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.”