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On Nodate: Open-air Tea Ceremony

Tea ceremony instructor reflects on the evolution of the Japanese tea ceremony.


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Photograph Courtesy of Adam Sōmu Wojcińsk
Photograph Courtesy of Adam Sōmu Wojcińsk
Photograph Courtesy of Adam Sōmu Wojcińsk

I’m in it everywhere

What a miracle: trees, lakes, clouds, even dust. - Ikkyū Sōjun

The first Nodate, or open-air tea ceremony, goes back to tea’s origin story. Shennong, the ‘Divine Farmer’ of Chinese mythology, was trialling medicinal plants when leaves on burning twigs of the tea plant were carried up by the hot air of the fire, and landed in his pot of boiling water. Shennong cupped the brew from his kettle and took the first taste of tea: the beverage that would become a common meeting ground for all humanity.

Gathering around a fire to enjoy tea has been a human ‘ritual’ from time immemorial. But nowhere has tea been elevated to a true ritual status like in Japan. By the 15th century, tea drinking was surrounded by opulence and protocol so excessive that it provoked an aesthetic revolution felt in the words of one tea master who cautioned: “Tea is always in danger of becoming like decorative costumes of court musicians. A tea person should perform with paucity in all things.” It was time to refocus tea practice on the essentials. Luxury imported goods were substituted by forging tea scoops and vases from everyday bamboo, and wooden water pails were preferred over perfect celadon pitchers. This brought focus to  the idea of facing one’s fleeting existence by embracing nature.

Reverence for the beauty of nature also shook the foundations of tea house architecture. Lacquered beams and wallpaper matched the elegant look of Southern Song porcelain imports. These materials were edited down to mud walls that harmonized with the rustic finish of locally crafted ceramics. The daub wall also provided an ideal setting for flowers to be displayed as if in the wild. After reducing tea’s aesthetic to a more elemental state, it was natural to move past the tea house altogether and return to tea ceremony in the open-air. In 1587, tea master Sen Rikyū held a legendary Nodate on a white sand beach in Hakata. Rikyū suspended his kettle by a chain from a pine branch and gathered pine needle kindling to boil water. In the open-air, he served tea to the most celebrated members of the ruling class. Tea’s aesthetic environment had come full-circle since Shennong’s first sip of the ancient elixir.

Nowadays, Nodate is a core element of the Tea Way that aims to embody non-separation of practice and spiritual realization. Some memorable Nodate I have conducted include: a 24-hour tea gathering in a Melbourne laneway, tea at the summit of Ryūsen-ji temple overlooking the Seto Inland Sea, a spontaneous tea stop at a roadside pottery in Zimbabwe; purveying Tea at Makola Market, Ghana, and tea by a river in the Drôme region of France. In Nodate, we directly empathize with the transient nature of flowers, forests, seasides and sunsets, and look into the mirror of our mortality. In moss, flowers, and trees, we also identify with the life coursing through these forms and striving for higher achievements. Therefore, the inherent sorrow in nature that—all things must end—is constantly evolving towards joy. This truth steeps each fleeting bowl of tea with unassailable meaning.

Adam is a direct disciple of, and official English translator to, Ueda Sōkei, the 16th Grandmaster of the Ueda Sōko Tradition of Chanoyu. He is the principal instructor of the Sōmu Shachū branch of the Ueda Sōko school. He is of Polish-Australian heritage and is based in Marseille, France.