the way of tea: an interview with gabriel soga caciula

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate to interview a couple of very experienced chanoyu practitioners – people that have long studied the Japanese Way of Tea and practiced the tea ceremony for many, many years.

They were kind enough to share their thoughts on tea, on practicing, and on the philosophy that tea and Zen are one, after all Zen Buddhism was a primary influence in the development of the tea ceremony.

I think that sometimes this ritual can be characterized as just pretty geisha girls serving tea, but there is so much more to this ancient art – so get yourself a cup of tea, take a deep breath and enjoy Gabriel Soga Caciula’s thoughtful and considered thoughts on the Japanese Way of Tea.

Gabriel teaches at a Urasenke school in Brussels, Belgium.  He has studied Chado in Japan and New York for over 20 years, and obtained his tea name and the Jokyoku Certificate while studying under the guidance of Duane Feasel sensei.

Tell me about your connection to Japan, and what ignited your passion for tea.

For reasons difficult to define, I have always been attracted by Japan. Why Japan? – I do not know. Yet, my sense of aesthetics was always defined by the geometry of asymmetric, the natural play of materials, the music of the silence, the inclination to contemplation and meditation.

I visited Japan with my work – I work for a pharmaceutical company. I took the routine touristic tour and here I was – sitting on tatami at a tea demonstration. I knew this is what I was looking for. I have to confess: I thought I knew; I had no idea at the time of what Chado – the Japanese way of tea – is all about. I just knew that what I saw I liked and it felt like being home in a spiritual way.

Back to New York, I waited for three years to be able to registered to the local ‘tea school’ – the local chapter of the Urasenke Chado Tankokai. The tradition of tea is carried over across generations by a number of schools which developed in time in a natural way. All the schools are originated by the descendants of this incredible man, Sen Rikyu (1522 – 1591) whose genius allowed for the first time the identification and the unification of four concepts related to tea: aesthetics, decorum, philosophy, social entertainment. I was interested in all these four concepts. I wanted to go beyond the immediate pleasure of the exotic released by a different culture. Twenty five years later here I am. Practicing and teaching tea in Europe.

The tea ceremony, while being very special, can be a little intimidating to newcomers – why is it special to you and what do you think non-Japanese can take and learn from it.

One thing is certain – this practice does not apparently fit at all in the system of ethical and moral values that we digest if inadvertently open the TV these days. The Japanese Tea Ceremony, known as Chanoyu, Sado or Chado is a long-established tradition. It has been practiced over the centuries and accumulated, as all traditions do, – the effect of time: it transformed and adapted itself to the present. Yet, for a single second it did not lose its core principles and structures. And this thanks to Sen Rikyu and the way he defined Chado.

Chado – the way of tea is a tradition which represents Japan in its deepest spiritual and cultural values. Tea and Zen are one – as one saying goes. And here comes a potential surprise: Chado is practiced today in many places outside Japan. It is practiced by Chinese, Norwegians, Brazilians, Americans, Italians, Germans, French, Romanians, Russians, you name it.

We could safely assume that there is something in the practice of this tradition that transcends the immediate need for novelty and exotic that defines the innate curiosity of a culture for another. There must be a set of values that for these people exhausts the desire to practice a tradition so remote from their own. It is hard to transcend the need for imitation and perceive things for their true face value. But what is their true face value? Is the Japanese tea ceremony something so “Japanese” which may never be fully understood without a complete immersion in the Japanese way of life?

How should the knowledge about the practice of tea be thought? How should it be passed on, maintained, allowed to grow and transform itself? Which is the best process, if such a question could be asked without violating the common sense that there is no such thing as “the best”, for developing understanding and creating insight? Which of the two traditional extremes of approach – the maintenance of the “secret” or the mediatic exposure and democratization of it should be encouraged? The list of questions can continue forever. Not all of the questions are formulations of true potentials. Some of them are meaningless, though apparently reasonable.

What is there, in Chado that attracts non-Japanese? I would say the same thing that attracts Japanese. In the space defined by the concepts mentioned before: aesthetics, philosophy, decorum, social entertainment, one can find the basic principles defining the spirituality of the way of tea, derived from the closeness of this practice to Zen Buddhism: Wa, Key, Sei, Jaku or Harmony, Respect, Purity, Tranquility.

In practicing Chado, in seriously practicing Chado, one may reach a state of mind that experiences Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility.

The fact that these can be experienced by a group of people together is the paradox that defines Chado. In doing tea away from Japan, are we sustaining or destabilizing the Japanese core of this practice? – this question is not a question as the answer can only be a speculation. The Japanese tea ceremony is many things at the same time. And many people see many things in many different ways. There is no fixed reference in the game of history.  Japanese had the sensitivity and intuition to let this tradition grow. But in a clever way Sen Rikyu defined its backbone: ‘it must be done with a sincere heart’. In doing so Sen Rikyu liberated it for the world. In form the tradition will remain Japanese, in essence it was decided by its own father to become something for all who are willing to follow its principles.

Can you tell me a little about your very first experience with chanoyu.

Well, it is Kyoto, a sunny afternoon, a quiet Japanese garden; I sit on my knees on tatami. Overwhelmed by the neatness of all things, by the cleanness around me, by the beauty of the utensils, by the powerful and yet gentle movements of the person preparing the tea, by the smell of incense, the freshness of the flowers in the altar, the calligraphy written by an old monk placed carefully in the altar as well. The pain in my knees becomes unbearable while everyone else moves at ease. I am excused and allowed to sit on a side – not a good thing to do – but that allows me to continue to observe. Everyone knows what to do.

The whole ceremony is a ballet in which everyone has practiced well his or her role. I am given a sweet before I drink my tea. It is outside this world. A sweet that is not sweet but perfect. And I drink tea. The warmth of it, the color if it, the gesture that the host used placing the bowl towards me on tatami, the silence that allows me to become one with the tea, that bitter taste that washes the traces of sweet only to better reveal itself. Am I in Heaven? How is this possible? I have this feeling that the door to the way of making tea with a pure heart has been open. A long way. But I am ready to walk on it.

In terms of instruction, how long have practicing chanoyu, how your learning has changed over time.

I have been practicing Chanoyu for over 25 years. I have friends who practiced only the very basics and are happy with that. They are ‘regulars’ enjoying a cup of tea and those special thirty minutes or so when they leave their daily worries aside and open their heart to a cup of tea. But true understanding of the spirituality behind this tradition comes only through a never-ending practice. A student progresses through various levels. The decision to move forward is in the hands of the teacher. It must be a teacher. It must be someone you trust and obey, someone who knows and is ready to give it all so that you can learn.

I obtained my tea name (Soga) after ten years of practice. One remains forever a student. The more you practice, the more you teach, the easier is to accept that there is no end, that one continuously learns. The deepest understanding of the whole relationship between the aesthetics, the philosophy, the decorum and the social entertainment, the deepest understanding of the meaning of ‘true heart’ comes slowly and you focus on only one thing: practice.

What have you learnt through practicing chanoyu (about Japan, rituals and yourself)

As I mentioned before, there is a firm belief that Tea and Zen are one. What one experiences as a result of serious and continuous practice escapes translation in a meaningful way. So to speak, there is no fear that the secret will escape. The moment the word is spoken the meaning vanishes. It is like learning a language that does not have a translation. The thing that we use to say is: “learn to do things with a pure heart”. What does it really mean? I learned that chanoyu is above the attempt to classify it. Last year, in a forgotten village in Japan, I had the clear feeling that I am somewhere in the mountains in Italy, or maybe in Russia, or in Vermont.

Tell me how you best translate the traditional tea ceremony to your tea practices at home, how are they simplified, what is still really important.

I practice at home the same way I practiced in Japan, the same way tea was practiced according to Sen Rikyu. I have a ‘yojohan’ – a 4.5 mat tatami room. I managed to slowly obtain all the required utensils (dogu). I try not to compromise. I enjoy seeing the variety that is inherently present in the practice of various people as they try to absorb the rules and transform them into their own ‘style’. Variations on the same theme. The theme established by Sen Rikyu in the 16th century.

I try not to compromise, but I do at times: sometimes I use an electric source for heating, sometime I do not wake up at 04:00 am to go and fetch the best water from a secret well, and I do work for a living as I cannot make it out just by teaching tea. These are things that one has to consider. But by doing so, one must not transform the practice into a meaningless game. The whole thing would be lost.

6 Responses to “the way of tea: an interview with gabriel soga caciula”
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  1. […] Philadelphia is a bit of a tea hub, with the wonderful Teaspoons and Petals blog also being based out of this wonderful city.  The first interview in this series, with Gabriel Caciula, a chanoyu practitioner from Belgium can be found here. […]

  2. […] Philadelphia is a bit of a tea hub, with the wonderful Teaspoons and Petals blog also being based out of this wonderful city.  The first interview in this series, with Gabriel Caciula, a chanoyu practitioner from Belgium can be found here. […]

  3. […] This interview excerpt with tea ceremony practitioner comes from To read the full interview please see: […]

  4. […] can read part 1 with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; and part 2 with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia […]

  5. […] can read part one of this interview series with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here and part three with […]

  6. […] practitioners, This time with Drew Hanson, Urasenke instructor in the United States.  You can read part one of this interview series with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here, part three with […]

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