These past few weeks have absolutely whizzed by. D and I were just talking about why we sometimes feel more tired than we did back home in SG even though broadly speaking, it’s not as if we’re attending many more activities here in Berlin, nor is our commute particularly tiring. In fact, his is literally a 3 minute walk to work and the nearest S-Bahn subway station from our place is also pretty much a 3 minute walk too. But I do find myself feeling a little tired out sometimes even if I’ve only had to go for a class in the morning and there’s nothing else planned in the afternoon. And then it hit me, we’re more tired because we have to take care of ourselves. (Insert the laughing till he/she cries emoticon here!) 😉 No parents… no helper… no car… to rely on for so many conveniences that we have hitherto taken for granted back home. Just us. It’s something that anyone who has studied/lived overseas will have realised but I guess since this is really the first time I’ve lived abroad for an extended period of time… there really are lots of things that can slowly etch away at one’s energy levels. Like tidying. Or laundry. Lol. But then again, the plus side is that at least here there aren’t many things that require me to dredge out reserves of energy against my will…compared to work back home. There’s always a place and time for everything in a different stage of life, it seems.
For my 4th Tea Ceremony class, I went to T-Sensei’s place again. This time, was the first time that I kind of felt my energy levels zap off after awhile. But reflecting back, I could figure out why. Because there’s only so much 茶道 watching that one can do without feeling the urge to try it out for oneself.
The class started off great, with fellow tea classmate T (whom I naturally adore for her sunny disposition and all round palpable enthusiasm for tea) having brought some Sencha for T-Sensei to try. So before class, we sat down for a more modern day version of tea. It was fascinating, listening to them talk and realising that there is so much more that we can appreciate in our ‘everyday teas’. Of course, it was mainly Sencha, or roasted green tea (different from the matcha powder that is green tea that has been ground) that they were referring to in their discussion. But to think that I’ve been drinking my Sencha rather blindly, simply adding hot water straight from the kettle into the tea pot, when in fact, there are actually optimal brewing temperatures for each type of tea. The taste and aroma of certain teas especially Sencha may be best brought out by temperatures of e.g. 70- 80 degrees Celsius and are usually written on the back of the tea package (as T kindly pointed out. To think that I’ve never really made the effort to read the instructions on the back of tea packages!). The better the quality of the tea, the less hot the water needs to be in order for us to appreciate it. The lousier the quality, it sometimes needs hotter water in order for the flavour to emerge from the tea leaves. Not only that, but there are also optimal brew times for the teas. As a rough rule, the first brew is 60 seconds while for the second infusion, it is usually about 30 seconds and then it increases to 45 seconds for the third infusion. As as you increase the number of brews, it’s also better to increase the temperature. Tea brewing is pretty much a type of science eh? But as we took the time to savour the tea, I could actually taste the very subtle hints of difference between the different brews. I suppose this is truly a way to enjoy tea. Taking the time to sit down, wait for the tea leaves to steep, chat with friends, no distractions in place such that when the tea hits your tongue, you’re in the right frame of mind to appreciate the subtleties of flavour each time. Compared to how I usually drink tea (as an accompaniment to another task such as reading/writing as I’m doing now), it made me feel that there is so much that can be savoured from something as simple as a cup of tea. The key is to bother to take the time and the energy to pay attention to it. It’s an act of mindfulness once again. Even if it wasn’t the official 茶道 ceremony, drinking tea that way was also something of a beautiful experience. I couldn’t help but feel that this is the way to live. By making an art out of the simplest things in life. ❤
After our short tea session, I practised the basic Bonryaku Tea Ceremony next to T whom I was supposed to copy. It was a little out of the usual practice with us performing the ceremony side by side (because there are strict rules about how the equipment is supposed to be set up) but as T-Sensei said in his usual relaxed drawl, ‘some rules are meant to be broken so that we can learn when we go crazy’. It was definitely helpful being able to copy her step by step because I could get a good idea of the basic flow of the ceremony with its seemingly hundreds of steps. Of course, in the ideal world, I wish I could have practised another round or two more just to get the steps etched in my mind. But T practised a round of the the more advanced form of High Summer Tea which she had done the previous week. I enjoyed watching her perform it and seeing that even though she was much more advanced in her practice, occasionally she would pause and cringe when she tried to remember what the next step was supposed to be. T-Sensei had to tell her time and again to relax. And in his debrief for her after her performance, she practised the technique of wringing the Fukin (cloth used for cleaning the Chawan) which she had long gotten used to but he was fine-tuning. While she expressed frustration at trying a different method, he said it was only natural because her body had already gotten used to doing it a certain way. Fine-tuning was often much harder than teaching one a technique from scratch.
After that, T-Sensei suggested that perhaps the next ceremony would be one specially for the ‘unveiling’ of a Chawan that had just been used for the first time. Apparently, there’s supposed to be a special type of ceremony each time a Chawan has its maiden run. But when I heard that, as much as I knew it would be an incredibly beautiful ceremony which I would’ve wanted to watch, I also felt incredibly tired at the thought that there was no way I would be able to participate except as a guest, because that was too advanced a ceremony. Rationally, I know that this is something that will keep recurring especially since I’m just a beginner and there will be many more advanced tea ceremonies that I will participate in as a guest rather than as a host. If I want to be a good student and expose myself to as many ceremonies as I can for my own learning, I should watch as much as I can. But I simply couldn’t bring myself to spend another hour watching…and killing the sensation in my feet by sitting Seiza. Paying full attention to a whole tea ceremony can be more draining than expected. And the fact is that whenever I watch the ceremony, I always want to be fully present, learning from the host, and learning my role as guest what I need to do at the crucial steps. So I decided to take my leave before the next round commenced.
As I left to head back home, I remember feeling a bundle of emotions in my belly. There was fatigue of course, and hunger, both of which when put together in the same room, never do anything but wreak havoc in my mind. And for some reason many a time, 茶道 lessons tend to last for at least 2-3 hours…without much time for a break/snack in between. So I wasn’t in an ideal state of body or mind. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of frustration as well. Because as much as I wanted to practise, there would be some limitations to the amount of practise I could get at each session, especially if there was a more advanced student there with me. T-Sensei had said that it was natural for me as a beginner to take a long time to learn the basics but once I could learn it well, moving on to more advanced techniques would be easier. All I wanted at that point was to be able to practise more and receive some guidance from him, because while he had done a thorough debrief for T, he hadn’t given me any feedback for my performance. Perhaps it’s my personality; being someone who is naturally driven especially if it’s something I’m interested in. But it was hard to shake off that feeling of helplessness, thinking that my speed of improvement might be limited by the vision my Sensei has for my progress as a Beginner.
I suppose this is always the case for learning any new skill or craft. The Beginner probably starts off extremely enthusiastic and craves learning more as quickly as possible. But as bumps in the learning journey are met, this is when steam is lost and reality checks are made. Of course, I can only speak for myself and based on my own experience. I tend to jump into something I’m interested in at full steam, wanting to experience the fun of it as soon as possible because well, why wait, if you can enjoy learning as much as possible now? But maybe these bumps in the road are precisely what I need so that I will be forced to keep asking myself, is this something I really want to do?
Fast forward to my fifth session of 茶道 held earlier this week. This one was the once a month lesson held by the Urasenke Association at the museum. The theme for this month’s session was that of the Chrysanthemum and the Moon, because we would be celebrating 十五夜 Juugoya (15th day of the 8th month of the Lunar calendar, traditionally associated with the harvest moon) and 月見 Tsukimi, or the moon-viewing session. It was nice cosy session, with just two other students for the time slot that I went for because it was more for Beginner’s level. And once again, N-Sensei chose beautiful seasonal accents to decorate the tea room. The scroll that hung in the Tokonoma alcove read 吾心似秋月, a condensed version of a line from a Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Hanshan, 我が心, 秋月に似たり．Loosely translated, it means, My Heart, like the Autumn Moon. After some googling, I found this translation of part of the poem:
“My heart is like the autumn moon
perfectly bright in the deep green pond
nothing can compare with it
you tell me how it can be explained.”
(Isn’t it beautiful? I love the imaginary of the full autumn moon reflected back in a clear pond. And a poet overlooking the pond on an Autumn night, heart as full as the moon…)
In her handout which was in Japanese and German, there were pictures of 7 flowers most representative of Autumn (秋の7草）. And for her flower arrangement, there were gentle stalks of Susuki or Chinese Silver Grass included, just as depicted in the photos in her handouts. A slice of Japan right in our tearoom. Amazingly, she said that all those were plants that she had plucked straight from her garden, as is supposed to be the tradition in obtaining simple seasonal flowers for the Tea Ceremony floral arrangement.
(Simple, yet replete with beauty. Something to strive for in everyday life.)
As both C and I were beginners, we both did the simple Bonryaku Tea Ceremony, though C’s was slightly more complicated with the tea set at a slight diagonal, facing the guests more. It’s amazing how ‘simple’ the ceremony looks when there are so many steps involved. And C performed hers with such an air of calmness and maturity that I felt so at ease watching her. Then came my turn. Oh boy, there’s nothing like performing the tea ceremony and literally being put in the spotlight to know where all your flaws lie. And gosh, did I have many. XD But I’m so glad N-Sensei gave me the chance to try because otherwise who knows when I would have been able to learn that I needed work for so many steps?
Starting from opening of the door from the Mizuya (kitchen preparation area) to the tea room, to the method of walking to take my position in front of the Furo (or brazier, where the tea pot is placed), there were so many basics steps that I hadn’t learnt and had to be guided step by step. Of course, I’m sure as Sensei she has seen all manner of students in her career but I still couldn’t help but feel utterly embarrassed that I was at the most basic of the Beginner’s level. Then came the Fukusa folding. Though I had practised it at home and with T-Sensei’s help, it turns out that my method of folding was not perfect, as I was not able to get the Fukusa folded evenly into half before using it to clean the equipment. Perhaps I thought that Sensei and her assistant teacher, a more advanced student, A, would allow me to sort of gloss over it after a few attempts but no, A even folded a piece of paper to demonstrate how the ideal end result should be. After chatting with him during the break and finding out he worked as a journalist and majored in Chinese studies back in his university days, I found him to have a rather strict sort of demeanour. The way he spoke English was almost with an English accent, and he felt rather exacting in his expectations. Not quite what I had been expecting, really. But as I fumbled my way through the Tea Ceremony, I came to feel that no matter how strict they seem, this is all for my own learning progress. And as the seconds ticked by and I neared the end of the ceremony, I could feel the embarrassed warmth of my cheeks fade and the stiffness of my shoulders disappear as there were fewer and fewer steps left that I could make mistakes in. Not quite the relaxing ceremony that I’m used to witnessing as a guest but when it was over, I felt immense relief and gratitude for having had N-Sensei and A give so many words of instruction.
Before class ended, N-Sensei whipped up some Usucha (or thin Matcha tea) for all of us to drink as we enjoyed some Mochi and Azuki red bean paste (ohh I’ve missed the flavor of red bean so much!), a snack traditionally eaten for the moon-viewing festival. I’m sure there was a more advanced form of the Tea Ceremony that the advanced students would probably have practiced especially for this occasion but we didn’t manage to witness it.
(MMM the flavour of red bean… Absolutely delish!)
As C and I packed up our stuff, I mustered up the nerve to ask N-Sensei if she perhaps taught Tea Ceremony lessons privately. Was there any chance I could perhaps take lessons more frequently than once a week, was the question that was running through my mind. She answered that currently she was in fact, teaching 茶道 at her house once a week but at the moment, only to Japanese students, because language-wise, it was much easier for her. She seemed to get what I was hinting at but said that she might consider opening a class for non-Japanese students in the future and she would let me know if that happened.
Naturally, I felt rather crushed inside. Throughout the lesson, I had tried to speak to her in Japanese whenever possible in order to practise and to communicate since my German is still rather non-existent. Most times though, I did end up speaking English so that the other students would know what I was asking her. However, I found that even when I asked her questions in Japanese, she often replied to me either in English or sometimes even in German which I found befuddling because I thought she knew that I couldn’t speak any German. Perhaps she was simply used to teaching in German if she wasn’t speaking Japanese. But it made me wonder if my Japanese was so bad as to make her want to reply me in anything but Japanese. I couldn’t help but feel a heavy weight in my stomach. I had been trying my best to keep up with my learning of Japanese through lessons and reading materials but perhaps it wasn’t quite good enough for my 茶道 Sensei? I remember leaving the museum with a really heavy heart. Thinking back, it’s only natural isn’t it? Having had a form of rejection after all. I remember wondering, should I try to email N-Sensei in Japanese to ask her if she would be so kind as to allow me to try out one of her tea classes even if she taught in Japanese? It would definitely be easier for me to understand than listening to the German that is used a lot in our current class.
But after mulling over it for the past few days, I’ve decided to give that thought a rest. Talking with C on the way back made me feeling better and slightly more hopeful. She’s middle aged and only started taking Tea lessons about a year ago and also takes lessons sometimes with T-Sensei. She recommended that I ask him to schedule my time slots such that I would be the only student at that time rather than with other students. Funny how I’d never thought of that. She said that initially she had been lucky, for the time slots she had chosen just happened not to coincide with any other students and she managed to progress when learning one-on-one with T-Sensei.
So perhaps, this entire thing has brought me back full circle to where I first started. With my extra once a week lesson with T-Sensei which I’d asked for just so I could have more than the once a month practise at the museum. Perhaps I had just been impatient. And just maybe… not being able to obtain extra lessons from N-Sensei was a sign that I needed to take a step back to really think about just how much thought and energy I wanted to devote to 茶道. I’ve always had a feeling that it was something that would bring me closer to meaning in life. It’s a living manifestation of Zen Buddhism after all. Perhaps this is just another way that it’s teaching me about myself. My own anxieties, fears, worries about how others perceive me…at the end of the day, it’s something that’s makes me reflect about myself and my way of being. Maybe this is part of the 茶道 after all.
One thing that resonated in me so strongly this time was Brené Brown‘s words on the Hypothesis of Generosity. (“What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”) After repeatedly being spoken to in English/German by N-Sensei despite my attempts to converse with her in Japanese and her telling me she only had a tea class once a week for Japanese students, I had to rumble (yet another great Brené Brown teaching) with my feelings on what had happened. Instead of assuming the worst, I decided that I had to focus on the most generous assumption possible, in that perhaps she really just wanted me to be able to understand the lesson more easily and perhaps with all the different languages flying around, she forgot that I didn’t speak German. And she has every right to not want to teach a student whose Japanese capability is far from native speaker level. I can imagine there’s enough stress teaching in German as it is. Regardless of whether that’s the truth or not (and who’s to decide the truth anyhow, if there is such a thing), it certainly makes it easier for me to go through life assuming the most generous intentions of others. Thank you, Brené, for this lesson.
“It’s called Tea Way and not Tea Goal for a reason,” T-Sensei had reminded T at our lesson last week when she had been frustrated about not getting the fine tuning of her technique so quickly. At that time I had thought that was very true and common sense wasn’t it? Now it’s me who needs that reminder. To just enjoy being on this Way of Tea and being clear minded enough to appreciate the gifts that come each stage of the way. At this beginner’s level, it’s the people I’m meeting/the friendships I’m building that I love. One moment that really touched my heart was when I was heading back after the class at the museum and sitting on the train with C, a German lady who is probably old enough to be my mum or at least an Aunt, talking to her about why she wanted to learn 茶道 and her sharing with me her experiences from childhood of going to museums and seeing pieces of Japanese art and feeling that inexplicable pull towards the Japanese culture. Feeling as if she might have been born Japanese in another life. Us laughing over such incredible coincidences in our interests despite coming from such different backgrounds. These are the moments to treasure, more than trying to nurture my own ego in getting rapidly better at performing the tea ceremony.
More next time. ❤