I recently read a tea story from the early seventeenth century in Japan. There was a priest at the Daitokuji temple in Kyoto who happened to see a particularly beautiful camellia blossom in the garden, and he decided to send it to his friend, the tea master Sen Sotan. He carefully picked the flower and gave it to one of his disciples, with strict instructions to handle the gift carefully on his way to Sotan’s residence. Despite the messenger’s best efforts, however, the blossom fell off of the stem before he could give it to Sotan.
The messenger wondered what to do, and finally decided to take the flower and its stem to Sotan and offer his abject apologies. Sotan accepted both the apologies and the gift. Instead of throwing the flower away, he placed the stem in a hanging vase on the pillar of the tokonoma (the alcove where the scroll is usually hung and a vase of flowers is arranged), and he placed the blossom beneath the vase as if it had fallen there naturally.
As I read this story, it reminded me of a time when I was in my teacher’s tearoom during a lesson, and I noticed that the head had fallen off one of the flowers in the tokonoma; it was lying there, under the vase. There was something really profound about the visual impact of that. I was still thinking about it after I went home, and I even wrote a little poem about it. But it’s really hard to put that feeling into words.
I think that it says something about the transitory nature of life – it’s not a bud, with all the potential of life; it’s not a flower in full gorgeous bloom. It’s come to the end of its existence; no longer an object of admiration, but something that most people would toss into the trash. The moment when the blossom falls is a moment of transition, and I think Sotan was trying to convey, with his action, that that moment is when we should be paying the most attention. There’s beauty in all moments, in all phases of existence, in endings as well as beginnings. If tea is about noticing things and feeling things, then surely the moment when the flower falls is a crucial moment to capture.