On hindsight, my third 茶道 lesson was… pretty magical. Or mystical, should I say? D and I had just gotten back to Berlin after a lovely week in England (his first holiday from work ever since started his post in June!) and after not having touched my Fukusa (that all important piece of cloth used for cleaning objects in the ceremony) or practised folding it, I had planned on getting up early on the morning of the lesson to: 1. have a leisurely breakfast 2. sip a cup of home-brewed matcha soy latte and maybe read a page or two from my current book 3. sit down to thoroughly practise the folding method so that at least I could perhaps progress a little in my lesson 4. leave the apartment early to take an easy stroll to arrive at T-Sensei’s place at 10am on the dot, looking fresh and ready to learn.
In the end, the only thing that I managed to actually tick off that list was arrive at 10am sharp at T-Sensei’s door (albeit slightly flustered with windblown hair from having walked as quickly as possible from the station) and even that was surprising for me (the eternal misplaced optimist when it comes to traffic conditions). I’ve still yet to become a morning person and after scarfing down breakfast, slurping up my matcha soy latte, I left almost 10 minutes after my intended start time without having touched the Fukusa. Thank goodness for Googlemaps and smart phone technology, seriously.
But I digress. The tea season was rather mystical in large part because T-Sensei’s apartment was otherworldly and dreamlike in itself. After reading about Minimalism and getting used to the idea that a minimalist living space is probably the way to go, his place was pretty much the exact opposite of a white-walled apartment with vast empty spaces and minimal furnishings. While it seemed to be a mix of influences – part Tibetan monastery inspired (or what seems to be broadly referred to as Oriental in the design world), reminiscent also of a thrift/antique store with innumerable decorative pieces of indeterminate age, it all seemed to meld together coherently into the quintessential style of an Artist’s abode. It’s exactly the kind of place one would imagine in an Interior Design magazine profiling an artist in Berlin. Everywhere I looked there were weird and wondrous things to be noticed. Three different versions of Japanese Daruma perched on a wooden tray on a cupboard at the end of the hallway. Magazines opened to the middle (almost neatly, if that’s possible) strewn on the kitchen floor and on top of a low stool. White plastered ‘hand’ figurines reached out on a cabinet by the wall, Carrie-coming-up-from-graveyard style. What appeared to strokes of red and black wax or some form of paint on the wall (perhaps from a previous Halloween party?). The winning feature by far, was in the living room. A large piece of cream coloured gauze-like cloth draped artfully from a long wooden horizontal bar or branch that hung midway down the ceiling. Needless to say, it felt like I’d stepped temporarily into a New Age inspired dreamworld. The living room had been covered almost completely with tatami mats. Over which, laid a cream and black striped carpet. With the balcony closed, it was absolutely still and silent. Perfect for a few hours of 茶道.
(The balcony too, feels incredibly otherworldly. T-Sensei says he did it up himself, to resemble a Japanese Garden, where the ‘guests’ of the Tea Ceremony would be able to wait while eating their snacks as the host prepared inside. With the balcony floor entirely covered in small white/grey pebbles, while not extremely comfortable on the feet to walk on, it definitely reminded me of a Japanese garden.)
T-Sensei lit an incense stick and placed it into a large metal Lion incense holder. The lion reminded me of the sort you’d traditionally see outside a Chinese restaurant (paired with an identical one on the other side of the door). Its head faced the ceiling and as the incense stick burned, streams of incense smoke shot up from the lion’s open mouth, literally breathing fire into the heavens above.
We waited for a while for his other student, P, to arrive. Before she came, T-Sensei remarked that P has her moods. Sometimes she’s friendly and chatty, other times she can be grumpy. But she is very direct. Is that a German thing? I ask. He paused and smiled a little, saying that well, she is very German.
Indeed, P did have her moods. She was amicable enough, occasionally giving a smile but for the large part, somewhat reticent. T-Sensei was kind enough to give much of his explanations in English for my sake as she could understand too but when teaching her and chatting with her, it was mostly in German. She performed the classic Bonryaku お盆略 style Tea Ceremony which I remember having seen being performed at the Asa Chaji at the museum a few weeks back. She moved steadily and carried out the movements tidily. As T-Sensei jotted down notes on her performance, he kept reminding her to slow down. “Langsam…” He would say in his calm drawl and she would give a sheepish smile. P had been learning for a long time and though she knew all the steps and could execute them, she needed to slow down. Doing things slowly was not her style and having to slow down for 茶道 was her pet peeve.
My respect for T-Sensei grew as I watched him teach P. He had noticed that they way she finished off mixing the Matcha with her whisk needed improvement. By getting us to practise with a bamboo tray and large calligraphy brushes (in place of the whisks), he explained his method of starting at the middle, moving down the 8 o’clock line then sweeping along the edge to form the の alphabet in an elegant way. It was different from what she was used to doing and as he watched, he explained to me that she was having difficulty breaking her habit. While he spoke in German to her, I could tell he was trying to instruct her to follow his actions. Try to practise the steps while kneeling in Seiza. She refused to look at him, and continued sitting cross-legged. Watch how he finishes the step by bringing both his hands close together as the right hand brings the whisk to the bottom of the bowl. She tries a few more times but refuses to do as he shows her. There is slight tension in the air and of all things, I’m reminded of a teacher and a kindergarten student who knows what she should be doing but in her defiance, simply refuses. Eventually we move on to something else, but not before he says something to her in German in his languorous drawl and as she gives a reluctant smile as we practise something else. Later on in class, I learn that she has been learning Tea with him for about 7 years. He says he always needs to push her through her moments of discomfort. And she knows it too. I can’t help but think that this is the sort of space that a great teacher can create. A space of care and acceptance for the student’s current state, yet always giving the prod forward for improvement when the student is ready.
When it comes to my turn to try being the Host of the tea ceremony, I feel less nervous as I’ve seen P perform it once already. That’s the thing about 茶道 that I like. There’s no such thing as ‘wasted time’ when you’re participating. Even if you’re not the Host of the ceremony, there are so many things to learn – from etiquette as a Guest (which I find equally complicated), to learning the Host’s technique, to observing the interactions between Sensei and students… Every bit can be a learning point, if we choose to observe.
Of course, almost every step is guided by T-Sensei, and I learn about walking into the Host’s space in a certain way with a set number of steps, placing the tea equipment at specific points on the round tray after cleaning (most of which I can’t really recall now), pouring the hot water into the Chawan and whisking it up to a froth. There’s no particular way of frothing the Matcha and no guide to the amount of boiled water to pour in, but if the volume of water is right, the aroma of the mixture should come right at you as you whisk, leaning slightly forward, head bent down over the Chawan. Just as he says it, a whiff of the Matcha mixture, slightly frothed, rises up to my nose in a plume of fragrance. I remember feeling that thrill of excitement and thinking, that’s exactly right!
After getting through as host of my first Tea Ceremony, T-Sensei and P give a little round of applause. I suppose after having seen quite a few rounds of the classic Tea Ceremony it had been easier to grasp, and I’d mainly copied T-Sensei as he performed it by my side. But the part I was not prepared for, was the insane pins and needles in my legs. In fact, it had gone beyond pins and needles to almost zero sensation in my legs below my knees. When I got up, it was slightly frightening to realise that I couldn’t really feel my feet properly. Looking down, they looked rather pale, almost mottled. And while the pins and needles sensation came to my feet after some time to my relief, I knew that I would definitely have to come up with a better/healthier way of kneeling for a prolonged period of time because this could definitely not be good for my legs.
Halfway through, we were joined by another student T, who I’d seen briefly at the museum the last time. She came into the room, wide smile and enthused eyes, a real breath of fresh air. She had been learning for a year or so, and with her there, I managed to see another version of the Tea Ceremony, one specially performed during High Summer, according to T-Sensei. I wasn’t sure if there was a name to it, but it was a more advanced version of 茶道, and I could see the seasonal elements that had been incorporated into it. For the Mizusashi (water basin), T-Sensei used a bamboo vase and covered it with a large leaf that T had taken from the garden below. The Chawan chosen was a beautiful white porcelain one, painted with gentle strokes of deep blue, wider and shallower than the usual Chawan, almost like a larger version of a sake dish which made slurping from it deliciously easy. At the start of the ceremony, it had already been filled with some water. The additional act of pouring that water into the Kensui (water waste bowl) was supposed to make the guests feel refreshed in the heat of the summer. And indeed, as the sound of the water trickling into the Kensui reverberated in the still air of the room, my mind was drawn back to scenes of water flowing into Onsens pools in Japan and of water flowing from the commonly seen bamboo water features in gardens. How this was something thought up centuries ago by practitioners of the art of 茶道 never fails to astound me.
Try as I might, I honestly can’t really recall the details of the High Summer 茶道 that T performed. She too, required guidance often as there were so many more steps with the additional equipment used. But I could tell she loved 茶道. At one point before she began and was preparing her equipment, she held two dark wooden bamboo scoops or Chashaku and gazed lovingly at them, before turning to me and effusing, “Ahhh I love dark wood so much. It’s such a hard choice! I can’t decide which one to use!” It reminded me of the scene in the early part of The Devil Wears Prada, when Anne Hathaway’s character Andrea, goes for a run through where the editors bring their selections to Miranda Priestly. One of the editors holds up two cerulean belts and sighs heavily while saying, “It’s a tough call. They’re so different.” Of course, to Andrea’s inexperienced eyes they look exactly the same. It pretty much felt the same for me! But I loved seeing her so enthusiastic about something as simple as selecting the items for the ceremony.
And indeed, the care that goes into the selection of the equipment for the ceremony is a hugely important part of 茶道. It goes back to the concept of 一期一会 (Ichigo-Ichie)(One Time, One Encounter), in that we may never again see the same Chawan bowl or Natsume (Matcha powder container) used so we must treasure what we have to experience in this encounter. When Tom was seeing P off, T guided me in my role as a Guest, showing me how I had to take the Chawan, lift it respectfully to ‘thank the Gods’ for this beautiful bowl, then take the time to turn it around and appreciate it, for we may never see the same bowl again.
It’s amazing, the different sort of people one can meet learning 茶道. Looking back, I couldn’t have asked for better fellow students to learn with at my first lesson with T-Sensei. After seeing the higher complexity of the High Summer 茶道, I asked T-Sensei how many variations of Tea Ceremonies there are and how many most students would need to learn. He said it’s hard to tell how many because some books say anything from 500 to 1000. After seeing my jaw drop, he smiled and gave the best reply. “A lot of students will ask how many tea ceremonies there are and how many they need to learn. I always say the only tea ceremony you need to learn is the one that you need to know for now.”
Rings of the wisdom of Zen Buddhism, no?
(An overview of the tea equipment used for the High Summer Ceremony, along with T-Sensei’s rather jittery dog, Loki. As he emphasised many times, if you line up your equipment in the order that you needed to use them, you won’t forget anything.
From the front of the row: Fan, Tray with biscuits for guests, Leaf on top of Bamboo Mizusashi water container, Beautiful Chawan with whisk, cleaning cloth, Chashaku all prepared, Natsume containing Matcha Powder, Kensui with Bamboo Scoop and a little stand for balancing the scoop.)
Looking forward to my next lesson already. But first, I need to set aside some time for practice. I managed to find some videos on Youtube which I might be able to practise to and if you’re interested to see what the basic Bonryaku Tea Ceremony is like, this is one example.