Natural Names

In tea ceremony, poetic names (called gomei) are given to some of the utensils. I have a great love of nomenclature, and dare I say a knack for clever titles, so it’s one of my favourite parts of the ceremony when the guests asks to admire the utensils and I tell them what I have named my chashaku for that ceremony.

My understanding is quite basic, but there are many things that make for a good gomei. Ideally they reference the seasons (for instance, by alluding to the time of year when hawks start to leave the nest, or when a certain flower starts to bloom), as well as evoke feelings and sensations. A sophisticated gomei might reference classical literature, such as a line from a poem or essay. A witty gomei might also be a play on words, using double-meanings to say something clever, even humorous. I think this article by Soya-sensei from Issoan Tea does a wonderful job of explaining it.

I’m quite sad that I will probably never fully appreciate the subtleties of gomei that are in Japanese. My grasp of the language is so poor I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with a toddler, so it’s well beyond me to understand the names without them being translated (imperfectly) for me. This is not even considering how I cannot appreciate the many readings of kanji and references to literature and philosophy that I have never read. My clumsiness with Japanese frustrates me, and I’m disheartened at the thought of the years it would take me to learn enough to start to express myself adequately. Still, I am grateful that it’s acceptable for me to use English for now.

Most of my gomei tend towards the clever side – I’ll make a reference to the state of the world, and my hope that everyone will do their best to be okay. For instance, I called one chashaku “Silver Lining”, describing not only the heavy cumulus that afternoon, but the ability to see the light in times of personal darkness. (I followed it up the following week with the name “Rainbow Gold”, which I quite enjoyed.)

Sensei has asked that our gomei reflect the current seasons, and this will lead us to a greater enrichment of the world. I can’t say I know the names of many flowers, or the months when various birds take to the skies, but since beginning my studies of tea ceremony five years ago I’ve certainly noticed some changes. I’m embarrassed to confess that I hadn’t realised until a few weeks ago that light changes angle depending on the seasons. I’ve learned that some plants are perennial (year-long) and some are seasonal (only lasting a short time). While writing this blog-post, I cracked open my window so I could better listen to the sound of rain hitting the ground, covered in fallen autumn leaves.

I have never paid much attention to the world outside of my own mind, but I have more in these past five years than ever before. As I learn more about tea ceremony, through my classes but also through the occasional reading I do, I am learning that the Zen priests of old were onto something, and appreciating the miraculous cycles of nature is a profound pleasure in this life.

The Second Best Seasoning

“Tea tastes better with company.”

It was a sudden realisation, as I sipped the matcha while looking at my laptop screen. The faces of my teacher and the other students were obscured by their own tea bowls, and I was astonished at how delicious the tea was. I’d had the same tea a few days earlier, and it had tasted completely different. Had it changed flavours because it had time to get to room temperature? Maybe. But I think more likely that there is a big difference between hurriedly whisking a bowl of matcha for the caffeine, and making time to appreciate a meditative ceremony with friends.