ACT 1: Water, Fire
Japan, in ancient times. Inside a temple in Kyoto. Silence. A tea garden. Floating paper as set, as shadow screens, as musical instruments. Layers of paper with deconstructed video images. Paper costumes.
Water music wafts in, with shadow voice sending a message of rebirth. The Japanese tea ceremony continues. It is bitter and silent. High monk Seikyo raises an empty teapot, passes an empty bowl, and with obvious relish, savors empty tea ritualistically: one sip, two, then half. Chanting monks ask why he savors the tea from emptiness. Seikyo, a Prince by birth, replies that ten years ago he became a monk because of his bitter love …
Ten years earlier. ChangAn, ancient capital of China. Scenes of family bliss inside the palace. Deconstructed images of the palace are reflected on paper screens. Beautiful Lan (the Princess) and her brother (the Prince) are performing for their father (the Emperor) a shadow-puppet opera from within The Monkey King, the most frequently performed opera set to the Chinese legend “Buddha Passion.”
Seikyo enters, interrupting the puppet show. The Emperor receives him with surprise. They speak of fond memories from the past. Seikyo expresses his wish to marry Lan. But the Emperor is hesitant, and asks Seikyo to recite a couplet of tea poems. The Prince angrily expresses his disapproval: “no one breaks the family and takes Lan away!” However, Seikyo's excellence at reciting poetry leads the Emperor to give his consent to the marriage.
A Chinese tea ceremony begins. It is lively and colorful. The Ritualist announces that a Persian Prince has arrived, and is offering a thousand horses in exchange for one book. Curious, the Emperor asks what book would demand such a price. The Book of Tea, the Ritualist replies; thousands of treasured secrets — fire crosses water, Ying and Yang, lines map the inner spaces of body and mind — fill this book of wisdom. When the Emperor inquires as to who has the book, the Prince reluctantly retrieves it from his silk sleeve. Reading the Book of Tea inspires the Emperor; Seikyo, on the other hand, doubts that this book is the same one shown him by its writer, Tea Sage Luyu, with whom he had studied tea in the South: “The book is a fraud!” Angry and jealous, the Prince challenges Seikyo; he vows to sacrifice his own life if Seikyo can produce and show him the “real” Book of Tea. Seikyo likewise promises to end his life if he is proven wrong. “Once you've given your oath, a thousand horses cannot retrieve it,” shout Seikyo and the Prince. Lan weeps with fear and grief as she watches her beloved and her loved one seal their fates.
ACT 2: Paper
Bare flesh. Video close-ups on floating paper screens. Sensual rendition of body and silhouette, echoing nature's undulating terrain: a sensuous and erotic tea dream.
Paper, as musical instrument and visual set, sends a message of wind. Seikyo, accompanied by Princess Lan, travels to the South in search of the real Book of Tea, which he hopes Luyu will show them. He prays that sun and moon dispel the mist of grief: “then Prince appeased, Princess at ease.”
Lan acquaints Seikyo with a legend about how tea was invented thousands of years ago, and introduces the popular use of double meanings in the making of Chinese tea:
oolong, dark dragon, rises.
moli, jasmine flower, opens.
loonching, dragon well, overflows.
While making love, they sing: “in tea mind, the woman made life art, the man made art life…” Inner emotional turmoil contrasts sharply with the seemingly serene, external landscape. Naked shadows behind the paper screen chant and have tea bath.
ACT 3: Ceramic, Stones
The music of ceramics and stones sends a message of fate. In the South, Lu, the daughter of the Tea Sage, offers a tea ceremony in shamanistic ritual style and announces the death of Luyu, her father. Seikyo and Lan arrive, too late, during the ceremony. However, Lu's ritual mask consents to give them the Book of Tea, but only on one condition: that they vow to spread its wisdom around the world, and to do so with an ambition tempered by love; this will also break the curse of Seikyo and the Prince's dispute. Lu presents Seikyo and Lan with the real Book of Tea. As they read it, trembling with excitement, the Prince bursts in and grabs the book from Lan. A deadly fight erupts between Seikyo and the Prince. But it is Lan who is mortally wounded; she is stabbed when she attempts to stop the duel. Covered in blood, Lan raises the empty teapot, passes the empty tea bowls, and drinks the tea of emptiness: “to die for the one I love by the one who loves…” Griefstricken, the Emperor sings farewell to his daughter with a quote from the puppet opera Lan and her brother once performed for him: “without you, life is a living death….” The atmosphere is ghostly. Lu repeats Lan's last words in Taoist double meaning: “after this tea, home – ” The Prince kneels before Seikyo, and gives him his sword, proclaiming: “with me it began, with me it shall end.” Instead of killing the Prince, however, Seikyo slices off his own hair … The chanting of monks returns:
though bowl is empty, scent glows……
though shadow is gone, dream grows……
Water music wafts in again, bearing the endless message of rebirth. In a Japanese tea garden, high monk Seikyo raises the empty teapot, passes the empty tea bowls, and savors with obvious relish the empty tea: one sip, two, then half. In the bitter silence, Seikyo sings once more: “savoring tea is the hardest…”