Sunday, January 4, 2015

Greater Ordinary: The Taste of Gratitude

wabi sabi
In a recent episode of “Cool Japan”, a pop culture program on NHK Television (via KCET), there was  discussion about wabi – sabi, Japan’s most iconic, yet elusive aesthetic markers. While each guest suggested an attribute of some thing, it became clear to me that the dyad is really an invocation to awaken one’s inner self to the beauty of the ordinary.

This is the stuff of poets and is definitely not wasabi, the horseradish grated at sushi bars. Like the term “Zen”, these two distinct terms are deeply misunderstood in the West, and, among Japanese people, their meanings are so embedded in the shadows and materials of everyday life that it is almost impossible to speak about them.
Sabi, from the verb to rust, is the sensibility of weathered, used, and experienced. On the other hand, wabi, from the verb meaning to feel forlorn, is to be retired, withdrawn from distractions. Together, they constitute the fundamental experience of chado, The Way of Tea.
As practitioners of chado, we immerse ourselves in training activities to develop sensitivity to harmony, purity and respect that leads to tranquility in the whole of our experience, whether laying charcoal to boil water or just sitting with the lingering taste of tea on our tongue. It is often said that it is the taste of Zen itself.
A chaji, formal tea gathering, is an exercise for the guest to develop gratitude from the moment s/he walks through the middle gate into the roji, literally “dewy path”, toward the chashitsu, a humble hut or room. With every step on a short, meandering, uneven rock pathway through lightly misted greenery, we leave behind the mundane world and, eventually crawl through the tiny hatch opening into the small tearoom. Inside, we see a few simply-arranged flowers set in the alcove, a scroll with one calligraphed word or phrase, hear the matsukaze (sound of the wind in the pines) coming from the kettle’s mouth as the water begins to boil, enjoy the slight scent of sandalwood incense and taste a small seasonal sweet before the tea is served. All are opportunities assembled by the host to trigger inner awareness of self that begins reconnect us to exquisite life. 
It takes a lifetime to learn to be a good guest. And to have a grateful one is a blessing to the host.
In the turbulent 16th Century in Kyoto Sen no Rikyu, our great chado ancestor, lost his life over promoting the wabi – sabi aesthetic to the egomaniacal Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Shogun became fixated on the power chanoyu and its master held over him. He struggled mightily to possess every aspect of it, much like he possessed power through swash-buckling samurai, castles, land, and gorgeous tea utensils from China and Korea. In one tale, Hideyoshi stormed toward Rikyu’s tea hut compound to see the master’s acclaimed hedge of morning glory flowers, only to be confronted with an exterior wall of green leaves and single bloom placed by the master in the tearoom’s alcove. What happened next in that tiny wood / paper / thatched hut? Rikyu made tea for the fuming warlord and served it to him in a roughly crafted bowl made by a local potter.
Almost a half millennium since those days, my teacher Matsumoto Sosei, the distinguished master of Japanese Tea Ceremony, here in Los Angeles, always reminds us to be cognizant of the source of the hospitality. “Appreciate first!” sensei always admonishes us when we are served the tray of sweets or a bowl of tea. We learn to kansha, to slightly raise up the tray or bowl before partaking. In Japan, bowing too low can be an insult. Even the formalities of language used in the tearoom promote gratitude: while the host offers the sweets and tea “up” to the guest, the guest receives them from “above”. 

While there’s not much quantity of tea in the chawan, or furnishings in the chashitsu, amazingly, it satisfies one’s entire being to the ordinary moment. 

Paradoxically, it is possible to leave the tearoom both fuller and emptier than when one arrived.
(Originally written for the "40 Day Gratitude Journey" on Dr. Hanna Chusid's diablog.
For a more detailed discussion, please see my review "Wabi Savvy:  When Less is, More or Less, More" Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren in Kyoto Journal #29, 1995.
Calligraphy Sources