Let’s say you’ve never studied chanoyu before, and you want to start taking lessons. Different teachers approach this in different ways. In our group, we start with what’s called warigeko.
Warigeko consists of a lot of things you thought you knew how to do already – standing up, sitting down, walking across the room, opening doors, and looking at things. When you’re practicing tea, there are a lot of little rules to observe. For example, the borders of the tatami (woven grass) mats on the floor are very important in defining space. When you walk across the room, you need to pay close attention to which foot is crossing the border – when you’re entering the room, you cross the borders with your right foot, and when you’re leaving, you cross with your left.
But that’s just part of warigeko. New students also learn how to fold the fukusa (silk wiping cloth) and how to handle utensils. The teacher takes them step-by-step through the process of doing tea ceremony, showing them new skills along the way. Sometimes it’s several weeks before a new student actually gets to the point where he or she is making tea.
You may be wondering, why are there so many different details to learn? Why not just boil water and make tea? It relates to chanoyu’s Zen roots. One thing that Zen practitioners always emphasize is focusing on the present moment – not being distracted by thoughts of something that happened in the past, or plans for the future, but being completely focused on what you’re doing right now. By incorporating all of these little details into tea, every movement becomes purposeful – you have to pay attention to every moment, every muscle in your body, because as soon as you let your attention wander, you go off track. It’s a challenge even for experienced tea practitioners.
But, as with so many things in tea, there’s a practical reason, too. All of those tiny little details add up to produce a series of elegant movements. The goal is to make tea a good experience for your guests, a pleasure to watch as well as to drink.
In chanoyu, we talk about “beginner’s mind” as something to strive for: a sense of openness, a willingness to learn, and an intense focus on all the details of the movements. It’s an important attitude to have no matter how long you’ve been doing tea, because if you’re not open to the lessons that the tearoom has to offer, you’re never going to improve. And if we can let that same mindset permeate the rest of our lives, so much the better.