Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Gift of Tea

This past holiday season made me think about giving presents in the context of tea. I’m not talking about giving or receiving tea items (though that’s always nice!), but a way of thinking about tea: hosting a tea gathering for someone as a kind of “gift.”

As a student, when I started learning how to plan a tea gathering, my teachers told me that the most important thing to think about is your guests. What kind of food would your guests like to eat? What kind of bowl would they like to drink tea from? What would be meaningful for them?

It sounds easy, but it’s really not. When you practice tea, you gradually start to develop your own aesthetic. For example, some people really like colorful or playful tea utensils; some people prefer utensils that are asymmetrical, cracked, or even outright ugly, but which embody the wabi aesthetic that’s so valued by tea practitioners. Some people prefer exclusively Japanese utensils, while some prefer the creative challenge of sourcing local items that can be used in tea ceremony.

Is it better to hang a scroll in Japanese calligraphy that your guests can’t read, or a scroll written in English that’s aesthetically at odds with a Japanese-style room? The answer is to put yourself in your guests’ shoes, think about their experiences in tea, and do you best to choose what you think they would appreciate.

As the host, the temptation to show off during a tea gathering is enormous. It starts with good intentions – we’re all taught, from the first day we practice, that we should use try to use special utensils for our gatherings for the sake of our guests, to give them a memorable experience. And as new students, we can all remember the sense of wonder when our teachers brought out their rare, beautiful, artisan-made items. Experienced students know when the host brings out a special bowl or tea container, and they truly treasure the opportunity to hold it in their hands. When the time comes to host a gathering, we’re tempted to bring out our own favorite items, to share them with our fellow tea people.

So where’s the line between bringing out a tea bowl because you like it, and bringing it out because you think your guests will like it? Or, to put it a different way, where’s the line between serving your guests and serving your own ego? Can you put your personal preferences aside for the sake of your guests, if you know your guests would like something different? As a host, can you truly put your heart into making tea in a bowl you don’t like?

I struggle with this myself sometimes. But I truly believe that being able to put your guests’ taste first – to be able to make tea in a bowl that they like but that you don’t – is one of the keys to becoming a true tea person.

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