SØREN M. CHR. BISGAARD
Sharing Eternal Moments Through Tea (February 18, 2004)
Tea is enjoyed by people all over the world in many different
ways. Usually it is prepared with great care using beautiful utensils in accordance
with the culture in which it is drunk. "Nowhere, though," notes Søren
Bisgaard, a Danish-born tea master of the Urasenke school who now makes his home
in the city of Kyoto, "has the drinking of tea been elevated to such a high
artistic and cultural level as in Japan."
Chanoyu, the ceremony surrounding the serving of powdered
green tea, is "one of the greatest achievements of Japanese culture,"
Bisgaard claims. "The quality of tea itself is the very best, and the fact
that you imbibe the whole leaf in its powdered form insures you get all the health
benefits and mental effects contained in tea. The philosophical and aesthetic
values central to chado [the 'way of tea'] are a true
contribution to humanity that can be shared with people in other cultures to enrich
Affinity with Tea
Tea has been an integral part of Bisgaard's life ever since he arrived in Japan
28 years ago. On just his second night in Kyoto, he found himself in a house five
minutes away from where he now lives in the company of those who would eventually
introduce him to the Urasenke school.
"I was 30 and I had come to the other end of the world," he recalls.
"So I was very happy when I was accepted as a student." He enrolled
in a three-year course in the school's international division and has since cultivated
a very close and rewarding relationship with Urasenke, having received his chamei,
or tea name, directly from the grand tea master.
His fondness for tea actually goes back much further. Lured
by an interest in philosophy and ancient history, he visited Greece while still
in high school and later traveled to the Middle East and Afghanistan and eventually
spent much time in India. Everywhere he went, he found himself frequenting tea
houses, which became his "home away from home."
While studying Buddhism and Indian philosophy he happened upon a small book that
would change the course of his life: The Book of Tea,
an introduction to Japan's artistic and spiritual tradition written in 1906 by
Okakura Tenshin. "I was influenced by the book from my first reading. I was
19 at the time and became enchanted by the underlying philosophy of tea as well
as traditional Japanese architecture and garden aesthetics." The book was
a constant companion on his journeys throughout Asia and a source of inspiration,
and it eventually prompted him to travel to Japan.
Here and Now
For Bisgaard, tea is much more than a drink to be enjoyed in the tea room. "For
me, chado is a way of life, an opportunity to share
something very beautiful and elevating with others in a highly refined and sublime
way. The same care, attention, and concentration that you would devote to temae
[tea-making procedures], the preparations in the mizuya,
or the selection of flowers for the tokonoma [alcove]
should also be reflected in one's daily life. In a sense, tea should be something
you practice constantly, not only in the tea room but in everything you do."
In chado one learns to value each fleeting moment.
"Each encounter between the host and guest is unique. It has never been experienced
before and will never be repeated again. It exists only in that very moment, so
you have to pay attention to the present with all your heart and mind. When everyone's
attention is focused on the moment, that moment becomes eternal."
Bisgaard's appreciation for the here and now has, naturally,
dampened any desire to go chasing after promises of a lucrative future. "I
could spend my time making money, but then I would have to compromise and do things
that I don't agree with. I may be poor as a result, but what I have you cannot
buy. I don't own this house, and I don't have any pensions. But as long as I'm
practicing chado I am at peace with myself and doing
something that other people may appreciate. And somehow I feel that that would
be enough. There's no safety net whatsoever. I trust in the divinity of life itself."
Sadly, he feels, many Japanese themselves have made the opposite choice. "For
example, when I first came to Kyoto there were many gardens like the one we have
here, but now there are few left. Just working with the plants takes out a lot
of stress and relaxes your mind. It keeps you in touch with the changing seasons.
All these things were completely normal until quite recently and gave people a
deeper sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfillment. TV cannot substitute for
those things, and neither will pachinko, karaoke, or computer games. All these
machines have stolen the Japanese mind and heart."
Bisgaard believes that they have also distorted the way people spend their time.
"So many people have no time on their hands because they are so busy working
to pay for the machines that supposedly make life more convenient. These machines
have not liberated man. On the contrary, we have become subservient to them. We
have to work harder to obtain all that we need, and so there is no time to live.
"If you look at so-called primitive people, they spend maybe two to four
hours a day doing what is necessary to maintain life. The rest of the time they
spend with their family, being artistic, playing music, dancing, or just enjoying
themselves. The people in less developed countries may be poorer by World Bank
standards, but they have a richer life."
Bisgaard is now, with the help of Genshitsu Daisosho, the former grand tea master
of Urasenke, working to establish a Danish Urasenke Association and to promote
the study of chado in Denmark. "I expect this
endeavor to be very fruitful and to have great impact on the thinking, arts, crafts,
architecture, and gardening in my country, and I also hope it will enhance the
sensitivity of the Danes to nature and give them a deeper insight into life."
This poses a challenge that is quite different from those encountered in practicing
or teaching tea in Japan. "Chado integrates all
sorts of uniquely Japanese elements, some of which are completely alien to others.
In transplanting a tree, we have to cut off the small branches but leave the big
ones intact and protect the roots. In due time the transplanted tree will acclimatize
and begin sprouting new branches, flower, and bear fruit. In a similar manner,
when transferring chado to a foreign culture we have
to maintain the roots and try to convey the essence. After a period of blind copying
and doing everything like in Japan, eventually there will be an adaptation to
local conditions, climate, and culture, and only then we will have succeeded in
truly transplanting the Japanese treasure that chado
"Chado is, in its subtle way, perhaps one of
the largest contributions Japan has ever made to the cultural life of the world.
Japan in the past has inspired many artistic movements in the West like impressionism
and art nouveau and spawned new design concepts. Chado,"
Bisgaard believes "can have an even deeper impact and can also make a big
contribution to international goodwill and peace."
Søren M. Chr. Bisgaard
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1946. Became interested in philosophy
at the age of 15, went to the Oracle of Delphi when 18, and became a sannyasin
monk at the age of 20. Initiated interest in Indian philosophy and religion among
young people in Denmark, leading to the foundation of a monastery. Studied Sanskrit,
philosophy, and Japanese at Copenhagen University. Arrived in Japan 1976 and joined
the Urasenke Midorikai program, continuing his studies to this day in Kyoto and
engaging in tea-related activities in Japan and abroad. Took initiative to found
International Society to Save Kyoto, now Mitate International, and is active in
local environment protection.
Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.