Jul 31, 2007

Sitting seiza, the bane of tea students

Studying traditional chanoyu takes place in a tatami mat room. The proper way to sit is seiza. To sit in seiza, first kneel on the floor, and then rest the buttocks on your heels, with the tops of the feet flat on the floor. The hands are sometimes folded modestly in the lap and sometimes placed palm down on the upper thighs with the fingers close together. The back is kept straight, though not unnaturally stiff. Traditionally, women sit with the knees one fist width apart, while men sit with two fist widths of distance between the knees. The big toes may rest side by side or are sometimes overlapped. Some martial arts, notably kendo and iaido also use seiza position and also can be used for sitting meditation or zazen.

While practice, exercises and experience make it more comfortable to move around in the Tea room sitting seiza, for long periods of time, can be quite painful or your feet fall completely asleep and become dead weights making it difficult and dangerous to get up and walk.

At first for me, it was hard to pay attention to anything else while my feet and legs were screaming at me in pain. I tried sitting in the bathtub with warm water. I tried stretching exercises, holding my breath and many other techniques to get the pain to stop. One day I asked my sempai (a senior student), who could sit for days without apparent pain, “When will the pain in my legs go away?” He told me that the pain never goes away, but after a while you won’t mind it so much. After a very long time of thinking hard about this, I became aware that in resisting the pain in my legs, I was filling my mind up with the struggle to resist the pain. That left little room in my mind to pay attention to what was going on in the Tea room. More and more, I am able to “not mind the pain so much” and to notice a lot more of what is going on around me.

For those who want to sit in seiza, but find the pressure too much on feet and ankles, I developed a little, portable meditation seat. It comes in a compact carrying case that doubles as a seat cushion. You can find it here at SweetPersimmon.com.

Jul 30, 2007

Tea Ceremony, not just for Geisha

In America, there is the stereotype and fantasy of geisha girls making tea for men. But in the beginning, women were not allowed to practice the tea ceremony. In this 400 year old tradition, it wasn’t until a hundred years ago that women were allowed to study and participate in tea ceremonies. At one point, samurai were expected to study yin pursuits such as tea ceremony and flower arranging to balance the yang pursuits of sword practice and calligraphy. Even now, most of the highest ranking tea masters and teachers are men.

During my tea training, I have had both men and women for sensei and I have always studied with a mix of men and women. I feel lucky in this regard because the energy in a tea room with men is different. While the training is the same for men and women, there are subtle differences in how men sit, stand, walk and move in the tea room. Unlikely as it seems, tea is a physical pursuit, and a few adaptations to procedures have been made to allow women to study.

When I was in Kyoto, whenever we went to formal tea gatherings at the grand tea master’s house, we were always served by the men – tea masters in training. It is quite an experience to see a man in kimono, like the grand tea master, conduct a tea ceremony. It’s the combination of strength, skill and gracefulness and yes, it is quite attractive.

Jul 29, 2007

Give those with whom you find yourself every consideration

The role of the host and the guest in tea are clearly defined. That the host will give his guests every consideration is a given, but also the guest must give his host the same thing. That is why the guest role is taught as seriously as the host role when learning the way of tea. This teaching of Rikyu goes beyond the host and the guest in the tea room. He says to give those with whom you find yourself. No matter where you go and what you do, those with whom you find yourself you must give them every consideration. It is very much the golden rule – treat others as you would be treated yourself.

Easy to say, hard to do. With the modern technology it is so easy to ignore those with whom we find ourselves. How many times have I interrupted someone I was with and taken a mobile phone call and ignored the person in front of me? What about at an unavoidable meeting with people I barely know or don’t particularly like? How we treat other people is a measure of how we view ourselves.

“First you must make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so the water boils; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in the summer suggest coolness, in the winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.” If you can do these well then surely the great tea master Rikyu would become your student. These teachings are just as relevant today in the modern world as they were in the 16th century tea room and we can put them to practice in our daily lives.

Jul 28, 2007

Prepare for rain

Living in the Pacific Northwest, this teaching surely applies to us. It rains often and you never know when nice weather will turn to rain. I keep a waterproof raincoat in the car, just in case I get caught out in the rain.

Just as in a tea gathering, the host must prepare for rain with special rain clogs and umbrellas for the guests as well as something to entertain them if they cannot go outside during the break.

At another level, the tea gathering is a complex event and you cannot plan for every single disaster that may or may not happen. Tea training teaches us be flexible if what you have planned goes awry. Preparation in this case is training yourself to deal with whatever comes up. One extra guest shows up? Divide the food so there is enough. Tea spills on the tatami mat? Wipe it up and go on. To be prepared is to respond in an appropriate way as the situation presents itself.

Jul 27, 2007

Do everything ahead of time

Of a certainty, if we are putting on an event like a tea gathering, there are preparations to do ahead of time. If things are not done ahead of time, they must be done during the event and that often takes more time. If we are rushing around trying to make up for lost time, it is difficult to be present and enjoy the moment.

Procrastination only makes us run faster and take longer on the back end. We cannot catch up wasted time, it is gone forever. Time is the one commodity that there will never be more of so this teaching of Rikyu encourages us not to waste it.

Jul 26, 2007

In the summer, suggest coolness; in the winter warmth

The seasons are part of the tea ceremony. When the weather is uncomfortably warm or freezing cold, suggesting coolness doesn’t mean turning on the air conditioner or heating up the room. There were no air conditioners in the 16th century. In the summer the days are hot, the fire is hot and the guests are hot. It is up to the host to coax coolness into the minds of the guests. This takes imagination, discipline and force of spirit.

A larger room, flowers relating to water, darkening the interior, and using utensils that depict the seashore, mountains, flowing or dripping water or cool breezes all help to give the guests a cooler feeling. Not getting flustered, impatient or hurried will calm and cool the guests.

In the winter, moving the fire closer so guests can see the burning charcoal, using tall teabowls to retain the heat, or serving spicy ginger in the soup suggest warmth. A tea person can project warmth and coziness in the stories he tells, or the activities he plans.

These are truly tools for life. With suggestion, imagination, discipline and force of spirit no matter what the situation, you can always make it better. Instead of resisting and complaining about what is, accept it and find enjoyment or challenge in making it better.

Jul 25, 2007

Arrange the flowers as they are in the field

Ikebana, the art of formal flower arranging, is familiar to most of us. But chabana, or tea flowers is a different art altogether. It is the art of arranging flowers naturally. Rikyu taught his students to place one or two flowers in simple bamboo containers. He encouraged them to put the flowers in with one breath and not touch or adjust them once they were put in the container.

When I first tried my hand at chabana, I was quite frustrated. My arrangements drooped or the flowers looked the wrong way. It was much more difficult to than I thought to arrange them naturally. The problem was, I was trying to make the flowers do something that they wouldn’t have done in the field. To do this requires that we pay attention to how they are growing in the field before we cut them. Which ones are hanging down? Which ones are standing up? Which are tall and which are short? What way are the flowers facing? If we observe them before cutting them, then when we bring them into the tea room to place them in a container it becomes much simpler.

The same is true in daily life. Things become simpler by observing and working with the way things are rather than wishing that things fit some notion in my head of how it should be. By not judging or trying to make the situation fit some fanatasy, or trying to change the people around me, I am able to appreciate so much more about my life.

Jul 24, 2007

Lay the charcoal so the water boils

These days we do not use charcoal to boil water, but one of the essential procedures in tea ceremony is laying the charcoal and building the fire. This is so important that it is done in front of the guests. It is not easy to lay the charcoal with efficiency and minimum mess in the tea room and in front of the guests.

We have been taught to lay the charcoal in a certain arrangement to be beautiful and to burn completely. But no matter how beautiful the arrangement, there is still no boiling water if it doesn’t burn. It’s better to have a not so perfect arrangement that burns hot enough to boil the water.

What I can take from this is to look at where I am striving for perfection in my life and look beyond the perfection to see what I am really trying to achieve. Is the goal laying perfect, beautiful charcoal or boiling water? Rikyu teaches us to think about doing things to accomplish something rather than making perfection the end goal.

Jul 23, 2007

First, you must make a delicious bowl of tea

This is the first rule of Rikyu and he tells us to do what is most important. In making a delicious bowl of tea we must pay attention to technical things like the temperature and amount of the water, the amount of tea, how long to whisk the tea and how much foam. It is also important to know when to stop whisking because the tea is cooling as we are making it. We also need to pay attention to our guests – what do they like? A little cooler temperature? Whisk a little longer. Stronger flavor of tea? Put more tea powder in. More foam on top? Whisk more vigorously.

Part of tea ceremony is purification of the utensils. While the host is doing this, he is also purifying his heart and letting go of everything else so that by the time he is ready to make tea, he is present and all of his concentration and focus is making the tea. Part of his essence goes into the bowl of tea, thus giving to the guest something extra besides just tea.

There are many things going on in the tea ceremony and it is hard to keep track of everything. Flowers, scroll, utensils, walking, standing and sitting correctly. There is a correct order of doing things and correct placement and timing. But Rikyu reminds us that first, you must make a delicious bowl of tea. Even if everything is perfectly timed and aligned and utensils and flowers are beautiful, if the tea is not delicious the whole point of tea ceremony has been missed. Our attention should be put on what is most important.

Taking this further into everyday life, we can get so caught up paying attention to other things that we miss what is most important. We fill our lives with so many activities and things that we can even forget what it is that comes first. Rikyu reminds us to pay attention and put important things first.

Jul 21, 2007

The Seven Rules of Rikyu

In the 16th century Sen no Rikyu, tea master to Hideyoshi who unified Japan during feudal times, was the most influential tea master of his time. During this time, Zen influenced the tea aesthetic and its followers refined it into Chado – the way of tea, just as Kendo – the way of the sword, shodo – the way of the brush, kado – the way of flower arranging, and others become spiritual paths to enlightenment. Rikyu’s sayings and aesthetic sense codified tea ceremony as we know it today.

A student once asked Rikyu to summarize the most important teachings of tea, hoping for a glimpse of some secret teaching he had not yet learned. Rikyu responded, “First you must make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so the water boils; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in the summer suggest coolness, in the winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.” The student was disappointed with this response, and said he already knew all that. Rikyu told him if he could do all that well, then Rikyu would be his student. This teaching is known as Rikyu’s Seven Rules.

This story tells us that the Way of Tea is basically concerned with activities that are a part of everyday life, yet to master these requires great cultivation and diligence.

As seen within Rikyu's seven rules, the Way of Tea concerns the creation of the proper setting for that moment of enjoyment of a perfect bowl of tea. But the Way of Tea can well described as the Art of Living.

Jul 20, 2007

The Ritual of Tea Ceremony Class

Ever since I began to study tea regularly, I have had to travel across town to class once a week. My tea ceremony class was held on Thursday nights and it was 45 minutes to an hour in rush hour traffic to get to my sensei’s house. When I moved to Seattle it sometimes took two hours to get to class.

Because it was so difficult for me to get to class, I often asked myself why do I continue to do it? The answer quite simply is that I felt so much better after class. I remember driving home many times saying to myself, “Oh I didn’t want to go to class tonight, but I am so glad that I did.”

The more complicated answer is that tea class is a place where I can take a breath in my life. Our lives have become so complicated with time being the commodity in shortest supply. Everything takes longer than I anticipate and I am usually behind as I cram more and more into my already overloaded schedule. By contrast, in the tea room, there are no clocks. Each procedure is just as long as it takes. Multi-tasking is not a virtue in tea.

Tea class has become an experience rather than an activity for me. Each part of the experience has also become a ritual. The driving in traffic, putting on kimono, preparing the utensils, making tea, and cleaning up, puts my world in order again. By the next week when it is time for class, I need to put the world in order again.

Jul 19, 2007

The four principles of Tea

One of the first things that I learned studying Japanese tea ceremony were the four principles of wa, kei, sei, jaku. These four principles infuse everything to do with tea ceremony and form the foundation for the spiritual in tea.
Wa – harmony 
Wa is the complete harmony of all elements: guests, utensils, nature and attitude.  

Kei – respect
Kei is a profound reverence toward all things, and is a characteristic of humility.

Sei – purity
Sei contains the thought of orderliness in life, cleanliness, and purity.

Jaku – tranquility
Jaku means calm even amid the chaos. To be able to create the sense of calm is jaku.

Jul 18, 2007

What is Tea Ceremony?

I suppose I started this blog in the middle, assuming people knew what tea ceremony was all about. I want to go back to the beginning and explain a little about the basics of tea ceremony.

What is Chanoyu?

Chanoyu is usually translated as "Tea Ceremony.” It literally means "hot water for tea," but centuries of Japanese history, literature and culture come together in the study and discipline of making and serving tea.

is a gift of hospitality that offers sanctuary for the human spirit, a quiet refuge in which to loosen the burdens of secular concerns to experience renewal.

Why is it sometimes called Chado?
As a spiritual practice, Chado
, the Way of Tea, provides a gateway to the artistic and spiritual traditions of Japan first introduced to America in the classic "Book of Tea," by 19th c. critic, curator, and historian Okakura Kakuzo.

Chado presents an aesthetic approach to life that recognizes we are part of a larger pattern of relationships -- with others, with society, and with nature.