Apr 27, 2008

Time for reflection

There is a point in temae where you hold the water scoop in a certain position called “kokoro no kagami,” translated, that means mirror of the heart and there is a pause here in the procedure. As in many of the things about tea practice, it allows us to look at things is new ways.

Reflection can mean many things, including the return of light, heat, or sound, etc. after striking a surface; a fixing of the thoughts on something; or careful consideration; as well as a thought occurring in consideration or meditation.

And so the mirror of the heart can mean many things, too. It can mean the return of the heart between host and guest. I like this explanation in the context of chanoyu, the host and guest each reflecting their hearts to each other and sharing the experience as one.

But we can also take it another way as in careful consideration of the heart. To examine what is in your heart and what your intentions are. Tea practice can be a time of self examination of how you conduct yourself. By clearing away all the hidden agendas, the petty jealousies, the competitiveness, and the imagined hurts is one way that the host purifies himself so that by the time he is ready to make tea for the guest, there is only the pure intention of making a good bowl of tea. This is one of the principles of tea – purity.

Kokoro no kagami is seeing the true reflection from your heart, or even the true reflection of your heart could be like seeing into your own true nature. Since nobody else can see this, it is a time for honesty and reflection.

The kokoro no kagami also reminds us to polish the mirror by striving to improve ourselves through the cleansing of our intentions. The mirror shows us our true nature. Like housework, it is never done. You must continue to remove the dust of the world and be vigilant.

Apr 26, 2008

The Physicality of Tea Practice

For those who study martial arts or are involved in sports, tea practice looks like it is sedentary, not a physical activity. After all, it is done sitting on tatami and it is quiet and calm. But there is a physicality to tea practice that is sometimes much more difficult than that of moving your body vigorously.

Tea practice is about control. To be able to move slowly, precisely and gracefully takes long practice. To be able to make it look effortless and easy takes even more practice. To know where your body will end up when you sit down takes practice. To put utensils down in the proper place (a centimeter off is in the wrong place), takes experience to know where in relation to your body it should go.

Most excruciating of all is being able to make tea and drink tea while sitting in seiza. Being uncomfortable and still be able to do what you need to do with your whole attention and awareness is mostly mental. But physical endurance is also important. It takes training to work up to sitting for hours on tatami in seiza, but if you sit for a little bit each day and gradually increase your time sitting, your body will adjust. The thing is to stick with it long enough to build up your endurance.

It is funny when sensei tells tea students that it is time to take a break, so everyone should stand up to rest. Only in the tea room.

Apr 25, 2008

Introduction to Tea Ceremony Class

When: Mondays, beginning May 19 from 7:30-9:00 pm.
Where: Issoan Tea School, 17761 NW Marylhurst Ct., Portland, OR 97229
Cost: $250 for 10 weeks
Registration, more info: 503-645-7058, margie@issoantea.com

In this 10 week class you experience the tranquility of the Japanese Tea ceremony. An overview of Japanese aesthetics found in gardening, architecture, art and literature and how Tea Ceremony has influenced Japanese culture will be presented. Also covered are tea ceramics, calligraphy, kimono dressing, and participate in an incense ceremony. We will also learn zazen meditation and discuss how to put tea practice into every day life. There are only a few places left, please register early.

Performance anxiety

When I first began to make tea for my sensei, I had terrible performance anxiety. I would be very afraid of making tea and making a mistake. No matter how much I practiced at home, when I got in front of sensei and guests, I would make stupid mistakes. My brain would wander far from the tea room and I would forget even the most basic things. It was not as though I did not know the procedure, but the pressure made me forget or do stupid things. I would freeze and my brain would go out the window. When I was alone, I could get through my temae without mistakes, but when I went to class, I would forget which was my right hand and which was my left hand. My hands would get so sweaty, that the utensils would slip out of my hands. I spilled tea all over the tatami and myself (and yes one time on sensei). She would scold me and I would clean up and continue with my temae.

“In a certain place for practice of the way of tea, there hangs a plaque that reads: ‘A Place of Making a Shameful Show of Oneself.” Once you pass through the entryway, you will experience no shame, no matter how shameful a show you may make of yourself. The practice room is where you are trained as a human, even as you are sharply scolded and hesitate to humiliate yourself in the process. The principal aim of your training is to enable you, when the time comes, to perform tea splendidly and without shame. This is the reason why those who pass through the entranceway of this place are prepared to endure severe discipline. For it is in this way that they gradually develop fine characters as people. They cannot achieve this simply by reading books and listening to others. They must experience it through their own bodies.” ~ Sen Soshitsu XV, The Spirit of Tea.

The only way that I could overcome this anxiety was to continue with tea study. Continue to make mistakes and continue to practice. I still make mistakes and get scolded, but now I look upon them (mostly) as learning opportunities.

Apr 17, 2008

Aisatsu – show some respect

Aisatsu is the formal greetings before and at the end of class. In the beginning we place the fan in front of us and we ask our sensei to teach us and have a care for us, “Okeiko yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.” At the end of class we formally thank the teacher for teaching us. “Okeiko arigato gozaimashita.”

There is an aisatsu before the host begins his temae, first to the sensei, “Sensei, otemae okeiko onegai itashimasu,” and the guest “Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.”

Likewise, the guests ask the sensei to teach the guest part, “Kyaku okeiko onegai itashimasu,” and to the other guests studying “Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu.”

After the end of the temae, the host returns to the mizuya (preparation room) and takes out his fukusa and folds it neatly and puts it away, then picks up his fan and returns to the tea room to thank the teacher and guests: “Sensei, okeiko arigato gozaimashita” and to the guests “Kyaku, arigato gozaimashita.”

That is a lot of greetings and thank yous. Many students see this as empty form. One of the principles of chado is respect and aisatsu shows respect for the sensei and the knowledge that sensei is willing to share. For the guests it is an acknowledgement of being in this study together.

When I lived in Japan we would do formal aisatsu before the school term started, after the term ended, before and after events, and before and after holidays or important anniversaries. So every day, every study, every event and anniversary, holiday or celebration, aisatsu is appropriate.

Even now, when we work together at a chakai, or a presentation, there is an aisatsu before we begin and after the clean up is finished. It shows respect, but also when we follow this form, it reaffirms relationships and makes people feel appreciated.

Apr 13, 2008

New beginner class

I have a new Introduction to Japanese tea ceremony class beginning in May. More details as I work out the schedule.

Also Issoan tea school will be presenting Japanese tea ceremony at Uwajimaya's Sakura Festival in Beaverton, Oregon on Saturday April 19 at 9:45 am.

Uwajimaya Parking lot
10500 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale HWY
Beaverton, OR 97005
Phone: (503)643-4512

Working without a net

We had a chabana flower arranging lesson in class recently. Chabana is different from the more well known Japanese flower arranging study of Ikebana. Chabana is flower arranging for tea. According to Rikyu’s rules, one should arrange the flowers as if they were growing in the field. Chabana is also known as thrown in flowers – that is, the flowers are arranged in one breath and put in the vase.

I have already mentioned about looking at flowers before picking them so that you know how they grow and can arrange them according to their nature. Quite often we have an image of how the flowers should look in the vase and then when we put them in, they droop or twist around. Arranging flowers in one breath means to be able to let go and let the flowers arrange themselves. There is the temptation to “fix” the flowers by moving them again and again after they are put in the vase, not just let them do what they would do naturally and leave them alone.

You only get one chance to arrange the flowers, then you have to let them go. It is like doing crosswords with a pen or calligraphy on rice paper. Once you put the mark down, you cannot go back and change it. It becomes what it is at that moment in time. My husband is a woodworker and with wood you only get one chance to cut the wood.

If we are doing things with intention, you don’t go back and re-do it. This is what he refers to as working without a net.

Apr 12, 2008

Making a good bowl of matcha tea

Matcha tea is the powdered green tea used in the Japanese tea ceremony but more people are beginning to drink matcha. Starbucks has a drink called a matcha latte (sorry, I did not finish mine, it’s just not my cup of tea). You can get matcha mixed with sugar and milk and matcha ice cream is often served in Japanese restaurants, plus there are any number of matcha baked goods, candies and other food you can get now days. I even bought a pack of some matcha gum.

I made matcha for my brother-in-law and he said that it was so different when I make it for him. So I thought I would post a little bit here on how to make a good bowl of matcha.

There are different grades of matcha, so if you are making a bowl of matcha to drink, you should get matcha of good quality. Drinking grade matcha is sold in quantities of 40 grams or less (about one and a half ounces) and usually costs from $18- $50 or even more in that quantity. I recommend getting it on the internet from www.tea-circle.com, they have a good selection, or www.matchaandmore.com. (or if you’d like to support me, you can buy it from my site www.SweetPersimmon.com. I only have one kind of matcha, though).

When exposed to air, matcha goes bad quickly. So buy it fresh, and store it in the freezer until you unseal it. When it is opened, it can last for about a month if you put it in the refrigerator. When you first open a can or container of matcha it should be brilliant green and have a good fragrance. If you have a dull green and it doesn’t smell, or smells off, the tea is not good for drinking (you can still use it for cooking or ice cream, though). I usually put it through a sieve or strainer to remove the lumps.

Having a good tea bowl helps in making tea. If you don’t have a tea bowl, a ceramic bowl that is three and a half to four inches in diameter (9-10 cm) and about three inches tall can do. You will also need a bamboo whisk (they can be had from the two places above). It helps to have a bamboo tea scoop, but it isn’t essential.

Make sure you have good water. I use filtered water (don’t use bottled water) and bring it to a boil. I don’t know exactly what the temperature of the water is, but I can tell it is right by the sound of it boiling in my iron kettle. The sound is matsu kaze, (the sound of the wind in the pines). If you don’t have an iron kettle to sing to you, just before it comes to a roiling boil – when there are lots of small bubbles rising to the surface is about right. Heat the bowl by pouring hot water in it and letting it sit for about a minute. Empty the water and wipe the bowl dry.

If you have a bamboo scoop, put two scoops of the powdered tea into the bottom of the bowl. I had to go measure it, but it is between one half to a full teaspoon of matcha depending on how strong you like it. Then add water. Most people who are beginning to make tea put too much hot water in the bowl. I would say that you should pour about one quarter cup (2 oz. or 75 ml) into the bowl with tea in it. I try to pour down the side of the bowl because if you pour hot water directly on the tea powder it splashes up on the sides of the bowl and it’s hard to incorporate it and it looks messy.

Now whisk the tea to a froth. The technique I learned is to put the whisk into the tea bowl and whisk vigorously from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, not around in a circle. Just whisk straight across the bowl as fast as you can. You will start to get a bouncing action and the bubbles should start to come up. Use your wrist as well as your whole arm. It helps if the bowl is a lower than your elbow. (I use a low table like a coffee table if I can). You don’t need to move the whisk across the bowl, just whisk at the widest part of the bowl until the foam covers the surface. (that is why you need a big bowl for so little tea, it has to accommodate the whisking action). Bring the whisk to the top of the foam and whisk more slowly to break up the larger bubbles. If you have a good head of foam, it will form a hill as you pull the whisk out of the tea bowl. Now you can enjoy!

Matcha, tea bowls and tea sets for making matcha are now available at www.SweetPersimmon.com.

This moment is complete

Sensei said, “complete this moment before moving on to the next,” What did she mean when she said that? How long is a moment, and how do you know when it is complete?

I often live in my head rather than in the world. By that, I mean that I have an active imagination and I am always thinking about what comes next and what will happen and what will I do if this or that happens. While I am day dreaming or imagining disaster or concocting fantasies in my head or planning out my next move, I miss what is actually going on around me. I am famous for saying to other people, “what just happened?” or “what did I miss?” My husband gets exasperated with me. “Don’t you know? You were here, where did you go?”

For me the challenge is to stay in the world rather than retreat into my head. When they tell me to stay present, I am most often staying future. Some people have trouble because they are staying past and always thinking regrets or would have, should have or could have.

So I think completing this moment is staying in the world, to simply notice where I am and what is going on around me rather than what is going inside my head and imagining or fantasizing what I think is going on or want to go on or should be going on. Tea study helps me stay out of my head because all I have to worry about is what I am doing right now. It focuses me on what my body and hands are doing.

Sensei also said, “Tea practice gets us out of our heads and into our bodies so that we can touch our souls.”

Apr 11, 2008

Grinding tea

I tried grinding my own matcha last week. I used some Gyokuro, which is leaf tea grown and processed like matcha, only it is not ground up. I didn’t have a tea grinding stone. I used a mortar and pestle because I thought it would grind it to a fine powder.

I remembered from my tea lectures that often it fell to the daughter of the house to grind the tea because the tea grinding stones are heavy and young girls, unlike young boys don’t try to muscle the stones to grind the tea faster. Something about the heat from the friction of the stones changes the flavor of the tea. So I tried to grind the tea slowly and make good matcha.

Whew! Grinding tea is hard work. After about an hour, I had some broken up tea flakes, but nothing that resembled the fine powder of matcha. We’re talking baby powder fineness here, and I was still a long way from that. I began to press harder on the pestle, but then remembered the friction and heat.

Two and a half hours later I had ground enough tea for one hearty bowl of matcha. I thought it was fine enough to whisk into a good bowl of tea.

And how was the taste? It was terrible. Completely awful. Though it whisked up to a fine froth, the taste left much to be desired. Besides being the most bitter matcha I ever tasted, the mouth feel of this tea was like a big bite of compost. It grassy and chewy and not in a good way. Apparently it was not ground fine enough and perhaps the gyokuro was not the highest quality. I drank the whole bowl, but I don’t think I’ll be grinding tea again. Now I know why good matcha costs so much.

Apr 10, 2008

It’s in the details

I had a tea student once who was very bright and enthusiastic about chado. She never missed a class. And she was very competitive and impatient to move to higher levels of temae. As soon as she had done a procedure a couple of times, she wanted to move on to the next level. Though she could not always remember the order of the procedures, she could grasp concepts and philosophy very quickly.

One time when I corrected something she didn’t do in her temae, she got very impatient with me and told me that it was just a small detail and not that important. So I just let her proceed and didn’t correct anything else that she did. Eventually she became stuck and couldn’t remember what to do and didn’t know how to backtrack to get out of her dilemma. If she had just done a small little thing, the next step would have been obvious.

I tell this story, not to make this student look bad but to illustrate that chanoyu is all about the details. The small little things are what keep us present in our temae. It is the details of life that bring us all those little joys and satisfaction throughout the day.

To notice and celebrate the details takes time, awareness and attention. These things are in such short supply in our busy life. Sometimes I look at the way the steam curls around the kettle lid, or see the shadows on the shoji screens, or listen to the rain on the roof and my heart wells with emotion. Chado teaches us that when we notice the details, life is so much richer.

Apr 9, 2008

It’s not about perfection

Students often think that having the perfect temae is the goal of tea study. Though we strive for perfection in temae, that really is not what tea study is about. I wrote previously about hataraki, making adjustments and moving forward. Making mistakes are other opportunities for learning and growing.

Sensei often said that in class, you can to nothing right, but in chaji you can do nothing wrong. She would correct every little thing in class. And I would rather make my mistakes in class and be corrected, than to be in a formal tea gathering and make my mistakes.

Just about the time I thought I could get through a tea procedure without making any mistakes, sensei would mention things for me to pay attention to or ask questions while I was making tea, such as what is your left hand doing? Or explain to me the significance of of the guest role. And she would tell me to keep going to make tea while thinking, talking and answering her questions. Quite often, I would have a brain freeze and not be able to talk, nor could I continue making tea, nor could I remember where I was in the procedure or what came next. (I am quite easily distracted and have a hard time even walking and talking at the same time).

What sensei was doing was training me to be more aware of everything, to hold more than one thing in my head, and to trust my body. She was also training me to hold onto my concentration on what I was doing, to move forward when there were distractions and to be able to converse with guests without stopping the procedure and getting my work done. The trick in chanoyu is to make everything look natural, easy and uncomplicated, even though there is a lot going on.

Sensei also said, “If you are going to make a mistake, make it beautifully.”

Apr 8, 2008

Hataraki – working things out

So often we look at any change with anxiety rather than seeing it as an opportunity to stretch and grow. In tea study, there is “hataraki,” which is to calmly adjust to any situation that arises and confidently move forward. Making tea is a complex procedure and there are so many variations. Add to that the social interactions, etiquette, choice of utensils, and the weather and there are many, many places that things can go wrong.

We rely on training to face any situation and move forward. We rarely have an ideal situation for tea gathering. And how uninteresting that would be. I had a sensei in Japan tell me once, that I would never have a perfect temae. But, she said that it was interesting to watch me because of how I would get myself out of my mistakes. And I did make many, many mistakes. So what would you do if your fukusa caught on fire? Or you emptied your teabowl full water all over the tatami mat? How would you handle a formal tea gathering if a guest brought along a friend uninvited? Or your guest of honor got sick at the last minute? What if you planned a moon viewing and it rained that night?

I once gave a chaji and the person who was supposed to make sweets for tea forgot to bring them. Rather than yell at that person, the focus was to solve the problem and move forward. We cut up an apple I had brought for a snack for the kitchen crew. The challenge is to problem solve on the spot and not waste time stewing about what is going wrong or blame other people. Make adjustments and move on.

Apr 7, 2008


Phillytea.org has a new look. This site is dedicated to the Japanese tea ceremony community in the Philadelphia area. They are an active group, and have lots of good information on their site. Morgan Beard has also started a blog about tea ceremony that you can check out as well. I've added the links at the left.

Moving in kimono

Part of the beauty of chanoyu is the stately and graceful way that the host moves in and out of the room and the sound of silk on tatami mats. I am so glad that my students want to wear kimono to okeiko. As part of the introduction to tea ceremony, I dress my students in kimono so that they know what it feels like.

It is amazing how much the kimono affects our movements within the tea room. When I was first learning tea, I felt like a cow in the tea room. I had such a hard time moving around in the tea room and feeling like I had any kind of control of my body. Then when my sensei dressed me in kimono I felt even more restricted and awkward. Just sitting down and standing up became a challenge. I could not judge where I would land and I always made a loud thunk as my knees would hit the tatami. Then I would have to squirm back and forth or side to side to move to the right place and the kimono would come apart at the knees and it would take me forever to fix and adjust it.

I thought I knew how to walk, but in the beginning I would take too large a stride or walk too fast and my kimono would tangle in my legs. In the tea room, we take two steps per half tatami mat and if you walk properly in kimono, your stride comes out to just the right size and you end up entering and exiting on the correct foot. Women’s obi do not allow slouching so it forces you to sit with correct posture and when you sit with correct posture, seiza sitting is not as painful (though seiza sitting is still hurts, just not as much). If you sit with the correct posture, you also won’t have to keep adjusting your collar because of gaps that come with slouches.

I also found in dealing with the sleeves of the kimono, I was much more conscious of my arm position, wrist position and keeping my elbows round. That is not to say that I still drag my sleeve through the kensui on occasion.

After okeiko, I would always wear my kimono home. Partly because I feel very special wearing kimono, and partly because my husband says that all women in kimono are beautiful.