Tea, Spirituality and The Japanese Tea Ceremony: An Interview with Michael Ricci

Michael Ricci was weeding the Tea House garden when I arrived for our interview. We sat in front of the little tea “hut” at Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado where in just one hour I would scoot through the tiny doorway on my knees to participate in my first Japanese Tea Ceremony along with his students and other newcomers.

Michael found the Tea Ceremony (Chado) through Japanese Zen Buddhism. “I started reading about Zen and I kept coming across references to tea. I called up Naropa and they happened to be offering their first class on it through the extended studies program. There was one position left. I came and immediately fell in love with it.” He adds, “It seemed like the perfect way to understand more about Zen and start doing something contemplative alongside my meditation. It was a spiritual path that made sense to me.”

“Everything the Japanese do turns into an art, and that’s the way they treat tea. Keeping the tradition alive is serious, and the rules are very important to them. The Japanese Tea Ceremony incorporates almost all of the traditional Japanese arts–flower arranging, calligraphy, laquerware, ceramics, bamboo, wood. I’m an artist so I just fell in love with all of it.”

Michael spent two years studying Tea with Hobart Bell, head of the Boulder Zen Center before being accepted to study at Urasenke Headquarters in Kyoto under the guidance of 15th Generation Grand Tea Master of the Urasenke lineage of tea, which is the largest practicing tea lineage in the world. Here he was immersed in traditional Japanese culture and etiquette, learning all facets of Japanese Tea. But he had only scratched the surface after one year of study, so he stayed another year and a half. After that, he says, “I moved into a Zen Buddhist temple and trained alongside the monks. I didn’t take vows, but I lived the life of a monk for 6 months.”

It is from this humble state of mind that Michael shares his knowledge through his tea classes and his art.

“There are two ways to enjoy tea between host and guest. The first, Chaji, is a formal several-course meal that can last four to five hours. The abbreviated version, called Chakai, is simply a sweet and a bowl of tea.”

Michael was teaching the day I was there, so each of his students performed the short version tea ceremony one by one over four hours’ time.

There are no distractions inside the teahouse. Michael explains, “You’re sitting on your knees in a very small room for 4 hours in a very intimate atmosphere. The dialogue is stripped down. Everything is designed to keep focus on the moment and to completely forget about the world outside of the teahouse.”

“The little door, called nijiriguchi , was designed for everybody to bow their heads as they enter the tea room. Shoguns and Samari might be sitting next to peasants. They would have to take off their swords and leave them outside, bow their heads and humble themselves because inside the tea room everybody is the same.” Nowadays, he says, we take off our rings, jewelry and watches. “Anything that says ‘This is Me,’ or that takes us outside of the tearoom. Tea Ceremony is a timeless realm in a bottle.”

The ceremony is an expression of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility through each deeply symbolic gesture–a graceful choreography between host and guest.

Koicha is abowl of ‘thick tea,’ made with a lot of Matcha (powdered green tea) and less hot water. One bowl is shared between all 3 to 5 guests. The host serves the tea to ‘First Guest,’ (who is not a beginner and can model tea etiquette). First Guest bows to Second Guest and says in Japanese “Excuse me for taking my tea before you.” Second Guest bows, too. First Guest drinks their share, turns and wipes the bowl’s edge in a specific way with a paper napkin, and then passes it to Second Guest. Michael says, ” Koicha is the most intimate part of the gathering, sharing the bowl like that.” An initiation of sorts, I thought.

‘Thin Tea,’ Usucha , is more water and less tea, but only about three and a half sips. “It’s just enough to quench your thirst. It’s powder and it’s not steeped. It is whisked,” Michael explains. ” During ‘Thin Tea’ the host makes each guest a bowl of tea from the same bowl. They each take turns first eating their sweet then drinking the tea.” First Guest receives the bowl of tea, drinks it, passes it back to the host who wipes it, cleans it, and gives the next guest their bowl of tea in that same bowl. A watery sweet made of bean paste was served to refresh us that summer day.

Soon each guest in turn examined the utensils–scoop, bowl and whisk–and inspected the bright green valley in the bowl from which a portion of Matcha had been skillfully scooped by the host when the tea was prepared. As the host retreated to the tiny kitchen, the conversation between guests turned to appreciation of the warm weather, the tea, the teahouse. My body tingled with a feeling of wellbeing. Was it the L-theanine in the green tea? Or a result of paying close attention to every movement?

My mind arrived at stillness, like tea leaves settling on the bottom of a cup.

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Michael Ricci is a tea practitioner who teaches the Japanese Tea Ceremony and its related arts and cultural influences. He studied the art and craft of making tea utensils in the traditional Japanese pottery style called Raku, invented in Japan over 400 years ago specifically for the tea ceremony. He makes tea utensils from clay, bamboo and wood, which you can see during one of his classes or special event tea ceremonies. He has lectured and held demonstrations at pottery studios, universities and art organizations along the Front Range in Colorado, USA. Contact Michael at (970) 530-0436.

copyright 2005 Terry Calamito