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.


  1. I'm not sure I see what this person is getting at. I don't think tea will ever be "universal" in the way he seems to mean because it is deeply rooted in and inextricably linked with Japanese culture. It might be one thing to teach non-Japanese students in ways more familiar to those students' cultures, but to make tea ceremony "part American"? What does that even mean? As you suggested, once you have a solid grasp on the foundations you can be creative, and I think that type of creativity has always been part of tea as we know it, but you have to break the rules for a reason (not simply for the sake of breaking them), and to break the rules you have to know them first.

  2. Nick,
    You always have thoughtful (thought provoking?)comments. Thank you for taking the time.

    As a teacher I do encounter some of this, not teaching in a way that Americans like to learn.
    I was a disruptive influence in the tea room without realizing it even though I thought I was learning a lot. I thank my sensei for having patience with me and looking at my eagerness to learn rather than how disrespectful I was. This was part of the cultural difference between American and Japanese values.

    I think that this person was so eager to spread the way of tea that he was contemplating ways to make it more universal(American). However, changing it specifically to make it more palatable to another culture dilutes the experience of it and quite possibly the essence of the way.

  3. There are several pretty good examples of how tea has been changed to make it more accessible to people from other cultures: the development of ryurei by the iemoto of Urasenke and the development of westernized tatami seating (with a hole in the floor) in the tearoom by the iemoto of Mushanokojisenke; while both were radically non-traditional both are fully in the spirit of tea which instructs hosts to show consideration for the comfort/needs of their guests. As another example, using English for the various aisatsu and formalized conversation if one's guests speak little or no Japanese could still be fully within the parameters of traditional tea ceremony, and so could serving appropriate local foods and using appropriate local items as dogu.

    As I said above, though, you have to really know the rules if you're going to break them. For instance, I think it *could* be totally appropriate to serve ice cream at a chaji, but it would never be appropriate to serve pizza. In the same vein, if you were casually introducing tea ceremony to someone totally unfamiliar with tea and with Japanese culture then it might be preferable to skip some of the requirements like the formalized conversation and bowing, but there comes a point where what you're doing is no longer chado/chanoyu and simply becomes a rather complicated way of preparing matcha. I'm certain that this is not what is meant by the Urasenke iemoto who promote tea as a "universal" thing.

    The bottom line for me is that tea ceremony is Japanese; to say that it needs to become more "American" because Americans won't want to "throw their American values out in favour of Japanese ones" strikes me as remarkably ignorant and arrogant. The idea is as absurd as saying that the Japanese couldn't truly appreciate baseball without Japanizing it because it originated in America and is totally different from traditional Japanese sports.

  4. Nick,
    Thank you for the continued discussion on this topic. I think some don't realize how much accommodation is already being made for Americans studying tea. For example, I don't require my beginning students to wear kimono for class. (Formal events and upper students is something we can discuss at a later time). I also don't start beginning students to sit seiza without some sort of sitting aid, and I do start ryakubon table style before we move into the tea room.

    When I am teaching, I do a lot more explaining than my sensei EVER did, to try and give my students some of the cultural context for things because they do not have that context they way most Japanese students would know from growing up.

    And I never dispense with bowing, even when I am doing presentations to kids and people who have no familiarity at all with Japanese culture. It becomes a way to reach out to those who have no experience. By the way, I think kids get the concepts much more readily than some adults.

  5. Oh and I just had this thought....

    If tea ceremony did become more American, that would not necessarily make it more universal, neh?

  6. That's a very good point, and of course America is certainly not the only place where non-Japanese people are studying tea.

    In terms of accommodations made for non-Japanese learners outside Japan, I think these types of things are both reasonable and necessary. Making these accommodations isn't "Americanizing" tea, though. It's simply a matter of making it accessible, even in basic ways; for instance, since we're not practicing in Japan we have to contend with the fact that we don't have easy access to things like kimono and tabi, and most people can't simply go to the local supplier and buy them (or even find them on the internet), as they can with (for example) martial arts stuff.

    As for issues with teaching, my own teacher often speaks of this: Japanese students already understand some of the cultural elements or reasons behind certain things we do in tea without needing them explained, whereas non-Japanese students can't be expected to, and often don't. It would be silly to assume that a non-Japanese student would simply realize the significance of something like the bow between guests that occurs when one guest is about to drink tea before another. Explaining things like that makes them meaningful (the bow *means* something, it's not just a vestige of some obscure ancient etiquette that we repeat mindlessly), and to really understand and enjoy tea you have to understand why you're doing things, especially when you lack the cultural reference.

    By the way, I like the idea of starting beginners outside the tea room.

  7. I know that some people do not like to start beginners with Ryakubon because they think the transition to usucha is too much of a leap. I think it is a good starting place because you can practice it anywhere and you only need a basic set up of teabowl, chakin, chasen, chashaku, natsume, tray, kensui and hot water source (could be a regular tea pot or even thermos.

    I have found with my students that the transition from usucha to koicha seems to cause more angst.

  8. Well, like most people the first temae I learned was ryakubon/obon temae, and like most people I almost never do that temae, so it always seems like a bit of a leap from that to anything involving a kama. As I've said elsewhere, if I was teaching and had the proper setup, I might start students with ryurei instead, since it has all the movements of the tatami-based temae without the distraction (for those unused to it) of seiza.

  9. I start beginners with ryakubon at a low table like a coffee table before we move to the tea room. I do like the ryakubon temae and use it often for demonstration or presentation where there isn't a possibility of doing it in a tea room.

  10. On a totally unrelated note, do you have any idea whether it's possible to make those pressed sugar-based higashi? I mean, I assume it must be, but do you know of any recipes?

  11. Yes, one of the things that is difficult outside of Japan is to get higashi. Japanese people don't often think of this because those pressed sugar sweets can be purchased everywhere. Sometimes I get gifts from people traveling to and from Japan.

    We must be resourceful. I do have a recipe that I'll post later today or tomorrow. Do you have a kashigata? Mold? If not, I do have some suggestions.

  12. I don't have a kashigata, but they are available on eBay from time to time.

  13. This is a very interesting discussion. I agree that there does seem to be an issue in the original discussion about wanting to make the way of tea more 'American'. Trying to make things easier, more familiar, less foreign is something I have come across in my Japanese embroidery study. Tea and embroidery are both difficult to master are taught in a very different to how we (in the west) learn how to learn. But surely the basic point remains that they are Japanese and if we take that away they become something else, and not the way of tea or the way of embroidery.
    I've made comments here before about the similarities between learning chado and nuido. I've come across this 'dumming down' approach in my Japanese embroidery - but I have to say that I am very glad my tutor does not subscribe to this approach, and while our apprenteship may not be as strict as the one the professional embroiders at Kurenai-kai go through, my own skill has profited greatly from the Japanese style of teaching, I would not be as good an embroider as I am now without the Japanese approach. Long may it continue.

  14. Jane,
    Your comments here are always welcome. I know we have talked about the similarities between nuido and chado. Thank you so much for your perspective from the way of embroidery.

    I do think that there is some Japanese cultural context that needs to be explained to American audiences such as this entry Questions, questions

    I am glad too, that my sensei were strict with me.