. One wall is open to the weather, but this is not the door, rather a window. The door is along the side, so small it must be crawled through. We learn only seven of us can enter, the rest will be served tea in the courtyard. I'm right by the entrance. I slip off my shoes and crawl in first.

I'm told to sit in the “least honored guest” spot nearest the host. The last guest across from me will be honored by being served first. Our host is Professor Kimiko Gunji of the University of Illinois. She is assisted by three of her students and a young girl in a beautiful red kimono.

Our host trained in Kyoto to be a tea master in the tradition of the Urasenke school. She leads us through the simple steps. She carefully cleans the utensils. Powered green tea is wisked into a foam in hot water. You eat a sweet cookie and candy. A bowl of tea is carefully placed before you. You offer your tea to the guest seated to your left. They politely refuse. You drink the tea. The bowls are collected.

Every move is choreographed. The utensils are beautiful. Every thing encourages contemplation.

We reluctantly leave the teahouse. We linger in the courtyard. Finally, we cross a wooden drum bridge and return to the rest of the garden.

The forty minutes on the island was one of the most peaceful meditations I've experienced. It opened a small space in my consciousness. I feel ready.

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