Feb 27, 2010

Tea ceremony and American Culture

Hello tea friends. I apologize for not posting much this month. I promise that I will do better and I have so many plans this year to enhance my study of the way of tea.

What follows is an discussion I had with a person some years ago regarding teaching tea ceremony in America.   It is an interesting exchange and made me think hard about my journey with tea. The topic is just as relevant now as when I corresponded with this person 10 years ago. I apologize to the person with whom I engaged on this subject, as I didn't keep his name or email.  There are no right or wrong answers, and I hope you to will think about your tea practice and the questions the discussion raises.

Your letter encourages me to think deeply about the nature of tea. I do realize that we all come to tea for varied reasons. But since I am particularly interested in chado in America, I would to see more dialog about key issues such as those you raise.

If I ever said that tea must be separated from anything I misspoke. (that was from a pen of the tea friend whom I quoted). You eloquently explain why that cannot be the case. I believe that tea must be Universal… isn’t that what the entire mission of our Oiemoto has been? Isn’t that why he began his effort to begin tea foundations all across the globe? In the aftermath of World War II he saw that national boundaries must be broken down and that universal humanity must be emphasized. This has been his great strength. I do not believe he did this in order to merely spread Japanese culture to others.

(margie answers in italic) In my opinion, I believe that the mission of Oiemoto was to promote mutual understanding through Chado. Peacefulness through a bowl of Tea, is how Oiemoto (now Genshitsu Daisosho) expressed it. He did not say Tea must be universal, nor did he say that national boundaries must be broken down. I think too many people put the emphasis on the means rather than the goal. Let me clarify that my own definition of mutual understanding does not necessarily mean mutual agreement but a recognition of our similarities and respect for our differences. If we can attain mutual understanding through golf, for example, then I endorse the study of the Way of Golf, too. Like golf, Tea has its own rules of etiquette so that you can play on any course in the world without offending people. Some follow the rules and some do not. Some are more welcome than others.

That is why I ask whether tea can take root in other cultures as long as tea is seen as only “Japanese tea ceremony”? I just don’t believe it can. But do not think I am some kind of radical bent on throwing everything out and starting anew. We must carefully examine, though, what can be safely dispensed with in order to stay true to tea spirit.

I agree we must be thoughtful and not hasty to throw out what many perceive to be stupid Japanese rules that have nothing to do with me or my culture. But how do we know what is relevant unless we do learn them? How can you separate the way of Tea from Japanese culture? Is, for example, bowing strictly a Japanese custom that can be dispensed with because we do not bow to each other in America? Is there some other universal way to show respect for each other? The way of Tea is a living tradition. Tradition is passed down from teacher to student, and once the basics have been learned and the foundation of the way of Tea is understood, according to my teacher, Bonnie-sensei, “what you’re trying to do as a teacher is release the student to the point that they begin to inform their ceremony with their inner self, whatever it is they have to give.”

You mention Zen. Zen is at a very interesting point in its history and has undergone many changes in its transmittal here over the past decades. Each monastery has had to ask itself key questions, one that probe the very heart of Zen. What cultural baggage has Zen picked up that is no longer suitable here? Is Zen dependent on chanting in Japanese, for instance? Can zazen be done in a chair instead of lotus posture? Many have decided that cultural items are just superficial. I sure you realize that “Zen” was first in India, but was still inherently “Indian” when it was next in Korea? Was it still inherently Chinese when it was transmitted to Japan? Is it still inherently Japanese now that it is transmitted to America?

It is my understanding that tea ceremony really did grow in Japan and was not transmitted as a study from somewhere else. I think we must be careful in making judgments as to what cultural items are superficial. Unless we know deeply what the masters were trying to teach through the Way of Tea, we may be dispensing with an essential part of the teaching by dismissing it as not suitable to American culture. Even after 18 years of study of the Way of Tea , I am not sure where essential teaching becomes cultural baggage.

I am not a true student of Zen. I only know about it as it relates to Tea. I have done zazen form my first tea lesson. But my Tea study is not separate from my Zen study. I believe that you can attain a more spiritual life through living a more conscious life. Because many Zen masters and Tea masters have said that Tea and Zen are one, everything in my life is Tea and as I understand it, everything is Zen. Is this Japanese? I don’t really know. I only know that this is how I conduct and measure my life. I don’t study sutras, but I strive to be aware, aware of living fully in just this moment, now.

I am sure that most of us who came to tea did so because we deeply respected and were interested in Japanese culture. I know that was the case with me. But I am sad to say that I have yet to meet even one Japanese sensei teaching here who truly understands my culture, the American culture, and honors what we are as a people. It is assumed that becoming a tea person means becoming like the Japanese, and putting on what is referred to as “kimono mind”. Unfortunately this has been my experience. I’m really glad that it has not been yours and I pray that it is not the experience of others who come to tea.

I must count myself fortunate that I have never encountered this type of thinking in all of my acquaintance with Tea people. All of the Japanese sensei that I have met in Tea have been eager to find a way that American culture and Japanese culture can learn from each other. I never have the expectation that any person raised in a different culture will truly understand my culture. I only hope that the other person can be open and look for ways to bridge on both sides of the cultural gap. By agreeing to teach the Way of Tea to non-Japanese students, these Japanese teachers are willing to transmit such wisdom as they can, the best that they can. I am willing to meet them more than half-way because I believe that what they have to teach me has immense value. I try first to understand rather than be understood. By opening my mind to other ideas, methods and teachings, together we can transcend national cultures come to mutual understanding.

As someone who has spent his life devoted to the art of teaching, I can’t help but notice that tea is taught using Japanese methods. I think these methods (for example, emphasis on unquestioning obedience, and on knocking down others in order to make them egoless) are best suited to the Japanese mindset. And reinforce traditional Japanese values which our culture does not especially value. Is this style suitable for Americans? I just ask,

Many methods of teaching Tea do emphasize values that are not typically taught or emphasized in America. I mean such values as humility, consideration of others, appreciation, service, cooperation, putting others first, preparation, and giving others credit. I believe we can learn and benefit from these values.

I recall my son’s experience in military bootcamp seemed very similar to what you describe as Japanese teaching methods. But by removing the barriers of individuality, we can put aside our own agendas and become part of something greater than ourselves. Americans believe in the individual going it alone, but by joining forces with others and having a higher goal than our own ambitions, we can create something much, much larger and more powerful.

Because teaching methods (or ways of transmitting wisdom) are different, there is a journey that is often more profound in discovering for ourselves the true path. Often times I get into discussions with tea students over what level they have attained in the licenses to measure their progress and demanding the teacher move them along to the next level because they are ready for it. I think this is a very American way of looking at Tea. By concentrating on attaining “mastery” through memorization of temae procedures, these students ultimately will move on to something else, always searching for the next skill to master, yet never attaining the joy, satisfaction and peace that come from a more profound spiritual understanding of what we are learning and why we are here.

We are a culture of individuals, not one where the group mind is honored above all else. We are a culture that values speaking our mind and having honest dialogue. We are a democracy where all can have an opinion and we don’t all have to agree. I have spent 20 years of my life teaching American literature and American studies focusing on those things that make us unique; on values we hold dear and that have been the foundation of our culture. Are we supposed to throw these values out in favor of Japanese ones? I think this is a key question and I ask it seriously.

And I would ask seriously, is there nothing we can learn from the cultural values of Japan? Maybe even not just Japan, but from all other cultures? Is the American way the best way and all other cultures must adjust to us? I do not think other cultures are antithetical to our unique American culture. We must find a way to blend the best of other cultural values and American values and make our world a better place in which to live.

There are many more ways of learning than through discussion and intellectualization. By talking about things so much, we often miss the lessons of awareness, intuition, body learning, and non-verbal communication.

We have nothing like the Way of Tea in American culture that promotes mutual understanding. We are at the forefront of learning the Way of Tea and promoting mutual understanding to all people. As pioneers and students of these courageous Japanese teachers who are willing to share with us, I think we have an obligation to study the Japanese methods, to know thoroughly the essence of the teaching and to transmit to the next generation as best we can and as clearly as we can, the wisdom of the Way of Tea.

I still believe that tea was started by those rooted in the willingness to question institutions but who absolutely believed in the uniqueness of each individual. They taught others to believe in themselves and in their own creative spirit. The stories relating to Rikyu all underline his daring. Many Americans I talk to are drawn to tea because they relate to this independent spirit. But when they enter tea, they discover it is not what they believed. Perhaps when tea was incorporated in traditional Japanese culture it lost something. This happens to all things once they become institutionalized.

This is like saying that people are drawn to music by hearing Yoyo Ma play the cello, but when they enter music lessons for the first time it is not what they believed it to be. Even Yoyo Ma began someplace doing scales and learning fingering and bow techniques. Not much transcendent experience doing such things. However, if you participate in a chaji given by someone with considerable tea experience, that is another matter.

For people who enter Tea because they are drawn by the independent spirit of Rikyu, only to find it was not what they believed, I say good for them. It is so much richer and harbors wisdom and so many more treasures then they imagined when they first started the journey. If they can put aside preconceived notions about tea, the rewards will be a hundred fold more.

I think that for tea to take root here, Americans must be able to find themselves reflected in it. And just as tea in Japan is part Japanese and part universal, for tea to grow here it must be part Japanese, part American and mostly universal. But I hope that tea can eventually transcend cultural boundaries. Then it will truly be unieversal.

In my opinion, for Tea to continue to have meaning for others, everyone who follows the way of tea must examine why they are studying Tea. In any endeavor, there will be people who will try to use the institution to show superiority over others, to gain power over others, and to control how it should be for others. Tea will survive and grow to the extant that we practice the ideals we have been taught and by the example we can show the world as true chajin. Whether this results in growth in Tea for America and Americans is not as interesting to me as sharing my love for the way of tea and living my life according to the ideals of the Way of tea.

Thank you so much for this discussion that has forced me to think about my motivations and values and teaching the Way of Tea.

Do you have opinions, discussion about tea in America?  Japanese vs. American teaching methods, values or motivations?  Please let me hear about them in the comments.

Feb 2, 2010

The favored style

Konomimono literally means favored things. It is a general term for tea items that owe their designs to eminent chanoyu masters, including all the successive heads of the various chanoyu families. The fact that a certain item is a certain person's konomimono is described, for example, as Rikyu-gonomi, or favored by Sen Rikyu. Besides utensils, konomimono extends to such things as sweets, and matcha tea blends. The tea blend is given a poetic name by the chanoyu master whose kononmimono it is. For example, the tea "kashin no mukashi" or auspicious era, by Kanbayashi is a Zabosai konomi. That is, it is favored by Zabosai, present generation grand tea master of the Urasenke school.

This winter we have been using the Yoshino-dana.  It is a tana or tea shelf for displaying tea utensils with one upper shelf and four posts.  It is an Ennosai-gonomi.  Ennosai is the 13th generation grand tea master of the Urasenke school.  Ennosai got the idea for this tana from the round windo of a tearoom used by the famous courtesan, Yoshino Dayu (1606-1643).  The posts are very thin logs of Yoshino cypress.  On the guests' side, a round window is cut in the panel, while on the other side, a small removable panel of shoji is inserted in the winter, and a panel of reeds in the summer.  Across the bottom of the back is a strip of wood with a comb shaped cutout.  The tana is finished in Tame nuri, a rich red-brown lacquer. After the lacquer has been applied the artist has cut the corners of the legs back to the wood. The upper shelf measures approximately 33 cm square and overall the height is 47.2 cm.  There is a bamboo peg at the top of the front left post, for hanging a haboki (feather duster), shifuku (silk pouch) or hishaku (bamboo water scoop).

Here is the Yoshinodana displayed in the furo season.  I love this tana because it allows the guests to see the mizusashi and in the summer it changes its character when you put the reed screen in the left side instead of shoji. With the hanging peg you can display a number of utensils so that the guests can enjoy them. You can see in the photo above,  the hishaku hanging on the peg, and the futaoki (lid rest) is displayed on the bottom shelf to the front left of the mizusashi.  When the host comes back into the room to refill the mizusashi, the futaoki must be removed and put on the tatami. Then the mizusashi can be brought all the way out of the tana and set on the tatami before it can be refilled. 

A close up of the bamboo hanging peg.  The skin is still left on the peg and it faces up.