A Path to Peace, The Way of Tea


Seven seas separate land and people on planet earth. Cultural differences erupt daily into minor and major wars between individuals and nations. Cocktail conversations and Washington summits swirl with notions of how to create peace in this world. For the caustic cynic, Heaven sends heroes like Mademoiselle Matsumoto who holds a candle to the path of harmony. Accolades and awards from the Emperor of Japan, President Clinton, members of Congress and dignitaries can be seen in her home.

Mademoiselle Shizuye Matsumoto, a seventy-eight year old Japanese-American, belongs to a top echelon of tea masters. Her business card reads, Matsumoto Sosei, which indicates her role as a composer of the tea ceremony. Protocol dictates however that she is addressed as, "Sensei" which signifies teacher, a revered status in Japan. She has mastered the highest degree one can attain in the "Way of Tea." Chado, also pronounced Sado, is what the Japanese call this ancient Zen art.     

Shortly before World War II, Shizuye Matsumoto was born in Hawaii to Japanese immigrant farmers who desired a better life for their daughter. Their dreams would have to wait. Prejudice was slapped in their faces. Restaurant owners and others slammed doors on the family because of their Oriental origin. At age five, Matsumoto's mother died. Turbulent teen years brought the passing of her father. Her surrogate parents were shipped to internment camp while she was visiting her sister in Kyoto. 

Japanese neighbors were suspicious of the young Matsumoto. She cried upon hearing the, Star Spangled Banner. World War Two had erupted. The western style clothing that had once been envied was discarded to avoid severe censure. Immediate action was needed to ease the tension of gossips and government officials who thought she was on an espionage mission because of her American attachments.

Peer pressure prompted Matsumoto to matriculate into the Urasenke system of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Sixteenth century Zen master, Sen-no-Soeki who took the royal court name of Rikyu, is the progenitor of Chado and the founder of the Urasenke establishment.

Upon stepping into the school, Matsumoto Sosei felt relief. "It feels very relaxed. Everything appreciate and respect other people. Everything so natural." Tantansai, the fourteenth Grand Tea Master, and a direct descendant of Sen Rikyu agreed to her participation in the curriculum. Double honor was bestowed upon Matsumoto. Tantansai had admitted a non-native Japanese woman into his system. Furthermore, he approved of her as a student.

Master Soshitsusen, a relation of the Imperial family, also became an influential mentor for Mademoiselle Matsumoto. She embraced the discipline of learning when and where to place a cup, a hand, an art piece, a foot, fan, and flower in a room. Her soul synchronized to the Zen philosophy of finding freedom through mastery of rigid rules of tea ceremony.

Rikyu had preached to his pupils that by presenting a cup of tea perfectly to a participant in a ceremony, one could transcend this worldly plane of existence. Matsumoto explains: "We have four principle, "wa (harmony) -kei (respect) -sei (purity) -jyaku (tranquility). Everything harmony and you know respect is very important and tranquility. Everything humble." The precepts focus on serving others. "How to make guests comfortable" is the primary purpose of a tea composer according to Mademoiselle Matsumoto. 

Not only the hostess but also the guests discard egos at the door. The powerful Hideyoshi listened to few in his time of rule. But he complied with Rikyu's demand to keep all swords outside of the sacred room of the tea ritual. The court advisor also created the "nijiriguchi" which is a small entrance into a tearoom. All who enter to partake of the ceremony are humbled by having to crawl through the diminutive door. The simple act is one of many, which signifies the respect for all living beings that in spirit are one. Albeit there is "assigned seating" based upon the status of a guest, the action of bowing one's head through the nijiriguchi reflects the willingness of a participant to harmonize humbly with his fellows.

Rituals have played pivotal roles throughout history in healing past wounds. In 1951, a Peace Treaty was to be signed by President Truman and Prime Minister Yoshida. Chado was commissioned. Matsumoto Sosei received the honor of assisting Hounsai Iemoto, the fifteenth Grand Tea Master, in the tea ceremony.  

In 1951, Mademoiselle Matsumoto's presentation also caught the eye of Hollywood giants like Charlie Chaplin. She served tea in the Twentieth Century Fox film, East is East. However, the carefully choreographed dance of Chado is more than a casual culinary performance. The Way of Tea is a spiritual experience brought about by appreciating each prescribed step that is taken on the journey to taste both the bitter (the green tea) and the sweet (the rice cake) that is served.

From the choice of artwork to the flower, reverence for life is expressed in every aspect of the ceremony. Natural beauty takes precedence over manicured perfection. In speaking about flowers for her room, Matsumoto Sosei declares; "You have to pick from garden, field, mountain. You don't buy in store. In a very natural way, not a gorgeous flower, just simplicity."

The extraordinary miracle of life is celebrated by paying attention and giving thanks for the details of the ordinary. Tea is enjoyed, in a standard ceremony, three times. The aroma is noted the first time around the circle. The second go around brings about singing praises for the color of the Macha. Flavor is the topic of approbation on the third circuit.

Key elements of Sado include harmonizing with Nature. Consequently, kettles, doors and entire tearoom interiors are rearranged to celebrate the current season. Different calendar pages bring about displays of artwork and tea accoutrement appropriate to the time. Mademoiselle Matsumoto loves the autumn months.  She revels in the quiet. "Matsu-no-kaze" which translates to, wind through the pines, is a sound she loves to hear in the fall charcoal, as she brews emerald green Macha.

Macha is a powdered form of verdant leaves that are crushed and used by aficionados as the standard base for the ceremonial cup of tea. Koicha is the version of Macha that is used for the four-hour sessions, which include the traditional country style repast called kaiseki-ryori. Matsumoto Sensei explains that Macha leaves used for koicha are picked only in May and only from a tree that is at least two hundred years old. Abundance of age contributes to the sweeter quality of the beverage. Mademoiselle Matsumoto's assistant, Ms. Ota states: "Koicha is sticky, almost ice cream like in consistency." 

Usucha is a thinner version of the powdered tea. Usui means thin and cha translates to tea. On this reporter's visit to Mademoiselle Matsumoto's home, Japanese cakes were served with the usucha to allegedly combat the taste of the bitter tea. The steaming liquid was not at all biting in flavour. Perhaps that can be attributed to the Sensei's sweet heart, which she pours into every cup.  

Not surprisingly, students from around the globe clamor for her attention and instruction. The tea enchantress holds the keys of creating and serving a liquid that melts all boundaries. She brings a sense of serene unity with the presentation of a single piece of earthenware containing green tea. In the tokonoma (display alcove), a treasured scroll from a monk in Kyoto reads: "Every day happy, A good way, This is the way." The sensei walks the philosophy with grace. Her students appreciate not only her mastery of the ceremony but also her wisdom of spirit. 

Her eyes sparkle with laughter as she credits her Caucasian pupils for making her an expert at teaching. Mademoiselle Matsumoto declares, "Caucasian people, they say why do this? Why? Why? That's why I had to have good answer, so I study real hard, fifty years, so that's why I had good experience." 

The Sensei has not forgotten her past but she has forgiven the grave trespasses. She chooses to focus on the beauty and the natural art that she finds in her surroundings. The ancient art of Chado has led her to this place of peace. Mademoiselle Matsumoto affirms, "That's why need tea ceremony. Everybody friendly, everybody same. You know, my teacher used to say, just keep one cup of tea makes everybody friendly, no war, only peace."