Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Licensed to Tea

In tea ceremony, as in many other Japanese arts, there is a system of ranking to mark a student’s progress in tea. It’s a little bit like the belt system in karate, except that instead of a physical symbol like a belt, what the student receives is a license to study the next level of tea.

At the beginner level, the students learn how to prepare thin tea and thick tea, and a number of different variations on those basic temae (procedures for preparing tea). Students also receive a separate license to study the portable temae known as chabako (“box tea”). This may seem pretty straightforward, but it’s not just about memorizing a sequence of movements, it’s about perfecting your technique and starting to absorb the philosophy of tea, and so it can be years from the time a student starts taking lessons until he or she is ready to move on to the next level. After that, there’s an intermediate level known as konarai, a more advanced level known as shikaden, and finally a series of high-level licenses known collectively as okuden. At each level, the temaes get progressively more complex and require more specialized knowledge and equipment. Only after mastering all off these levels does a student receive his or her chamei (“tea name”), which means that he or she has truly become a tea person, and can teach and practice tea independently of his or her teacher.

The licenses themselves are special documents – they’re handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, with the name of the student, the date, and the seal of Urasenke’s Oiemoto (Grand Master). The application has to be made by the teacher and sent to Kyoto, and it can take anywhere from six months to a year for the license to come back (usually closer to six months). In our group, when licenses arrive, the teacher reads them out in the tearoom and then formally presents them to the student.

Different teachers approach licenses differently. Some teachers will move a student through the different levels very quickly; some will take their time and make sure that the student is fully prepared before before allowing them to advance. I think on average, depending on the teacher and the student, it takes between ten and fifteen years to get to the chamei level. (This is assuming that the student is studying part-time. It’s possible to got to Kyoto and study full-time at Urasenke, in which case you would get to the chamei level in about three years.)

Of course, the vast majority of students who begin studying tea ceremony don’t make it to the chamei level – not that it’s so difficult, but it does require a lot of time and patience, and it takes a certain kind of person to be that dedicated to tea. I was thinking about that this past weekend as one of our students received her konarai license – a true achievement in tea, and one that she well earned. I was really proud to see her advance, especially since she worked so hard to get there. It’s been a real privilege to watch her blossom and continue on her journey in tea.