Monday, March 30, 2009

A Memorial Tea

On Sunday we held a memorial tea in honor of Brother Joseph Keenan.

Brother Keenan was a member of the Christian Brothers and a professor of religion at La Salle University. In the 1980s, he became interested in tea ceremony and began studying at the New York branch of Urasenke, and spent a year studying in Japan. He was so passionate about tea ceremony that he convinced the university to allow one of the historic buildings on campus to be converted into a tea house, for which the Urasenke headquarters in Kyoto and the branch in New York donated the labor, the construction supplies, and the utensils. In the following years, hundreds of La Salle students and several dozen more members of the public got a chance to learn tea ceremony thanks to the university’s tea program, and countless more experienced demonstrations either at the university or performed by members of the tea program.

I was one of the La Salle students who took his class, and so he was my first tea teacher. I’ll never forget his sense of humor. It’s traditional at the end of each lesson to thank the teacher; he always used to joke that we had to thank him “whether you want to or not.” He started tea late in life, and after a while he had to have a knee replacement, but that didn’t stop him; he just sat on a hassock and kept going. He even took on extra hours of teaching and bought tea utensils with his own money to keep the program going.

In 1999, Brother Keenan died, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. Teachers and students banded together to keep the program alive, and even after the university decided to end the program in 2007, we moved to Shofuso and kept whisking.

This year was the 10th anniversary of Brother Keenan’s death, and so we had a memorial tea for him. There were a number of students we couldn’t find, but our first guest was one of the early teachers at Urasenke La Salle, Yumiko Pakenham, and another one was the first student, Mariko Ono.

The gathering was very similar in format to a normal tea gathering, except that the tokonoma (the alcove where the scroll is hung and flowers arranged), there was no only a scroll but a portrait of Brother Keenan. On a small stand in front of the photo there was a vase with a flower arrangement and some space where tea and sweets would go later.

It was raining early in the day as everyone gathered. We started with hanayose, in which people who knew Brother Keenan came up and took flowers from a tray, arranging some in the vases that lined the tokonoma. We skipped the formal arrangement of charcoal in front of the guests (although we did use charcoal for the fire) and went straight into the food. Once the guests had eaten, there was a short break, and the sun actually came out! The air started to warm up and dry all the puddles, and it turned into a beautiful day.

After the break, Taeko-sensei made koicha (thick tea). The first bowl was presented to Brother Keenan (placed on the stand in front of his picture) and then she made tea for the guests. After koicha, usucha (thin tea) was prepared by Mariko-sensei, with some extra whipped in the kitchen by the assistants.

At the end of the gathering, we all took a little time to share memories of Brother Keenan before we went our separate ways. It was wonderful to be able to spend the time with some old friends, and also to share the memories. Without him, there would be no tea ceremony in the Philadelphia area. I hope he was looking down on us today and happy to know that the tradition is still strong.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Real People

The other day a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer e-mailed us wanting to do an article about tea ceremony. “Fantastic!” I thought. And then she said that she didn’t want to talk to any of our teachers or advanced students, but that what she was really looking for were “real people.”

So I pondered that for a bit, and I decided that it was probably just as well that I wasn’t a real person, because unreality is much more fun.

The reporter went on to explain that what she was looking for was a Westerner’s perspective on tea ceremony, and specifically someone from one of our beginner courses. No problem. I connected with her over the phone, and got her contact information for some of the people who went through our beginner’s course last year.

On Saturday, she came to Shofuso to observe our weekly lessons along with a photographer, who was Japanese (it turns out his father had studied tea ceremony, but he had no interest himself). The photographer was snapping away, and she sat in the corner, asking questions, but mostly just taking notes. She watched one of the students drink a bowl of tea, and then we offered one to her. She picked it up, sniffed it, took a sip, and said, “Well, it looks bad, smells awful, and tastes horrible. Why do people do this again?”

It was at this point that I started to become just a little bit afraid about the outcome of the article.

But we reassured her that there were, in fact, people who enjoyed drinking matcha in the world. We finished up the lesson and talked for a bit more about the practice of tea, and especially about the sweets, since she’s from the Food section.

The reporter did follow up with me later in the week to ask some questions about my tea experience. In situations like that I always feel inadequate. How do I convey what tea means to me in a way that makes sense to someone who’s never done it? I mean, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about inner tranquility and mental focus and liking the taste of tea, but it does really explain why I’ve spent nearly fifteen years of my life practicing tea ceremony?

The same question came up at a gathering of tea people a few years ago – why do we study tea? I struggled with the question for a bit, and finally the only answer I could come up with was, “Because it’s necessary.” They all understood.

The article for the Inquirer is scheduled to come out on March 26. That’s not guaranteed, of course, because editorial schedules change, but keep your eyes on the paper that day, just in case.