A Perfect Imperfection
The Japanese tea ceremony has long been linked to the idea of Wabi Sabi. Wabi Sabi has its roots in the arts of living, and how what we do and what we experience is associated with nature and natural forces (quite opposite to the mass-produced synthetic world that is thrust upon us). Key to this idea of Wabi Sabi is an idea of imperfection – that nothing is perfect without it having some imperfection, some happy fault.
The great tea master Sen-no Rikyu, for instance, preferred a particular tea bowl, one which had a particular imperfection, which had been produced by the greatest ceramics craftsman, Choujiro. Such imperfections might not only be spontaneously created, but could also be carefully planned to develop a particular harmony. In the Japanese tea room, for example, flowers are displayed as they are in the field, so their shape is not perfectly uniform, but is made to look haphazard and natural.
In the tea room, we use all our five senses to enjoy a cup of matcha tea. Touching the bamboo whisks, spoons and ceramics; smelling the matcha tea and the incense from the burning charcoal; seeing all the decoration and colours; listening to the noise of the steaming iron pot; and tasting sweets and the cup of matcha tea. All of these have a harmony within the Wabi Sabi idea, all bound into the harmonies of nature.
The history of tea is an ancient one. It was developed in China in the 4th to the 5thcentury, both as a favourite beverage and as a medicine. Matcha powder has been drunk as tea since the 12thcentury in China and in Japan. The tea ceremony itself was developed from Zen ritual and it has been practiced since the 15th century, flourishing in the 16thcentury under the great tea master Sen-no Rikyu.
During the Rikyu era in the 16thcentury, many of the powerful war-like Samurais became keen to practice the tea ceremony, as it had become highly popular with the fashionable and intellectual classes. The Rikyu then invited these Samurai warriors to his tea room, but constructed a very small entrance (no more than three feet high), so the Samurai had to take off their swords to enter the tea room. This forced upon them a humility, and meant that everyone in the tea room was equal, and could enjoy an experience of humanity in peace.
These days, we live in the very busy digital era, everybody being busy and stressed for all sorts of reasons. However, tea ceremony practice - or even one cup of matcha at teatime – can have the power to help to slow things down, to calm things so that we can create our own Wabi Sabi lifestyle. It will bring you in touch with nature’s harmonies, and will answer naturally, perfectly, to imperfections.
The Japanese art scholar Kakuzo Okakura wrote in 1906 that Japanese Tea-ism is essentially a worship of the imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know of as life.