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.

Aug 12, 2007

The nature of chanoyu

If asked the nature of chanoyu say it’s the sound of wind-blown pines
in a black and white painting.

Sen Sotan
Third-Generation Grand Master

Aug 10, 2007

Following the way

Chado literally translated is the path or way of tea, just as kendo is the way of the sword, shodo is the way of the brush, kado the way of flowers. There are many paths and many do. But what is the path and where is it leading us? Many people think the way is the path to enlightenment, or the way to satori. But this implies that there is an end result we are striving for.

To me the way of tea is the journey of how we conduct our lives every day. It is one step at a time and the particular path we choose only serves as the vehicle or measure of our conduct. In my view, there are not just the traditional paths of practice. There certainly can be running-do, golfing-do, photography-do, woodworking-do and even skateboarding-do.

At some point, if we are serious about something, we will invest time and hard work to become better at it. After some time of working hard at it, we will begin to get rewards out of it that have nothing to do with getting better. And often it becomes a life long pursuit.

There seems to be some of the same stages that are similar in many of these endeavors. At first it seems like a pleasant thing to do, or a social thing to do. Then it becomes a little more serious and we begin to gather information and knowledge about it. Another stage seems to be accumulating the right gear, utensils or equipment. Maybe there is a stage where we investigate the previous or historical recognized masters of the practice. And some of us continue to do it because we just cannot imagine a life without it.

Aug 9, 2007

Tea Ceremony for One

In preparation for one meeting in a lifetime,
I swept and dusted the tea room,
unrolled the scroll to hang.
I set the kettle to boil,
scooped tea powder into the container,
rinsed the tea bowl clean.
I filled the cold water jar,
carefully wiped the tea scoop
and arranged a single flower.

When the kettle
began to sing its lament,
I made you a bowl of tea
though you were not there to drink it.
I heard your step
whispering across the tatami,
glimpsed a shadow of your kimono
in the swirls of steam.

I inhaled the fragrance of plum
on a cold winter day
and sat listening to the wind in the pines.

The tea tasted so bitter that day.

Sensei says...

My first sensei’s English was not all that good but she had many words of wisdom to impart to her students. One of the things that she told us over and over again, “In class you can do nothing right, in chaji you can do nothing wrong.”

Boy, that was the truth. She was a strict teacher that didn’t let me get away with much. She paid the most minute attention when I was making tea. She watched how I walked, and my posture. She scolded if I put something down and it was a centimeter off in the wrong place. She noticed bent wrists, short cuts, and sloppy habits. She commented on how well I prepared my utensils and how thorough I was in cleaning.

But when it came to chaji (a formal tea gathering) she never scolded anyone. It was all about solving the problem, getting things done, and making it a wonderful experience for the guests. Each chaji is unique and a once in a lifetime experience and sensei told us that things unfold there as they should be. Even if there were mistakes, they were just part of the experience.

After I reached a certain level, my sensei required all of her students to do at least one chaji a year. She would supervise us and we would put on tea gatherings for each other. It was like putting together a major event, from invitations and theme selection to menu planning and cooking to proper selection of utensils. The chaji tea gathering consists of a formal seven course meal, 3 servings of sake, two layings of charcoal, a break and two types of tea. It is supposed to last about 3 ½ to four hours.

She wanted us to put all of our training to use in planning and holding these formal tea gatherings. In the weeks before the chaji, she would become even more strict in her teachings, and sometimes she would throw unexpected things at us in class. Of course, if we were unprepared or didn’t deal well with the changes she would ask us how we were to handle the unexpected at chaji if we didn’t prepare to handle it in class. It was good training for us and we always did what sensei said.

Aug 8, 2007

Haven’t you learned how to make tea yet?

I have friends who have asked me if I have completed my study of tea. They also ask if I am a tea master yet. I laugh and tell them that chado is a lifetime study and I will always be a student.

Little did I know when I took my first 10 weeks of tea ceremony class that I would be hooked for life. Even after 10 years of study, I was only hungry for more. My husband says that it ceased to be a hobby with me and instead became a lifestyle.

Chado encompasses so many aspects of Japanese culture: flower arranging, calligraphy, gardening, cooking, architecture, ceramics, Zen, history, literature – any one of which could be a lifetime study, so I need several lifetimes to explore them all, and then perhaps several more before I could call myself a master.

The former grand tea master’s wife would come to talk with us when I studied in Kyoto. She made a statement that describes what happened to me, “Aren’t we the lucky ones, those of us whose hearts were stolen away by tea?”

Aug 7, 2007


stone Buddha
so serene so good
unlike me

Breaking tea at the office

I keep a tea set at the office, because when things get stressful, I try to take a fifteen minute break and make myself a bowl of tea. When there are more than 300 email messages to answer, my voice mail is overflowing and most of the time is spent in meetings and it seems like I am drowning in paperwork, I need tea more than ever.

Besides having a caffeine boost from the matcha powdered tea, the ritual of making a bowl of tea calms me and brings back my focus. I feel less overwhelmed, and more able to get back to work and be productive. When I am working those late nights, a bowl of tea keeps me going until I finish what I need to do.

At some of my jobs over the years, I have started a weekly “tea break” where a few people gather in my office to share a bowl of tea. At the end of a hectic week, it is a great way to start the weekend.

Aug 6, 2007

Why study chanoyu?

The reasons are as varied as there are people. There are some who study because they love to dress in kimono; some because they are interested in Japanese gardens, others want to learn kaiseki (Japanese gourmet cooking), some come to tea through Zen or martial arts, still others like the social aspect of gathering with like minded people or the serenity of the tea room. Whatever the reason to study chanoyu, something happens if the student is serious and studies for more than a year.

After about a year of studying chanoyu I began to see how deep it was. My body had begun to get the hang of moving around in a tea room without my feeling like a cow in a flower bed. My ear had gotten used to all the strange Japanese names of things (though I still didn’t understand much when my sensei was scolding me). I could even get through a tea procedure at class without feeling like a complete idiot. I wasn’t as tense about making mistakes or feeling frustrated because my sensei responded to my questions with cryptic answers or ignored them altogether. And even though my feet would go numb from sitting seiza, I was able to not mind it so much.

Little by little, I was beginning to just be in the tea room and observe and absorb whatever was going on between host and guest. Not only that, I was able to contribute something to the experiece. The give and take by both host and guest created something unique and special. You cannot be in small room for hours with people, eat together, drink tea together and suffer together on your knees without feeling some kind of bond.

My focus at class began to change as well. At first I was concentrating so hard on my own progress. I wanted to memorize and master the tea procedures. I was concerned about the pain in my legs. I wanted to gain more knowledge to impress my sensei. But as I became more comfortable, it was less about me and more about us – my fellow students, my sensei and what we created together. At first we just cleaned up our own tea bowl and tea things after our lesson, then we just saw what needed to be done and did it without thought to whose job it was.

Also around this time, I started to come early to class to help prepare things for the lesson. My sensei began to teach me how to arrange the flowers and occasionally let me choose the scroll for the lesson. I started to wipe all the tatami before and after class without being asked.

We all had different reasons to begin to study, but we all were contributing and creating an enhanced common experience, something bigger than just our own individual concerns. Because we had different interests, we became a cooperative team. One student was devoted to making tea sweets and brought her experiments to class to share. One student had a lovely flower garden and brought flowers to arrange. Another student was good at reading calligraphy and would help translate the scroll. I was good at cleaning and so I did.

Aug 4, 2007

Sho Shin, the beginner’s heart

When I first began to study Chado part of the creed that we would recite is:

As we diligently learn The Way, at the same time,
we will not forget the humble but eager heart of the beginner.

How many times have I started some new thing with great enthusisam, but flagged after finding out how much work it was? I am a great starter, but find it more than difficult to finish something. Art projects, exercise programs, new business ventures, written poems, stories, film ideas, volunteer works, website postings, etc., have all ended up in the closet not done. For me, there is no problem generating energy, focus and excitement at the beginning of a new project. The problem is to sustain it until it is completed.

I took a woodworking class (another interest started but never mastered) one time from a Japanese carpenter. We spent a week sharpening tools before we even looked at a piece of wood. One day he held up two chisels. One was well worn and sharpened down to an inch long blade. He’d had it for 20 years he said. The other was a brand new chisel, just out of the craftsman’s forge and had been only used once. “This one,” he said holding up the old chisel, “knows what his job is and gets it done without any fuss. I could use it with out thinking because it knows my hand so well, in fact, it practically does the job without me.” Then he held up the new one. “This one, however,” he said, “I have to pay very, very close attention to. It will cut when I don’t want it to in ways I don’t want it to. But sometimes the mistakes made with this one are surprising and artistic. The spirit and engery of this one is exciting to work with.”

For me this lesson was very profound. One way for me to sustain my interest in something is retain the eager heart of the beginner, to approach each task with the attitude that I had when I begin something. Even with Chado procedures, something I have done hundreds, if not thousands of times and know by heart each step and could do it with my eyes closed and head elsewhere, to come to the task with the humble, but eager heart of the beginner. The challenge is to make it fresh and new as if for the first time, to be open to whatever discoveries I will enounter along the way and learn as if for the first time with enthusism and excitement. Ah, that is the challenge and that is the light of life, isn’t it?

Aug 2, 2007

The Danger of Cutting Flowers

By John Dillon

One year, the legendary 16th century tea master Sen Rikyu planted morning glories in his Kyoto garden. The all-powerful shogun, the tyrannical Toyotomi Hideyoshi, heard of the beauty of the blooms and announced he and his retinue would travel from his castle to Rikyu’s humble tea hut to view the flowers. But when he arrives, all the morning glories have been cut down and removed, roots and all. Not a single blossom remains. Angry at the affront, he enters the tea house . . .

Before I tell you what happens next, let me tell you a bit about why this story interests me. I’m a theater artist and I was born and raised in Oregon. As soon as I finished my sixteen-year stint as the artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, my wife and I headed to the Pacific Northwest for the next chapter in our life. One of the things that pulls me so strongly to our region are its vivid contrasts. I remember recently hustling back from a hike in the Cascades and zipping out of my soiled mountain togs so that I could make the curtain of an urbane English comedy at a downtown theater. And on that same drive back to Seattle, I remember making a note to change the dates of our rodeo tickets in Ellensburg so that I could participate in a special tea ceremony to be held in the Arboretum. Life is more vivid here (despite the more than occasional gray skies) because the contrasts are so striking. And that makes me think of the story of Rikyu and the morning glories, with its humble Zen priest and angry Shogun, of the royal retinue and the fragile teahouse. And then, of course, there’s the mystery of the missing flowers . . .

As Hideyoshi enters the tearoom he finds one perfect morning glory, the glorious flower shining with dew and arranged simply in a bamboo container in the small room’s alcove. As Hideyoshi begins to grasp the meaning of Rikyu’s gesture, a side panel slides open and Rikyu enters to start the tea ceremony.

Without even articulating the story’s meaning, there is something I find dramatically satisfying in the simple tale. To begin, of course, are the contrasts already mentioned. Such conflicts/contrasts are the heart of theater. Next emerge three principles I find vital in drama: selection, context and danger. Rikyu chose one flower to represent the many. A playwright chooses only one character to represent a myriad and he or she chooses only a few events to reveal the meaning of a full and complex life. Next, Rikyu took this one flower he felt represented the multitude in his garden and moved it indoors and placed it in a carefully chosen container. Likewise, we can sometimes see our lives better by viewing another life in the openly artificial context of an art form like the theater. Even the most realistic play has a missing wall through which we view the action to say nothing of the stage lights that grow and dim and the proscenium arch that frames the action. Somehow, viewing the private act publicly allows us to see it better. Selection and context are vital tools in helping us see meanings in the life around us.

Finally, there’s danger. Hideyoshi’s power over life and death was absolute. Rikyu risked his life to make his unspoken point. If you doubt that, you should know that some years later (1591 to be exact), the Shogun sent word to Rikyu that he was displeased with the tea master and that Rikyu was to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). Although the reason for Hideyoshi’s displeasure was never revealed, Rikyu complied. And out of respect for Rikyu, morning glories haven’t been used in the tearoom since.

All of us in the theater live in danger, even if it falls short of the extreme danger that a determined 16th century Zen tea master faced. Each time we decide which play to put on (selection) and in what style to produce it (context), all of us know the result may be disaster. The wrong play, the wrong time or the wrong approach and you harvest angry audiences.

During my years of running the Milwaukee Rep, I never saw anything speed by so fast as a successful production. Full houses and happy actors made the days rush by too quickly to fully savor. By contrast, time never crawled by so slowly as a bomb. Sullen audiences in a half-full auditorium and the dispirited faces of the actors as they left the theater made the weeks of a run feel like years. As much as grants and endowments cushion us from the economic uncertainty of the box office, as theaters and theater artists we live or die by an audience’s financial and spiritual approval.

The world of the visual arts and music are full of stories of the misunderstood genius whose work only gathers a wider audience after their death (the Vincent Van Gogh’s and Charles Ives’) but such stories don’t exist in the theater. We succeed in our lifetime, in front of contemporary audiences, or not at all. The only exception I know of is a minor 19th century German playwright whose very obscurity helps make the point.

So, any time a theater artist is at work, making choices, they are selecting and arranging the flowers, as it were, that will soon be put on display. It’s a nerve-wracking process, you see, and we’re always a bit on edge because the shogun might show up to see the results . . .

John Dillon is a student of the Urasenke Way of Tea, the associate director of Tokyo’s award-winning Institute of Dramatic Arts and the Founding President of Theatre Puget Sound, the service organization for theaters and theater workers in the Seattle area.

Aug 1, 2007

Putting on Kimono

I always try to wear kimono when I am in the tea room. Some people in America think that kimono is an anachornism. Very few people in Japan wear kimono these days. But for those who have studied tea in a tatami mat room, wearing kimono makes ultimate sense. Everything I do is affected by the kimono: how I walk, how I sit, how I hold my arms, and my hand movements. The movements and body postures taught in Chado also make sense. One cannot slouch in kimono and one must take care not to spill because the silk fabric is expensive and difficult to clean.

But for me, putting on kimono is also a part of the ritual of preparing for tea. Just as important as cleaning and preparing the room and utensils, putting on kimon is like preparing my body. With each layer of clothing I tie on, I am removing myself from the everyday world and preparing to enter the sacred space of the tea room. I take on a different posture, both physical and mental. I grow to fill the sleeves and open myself to whatever experience will be created in the tea room. My pace slows down, my gestures become more fluid. It is a paradox to me that tied into kimono and obi, there is a freedom to become larger than myself.

I urge every tea student to try out the feeling of being in kimono during the tea ceremony.