From Shoshin to Wabi: On Japanese Tea Tradition and Philosophy with Minna Eväsoja

Japanese culture and philosophy have long been major sources of inspiration for many of us wellness seekers. We asked Minna Eväsoja, docent of Japanese aesthetics, to share with us some wisdom about life and beauty according to traditional Japanese philosophy. 

Words: Meri Frig

 Can you tell us about the concept of 'Shoshin'. Why you wanted to write about it?

Shoshin means 'a beginner's mind'. In Japanese thinking, it is the most important concept of learning. A beginner's mind is unprejudiced, open, modest, and humble. It lacks self-attachment and arrogance, which hinder creativity, learning new things, or reaching a deeper understanding of arts. In the beginning chapter of my new book Shoshin: aloittelijan mieli (Shoshin: a beginner's mind) I wanted to share Japanese thoughts about learning, finding information, and most of all, attitude to life as a whole. From old Japanese literature and arts, I collected lessons and thoughts that have been important for me as a researcher of Japanese arts and philosophy during the past twenty four years. From the Ateneum art museum in Helsinki, I got to choose wood drawings that make the reading experience also a visually aesthetic experience.

You have conducted research on wabi-sabi. What do you most cherish about the concept?

In Japanese literature these words never appear together, as wabi-sabi, but they are two different concepts.

My Ph.D. thesis From Austere to Golden Wabi: Philosophical and Aesthetic Aspects of Wabi in the Way of Tea (2000) was published in the Studia Orientalia series (University of Helsinki). In the 350 pages, I elaborate on the existence of wabi in the Japanese tea ceremony, the "Way of Tea." “Wabi is a style and an attitude, influenced by space, ambience, and present people. As an aesthetic concept, wabi expresses rugged and bare beauty, where the patina of age finalises the developed style. In wabi, there is premeditated ungroundedness and roughness brought about by naturalness. Wabi also reflects a state of mind where external modesty turns into richness of the heart and a person can accept things the way they are.  Wabi makes inadequacy and deficiency aesthetic, but nevertheless does not lack anything.

Sabi reflects beauty with the patina of age, an ambiance of living aloof and alone, but out of one’s own will. The beauty of sabi includes letting go, in silence, emphasising the perishableness of the lived life.

You have spent several years in Japan. Besides your career, how has that period influenced you?

Japan has always a special place in my heart. The years I spent in Japan represent for me a time of ultimate serenity. I enjoyed silent days in museums and gardens but, above all, I enjoyed the aesthetic attitude towards life and nature. Over the years that I spent in Japan, I learned about patience, the pleasure of waiting, self-control and vulnerability of life. Yet most of all, about humbleness in front of knowledge. 

"Wabi also reflects a state of mind where external modesty turns into richness of the heart and a person can accept things the way they are."  

Can you tell us briefly about the Urasenke school?

Urasenke is an old tea school. Tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) is held as the forefather. The Urasenke buildings are national treasures in Japan and are not open for public. First foreigners were let in to get acquainted with the secrets of tea ceremony, the Way of Tea, in the 1970s. More than thirty students from Finland have left to study in Urasenke. There are seven beginner levels, after which you get 'a permission to study' sixteen different ways of making tea. I am still at a beginner level, with a beginner’s mind.

What is your take on the KonMari trend?

The KonMari thought is copied from the Japanese tea ceremony and the life philosophy of zen monks, regarding how cleaning and order can relax the mind.

"Over the years that I spent in Japan, I learned about patience, the pleasure of waiting, self-control and vulnerability of life."

Finally, could you perhaps give us any tips on successful tea pairing?

Once Rikyu said:

Tea is nought but this:

First you heat the water,

Then you make the tea.

Then you drink it properly.

That is all you need to know.