Jun 11, 2010

The Way of Tea

Today, I found an article online that was of great interest to me.

The Way of Tea: A Symbolic Analysis
Dorinne Kondo
Harvard University

However, when I accessed the abstract I couldn't understand it.  I admit, I am not from an academic background, but I re-read the abstract several times.  I still cannot make heads or tails of the meaning of the words.  I am rather disappointed that I cannot understand what it says.  It reminds me that I cannot read the Japanese articles about the Way of Tea and now apparently, I cannot read English either.

"The Japanese tea ceremony can be understood as a precisely structured sequence in which formal features are constitutive of meaning. Though culturally constructed meaning must inform any understanding of the rite, this alone cannot account for the tea ceremony's symbolic power. This internal reading focuses on key formal features: sequencing; the role of multiple media; and patterning or redundancy. Analysis reveals that sequencing is symbolised through: 1) a constant contrast between the ritual and the mundane; 2) the use of boundaries to mark these differences; 3) the sensible qualities of objects and substances used in the ceremony, and their transposition into various sensory media; 4) the occurrence of homologous structures and sequences. The interaction of the sensory media effects a homology of code, constituting one source of redundancy. Together with the repetition of sequences, this redundancy intensifies meaning and acts as contrastive background for minute but significant changes that may occur. Through its orchestration of sequence and pattern, the tea ceremony articulates feeling and thought and creates a distilled form of experience."


  1. LOL! This kind of academic jargon reminds me why I don't miss grad school one bit, and decided not to pursue a doctorate.
    If the abstract is that mucky to wade through, imagine what horrors the full length paper would inflict.
    Oh well, when in doubt, sit down relax and have some tea... Stills the mind.

  2. KaratsuPots, Thank you for your comment. At first I thought it was just me (getting older, you know). And I read it several more times. I was sure it was English, but it felt like I was reading a foreign language. I'll take your advice and sit and drink some tea. Yes, relax and still the mind. Thank you.


  3. I've read that article. A lot of the words are being used as jargon, that is, in ways specific to a given academic field (in this case, anthropology), so their meanings/uses in the article may differ from their meanings/uses in everyday speech.

    Essentially, the article is an analysis of an Urasenke-style shogo chaji. Rather than approaching the subject as an analysis of Zen aesthetics or self-realization, Kondo is interested in the sequence of a chaji; why there is repetition; the interaction of what she calls "media" (senses really): auditory, visual, gestural, olfactory, gustatory, etc; and why koicha is the most formal stage, among other things. She argues that constant contrast between the ritual and the mundane, the use of boundaries to maintain these differences, the sensory qualities of objects and substances used, and the repetition of sequences are symbolic devices that signify the progression of the ritual.

    So, for example, the garden is separated from the outside world by a gate. The roji is further separated. Guests' behaviour changes as they gradually progress further away from the outside world and closer to the tea room, in a "journey through physical and symbolic space," away from the mundane and towards the ritual.

    She's essentially arguing that there is a rhythm in a chaji that sort of ebbs and flows. There are points of high formality and of relative casualness. Points of "tension" and points of release. There is a sort of upside-down V-shaped path from the mundane/informal through the ritual/highly formal and back that begins and ends with passing through the outer gate and has the serving of koicha as its high point, and all these various states are symbolized by various objects, actions and senses: the purifying of the mouth and hands at the tsukubai; the drinking of osayu/sake/koicha/usucha; silence or ritualized conversation; the burning of incense, the presence or absence of the tobacco tray, etc.

    It's a fairly short article (about 17 pages) and was written in 1985, but it's interesting enough.

  4. Nick,
    Thank you for that extensive interpretation in lay terms. I'll admit I was intimidated and rather dismayed by the language. I am grateful to have readers like you who can help me out in cases like this.

    And yes, the chaji does have a rhythm that ebbs and flows. A friend of mine talks about it:

    "Jo-ha-kyu" describes increasing tempo of slower, medium speed, then faster that describes movement from a macro level to a micro level. (consider the time for kaiseki, time for the koicha, time for the usucha in a chaji on a macrolevel. Consider the motion for whisking usucha on a microlevel). It was first ascribed to gagaku, then adopted to noh thru Zeami and applies to any of the performing arts as well as tea. Ask a Japanese senior sensei at Urasenke and you will may get a pretty serious look and then either a very detailed explanation or a brushoff. Rarely written about in tea texts it is best investigated through noh treatises. Understand jo-ha-kyu and you will never think about temae in the same way."