Love and Will in a Tea Cup

Love and Will in a Tea CupKneeling in seiza, I am about to prepare Kikuchi Sensei a cup of green tea. Knowing that my Japanese teacher is the honored guest at this tea ceremony and that it takes at least three years to master the art of making usucha, I naturally feel a bit nervous.

Attentively, I reach for the fukusa on my belt, lift it before me, and refold it. This act signifies the spiritual cleansing of the mind and heart, during which all thoughts to the outside world should be dismissed. As this small square piece of silk eases through my fingers, I feel an unexpected surge of emotion. The fluidness of the cloth and the subtle dance it makes seems fleeting and eternal at the same time. Nothing is wasted. No movement is exaggerated. Suddenly, I feel connected to thousands of others through hundreds of years who have knelt on tatami poised to share a cup of green tea.

As I pick up the bamboo spoon to clean it, I begin to feel as if a deeper space is being created inside and around me. I am immersed in theatre. I am performing a ritual. I am a participant in the simple act of making and drinking tea.

I now spoon the tea into the cup, add the hot water, and begin to whisk it into a frothy drink. The proportion of tea to water is essential to achieving a pleasing taste and the temperature of the water must be right. Too much whisking and the tea is too foamy with bubbles or “fish eyes;” too little whisking and the tea is watery. There is no way to precisely measure all these things. I have only my experience and intuition.

My entire will is focused on the minute acts required of me. With every gesture, I consciously try to bear the tension between control and surrender, vital energy and stillness, love and will. I hand the tea cup to Sensei and wait.

She takes a sip and then nods in approval. “Oshii,” she says. “Delicious.”

Dōmo arigatō gozaimasu. Thank you very much.” While bowing deeply, I hide a relieved smile.

Tea Ceremony Synthesizes Love and Will

Japanese tea ceremony is a traditional art that incorporates aesthetic concepts as well as Zen philosophical thought. I was a student of the Urasenke school under Tea Master Kikuchi Sensei for three years, while at the same time I was studying psychosynthesis, a school of psychology founded in Florence by Roberto Assagioli, a contemporary of Freud and Jung. Although distinct, these two disciplines are actually a perfect match, for tea ceremony embodies much of Assagioli’s vision of the human psyche—in particular, his fundamental connection of love with will. In fact, the ancient Zen practice is a remarkable technique perfectly suited to the development and synthesis of these two distinct human qualities.

While Sensei focused on teaching the many actions required to perform Japanese chanoyu (which literally means “hot water for tea”), she also made it clear that the essential ingredient to any ceremony was kokoro, a “full and sincere heart”. Not only extended towards one’s guest, kokoro is meant to expand and include everything in the room, from the simplest bamboo whisk to the most precious tea cup. Without love animating the ritual, it becomes reduced to a wooden display of knowledge and technique. Similarly, without the will needed to perform the ritual, love and affection cannot be fully manifested in the present world nor symbolically evoked by the cup of tea.

Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony

We think of love mostly as an innate spontaneous experience, yet compassion towards all creation can also be developed through willful choice. The will, for Assagioli, is not stern and oppressive, but rather directive, balancing and utilizing all our activities and energies without repressing any of them. While most of us only think of the will as strong, he describes the four aspects of the will as strong, skillful, good and transpersonal. Strong will is actually the power or energy you have to direct your own life, while skillful will consists of your ability to manage that energy so you use the least amount of it towards achieving what you want. Good will, which is closely related to love, entails directing your will to choose the most appropriate action at each and every moment. And transpersonal will is the will of the unifying and controlling principle of our life—be it God, the Universe, or some Higher Source or Power.

Tea Ceremony is a Practice of Balancing the Will

For most of us, one aspect of the will is more developed than the others and it is our goal to bring them all equally into balance. Tea ceremony seems to be the perfect practice towards this end. It takes a tremendous amount of strong will to remain kneeling in seiza for long periods of time, despite legs and feet disappearing into a numb haze. Skillful will abounds, as there are numerous activities that require precise, meticulous care and, at times, feel quite impossible to fulfill. The ultimate purpose of tea ceremony is for the host to provide a harmonious and pleasurable experience for her guests, clearly invoking the “will to do good” for others. This is manifested, not just in the making of tea, but in the careful selection of utensils, tea bowls and sweets. Each utensil not only has to blend harmoniously with all the others; it also needs to reflect the occasion for the tea ceremony and the host’s relationship with the guest.

Assagioli sees the transpersonal will as an expression of the transpersonal Self which is a part of every human being’s superconscious (as opposed to subconscious). This will is often felt as a pull or call of a Higher Principle to transcend the limitations of ‘normal’ consciousness and life. All ways of transcendence, be it through love, art, beauty, action, self-realization, and search for meaning, embody the union of love and will.

Tea Ceremony as Ritual Allows for the Transcendent

As ritual, tea ceremony creates a space for such a transcendent call to emerge as its individual symbolic elements come together to synthesize into a unified expression of a higher order. For example, in tea ceremony the Five Elements (wood, fire, water, metal, and earth) transcend their differences to synthesize into a cup of green tea, a symbol for the entire universe. The charcoal wood builds a fire which boils the water in a metal kettle which, in turn, is poured over the tea and whisked in a earthen bowl. During the ritual, the Five Elements are brought into the correct proportion and harmony, and together they transform themselves into a higher reality. In essence, through the tea master’s willful acts and kokoro, a time and space in our everyday reality is created that allows the transpersonal to emerge.

Love and will work in the same way as the Five Elements. When we manifest them equally and alternatively in the right proportion, we harmonize them to the extent that transpersonal love and will can emerge. Our task then is to develop love and will in balance and strength. But even more than that, our goal is, not to compromise either love or will, but instead to synthesize them into a higher unity that transcends the qualities of either. To be compassionate isn’t enough; we need acts of compassion, a definite synthesis of love and will. In fact, the Buddha of Compassion Avalokiteshvar in Tibetan iconography is depicted as having a thousand eyes that see the pain in all corners of the universe and a thousand arms to reach out and extend help to all those suffering.

Love and Will – Qualities Needing Synthesis

At first reflection it may appear that love and will are so essentially different that they can not possibly be synthesized. Love is considered to be spontaneous, magnetic, and gentle, while will has the qualities of determination, separation, and domination. But it is a wise person who can play with opposites. To love well and creatively is an art and, like any artistic endeavor, requires qualities of will such as discipline, patience, and persistence.

To love well and will well require a deep understanding of the human soul, especially one’s own. This understanding allows us to acknowledge and accept our separateness and differences, as well as to find joy in them and to be profoundly grateful. Only then can we transcend our differences and fully recognize our universal humanness and fundamental similarities. This is beautifully symbolized in the way guests enter a Japanese tea house. All jewelry is left at home and, in ancient times, all swords were removed outside the tea house. Everyone who enters the approximate 3×3 foot door, must humbly crouch down, bow his or her head and crawl through. Yet, at the same, time, the order of precedence of the guests clearly distinguishes one from the other.

Japanese Woman Performing Tea Ceremony

In his seminal book The Act of Will, Assagioli wrote: “One of the principal causes of today’s disorders is the lack of love on the part of those who have will and the lack of will in those who are good and loving. This points unmistakably to the urgent need for the integration, the unification of love with will.” He calls on us to do this by first developing the weaker of the two, making both loving and willing equally available. Then we need to awaken and manifest the higher aspects of both. Finally, we must learn how to alternate between love and will in such a way that each arouses and reinforces the other. This synthesis is a lifetime process, like learning to consciously make and drink a cup of tea.

Love and Will Mingle Together in the Tea Cup

Sensei now takes a sharp, audible slurp to indicate that she is finished drinking and satisfied. I receive the tea cup and prepare to clean it and the bamboo whisk. Love and will mingle as I reflect on the broad strokes of Buddhist philosophy Sensei has painted alongside her detailed instructions. Breathe in rhythm with each controlled movement. Make tea with a sincere and pure heart. Whenever holding an object with two hands, round your arms to form a circle which is wa in Japanese and a homonym for “peace.” Give thanks to the ladle as it enters the boiling water. Pause with full awareness; pauses are as important as each movement. Listen attentively to the five sounds that the kettle can make. Look your guest directly in the eye when you speak to him or her. Walk like silk sliding across tatami.

Finally, the ceremony is complete and I kneel behind the opened shoji door. “Shitsurei itashimasu. Please excuse my rudeness,” I say the prescribed closing words and bow low. And then, with three precisely defined movements, I slide the door shut.


1 thought on “Love and Will in a Tea Cup

  1. John Smith

    Beautiful, in the highest sense of the word.
    I am moved to tears.

    How profoundly sad it is, that the door must be shut.

    Shitsurei itashimasu.


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