Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friends in Tea

Last week I was at a wonderful gathering of tea ceremony practitioners called Friends in Tea. It’s not sponsored by any one organization, or even any one school of tea ceremony – it’s a group of people who volunteer to put together a gathering every two years, always in a different place.

This time the gathering was held at the Dai Botsatsu Zendo, a Buddhist monastery in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. The setting is remote (about 20 miles from the nearest town, which itself is not that big) and beautiful – the monastery and its guest house overlook Beecher Lake, so named because the property used to be owned by the Beecher family (of Harriett Beecher Stowe fame).

The gathering was four days of workshops, discussions, and people doing tea for each other. Most of the participants had studied tea for a while, and so the idea behind the teas was not to worry about doing things perfectly, but to have fun drinking tea together. Some people got up at 6 a.m. to do chabako (picnic-style tea) outside; some people took tatami mats out to the patio to do tea out there. But probably my favorite story is about Eido Roshi coming for tea.

Eido Roshi is the head of the monastery and its partner Zen center in New York City. Whenever he comes into the room, everything else stops. He and some of the monks were invited to the opening tea gathering, but mid-way through the conference he paid us a surprise visit. Down in the main room of the guest house we had sign-up sheets for our “open tearoom” – people could sign up to either make tea or be a guest at someone else’s tea, depending on their preference. Roshi had signed up as a guest in a blank spot, meaning nobody had signed up to be a host yet. So, of course, we were obliged to find someone to make tea for him. No problem; we’re all tea people. The lucky host was Marjorie Yap, a tea teacher from Portland. However…

The open tearoom space was split into two sections. On one side was Roshi’s tea. On the other side, one of the other participants had signed up to do another tea. Now, I heard the stories afterwards second-hand, because I wasn’t there, but the way I heard it, while Roshi was sitting at a very quiet and serious koicha (thick tea) temae, on the other side of a set of shoji screens the second group was laughing and having a good time drinking usucha. Apparently every once in a while Roshi would look around as if to say, “Hey, I want to be over there where they’re having fun!”

After Roshi’s tea was finished, he came over to the other tea and sat in for a bit. They were using a huge Shino-ware bowl that actually belonged to Roshi’s personal collection (and which he allowed us to use for the conference). He told us that he had named the bowl “macho.” It’s not what you’re thinking. “Ma” here means “devil,” and “cho” means “transparent.” The idea is that drinking from the bowl makes your evil impulses fade more and more until they’re completely gone. (No word yet on whether it worked.)

More from Friends in Tea in posts to come…

Friday, June 5, 2009

Going to a Chaji

This weekend, I was invited to a chaji put on by one of our teachers, Drew Hanson.

“Chaji” literally means something like “tea event,” and it’s considered the culmination of tea practice. It’s more formal than a chakai (“meeting for tea”), which has a more flexible format. In a chaji, everything is carefully determined. It starts with a meal that has a set number of courses. When the first course is brought in, each person gets a tray with two bowls and a plate. One bowl has rice, one bowl has soup, and the plate has sashimi. Once everybody has their tray, they simultaneously take the lids off the two bowls, put them together, and set them off to one side of the tray. From that point onward, each step is carefully choreographed: What’s in each course, when it enters the room, and how it is served. Even the guests have to pay attention to the timing, because they have to eat certain things by the time the next course is served.

If you’re the host, the food is by far the most stressful part. The menu is planned months in advance, and the cooking begins days in advance, because each element of the meal requires special preparation. And, because some courses are served hot, the host needs helpers in the kitchen to make sure everything is ready at exactly the right moment.

The food at this gathering, by the way, was wonderful. It was in a very traditional Japanese style, but there were vegetables from his garden as well as seafood and even some things imported from Japan.

After the food came the laying of the charcoal, which is done in front of the guests. As the fire builds, the smell of incense fills the room. With the fire going, the host served sweets. The sweets were in a hydrangea shape – bean paste dyed blue, grated, and arranged on top of a red bean paste center. Then little cubes of clear kinton (a gelatin-like substance) laced with gold leaf are put on top of it so that it looks like dew. They were really beautiful, but not too beautiful to eat!

After the sweets came the break. At that point, we’d been in the tearoom for about two and a half hours, and we were all ready for a standing break – sitting seiza for that long is no joke. During the break, the scroll in the alcove was replaced with a flower arrangement in a vase that Drew’s friend Brandon had made from local bamboo.

When we came back in, we had koicha, or thick tea, followed by thin tea. The utensils had been chosen to reflect a theme, which was water. The bowl for thin tea had fish painted on it, and the character for “ocean” on the bottom of the inside of the bowl. The tea container also had a wave pattern on it, and the lid-rest was in the shape of three fish.

But more than anything else, it’s the people who really make a gathering. Knowing the amount of preparation and care that went into everything that happened was really touching, and being able to share it with good company made it even better. It’s hard to describe how it feels, to be sitting in a tearoom, drinking in harmony with everyone else, soaking in every detail with every one of your senses. But by the end, there’s do doubt about why a chaji is considered the ultimate tea experience.