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Jan 07
Thursday
Arts and Poetry
Tea: A Mirror of the Soul

From the column Shambhala at the Movies, by Angela Pressburger

This week’s movie is TAN DUN: TEA – A MIRROR OF THE SOUL
(English with Chinese, French, German, and Spanish subtitles. 2002, Japan/Germany, 120 min).


Chinese composer Tan Dun has won many awards for his scores to the films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. He composed and conducted this delightfully Shambhalian opera, based on Master Lu Yu’s “Book of Tea”.

The opera opens in a monastery where High Monk Seikyo is savouring the tea of emptiness, poured from an empty pot into an empty bowl. At the insistence of his fellow monks, he begins to tell his story. The scene changes from the monastery to Chang-An, the ancient capital of China, where the beautiful Princess Lan and her brother the Crown Prince, are performing a shadow-puppet opera taken from the tales of the Monkey King, for their father the Emperor….

The Traditional Story:
Once upon a time, in Tang dynasty China, the Japanese Prince Seikyo comes to the court of the Emperor to study the Chinese art of tea. There he meets the Princess Lan and falls in love. He requests her hand in marriage and, upon his exquisite recitation of a tea poem, the Emperor approves the match. But the Crown Prince, the bride’s brother, is not happy….

Sometime later, at a court tea festival, a Persian Prince arrives to offer a thousand horses in exchange for the “Book of Tea.” The Crown Prince reluctantly draws a manuscript from his sleeve and offers it. Seikyo, however, is convinced that this is not the original text – which he has seen at the home of his teacher, Master Lu Yu, the book’s author. The Crown Prince is very angry and challenges his brother-in-law to prove his words. The two Princes agree that whoever is proven wrong will take his own life.

Prince Seikyo and Princess Lan begin a journey to seek the authentic “Book of Tea.” At a tea ceremony, they meet Master Lu Yu’s daughter, Lu, who tells them of her father’s recent death and consents to give them the precious book providing they vow to spread its wisdom throughout the world. As they read their treasure, the Crown Prince, who has been secretly following them, bursts in and grabs the book. He and Seikyo fight a duel and Lan, attempting to stop them, is mortally wounded. The Crown Prince comes to his senses and gives his sword to Seikyo asking him to kill him as recompense for his sister’s death. But Seikyo uses the sword to cut off his own hair and becomes a monk dedicated to teaching the Way of Tea for the rest of his life.

Against a Japanese paper background, the sound palette of a Western orchestra is augmented by “natural” instruments of water, paper and stones, to bring an ancient tale into the 21st century. The music is not always particularly tuneful – or even comfortable – to Western ears, but nonetheless it should have a familiarity for many Shambhalians. Gorgeous costumes and a wonderfully poetic libretto (sung in English) join with the music to make this a magical experience, and well worth your while.

Rentals: In the US from www.netflix.com. In Canada from: www.zip.ca

Purchase: Available at Amazon in North America and Europe.

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