Students in a classroom discuss slideshow showing Japanese ceremonial ceramic bowls

Let this Japanese phrase steep for a bit: ichi-go ichi-e. “It means ‘one time, one meeting,’” explains Samuel Morse. “Every time you do a tea ceremony, it’s different.” Different occasions, different guests, objects used, all of it charged with the quiet reverence for how things are.

Morse is the Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations. He is an expert on the chanoyu, or tea ceremony, from its origins in the 15th century to today. Morse also collects and admires chanoyu implements, like bamboo tea scoops, and tea-leaf jars known as natsume, because they are shaped like the natsuma fruit.

One of the most appealing things about the tea ceremony is I feel like I’m reclaiming my body and life from autopilot.” 

Some of these pieces appeared one drizzly, iron-sky day last spring, in Fayerweather 113. The stark weather was just right, actually. In the tea ceremony, wabi-sabi—the beauty of imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness—is the aspiration.  

The students of Morse’s class “The Tea Ceremony and Japanese Culture” were here to present their final projects, called toriawase, literally “taking and putting together,” like the arrangement of objects used for a particular tea event.

True, their objects were just images on slides, and their ceremonies were hypothetical. But today also brought the real deal: at the end of class, they watched a tea master perform the chanoyu as rain fell softly outside.

Three students kneel on a straw mat while the ceremony leader prepares tea

Kayla Balda ’18 began her toriawase first. She and her classmates had learned that each ceremony features perhaps a dozen articles, from the kettle to the wooden whisk used to stir the matcha (green tea powder) to displays of flowers or hanging scrolls.

Her imagined occasion was the winter solstice. As such, she chose to display an incense box shaped like an autumnal pumpkin, inspired by the 16th-century tea master Furuta Oribe. “I liked the whimsical nature,” she said, adding that she was trying to signal the transition from fall to winter. Thus her simple vase containing one closed camellia, a winter flower. “Since it’s unbloomed, that brings in the wabi-sabi.

For his toriawase, Aaron Bushnell ’21 was bent on “the idea of conflict and change, like a peace after war.” His Oribe bowl was footed and imperfect: “I love it because it’s so grotesque and makes you feel uncomfortable.” He also selected a scroll showing the great Sen no Rikyū running an errand: “Rikyū is really sad, crying about having to return a bowl he loves to another tea master.”

Tracy Chen ’20 professed herself a morning person who loves sunrises, and imagined a tea ceremony that ends at dawn. She chose a natsume jar made of mother-of-pearl “with iridescent gold flowers that look like the sun rising,” she said. “I thought it would uplift spirits to start the day.” Morse had asked each student to include a found object alongside the historical, and Chen opted for a small, slender Tokoi music speaker, which resembles a vase. “A contemporary twist!” said Chen. “I thought music would uplift spirits too.”

The ceremony leader, dressed in a kimono, hands a cup of tea to a student

After more presentations, plus questions and comments from Morse and the class, Sarah Klingenstein entered in a mauve kimono. She trained at the Urasenke Midorikai center, Kyoto’s tea ceremony school for non-Japanese. She happened upon a tea ceremony when she was an angsty teenager, “and something about it instantly changed my life,” she told the class. “Every single gesture of this woman was so stunningly precise, so full of deliberateness. It was like I saw her soul extend all the way to the tips of her fingers.”

Klingenstein performed calmly, explaining as she went. She purified the utensils one by one, folding the cloth that wiped the tea stick and bowls, filling the waste water bowl and retrieving fresh water from the kettle. She deftly whisked the matcha and steaming water into a vivid green froth.

As she handed one student after another a new bowl of tea, she asked them to observe before sipping. To note the vessel. The colors. The aroma. “That’s called haiken. It’s a humble word for looking at something. Feel the weight of it in your hand.”

You could almost sense relaxation seep into the room, like smoke from a candle just blown out. While Klingenstein elegantly whisked and paused, wiped and refolded, poured and placed, the students listened as she spoke of the Zen of the ritual.

“One of the most appealing things about the tea ceremony is I feel like I’m reclaiming my body and life from autopilot,” she told them. “It’s connoisseurship. It’s learning to notice. It’s very gradual—you give yourself over to the form, and the form shall set you free.” 

Professor Samuel Morse teaching his course, “The Tea Ceremony and Japanese Culture”

Samuel Morse is the Howard M. and Martha P. Mitchell Professor of the History of Art and Asian Languages and Civilizations. This fall he is teaching Buddhist Art of Asia and Reinventing Tokyo: The Art, Literature, and Politics of Japan's Modern Capital.