Mar 29, 2008

Pointing the way

It is a funny thing that students think that the sensei has so much control of the students in what they teach them and how they teach them. But from the sensei’s side, the student has the ultimate control: they simply can stop coming to class, or find another teacher if they are not getting what they think they should be taught. Students choose their teachers, but teachers rarely get to choose students.

The student also has control of how they experience their own learning. For some students, the way of tea is harsh and demanding; for others, it is an endlessly fascinating puzzle with more and more intricate mazes and pathways. To a certain extent, your sensei will influence your study and so will your personality and interests. Some people are attracted by the rituals of tea, others the sweets. Still others come to tea to learn about kimono, gardening, or ceramics. Whatever it is that brings you to chado, welcome.

I have had the fortunate experience to have had wonderful sensei who were sometimes very hard and strict, and some who very enthusiastic and there were some who were extremely knowledgeable. My sensei taught me the basics of tea, and showed me the pathway to continue my own studies. Because ultimately, chado is a pathway that only you can travel. Everyone’s path is different and will experience the way of tea differently. Yet we are all striving to realize the four principles of tea: harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

Mar 26, 2008

There are no shortcuts

When I first began to learn about Chado, I thought I could become a tea master in ten lessons. But I found out in those first ten lessons just how much there was to the ceremony, not just making tea. I still did not understand what a lifetime of study meant, but it was intriguing enough for me to continue.

My sensei drilled into all of our heads that in tea, there are no shortcuts. We thought that what she said pertained to the temae (tea procedures) that we were studying. There are no shortcuts in tea procedures because through 400 years of refinement, the moves have been honed to the best and most efficient and most graceful way of making powdered matcha tea. If you shortcut one part of the procedure, often you will come to a place that you cannot move forward without backtracking, kind of like knowing the way into and out of the maze. I have learned to follow the exact procedures because I have gotten myself stuck and didn’t know how I could get myself out of it again. And each more advanced procedure is based on the one preceding it, so you cannot skip up to a higher level because you will not have learned something essential to the next procedure if you haven’t mastered it in the previous level.

And like sensei says, there are no shortcuts in many other parts of my life. Often we think we can take a class and attain skills and mastery in “tea ceremony in ten easy lessons” or learn everything we need to know by watching the video “tea mastery in a day.”

Want to get into shape? There are no shortcuts in exercise. Want more patience? To be a better parent? Have a loving relationship? There are no shortcuts here either. In fact, to acquire or strive for something of lasting value, one must do the work and learn it from the beginning.

Mar 22, 2008

Observing vs. doing

Observing is much harder than doing in tea. Perhaps in life as well. When I began to study tea making procedures, I was very excited to make tea. But when it came my turn to be a guest or just an observer, I let my focus wander. When the teacher was correcting another student at some point in the procedure, I really didn’t pay attention. Inevitably, when it was my turn to make tea, I made exactly the same mistake at exactly the same point in the procedure.

A note one of my students made to me last month was that sitting seiza was much easier when making tea than being the guest, and hardest of all was to sit in seiza through the whole temae as an observer. By having something to occupy our minds and hands, it takes the focus off of the pain in the feet and legs.

Chanoyu cannot be learned from a book or video. While you can learn many things from observing and watching, one must experience chanoyu and participate fully with all of your senses for both the host and the guest roles.

In this regard, I often compare chanoyu with learning to ride a bicycle. We could listen to experts talk about the physics of balance and have experienced bicycle riders relate stories of great rides they went on. We could even have an instructional video of learning to ride a bicycle with step-by-step procedures. And yet, until one actually gets on a bicycle and learns what it feels like to balance, pump the pedals and lean into a turn, you really have not learned to ride a bicycle.

Mar 20, 2008

On receiving teaching

In my study of Chado, I have had some very strict sensei. They would watch me make tea and pick apart everything from how I wore my kimono to the speed or slowness of my movements. They insisted that I sit properly in seiza even when my legs and feet were screaming at me for movement. I almost quit tea lessons a hundred times. Yet I came back for more. There was definitely something that drew me back again each time I got discouraged.

I have a friend who is a Zen priest. When she began to study chado, she learned everything very quickly. She told me, if you truly want to learn the Way, you have to steal the knowledge, sensei don’t just give it to you for free. Another sempai told me that the way of tea is filled with jewels, but you have to dig them out yourself.

It wasn’t until I went to Japan to study that I finally appreciated how strict my sensei were. I complained regularly to my sempai about how tough the teachers were on me. Often they were stricter with me than any other student, and I would get flustered and angry. Why were they being so unfair with me? Finally, after listening to me for months, he said, “Don’t you get it? It takes a lot more effort for teahcers to be strict with their students. The strictness you see as picking on you is really them showing you how much they care about you. They want you to do well and will spend the time to correct you. So next time you get a correction, just say ‘hai’, or even better say ‘thank you’”.

Mar 19, 2008

The all-purpose furoshiki

The Japanese are famous for packaging. Even when you buy vegetables at the market, they wrap or tie them up in very pleasing ways. Department stores wrap up your purchases to take home. Gifts are wrapped, tied and decorated in elaborate ways.

There is also the humble furoshiki (furosh-ki), a nearly square piece of cloth that can be wrapped and tied in many different ways depending on what is inside. These wrapping cloths can be utilitarian in a plain, solid color cotton or beautifully and elaborately dyed chirimen silk and it is versatile and re-usable. You can carry watermelons to wine bottles in furoshiki. It can be used as a shopping bag, a laptop wrap, or used to wrap up your kimono and accessories. They can be used to wrap up your lunch. Sometimes, instead of a handbag, I wrap everything in a furoshiki and carry it with me. It looks sort of like I am running away from home. Now days, furoshiki are often used as giftwrap.

There is a Japanese word, “mottainai.” It has become a catchphrase for Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, equating it roughly to the English phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" (It might include "Repair", too.).

Here is an excerpt of the 88th Commencement Speech she gave at Connecticut College in 2006: “Recently I was in Japan. They told me they used to be very conscious of this concept of mottainai, but we are losing it. Since I went there, they have revived that concept. The Japanese custom, before they became very affluent, was to tie gifts in a piece of cloth, which they called furoshiki. They tie it so you give the gift but you keep the cloth. So, you recycle it, you reuse it. Now, of course, we use paper and every time you use paper, remember that is a cut tree. That is a tree that has died to produce paper.”

More about furoshiki in this article “The Japanese Gift for Shopping”

Mar 13, 2008

What to bring to a tea gathering

I have a class graduating from the 10 week introductory class and we are holding our final chakai (tea gathering) in a few days at Kashintei, the Japanese Garden tea house. Most people cannot believe that it takes ten weeks to learn to make tea. My students get to invite family and friends to show off what they have been studying and these guests will have a Japanese sweet and a bowl of powdered green tea (matcha) prepared and served by the students.

Most of the students want to dress in formal kimono for this special occasion so one must come dressed in kimono or bring everything needed to change into kimono for the chakai. The experienced guest will also make sure to bring their fukusa basami (tea utensil pouch) with fukusa (silk cloth), kaishi (sweets papers), sweets pick, fan, handkerchief and a packet of pocket tissues. Experienced guests always bring extras, in case someone else forgets or doesn’t have these things. Sometimes, a very conscientious guest will bring something for the host and kitchen crew as well – a light snack, a box of sweets or something small to show appreciation. And an even more conscientious guest will leave a discreet envelope with some money in it to help defray the costs of the tea gathering.

Most important of all, the guest must bring a good tea attitude to a tea gathering. While the host does his best to prepare everything for the guest, it is an experienced created by both the host and the guest. The guest role is every bit as important to a tea gathering as the host. The host’s role is to serve the guests. The guests’ role is to receive and to appreciate everything that the host has done to prepare for the gathering. A good way to show this is to ask questions or comment to the host about everything that the guest sees or experiences. How refreshing the garden looks, how beautiful the flowers are arranged. The guest can ask about the meaning of the scroll hung in the alcove, and about any of the utensils used to make tea or serve sweets. In fact, it is not unusual to ask about the names of the sweets and the tea – they often have poetic names.

After the tea gathering, it is polite not to linger too long. The host has many more duties to clean up and close the tea house before they can rest. And a well written thank you note is an essential part of being a guest.

So the next time you receive an invitation to a tea gathering you will know what to bring.

Mar 11, 2008

Straight shooting

There is a scroll that is often hung in the tea room:

Jikishin kore dojo

It is often translated as the heart without lies, a straight forward heart, is the place of practice. Like most zen phrases, it can be interpreted many ways.

There are some people who are direct in their communication. They seem to be comfortable in their own skin and present themselves as they are with no hidden agendas. They don’t change their behavior or role depending on who they are with. This may seem uncomplicated and even naïve, but you always know where you stand with these people. There is no guessing about what they are thinking or what their intentions are. Just ask them, and they will tell you. These people will tell you the truth with no apologies and no excuses.

These people seem to have jikishin, the straight forward heart. We often call them straight shooters, which the slang dictionary defines further as having or marked by uprightness in principle and action: good, honest, honorable, incorruptible, righteous, true, upright, upstanding. If this is what jikishin means, then indeed, it is a good place to practice, not just in the tea room, but in life.

Mar 4, 2008

Order from chaos

When we first begin to learn chanoyu, it seems like all we can manage is to remember the order of things, and getting control of our bodies in the tea room. All of our energy is drawn inwards as we exercise the self-discipline of temae. We face the challenge of endurance as we build up our tolerance for sitting seiza for longer and longer periods of time without excruciating pain. Our focus and concentration improves and the movements become more familiar.

One day it just happens. Order comes from the chaos inside our brain. Something clicks and we are here in the tea room with a guest. Yes, we are making tea for our guest, but now there is a live person in the room with us. When this happens, the tea room changes. Our guest is breathing with us, he is participating in the ritual. Through mutual consideration, host and guest create a new experience for each other. Unspoken communication occurs and small nuances in the ritual take on new meanings. Though host and guest have their roles to play, the give and take of such an experience can be quite moving.

This, for me is the magic of chanoyu. This is why chanoyu cannot be done alone. This is why one cannot learn chanoyu from a book, or from the video “Tea mastership in a day.” Each experience of the ceremony is unique and special. All the training, all the preparation and all the years of work make it worthwhile.

Mar 3, 2008

On Plum Blossoms

Before his retirement as the 15th generation O-Iemoto (Grand Master) of the Urasenke school of tea, Hounsai Daisosho wrote the following words about tea practice:

The plum tree bent under the winter freeze,
With showers, all at once opens its buds
The moon, through mists, projects its shadow;
In the dark, breezes carry its scent
A few days back, the trunk was buried in snow;
Now, branches bear flowers anew,
Through hardship and the bitter cold—
This dignity, at the forefront of spring.

I love this poem by Hakuin because of the teaching and guidance for our own lives which can be gleaned between the lines. In life, we all have wintry seasons of severe cold. What matters is how we endure this cold. The poem teaches us to face the difficult seasons of life, and to benefit from the experience.

When you think about it, our struggle is much the same as the plum’s. Before embarking on the severe path of the Way of Tea, we have to rid ourselves of the consciousness of difficulty and apply ourselves wholeheartedly, without regard for personal gain or sacrifice. Only then can the flowers of our lives blossom. Only then can one attain an unimpeachable dignity which cannot be tarnished by the words of others. The Way of Tea demands a courage comparable to that of the plum tree. For this reason, many people who have lived the life of Tea have loved and appreciated the plum.

Chanoyu should be as refreshing and soothing as a spring breeze, yet to achieve this, strict self-discipline must first be experienced. When making tea, one must never show that one has come through a severe winter of self-discipline; but that self-discipline is essential in order to be able to make a bowl of tea as refreshing and soothing as the spring breeze.

We live in an easy-access society in which many look upon the discipline demanded by the Way of Tea as odious. Even many long-time practitioners of Tea think too lightly of the training that is necessary. People tend to emulate the goal of attainment, missing the true meaning of the Way. . . .

Trying to attain the end without enduring the means is the same as trying to harvest the fruit without planting the seed. To attain a great goal, one must always endure great self-discipline. Thus, because the plum is the first to show that it has successfully endured the harsh winter, its early blossom is so precious, so deeply appreciated, and so noble.

The retired 15th generation Urasenke Grand Tea Master, Dr. Genshitsu Sen (fomerly Hounsai Daisosho), will be visiting Seattle on May 11, 2008. For more details on his visit to the U.S. please go to Issoantea

Mar 2, 2008

The nature of things

As I went for my daily walk in the park the other day, I saw a red-tailed hawk hunting. I love these birds and I often see them circling overhead in the park or on the freeway. As I walked in the park, new growth was everywhere, from buds on the trees to daffodils and crocus coming up.

The world is renewing itself after the winter. Seasons change and with it we change, too. I find myself getting up earlier and having more energy. I am wearing brighter colors in my clothing and am more active.

In the tea room we mark and note seasonal changes. The tea flowers we arrange are never store bought flowers, but only those that are in season. This makes it difficult in the winter months, but thank goodness I live in a place where the winter camellias are abundant.

The simple arrangement of flowers for tea is called chabana – it’s different from the familiar and stylized ikebana. Chabana is often called thrown in flowers, in that it looks very haphazard, but one of the rules of Rikyu is to “arrange the flowers as if they were growing in the field.”

Like many things in chanoyu, it is actually harder to do than it looks. First of all, we need to know what flowers look like growing in the field. I remember picking flowers and bringing them inside to arrange and trying to make them look like what I thought they should look like. My sensei said to me that obviously, I did not look at the flower before I picked it because I was trying to make it face the opposite way it had grown, to fit my own idea of what it was supposed to be.

The flowers are teaching me a lesson about the nature of things. Like our children, or students, we need to observe how they are rather than how we think they should be and work with their nature, not against it.

Finally, I picked a flower once and it was facing the wrong way, but I put it in the vase anyway. By the end of the tea gathering, because of the warmth and the light – the flower had turned itself around to face the other way.