In tea ceremony there’s a lot of emphasis on being the host – learning the right moves to prepare tea for people, knowing the sequence, the little tricks of movement that make everything flow. But guests have an equally important role. It’s also structured in that there are certain things that need to be done at certain times, but there’s a lot more freedom. In some ways, that can make it even harder to be a guest than to be a host.
In tea training, when we talk about state of mind, we always emphasize that both host and guest should strive for harmony in the room. Guests should avoid talking about subjects that might cause tension – no religion, no politics, no gossiping about other people. The mood should be light, and ideally, the conversation should focus on things in the room, the occasion for the gathering, or the season.
The role of the first guest is crucial. The first guest, shokyaku in Japanese, is the guest of honor. They sit in the position closest to the host, and they are the first person to be served the tea. But the first guest also has more responsibility than the other guests: He or she has to keep the flow of the gathering going by giving the host the proper cues at the proper time, and at the same time, is responsible for keeping the conversation going in the tearoom. If all of the guests know each other well, that last part is easy; if not, it can be difficult, especially if there’s a mixture of Japanese speakers and English speakers in the room who know very little of the other language.
The other day someone asked me, “I know the goal is to keep the conversation in the room harmonious, but what happens if someone doesn’t? What if someone says or does something offensive?”
That’s not an easy question to answer, because, like any social situation, a lot depends on the people in the gathering. In theory, any of the guests who sense that there’s some awkwardness should try to smooth things over – change the subject, or possible give the offender a quiet nudge. In practice, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes a gathering fails, not in the sense of ending early, but in the sense of the guests not having a good time. That’s one reason why, as a host, it’s important to choose your guests carefully, and why as a guest it’s important to put other people’s feelings ahead of your own. That’s not always an easy lesson to learn, but it’s at the heart of tea.