It’s been such a long time since I’ve written about my Tea adventures. Not to say that I haven’t been going for more tea lessons; on the contrary, looking back on 2017 in Berlin, learning Tea (especially Tea at T-Sensei’s) has been a major highlight of my time in Berlin. I couldn’t be more grateful for the sheer serendipity of meeting him at the museum’s tea session that one fateful day and starting my tea journey with him after. I suppose it was a little idealistic of me to think that I could very faithfully document my experiences in perfectly numbered, chronological order because after not documenting my sessions for a few weeks, I sort of lost track of the lesson number. ^^ And then it became a sort of mental obstacle when I thought about how I would have to sieve through my schedule book in order to figure out the lesson number… in the end, as Tim Ferriss often asks himself, what would this look like if it were easier? What works in the long run is whatever is simplest to carry out. So instead of numbering my tea lessons, perhaps I’ll go by the overarching theme for that lesson or group of lessons instead, for ease of documentation.
After looking through the last 茶道 related post, I realised it’s really been far too long since I’ve last written about it!! So much has happened in the past few months, it’s incredible to think about how much I’ve learned:
– after the basic Bonryaku Temae, I learned the beautiful Naka-Oki ceremony in October. It’s actually one of the ‘transitional’ ceremonies to mark the passage from the Summer to Winter ceremonies. An ceremony just for autumn in a way. It was beautiful and the first one in which I learned how to hold the Hishaku (long wooden water scoop). That one took me quite a few weeks to learn because it had so many new movements related to the drawing of water and placement of the Hishaku against the kettle. There was a different movement for drawing of hot water vs cold water, drawing water to clean the bowl vs drawing water for cleaning of the tea whisk… Even looking back I’m amazed at how quickly time passed when I learned that ceremony. Happy sigh. Looking forward to experiencing it again next October.
(The set-up for the beautiful transitional Naka-Oki ceremony. Which for the life of me I can’t seem to remember doing much of at all ^^ Learning the winter style ceremony has been the focus for the past 2 months or so and it’s amazing how different it is from this Naka-Oki one that I learned. From what I can recall, the key difference is that the Mizusashi or cold water vessel is actually placed on the left hand side, further away from the guests because as winter approaches, the host wants to give the guests the feeling of warmth rather than coldness. With this simple shift in placement of the Mizusashi, the host’s consideration can be seen. Isn’t that amazing?)
(The set up for my very first Winter Ceremony ^^. I loved loved looooved how T-Sensei had the most luxuriant vine of a plant that went all the way across the wooden table. Added so much – along with the passing of Autumn to Winter, I learned my very first Winter Ceremony. Ohhh the absolute pleasure I had in realising It was so much easier to grasp than the Naka-Oki ceremony because there were much fewer variations in Hishaku techniques. But the beauty and simplicity of it never failed to send a happy tingle down my spine.)
– along with the passing of Autumn to Winter, I learned my very first Winter Ceremony. Ohhh the absolute pleasure I had in realising It was so much easier to grasp than the Naka-Oki ceremony because there were much fewer variations in Hishaku techniques. But the beauty and simplicity of it never failed to send a happy tingle down my spine.
– From the initial basic Winter Ceremony, it progressed on to learning the ceremony with Haiken (displaying of the Natsume (tea caddy) and Chashaku (tea scoop) to the guests, with Tana (or a wooden display shelf specially used to elevate the ceremony and show off the Natsume and Mizusashi (cold water pot) right from the start of the ceremony.
– Played my first role in a mini 茶事 Tea Ceremony that T-Sensei so kindly decided to throw for my mum when she visited in November 2017. It was right after I’d learned the winter ceremony and of course my mum was curious about these ‘tea lessons’ I’d been going for. Though initially I thought perhaps I would bring her to sit in for a lesson or something simple, turns out T-Sensei does not do anything in small measures. It was a full on Ceremony which started off with him completely changing his living room space into a magical almost oasis in desert type space with white gauzy sheets draped up to form an enclosed space for our makeshift tea room. He did the entire thing, with a small Kaiseki meal (simple but delish with rice, miso soup, some stewed pumpkin) and fresh persimmon slices served as the sweets before the Thick Tea. He performed the Thick Tea Ceremony for my mum and I then did the Thin Tea ceremony for her. It was an absolutely magical time which I was so grateful to have shared with her. Pretty hilarious that she actually asked for a second bowl of matcha because doesn’t every guest just stop at one serving of anything in a new environment?? I literally was ROFLMAO-ing inside. And after that she revealed to me that she had fallen asleep for a few minutes when I had been doing the tea ceremony. T-Sensei said, oh no wonder she suddenly went quiet for a while when before she was chatting and asking loads of questions. *Inserts facepalm emoji about now~*
(Some of the flowers we had picked out from the florist for the occasion. I of course chose the rather wistful, forlorn clematis (at least I think that’s what it is!) because it seemed perfect for tea. But my mum wanted more robust bright flowers so I think we ended up getting some roses as well. In the end he ended up re-decorating with lots of different vases around his place and I was able to appreciate them in a different light altogether.)
(Loki sniffing at the layer cake that my mum and I had baked!! It’s a whole other story but when my mum came to visit, she suddenly had the urge to bake though she hardly steps into the kitchen back home. What started out as an attempt to back my Ahpo’s 5 layer Indonesian cake ended up become a 3 layered cake 2 attempts and 38 eggs yolks later… In the end when Loki ended up eating the initial 3 pieces I had laid out on the plate, it really made my day~! ^^)
-before my trip back to SG, in my final tea lesson of 2017 with T-Sensei, he introduced the Thick tea (Koicha) ceremony to me. I think he really wanted to see me get all mind-blown because as hilariously mind-blown as I was, I was also deeply deeply impressed by the complexity of the ceremony. It’s a different ball game altogether. I pretty much promptly forgot all the new techniques he taught because it was off to London over Xmas and then back to SG after the New Year so… we shall see what happens tomorrow when I go for tea class. My first of 2018.
Some beautiful teachings that I’d noted down in my notebook for me to always keep in mind and heart:
“You are the Tana.”
One of my favourite quotes from T-Sensei when I had started learning the Winter Ceremony with Tana. It was probably one of those sessions when I was doing my movements too quickly (my biggest problem when it comes to doing Tea as we had quickly recognised). What he meant was, I am the Tana, or the wooden rack that ‘elevates’ the entire ceremony, purely through the way I perform it. Especially with the smallest movements, in the attention to details such as speed of cleaning and the way I hold objects. Make light objects appear heavy (with importance). By cleaning deliberately, we show the guest how much importance we place on the item we are cleaning and hence signal to them that the object itself is something to be viewed with importance. If we rush through the ceremony, not only does the guest not get the chance…the TIME and space to appreciate the beauty of everything in display, being used, they also won’t be able to comprehend the gravity and significance of the ceremony. How we treat the utensils, the way in which we hold the Chawan (tea bowl), that moment we steal to take a peek at the dredges of matcha in the empty Chawan after the esteemed guest has drunk it… all those moments can be made precious and its importance emphasised, merely with intention and mind of the host, translating his/her earnestness to actions in the ceremony.
How can one not fall in love with this? I suppose one reason I adore 茶道 so much is it’s relation to life’s journey. Whatever I learn in Tea, I learn for life. And it’s incredibly comforting to always be reminded of how this is a journey and not a goal. Just like life.
I’m often made to think about my original intent of learning tea however, whenever I come to what feels like a bump or obstacle of sorts in my gaining knowledge and expertise on tea. I get that sinking feeling in my tummy and a warm wash over my face whenever at the tea museum, I feel that I’m not in a position to learn the next best step for me. The past 1-2 times at the museum, I’ve come to realise the ‘problem’ that beginner’s face, which is that there is often no teaching of the Ceremonies for beginners. Most of the time, it’s the more advanced students who get to practice their advanced techniques and the real noobie Beginners like me mostly sit to watch or sometimes partake as guests but with no clear plan of our own on how to progress.
This idea of progressing in a measurable way is something that I’ve been thinking about as well. Perhaps it’s quite an Asian thing to always wonder what is the level of my skill or competency? Is there a definite, quantifiable way of measuring? Is there a test I can take to get to a certain level or at least prove to myself that I am of a certain standard? I have a feeling it’s something that’s been ingrained in me for so long that it’s only now, when I don’t have clear answers to these questions that I find myself wondering what the meaning behind such qualifications is, especially for something that is meant to be a lifelong pursuit such as Tea.
Initially when I first started I got excited thinking well, perhaps I could obtain certain levels of competency in this Urasenke school of tea and maybe even be able to teach other students next time in order to share the beauty of 茶道 with more people. I’ve definitely been influenced by T-Sensei in this regard, in that the basis of tea is that it is something that’s meant to bring people together. While improving and attaining a high level of competency would be extremely gratifying to the ego, it would fail to live up to its original purpose unless it could be shared with others. For the time being, my greatest challenge in learning Tea would be in finding the right balance of achievement versus cultivating the spirit to be one of enjoyment and sharing with others. For something as deep and with such high barriers to access (namely the Japanese language because so many major aspects of Tea has to do with knowledge of Japanese terms, words, phrases, idioms even, which all change with the seasons), I find that it is difficult to advance as a non-Japanese.
This time when back in SG, I was able to contact the Urasenke association and obtained permission to sit in for one of their lessons. Though I could understand the gist of what was happening, it felt rather awkward sitting by the edge of the room without so much as any acknowledgement by the Sensei in charge. It felt surprisingly cold and unwelcoming though after awhile two of the members came over to explain the membership terms to me. The entire class was conducted in Japanese (though perhaps there might have been 1 or 2 Singaporean ladies because the teacher had spoken a short phrase to them in English in the midst of everything) and questions/jokes/back and forth repartee was all done in Japanese. That sinking feeling arose in my tummy again. At the end of my sit in session, I couldn’t help but feel that thank goodness I started learning tea in Berlin, guided by T-Sensei, a German, because right from the start, the emphasis was always on the beauty of Tea as a way of sharing and enjoying life. I have a feeling that if I had started out in SG , my main preoccupation would have been with attaining higher levels of competency and I would always have felt inadequate amongst the native Japanese ladies.
Even for someone like me who is actively learning the language and have been doing so for a few years, I find it difficult to sometimes get closer to the teachers and there is a certain barrier that is palpable, the most superficial level reason of which could be the language barrier of course. Why would they spend time trying to explain the nuances of things to non-Japanese, non-native speaker, when they could be teaching the Japanese students who would grasp things far more easily in the end? In the end, it requires twice as much work in order to learn and advance especially when it comes to this incredibly beautiful yet cloistered and exclusive art form. It’s a love-hate relationship in a way, that I’ve struggled with for a lot of my life thinking back.There are so many aspects of the Japanese culture that I love and feel such a inexplicable kinship with. I know there are many Singaporeans who, like me, would call themselves Japanophiles and strive to reach the level of natives in communicating and exploring the culture.
At the end of the day though, while I’ve come to terms with this a long time ago, I often am reminded of how I need to work at containing the disappointment when I can’t measure up. I probably never will never be at the level where I’m able to take in aspects of their arts and culture as smoothly and easily as the natives, and instead of stressing/beating myself up over that, perhaps by accepting that I will never be ‘one of them’, my journey and process of learning will take on its own layer of beauty and patina through the years. Perhaps simply by approaching everything with a sincere, open heart and Beginner’s Mind, there is so much more to be gained than constantly thinking of how I/my ego appears in comparison to others.
This is the path of Tea, it seems. And I’ve got a long long but beautiful way to go.