x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Peacefulness through a bowl of tea'

For the Japanese grand tea master Dr Hounsai Genshitsu Sen, making a cup of tea is a way of life.

Four ideals of the tea ceremony, such as this one held at the Center for Research and Documentation, are harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
Four ideals of the tea ceremony, such as this one held at the Center for Research and Documentation, are harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

ABU DHABI // When Hounsai Genshitsu Sen visited the palace of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, he saw it as an opportunity to "make tea from the bottom of my heart". Dr Sen, 85, is a grand master of tea and direct descendant of Sen Rikyu, the 16th century tea master to the shogun warlord who unified Japan. Dr Sen introduced his ancient art, with all its solemnity and formality, during a private ceremony on Sunday afternoon, in which me made tea for Sheikh Mohammed and presented him with a portable tea room.

"I felt that this would be the best way to truly appreciate Japanese culture," Dr Sen said. "I told the Crown Prince that tea should be a tool, a way of teaching people about respect and appreciating nature." To return the gesture, the Crown Prince served tea to Dr Sen. Dr Sen, who is a UN goodwill ambassador and has visited more than 60 countries to spread a message of peace, was visiting the UAE for the first time. He came to perform his ancient tea ceremonies for dignitaries during the Forum for the Future conference in Abu Dhabi.

The summit, between Group of Eight industrialised nations and representatives from the Broader Middle East and North Africa region, wrapped up Sunday. Dr Sen said Sheikh Mohammed had shown himself to "be very knowledgable about Japanese culture". "He told me he wished I had met his father, Sheikh Zayed," Dr Sen added. "He said he believed that we would have got along very well." The Japanese tea ceremony is about far more than making a cup of tea.

Chado, or "the way of tea", is a way of life. As Dr Sen, who took Buddhist vows in 1949, told an audience of more than 100 Emirati students at the Centre for Documentation and Research yesterday, the ritual is about connecting with other people and nature. It is also a central element of Zen Buddhism and a cultural practice that embraces the arts, religion, philosophy and social life. The ideals underlying the practice are wa, kei, sei and jaku - or harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity.

"The tea ceremony is about integrating with your guest and about really dedicating your heart to another." Dr Sen, whose motto is "peacefulness through a bowl of tea", added that the round tea bowl represents the earth while the green tea represents nature. "This is a reminder that the earth and the green of nature is very precious to us," he said. "I hope that you will feel thankful for the greenery of the planet and that this will lead to peace and an appreciation of nature."

Dr Sen said the tea room, a room with tatami, or straw matting, where the tea ceremony takes place, was developed during the era of the samurai. There were four distinct classes in Japanese society in the 12th and 13th century: the nobility, the warriors or samurai, merchants and everyone else. "Yet in the tea room there were no distinctions, all were equal. They shared one bowl, which showed their equality. This is why the tea room developed. It was also a place where trust developed, as the sword was left at the door."

Dr Sen said his ancestor, Sen Rikyu, who was tea master for the shogun Oda Nobunaga, and after his death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified Japan, advised the warlords. "Even these powerful warlords were expected to leave their weapons at the door of the tea room," Dr Sen said. "Sen Rikyu told them 'if you always carry weapons they will eventually destroy you. They must be tempered with culture'." After the lecture, guests were treated to a demonstration of the tea ceremony in a temporary tea room set on the stage.

The tea ceremony is the perfect embodiment of the Japanese phrase ichi go ichi e, which literally means "one time, one meeting" but can be translated as "for one time only". Great emphasis is placed on the choice of flowers, the wording of a scroll that must hang in an alcove in the tea room, the utensils used and the choice of ingredients if a meal is served before tea. Everything must be savoured, as it will never recur.

Besides the calming effects and social benefits of the ceremony, green tea, which was once used as a medicine, is also beneficial for health. As Dr Sen said: "It contains vitamin B and C and antioxidants. Some studies have shown that drinking green tea may help prevent cancer and diabetes." "I hope you drink tea every day," he added. "I believe that tea can fit into your culture very well." The Quran contains many of the same principles of the tea ceremony, such as respect for others, he said.

"These are the rules we must not break if we are to live with other people." Following the lecture, students flocked to greet Dr Sen. A number of girls from the Japanese club at Zayed University were pleased with the opportunity to practise their Japanese. Abdul Rahman Saif Zayed, 18, a student at Abu Dhabi Men's College, said the event was "fantastic". "We are very happy that he came here to teach us new things about another culture and how to respect another culture."

Dr Sen said Abu Dhabi was a "wonderful" city. "One reason is because the location used to be a desert and yet there is so much beautiful greenery here," he said. @Email:kattwood@thenational.ae To see more photos of the Japanese tea ceremony, visit www.thenational.ae