Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Classical Art of Being

Guests for Tea Ceremony
In the front, are my friend, my Sensei (teacher), and me in my kimono.

One of the most wonderful parts of learning traditional Japanese arts is the ritual 'Zen' of the practice. Every movement is done with a purpose and in the most economical way possible. Every detail of the tea ceremony is performed in such a way as to do the job in the least possible steps and with exactly the same movements every time. The result is that you become completely absorbed in the task at hand. There is no concern for past or future, and therefore, you are completely in the moment. What one should be able to take from the experience is 'harmony' with nature, 'respect' for those you serve, 'purity' of body and thought through the cleansing ritual, and 'tranquility' of the mind.

Each time I went to the tea house, which was also my teacher's home, there would be an entry ritual. I would arrive at the little tea house hidden from the city behind a curtain of living bamboo trees. From the path, I would call through the sliding paper door, "I am so sorry, please." My teacher inside would reply, "Please, rise up."

We would begin by dressing me in a kimono, then go to the back room where I would clean the utensils that I was about to use in the ceremony. I would come out of the preparation room with my fan in front of me and my head bowed to the sweet smelling tatami mat floor. I would humble myself and pull myself on my knees slowly across the floor until I reached the point where I would make the tea. Every action, how I held my sleeve out of the way, the care with which I measured the tea, and the exact placement of the coals was ritual. Even the conversation was a ritual. The appointed guest would always ask the same questions, and I would always give the same answers. First I would apologize for my tea, to which the guest would always reply how good it was. Then they would admire the tools and I would tell them who made them, and they would ask about the sweets, and I would say who made those and where they came from. That was about the extent of it. I would bow my head to the ground again and drag my body on my knees backwards bowing again before I disappeared into the preparation room. It sounds simple, but in reality, every turn of my wrist was completed very precisely, so that I might resemble a classic Japanese print. People spend their entire lives mastering the tea ceremony. Even my 80 year old teacher still had a teacher. The whole ceremony took about an hour though I know that some ceremonies last as many as 5 hours.

More lovely than the Zen of the tea ceremony for me was the ritual after my practice was over. My teacher would often make rice for me in an old wooden rice steamer and give me some salty fish and Japanese pickles. Then she would say, "Would you sing, Comin' thro' the Rye." And I would try, "Gin a body meet a body Comin thro' the rye, Gin a body kiss a body, Need a body cry?" Every time, she would tell me that when she was a very little girl, she was taken to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to sing for the King of England. That was about it. We didn't need to fill all of the silence with conversation. We just enjoyed being with one another.

When it was time to go, my sensei would come out of the tea house in her kimono and little wooden getta (shoes) and wave good-bye to me. She would always walk into the street and wave until I was down the lane and around the corner and almost to the train platform. As long as there was a glimpse of me, she would wave.

The last time that I saw my sensei, she was a few weeks from her death from cancer. I visited her in the hospital, and I sang, 'Comin' thro' the rye.' She got out of her hospital bed when it was time for me to go and went into the hallway and waved good-bye to me until I was down the hall and the elevator door shut.

A little girl sings, 'Comin' Thro' the Rye'


  1. Wonderful story. Sometimes I try to be still enough to observe the moment, to participate in it. At times I can see that it's precious. The tea ceremony must be like that.

  2. Wow, She is a very special lady, your sensei, I think you were special to her too. I'm curious, how were you introduced to her as your teacher? Did you always want to learn the Tea ceremony before you went to Japan? How did it feel when you were performing the ceremony & do you still make it sometimes? :-)

  3. Hi Lyn, just like that. With practice, you can take that feeling with you wherever you are.

    Hi Hope, great questions. Along with tea ceremony, I also studied flower arranging and classical Japanese dance in Maiko Villa, where they train geisha. The story that I started to write was about a subtle conspiracy to arrange my marriage. I will likely have to write another story or two to explain. The reasons I went to Japan were to teach English, learn Japanese, and for the adventure.

    I still have the equipment for tea ceremony, but not the necessary room. The room has to be made for tea ceremony. I would also still need a teacher and trained guests as well as some good green tea, all difficult to come by in central Pennsylvania. The last time that I enjoyed the ceremony was a couple of years ago in Japan with one of my teacher's students who is now a teacher herself.

  4. This is such an interesting post. I've always been fascinated by Japan and its culture but I often find it difficult to comprehend (or maybe that's why I'm fascinated by it)

    One day I'll make my way there and watch tea ceremony in Kyoto...

  5. Thank you for sharing a world I have never experienced, it's fascinating!

    Regarding the cats in Venice:
    I have been told that so-called animal lovers have managed to castrate or neuter most of the city's cats, causing the cat population to go down so drastically that now they have a rat plague.

    Maybe somebody will come up with the idea of putting cats out there to catch those rats, ahem. ;-)

  6. You have a very beautiful way of explaining the tea ceremony!
    I am so excited to get to read your blog, you have a fascinating
    bio too! I will definitely be asking questions in the future, so please feel free to ask me questions too. I used to live in a city called Fukuoka and now as you can tell from my blog, very near Kobe.

  7. Hi Polly, Thank you.
    Check out, I_am_Tulsa's, blog. She's in Japan now.

    Merisi, thank you for telling me about the cats. I would much rather have the cats than the rats.

    Hi Tulsa, I'm so glad you stopped in. I will be visiting again soon.

  8. What a wonderful story. When were you in Japan? I have been thinking about the tea ceremony lately. We are really into tea, complete with a tea station in our kitchen. Thank you for explaining it and giving me a mental picture. I'm going to keep an eye on my wrists.

  9. I always loved Japan dear Butternut Squash. When I was a little kid they played in my country some of the famous Japanese series about Samurais. Later they played a soap opera called Oschene about the struggle of a poor girl that became later one of the wealthiest people in Japan (not sure if it was a true story). People loved it and had great sympathy for her suffering and we started to learn some of the Japanese culture.
    I have been always fascinated by the Japanese culture. It still on my list to visit Japan and spend some time there.
    Your post about Tea time is a wonderful story that makes me feel that I was there with you.

  10. This is a very touching tale. Thank you for sharing it. The act of being fully present is profound. It is wonderful for me to have glimpses into your life.

  11. Hi LOL, I was in Japan as an exchange student in 1980 and then again as a teacher from 89 to 92.

    Hi Khaled, Japan is loads of fun. I hope you will go someday.

    Hi Tammie, thanks, just what I was hoping for.

  12. How wonderful to have had that experience. The mindfulness of it all. Your photos are wonderful!

  13. I'd love to hear stories about your teaching experience in Japan! I've taught at Jr and High Schools in Japan for three years (about 4 years ago) and it was wild (in a good way)!

  14. You look so perfect and so natural in the kimono. My guess is that you look perfect in many regional costumes ... you are an international person, at home almost everywhere - even in the Peacock Room.


  15. Thank you all for the comments. I will work on the 'teaching' stories but it may take some time. I had volumes of interesting experiences in Japan. Where to begin?

    Reya, When I pulled out the picture of me with the umbrella to show my tea teacher she laughed and said, "how embarrassing." Not understanding how to dress myself, I was apparently wearing two pairs of shoes, an indoor pair and an outdoor pair.

  16. I love when there is no need to fill every silence with conversation.
    What a beautiful post, i so enjoyed this.
    you are so pretty in your kimono.
    xxx lori

  17. Butternut, Enjoyed the post so much. What a lovely and graceful Japanese art!

    Please come over to Oasis blog and collect your award. <3