Are you a minimalist or are you a hoarder? In this post I want to talk about minimalism and its relation to tea ceremony. I see a lot of people relate to tea ceremony as a source from where to learn about minimalism and take tea ceremony as the ideal image of what minimalism is supposed to mean. But there are some issues with this and some things are not taken in account.
And the best example of that is contemporary architecture. If we look at contemporary architecture from the architects that design tea pavilions in a contemporary style, they take tea ceremony as something that is very minimalist. They bring it down even further to the extent where they have a very minimalist kind of tea room.
But there’s always one thing that is forgotten. In most of these contemporary architectural style tea rooms, there is no mizuya. And this is the biggest mistake I think that people make when they think about minimalism in relation to tea ceremony. Tea ceremony is perhaps minimalist on the surface, but it is not necessarily so very minimalist in terms of objects, space used, time used and resources used for the execution of that very minimal rite that is the tea ceremony.
Tea ceremony is not so minimalist
If you look at it in the bigger picture, is not so very minimalist in itself, especially not in the way that we understand minimalism, where you select only a very limited amount of objects to live your life. With tea ceremony is really the opposite of it.
For tea ceremony, you’d have at least a room full of objects to use maybe once a year, maybe once every two or three years, maybe once every cycle of 12 years. There are so many different seasonal aspects that need to be taken in account with tea ceremony that you would at least want to have objects that relate to all the different seasons.
Seasonal traits of tea ceremony
In each and every month, there are different traits of the season that are being put in the spotlight. And every 12 years, you have a different Zodiac character from the Chinese calendar. So if next year will be the year of the rabbit, then you will bring out your rabbit related utensils to use in the beginning of that year to celebrate the year of the rabbit.
But then you’ll have to put it away again for 12 years. So in order to be able to do tea ceremony year long, in all the different seasons and in all the different settings, tea ceremony practitioners would accumulate a whole lot of different utensils. Those would be stored in dedicated storage spaces, or in a typical white outer walled Japanese kura storehouse. These storehouses would be full of utensils.
Minimalism on the surface
So what people see is not the entirety of tea ceremony, but only the rite on the surface, the execution of the service. But keep this in mind. A good restaurant, even French, minimal cuisine – where you have these big plates with little things on the plates – cannot exist without a dedicated kitchen to creating this food.
A play or a concert cannot take place without having a good backstage and everyone who is there to take care of the lighting and the makeup and everything. If you only have the stage, this play will not happen; this concert will not happen. If you have the restaurant, but no kitchen, there’s not going to be any food.
Importance of the Mizuya
So what everyone forgets with tea ceremony is that there is a dedicated preparation room, which is called the mizuya. And that is not just the room. That is also the people who function in that room, who keep the tea ceremony going and who make sure that everything that is needed in the room for the host to be able to display that minimalist approach to making tea can happen.
Lessons about minimalism
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn anything about minimalism from tea ceremony. There are profound lessons to be learned, and I think there are three lessons in particular that I want to share with you. Lesson number one is the ‘function of beauty’. In Japanese, that would be called ‘Kinō-bi’. Or it could also be translated as the beauty of function.
I think it goes both ways. Really what it means is that something can be beautiful if it’s also functional, if it’s only beautiful but does not serve its purpose. For example, an extravagant but leaking cold water vessel mizu-sashi, that would absolutely defeat its purpose and so its beauty is also diminished.
The beauty of function
It can be absolutely functional, like a plastic bucket, but it is just not aesthetically appealing. So the balance between the beauty and function needs to be kept in place. And this is one approach that I think is very important in minimalism as well. That is, if you have the right tools for the right purpose, then you will only work with those tools and you will require less.
The better the utensils serve its purpose, the more you will appreciate it, the less you will look for other utensils to serve the same purpose and the more mindful you will become of caring for the utensils that you have at hand. And I stepped into lesson two with that already because better, more functional utensils will help you to require less. This will guide you to a more mindful approach and a more minimalist approach to utensils and objects.
Do I need it?
And lesson number three is you learn to think, when you look at utensils or when you look at implements that you are going to use for a certain purpose; you will learn to think about, “do I need this now?”
Or “Do I just desire it, but don’t really require it?” it may be something that is nice to have right now, but it’s always important to ask yourself the question, “Do I need it?” Is it something that I require to fulfill a certain purpose, or is it going to be something that I just purchase now, have a little bit of fun with, and then throw it on the other pile of objects?
The wastefulness of contemporary society
To be really honest, it upsets me to see how we treat most items as disposable and replaceable and how wasteful these ways have become. It’s not just simple things like a replaceable t-shirt or a lighter or things of that nature. No, we are treating cars, phones, computers, houses, etc. as replaceable and disposable.
Maybe for the market it is great because it keeps the consumption going and it keeps people in the requirement to spend again on these very expensive items. But to not have anything that is permanent anymore, or not have anything that lasts long, or to even have something that when it gets broken over time, you will repair. Rather than to repair it, you just tear it down and put something new in place. Like what we do with our phones. Rather than to say, we need to fix this thing because it doesn’t work anymore, we just throw it out, even though it was very expensive. And you buy a new one.
Why can’t we be a bit more mindful about the tools we have? Why can’t we care for them a little bit more? Take for example, a precious tea bowl that you have received from your grandmother that she has used, that perhaps her grandparents have used, that are now in your hands to take care of and to pass on the next generation. Say that you drop it and it breaks? The first reaction of a contemporary person would say, Well, gone is gone. We’ll buy a new one.
No! That’s one lesson that we learn from tea ceremony, you take those pieces and put them back together and you make it even more beautiful. That is the art of kintsugi. To put these broken ceramic pieces together again with lacker and gold. It doesn’t only add to the value of that broken piece, it also gives it an extra story to tell.
Tools for the trade
We could also look at it from the perspective of carpenters in the past who would care for their tools. Their tools are their trade, there are their livelihood.
It’s like the story of that one fisherman who one day went to the river where he always put his net out. And with that net he would try to catch fish. And usually he’d get a few small fishes and then he carries them back. But one day he catches a huge fish and he’s so happy that he takes the fish in his arms, he runs home and tells his wife, “Look at what a big fish I have!” And the first thing that she asks him is “Where is your net?” His net is what will keep them fed for the days, months, years to come. But that fish will be on their plate only today, tomorrow, and maybe the day after.
Profound lessons about minimalism
It is clear that people in the past showed much more care for their utensils than what we do nowadays, and I think it would be such a beautiful thing to show a bit more care for the tools and the utensils that we use nowadays.
Do you see how profound the lessons from tea ceremony really can be? We need to dig just a little deeper, lift the covers and we can get to see some real meaning. What we can learn from tea ceremony about minimalism is not just how to function with fewer objects, but it is rather how to value respect, and care for the utensils that you have and how to make them last for a lifetime. It’s about choosing the right item for the task and cherishing that item.
Minimalism in Zen
I might also ask that this is something that is very embedded in Zen as well, where even clothes or essential things like eating bowls or chopsticks are passed down to generations. From Master to student. These are the only belongings that they have, and they would cherish them. They would care for them and make sure that they last more than a lifetime.