Some of the Finer Details

My tea ceremony teacher normally lives in Japan, but she returns to Perth several times a year and holds lessons for a few weeks at a time. This morning was the first lesson in two months, and it was such a pleasure to be back in the tea room, especially after the hectic weekend, where we performed otemae at the Fusion Festival. (Tea ceremony just isn’t the same when you’re yelling instructions over people in a conga line blowing whistles as they march past the tent.)

Normally after every lesson I write down every new thing I’ve learned, or want to remember for the next session. I thought it might be interesting that I record them here on my blog rather than on my phone, so that you might have an insight into the myriad of tiny details that make up a masterful performance. Note that I’ve been doing tea ceremony for nearly four years, and I have quite a comprehensive knowledge of several different ceremonies and numerous variations of each of them. And yet, today’s lesson is a typical example of just how much I have yet to learn. I am very lucky to have a teacher who is patient enough to answer my questions as I strive for mastery.

So here is a list of all the things I learned (or clarified) today. It’s easier for me to use the Japanese terminology, so I’ll provide a translation for the first time I use each term. Forgive me that it becomes a little complicated if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology.

  1. When holding a bowl of okashi (sweets), don’t just hold it by the rim. If possible, place your hands on the sides of the bowl to hold it firmly. This is also how you should hold it when rotating the bowl towards the main guest.
  2. After serving a guest, the ohanto (assistant) first withdraws (rather than spreads) their right knee slightly, before moving their left knee to meet it and then swinging the feet as the assistant prepares to stand.
  3. When there is an otana (shelf) and you are returning to the entrance, step back right, left, right (and turn), and step across the threshold with the left foot. (This is reversed when taking the kensui (waste water receptacle) from the room.)
  4. Also, make sure that you are moving back with every step and not just shuffling on the spot (so make a little more room to retreat when you first step on the mat). Also make sure your left foot is pointing straight when you step across the mat.
  5. If there is an ohanto, they enter when the host moves the kensui forwards. They set their empty tea bowl by their left knee, and then bow with all the guests.
  6. When purifying the ochaire (tea container), you do indeed rest the ofukusa (silk cloth) in the palm of the hand for the third wipe across the surface of the lid.
  7. When performing chasen toshi (whisk purification), hold the chasen about 5-6 inches above the ochawan (bowl) rather than eye-height.
  8. After discarding the water from chasen toshi, reach for the chakin (cloth) while the ochawan is still over the kensui.
  9. When wiping the ochawan, hold the chakin so that there’s about a centimetre of space above the rim. This makes it easier to wipe rough bowls.
  10. The guests can eat their okashi when the host picks up the chashaku (tea scoop) to add matcha (tea powder) to the bowl. Although this is the correct timing, you must take your cue from the main guest. If they have not yet eaten their sweet, you must wait for them until they remember.
  11. When scooping the matcha, take care not to gouge a hole in the “mountain”. Cut cleanly from the peak to the base at the same angle to keep the powder presentable, because the guest may ask to admire the utensils.
  12. When removing the lid of the mizuzashi (water container), you don’t have to keep it inside the otana. You can grasp the lid in your right hand, sit up straight and then adjust it before leaning forward and placing it correctly.
  13. As a guest, once you have finished your tea you place the ochawan on the tatami (mat) further away from you. Once you have finished admiring the bowl, you may take it onto your mat and place it next to your left knee with the shomen (front) facing you. If an assistant comes to take it, you rotate the shomen to face them and place it on the farther mat. Remember, the tatami in front of the hanging scroll is only for the main guest, so if you are the second guest place it on the left of the divider.
  14. If you are the second guest receiving tea, you do not need to bow and say “Kekko na ofuku kagende“. If you did, the host would have to stop whatever they were doing and bow back to you. It is politer, then, to let them continue with the ceremony and perform a small bow while holding the bowl in both hands after the first sip.
  15. When moving the hishaku (large bamboo scoop) from the mizuzashi to the okama (kettle), the path of the cup is more like a right-angled triangle than a rectangle. It comes out perpendicular to the otana, then goes straight to the front of the okama. The path is reversed on the way back if you are using more than one scoop of water.
  16. After using the hishaku to add cold water to the okama (or after yugaishi (scooping hot water)), you can wait a little for one drop of water to fall before returning to watching the mirror position and putting the lid back on.
  17. When using the hishaku, the best hand position is to have the index finger straight and all other fingers curled at the first two knuckles (as in the opening movements of the Tiger Crane form). Ideally, the host should strive to keep a straight line between the hishaku and their forearm.
  18. When you are going to kazari (display the tea utensils on the shelf), the cup of the hishaku sits not on the rim of the kensui, but just past it. (When you are not displaying anything and simply returing the chaire to the top shelf, the cup sits on the rim.)
  19. When performing a kazari with the tea bowl, you need to wring and refold the chakin quickly and gracefully. To this end, keep the right hand stable and use the left hand to untwist it (either going forwards or backwards as needed).
  20. When displaying the hishaku, place the cup down with the kiridome (tip) pressed into the palm. When you lay the handle down, turn the hand palm-up and lay it gently on the shelf.
  21. When doing sou kazari (display everything), once you have displayed everything you can on the shelf without leaving, reset the kan (rings). That is to say, reset the kan just before you leave with the kensui.
  22. The word for the iron kettle is yakan.
  23. When resetting the ochaire between performances, as well as resetting the mountain of tea, make sure to wipe any stray tea powder from the inside and outside of the rim.
  24. From what I understand, Edosenke (the style of tea ceremony from Edo/Tokyo that I practice) is probably a little simplified compared to other schools. The 7th generation master of Omotesenke (one of the three major styles of tea ceremony taught by great-grandson of Sen no Rikyuu) asked his top student to leave Kyoto and establish a school in Edo. The version of Omotesenke he taught was a little simpler to better suit the people of Edo.

Now that I’ve written it all down, it sure looks like a lot! It humbly reminds me of how much I know already, to be refining these tiny details in my pursuit of excellence. It’s easy to see how chanoyu is a lifetime journey!

Replenishing

I’ve been feeling weary lately.

I’ve just moved house, and my goodness I forgot how much work it is. Quite apart from packing up all my worldly belongings and moving them from Point A to Point B (South of the River for once), I’ve done a lot of decluttering and selling on gumtree. Not only have I cleaned the new house to make it comfortably habitable, but I’ve cleaned the old house from floor to ceiling over several days. (Beth I even had to go back because we hadn’t sufficiently dusted the lights or scrubbed the insides of the window sills.) We’ve been taking bushfire safety seriously and I’ve been climbing ladders and sawing branches. I’ve cleaned and returned a car we’ve been borrowing, been cleaning the dojo more thoroughly and have been teaching three times a week (one more class than my usual two). Not to mention the psychological fatigue of learning how to survive in this new location – learning how to use the oven, to find the shopping centre, to get the nearest petrol station… It’s been an exhaustive amount of newness.

Yesterday, after teaching karate the night before and then getting up at 5:25 to teach it again, I was worn quite thin. I was snappy and impatient and peevish. Poor Beth, nothing she did could cause me to smile or feel less vexed.

So I went to bed around 10:30, a little later than planned. And I slept for eight hours, and it helped. I longed for escapism (Shadow of the Tomb Raider or Overwatch would have done nicely), but I forced myself to engage with the outside world. Getting dressed I saw my tea set, and I had a sudden desire to experience tea ceremony. I gathered my things, and as I prepared each utensil I felt as if each layer of worry was slowly being lifted off me. I performed ryakubon, tea ceremony done with a tray, and it was perfect. Not in the sense that I made no mistakes, but in the sense that every movement was intentional, every experience in the present moment. The tea was wonderfully invigorating, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout lately, partially because Beth is recovering from it after some trying work experiences, partially because I’ve been burning hard and fast lately. I’m reminded that if energy out is greater than energy in, burnout is inevitable until something changes. I cannot keep up this pace forever, and so today I will rest.

I’d like to finish with a thought that came into my mind.

It might be easy to walk a mile when you’re healthy and hale, but it’s a lot harder when you have a broken leg. Being determined not to let it slow you down and walking on it anyway will just do more harm than good, and when infection finally sets in and the pain is so great you collapse, the recovery period will be a long and slow one.

There is no shame in noticing that you are depleted, that you are beaten down, that you are hurting. It’s good to rest, if you can, so that when you’re ready you can pick up your load again and continue on the journey. Forcing it before you’re ready won’t do yourself any favours, let alone those who love or rely upon you.

Be kind to yourselves. It’s a gift to those around you, too.

PS: Thought I would share with you the new homes I’ve found for my tea utensils.

The Way of Tea

Chanoyu, or the Japanese art of Tea Ceremony, is something that’s become increasingly close to my heart over the past three years. I thought long and hard about whether to write this piece in my personal journal, or whether to write it here on my blog, accessible for all time to the wide public. I don’t want to bring discredit to my teacher or my school through my ignorance or my thoughtlessness, but at the same time I want to live in a world where I can read other people’s blogs as they walk their own path of chado – the Way of Tea. So, here I am. Suffice it to say that all mistakes are mine, and that these are my personal reflections.


I will start by saying I was recently reading Miyamoto Musashi’s “Go Rin no Sho” (The Book of Five Rings). Musashi is one of history’s most famous and most skilled swordsmen, and in the opening chapters he strongly advocates for all so-called warriors to deeply pursue the arts. Musashi himself was a master of many forms of art, and so I find it comforting to think that by studying chanoyu I add a little yin to my yang, and deepen myself as a person and a warrior.

But going through the motions has nothing to do with chado at all. It doesn’t matter if I sit perfectly in seiza for half an hour, carefully and exactly moving my body to produce perfect bowls of tea, if my heart is not in each and every moment. This is a humbling lesson that I was reminded of by the delightful Tsutomu-san of the Green Tea House in Subiaco. “The steps are easy”, he said, “but the mind is hard”.

I’ve been thinking a lot about wa, kei, sei, jaku lately – the four tenets of tea ceremony. Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. Simple words with profound meaning that I could spend my life pursuing and still never quite live by.

Humility

I spend a few minutes preparing my utensils in a separate room.
I wring and fold the tea cloth and place it in the bowl. I select a whisk and a scoop based on my mood and preferences today. I prepare the waste-water receptacle, laying the other utensils within easy reach.

When I am ready, I gather myself as well as my things and approach the tea room, kneeling at the entrance.
There is no one inside it, and I have a quiet smile. I recognise that I am going to pour my heart into the ceremony regardless of who is there to witness it.

I lay my utensils before me and bow deeply.
To who, or what, I cannot say. All I know is that my deepest wish is to humble myself before something great, and beautiful, and worthy of my respect.

This is tea ceremony.

Simplicity

Time seems to slow down in the tea room.

Every detail seems enhanced, and each experience more vivid.

I have a higher consciousness. Not only do I see and feel more, I am more.

Light seems to look different. Dust motes seem to hang in the air. Clothes feel rougher on my skin, scents are sharper in my nose. I feel like I could spend hours poring over the finer details of even the simplest bamboo scoop.

When my sense of appreciation is so highly attuned, you can imagine how much I cherish the smell of fresh matcha, and how deeply I enjoy that first sip.

I am finally beginning to understand the value of wabi. The simpler life is, the more one appreciates. This is why the tea ceremony exists in a world of it’s own. It is a beautiful gift.