Finding My Humanity in a Red Tea Ceremony

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

Of the many rituals that happen at Burning Man, the one that sparked my curiosity most was the one that I came to participate in myself.

It all began when I was looking at the photos that appeared after the Burn in 2011. The longtime Burner photographer Scott London had published his selected images from that year, and while they were all wonderfully lovely, one picture made me go, “What is that? Who is that? I wish I could have participated in that.” If you’re a Burner, you know this feeling.

That” was an image of two kneeling individuals facing each other under a beautiful large red parasol. One man was in a colorful kimono holding a bowl in both his hands, and the other man was wearing simple red clothing, as if he were a Buddhist monk or an ascetic. His shaved head and face were painted white, and he gazed upon the man with the bowl with a silent, poised face. It made me think of a Japanese green tea ceremony (otherwise known as the way of tea) which has existed since the 12th century. As an anthropologist, such ceremonies have always fascinated me. Something was special about this moment between the two participants, with the Man Base and heavy machinery in the background.

Hechi-Ken Hamazaki performs his Red Tea Ceremony at Burning Man (Photo by Scott London)

While there was no guarantee I would ever see this man in red under the large parasol on the playa, I did secretly hope I could participate in whatever this experience was.

The next year in Black Rock City, I found myself chatting with a Burner from Japan. As we chilled on a pink furry couch looking out on the playa eating some coconut chocolate chip ice cream, I described the image to him and asked if he had knew about this man in red who seemed to be performing this ceremony. After all, the man in red did seem to be of Japanese descent, and I figured there could only be so many Japanese Burners on playa.

And it turned out that, yes! He did know who that was, and he told me excitingly that he was volunteering with him, and it was happening tomorrow night at the Temple. He handed me a sticker that said “Red Tea Ceremony” with Hechi-Ken Hamazaki, Thursday, 3 pm at the Man, Friday, 9 pm at the Temple. As my new smiling Japanese friend Takashi got on his bike and disappeared into a whiteout, I got immediately excited knowing I would be able to participate in the ceremony.

The following evening, I got going to the Temple of Juno. It wasn’t super dusty or particularly cold as I walked into the Temple grounds. A small group of Japanese Burners in kimonos and haoris were congregating and setting up. The Temple that year seemed to echo aspects of Japanese and Asian architecture, and it seemed fitting for such a ritual to take place there. As the evening grew darker, the arrangement for the ceremony was placed on top of some steps that lead into the heart of the Temple with a thick rope hanging across, and a small light shining a beam below to the elements.

Hechi-Ken Hamazaki performs his Red Tea Ceremony at Burning Man (Photo by Romi Epstein)

A line of participants began to form close by, and Ken, dressed in the same red garments and white makeup, walked up to the tatami mat, removed his wood geta slippers, and knelt onto the red pillow gracefully. I didn’t know it then, but he would not remove himself from the kneeling position the hours he was engaged in the ceremony. I got in the line and began to watch as the first person was motioned by a volunteer in Japanese Edo period garments to come up the steps.

The participant slowly walked up and knelt on the red pillow opposite of Ken. The eyes of both participants met, and they slightly bowed to one another. The ceremony began.

Ken initiated by placing a small red box on a red plate in front of the participant. He extended his hand as if to signal “partake in this gift.” As the box was opened, there seemed to be a treat of sorts that could be eaten while the preparations began to take shape.

As the participant began to eat this treat silently and slowly, Ken moved in elegant form, as if he was preparing this tea for an emperor or a queen. It was as if time had stopped. People who were walking in and around the Temple froze in place and became transfixed. This was something special, and whoever this man in red was, he obviously had perfected this movement with what could have been a lifetime of practice. Indeed, in Japanese culture, there are movements and arts that do require such discipline and study.

Shichiju-ichiban shokunin utaawase, Tokyo National Museum, circa 1500

The preparation finished, a gold vessel that resembled a Tibetan singing bowl was offered with the liquid spirit. The participant took the bowl slowly and rose it to their lips. After a few deep slow sips, the bowl was carefully placed back. Ken took a wooden object, tapped the golden vessel slightly, and a gong rang out like the sounds that I’ve heard echo from the monasteries deep in the Himalayas. Another slight bow was exchanged, and then Ken took the opened red box he had earlier given the participant and like a magician folded it to become a white origami that had a special print on it to commemorate the ceremony.

I partook that night in my first Red Tea Ceremony at Burning Man. And I have continued to every year since. I still find out where it will be the same way:  On those pink furry couches meeting Takashi for coconut chocolate chip ice cream. In a way, that became its own ritual too.

Hechi-Ken Hamazaki performs his Red Tea Ceremony at Burning Man (Photo by Romi Epstein)

Participating in the ceremony, I have felt humbled and mesmerized. It felt like I was playing a part in the continuation of a wonderful story and the transmission of a unique human tradition. It was like we were living art, and all the viewers were looking at a lovely painting in motion. The sounds of the energetic playa slowly faded. I was aware, open, and reflective — not just of my own self and presence, but of all the cultural traditions and rituals that have existed across human history — traditions that have faded and been forgotten, those that are still barely existent, and those with us in our daily lives. In a world that always seems to get faster and more crowded, experiences like the Red Tea Ceremony bring me back to the simpler ways we used to live and connect with each other. It is something that makes us essentially human, and I hope such rituals will continue to be part of our societies, however that looks.

Hechi-Ken Hamazaki performs his Red Tea Ceremony at Burning Man. (Photo by Takashi Kita)

(Top photo by Trey Ratcliff)

About the author: Shawn Saleme

Shawn Saleme

As the program coordinator for Burners Without Borders, Shawn helps facilitate socially innovative projects through BWB’s initiatives, grants and chapter network. Before joining the Burning Man staff, Shawn lived around the world for a number of years working and volunteering for community development nonprofits including building his own school for youth who live in the train stations of Calcutta, India. Burning since 2011, he’s helped bring art to the playa every year and was on the first Ma’Patz (DPW) crew for Midburn. From the SF Bay with a BA in cultural anthropology, he’s excited to help facilitate and extend Burning Man culture globally.

5 Comments on “Finding My Humanity in a Red Tea Ceremony

  • Marissa says:

    I was fortunate to accidentally run into Hechi-Ken Hamazaki at the Man base in 2015.

    It was a very rough year for me. I had a double ear infection (which is super un-fun in the 90+ degree desert that is constantly blowing dust into your ears and eyes). I was exhausted, cranky, and not “feeling it” at all.

    I was on a solo bike ride around in a dust storm, feeling pretty much like a pile of garbage, when like a dream, this man emerged out of the dust in his red clothes and parasol, kneeling patiently, attending to each person who stopped.

    I sat on my bike and watched him perform his beautiful tea ceremony, probably for a half an hour before I left my bike, and knelt in front of him
    The moment with Ken was unforgettable. Neither of us said a word through any of it, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see him again. His deep, abiding, and compassionate demeanor made me feel like everything was just as it should be.

    People talk a lot about the big party in the desert. The raves, the sexy people, and the music. All of that is well and good, but moments like these are what keep me coming back.

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  • Brian Train says:

    I first met Hamazaki in 2003, at my first Burn. I don’t know how long he has been doing this. Here is my story:

    Tea in the Shadow of the Man

    On Thursday I came across a group of Japanese people with a van and photo equipment, taking pictures of a man in those pajama-like robes priests wear doing a simplified Japanese tea ceremony with anyone who walked by.
    I talked to a few of them to find out what was going on and they told me it was an artist named Hamazaki who had come all the way from Osaka to do this performance, serving tea to people by the Man. I decided to have a go.

    While I was waiting my turn, I saw a Japanese girl dyed dark green with short hair, half dressed in white sheets and angel wings, and jokingly said, “Kappa mitai!” (“you look like a kappa” – in Japanese legend, kappa are supernatural creatures which live both on land and in water. They are as tall as a four or five year old child, and have a water-filled dish on their head. As long as the dish is full of water, kappa keep their supernatural powers. Kappa are known for dragging people into the water and pulling out their livers through their anuses, though they do not often harm people. Kappa love sumo wrestling, sake and cucumbers. That is why cucumber sushi rolls are called “kappa maki”. “Okappa” is a nickname for bobbed hair (like the girl’s hair) because it looks like the kappa’s hairstyle.) I thought it was an appropriate and harmless joke, but she shrieked at the sound of my Japanese, grabbed her face and crouched down in a duck-and-cover move. I had seen some extremely shy and nervous Japanese women do this before, but apologized anyway. I didn’t feel so bad when I saw her doing it later with other Japanese (including Hamazaki, when it was her turn to do the ceremony).

    Hamazaki sat seiza without speaking, he must have been sitting there for hours under the hot sun – he was quite liberally covered with sunblock, otherwise he would have been cooked. The ceremony itself was an abbreviated version of others I had sat through in Japan (I lived there for two years):

    – set out sweet
    – present sweet on tiny round table
    – while guest eats sweet, prepare tea:
    – set out bowl, clean bowl edge with napkin
    – fold napkin and replace in jacket fold
    – measure out powdered green tea with tiny wooden spoon
    – pour in water (I think they used diluted sake, it tasted alcoholic)
    – whisk tea
    – turn bowl twice clockwise
    – present tea to guest
    – while guest drinks tea, sit quietly
    – after tea, both sit quietly for a moment
    – reach over and ring metal bowl once with metal rod
    – guest gets up

    Obviously most of the people doing the ceremony with him had never taken part in one before, so did things like draining the tea in one gulp without stopping to admire the bowl (they probably found the bitter tea to be a bit of a surprise too). It was entertaining watching one girl in a nurse’s outfit try to sit seiza properly while wearing 5-inch platform go-go boots.

    I did what I had done during the tea ceremonies I remembered, and before I got up I gave him one of the small metal castings I had been making on the playa all week.

    As I walked away from the tea ceremony, I felt a lot better and calmer. I sucked down the last drops of warm flat water from my Anaconda and up ahead spotted a plastic water bottle lying on the playa. Obviously it had fallen off some Yahoo’s bike, and I was grumbling to myself about people who drop garbage around. I picked it up and it was cold and full. The playa will provide!

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  • April Rameé says:

    This is one of my favorite memories and experiences at burning man as well. I met him in 2015 on Friday in one of the worst wind storms ever. That day was so cold I had a coat on. I was on a lonely bike ride and ran into this amazing gay man who began to serenade me in the dust storm. Afterwards I wandered off into the unknown walking my bike and ran across the tea ceremony. I completely admired how he served the tea so that when he was serving me the wind was to my back and he received all the wind in his face. I was so humbled, amazed, and honored to be treated with such respect and love in the most silent beautiful way possible.

    I look forward to finding this ritual again in 2017.

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  • Kirsten B says:

    Shawn,

    I loved reading this… how we find ourselves deeply connecting to our center, past/future/, and resonant in the present moment, in these unexpected and surreal spaces that offer and unfold themselves on the Playa. Thanks for sharing your personal ritual and experience here :)
    (And for helping bring art to the Playa )

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