The Japanese ‘Way of Tea’ is other-worldly

While the roji is meant to be a passageway / Altogether outside this earthly life / How is it that people only contrive / To sprinkle it with the dust of the mind.  – Tea Master Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591)

The Way of Tea provides only closed vistas within the garden, shunning the Zen practice of borrowing external scenery.

The Way of Tea provides only closed vistas within the garden, shunning the Zen practice of borrowing external scenery.

The tea garden inside Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle serves the age-old purpose of creating a transition from the boisterous outer world to a secluded tea house and the inner world of Cha-no-yu, the traditional Japanese tea-making ceremony.

The tea setting is secreted within a much larger Japanese garden built in 1960 directed by world-renowned designer Juki Iida. It’s widely regarded as one of the most faithfully rendered in the U.S.

The strength of any traditional tea garden comes from the design of the roji, the “dewy path” of stepping stones that draws visitors physically forward while focusing them inward.

“The purpose of the tea garden (and the tea ceremony in general),” Lee Schneller Sligh explains, “is to convey the visitor from the worldly to the spiritual.” Lee is a serious student and practitioner of Japanese garden design based in Rockland, Maine.

“From the curb where we get out of our taxi, the tea garden path usually begins with cut stones in rather formal arrangement. As we move into and through the garden, the material and layout become gradually more informal, relaxed, intimate, spiritual. We become more attuned to our feelings, our surroundings.

At this gateway in the Shokuhou-en Garden, Kyoto, the walkway moves from formal cut stones in the outer garden beyond to worn natural stones closer to the teahouse. (Photo: Lee Schneller Sligh)

At this gateway in the Shokuhou-en Garden, Kyoto, the walkway moves from formal cut stones in the outer garden beyond to worn natural stones closer to the teahouse. (Photo: Lee Schneller Sligh)

“Roughly halfway along the tea garden path (at the end of which is the tea room…), there is the free-standing Chuu-mon, or ‘middle gate.’ Passage through the gate marks another level of transition to the more spiritual realm.…

“The feeling of the path changes dramatically at the gate, where natural stepping stones are brought into play. This shift in stonework is called shin-gyo-so, roughly translatable as ‘formal/complete, intermediate, and informal/abbreviated.’

Moving through the inner garden, nothing awakes us from a kind of relaxed reverie. Leaf, needle, and moss are undisturbed by flowers. Fence, wall, and gate consist of traditional materials—bamboo, bare boards, fiber, and plaster. Even sunlight—caught and breaking through tree canopy—only dapples the ground. Each stepping stone shares with every other worn-ness, irregularity, and partial burial. Each holds the power of sabi, the beauty of the simple and unpretentious. Each demands our attention to the here and now.

Step by step the roji continues past a stone water basin for washing the hands and rins­ing the mouth and ends at a stone landing half outside, half inside the teahouse, known as Shoseian, Arbor of the Murmuring Pines. Sheltered by a copper-shingled roof, the landing leads to an anteroom, then to a preparation room, and finally to the six-mat tea room itself.

Stepping stones to the Shoseian teahouse focus attention downward and inward. (Photo: Urasenke Foundation)

Stepping stones to the Shoseian teahouse focus attention downward and inward. (Photo: Urasenke Foundation)

Once inside the tea house, the doors are closed and the garden shut out. From the slow,  physical/mental passage along the roji, the visitor has developed the quiet, receptive attentiveness appropriate for this occasion.

And here, inside, the first flower may be encountered, a single blossom or spray signifying a kind of concentrated beauty, like the tea cup used or the kimono worn during the tea ceremony, which has acquired in this moment utmost importance.

Overall, this tea garden inspired by a mountain retreat seems similar to a woodland with paths like Manitoga, but it in fact differs fundamentally. It is not accidental, natural, or informal; rather it is conventional, artificial, and formally arranged for its purpose in a tiny space contrived and bounded to seem like a much larger place.

A Western correlate might be the labyrinth, a single path in a quiet, confined space leading to a physically centered goal known in advance and an internal goal, yet unknown, hopefully also centered.

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