Monday, July 4, 2011

Getting Intense about Tea

Recently I was at an intensive tea study (koshukai in Japanese) held at the New York branch of our tea school, Urasenke. They have these frequently in Kyoto, at Urasenke’s headquarters, but this is the first time that there’s ever been one in North America. It was a really fantastic opportunity to come together with tea people from all over the country and hone our skills.

Urasenke headquarters sent two high-level teachers (gyotei senseis) to lead the seminar. One of them, Izumimoto sensei, had come to New York twice before to lead seminars. The difference is that in previous seminars, there was a large group of people who, with a few exceptions, were listening to lectures or observing while only a few people participated in lessons. At this intensive, we were broken into groups of five or six, and we were all give multiple opportunities to take lessons, including one session with each of the gyotei senseis. The other classes were taught by the heads of the North American branches of Urasenke, including two of the teachers from New York.

So what do you do at a tea intensive? The first day, all twenty-six of us were in the same room, and the training was in warigeiko, which are the basic movements of tea ceremony – the first thing that a beginner would learn when they start taking lessons in tea. Now mind you, many of the people who were taking part in the intensive were teachers in their own right; some of them have been doing tea ceremony for 20 or 30 years or more. Why start at the beginning?

Someone who studies any type of art knows that every once in a while you have to go back to basics to refine your technique, and that’s especially true of tea ceremony. Even after sixteen years of study, I’m constantly learning new things, even about the very basics, and I’m really grateful to have that opportunity. Because just like any art, there’s no standing still – if you’re not getting better, you’re going backward.

After the first day, we broke up into our separate groups, and for the next two and a half days, we spent each morning and afternoon with a different teacher. We were given a general category for each class – for example, “hakobi,” which is a type of basic temae (procedure for making tea). Within that category, students could choose what they wanted to study; of course, the teacher could tell you to do something different, but in my class that didn’t happen. It was good, because it gave people a chance to study in advance. That may sound odd, because isn’t the point of lessons to learn how to do something? But in intensives like this, the teachers assume that you’re already familiar with the temae you’re studying. The purpose of the lesson is to make sure that you have all the details straight – sometimes, especially with the more obscure temae that we don’t practice very often, there are small details that we forget – and also to check your form. I’ve found that every teacher has a specialty, so to speak – they’ll pick out problems with your movements or technique that other teachers might not notice. And the gyotei senseis, of course, are the best of all for things like that.

Going into the intensive I was really a bundle of nerves, worried about making mistakes or embarrassing myself even more than I usually do. But one thing that surprised and impressed me was that the gyoteis were actually very nice. Not that they weren’t strict, and sometimes they can be harsh in their comments, but for the most part they were very patient, and really focused on helping people learn.

At the end of the day I think the biggest single lesson I learned was that the way you do temae is a choice. There are certain small points that very from teacher to teacher; one person will tell you to do it this way, and another will tell you something different. At the beginning level, this can be really confusing, and it’s one reason why students are not allowed to jump from teacher to teacher. But if you’ve been practicing for a while, going to an intensive like this gives you a chance to see the way that other teachers do things, and to think about your own temae and what works. Sometimes a correction is a correction, and you really need to fix your movement. And in the context of a lesson, no matter what, you do what the teacher says. But sometimes, when a teacher tells you to do something differently from the way you learned it, it’s up to you to figure out which way to go. It’s trickier than a simple correction, but worth the effort.


Brandon said...

Hi Morgan,
Very jealous of your visit to Urasenke New York!

I really like your conclusion about teachers with different styles - sometimes you will be corrected, sometimes you will have to try things out and come to your own answer. I think this is especially hard if you are a teacher yourself at a less lofty level, and need the confidence to back up your own branch of teaching - knowing how many differences there can be.

John gave us a fitting Chinese saying recently - "The master teaches the trade, but the apprentice's skill is self-made"

So to add my own little bit to your wise words, I think it is critical for people studying tea to seek out as many teachers as is practical. Not to play off each other or question one teacher's method versus another, but to learn as much as possible and form your own way in the end.

See you around!

Jessica said...

Amazing! I can't wait to attend one in San Francisco...someday...
How man people were there? Did you sit in seiza the entire time?

Morgan said...

Brandon: Actually, in tea ceremony there are very strict (though unwritten) rules against studying with more than one teacher at any given time. An intensive like this or a branch of Urasenke with multiple teachers is an exception; usually a student studies with a single teacher, and isn't allowed to study with a different one unless he/she severs ties with the other teacher first.

The reason is to avoid confusion. I remember when I was starting out, I was at a tearoom with two different teachers, and one would tell us to do something one way and the other would say something different. (On one memorable occasion, one of the teachers arranged a tray of sweets and left the room, and then the other came in and rearranged it, assuming that the student had done it and needed to be corrected!)

Morgan said...

Jessica: There were 26 people at the intensive total, and the majority of them were people who already had their chamei (or higher) licenses.

At the beginning of the intensive, one of the gyoteis said that we had to sit seiza if we were doing temae or acting as a guest, but if we were only observing we could "relax" a little. Even the best sitters were in pain by the end of the day!

And you may get your wish about having an intensive in San Francisco. At the end of the one in New York they said that they were going to send a gyotei sensei to every kyokai in the United States next year, so I'm sure you'll have at least one gathering like this in San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, and it sounds like a enviable event that you attended.

Sweetpersimmon said...

Thank you for your post about the intensive in New York. I am looking forward to the intensive coming up later this month in Seattle.

I also appreciate your comment about studying with one teacher at a time. There should be a strong bond with your sensei. I think it is better for students to study with a single teacher and only attend intensives and study with other teachers with their senesi's permission.

I have had a few students who "shop" for the best teacher or think they can get a better perspective by trying to study with as many teachers as they can. Seeking out another teacher without your sensei's permission is kind of disrespectful of them.

I have been told that you must sever your ties with your sensei (i.e. tell them you are no longer going to be their student) then sit out for a year before going to study with the other teacher.

It was a very big deal when I changed teachers. My original sensei wrote a letter of introduction to my new sensei and then wrote to Kyoto to get permission for me to study with another teacher, even though I had moved from Portland to Seattle. She told me that I could not study in Seattle until it was cleared with Kyoto and then she drove up to Seattle and presented me to my new sensei and asked that she take on the responsibility of teaching and guiding me.

Thank you again Morgan for your great posts.