Jun 29, 2008

Mizuya, the preparation room

When people see a tea room, they do not think of the mizuya, the preparation room. It is the training ground for the tea room and here that the some of my most profound lessons were learned. There are many rules to learn about preparing for tea class and tea gatherings and it all starts in the mizuya.

Some mizuya I have worked in were small rooms that barely fit two or three people side by side. I once prepared 300 bowls of tea with two other people in a mizuya that was six feet by six feet. It also contained an electric burner, a sink for washing bowls, cold water rinse buckets and room for about 30 bowls. There was no table in this mizuya, everything was done on the floor sitting seiza.

Because the mizuya is hidden from the guests, we must be extra diligent about doing things, cleaning up after ourselves and working together with a minimum of fuss. Sensei says that the mizuya must be cleaner than the tea room.

So every spare minute you spend in the mizuya you should be cleaning. Whether you are washing bowls, filling the tea container, arranging flowers or preparing for the next temae, clean up before you work and after you work. Do not leave your cleaning for others. If you are not working you can zokin (wipe the floor with floor towels). If you are not working, get out of the mizuya. It is no place for idle talk, gossip or just standing around.

When cleaning up after your temae, you should wash, rinse and dry your bowl, rinse your chasen and clean out your kensui. Rinse and remove all the green tea from your chakin, and fold neatly and return to the flat chakin darai. Wipe your chashaku with tissue so that all tea residue is removed and refill the natusme with tea. Replenish the sweets tray and arrange them for the next person. Return all utensils to their proper place when you have finished.

Because the mizuya is often a confined space, working together in harmony is essential. Usually there is a cho or head of the mizuya. It is the cho’s responsibility to make sure everything is done correctly in the mizuya. Therefore, there is no arguing with the cho. If he asks you to do something, you do it. But don’t wait around for the cho to tell you what to do. If you see something that needs to be done, just do it – and with a minimum of fuss. If you have a problem in the mizuya, call a meeting with the cho – later, outside of the mizuya.

When handing things to other people in the mizuya, you should put it down in front of them and let them pick it up. It is safer than passing utensils from hand to hand. A good foundation in the mizuya, allows you to concentrate on doing the right things in the tea room. I find that it helps me mentally to be present in the tea room if I have done my mizuya work well.

Jun 27, 2008

Leaving no trace

I was working out in the yard pulling weeds this week. When I was younger, my dad made me pull weeds for punishment, but after awhile, I really got into it and I asked to go out to the backyard to pull weeds. It became an experience for me. I was going to write a post about leaving no trace and in my yard, it looks like I have not left a trace since last month, the last time I weeded.

My husband is a woodworker who makes exquisitely beautiful and artistic furniture, boxes and shoji screens. He never signs his work. He thinks that the design and craftsmanship of the pieces should speak for themselves rather than him, the artist. He doesn't own the piece and doesn't feel right putting his name on it.

In tea, we must let go of owning the experience. It just is what it is. It is not a tea gathering by Margie as if it was a production or performance. It is a collaborative experience with host and guests each contributing.

In my chado training and teaching, it is not about letting everyone know about how hard or long I have been training, or how many students I have or imparting wisdom to students. I am a conduit to transmit what I learned from my sensei, try to preserve the tradition as best I can, learn about myself and continue my journey.

It is not about awards, or accolades or certification levels or reputation. I do it because I must. I cannot imagine a life without chado. Shunryu Suzuki said, "When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself."

Jun 25, 2008

Who is the best teacher?

Sono michi ni iran to omou kokoro koso waga mi nagara no shisho nari keri
“The very heart which decides to enter the Way is the best teacher.”
Rikyu left us with 100 poems to study the way of tea. This was the first poem of Rikyu’s that I learned. Some people look and look for the best teacher. They look at credentials, they look a personality and teaching style, one that suits their learning style and makes them feel comfortable. I didn’t know that you could choose your teacher. I thought that whatever teacher you found or found you, that was the way it was supposed to be.

When I went to Japan, Mori sensei, one of the teachers at Urasenke, read us this poem and told us that we, in fact were our own best teachers. She said there is nothing to teach us. All we can do is point to the moon. To learn chanoyu, you must seek for yourself. If you have a strong will, you will learn.

I have had students who wanted me to make them tea masters just for showing up at class and argued with me about the “right” way to teach them. I have had students who are so eager to learn that they research and practice on their own. I find that students will only learn as much as they want, no matter how I strive as a teacher. The student must be motivated to learn on his own, have the discipline to work through the tough parts of the learning and desire to become better and know more.

Literally translated, sensei means “one who one who has gone before.” My sensei said to me, “When I am teaching you, I will show you what I know.”

Jun 17, 2008


I have heard that 80% of Chado is preparation. Every week we go to keiko and train. We not only learn the temae, but also the mizuya work and preparation of the tea room. This includes cleaning, hanging the scroll properly and arranging flowers.

Preparation for a tea gathering also includes deciding on a theme, choosing scroll and utensils and inviting guests who will make the tea gathering a success.

When I decide to put on a tea gathering, I have lists and checklists starting a month in advance and counting down to the day of the gathering. I also have a check list of things to do for three days after the gathering.

This preparation for chado and tea gatherings, whether chakai or chaji also includes the mental preparation. As the host of a gathering, it is your responsibility to plan ahead and think about what could go wrong and have a back up for each contingency. What if nobody responds to your invitation? What if one of your guests unexpectedly brings another person? What if it rains on the day of your event? It takes some mental preparation to handle these things as graciously as if you had planned it (which you have).

It also takes mental preparation to handle things that you never even thought of. I once gave a chaji and the person who was supposed to make sweets for the tea gathering didn’t, even though we had discussed in many times. We ended up using an apple that I had brought for snacks for the mizuya workers.

Being prepared for okeiko is important as well. Choosing a poetic name for your sweets and chashaku ahead of time, studying your temae and notes before class, and setting up your own utensils all helps you prepare for the temae ahead.

Being mentally prepared for okeiko means that you are open and willing to receive teaching and/or correction from your sensei. That means not taking correction personally or getting too flustered or embarrassed about being corrected. Being open means that you will correct what you are doing and move on, rather than dwelling on the correction, losing your concentration and focus. Being open to teaching means that while other students are doing their temae, you are paying attention and learning from their corrections, too. It also means that you are open to the lessons that other students or situations going on around you.

Jun 11, 2008

The art of craftsmanship

There has always been an ongoing debate of craft vs. art. My husband is a woodworker and when he looks at art pieces he sometimes is disgusted with conceptual art pieces that show sloppy execution. When we went to the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C, there were wood furniture and studio craft art pieces that were exquisite. Every single one of them so finely crafted. Truly these creators were masters of their medium, whether it was glass, wood, ceramics or metal. The care and precision in making the pieces were readily apparent.

We have a friend who has a couple of works purchased by the museum. He has been a wood worker for more than 30 years. He talks about no do overs with wood. Once it is cut, you can’t put it back together and cut it again, so it must be right the first time. He also talks about wood being a living medium, in that wood once was a living substance unlike clay, or metal or glass. Wood even after it is cut and worked continues as a living substance. It breathes, for instance. When there is humidity in the air it expands, and when it is dry it shrinks. So a woodworker who is also a craftsman will take this into account and design and build his pieces so that the movement of the wood will not break it apart or show gaps at the joints.

Craftsmanship like this takes more time and more attention to detail. It is a self discipline in that the artist determines how precise and how perfect the finished product has to be before it is acceptable. Tea has so many opportunities to make a decision of how precise and perfect our work is to be acceptable.

When I first began my tea studies, I really didn’t care if my fingers were open or closed. I didn’t pay attention to what hand I used to pick up and put down the tea bowl or if I was sitting precisely 16 tatami weaves back from the black border. What did any of these things matter when making or drinking tea? Close was good enough for me.

And yet, because Chado is a 400 year tradition, refined and modified to be efficient and beautiful, all of these things matter. Making and drinking tea is about tea, but it is also a great canvas to experiment and exercise your creativity. It is also an opportunity to explore your own personal standards and level of craftsmanship.

Jun 8, 2008

Self discipline and tea studies

One of the great lessons that I learned during my 25 years of tea studies is the importance of self-discipline. I think it is one of those grown up values that don’t seem to be emphasized much anymore. I used to think of self-discipline as punishment; feeling guilty for not doing the things I should be doing and denying myself the pleasures of life.

When it came to tea studies in the beginning, I was not a particularly good student. I wouldn’t practice between classes, my sensei would scold me during class for my wandering mind, I would be late for class and I would always be asking questions even when sensei just finished explaining the very thing I was asking (I was not paying attention). As a consequence, I didn’t progress very far.

Sensei said to me one day, that it didn’t matter to her whether I progressed or not. I was paying her to teach me, but I had to meet her half-way in my learning. It wasn’t until I was clear that I wanted to study tea, that I became focused on what I was doing every week. I began to think about class after I went home and before the next one. I became diligent about choosing a poetic name for my chashaku every week. The funny thing was that when I became a better student, sensei was much more strict with me. I had to work even harder than when I was a lazy student.

When I went to Japan, one of my sensei there told us that we were sitting on a mountain of jewels, but we’d have to dig them out ourselves. It was not the teacher’s job to see that I had a good experience for the year we were there. This was the hard lesson for me. When I rebelled or was lazy or didn’t do what I was supposed to do or be where I was supposed to be, it just got harder for me. When I applied myself, all kinds of special things came my way. They were training me.

There were some students who were very good at looking good. They would appear to be busy while sensei was looking, and then do nothing if he wasn’t. For the first half year, I would often complain to one of my sempai about things that upset me or that I thought were unfair. She would nod her head wisely at all of my complaints and say, “Yes, it is good training for you.” When I could control my reactions to other people or what was going around me, I had a much better experience. I knew what I had to do and just doing it became satisfaction enough.

Sensei says, “Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.”

Jun 5, 2008

The art of tea

When I think of art I often think of painting, sculpture, photography or something with a tangible result; something to hold onto or point to and say this is art. I don’t often think of the performing arts like dance, theater or music. I read an interview with some rock singer who said that he’d been performing a few of the same songs for 20 years and at every concert he gave, people always shouted out requests for the same songs. He said that nobody would think of asking Leonardo to paint the Mona Lisa over and over again for 20 years.

The art of tea is unlike the fine arts, somewhat like the performing arts, and yet different from them. There is no tangible result from the art of tea, and tea is not a performance with the artist doing and the audience watching or listening. The art of tea is participatory. All the senses are engaged and stimulated. Host and guests create the experience together, with harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. The host strives to serve the guests and the guests do their utmost to appreciate what the host has done.

A lot of people look at chado and think it is rigid with too many rules; that creativity is stifled with tradition and etiquette. And yet, within the context of the rules, there are infinite possibilities to create a unique experience. The host has so many decisions and choices to make to pull off a tea gathering. When, where, and who to invite. Coming up with a theme, choice of utensils, type of temae, what to serve for sweets, and so much more.

For example, I was invited to a tea gathering and the host requested that there be no talking during the gathering. She held it on a weekday at dawn. We were given a light meal to break our fast and then she served sweets and made tea. As we finished the tea gathering the sun was rising and we went on our way to work. What an incredible way to start the day. Ichigo ichie – one lifetime, one meeting.

As you grow in your tea life, be open to the possibilities and use your creativity to create unique experiences for your guests. It’s the art of tea.