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.