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).

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