It is said that the Japanese tea ceremony or the 'The Way of Tea' dates back to the 9th century when a Buddhist monk was on his way back from China and prepared tea using a unique method for the Emperor Saga. Green tea was used in religious rituals in Buddhist monasteries. It then became a status symbol for warriors and evolved from there.
Today there are traditional and more touristy ceremonies and the actual ceremony will depend on the guests present and their prestige. The tea ceremony itself is not about the tea as much as it is about the aesthetics and the exact movements, gestures and the preparation of tea from one's pure heart. There are schools dedicated to teaching the preparation of tea for ceremony and each program will have a slightly different technique.
The majority of these ceremonies use powdered green tea which is called matcha while some will use the whole green tea leaves.
The meaning behind the tea ceremony is to enjoy the hospitality of the host and the host will always consider the guests when preparation is taking place. They will pour their heart into the preparation of their tea and everything is considered including the way the utensils are presented to the guest's view points.
An important idea behind the Japanese tea ceremony is wabi and sabi.
wabi - spiritual experiences of human lives; quiet and sober refinement
sabi - material side of life; weathered or decayed
An important part of spiritual awakening according to Japanese culture is understanding these two concepts, it is a mix of art and spiritual discipline. The philosophy behind these ceremonies is wa, kei, sei, jaku, which is the principles that should be present in every tea ceremony and means harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.
Harmony is brought from nature into the tea house and it's gardens. The utensils will be in harmony with each other and the tea garden should flow as an extension of the surrounding flora.
Respect is shown in a ceremony by crawling into the space regardless of rank, kneeling and bowing when appropriate and carefully handling the utensils throughout the ritual.
Purity is found when a guest enters the tea room leaving all troubles behind. They are guided to slow down and enjoy the company. The step of purity is also enhanced by the ritual cleaning by the host.
Tranquility is felt only when the first three stages are embodied.
The tea ceremony itself begins before the actual ritual takes place. Invitations are sent, the tea room and surrounding gardens are cleaned, ceremonial utensils are cleaned and the meal is prepared prior to the event.
The actual ceremony is roughly the same every time, the only variance will be on where the host learnt the ceremony, the time of year and day and where the ritual will be held. A formal tea ceremony can go for many hours and involves a full meal, a serving of thick tea and then ends with a serving of thin tea. Most ceremonies today involve only the thin tea.
Guests are expected to avoid wearing over powering dress or perfume that distracts from the tea, they are greeted by the host, purified through the washing of hands in a stone basin, shoes are removed and then they will crawl or walk into the ceremonial room and sit in order of guest prestige.
Guests then are served a meal, usually of several courses involving sake and sweets. Eating a sweet before the tea is customary. Guests are then sent out of the room while it is prepared for the tea ceremony. The host during this time cleans up the dinner and prepares the room by laying out the flowers, decorations and tea arrangement. The guests must purify themselves again before entering the tea room once more. They have the opportunity to inspect the utensils as they are all ritually cleansed. The tea is prepared in front of the guests in a meditative state by the host.
Each guest in turn will bow to the host as the bowl of tea is placed in front of them on the tatami floor, they pick it up, turn it clockwise, take a sip, wipe the rim and place it back down. The host is complimented and then the tea is passed onto the next guest. Everyone will sip from the same bowl and the ceremony will be over when the host washes the utensils and puts them back where they were at the beginning.
Picture from japan_guide.com
By understanding the tea ceremony has derived from Buddhist religious practice, stimulating the five senses through tea ritual, and the Japanese influence of the wabi sabi concept you can believe the ritual is more about the process and preparation more than the drinking of the tea itself. The encompassing act of including natural themes and tools and the coming together and communication between host and guests is a spiritual experience.
Experts have discovered the participation in the tea ceremony stimulates both sides of the brain which induces calm and eventually leads to spiritual consciousness, bringing together mind and body through this experience.