Dec 28, 2007

Silence of the looms

I enjoy collecting and wearing kimono for tea. I feel comfortable and wear kimono whenever I am teaching tea, in the tea room or sometimes just around the house.
When I lived in Kyoto, Japan, I lived near the district called the Nishijin. It is a famous area in the city known for fabric. Not just any fabric, but designers here, for generations, have produced the most beautiful brocade and woven fabrics used in obi and kimono.

Everyday when I would walk to class, I could hear the sounds of the jacquard looms chink-a-chink-a-chink in the homes where the fabric was woven. But I returned to Kyoto last autumn and walked through my old neighborhood for two days. I didn’t hear any looms working in the homes – not a single one.

Ladies don’t wear kimono very often in Japan any more. Just for formal occasions or when they are going to something traditional like a tea ceremony. Some Japanese women that I have taught don’t know how to put a kimono on because they have never done so by themselves. And certainly, women don’t buy wardrobes of kimono – one for every season – any more. With men it is even more rare to dress in kimono – though it seems like hakama is still worn for many martial arts.

So many of the kimono shops have closed and the shops that supplied the accessories for kimono – hair ornaments, zori shoes, fans, combs, sashes and woven cords have also gone away. I met with a seventh generation kimono designer last November. He is the last of his family to design and make kimono. When he retires, the shop will close.

Like many of Japan’s traditional crafts, the kimono is a dying art. The children of the craftsmen no longer want to carry on the business and finding apprentices is getting harder and harder. Young people no longer want to put in the long hours and the many years it takes to master a craft that has little meaning in the modern world. It is getting harder for these craftsmen to make a living practicing their craft. Though we would like to preserve it, I am afraid that soon we will see very little of kimono, obi and accessories.

Last year, The Washington Post had an excellent article, Twilight for the Kimono about the Nishijin and the the art of kimono.

Dec 26, 2007

The year for fire

Since ancient time in Japan, poetry has played a major role in cultural life and continues to be widely practiced today. One direct way that poetry influences chado is the Emperor’s annual poetic theme, called chokudai.

Poetic themes have been designated for poetry gatherings since the Heian period (794-1185). At the new year, it was the custom for poems from each province to be presented to the Emperor. The poems were thought to embody the spirit of each area and add to the Emperor’s spirit. In return, the Emperor’s spirit, embodied in his poem, was given to all the country.

Today, the Imperial Poetry Reading takes place in the Tokyo Imperial Palace in early January. Several poems are selected from the thousands submitted and are read or chanted in the traditional lyrical style before the Imperial family. Those whose poems have been selected are invited as guests and the Emperor’s poem is read last.

Last year the poetic theme was moon. The chokudai for 2008 is hi or fire. Why not compose a poem on new year’s day to commemorate the year? Everyone remembers writing haiku in grade school. Try to write a short fire poem with 5-7-5 syllables per line. Or try writing a poem in the classical waka style with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables per line.

Besides poems with the theme, every year craftsmen who make tea utensils use the chokudai to commemorate the year. I wonder what the new year will bring with the theme of fire? Will it mean that people will get fired up? I have a feeling that 2008 will be a very exciting and passionate one. For me, I hope so.

Dec 24, 2007

The place to practice

There is a scroll that is often used in the tea room: Jiki shin kore do jo. It means the pure and simple heart is the place to practice.

When studying tea, it often comes up that people do not have a tea room, there is no place to practice and they cannot study chanoyu. When I first began to study chanoyu, I measured out a four and a half mat tea room on my living room floor and used masking tape to mark the mats. I used my stovetop kettle and a ceramic cereal bowl and a carved wooden popsicle stick to practice making tea.

Chanoyu developed in Japan and originally took place in a tatami mat room, but it is a living tradition that has adapted with the times. Gengensai developed the ryurei or table style tea that can take place in any room or even out of doors. There is also chabako, a traveling tea set you can use to make tea anywhere. I have taken my chabako on hikes in the mountains, to parks, and other outdoor venues. With a thermos of hot water and a chabako, tea ceremony can be done anywhere.

The beginning tea procedure, ryakubon can be done without a tatami mat room. I have a set in my living room and have used it to make tea for guests on the coffee table with an ordinary tea kettle of hot water on a trivet. I even had a ryakubon set at the office that I used to make tea for my collegues, or even just myself when I needed to take a 15 minute break in a busy day.

The point is that you do not have to have all the utensils to practice chanoyu. Just use what you have, adapt the rest and make good tea for your guests.

Dec 20, 2007

The return to the light

I have been looking forward to the solstice this year, and looking back on my writing, it seems to be preoccupied with light and sun lately. It must have something to do with getting up and going to work in the dark, and coming home in the dark. With overcast skies and fog all day or drenching rain in the last week , even during the daylight hours, it seems more like twilight. When I was out walking at lunch time, I saw a patch of blue sky yesterday. But you had to be looking in the right place, and it was just for a few seconds before the grey clouds covered it up again. I tell you, I have treasured that little patch of blue. I keep remembering it, where I was standing when I saw it and grateful for that little bit of hope. No wonder pagan societies all over the world throughout history celebrated the winter solstice, calculated it, marked it, waited for it. It is the turn of the world back to the light. The natural rhythms of the seasons coming around again. So in the deep, dark days of winter, we make the turn once again to light and hope. The pendulum will swing again in the other direction and in six months we will once again be sitting in the sun.

Bless you all this holiday season.

Dec 18, 2007

Bonenkai and preparing for the New Year

The end of the year is fast approaching. The Japanese have a tradition of preparing for the new year by cleaning and settling up so that one can begin the new year with a clean slate.

One such tradition is Bonenkai ("forget the past year" parties). The idea behind Bonenkai is to hold a party where lots of food and plenty of alcohol are served, to help wash away all the unpleasantness of the past year, review accomplishments and begin the new year with a clean slate. Bonenkai are a must for every work group. There may be parties for one department, the whole company, clients, etc. Options for these parties range from snack food and drinks to lavish social gatherings on a cruise ship sailing around the Sumida River in Tokyo complete with live music and dancing. There may be parties for other groups as well, such as judo or chess clubs or former classmates.

Another tradition is O-soji (big cleaning). According to ancient belief, Toshigami (God of the Year) visits every home at New Year's, so many preparations are devoted to being ready to receive him. These preparations include paying off debts, saying you’re sorry to mend relationships, and thoroughly cleaning the house, office, or classroom. Floors and walls are scrubbed, rooms and desks are tidied, and borrowed items are returned. School children always clean their school, but for o-soji they make a game of running across the floors pushing damp towels with their hands.

By mid-December people are busy addressing nengajo (New Year's postcards) to send to business associates and clients as well as friends and family. They are available in a great variety of styles, like American Christmas cards. Creative or ambitious people make their own. All postcards dropped off at the Post Office by a specified date are delivered on New Year's morning by an army of temporary workers hired for this one special day. It takes an army: four billion nengajo are sent annually. To add to the excitement, the Post Office prints cards with lottery numbers on one side and a blank side to be decorated by the sender. A lottery drawing is televised in mid-January, with thousands of prizes awarded.

Most stores close for several days at New Year's, so in the days before refrigeration a variety of preserved foods became part of traditional New Year's meals. The most important of these is mochi, or pounded glutinous rice. Mochi will keep for several days and is also tasty grilled. These days it is possible to buy mochi at the grocery store or to make it with an electric pounding appliance, but the very best mochi is made the old-fashioned way: hot steamy rice is put in a heavy wooden or granite usu (mortar) and pounded with a large wooden kine (pestle or mallet). Rice has been the most important crop in Japan for centuries, the key to prosperity and a full belly, and pounding rice brings out its sacred essence. The final result is a soft, smooth, and chewy dough-like glob that is pinched into small balls. It may be filled with sweet bean paste, dropped like dumplings into soup, or used in a hundred other ways (depending on the region). Mochituski (mochi pounding) is a family or community event, with people taking turns at pounding, while another person with courage and care reaches into the bowl between hits to turn the rice.

The final act of wiping the slate clean is played out at Buddhist temples all over the country, starting before midnight on December 31. In a ceremony called Joya no Kane, temple bells are rung one hundred and eight times to welcome the new year and obliterate the sins or troublesome desires of the past year. One explanation of this precise number is that, according to Buddhist teaching, there are six senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and cognition; these have three natures: good, bad, and neutral. Each of these 18 attributes has both positive and negative aspects that can exist in the past, present, or future. Thus you have 6 × 3 × 2 × 3 or 108 reasons to toll the bell. People visit the temple grounds before midnight to watch and listen, or maybe be invited to climb a ladder to take a turn striking the huge iron bell. Those who prefer a televised ceremony from the warmth of their home can watch a team of thirty monks toll the seventy-four-ton bell at the Chion-in Temple in Kyoto. At some temples, people go to get a piece of string to be lit at the temple fires to take home and light the home fires for New Year’s day. The string must be twirled all the way home to keep it lit.

Dec 11, 2007

The Legend of the 47 Ronin

On December 14th Gishi-sai no cha is a tea gathering to honor the memory of the 47 Ronin of Akō.

The legend recounts the most famous case involving the samurai code of honor, Bushidō. Loyalty, control, sacrifice, persistence, and honor: in the legend, these virtues were etched forever into the soul of the Japanese people. The tale, known as Chūshingura, is celebrated in stories, plays, books, woodblock prints, statues, movies and television.

The story begins with Asano Naganori of Akō, a samurai lord, who was summoned to the Shogun’s palace in the city of Edo, now Tokyo. Under the watchful eye of his tutor, Lord Kira, master of palace protocol, Asano was given court responsibilities. Friction between the two men was constant. Asano refused to pay the bribes that Kira demanded for his services. Kira used every opportunity to publicly humiliate Asano. After two months of abuse, Asano’s tolerance was gone. He drew his sword against Kira within the palace walls – a grievous offense – and attempted but failed to kill him. The punishment for this was inflexible: Asano was ordered to commit seppuku, a ritual act of suicide.

Upon his death, Asano’s estate was confiscated, his family was disinherited, and his 321 samurai retainers were ordered to disband, thus becoming ronin or masterless warriors. Many of them, in a secret blood oath, swore to avenge their Lord’s disgrace and restore his rightful honor. Headed by their general Oishi, they undertook nearly two years of great self-sacrifice and carefully conceived ruses to disguise their real purpose. Oishi himself moved to Kyoto, where he became an infamous drunk and gambler, all to deceive the Shogun’s police and Kira’s many spies.

The ruses worked. Kira and his allies finally relaxed their suspicions of Oishi and his men. On a winter night, December 14th, 1702, 47 of the Ronin met in Edo. They marched to Kira’s mansion, announcing themselves to those inside with Oishi’s beating of the Asano war drum. In the great battle that followed, the 47 stormed Kira’s mansion and attacked Kira’s 61 armed guards. In the course of a 1 ½ hour battle, they were able to subdue or kill all of Kira’s men without any fatalities of their own. Finding Kira, the brought him to a courtyard and offered him the chance to honorably commit seppuku. Kira was not able to commit seppuku, so the 47 Ronin beheaded him and a whistle signaled that he was dead. Then to symbolize the completion of their mission, the 47 Ronin returned to Asano’s grave at Sengaku-ji Temple and set the head of Kira before it, declaring their Lord’s honor redeemed.

Prepared to die for this deed, the 47 Ronin proclaimed what they had done to the Shogun’s court authorities. The Shogun himself, though sympathetic to their heroic act, was nonetheless on the horns of a dilemma. To pardon them would be to condone future vendettas. After 47 days of deliberation, the decision was made that each of the 47 was ordered to honorably commit seppuku, instead of being executed as criminals.

On February 4, 1703, each of the Asano warriors committed seppuku, dignifying themselves in their valiant sacrifice. Upon their deaths, these loyal 47 men were buried side-by-side with their master at Sengaku-ji Temple.

The clothes and arms they wore are still preserved in the temple to this day, along with the drum and whistle; the armor was all home-made, as they had not wanted to arouse suspicion by purchasing any. The tombs became a place of great veneration, and people flocked there to pray. The smoke of incense offered by sincere worshippers has been ascending there for 304 years.

Dec 8, 2007

Back to one again

Keiko to wa ichi yori narai ju o shiri ju yori kaeru moto no sono ichi.

Rikyu’s wrote one hundred poems on the way of tea, and this one is translated as:
In tea practice, you learn from one to ten. When you reach ten you return to the original one.

Because chanoyu is wide – it covers many, many things, and deep – it can be a profound spiritual path, there are always things to learn. This poem reminds us too, that no matter how far we think we have progressed, we return to the original one again. That is, the lessons we thought we learned in the beginning of study we go back and re-learn again. This has been so true in my own study. After 15 years of study, I went to Japan where I started from the very beginning to learn how to walk and sit in the tea room. I learned how to bow the correct way again, and I learned again to clean. Even in the most advanced tea workshops with high ranking teachers and students, every seminar begins with warigeko – the basics.

But it was not just these physical things that I re-learned again. The lessons that I first learned in chanoyu about humility, thinking of others and doing things the right way came back to me in the first months of intensive study in Japan.

After many years of study, I thought that I pretty much knew a lot about chanoyu and I was one of the more advanced students of my sensei. But in Japan, I was little more than a tadpole just out of the egg. I quickly had to re-learn these lessons again and again.

Each time we return to the beginning, it is really not the beginning again. It is the same lessons presented so that I can take it in at a deeper level and so enrich my understanding of myself and how I interact with the world.

Dec 3, 2007

Japanese for the tea room

Learning the Japanese words during tea class is not necessary, but it does help with the discipline of learning something new. At the request of my current students here is the basic Japanese for receiving tea properly in the tea room:

Opening salutation (aisatsu), entire class:
"Ohayo gozaimasu [morning] (OR “Konnichi wa [daytime],” “Konban wa [evening]”) Okeiko yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." (Teacher, please instruct us)

Closing salutation (aisatsu), entire class:
"Sensei, okeiko domo arigato gozaimashita." (Thank you for the lesson)

To the host, after being invited to be the guest:
"Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu."

To the teacher before being invited to be the guest by the host:
"Sensei, okyaku okeiko yoroshiku onegai itashimasu." (Please do me the favor--i.e. of instructing me)

When the host invites you to take your sweet:
"[Okashi] chodai itashimasu." (I will partake of this sweet)

When you bring the bowl back to your place:
If there is a guest to your right (who has already drunk tea):
"Oshoban itashimasu." (May I join you?)

If there is a guest to your left:
"Osakini." (Excuse me for going first)

To the host:
"Otemae chodai itashimasu." (I will partake of your temae-- i.e., the tea and its preparation)

To stop the host from making more tea (spoken as the host empties the rinse water into the kensui):
"Oshimai kudasai." (Please conclude)

Nov 28, 2007

The sounds of the tea room

I was sitting in the tearoom the other day listening to the rain on the roof. The tea room is like a sensory deprivation chamber in that it is bare of decoration or furniture. It is quiet and often dimly lighted. The walls are a muted color and the tatami mats straw colored with black borders. Because of this austere setting, anything that happens is highlighted and perhaps magified in importance.

Like the rain on the roof. In the Pacific Northwest, it rains a lot. The weather forecasters have many ways to describe it: rain, heavy rain, rain then clearing, intermittent rain, chance of rain, rain likely, light rain, showers, drizzle, misty…
If you pay attention, there are many sounds of the rain. From the heavy, slow drip of large drops after a sudden shower to the quick patter of a cloud burst.

If you keep your ear tuned to the sounds of the tea room, you will find so many other sounds that you never heard before. Like the way the kettle sounds as it heats the water. Every kettle has its own song. As the water heats, it begins to sing and mummer. You know the water is at the right temperature for making tea when the kettle sounds like “the wind in the pines.”

Another sound you might notice the next time you are at a tea ceremony is the sound of the water as it is poured into the bowl. Hot water sounds completely different than cold water. No matter which bowl it is, the sound is different. Can you hear it?

The soft shuffling of the host as he enters and leaves the tea room, the whisk as it froths the tea, even the plunk of the water ladle as it is put on the stand. Listen, can you hear it?

Nov 21, 2007

The Samurai and the Tea Master

A long time ago there lived a Tea Master. He was an elderly, small and frail man. He was known throughout the countryside where he lived for his beautiful Tea Ceremony. His work was so good that one day the Emperor heard about him and summoned him to the Palace to perform this special ceremony.

The quiet, little Tea Master received this invitation from the Emperor. He packed his belongings, placed them on his back and started on a long journey by foot to the Palace.

After many long days the little man arrived and performed the ceremony for the Emperor. The Emperor was so impressed! He presented the Tea Master with the highest honor that he was allowed. He presented him with the two Japanese swords of the Samurai.

The Tea Master accepted the swords. He bowed to the emperor, placed the swords on his back, picked up his belongings and started his journey home.

Two days later the little man was walking through a small country village when he was spotted by the Samurai that protected that area. He was a great and powerful Samurai. At first the Samurai could not believe his eyes. Where those swords? What was this little frail man doing with them?!

The Samurai confronted the little man. “How dare you make a mockery of all Samurai! I can not stand for this dishonor. "

The Samurai challenged the Tea Ceremony master to a duel to the death with swords, and said: "Meet me here today at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and we shall fight.”

Honor would not permit the Tea Ceremony master to refuse the challenge, so he had to agree. But he was frightened, and went to his own teacher of Tea Ceremony, to ask him what to do. "I have never held a sword in my hand in my life," he said. "He will surely kill me".

The older Tea Ceremony master replied with a calm smile. "Do not worry," he said. "Go meet him at the appointed time, and do what you know how to do. Perform the Tea Ceremony."

At four o'clock, the Samurai arrived with swords. But the Tea Ceremony master arrived with charcoal, matches, a tea kettle, water, cups, and began to prepare the tea.

The Tea Master opened his tea container and the pungent smell of the green tea mingled with the fragrance of the flowers. Quietly and purposefully, the tea master scooped a small amount of green tea into a cup. With the ladle he dipped hot water from the kettle and poured it onto the tea. The Samurai watched, caught up in the quiet intensity of the tea master’s movements. Taking the whisk, the tea master applied it vigorously until the tea foamed. Then bowing with complete calmness, the tea master handed the cup to the Samurai.

The Samurai sipped the tea properly. When he finished, he said to the Tea Master: "I am defeated. You have united body and soul so perfectly, you defeated me. The only thing I can honorably do to a man like you is ask you to teach me. Will you instruct me in the ways of the tea ceremony?"

“Of course,” said the Tea Master. “Meet me at sunset tomorrow.”

Nov 20, 2007

Kansha for gratitude

Kansha is a part of the etiquette for receiving tea and sweets. Before taking sweets, the tray or bowl is lifted slightly from the floor as the head is bowed in silent thanks. Then the guest can take out his pack of papers and take a sweet.

Just as before the guest drinks from the tea bowl, it is lifted slightly in the hands as the head is bowed again in silent thanks. This is gratitude not just to the host for making the tea, but for everyone and everything that made it possible to drink the tea here and now.

This small gesture, kansha reminds us to be thankful not just for the immediate right now, but for all the things that have allowed us to be here with what we have today. When we are about to eat and drink, kansha. When we are about to start something, a small bow as kansha, gratitude that allows to embark on what we are about to do. Yes, that includes housecleaning. Kansha.

Nov 19, 2007

Preparing for tea

Throughout the ceremony, the hosts and guests both aspire towards a sense of tranquility. The priest Takuan wrote of preparing for a tea ceremony and said, "and let this all be carried out in accordance with the idea that in this room we can enjoy the streams and rocks as we do the rivers and mountains in Nature, and appreciate the various moods and sentiments suggested by the snow, the moon, and the trees and flowers, as they go through the transformation of seasons, appearing and disappearing, blooming and withering. As visitors are greeted here with due reverence, we listen quietly to the boiling water in the kettle, which sounds like a breeze passing through the pine needles, and become oblivious of all worldly woes and worries…"

The language of kimono

The Portland Japanese Garden just concluded an exhibition of kimono from the collection of Susan Kastner. As part of the program, there were two special events: a kimono dressing workshop and a lecture on kimono depicted in woodblock prints. (There is an exhibition of the kimono woodblock prints opening at the Portland Art Museum, too).

The kimono in the exhibition were exquisite and showed the wide range of decoration from finely painted scenery to elaborate embroidery to painstaking tie dye. The language of kimono is many layered. Through the theme of kimono through the four seasons you could see not just the obvious symbols of the seasons – snow for winter, colored leaves for fall, flowers for spring and water for summer, but also the literary references to the stories in Noh plays, or puns and witticisms, for example. There were other not so obvious references in the kimono on exhibit such as the length of the sleeves to show the age of the wearer, the summer weight of the cloth and even the differences for a geisha kimono.

For tea ceremony, kimono is more subdued than those on exhibit. Appropriate colors are not as bright and the sleeves are shorter than the kimono shown. The most formal kimono for tea is iro muji, or one color kimono with no decoration. Though there is no applied or painted decoration, the richness of the kimono is apparent in the weight of the silk and weave. Sometimes there will be patterns woven into the fabric like damsak: waves, flowers, pine trees or motifs. The obi for tea can be elaborate and colorful.

The kimono is a garment that is wrapped and tied with lengths of cloth (called himo), there are no fasteners. Thus, every time you put on a kimono it is custom fitted. Though it looks like a kimono is one-size-fits-all, there are crucial measurements to fit a kimono and then can be adjusted precisely to the wearer.

The first time I dressed myself in kimono, it took me about three and a half hours. It was mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing. But with much practice (I wore kimono everyday when I lived in Japan) and a few tricks taught to me by teachers and senior students, have made it easier. Most days I can dress in about 15 minutes. If I am going to a formal event, I take my time and can do it in about 25 minutes.

Dressing in kimono for men is a little simpler than for women. The obi is tied in a simple style and usually there are a limited range of colors: dark blue, brown, grey and black. On formal occasions, men wear hakama, a wide divided skirt-like garment worn over the lower half of the kimono. There is a specific way to tie the hakama to make it look formal and keep it secure.

Some martial arts still wear the hakama for training and formal occasions. If you think that men in skirts look funny, you probably haven’t seen a man in full formal kimono and hakama. They look so gorgeous and manly, just like the samurai.

Nov 16, 2007

Tea, oolong loose leaf tea

I just had my new neighbor over last night for an oolong tea tasting. It was relaxing and stimulating at the same time. She wanted to know more about how to brew loose leaf tea. I am not an expert, but I did get my cute little yixing tea pot out and small sipping cups to taste the four different kinds of tea I had chosen: Wen Shan Bao Zhong, Jin Xuan High Mountain, Rou Gui, and Bai Hao Oriental Beauty.

I started out warming the teapot, the sharing pitcher and the cups. While that was happening we talked about how green tea, oolong tea and black tea all comes from the same plant, but the processing being different.

I brewed each type of oolong tea three times, and we both remarked on how the flavor of the tea changed with each infusion. After three infusions of each tea, I asked her what her favorite tea was. After the Wen Shan Bao Zhong, she said it would be hard to top that one. After the Jin Xuan she said that it was her favorite. The Rou Gui I brewed in a Chinese Porcelain gaiwan and she said that liked that one the best and after the Bai Hao Oriental Beauty she said that it was the most layered and complex, and her favorite only because it was the last one that she tasted.

It was like a wine tasting as we discussed each tea and its aromas, flavors and memories that it triggered. One was like smelling flowers, another like eating flowers, another like walking in the woods after a rain. One tasted like apricots, another was spicy that made her tongue dance.

Oolong is not just Chinese restaurant tea. I encourage you to try brewing your own oolong leaf teas. It’s an adventure in tastes.

You can try an oolong sampler from my website or look at the holiday special of Tie Kwan Yin Oolong, our most popular tea.

Nov 15, 2007

The etiquette of the tea ceremony

I have a new class of students this term. I always ask them at the beginning of the term what they think that they will be learning for the next 10 weeks. It was interesting that in this group of students more than one wrote that they wanted to learn and even expected to learn the etiquette of tea ceremony so that when they went to a tea ceremony they would know what to do and wouldn’t offend anyone.

There are many rules to follow in Chanoyu, whether you are the host or the guests. The elaborate ritual of etiquette that is followed in the ritual may seem confusing or unnecessary to modern sensibilities. And yet, there is something about knowing what to do and when to do the right thing. When everyone knows what the rules are, they are not just empty gestures that have no meaning. They become a way to strengthen bonds and renew relationships. It fosters a sense of belonging and brings harmony to individuals so that they begin to function as a group.

In the beginning, when we are learning the etiquette of chanoyu, it may seem insincere to express gratitude at certain specific times. But the form and the etiquette teaches us what is expected and the appropriate way to express it.

Nov 12, 2007

Sitting seiza is not comfortable

One of the most difficult things about chado is sitting seiza for long periods of time. I have written about my struggles with sitting on my knees and suffering with the cramps, the pain and the numbness that comes from sitting seiza. Often, it is the moving after sitting that is more painful as the circulation brings back the familiar sensation of needles to the feet and ankles. One must be very careful getting up after sitting if the feet are completely numb. It is dangerous and I have seen people break ankles and not know it because there was absolutely no feeling in the legs below the knee from sitting seiza. As I am getting older, too, the stiffness is getting worse in my joints and I cannot move as easily as I could when I was younger.

I tell my students that want to sit for longer periods of time, that one must sit every day. Even if it is just for a few minutes watching TV, working up to longer and longer periods of time. There are also subtle ways of wiggling toes and ankles to keep the circulation going so that they don't fall asleep. Correct posture helps, and also it has become a little easier as I have lost 10-15 pounds recently. There are also sitting stools, seats, cushions and benches that take the pressure off the ankles and allow sitting for longer periods.

I remember how one of my sensei told a student to practice sitting seiza in the bath tub. He tried it and found it extremely painful to sit on the porcelain of the tub. He just figured that by comparison, sitting on tatami was softer than porcelain. When he told her that now he was grateful for the suggestion to sit in the tub, because now sitting on tatami, though still uncomfortable for him, it was better than on the cold porcelain of the bathtub. She had forgot to tell him to fill the tub with hot water. That it would loosen his muscles and joints, and the water would buoy up some of his weight.

I sit seiza when I do zazen, or sitting meditation, rather than in the cross legged or half lotus position. First of all you cannot sit in cross legged position in kimono, and I can now sit for longer periods of time in seiza than I can in most other positions.

The point of all this? I think that training my body to sit seiza is training to endure being uncomfortable. I am so addicted to comfort that most of the time I will go out of my way or do most anything to avoid being uncomfortable. Sitting seiza is a reminder to me that being uncomfortable is not fatal to my existence, and may even bring about some kind of realization. By avoiding discomfort, what kind of decisions am I making that I also avoid experiencing life to the fullest? I find that I can be uncomfortable and still be aware and present to what is going on around me. I find that I can still be uncomfortable and still carry on with what I am doing. That I can no longer use discomfort as an excuse not to do something that needs to be done.

You can get my specially designed portable meditation seat to help you sit seiza for longer periods of time at

Nov 5, 2007

Facing myself

Every time, I step into the tea room, I have an opportunity to face myself. I love the way of tea and I want to do so well at it. The procedures for making and serving tea challenge my wandering mind to pay attention. It seems that every time I make tea, I often make some mistake and I have to figure out how I can recover from that mistake and go on. I try to keep in mind the principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility and manifest them with my guests, while at the same time, ensuring that my guests feel comfortable and know what is going on. What if I don’t get along with someone else who is in the tea room? What if I notice that someone is not doing something strictly correct? How do I keep myself from showing off how much I know and correcting others? How much do I conform to what everyone else is doing for the sake of harmony? Nobody can make these decisions for me. Only I can choose how to respond to how I am feeling and what is going on in the tea room.

I recently started with a new class of tea students. Often as we go through the introductory class, there are the same questions that others have asked before, but always there are new questions and challenges that are unique to these particular students because everyone brings themselves into the tea room. When you bring yourself to the tea room, inevitably you have to face yourself. As Buck Rogers said, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Oct 29, 2007

Opening and closing doors

There is a proper form to open and close the sliding shoji doors in a tea room. First one must sit down, then use the recessed finger pull to open the door about an inch. Then the hand closest to the door jamb slips into the opening about 18 inches from the floor and slides the door half way open. The other hand then pushes the door open until it lines up with the next sliding screen.

Bow at the door and slide across the threshold on your knees. Then turn to face the door and pull with the hand nearest the door and slide it half way closed. With the other hand pull the door closed until the hand touches the door jamb, and then reach up to use the finger pull to close the door completely.

This may seem like a big production to just open the door, come in and then close the door, but it is a skill to do it gracefully and quietly. It takes practice. Entering the tea room is not about making an entrance, it is about being respectful and restrained. It is also good training to learn the proper etiquette and spend the time to do it mindfully.

In any culture, we are judged by the little things we do. Things like entering and leaving a room. Chajin (tea people) are conscious of even the smallest detail, because it is often a reflection of our inner state. My sensei often said that she could tell what my mood was by just observing how I entered the room and took my first step. It is something to think about the next time you enter a room or close a door.

Oct 26, 2007

Sitting in silence

There are days when I just go into the tea room to sit. Sometimes just for 15 mintues. It is not necessarily zazen meditation, but just as a refuge from modern life. The walls of the tea room are bare of decoration except for the Zen scroll in the alcove. The floor is covered with tatami mats and I can close the door to shut out the sounds from the rest of the house. No email, or telephone. No distractions. In a way, it is like sensory deprivation.

In this silence, though, is where I can hear my heart beat and feel the breath filling my lungs. Getting in touch again with my body, I can listen to what it is telling me. Am I getting enough sleep? My body will tell me. Am I getting enough exercise? My body will tell me.

I also listen for the small voice inside me. During the day, with all of my other activities, the small voice is drowned out. There has to be a quiet time with no other distractions for me to hear this small voice. It is the voice telling me about what it is I need to do. This is the voice that told me that I needed to quit my corporate job. It is voice that told me I had to do something close to my heart to experience more joy in my life. This is the voice that reminds me to pay attention to my family. This is the voice that puts the tragedies in my life into perspective. The voice tells me that there is more to life than making more money, or marking time until retirement. It reminds me that life is to be lived.

Oct 24, 2007

A few more thoughts on wabi

I went out to my garden to pick flowers for chanoyu class. At this late date, there are very few flowers left. After the previous night’s storm, the few chrysanthemums hanging on were looking pretty ragged. I picked one anyway and brought it in for the day’s tea ceremony. I also chose a branch of leaves that were past the brilliant color of autumn: it was turning brown and curling at the edges.

These imperfect flowers were what I consider an example of wabi. I arranged them in a simple hanging bamboo vase. There is even a poetic name for this type of flower: rangiku. When I first heard this, I asked for a translation of it and was told that it is like a once beautiful woman of a certain age. Certainly this chrysanthemum had a dignity about it. It didn’t hang its head, but stood proudly in the vase. It was a survivor, one of the last of the season and it had been through the storm and endured. With the branch of leaves, they both said so much about the season, too. Like the poem, quoted in this post, no flowers or colored leaves, only a thatched hut in the autumn dusk. The tea tasted so delicious that day.

Oct 21, 2007

What is your work?

In searching for myself, I have had many jobs. I have had a career that has taken me all over the world and yet none of that was my work. When I came to chado, I was still looking for my work. My sensei knew this and put me to work. She had me clean the tea room. The first time I did this, she told me that I did not know how to clean and showed me the proper way to do it. So I began to clean the tea room the proper way. It was like the “Karate Kid” -- wax on, wax off.

I did not even make tea for about 5 months. I learned to be a good guest, I learned to clean, I learned the proper way to walk and move in the tea room, I learned the prepartion for chanoyu and I learned how to wait.

After 25 years of study and teaching Chado, I know what my work is. It is to share my enthusiasm for Chado. I still clean the tea room in the proper way, I still prepare for tea, I still practice walking in the tea room, and I still have pain in my legs from sitting seiza. But my work is following the way of tea, sharing the passion I have for it and showing others the value I have gotten from following that path.

Oct 19, 2007

Attention and awareness

Attention is not awareness and awareness is not attention. When we think of awareness and attention, they are often used interchangeably, but the dictionary definition of attention is a selective narrowing or focus of consciousness, to concentrate on something. Whereas awareness is having or showing realization, perception or knowledge; having knowledge of something especially something not generally known or apparent.

Attention today is not as valued as it once was. It is considered a strength and a virtue to be able to multi-task. To be able to write an email, IM, and answer the phone while surfing the web all at the same time is normal and accepted. Reading takes too long if we can get the gist of it in pictures, and writing is complete sentences is way too time consuming. RU going 4 a star$?

Chado has certainly helped me to focus my attention. I am an enthusiastic starter, but my attention tends to wander if it takes too much time. With learning tea procedures, wandering attention only makes me make mistakes. Sensei says, “complete this moment before you go on to the next.” To fix my attention until the moment is complete is very good training for me.

Awareness on the other hand is much different. When someone you love enters the room, even if you do not see them, there is an awareness that they are there, close by; or when your children are in the next room you are aware if they are getting along or fighting.

Gradually as I learned tea procedures, and as I trained sitting seiza for longer periods of time, I became more aware of what was going on in the tea room. While making tea, I could tell if guests were uncomfortable sitting too long, or if they were unsure of what to do next or if their attention was wandering. It was at this point, that I began to be able to concentrate my attention, yet still be aware of what else was going on around me.

Oct 15, 2007

Nakaoki, moving the fire closer

October is a transitional month for the tea world. As the weather gets colder, the brazier with the fire moves to the middle of the tatami mats, closer to the guests. Next month the fire will be moved even closer to the guests when the sunken hearth is opened.

This moving the fire closer to the guests can also be a metaphor for how you feel in life. When we are enthusiastic, when we have a passion for something, we want to share it with others. We want them to feel some of the fire we feel.

When my son was a teenager, it was so important for him to appear “cool.” He was cynical about everything and everything else was stupid, though he cared desperately what the other cool guys in school thought of him. He was too afraid of being himself and too afraid to show what he liked for fear of being “uncool.” He eventually grew out of it, but think how much happier people are if they feel free enough to express themselves, without the fear of becoming uncool.

So here’s to being uncool. Literally, uncool means warm or hot. Let us express ourselves and our passions. I’d like to move the fire closer to you and hope that by expressing my passion for chado, the way of tea, you will feel warmed enough to be uncool, too.

Oct 12, 2007


There is a point in the preparation of tea when a silk cloth is folded in intricate ways to purify the tea utensils. Folding the fukusa (silk cloth) at the beginning of temae (procedure for making tea) is a chance for the host to calm him/herself, and get his breathing under control. It is also the time when the guests, watching the host fold the fukusa, begin to breathe in unison with the host.

It is amazing what happens to the atmosphere in a room where everyone is breathing in unison. Awareness and attention is focused, tensions begin to fall away, and a feeling of quiet and harmony pervade the room. This simple act of breathing together reminds us that we share many more things in common than differences. Breathing is life. Breathing together in a shared space underlines that we are all in this world together.

Oct 9, 2007

Just say “hai”

When I went to Japan, I had a rather difficult time to adjust to Japanese culture. I tell people that I did not just live in Japan for a year, I lived in 18th century Japan. I had to wear kimono every day, and the room I lived in was four and a half tatami mats – about 10 feet square. I didn’t understand very much Japanese language so people were yelling at me all the time because they thought I was not listening to them.

Finally, my sempai (senior student) took me aside and told me that it was better to stop what I was doing and just say “hai” (meaning yes, though sometimes translated as no, and sometimes just an acknowledgement, or sometimes as when calling roll to mean present). Many times I tried to explain myself or offer an excuse when I was told that I was doing something wrong, but a look from my sempai and I just answered “hai.” I often thought that this submissiveness in agreeing with the person scolding me without offering something in my own defense was demeaning and unfair.

I went again to my sempai and complained about how unfair it was that I had to submit to everyone else scolding me and all I was to do was say, “hai.” He then tried very patiently to explain to me that as a new student and a foreigner at that, I had a low status. In addition, I couldn’t speak the language, and didn’t know the protocols of how to conduct myself within the structure of the tea world.
He said that if I wanted to learn about chado, I would have to humble myself because everyone I met there had lived and breathed chado for many more years than I had probably lived. If I resisted, justified, offered excuses or complained, people were not likely to share their knowledge. He told me there were vast riches there about the way of tea, but I would have to become sunao (I looked up in my dictionary and it says obedient, meek, gentle). He said that sunao meant open without resistance, to take in everything as part of my training. To explain, offer excuse, or justify myself showed that I was not open but resisting the learning.

It was a hard lesson for me to learn, with my rebellious nature exerting itself. But I when I began to embrace the learning and just said, “hai” when someone corrected me or scolded me and I really meant it, things started to go better for me. I was given more attention by my teachers, new opportunities opened up before me. I made more friends who were eager to help me out in learning the language.

So next time someone scolds me, I just say, “hai.”

P.S. Updated with new items. Please check it out.


Oct 6, 2007

Sensei says....

Tea is movement. It gets us out of our heads, into our bodies, so we can touch our souls.

We live a lot in our heads, often times without connection to our bodies, nature or the seasons. When we say we have learned something, it is knowledge stored in our brains, with no true experience for us to call upon.

When we first learned to ride a bicycle, we did not learn by attending lectures on bicycle riding, nor did we interview bike riders about the experience. We didn’t view videos or read books about bicycle riding or learn the physics of gyroscopes that keep us upright while on a bicycle. No, we got on our bicycle and tried it. We wobbled and fell down, scraped our knees, and got back on until we had mastered riding that bicycle. What a feeling of accomplishment, movement and freedom it was riding that first time in control.

Chanoyu is movement. All the moves are experiential. You feel it in your body with every breath and every step in the tea room. It is not just in the tea room. It is all the preparations such as keeping to seasonal themes, looking for and arranging the flowers as well as the cleaning before and after that become your experience. With our bodies moving, paying attention to what we are doing gets us out of our self talk. As we move through the ritual, if we have trained our bodies, it knows how to move, what to do. The movements of tea allow our breathing to synchronize with our guests, and communication at a deeper level than talking becomes possible. As we go deeper into the ritual it can even become a spiritual experience, transcending time and place. This, then, is what sensei meant when he said, “… out of our heads, into our bodies so that we can touch our souls.”

Oct 3, 2007

Living with ambiguity and no right answers

I attended and intensive workshop for advanced tea instructors a couple of weeks ago. As we were going through some advanced procedures, the workshop leader told us that in tea, there are no right answers. This threw me into confusion. Because Chanoyu is an oral tradition passed from teacher to student, there are sometimes transmissions or interpretations for certain things.

When we were just beginning, there definitely was a right way to do things. What sensei said was the right way to do it, period. If there was an explanation, then that was accepted as to why it was the right way to do something. But with my maturity as a student of the rich and deep tradition of chado, it is like learning a language. At the beginning there are all the rules of grammar, punctuation, form and structure just as the beginning of tea there are the rules: of conduct, of placement, of order, structure and form. But as we become more fluent in the language or the study of chado, there comes a time when we know the rules and can decide if they can be broken.

This is the point then, that there are no right answers. Or, there may be several right answers, depending on the situation or the guests. What once was a solid foundation suddenly becomes a slippery slope. Where there was surety there is now ambiguity.

This is where years of training, experience and instinct come into play. By anticipating what may come up if one thing is done vs. what may come up if something else is done, we chart the waters of ambiguity and uncertainty the best we can. It is a chess game to see how far in advance we can think, to see and anticipate, knowing that something else may come that will change the whole playing board and we have to work it out once again. But isn’t that a lot like parenting? Isn’t that a lot like relationships, isn’t it a lot like life?

Oct 1, 2007

In search of authenticity

I was reading an article the other day about faking it in order to seem cool. In fact, the article highlighted a recently published book, “Faking it: How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Improving Yourself,” by Amir Bumenfeld, Neel Shah and Ethan Trex. Granted, this is a tongue-in-cheek, humorous look at image over substance, but these little tricks don’t really fool anyone. Humans have a built-in radar for things that don’t quite ring true. To maintain our image, we have to believe that others believe what we are putting forth and so it becomes a spiral of you buying into my image and me buying into your image. No wonder so many of us have intimacy problems.

The question I have is, why wouldn’t you want to improve yourself? Why go to all the trouble of appearing to know all about wine, for example, without actually learning about wine? Why would you want to seem like a better person without becoming a better person? It takes just as much or more energy to build and maintain an image of being more knowledgeable, more diplomatic, for example, than it does to go ahead and acquire the knowledge or become more diplomatic. Or one could just admit that they have no idea about a subject and try to learn from others who do know more than you (not from those who are just faking it). That would take someone with the courage to admit that they don’t know.

Sep 28, 2007

Nichi nichi kore ko jitsu – every day is a good day

In chanoyu, the scroll sets the theme for the tea gathering. It is displayed in the tokonoma, or alcove and is probably the most important utensil in the tea room. By convention, the scroll for a tea gathering is a single line of kanji characters and is usually a fragment of a poem, Zen phrase or part of a Zen phrase written by a Zen priest. A common scroll for a tea gathering is “Nichi, nichi, kore kojitsu,” or “Hibi kore ko nichi” Literally translated it means – everyday is a good day.

When this scroll is hung in the tea room alcove, (tokonoma) it reminds us that the day is not good or bad. It is just a day. Our attitude is what changes the day into either good or bad.

It is like the story of the farmer who had a horse and his neighbors said he was very lucky, but one day the horse ran away. And the neighbors remarked how unlucky he was. But the horse came back with two others and they said he was lucky again. Then his son fell off the horse and broke his arm while riding it and they said he was unlucky. But when the daimyo came to draft men for his army, the son wasn’t chosen and they said he was lucky again.

It all depends on your attitude to the day. Every day can be a good day or everyday can be a bad day. What kind of day is today?

Sep 26, 2007


Temae is what we call the procedure for making tea. Literally, temae, is translated as “the point in front.” In other words, do what is front of you – whatever is next in the procedure.

There are many, many ways to make tea – many temae. All of the procedures are quite specific in where to put things and the order in which to do it, how to walk in, where to sit, when and where to turn. The procedures can get quite complicated, with the more advanced procedures taking up to two hours. These procedures must be memorized. No notes are allowed in the tearoom. With all of the temae to be memorized, it can be confusing, but starting at the beginning we build a foundation of body memory. Each successive temae learned builds on the previous one with a few new specific points. Our bodies remember these procedures the more often we do it.

It is said that after doing something 30 times is when our bodies can remember. It is when we overthink what we are doing that we can become confused. I see this in my intermediate students, where the body will naturally begin a movement, the head begins to think, “oh no not that way” and there is a hesitation and then the student will freeze, not knowing whether to trust the mind or the body.

At first, in the tea room, every movement seems awkward, and we have to think very hard about what comes next in the order of making tea. But as the body learns how to move in the tea room, as it learns and memorizes the procedures, we can begin to trust our body and move to a higher level of temae. This higher level is where the mind can concentrate on the guests and what else is going on in the tea room. Sensei would test us by asking us questions while we were making tea. To be able to talk and continue to make tea, we have to trust our bodies to continue with temae while our brain was answering her questions at the same time without getting confused.

Sep 25, 2007

Sensei says...

Cultivate the attitude of gratitude.
We are so lucky to be here living this extraordinary life, with all its comforts and luxuries. Compared to many, we have little to complain about, yet I do find myself complaining about my life. Cultivating this feeling of thankfulness helps to put my life in perspective.

There is a point in the ritual of Chanoyu where the tea bowl is lifted in silent thanks – kansha. This is not just to thank the host for making the tea, but also for all the preparation he has done. It is also to thank all those who came before us in our study, and to thank the growers of the tea and all who had a hand to make this moment possible.

Before my mom passed away, she asked me to keep a gratitude diary. Every night before I went to bed, I would write a list of the things that I was thankful for. Some nights I had to think really hard about what it was I was thankful for because I had a bad day at work or car troubles. Somedays at first, I wrote that was just thankful to just go to bed to get this day over with. As I wrote more and more in my gratitude diary, my lists became longer and I was really grateful for my life, my health, my family, my job, and many little things. It began to change my perspective and during the day I would mentally note some little things that I could write in m diary. A glass of ice cold water, a clean corner of my desk, the ability to call my husband and tell him I love him, driving home a new way.

If we look hard enough there are many, many things in our life that we can be grateful for. Why not change perspective by cultivating the attitude of gratitude?

Sep 21, 2007

A few thoughts on wabi

The aesthetic of wabi permeates and defines beauty for the Japanese culture. It is the ideal of Chanoyu yet wabi often is difficult to define and usually is reduced to simple and rustic. I would like to explore a little more about the origins of wabi, and its relationship with tea. As the Japanese aesthetic of beauty, wabi is a concept that is difficult to explain and deep in meaning.

It has its origins in the verb wabiru. The original meaning of wabiru is to be disappointed by failing in some enterprise or living a miserable and poverty stricken life. According to the Zen-cha Roku, wabi means lacking things, having things run entirely contrary to our desires, being frustrated in our wishes. It goes on to say that to feel what is lacking is deprivation, or to believe that not being provided for is poverty is NOT wabi but rather the spirit of a pauper. Wabi means to transform material insufficiency so that one discovers in it a world of spiritual freedom. Although the beauty of wabi is not simply a beauty of mere poverty, unpretentiousness or simplicity, there are times when that is what it may seem to be.

Three aspects of wabi:
• Simple, unpretentious beauty
• Imperfect, irregular beauty
• Austere, stark beauty

The simple, unpretentious beauty is certainly one of the most obvious features of the wabi aesthetic, but it should not be confused with empty simplicity, or misshapen features with imperfect or irregular beauty. Wabi is a kind of beauty which stores a nobility, richness of spirit and purity within what may appear to be a rough exterior. There is a restraint that does not call attention to itself, yet attention to the smallest detail has been lavished on what cannot be seen.

An example of imperfect, irregular beauty we can see in the many famous tea utensils that have somehow been damaged and lovingly repaired. There is a well known bamboo flower vase made by Rikyu called Onjōji and it is prized because it is cracked, or the tea bowl named Seppo made by Koetsu that is admired because is has been repaired.

The austere, stark beauty of wabi comes from the tradition of renga poetry, a form of group composition of linked verse and from the Noh theater. The poets called it a cold and withered beauty and Zeami of the Noh called it an austere and serene beauty. This is the beauty of age and experience that can only be attained through a master’s accomplishment. It is a paring away of externals, until only the essence is left.

Two poems often cited by tea masters to explain wabi:

Looking about
neither flowers
nor scarlet leaves
a bayside reed hovel
an the autumn dusk
~Fujiwara no Teika

To those who wait
only for flowers
show them a sprig
of grass under the snow
in a mountain village
~Fujiwara no Ietaka

Sep 20, 2007

A short reading list

I’ve had a request for a list of books on tea ceremony and I’d like to name a few in order of increasing difficulty:

Tea Here Now by Donna Fellman and Lhasha Tizer
ISBN: 1930722575 Paperback
Tea Here Now demonstrates how tea and the simple act of preparing a cup of tea can give drinkers a taste of enlightenment. Written for the average person who wishes to infuse accessible, uncomplicated spirituality and mindfulness into his or her tea drinking, the book explores the health benefits, spiritual practices, and lifestyle-enhancing properties associated with the world's major blends, in the process creating a practical guidebook for the "tea lifestyle."

Tea Life, Tea Mind by Soshitsu Sen
ASIN: 0834801426 Paperback
A Japanese tea master discusses his art, and throws in a few anecdotes of his own life and stories about famous tea masters from the past. Overall, this is a wonderful introduction to the spirit behind the tea ceremony, which as just as important as the particulars of the process itself. The author's warmth and sincere goodwill come through nicely in this slim, peaceful volume.

The Book of Tea by Okakuro Kakuzo ISBN: 0804832196 Hardcover
On the surface, this is a book about history - the history of tea, and art, and religion. But this is really a book about so much more - it compares the culture and way of thinking of the East and West, the past and the present. It makes the reader think about and reassess what is important in life, what is really beautiful, what is worth keeping or fighting for. What is dignity. This essay, which wends its way between the discovery of tea, flower arranging, architecture and Taoism along with other enticing subjects, is truly an enlightening and thrilling book, in a quiet and gentle way. Whether you are interested in East Asian culture, Tea, or would just like a compass to help you re-orientate your priorities, you will probably gain something from this ode to the importance and influence of Tea.

Wind in the Pines, Classic Writings of the Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path compiled and edited by Dennis Hirota
ISBN: 0875730736 Hardcover
This may be the definitive text on Chanoyu, comparable in importance to Okakura's Book of Tea. Hirota penetrates the Buddhist essence of Tea and understands its authentic origins. Essential for any serious Tea practitioner. It is not a simple history or manual, but a mature and sophisticated reflection on the true nature of Tea as a Way and a practice. Wind in the Pines is a inspiration and also an invitation to penetrate the relationship of Tea to the other Buddhist arts, including renga and haiku and flower arranging (ikebana) and is the product of the deepest appreciation, insight, knowledge and scholarship

Sep 19, 2007

Clean up your own mess

Your mom probably told you to do this as a kid. As an adult and a tea student, we know that we cannot depend on anyone else to clean up our messes. My sensei used to say that 80% of tea is cleaning. We clean before and after using the tea room. We clean when changing seasons, we clean as moving meditation.

The preparation room (the mizuya) is supposed to be as clean as or cleaner than the tea room. During class time, all students at my tea school are required to prepare and clean up the utensils that they use for class. I teach preparation and cleaning up and what to do in the mizuya as part of learning the art of tea.

There is a person in charge of the mizuya called the cho. The cho is there to make sure everything is handled properly and to be responsible for everything that goes on in the mizuya. The cho is not there to clean up after anyone else, but if a student doesn’t clean up their utensils then the cho has to do it. Since every student has a chance to be the cho, there is incentive not to make work for anyone else.

But cleaning up your own mess pertains to life as well. It is personal responsibility. And it is not just the physical mess you make that you need to clean up, but your financial, or social or relationship mess as well.

Sep 17, 2007

Sensei says...

Don’t expect, just adjust.
I had a sensei who said that disappointments came from expectations. That in order to stop being disappointed one had to let go of expectations and adjust to whatever was happening at the time.

This came home to me when I was planning for a big tea gathering. I expected that the gathering would go off perfectly because I had meticulously planned every detail to the last minute. What I hadn’t planned for, nor could I have was the interaction of the guests, helpers and other things to go wrong.

Right away, I didn’t get any RSVPs for my tea gathering invitations, so I didn’t know who was or was not coming. On the day of the gathering, two out of town guests came an hour early and another guest came 20 minutes late. This threw my whole timing for cooking the meal off. Two of the guests who were best friends had quarreled with each other a couple of days before and now refused to sit next to each other. One of my helpers was supposed to bring sweets, but she and I had a misunderstanding and she thought I was going to take care of it, even though I had communicated with her in writing 3 times and called the day before.

This tea gathering had the potential to turn into a complete disaster on many levels. But as each thing came up, my concentration was to solve the problem and move forward. Just make food for everyone who was invited. I gave the out of town guests some incense games to play while they awaited the other guests as I finished preparations. We started the gathering on time and slipped in the last guest just before serving the meal. And I used some other sweets that I had on hand.

We didn’t follow my elaborate timing or plans, but all the guests had a wonderful time and commented on my thoughtfulness after the gathering. It was one of the best tea gatherings I had hosted and I learned so much about letting go of expectations.

Sep 15, 2007

Cleaning is Purity

I am good at cleaning. I didn’t used to be. Before I studied chado, I was a slob. My room was a mess, my desk at work was a mess, in fact my life was a mess. One of the first things I learned in tea was how to clean.

So I cleaned. I was often the first to keiko and it was my job to clean the tatami before class. I cleaned the tea room, then I cleaned the preparation room (mizuya). Then I stayed after class and cleaned the tea room, put utensils away and cleaned the mizuya. When I studied in Japan, one of my jobs was to clean the 100 tatami mat room. That means being on hands and knees and wiping each mat (3 ft by 6 ft) by hand, all 100 of them, every night after class.

While I was living in Japan, I stayed in a small Japanese room that was my living room, bedroom, study and dressing room. My actual living space became smaller and smaller as I acquired things. Keeping my space clean was necessary to be able to breathe in my small room.

As my sensei said to me, chado is 80% cleaning. One of the principles of tea is purity. There is nothing more calming than cleaning. When you are cleaning, you can see what you have done and what you need to do. Cleaning is good therapy. It also is good for clearing your mind and soothing your emotions. And when you are finished, having a tidy space feels good.

Sep 13, 2007

The nature of chanoyu

If asked
the nature of chanoyu
say it's the sound
of windblown pines
in a black and white painting

~Sen Sotan, 3rd generation Urasenke (1578-1658)

No trivial acts

There is a saying in tea that everything is important and nothing really matters. It is one of those tea koans. In Chado, everything is important. That means everything requires our awareness and attention. Nothing is trivial. Every movement is deliberate, everything is thought about ahead of time. Nothing is below you, no matter how advanced you get. Cleaning the toilet is exclusively the host’s job, he can’t palm it off to someone else because it is important.

Some people would call this mindfulness. When folding your fukusa after your lesson, pay attention to what you are doing. Don’t just throw down you fukusa (purification cloth) in the kitchen. Sit down and fold it properly, then go out and say goodbye to your guests. When picking up and putting down utensils, use two hands. Sit down first, then open the door.

This doesn’t mean that every move is made as if it was filled with portentous significance. Nothing really matters. It just means that you are aware and are paying attention to what you are doing. Even if you are making a mistake, do it with awareness and attention.

Sep 10, 2007

Appreciation, a forgotton art

While the guests at a chaji or tea gathering are appreciative of everything that the host has done, there is a part of the gathering that is set aside specifically for the appreciation of the tea utensils called haiken. During this time, the guests get to examine closely the utensils and the main guest will ask the host about them.

At first I was not sure exactly what it was the guests were looking at when the tea bowl or the tea container and bamboo tea scoop were passed around. I watched as the guests viewed each item and even turned the teabowl over to look at the foot. I thought, how rude to look underneath at the bottom of the bowl. There were murmurs and sounds of approval as they were passed down the line. All I could see was a brown bowl, slightly out of round with a drippy glaze that surely a third grade child could have made. The tea scoop was just a simple strip of bamboo with a slight bend at the end. Why were these guests making such a big deal over these not very impressive implements?

As I learned more about chado and tea utensils, I began to learn about how to appreciate these things. Looking closer at tea utensils, I began to see the beauty in ceramics as they turned from carmel to umber in the drip of the glaze. I realized that slightly out of round felt very comfortable as if it was meant to fit my hand. That strength of the brush line in a calligraphy character said so much about the calligrapher and his state of mind at the time he made it. It taught me to see the beauty in everday things. It taught me not to make judgements right away, to let things settle. The more I looked at things during haiken, the more I was moved by the beauty of spirit in them. But I had to slow down and take time to appreciate it, to look deeper than the surface of the first glance.

And this can apply not only to things, but to people as well. How many times have I made judgments about people that when I took the time to get to know them turned me completely around? I need to slow down, take time and look deeper than the surface in order to appreciate people and things in my life.

Sep 6, 2007

Think of others

The thought of the host is the the thought of the guest. The thought of the guest is the thought of the host.

As part of the creed, these are words that we have repeated over and over before and after keiko. Thinking of others, putting oneself in the other’s place is what creates the chanoyu experience. For the host’s part, giving those with whom you find yourself every consideration. For the guest’s part, giving those with whom you find yourself every consideration goes as well.

When I first began chado, my sensei would not let me make tea for months. I thought that was what tea was all about. I wanted to make tea, put on tea parties and serve tea. But I first had to learn the guest part. The guests have designated roles in the tea ceremony. One needs to learn how to be a good guest. Then when one learns to be a good host, he can put himself in the guest’s place and anticipate what needs to be done.

Recently, I gave a tea gathering for a few of my tea friends. These were experienced tea people and knew how to be good guests. It was such an incredible experience because guests anticipated the host and I anticipated the guests. By thinking of each other we, together, created an unforgettable experience. Things flowed and time stood still for us. And too soon it was coming to an end. We had been in a small room for 4 hours and there was never a moment that was awkward or uncomfortable. I would say that because of this our spirits touched and it was very moving.

Sep 4, 2007

Computer on the way

Just to let my regular readers know, good news. The new computer is on its way and I hope to be up and running this week. It has really been a challenge to make sure I have all of my computer work done on the one hour alotted in my library access but I have plenty of posts coming up for you. Thank you for checking back and for your patience while I get back online.

In the meantime, if you are in Portland Issoantea will be at Dai Ichi International presenting tea ceremony on Thursday September 6. Free and open to the public. Come share a bowl of tea with us.

Dai Ichi International Travel
925 NW Lovejoy St
Portland, OR 97209

Thursday, September 6, 2007 6:00-7:30 pm

Aug 24, 2007

ooops, no computer now

I am sorry about the delay is posting to the blog. I have had computer troubles, and spent this entire frustrating week working with Dell to no avail. I will have to replace the computer, so until then, I may be sporadic in my posting.

This is to let you know that I have met with a few people here in town and now you can get products at:

Dai Ichi International Travel
925 NW Lovejoy St
Portland, OR 97209
(503) 228-1118

They have a little gift shop area and have let me put a few things there for sale. If you are in the Portland area, stop by and save on shipping charges for the Portable Meditation Seat, Insulated Tea Infuser Travel Mug, Premium Incense from Shoyeido, and photo cards taken from around Portland.

Being without a computer has made me aware how much I am dependent on technology. It has become an essential way for me to keep in touch with my friends, conduct business, and work out my family schedules. I have felt rather at a loss being unplugged for 6 days.

I have used the telephone more, scheduled more face to face meetings and generally been more available to my husband because I am not on the computer. I realize how much out of human touch I have been and it is a great lesson to me. Even though email and posting is a fast convenient way for me to communicate, it is also less personal. I also noticed how much more time I have to get things done. Being on the computer is a big time waster for me.

I am rather glad that I have had this time to be unplugged and more in touch with the people around me.

Aug 18, 2007

Form – the kata

In most martial arts there is what is called the kata, a series of exercises that a student memorizes and copies exactly what the sensei teaches. The same is true for tea. Through 400 years of refinement tea procedures have developed for beauty, efficiency and economy of motion. Through the repeated exercise of following the kata, the form, the student develops body memory.

I can see this with my intermediate students. They will be in the middle of a tea procedure and forget what the next move needs to be, but the body already knows and unconsciously it will start to make the next move. The mind that hasn’t caught up with the body and will stop the movement and student becomes even more confused.

Practicing the kata helps with body awareness. Many students of tea in America get impatient with learing the kata. If they have done something once or twice they think that they have learned it. Perhaps intellectually they have the basics, but the body needs to do it at least 30 times. Doing something once or twice will not give your body enough time to know precisely what it needs to do.

Once students have learned the correct form, there is constant training to maintain it without getting sloppy. Paying attention to what your body, hands, head, feet, knees are doing while making tea is not easy. For example, my sensei used to say while making tea that your attention should be on your non-working hand. What is it doing? Where is it supposed to be? Is there tension there? Is it ready to do the next thing? All this while you are moving through the procedure of making tea at the same time.

There are those who see chado as a rigid set of rules to follow, who see the kata as stifling creativity and sponteneity. But there is tremendous freedom within the structure of the kata to explore and learn from its potential. Following the kata, self-consciousness is conquered and the true self is uncovered. It is a self that marks the kata with its own inimitable qualities. As sensei says, “When we have so thorougly learned the kata it moves beyond to your katachi.”

Aug 17, 2007

Sitting Seiza in Comfort

I just got an email from a person who ordered a Portable Meditation Seat from my online store:

I suppose it wasn't the best planning in the world to take a six-hour hike up and around Tiger Mountain the day before my tea class. My teacher could clearly see that I was hurting as my 60-plus year-old knees winced in pain as the class wore on.

At a break in the lesson he handed me a small package wrapped in an attractive green cloth. Opening it I found pain relief in the shape of three pieces of wood, one of Sweet Persimmon's seiza stools.

I'd purchased a similar stool years ago in Japan but it never gave me any relief. Its dimensions were wrong for my Western frame but the Sweet Persimmon one was perfect! It took me five seconds to assemble the seat and another five to tie the padded fabric to it and thus give me some extra (and welcome) padding.

The rest of the class was a joy as I was able to give my full attention to my instructor. And, because the way the stool is built, you would have to look hard to realize I wasn't sitting in full seiza position.

Needless to say, that night I ordered my own! It's been great to have in class and, even though I have a class tomorrow, I think I'll tackle Mt. Catherine today . . .

A grateful tea student

You can order your Portable Meditation seat from and sit in comfort, too.

Aug 16, 2007

I go to keiko every week

I really don’t go to tea lessons or tea class at least I don’t call it that. It just seems inadequate to what I am doing. When people ask where I go every week after work, I tell them I am going keiko. Keiko in Japanese means training or practice or to learn or involve oneself. The next thing that they ask is after 25 years what are you training or practicing for?

Going to keiko is not necessarily practice for doing a chaji (tea gathering) nor is it necessarily for advancing to the next certificate level nor for keeping in shape, though there is nothing like training your legs for sitting seiza through a 4 hour chaji. Going every week to keiko isn’t really to get to some end result, complete a study, or train for a big event.

Even if I go to keiko and just clean the tatami or wash and put utensils away, it is still as meaningful as if I went through the whole ritual of preparing and serving tea. There is just something so satisfying about going to keiko. No matter how hard it is to get myself to class, to prepare for tea, to go through the hassle of putting on layer after layer of kimono, every week I come away exhausted but nourished. It feeds and fills some place in me that makes it worth while. I feel inspired and energized and ready to face the week ahead.

Aug 14, 2007

Enough Already

You can go to any fast food restaurant today and “Supersize” your order. For a little more money you can get twice as much food. Marketing calls it Value. As if we needed a half pound of hamburger, two potatoes of french fries and 64 oz of drink for our midday meal. American culture today makes it so difficult to say “I am satisfied, I have enough.” People look at you funny and ask what is wrong with you. We think we need to have a bigger house, fancier car, the latest gadgets. Consumers are what drive the economy. People are working longer hours, looking for the next promotion in order to satisfy the financial obligations of buying on credit for more electronics, more clothes, more exotic vacations. We are exhorted daily with messages to have more, do more, be more, more, more.

Some of us may get layed off from our job or have health problems that halt the headlong pursuit of having more. But such events rarely allow people to appreciate their circumstances. But what happens to those who step off this acquisition merry-go-round? I read a news story the other day about a high-powered executive that quit his job to spend more time with his family. None of his co-workers believed that he made the decision to do it. They thought it was a polite way of saying he was fired. Choosing a simpler lifestyle not easy. How can we get to a place where we can say that we have enough, we are satisfied?

Lessons from Chado the Way of Tea

According to D.T. Suzuki, who introduced Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture to the West:

“… to understand Japanese culture is to understand the desire not to be dependent on things worldly – wealth, power and reputation – and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position.” (from Zen and Japanese Culture)

Rikyu, who codified Tea as we know it today, left many sayings about how much is enough:

“There is shelter enough if it keeps the rain off, and food enough when it staves off hunger. We draw water, gather firewood, boil the water and make tea.” (from the Nampuroku)

“Tea should not be an exhibition of what the tea man owns. Instead the sincerity of his heart should be expressed.” (from Rikyu’s 100 poems)

Not everyone can take these lessons from Chado and put them into practice in their own everyday life, but we can strive for them as we study Tea and the Way. Little by little, in my own study, I have understood more about what Rikyu was talking about.

While I was living in Japan, I stayed in a small Japanese room that was my living room, bedroom, study and dressing room. My actual living space became smaller and smaller as I acquired things. My choices often came down to “can I live without it?” rather than “do I want it?” Returning back home after living with absolute essentials for a year, I wanted to clean out my house and get rid of so many things that were cluttering up my space.

So the lifestyle question for me is not “can I fill up the empty spaces?” but “what can I eliminate and still be satisfied?” It is like sculpting a life. What can I remove to reveal the art within rather than add something more to clutter and obscure it. Removing many of the things that distract us, allows time for reflection on what are our deepest values are so that we may consciously live a life of meaning according to those values.

Also, by getting rid extraneous things, I was amazed at how unburdened I felt. Ownership implies that I have taken responsibility for it: finding a place for it, caring for it, storing it, keeping it in good working order. I did not notice when I was acquiring things how each thing weighed me down a little more until I was mentally dragging it all around with me.

Another aspect of having enough is being thankful for what we already have. It may sound trite, but getting up every morning and being thankful for the life we have seems to make the desire for more less strident. And there are many things to be thankful for: good health, family, and friends, to name a few. Especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, we ought to look right here now and appreciate our lives as they are before we think about the future, knowing that at any random time, our lives can be changed forever.

The Japanese kanji for contentment is made up of two characters: chi soku, literally to know sufficiency. Nobody can tell us how much is enough. If we rely on external sources to tell us, there will never be enough. There will always be something more that we do not have. Only we know what it is in our lives to know sufficiency. It comes from inside us. It comes from appreciating what we already have, from knowing what is really important to us, and deciding what we can live without.

How can I cherish this moment?

In many ways I can say that I live to get through this moment. That is, I cannot imagine what will happen next week, nor remember what I had for breakfast without stopping to think. But usually that is because I am busy, busy, busy with right now that I don’t have time to remember or think. All I want to do is scratch this off my do to list and move on to the next. I’ve got to keep moving, keep moving or I’ll get behind.

Not just living through the moment but fully embracing it is difficult. We have so little time in our lives with our overloaded schedules that it is difficult to carve out time for meditation or spiritual pursuits. There is always dinner, then soccer practice, getting milk for breakfast, taking clothes to the cleaners and...

So by sheer coincidence, when I do have few minutes before the next meeting, or waiting in line at the checkout, or stopped in traffic, how can I cherish this moment? I have a friend, Al Lee, who tells me that I could do it by taking a few deep breaths. By consciously noticing my breathing habits, I find myself taking very shallow breaths or holding it in, especially when I am under stress, in a hurry, angry or nervous.

Taking deep breaths fills my blood with oxygen, which in turn helps my body function more efficiently. Just filling my lungs fully with air brings me out of preoccupation into awareness. So even when I do not have those stolen moments to slow down or meditate, I can take a deep breath and cherish even the moments when I am busy.