Thursday, August 4, 2011

Trying Too Hard?

How Japanese do you have to be to study tea ceremony? It’s a question that pops up from time to time – at least for me, and I suspect for other tea ceremony practitioners as well.

On the face of it, it’s a simple question. There’s nothing about the mechanics of tea ceremony that limit it to any one nationality or ethnicity. Anyone can learn the movements, and I’ve seen people of all ages and backgrounds relate to the philosophy. It’s something that touches all types of people, and that’s a beautiful thing to watch.

But there’s another aspect to it, which is that tea ceremony comes wrapped in Japanese culture like a ball of sweet bean paste wrapped in mochi. The two of them look like two distinct things, but try to separate them and things get sticky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made some horrible social faux pas because of some aspect of Japanese culture I just wasn’t familiar with. The discussion from my last post about teachers made me think of it – one time, as a tea student, I ran into another student who went to Urasenke New York, and innocently suggested that she should come and take lessons with us, too, which (I now know) is a horrible breach of tea etiquette.

I think that people who tend to be attracted to tea ceremony are very aware of this gap, and for the most part work hard to be respectful and to follow the rules, written and unwritten. I’ve been thinking about that recently, too. At the intensive a few weeks ago, I observed one of the students, an American who had been studying tea for a long time. She was very deferential to the teachers, and very respectful, but as I watched her interact with them, it occurred to me that she was almost too deferential – to the point where she was making the teachers a little uncomfortable. It forms a social barrier that can become a barrier to learning.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that being respectful to one’s teachers is very important, and I’ve also seen situations where a student was being so informal with a teacher that is was bordering on outright disrespect. Courtesy is important, and sometimes being paranoid that you’re breaking some rule that you never knew existed is appropriate, because you are.

I think this instance really struck me because I saw myself in that student – times when I’ve tried too hard to compensate for the fact that I’m not Japanese, like I don’t want to be one of “those” Americans who comes in and acts in a completely offensive and insensitive way. Looking back, I can think of times I’ve probably made my teachers and others uncomfortable because I was overdoing the courtesy to the point that it was a distraction.

The reality is, I’m not Japanese, and I will probably never know all of the rules that are second nature to Japanese people. To a large extent, I don’t think they expect me to, just as most Americans don’t expect foreigners to understand every nuance of American language and culture. But that doesn’t stop me from psyching myself out sometimes, and I think that it’s a problem for many Americans who pursue Japanese cultural activities.

Having thought all of this, the conclusion I came to is that the real lesson is one that tea practice teaches us – don’t spend so much time and energy worrying about yourself that you forget about other people. Relax, focus on what’s right in front of you, be open to your surroundings, and act from your heart.