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Chado : A Japanese ritual of harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity can elevate tea drinking to an art form steeped in Zen-inspired wisdom and philosophy.

June 09, 1988|R. DANIEL FOSTER | Foster is a Woodland Hills free-lance writer.

When Conrad Sato wants to escape the daily grind of his job as a guidance and control systems engineer at Litton Industries in Woodland Hills, he follows five simple words of advice.

"Just sit and drink tea."

Sato, 41, who has studied the Japanese tea ceremony with teacher Nobuko Iinuma for two years, said: "It's a discipline where one learns to appreciate each moment. You carefully finish what you're doing instead of hurrying on."

Iinuma, who has taught the ceremony for 14 years in West Hills, says that sipping tea and forgetting your problems is all that is required in the ancient Japanese ritual. The words "Just sit and drink tea," Zen-inspired wisdom offered by the Japanese tea ceremony's present grand master, are written in bold characters on a scroll in Iinuma's tearoom.

Sato tried to explain its philosophy during a lesson. The only signs of Western civilization in Iinuma's tearoom were a dimmer switch and the twittering sound of a cordless telephone at his teacher's side.

"The basic idea is to be a good host and serve a good cup of tea," he said in a discreet aside as Iinuma, 55, observed a novice's diligent movements. (The number of students in most classes ranges from three to eight. Prices range from $30 to $40 for four classes.)

Through the spiritual discipline of Chado , or "The Way of Tea," participants attempt to immerse themselves in the carefully choreographed movements of serving and re-serving tea, said Iinuma, who speaks in heavily accented English. They study the preparation of tea, drinking and serving, using utensils, holding the bowl. Attention to the movement, said Iinuma, who was born in Namazu, Japan, helps students focus on the present and forget the problems of the outside world.

Students are encouraged to understand the four aspects of Chado--Wa, Kei, Sei and Jaku (harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity) to elevate tea drinking--an everyday event--to an art form. The goal of the ceremony is to unite the host and guest in their appreciation of the many Japanese arts (architecture, ceramics, flower arranging, lacquer, calligraphy and gardening) that comprise the ceremony.

"You have a deeper appreciation of each chance meeting you have," said Sato, who develops ring laser gyroscopes at Litton. "You meet someone and at the same time you prepare to say goodby, so you treat the moment in a special manner."

Herbert Plutschow, a professor of Japanese history and instructor of the tea ceremony at UCLA, said the ceremony is a way of formalizing relationships, an important element of Japanese culture. Plutschow's wife, Yoshiko, who was born in Tokyo, teaches the ceremony at the couple's Granada Hills home.

"The host and guest try to create a single mind," said the Swiss-born Plutschow, who studied with the present grand tea master, Sen Soshitsu XV, in Kyoto, Japan. "The ideal is that you all become one, that you transcend your own individual existence and create a union among different human beings."

The tea ceremony originated in 7th-Century Chinese Zen monasteries, where monks drank tea to help them stay awake during lengthy meditations, and it remains a ceremony steeped in ritual detail. Today's wood and bamboo tea rooms are framed with sliding latticed doors screened with rice paper that reflect a "refined poverty," according to Plutschow, 48. An arrangement of wild flowers and a scroll, changed seasonally, are the only decorations allowed.

Prior to entering a tearoom, guests wait in a small outdoor garden or sit quietly on a bench, Plutschow said. To purify themselves before "entering a more pure world," guests wash their hands and mouths at the garden's bamboo and stone water basin before the host summons them by striking a gong. Participants speak only to convey their appreciation or to ask the meaning of the scroll which sets the theme for the day's tea.

Yoriko Clarkson, who was born in Tokyo, teaches the ceremony to seven students in her Toluca Lake back yard teahouse surrounded by black pine, weeping plum and cascading wisteria blossoms. Inside, just above sun-drenched bamboo floor mats, a scroll hangs which reads, in Japanese characters, "Path of the Pure Heart."

"In the tea ceremony you can come into a nice, peaceful place and forget about the busy, nervous world," said Clarkson, 57, who has studied the art for 23 years. "We need to share those peaceful times with a friend.

"Japan is a busy country, too. In our busy life we need something that's like an oasis in the desert."

All of Clarkson's students are Japanese. American students never stay long because "it's hard for them to sit for a long time," she said.

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