Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tea Things

After Yamada-sensei’s passing, I didn’t have a chance to write about the tea conference I was attending just before he died. It was an academic conference on tea ceremony hosted by Yale University, held in connection with an exhibition of rare tea ceremony utensils that had been donated to the university.

The conference had presenters from Japan and the U.S., including some experts in their field, and it was really interesting to get the different perspective on tea. For instance, one of the lectures was about the change in the types of ceramics that were found in archaeological digs from 16th century Japan, when the way of tea that we practice today was first starting to take hold. There was a much greater use in Japanese and Korean ceramics, where before the emphasis was on Chinese. Around the same time, there was a shift in the types of calligraphy used, away from Chinese poetry and towards a more Zen style, where the emphasis was on the way in which the characters were written rather than (or in addition to) the words themselves. There’s nothing surprising about that, of course, but it was fascinating to hear about how tea affected people’s daily life and collecting habits during that time period.

Most of the other lecture also centered around the objects used in tea, with the exception of one that I’ll talk about later. The focus on utensils wasn’t surprising, considering that we were at a museum, but it really made me stop and think about the way that tea practitioners approach doing tea.

On the one hand, tea philosophy emphasizes that objects are not the important thing – what’s important is the spirit that both host and guests bring to the gathering, and valuing the experience as it happens. On the other hand, tea practice also teaches us to respect the utensils that are used, to handle them carefully, and to show courtesy to the host by asking questions about each item. Respect for, and an understanding of, the utensils used in tea is an important part of the practice. The intent is to put the focus on the people behind the objects, not on the objects themselves, but in the real world, we end up talking a lot about the various utensils used, and in the process there’s a lot of emphasis put on objects.

That can have its good points. Making a tea bowl, for example, requires a lot of artistry, and I can’t help but think that a Japanese potter would get a kick out of knowing that somewhere on the other side of the planet, some crazy matcha-drinking Americans are oohing and aahing over his work. And from a historical perspective, the tea people who are lucky enough to own utensils from three or four hundred years ago might still use them, which is a tremendous opportunity for their guests to interact with the past.

On the other hand, I walked out of that conference wondering if maybe we talk too much about utensils and not enough about the way of tea itself. I think that sense of possessiveness is something that tea people really need to watch out for – just as the wonder of seeing a rare tea utensil is something to treasure.