Jul 14, 2011

Expert Tea Master

Someone referred to me recently as a tea master, and I was embarrassed enough to correct them by saying I was still a student of tea.  In truth I still feel like such a novice on this path; there is still so much to learn. 

They say that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. By that definition, if you went to keiko for an hour and a half once a week, it would take a little more than 128 years for you to become an expert at chado, at least 2 lifetimes and perhaps more if you don't count formative years.

We could take a single aspect of the way of tea,  tea ceramics, for example, and say you spent 40 hours a week just immersed in it, it would still take you nearly 5 years to become an expert.  Yet you could spend 30 years studying tea ceramics and still not know all there was to know about it.  Take that and multiply it by the many other aspects of the way of tea: flower arranging, gardening, architecture, calligraphy, cooking, sweet making, literature, poetry, history, etiquette, kimono, wood working, lacquer, Zen, and those years add up very quickly.  Not to mention studying  the hundreds of tea procedures, tea utensils and types of  tea gatherings.

When people are first exposed to chanoyu, it seems so deceptively simple that anyone can do it.  What they don't know is that it has taken years of practice to make it look simple.  But even people just coming upon it can tell the difference between a beginner and a more experienced tea person.  Why is that?

I believe that watching an experienced tea person, you are not just seeing the procedure for making tea.  You are experiencing the heart of chanoyu.  The experienced practitioner imbues the temae with his or her heart and consideration for others.  When you and your body know the procedure by heart, you don't need to think about what comes next.  You can free your mind to concentrate on the guest.  There is no room for stage fright, or making mistakes.  The movements flow and awareness and feelings fill the room.  When the guest is experienced too, there is a magic that happens as host and guest become one.  Both are of the same mind and both contribute to creating an almost transcendent experience, often without a word being spoken.

This has happened to me just a few times in my years of study, when everything comes together.  I do hope that all tea students out there are willing to put in the hard work to be prepared for something like this.  Is it mastery?  I don't know.  It is the way of tea.


  1. As a casual reader, I never got around to investigating your credentials as anything other than a practitioner who happens to share the art with others, but coincidentally the subject of you and just this matter visited my thoughts yesterday.

    Since Aikido is a very young art in comparison to others, I don't quite get the expansive and romantic feeling of dipping into an ancient river flowing into the future as you describe the heart of chado. In working with my Zen teacher and especially having joined a 2500 year old tradition in having received the precepts, I occasionally feel the intimate connection with not just my own lineage but with every other person that sits, has sat or will ever sit in zazen. It can certainly feel miraculous at times.

    In your expansion of what areas of study are pertinent to chado, you extend the tradition beyond just the ceremony to include essentially all beings and activities (which is kinda the point, right?)

    It's so much more than just an isolated activity. I so appreciate those who continue any of these "transmitted" arts with such care and respect. It's so wonderful to hear someone appreciate those rare times when everything does come together.

    Incidentally, I also came across a passage in Dainin Katagiri Roshi's Returning to Silence discussing the suffering that is present the closer we get to something as in the more learn the more we realize we have to learn. It's so important in times of these types of realization to remember how wonderful it is to know what we do and let the rest come naturally instead of hungering for more knowledge.

    Always a treat, thanks for the post.

  2. Kevin,
    Thank you for the long and thoughtful comment. As far as my credentials, I AM a practitioner who happens to share the art with others, but thank you for thinking of me and taking the time to read the blog and respond in thoughtful manner.

    I think that the knowledge we hunger for comes to us daily, just we are not in the form we are looking for. Many lessons I am presented with everyday don't register until one day it smacks me up side the head while I am going about my life.

    I look forward to hearing from you again.


  3. I have only been studying chado five years, and look forward to knowing what it is like to have studied for 25 or 30 years. Something that is intimidating to me is the history. There is so much history to learn. Did you learn it little by little just from listening to your sensei over the years, or did you also purposefully read and memorize books? My sensei believes, like you mention on another post, that chado is an oral tradition and that I shouldn't read too much. But there seems to be so much information just to learn orally.

    Also, did you learn Japanese in order to further your tea studies? My school does not require us to know Japanese, but so many of the historical texts are in Japanese and don't have English translations, and I wonder if I will miss something if I can't read them.

    Thank you!

  4. Dear Tea Apprentice,
    First of all thank you for your comment. As to history of Chanoyu, it is inseperable from the history of Japan. I became interested in Japanese history from stories my sensei told. Some Japanese people forget that we didn't grow up knowing the stories. I began to read literature: The Tale of Genji, Ise monogatari, Tale of the Heike, many of the Noh plays and Kabuki plays.

    Also history of my own lineage, Urasenke has been translated and I reccomend the book: Chanoyu, The Urasenke Tradition of Tea, edited by Soshitsu Sen, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Published by Weatherhill.ISBN: 0-8348 0212 0. The other great book is Wind in the Pines, edited and translated by Dennis Hirota. Oh what the heck, go check out this page on my site. For further reading

    I don't speak Japanese fluently. I can get by in a tea room, and a pretty simple conversation if the person I am speaking with talks slowly and is patient with me. But thanks to many sempai, sensei and others, I have been able to learn at my own capacity to absorb things.

    Yes, Chanoyu is an oral tradition, and the procedures are transmitted orally. You cannot learn them from a book or video. But there is nothing stopping you from researching on your own about Japanese history, ceramics, gardening or any of the above topics. There is plenty of English out there on these topics.