Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beginning Lessons

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.

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.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why Tea?

When I tell people that I do tea ceremony, one of the questions I get most often is “How did you get into that?”

The short answer is pretty straightforward: When I was a student at La Salle University, they had undergraduate courses in tea ceremony. I took the course and really loved it, so I kept practicing.

But really, my fascination with tea started long before then. When I was in my early teens, I remember reading an article in the paper about tea ceremony. I was so fascinated by the idea of an entire ritual built around drinking tea that I clipped out the article and had it hanging on my wall for years afterward.

Was it fate that life brought me to the one place in the Philadelphia area – heck, in the state of Pennsylvania – that I could actually learn about tea ceremony? When I applied, I didn’t even know about the tea ceremony program there. To be honest, at the time, I’m not sure it would have made a difference. When I signed up for the course, I was curious more than anything else.

My earliest experience in chanoyu was unusual for a tea person – learning tea in the context of a college course where there was classroom work and essays as well as hands-on instruction. My first teacher was Brother Joseph Keenan, one of the Christian Brothers at La Salle. He started learning tea at the New York branch of the Urasenke tea school, and later spent time studying at Urasenke’s headquarters in Kyoto. He had a great sense of humor, and he was always making jokes. It made the class seem much easier, even though he was as strict as any other teacher. I remember back in my room I put together mock tea utensils with whatever I could find, and I kept practicing until I got everything right. At the end of the course, when we had our tea “finals,” I did the tray-style tea from beginning to end with only one mistake (I forgot to turn around and bow at the very end). I still remember what a feeling of accomplishment that was – and how hard it seemed to get through that one temae (tea procedure). I still do that temae, but now it seems so easy!

It’s funny, but looking back, I don’t remember what it was that inspired me to ask about continuing studies after the course was over. Maybe it was a beauty of the movements, or the ritualistic aspects, or the taste of the tea. Maybe it was just a whim.

As I progressed in my studies, the tearoom became my safe zone – a space away from the stress of classes and my part-time job, where I could sit and relax and not worry about anything else for a while. I don’t think I realized until much later how much I needed that.