Tag Archives: Wanderings of a Curious Mind

Japanese Tea Ceremony

This post was written on Tuesday, February 20, 2007

I spent the last week marinating myself in Japanese history, culture, cuisine and sake(rice wine). The most interesting part of my trip was when I got an opportunity to attend a tea ceremony at the Happo-en gardens in Tokyo. In Japan tea and the tea ceremony are almost symbols of the Japanese culture. In today’s VERITAS I will try to give a short description of the ceremony, its history and its relationship to the Japanese culture.

        Tea was introduced in Japan with the spread of Buddhism from China. During the rule of the Tang dynasty in China in the 8th Century a
poet named Lu Yu wrote a book- the “Chaking”(The holy scripture of tea). In this book he formulated ways and manners related to growing, making and drinking tea. His work was heavily influenced by the “Chan” school of Buddhism. The “Chan” school of Buddhism spread to Japan and became “Zen”. And with Zen the culture of tea was also introduced in Japan in the 12th Century when Yeisai-Zenji returned from his trip to China. By the 15th century the tea ceremony had been perfected and a book written about its intricate details: Cha-no-yu: The art of Tea. Some of the major influences on the tea ceremony were Ikkyu and Sen Rikyu.

        The tea ceremony is not just about making and drinking tea. it is something much bigger: it is related to flower decoration, the architecture of the tea house, the appreciation of paintings, the beauty of the kimono, the philosophy of Zen and the manners of the tea drinkers and the tea maker.

Tea House


Tea ceremonies are done in separate tea houses. The architecture of tea houses was specified by Jowo- a 15th century tea master. There is a tea room called Sukiya.



There is a room where utensils are arranged called Midsuya. The guests wait outside the tea house in a room called Machiai. They have to wait till they are summorned to the tea room. The path between the Machiai and the Sukiya is called the Roji. The Roji is usually a garden path. The Roji on which I walked was surrounded by cherry trees in full blossom- cherry blossoms are called Sakura in Japan. The seating in the tea room is Tatami( on the floor on special mats).



                        I looked beyond;
                        Flowers are not,
                        Nor tinted leaves.
                        On the sea beach
                        A solitary cottage stands
                        In the waning light,
                        Of an autumn eve.
                                        (Kakuzo Okakura- The book of Tea)

        The door of the tea house is very low. So everyone bows his head while entering- in the tea house the tea maker is supreme. All others-
from the Emperor to the poor worker have the same status while sitting in the tea room. In the tea room there is a small flower decoration and
a small painting. The flower decoration is placed on the Tokonama. Nothing else is placed near it. This is to allow the guests to appreciate the
flower arrangement without distraction. The guests first bow  to the flower and then to the host. After that they look at the painting and admire it.

        Apart from the flower arrangement and the small painting the tea room is quite bare. Also there is asymmetry in the tea room. The Zen
Buddhists believe that the mind should complete the symmetry- if art itself is symmetrical then the mind will not get a chance to exercise its imagination.

 The guests sit quietly as the host prepares tea. The guests are supposed to enjoy the atmosphere created by delightful sounds of the boiling water, the waterfall outside and the chirping of the birds. The host cleans the utensils in the order of the guests. Then tea is prepared. Every motion of the hand and every step of making the tea is a precscibed one. The tea maker has no room for changing any step. The steps prescribed in Cha-no-yo have to be perfectly followed. Tea masters are not rated accoring to innovation- they are rated as to how deep their knowledge of the Cha-no-yo is and how perfectly can they follow it.

        After the tea is prepared it is served to the guests and they receive the bowls with a bow. Drinking the tea is also a detailed affair.
The bowls have to be rotated clockwise 2-3 times before taking the first sip. Before the second sip the bowl is rotated anti-clockwise. And so on.

        I cannot describe the whole tea ceremony. It is a very complicated affair. I saw an english translation of the Cha-no-yu- it is about 600 pages long. The tea masters have to go through several years of practice and study before they can do tea ceremonies.


        One of the most beautiful things that happened during the tea ceremony was that when serving tea the host said the words- “Ichigo Ichi-e”.
These words are always said when the tea master gives the tea bowls to the guests. The words literally mean “Only one chance!”. So the tea master says that we have only one chance to enjoy this moment of harmony, togetherness and joy. This concept moved me- there was no talk of future aims and ambitions, deadlines and plans. There was just a realization that the present moment will never come again – let’s enjoy it now.

 After attending the tea ceremony I understood the Japanese culture a lot more. Their gentle manners, their decorations of nearly everything, their
pretty dresses, their delicate sets of food and chopsticks- the whole country and culture seems to be influenced by the way of the tea- Cha-no-yo. A few days back while discussing Japan’s immense industrialization after world war II, Dave Allen had told me that one reason for this huge advance is that Japanese take a process and then refine it to perfection. And it is these near perfect processes that have helped them create products that were far superior than those from other countries. While coming back from the tea ceremony I thought about this and it seemed to me that this desire for “perfect processes” has a link with the Tea Ceremony- Not everyone has to be innovative. Innovation is good but sometimes taking a process and making it perfect is even more important. I see this in the processes of the “Tea ceremony” and also in the
processes that have led the Japanese to create the Toyotas and the SOnys.

        Some of the information for this VERITAS has been taken from the book “The book of Tea” written by Kakuzo Okakura. You can borrow this book from me. The Wikipedia has some excellent information and pictures related to the tea ceremony.


  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 
  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 
  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          
  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;                             

What did Columbus do after 1492?


We all know that Columbus discovered America in 1492. When we were in school we used to read about the “Great Columbus who discovered America after a great adventure”. And we thought that “The Great Columbus was a man
who followed his heart and not what the others told him about the world being flat and so he would topple off the edge if he tried to find a way to India by going west”.
Such stories are good for schoolchildren who need to be told about the great values of life by giving them examples of great people. But as adults we should go beyond the “greatness” of “great” people and find the truth. I got to know some “not so great” truths about Columbus from a very interesting book: ” The Cartoon History of the Modern world”
by Larry Gonick. I have talked about the “cartoon history” and “cartoon guide” series byLarry Gonick in previous VERITAS articles. These are really interesting books.
In today’s VERITAS we will find what Columbus did after discovering America.

Christopher Columbus’s plan was to find a path to India from the west. He convinced Queen Isabella of Spain and set off on a voyage to find a route to India by going west. Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the earth and his shipmates became quite irritable after more than a month at sea. To boost their morale Columbus promised a
pension of 25000 gold coins a year to anyone who could sight land. At 2 AM on Oct 12 1492 Rodrigo de Triana sighted land. But he was denied any pension because Columbus told everyone that he had seen the land first and Rodrigo only confirmed it. Columbus and his people landed on an island which he named San Salvador. It is now a part of Bahamas. He called the natives “Indians” thinking that this island was a part of India.

But Columbus was not nice to the “Indians”. His men raped the women and killed anyone who tried to stop them. Columbus took a few native “Indians” as a gift for Queen Isabella. Most of them died on the way back but a few survived. Columbus did not just bring people from the new lands. He and his men also brought a dreaded disease: Syphilis. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease and was previously unknown in Europe. The first outbreak in Europe in 1494 killed 5 million people. But that is another story. Columbus told the queen about the islands and the fact
that they were very rich in gold and that Spain should colonize them. This was actually not true. Columbus had never seen gold in the islands. But the Queen was convinced. So she sent 17 ships and 1200 men with Columbus to colonize the islands.

This time Columbus discovered several new Islands including Cuba and Jamaica. He founded a new  settlement  in a place that is now known as the Dominican Republic. Columbus was a cruel man. He killed a lot of native people. He told the natives that if they did not bring gold their hands would be cut off. Columbus should have realized that there is no gold on those islands. So he chopped off people’s hands and killed them. In two years more than 100,000 natives were killed and the rest were enslaved to work in Spanish plantations.

Columbus returned to Spain and in 1498 began his third voyage to the new world. He had left a lot of Spanish people on the new Islands to manage the settlements during his second voyage. But when he returned during the third trip he found that the Spanish settlers were unhappy and frustrated: they had not found any gold! So Columbus had to deal with rebellious settlers. He hanged some of them but some returned to Spain and complained to the Queen about Columbus, his ways and the lack of gold on the islands! So when Columbus returned to Spain he was arrested. The Queen appointed a new governor in the Spanish island of Hispaniola( now Dominican Republic).

But Columbus got out of jail and set off on another voyage to the new world- this time he wanted to reach the Malacca Strait. Now, Malacca Strait is in the Indian Ocean. So Columbus was still thinking that he had reached close to India. This time he reached central America and spent two months exploring that area. Their ship got damaged during a storm
and Columbus and his men got stranded on  Jamaica. They asked for help from the neighboring Spanish colony of Hispaniola by sending a message through some natives on a canoe but the governor of Hispaniola disliked Columbus so much that he ignored any messages for help. Columbus and his men stayed on the island for more than a year completely dependent on the natives for food and shelter. But the natives were getting impatient- they did not want to feed so many hungry mouths. So Columbus thought of an idea- he told the natives that he had supernatural powers
by predicting that the moon will “turn off” on a particular hour on a particular day. Columbus had used the almanac to predict a lunar eclipse! The natives were no doubt impressed and continued serving Columbus. After 18 months on the Island help finally arrived and Columbus went back to Spain in 1504. After all these voyages he was completely exhausted and he died two years later.

So was Columbus a “great man” for having paved the way for the European colonization of the Americas? Or was he just an opportunist looking to make riches by exploiting people of an untouched world? These are all difficult questions. But history is always a mix of the good and the bad and it is difficult to separate the two!

And here is a excerpt from a poem by Ogden Nash. Before reading the excerpt note that America was named after Amerigo Vespucci:

        So Columbus said, Somebody show me the sunset and somebody did and he set sail for it,
        And he discovered America and they put him in jail for it,
        And the fetters gave him welts,
        And they named America after somebody else,
        So the sad fate of Columbus ought to be pointed out to every child and every voter,
        Because it has a very important moral, which is, Don’t be a discoverer, be a promoter.


Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Im Herzen von Zürichs alter Stadt


The words “Im Herzen von Zürichs alter Stadt” are in German. The literal english meaning is “In the heart of Zurich’s old town” and that is where I was for two days last week. I love traveling. So I took two days off after my business trip to Israel and visited Zurich. Now I am not a mountains, lakes and hiking kind of a person. I am more of a history, culture and museums kind of a person. So the Swiss Alps is not exactly my kind of fun. But Zurich is a historical city and in this VERITAS I will describe the historical aspects of the city and I hope to convince history lovers to visit this charming city.

Zurich has been inhabited since the Roman times. In the Roman times this was a tax collection point for any goods that were trafficked on the Limmat river.  The Romans had build a small castle on top of a hill by  the side of the river. This castle lasted till the 7th century AD. By this time it had already got the name of Ziurichi. From 746 AD to 1351 AD Zurich was a part of the German empire. The German Emperor Charlemagne built a castle and a church here. But some historians attribute this to Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German. But one fact is certain, a German emperor built a church here in 835 AD for his  daughter. The name of the church was Fraumunster(Minster of our Lady). All the land around Zurich was placed under the control of this church. The German emperor’s daughter Hildegard became the first abbess of this church. In 1045 the then Emperor of Germany, Henry III allowed the Church to collect taxes and mint coins. So the then abbess of the Church was effectively the ruler of the area. In 1230 a city wall was built. On the other side of the river Limmat another great Church called Grossmunster
was built between 1090 and 1230 AD. According to a legend Charlemagne was led to the site of this church by a stag. He founded a church there which later became Grossmunster.

In 1351 Zurich joined the Swiss confederation which at that time was a loose confederation of independent states. Zurich became the centre of Protestant movement in Switzerland in the sixteenth century. This was mainly due to the influence of the then preacher at the Grossmunster, Huldrych Zwingli. He was killed in 1531 during a war between the Catholic and Protestant cantons of the Swiss Confederacy. Zwingli’s Zurich Bible first appeared in 1531 and is still published.

In 1798 the French Revolutionary Army under Napoleon attacked Switzerland and the Swiss confederation was destroyed. On 12th April 1798 the cantons formed a new country known as the Helvatic republic. But this was more of a satellite state of France. In 1803 Napoleon restored the Swiss autonomy. After this Switzerland was to always have a central government but its cantons had a degree of self rule also. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna fully established the Swiss independence and Swiss neutrality. So Switzerland never fought a war after 1815.

Now, the history of Zurich after 1815 may not be interesting in terms of wars and political turmoil. But this lack of turmoil has a great side effect- it preserves history. The historical monuments stand in Zurich just the way they were created centuries ago. In fact the city of Zurich, especially the old town looks like a huge historical place. The old houses have been preserved beautifully and narrow stone roads criss-cross the old town. And the people of Zurich seem very proud of their history. I saw so many houses in which the date of construction has been proudly written outside the house. And many houses proudly display the history of the people who lived there on the front gate.

So that is how I spent the two days in Zurich- I walked through the narrow streets of the old town to see the charming houses and how proud people are of their history. And I tried to find older and older houses. And I found two houses that were built in the thirteenth century. And the oldest house that I found was built in 1218! And the hotel that I stayed in has been a guesthouse since  the sixteenth century! So I spent those two days walking in history- a beautiful experience.

And then I searched on the internet for some  famous residents of Zurich to see if I could find their houses. And I did! I first found the cafe which the famous German philosopher Goethe used to frequent. And then I visited ETH and the University of Zurich. Albert Einstein had studied at ETH( Federal Institute of Technology) . In fact ETH has produced so many great scientists like Pauli, Rontgen, Cantor, Dedekind, Minkowski, Weyl. It is a beautiful monument and an institute that has had a huge influence on Physics and Mathematics of the 20th century. Einstein later taught at the University of Zurich which is also a beautiful monument. And then I went looking for Lenin’s house. And I found that also- 14, Spiegelgasse. And I saw the fact that Lenin lived here in 1916 and 1917 displayed proudly outside the house. This is the house where Lenin planned the Russian Revolution!




Walking through the streets of the Zurich’s old town was a beautiful experience. An experience that I will never forget. Every house, every street seemed to have a tale to tell!

And of course, any trip to Europe is incomplete without tasting the local delicacies. I tried the very interesting Swiss Fondue- they place a pot of boiling cheese in front of you and you dip pieces of bread in it and eat it. And I also tried the delicious sliced veal in Zurich style cream sauce served with rosti. And the wonderful swissmost crème is a perfect dessert to end a Swiss dinner!

So for a lover of history, a lover of culture and a lover of beauty Zurich is a great place. A place that you must include in your “places to visit before you die” list!



 Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:
 Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:
 Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
 Correct old time and regulate the Sun;

Creative Commons License
Veritas by Kanwarpreet Grewal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.