Something Great and Beautiful

In my last blog post, I concluded by musing about the ineffability of tea ceremony, about catching glimpses of some great and beautiful truth. And I think it’s like this.

 

Every week, my teacher takes her students to a gallery where she shows us a work painted by a great master. For an hour, we study it closely: the blend of colours, the strokes of the brush, the angles and curves of the lines. Sometimes we try and view it as a whole, and other times we pour over its finest details. We imagine what the artist wanted to capture, the image in their mind that they transferred to the canvas.  And then at the end of the hour, she covers it gently with a cloth until we come back to view it again.

My teacher cannot tell us why the painting is beautiful, any more than I could say “The night sky is beautiful because it is dark and has many stars.” Words utterly and completely fail. But when I see a picture like this one (taken for the ABC two weeks ago), I begin to understand.

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Sensei cannot tell us why tea ceremony is beautiful. But by studying it, I am filled with the same feeling: that I am studying one cog in a great machine, and if I look closely enough I begin to comprehend its workings and design. And I am overwhelmed with its perfection.

The Present Future

Sometimes when I’m at a tea ceremony lesson, I seem so connected to the present moment that I can solve problems the instant they come into existence. It’s like having a moment of perfect clarity that if that snowball were to start rolling it would cause an avalanche, and so as the snowball is starting to form I disperse it. It feels like a kind of magic foresight where for a moment I can see the future, and know exactly what is required to prevent that future from becoming.

I’ll see that the water is a little low, and top it up quickly and quietly so that it’s ready for the next person to use without them having to worry.

I’ll notice there’s a tiny speck of tea powder on the floor and wipe it up with a tissue before it stains anyone’s clothes or utensils.

I’ll notice that no one has been designated as an assistant, so I’ll quietly move my osensu (fan) out of the way so that my bundle of kaishi (paper) is easy to access. Before anyone even has the chance to look around for who will retrieve the tea, I am already sliding into place with a new bowl and my kobukusa (small silk cloth).

It’s a dozen tiny moments like those that make me feel intimately connected to the tea room and everyone within it. Like before a thought has even finished forming in the mind of my teacher, I have understood it and already begun to act on it. It is a rare feeling, and only comes when I am at my sharpest on my very best days.

And I don’t always get it right, either! Sometimes I think I’m perfectly placed to solve a problem when all I’m doing is stumbling into the way of other people. Or I’ll think, “Sensei would find it helpful if someone would take care of that”, and I’ll jump in when she was deliberately waiting for someone else to notice so that they could learn the lesson themselves. Sometimes when I take the initiative, it is very presumptuous, and very mistaken!

But sometimes it is like magic. It makes me think of the “harmony” described in the phrase “Wa kei sei jaku“.

The more I practice, the more I get the sense that tea ceremony is not something that can be understood with words, or even action. Every time I see a ceremony, I get a glimpse of something indescribable, a sliver of some great and beautiful truth. It must be very difficult for my teacher to help her students discover what cannot be taught!

A guest post on Tea Ceremony from my wife

Recently, my husband Xin asked me to write about my thoughts and feelings (and experiences) of Japanese tea ceremony. He and I have taken lessons from a remarkable and kind teacher – he has attended lessons much more often than myself, due to my health issues – and I think I can comfortably say that the experiences we have had have been – overall – wonderful and interesting.

But for me, in general, it is just a little more complex. My health doesn’t really permit me to do a lot of things – I have had to step back from both University/class-based learning in general, as well as most forms of paid work. I can occasionally do some editing work from home, but I have to watch my stress levels and workload, otherwise I can inadvertently make myself even sicker. And so it can often be with tea ceremony.

I really enjoy tea ceremony and, more to the point, I think I am actually pretty good at it. I tend to pick it up quite quickly, as I am generally very observant, and the quiet, considered movements are very much in line with how I prefer to move. I love the ritual of it, I love the gentle friendship and understanding that have been extended to me by my fellow tea-makers and particularly by my teacher, and I actually really love (and miss) Japan, so being able to connect with traditional Japanese culture in this way is so wonderful to me.

However (you knew it was coming, I’m sure)… I have multiple conditions that make it hard to do tea ceremony regularly. And the tea itself – pure matcha (ie. pure green tea) – can be a real kick in the stomach (IBS) and heart (tachycardia) at times. The sweets, which are usually perfectly aligned with the season, and wonderfully sweet to offset the bitterness of the tea, often contain egg or gluten (foods I have huge issues digesting) or are actually just pure sugar (which, again, IBS, tachycardia…). My scoliosis sometimes pipes up, along with my fibromyalgia, when I try to perform the ceremony, or even when I am just sitting/kneeling as a guest while someone else performs. And I certainly have trouble assisting when my teacher and the other students do demonstrations/performances of tea ceremony at festivals – the sheer number of people and the (usually) hot weather conspire to make almost all of my conditions flare out of control.

So. Whilst I love tea ceremony, and enjoy doing it, and really enjoy being good at something I love, I have a bit of a complex relationship with it. It has come to be a point of contention for me – something that just inspires so many complex emotions inside of me that sometimes I go into meltdown mode just thinking about it. I want to be able to do it regularly, I want to be able to drink the tea and enjoy the sweet, and continue learning how to do this act that inspires such wonder and calm and connection within me. And yet, often if I even try to attend class, I end up exhausted, in pain, and frustrated that one bowl of tea has made me feel like I am actually vibrating.

It also makes me feel like I am a small child throwing a tantrum – ‘but I don’t care if it makes me sick!! I WANNA DO IT!!!’ Not exactly the dignified and harmonious feelings that tea ceremony usually inspire within me.

I think most people would advise that I quit cold turkey, having heard the difficulties that it causes me. I understand that point of view. And, actually, I have tried to do it myself before. I handed in my fan and my ofukusa (silk cloth, used in the ceremony, borrowed from my teacher) and tried to put it behind me as a fond memory. But with my husband still attending, and continuing to improve and learn different kinds of ceremony, I couldn’t help myself and returned to classes late last year. Because my teacher divides her time between Australia and Japan, there are times when she’s not in the country and so there are no lessons. When she is here, I want to go, but I just am never sure how my body is going to respond. I talk sometimes on my own blog (shameless self plug – I’ll put the URL below) about chronic illness and how conditions like IBS and ovarian cysts can make you scared of your own body or any food you may choose to put into said body – this is kind of an extension of that. It’s a pervading fear that is hard to shutdown, or sit with. ‘What if today I have extreme pain while I’m in class?’ ‘What if I have lie down when I’m there?’ Chronic illness is really complex, and often I don’t really know what is the right response to a symptom. Sometimes I still choose wrong. It feels like my body is constantly re-writing the rules – some days I can absolutely handle drinking a bowl of tea, maybe even two! And other days the mere smell of it sends my heart galloping around my chest.

And, thus, at the moment I find it hard to know whether to try and quit cold turkey again, or to just… persevere. And try to attend the odd class. I am leaning towards the latter option. I may have to deal with some frustration, and a lot of pain and exhaustion, but when it is something that I love so much, it is hard to just leave it behind. Plus, it is truly something beautiful to me. And I think we could always use a bit more beauty in our lives.

 


Beth’s blog can be found at http://butterfly-elephant.blogspot.com/

Perth Japan Festival 2019

Every year in March the Perth Japan Festival comes to Forest Chase, and for the past three festivals my tea school has run demonstrations of chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony). Without fail, the weeks and months leading up to March are the most stressful time of the year for me.

 

It’s a million small things put together: the noise and movement of the crowd, the busy work of preparing sweets and whisking tea, and don’t even get me started on how hard it is to go to the toilet without having somewhere clean to take off my hakama (pants). And yet this year I faced all those same stressors, and for some reason they didn’t really bother me. I didn’t even bat an eyelid when my worst-case scenario came to pass and Sensei asked some of the guests if they could hear me, and they sheepishly said no. I laughed it off, did my best to communicate more clearly, and everything seemed to work out okay. There even came a moment when I misplaced my notes, only to discover that I had memorised them and didn’t actually need them. 

 

It’s as if all the worrying, ruminating and catastrophising I did in the past few weeks helped me to shrug off the small stuff. Sure, things went wrong; tea was spilled, some of the guests didn’t like the matcha, and at one point a distressed woman started screaming outside the marquee until security arrived and waited for her to exhaust herself. And yet I think that I prevented more disasters than I caused;  replacing a hishaku (water scoop) that had fallen to the ground, slipping an assistant my kobukusa (small silk cloth) when they didn’t have one, lowering a wire just as someone was about to trip over it… By the end of the day, I’d say I was up on the scoreboard.

 

As usual, my favourite part of the day was hosting a ceremony myself. I had an unusual sense of peace and mastery while I was performing; every movement was precise, every mistake rectified elegantly and intentionally. I slowed down and sped up at will, and brought everyone with me. It felt like I was the captain of a ship taking everyone on a journey, and that I held them all safe in my care until the very last moment.

 

By a small margin, my second-favourite moment of the day was the final ceremony at the end where all of the students and assistants crowded into the tiny room to enjoy tea and sweets ourselves. We had the pleasure of being hosted by a student who only joined a month ago, but has already learned to perform otemae (the standard ceremony). It was wonderful to share laughter and encouragement with the others as she tentatively reached for this utensil or that, and everyone would nudge her in the right direction until she pieced it together herself.

I also had a wonderful time watching my teacher’s sister perform: through witnessing her masterful performance, I learned at least two things I want to start doing in my own practice.

 

The next day we had an uchiage – an afterparty. In previous years I found them more stressful than enjoyable, but this year was different. It was like I’d crested the wave, and that nothing could really phase me after all the stress I’d been through and all that I’d accomplished in spite of it. It was pleasant to be in the company of people I love and admire, sometimes talking, sometimes sitting quietly with my wife as she took some time out. Photos were taken, I came third in Bingo (and won some awesome rocky road), and overall I had a really great time. Mostly I was grateful to have worked hard with my peers to create something beautiful.

 

Festivals have always been stressful to me, but this one wasn’t so bad and I feel like I’m starting to find my rhythm. Perhaps more importantly I’ve discovered that my motivation to attend them has changed; it’s no longer primarily out of a sense of giri (duty) to my teacher, but out of a sense of love to the people in attendance. To share this precious art with the world, and to make it a special experience for the people who do me the honour of being my guests. I would never have found my tea school if I hadn’t been to a demonstration they put on four years ago, and now I have the privilege of sharing that gift with others. I hope that many people come to know and love tea ceremony, even as my own appreciation deepens over time.

One of the guests asked me “Is there a goal in tea ceremony? Like, are you working towards… I dunno, being a tea master or performer?” Without any irony (whilst also being fully aware of how cheesy I sounded), I told him “The goal of tea ceremony is to practice tea ceremony. For me, practice is its own reward.”

 

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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.