Sunday, June 23, 2013

Her Master's Voice: Review of Genshitsu, Daisosho's "The Enjoyment of Tea"

Sen Soshitsu, XV, Hounsai, the 15th generation grand master of the Urasenke way of tea, now known as Sen Genshitsu, translates his title in retirement, Daisosho, as "open guard". Having been one of now only two O-iemotos, grand tea masters, to retire during his lifetime, he has enabled his son, then Wakasosho, young master, Zabosai, to accede to the head of household, commercial and cultural empire of Urasenke as Sen Soshitsu XVI. Thus, the elder Sen has taken a carte blanche to be of service to the world-wide world of tea he vastly expanded in ways that he sees fit: an ambassador without portfolio.

In 2004, at the auspicious age of 80 years, he wrote a small book that has been translated into English by Maya L. Perry as The Enjoyment of Tea (2006, Tankosha, Kyoto). This easy to read collection of essays is less hindsight and grandiose wishes for the future, and more a volume of key points that might serve as a companion for teacher training. 

Some of this autobiographical material has appeared in past issues of Chanoyu Quarterly, or the Urasenke Newsletter, both in English through the good offices of Gretchen Mittwer, the primary Kokusaibu translator. One can easily skip over it as it really doesn't add to the body of knowledge about Urasenke life back-stage. Perhaps that will precipitate in 20 years, or perhaps the rest will remain in the shadows.

There also are certainly numerous official (patronized and otherwise patronizing) biographies that have been published abut the man who made efforts to promote peace in a bowl of tea around the world after the defeat of Japan in the Pacific War. One can arguably state that he did the very best that he could. Again, none reveal more than what is desired to be public.

The late UCLA Professor Dr. Herbert Plutschow's The Grand Tea Master (2001, Weatherhill, Trumbull, CT) is a much longer, but similar biography. (Dr. Plutschow established two courses in chanoyu at his institution, but, like other top academicians there, he was never able to leverage an honorary doctorate for Hounsai, and thus, UCLA was never the recipient of one of the numerous donations of tea house teaching facilities that sprang up around the world during Sen Soshitsu XV's reign.)  Other scholars, such as Rand Castile (The Way of Tea, 1971, Weatherhill, New York) have published official biographies of the Sen family in addition to the history of Urasenke Chado, and basic information about dogu, utensils, and the tea “ceremony” experience. This latter book was in fact the text for my UCLA Extension course taught by Dr. Plutschow and is a good, now out of print, overview of what chanoyu. Like all books, it lacks the essence of the experience of doing it by merely projecting what “happens”.

In his most recent book, Genshitsu chose to include key points that specifically relate to important aspects of the sentiment of chanoyu practice, and these would make great outline of topics for teacher training, if not simply discussion among English speaking chajin. I originally thought that this blog post would focus on the need for such formal instructor instruction in English, but that will have to wait for another posting.

Looking over my notes from the book (written as possible topics for this blog), I see that even they lack the soulful experience of holding this little book in hand and reading a short section, as if  Her "Master’s Voice, to paraphrase the slogan of the RCA Victor phonograph company, is being projected.

The most outstanding of my entries is Daisosho’s explanation of shu / ha / ri. Shu being to protect or obey; ha, to break or break through in movement; ri, to leave or separate. Altogether, it is the capacity “to be able to understand or appreciate something only after being separated from it.” I learned it originally as when one puts down a utensil, including a bowl of freshly whisked matcha for the guest to collect and drink, it is as if one is saying goodbye, giving it up. Now I understand that it can also mean how I feel when I take a break from classes.

Daisosho also comments about hinshu gokan, the transposition and ultimate unification of roles of host and guest. This book has the magic of the soul of tea that only a practitioner can understand at the most profound level.

The book also includes a translation by Mittwer and Perry of the classic 100 “poems” by Rikkyu. One might appropriate these latter poems as the important points for teachers as well. 

Reading this book, I can hear the voice of my own teacher, Sosei Matsumoto, who studied and ultimately lived with the Sen family when the war broke out and its duration, because she is an exceptional ambassador of the heart of chanoyu. It has been my experience over the past 28 years as her student that she has been a steadfast ambassador of the letter and spirit of Urasenke. So, while the information is not new, it is clearly what is to be handed down through the legacy of this practice.

"Nipper" listening to His Master's Voice, RCA Victor logo