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