An everyday ritual
What makes an everyday activity into a ritual?
I think there are some clues in the story of the ‘tea ceremony’, a phenomena that developed in Japan in the 16th century.
Do you have in your mind a small dimly lit room, with a simple flower arrangement in the alcove, more branches than flowers? There someone is making tea in beautifully simple eathenware cups?
Well far from being the simple ritual we think of today, the tea ceremony started out as a very elaborate and flamboyant affair, with expensive imported tea utensils and rooms covered in gold leaf. It was a major cultural event, hosted by rich patrons who commissioned artists to make special paintings and ikebana.
The wabi sabi aesthetic
Things started to change with a series of tea masters who gradually bought in a wabi sabi aesthetic. It stared with Shuko in the 15th cen who was the first to use locally made, ordinary, utensils in the ceremony.
Later in the 16th cen came Sen no Rikyu, he took the wabi sabi aesthetic in tea to it’s ultimate conclusion. He designed very small tea huts that people, however rich they were, would have to crawl into through a low door. Once inside the space, only 2 tamani mats large, he would perform the tea ceremony using beautiful, but primitive unrefined cups and utensils.
Ritual is a transformation
A ritual is only a ritual if it brings about a transformation.
As Tom F Driver says, “Rites are more like washing machines than books. A book can be about laundry, but a washing machine can change dirty clothes into clean, if the washing machine is working properly.”
The twofold rite of transformation in the tea ceremony
Because the space we are in, and the objects in that space, are so simple, so ordinary, our awareness turns inwards. We are not pulled out of ourselves by a lot of sensory input, we are not distracted, so there is a calm, inward, mood.
Then as we watch the tea being made everything used in the tea ceremony is transformed. It’s transformed from something ordinary into something invaluable, vital even. The beauty is being drawn out. This transformation is bought into being by the tea master. They are fully present and handling each object with the utmost care and attention, through this pure mindfulness the objects are transformed.
If you want to read more on these subjects check out Leonard Koren's outstanding book. It really is the book on wabi sabi, take it from someone who has read a few!