Jan 30, 2008

Haiku and Waka poetry

'Poetry has its seed in the human heart and blossoms forth in innumerable leaves of words ... it is poetry which, with only a part of its power, moves heaven and earth, pacifies unseen gods and demons, reconciles men and women and calms the hearts of savage warriors.'

Ki no Tsurayuki, Preface to the Kokinshû, Ninth Century

Most people know the haiku form of Japanese poetry from grade school, a short poem of three 'lines' of five, seven and five syllables and describing an aspect of nature. Haiku is descended from renga a linked verse form that was descended from waka a 5 line poem with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables in each line. Some of the earliest and most famous of waka poetry were collected in the Man'yoshu, Kokin Wakashu, and the Shinsen Waka in 759, 905 and 934 respectively as Imperial anthologies.

Some people say waka is easier because you have a little more room for expression, where haiku is so brief and one must be very concise. Waka were first composed, before the advent of writing in Japan, to celebrate victories in battle and love, or for religious reasons, and this tradition of poetry for public occasions carried through to the first great age of written waka in the seventh and eighth centuries, with highly wrought nagauta 'long poems', consisting of alternating 'lines' of five and seven syllables, being composed for performance on public occasions at the imperial court.

Here is a link to a great site about waka poetry, including poems in kana, romanji, English translations as well as commentary on famous waka poets and major collections of waka poetry.

Waka was used as a means of communication between lovers during Heian (medival times), so you find a lot of love poetry -- and a lot of lost love poetry throughout the collections of waka. Waka was also frequently written on beautiful rice paper in running kana script. So for Valentine ’s Day, why not compose a waka poem and write it out on some fancy paper for your partner, lover, or spouse?

Jan 29, 2008

Beginner’s heart

Hatsugama is a formal tea gathering put on by the teachers for the students. This year’s Hatsugama celebrations included students who have never been to a formal tea gathering before. To be able to participate at a major event with beginners was a refreshing reminder to me of my very first tea gathering. I remember the nervousness of not knowing what to expect and being afraid that I might offend someone, yet I felt the incredible privilege of being invited to something very special.

At my first tea gathering, I don’t remember seeing so many people in kimono before and how graceful they all seemed to move in their finery. From the first scent of the incense to the beautiful arrangement of the charcoal, to the exquisitely prepared meal to the tongue-melting sweet and refreshing cold air to the bitter tea, it was an almost overwhelming experience of the senses.

By the time it was drawing to a close, I felt like four and a half hours had flown by, and I didn’t even mind the ache in my legs from sitting on the floor for so long. I was so sad for it to end and leave the warmth and the people I had grown so close to. To say goodbye to our host, and just leave to go back to the real world was such a shock. For the next several days, I was dreamily re-living the experience. How the host’s kimono swished when she walked, how the meal and the sake seemed to be so right together.

So this year, with the new students, I caught the spirit of everything as if Iwas a beginner again at a formal tea gathering. With the humble but eager heart of the beginner, I want to thank them, as I have become a little jaded at these events. Thank you for making it exciting and fun and full of magic and wonder for me. Aren’t we lucky to have our hearts stolen away by tea?

Jan 26, 2008

Shokyaku, the guest of honor

I was invited to a formal tea gathering for Hatsugama last night. The host called me a week ago and asked if I would be the shokyaku (the principal or main guest). Being asked to be the shokyaku is a great honor and carries a lot of responsibilities. The first thing I would have to do is get a list of all of the other guests, their contact information, and the order of how our host would like us to sit in the tea room. Much like any dinner party, deciding who sits next to whom is important for maximum harmony, interesting company and mix of experienced guests and those who have never attended a formal tea gathering before.

When I found out that information, my next task was to contact everyone and ensure that they knew the general order of the tea gathering, what to bring, what each of the guest’s roles were going to be, and to come 15 minutes before the start of the event. Some people were going to dress in kimono and I had to tell them the details of where the changing room was going to be and offer assistance in dressing people. I then had to communicate with the host that everyone had been contacted and everyone understood.

On the afternoon of the gathering, I assembled my most formal kimono and duplicate accessories in case anybody forgot or didn’t bring the proper things for the gathering. I also packed a small snack of fruit for the people working behind the scenes to eat. I took extra care with my kimono and headed off the event. When I got there, I noticed everything as I made my way from the foyer to waiting room. The host had put up special decorations and I would ask and comment about them later during the ceremony. As I greeted the guests, I asked them to be indulgent with me and I would try to take good care of them. If they had any questions for the host, they could ask me and I would ask them at the proper time during the ceremony.

We proceeded into the tea room and the garden was particularly beautiful with lanterns provided by our host to light the pathway. My job was now to serve as the example to all of the guests as they would follow my lead throughout the meal. I tried to include everyone in the conversation and bring their attention to something especially thoughtful or interesting provided by the host, like warm water in the hand rinsing basin.

The entire tea gathering was magical and one guest said as we were leaving that she was so sad that it had come to an end. We had just spent 4 hours together and it had seemed like time had sped by so quickly. At the end, all the guests bowed and thanked me formally for being such a good shokyaku. My final responsibility was to write a formal thank you note to our host. I hope everyone had a good time, including our host.

Jan 24, 2008

10,000 ichi

When I took calligraphy lessons in Japan, I went to an old man who would teach me if I brought him tea sweets every week. He had many Western students, but they sometimes came, were late or did not bring sweets. I came promptly at 8:00 pm every Monday with my sweets to share.

Each week he would give students a character to practice, and other students would get characters like "willow", "horse", "dragon", "brocade of flowers". Some students would come for a few weeks and quit. Every week I got the character for "ichi", just one horizontal line. He would come and look at my efforts and say "da me, no good. mo ichido, do it again". I would practice at home all week and bring my best efforts to show him the next week. He'd look at them and shake his head. He never gave me technique instruction, he just said do it again. He would, however, straighten my posture and adjust my grip on the brush, but did not tell me how to achieve what he did with so much ease.

After six months of trying to copy exactly the character he wrote for me every week, the single character ichi, I asked sensei that because I was only going to be in Japan for one year, I would like to take home to show my mother another character. He said that I probably only wrote 5,000 ichi and to be competent, I would have to write another 5,000. But since I had been diligent and uncomplaining, he would give me a second character "for my mother". The character he gave me was "ju" or 10. It consisted of a single horizontal line and a single vertical line like a cross. So, as I had promised to write another 5,000 ichi, I could also practice the new charater ju. After one year of study I could write two characters passably -- ichi and ju.

In the end, though, at my last class, I went to the most expensive sweets shop in Kyoto and bought him their most famous sweet. He surprised me with two gifts. One was a brand new calligraphy brush that he said would be my friend for life. The other was a scroll he had written (unmounted) that read "yukima no kusa" and that means the sprouts of grass under the snow. He told me that he recognized that I was a serious and diligent student and he wanted to teach me the correct way.

Jan 23, 2008

Japanese tea sweets

One thing I love about Japanese tea, they always serve wagashi (general name for sweets). It is practically impossible to count how many different types of wagashi exist when you take into account the numerous recipes and ingredients. The main ingredients for wagashi are beans (Azuki beans, kidney beans, soy beans), grains (mochi-rice, rice flour, wheat), potatoes, sesame seeds, Kanten (a natural hardener) and sugar. No fat or oil is used to make wagashi. These confections run the gamut from frothy abstract shapes to exquisite works of art made to look like flowers, animals or seasonal shapes such as autumn maple leaves.

In Chanoyu, there are two kinds – well there are many different kinds. but two main categories of sweets, higashi or dry sweets, and omogashi the larger wet sweets. Generally speaking, higashi are for usucha or thin tea, and omogashi for koicha or thick tea. Omogashi usually have a poetic name, too – like hakubai (white plum blossoms) or Yamazato (mountain village).

In Japan, it is pretty easy to get sweets. There are shops that specialize in certain types of sweets, some are very famous. Sweets are made fresh daily at shops and we used to go just before closing to get the marked down leftovers.When I lived in Kyoto, one of my sempai and I would go around to the different sweet shops to sample the sweets. We made a map of the best shops in the city with notes on their particular specialty and which ones we liked the best. There is one that has a wagashi bar. It is like a sushi bar. The chef behind the bar will have a selection of seasonal sweets. When you choose one, he will make there in front of you and they will serve you a bowl of matcha. Heaven.

In America, it is more difficult to get sweets, though sometimes you can get them at Asian grocery stores and they tend not to be very fresh. I learned an easy to remember recipe for mochi and red bean paste sweets from my sensei that can be made with easily obtained ingredients.

Easy Daifukumochi tea sweets
Make a bean paste of red azuki beans, (kidney beans if not available). You can also buy sweet bean paste powder or red bean paste in a plastic bag if you can find it.

Soak beans overnight, and cook until very soft. Strain cooking water and beans through a mesh strainer into another bowl to eliminate bean skins. Throw skins away (or compost). Then strain the beans mush and water through a muslin cloth. Squeeze as much water out of the cloth as you can. Put the bean paste in a pan on the stove and add one third (in weight) sugar and cook over medium heat stirring it until the paste thickens. It will tend to get very thin and watery as the sugar melts, but then it will thicken up. When it is thick enough, the bean paste will stand and mound nicely and is not too sticky. Remove from heat and distribute in small mounds on a well wrung, lint-free towel to cool. Cover with towel so it will not dry out. This can also be double wrapped in plastic wrap and put in a zip lock and stored in the freezer up to 3 months. When cooled, form into 1 inch balls.

To make mochi covering, take one cup of mochiko flour (can be found in the Asian aisle of most supermarkets), one cup of sugar and one cup of water and mix together. (The proportion is important 1-1-1. You can make half a recipe, too). Put through a sieve to eliminate lumps. At this point you can add food coloring to suggest seasonal references (such as purble for iris). The secret to keeping the mochi soft is to add a tablespoon of karo light corn syrup. Mix well and microwave for 1 minute, take out and mix well. Microwave for 2 minutes, take out and stir to mix well. Microwave 2 more minutes and stir again. By now it should be getting clear and elastic. Make sure it is completely translucent by microwaving in 30 second increments. Turn out glob of mochi from the bowl onto a cookie sheet or pan sprinkled liberally with corn starch. Sprinkle corn starch on top to prevent sticking. Wait until cool enough to handle. Pinch off about a one inch ball of the mochi and flatten it in your hands. Be careful it will be hot. Put bean paste ball in center and pinch closed. Turn over and bush off excess cornstarch with soft brush. I put them into a paper muffin cup to keep them separate until I am ready to serve.

Jan 22, 2008

The right stuff

When people approach something with a passion there is always the excitement of learning something new. Many times I see the various stages that my students go through as they pursue the way of tea, but you also see this in the way people pursue other activities of passion such as martial arts, photogrpahy, snowboarding, for example.

The first stage is learning basic competency – how do I walk in the tea room, what is the correct way of receiving tea? What comes next in the procedure for making tea? Am I sitting exactly 16 weaves from the black line? Do I have the exposure correct in my camera? Can I stand up on my board? Can I fall without hurting myself? Did I use the correct form for that hip throw? Most of the energy is focused inwards to the self as we develop the discipline of our bodies and minds to the task at hand. It takes concentration, memory, and body memory to do things in the proper order, in the proper amount to come to a satisfactory conclusion. This self-mastery is an important stage.

When the student feels a level of competency, the next stage I have observed is the getting the right stuff. Acquisition of the right equipment or gear becomes very important. How many photographers do you know who have different lenses, filters, timers, tripods – or skiers with different skis for wet snow, powder or rock skiing? The right bicycle shoes, helmets, or clothing? Tea people with the right tea bowl, kettles, braziers, kimono? Quite often, the student feels that if he doesn’t have the right stuff, he cannot practice tea. If they don’t have tatami mat room, or the appropiate bowl for the season, it is just no use.
And yet some of the most memorable photographs were taken with a simple manual box camera. The most memorable tea gathering that I attended was a spontaneous one with utensils collected from students in the dormitory where I stayed in Japan. We used what we had and it was an odd mish mash of things -- some found objects, some gifts, some very inexpensive practice utensils.

While it encouraging to have students dedicated enough to continue studying, There is just so much to learn and it takes time to train your eye and sensibilities in the wabi aesthetic of tea ceremony. I mostly recommend to my students to hold off buying equipment and utensils until they have enough experience in holding tea gatherings, working with more experienced tea practitioners and feeling confident in their purchases. The right equipment doesn’t make you better at chado, a sincere heart does.

"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).

Jan 19, 2008

Everything fresh and new

As member of the information age, it is always the next thing, then the next thing, even before we master the previous thing. By the time we know something it has passed and we are on to something different. There is very little time for reflection on what we have learned because we are always keeping up with the next new thing. But how do you make something that you have done hundreds of times fresh and new? As we begin the new year of tea classes, it may seem redundant when we do things over and over again.

In the world of chanoyu we learn things with our body. They say that in order for something to become a habit, you must do it at least 30 times. How do we know where to sit down on the tatami mat so that we are exactly 16 weaves from the line? How do we know what comes next in the tea procedure that is two hours long? By training our bodies for tea procedures, it becomes second nature to us. Training our bodies takes patience. We must do it over and over again until we can do it without thinking.

Like bicycle riding, when we train our bodies, we can finally look up and see the scenery rather than concentrate on keeping our balance. With our well trained body doing tea procedures, we can free our mind and our heart to look beyond ourselves to what is happening in the tea room. We can be sensitive to our guests and communicate on many levels at once. This is what makes everything fresh and new again even though you may have done it a hundred times before.

There is a saying in chanoyu – nichi nichi arata -- every day is new. To make each tea procedure, each movement fresh and exciting as if it was the first time you were doing it takes lots and lots of practice. What a conundrum. This attitude will make your tea study more exciting for you and ultimately more exciting for your guests.

Jan 18, 2008

Keiko is good training

In the course of my lessons for chado I had to drive across town after work to get to class. That meant fighting traffic for 45 minutes to an hour, struggling into kimono and sitting on my knees for an hour and a half at class every week. I did this for many years and there were days that I faced the freeway stopped up with cars and not looking forward to the pain in my legs. But as I drove home after keiko (tea practice), I was so glad that I did make it to keiko as I felt ready to face another week with more peace in my heart.

I learned that many of the unpleasant things we do often turn out better than we anticipate. By adjusting our mental outlook or the context of what we are doing, we have a shift in perspective that brings unlooked for rewards. The tedium of driving in traffic can be converted to meditation time. The pain in my legs from sitting in the tea room is my way of strengthening my endurance and concentration. As one of my sempai told me whenever I would complain about something “…hmmm, this sounds like very good training for you.”

Jan 17, 2008

Receiving a bowl of tea

The etiquette of receiving a bowl of tea at a tea ceremony may seem somewhat tedious as there is a lot of handling and moving the bowl around. The proper way to receive a bowl of tea is for the guest to slide across the tatami mat and get his own bowl of tea after the host puts it out; making sure the front of the teabowl is facing himself. It takes a certain amount of grace to slide backward then move the bowl with you back to your place in kimono without it opening up and become a mess. But once back in your place, the bowl is brought just inside the line and placed between you and the next guest. “Osaki ni” (excuse me for going before you) is said with a semiformal bow of both guests together. The bowl is then placed inside the line in front of your knees and a formal bow thanking the host with “Otemae chodai itashimasu.” The bowl is then placed on the left palm for kansha (silent thanks) and the bowl turned twice clockwise to the back to drink from.

When the guest has had the last sip, and it is okay to slurp the last of the tea, he wipes where he has drunk with fingers that are then wiped on kaishi papers. The bowl is turned counterclockwise to the front and put down on the tatami mat outside the line for haiken or appreciation. After looking at the bowl, the guest returns it to the host exactly where the host put it out. Before returning it to the final place, the guest turns the bowl so that it is facing the host. He then returns to his place.

This whole ritual of receiving the bowl of tea is good because we are not often taught how to receive anything. Using this etiquette we can express our respect, thanks and appreciation of not only the tea, but the bowl, the host, and the other guests.

Jan 16, 2008

Gratitude for my sempai

In Japanese, sempai is the word for senior students. Kohai is the word for junior students. For many people who have not grown up with the sempai-kohai system it can be difficult to understand and for the system to work, it must have the cooperation of both the kohai and the sempai.

The sempai as a senior student has many responsibilities: to act as an example of the teaching of the sensei, to be the source for etiquette questions, to teach the kohai the behavior and procedures in the preparation room, and any other teaching out of sight of the sensei. If the kohai misbehave or make mistakes, it is the sempai who takes responsibility and is the one that gets in trouble.

The responsibilities of the kohai are to respect the sempai, to be humble and defer to the sempai, to ask the questions before attempting anything he hasn’t done before and accept the teachings.

A hard concept for me was to accept someone younger than I as my sempai. As we enter the way of tea, everyone who has been before you is your sempai, no matter how young and how inexperienced. I had 15 years of experience studying with my sensei when I went to study in Kyoto. Though I did have sempai that were wise and more experienced, some of my sempai were 18 or 19, had studied for less than a year and they had been in the program for six months before I came. They were still my sempai and though I might have known how to conduct myself at home, they still had more experience in the protocol and how to conduct themselves in Japan than I did and had a lot to teach me.

The lesson I learned from this is that everyone has something to teach me, even those younger and less experienced. To all of my sempai in the way of tea, thank you. Thank you very much for showing me the way.

Jan 14, 2008

Do Gaku Jitsu

Do Gaku Jitsu
When I first went to study chanoyu in Kyoto there were three large kanji at the entrance to the second floor classrooms where we had our lectures. They were: Do – Gaku – Jitsu, At my first opportunity, I asked Mori sensei what these three words meant and why they were important.

She said that to study Chado, it is not a thing to learn from teachers. The things that you seek are already in you and that you must discover them for yourself. Sensei are there to point the way, but how you progress with tea is up to you, not the teacher. They can only open doors and expose students to the many, many aspects of Chado. The way of tea is a process of self-discovery about yourself, the world around you and how you are in the world.

Unlike modern American education, in Chado, the students are expected to take an active part in their learning. This doesn’t mean that students tell their sensei when they are ready to advance to the next level, the next procedure or the next certification. Chado is not the procedure for making tea, though oftentimes that seems to be the emphasis in teaching. Chado is not what level of certification you attain as some of the most respected tea people have never gotten beyond the first licenses.

For students to learn Chado, the three kanji are a guide. Do is the way, the path, the spiritual philosophy. To follow the path of tea (Cha-do) one uses the way of tea and all its lessons as a measure of life. It is a way of doing and thinking and approaching life. Without the practical discipline and the study of knowledge, you cannot reach the way.

Gaku is the study of the knowledge of tea: the facts. It is the learning you can get from others who have gone before you. This includes the rich history and literature, the study of utensils, famous tea men, poetry, calligraphy, the seasonal aspects, drama, the lineage of the Urasenke family, and much more. With the internet there are so many resources now, from museums to literary translations to articles and blogs such as this one.

Jitsu is the practice of tea. That includes but is not limited to learning the temae or procedures for making tea. It is also the practice of wa-harmony, kei-respect, sei-purity and jaku-tranquility. These principles are easier in the tea room when we make a conscious effort to embody these principles. But they can also be put into practice in everyday life. Harmony in the office? Respect for your kids? Cleaning up your messes both physically and in your relationships? Bringing calmness in emotional situations?

The guide for Chado, the way of tea – Do, Gaku, Jitsu — the way, the knowledge, the practice.

Jan 7, 2008

Aikido and chado - Wa : harmony

Happy New Year to you all. We have just concluded Hatsugama at Issoan and are looking forward to the first keiko of the year. Beginning January 13th a new Introduction to Tea Ceremony class begins.

I'd like to introduce my guest blogger, the author of seiyoucha (also in the links section). It is a blog in French about the history of chado and sukisha, the dogu and their crafts, arts and literature of tea and some elements of Japanese culture based on his feelings and research. Please click over and check it out.

I have asked and he has agreed to write a few essays for me about Aikido and Chado, since he is a student of both and may have some insights about how they are similar or different. If anyone has additional comments or thoughts, please post them in the comments.

Aikido and Chado - Wa : harmony

Harmony (wa) is this ideal relationship between human beings which the chajin tries to establish. The tea room (chashitsu) is his favorite place to search for harmony, but his real goal is to find harmony in all the situations of life.

In western countries, aikido people usually translate the japanese character "ai" by "harmony". In fact, this "ai" is more the harmonious encounter, the ability to harmonize one's behaviour and attitude to those of the partner (uke). In a sense, we can say that ai is a dimension, a component of wa. I would say, in this regard, that aikido as well as chanoyu only mean something because of the underlying relationships: from this point of view, a solitary practice would have no meaning.

As Saotome sensei explains (Aikido and the harmony of nature, p. 243 of the American edition):

"There are no individual kata in Aikido, for Aiki is the harmony of relationships. On the Aikido mat you will find people of different social backgrounds and status, different cultures and languages, different political and religious philosophies. They are coming together not to compete, not to press their own ideas on someone else, but to learn to listen to each other, to communicate through Aikido "skinship". On the mat, we cannot hide our true selves. We show our weaknesses as well as our strengths, we sweat together, face stress together, help each other, and we learn to trust. [...] We are individuals, but we are a part of each other. [...] This is harmony."

If the quest for harmonious relationships is altogether rich by itself, it is only a stage in the quest for a more universal harmony. The further one advances, the chado student becomes more and more aware of the natural rhythms which sourround them: rhythm of the fire which heats water, rhythm of the gestures of temae, rhythms of the sun along days and seasons, rhythm of the breathing of his partners... This sensitivity to rhythms enables one to be aware of everything around them, to adapt fluently to circumstances. The aikido student pays attention to everything that is going on around him, not only to his partner. This is the meaning of shiho nage: to face the four directions at the same time. Just as well as the chajin adapts to the unexpected: he keeps an umbrella ready even in sunny weather.

OSensei used to teach that in aikido, he made one with the Universe.Saotome sensei illustrates in the quoted book how aikido techniques use just the same rythms as one can find in nature: koshi nage is the wave breaking on a reef, ikkyo omote is the ebb of the tide on the beach... From their initial encounter, there is a connection between to aikido partners, which they keep as long as they work together, technique after technique. Just the same as a connection is established between host and guests (and between guests themselves) from the welcome at the machiai or the roji door to the end of the chaji, when people try to keep this relation as long as possible even after guests have left the chashitsu. This connection, in aikido as well as in chado, is made from heart to heart (kokoro e kokoro kara, I would say in my poor Japanese), and needs no words.

The further one is aware of this harmony with nature, the further one is feels deeply the evanescence of every thing, the permanency of change, and value each moment for itself. It is just the same in aikido: each technique is unique, born from the meeting of uke and tori, and only exists for this moment. In dribs and drabs, this sensitivity extends to all the domains of life. When practice from the heart, tea as well as aikido lead us to feel this harmony which leads to peace.