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When Japanese people drink matcha tea during a formal ceremony, they are taking part in an activity that is one of the core components of their culture. About 1,000 years ago, Buddhist monks brought the powdered tea from China and introduced the Japanese to its many benefits.
Not only did matcha tea’s slow-release caffeine help meditating monks avoid dozing off, its powerful dose of vitamins probably made it one of the healthiest substances they consumed.
The structure and meaning of traditional tea ceremony has changed over the centuries, but the modern version still carries most of the original intent, and is widely practiced amid an advanced technological-industrial society.
When tea ceremony participants gather, there is very little speaking or routine social interaction. The words, gestures, and even inner thoughts and emotions follow an ancient pattern designed to bring the group together as one. Originally a Zen ritual, today’s tea ceremony as practiced in Japan acts as a kind of social glue.
Virtually every living Japanese citizen has taken part in at least one full-scale tea ceremony. Teachers and classes are everywhere. Youngsters and adults pack the various workshops that teach intricacies of the millennium-old ritual. Those who want to learn more can hire private teachers, and often spend 5 to 10 years acquiring the full breadth of the discipline.
Tea ceremony “masters,” teachers who are renowned for their deep understanding, are treasured and sought after for their knowledge and their ability to transmit the core of Japan’s identity to new generations of acolytes.
Simplicity and inner unity are but two of the many principles enshrined within the complex ceremony’s multitude of life lessons. Participants find what it means to be at harmony with others, and to be silent inside and out. In a typical ceremony, attendees focus on physical and emotional sensations of the present moment.
Much of the so-called “national character” of the Japanese has grown from the Zen ceremony that uses the simple, bare experience of eating and drinking as a means of understanding what it means to be human; and what it means to participate with others in a silent practice that leads to many other insights.
Tea ceremony is one of the subtle influences which make the Japanese unique. Its contemplative, practical, and ancient lessons have survived famine, wars, social upheavals, natural disasters and political adversity. It is emblematic of Japan’s dichotomous character: ancient yet modern, simple yet complex, and imported yet quintessentially Japanese.