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.”

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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.