The other day I was talking with someone -- not about tea, just general conversation – and she said, “I’m a practical person. I don’t think that we should be bound by history or tradition. All I care about is what works.”
Probably most people in this country would agree with that statement. It’s ingrained into our culture, the image of the common-sense pioneer breaking new ground and leaving the old world behind. But when you practice tea ceremony, you have to put yourself in a different mindset.
History and tradition are part of the essence of tea. Most of the utensils that we use are modeled on utensils or designs that were used centuries ago. The practice itself has changed very little in the past four to five hundred years. And today tea ceremony is regarded in Japan as one of the bearers of traditional culture.
“Okay, fine,” you say. “But if it hasn’t changed, doesn’t that really mean that it’s stagnated? That the creativity has gone out of it? Why not experiment and put some new ideas into it?”
Here’s the thing. Even though I said “Americans” in the title of this post, this is the human condition: We all think that we’re right. That we know everything. When we’re young, we roll our eyes at the old fogies who try to tell us that we don’t know what we’re doing; when we get older, we roll our eyes at the young people who insist on doing things their own way. When we come into a new situation, we bring our past experience, and with it the conviction that our experience has taught us the best way to go about things.
But if all you’re ever thinking about is doing things your way, from your own experience – your own idea of what works – then you never really learn anything. Why use a tea scoop made from bamboo when a metal one would work? Why wear a kimono when Western clothes are more comfortable? Why worry about doing things in exactly the right sequence? These are things that you can’t learn unless you truly experience them, and you can’t truly experience them as long as you’re stuck in your preconceived notions.
The first thing you have to do if you’re setting out to become a tea person is leave your ego at the door and say to yourself, “I don’t know anything.” Put aside everything that you think you know about what “works,” what’s “right,” and be open. Do what your teacher tells you, and learn. If you keep going, then you’ll start to have those moments when everything comes together and you understand things that never made sense before. I’m not talking about learning facts, because as soon as you think, “Okay, now I know something about tea,” you’re sunk. You have to stop worrying about what you know and just keep practicing.
Once people have been studying tea for many years, have immersed themselves in the tradition, have had those experiences of understanding – then they’re ready to start creating and innovating. And to be a living practice, tea really needs that. But people who want to jump straight to the innovation without ever taking the time to understand what they’re doing are really just cheating themselves. Tradition in tea isn’t about chaining people down and ruining their fun; it’s about giving people something deep, and precious, and beautiful. Maybe accepting that it’s there is an act of faith. But on the other hand, if we didn’t sense how deep the practice runs, then I guess we wouldn’t have become tea people.