Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Entering the Way of Tea: The “Dewy Path” to the Tea House


Entering the Way of Tea: The “Dewy Path” to the Tea House

Originally Published in Parabola (Fall 2009)



Since the Dewy Path
Is a way that lies outside,
This most impure world
Shall we not, on entering it,
Cleanse our hearts from earthly mire?[1]
--- Sen no Rikyu


 “Please come for tea.

My invitation to attend a chaji 茶事[2], a formal Japanese tea gathering, offered a poem by the venerable Bashô (1644 – 1694):

Haru nare ya
It has become spring!
Na-mo-naki-yama no
Even on the nameless mountains
Usu-gasumi!
A thin mist!

By all accounts, spring, indeed, had arrived! Blossoms were appearing on the plum trees; butterflies were celebrating near rape flowers; earthworms were weaving in and out of bright green new shoots of grasses encouraged forth by the blessings of rain. All proceeding in due time, at a natural pace. The process of chanoyu
(茶の湯) preparing hot water for tea, another name for the ritual, was very appropriate for such an occasion.

Practitioners of “the Way of Tea” (sado[3] 茶道) know that the guest (kyaku 客) arrives in the same way, in due time and with a clear, natural intention: to create a singular union of mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart with the host   (teishu 亭主)and fellow guests. Together we would engage in this once-in-a-lifetime meeting (ichi go ichi e 一期一会).  The Hebrew prayer commonly known as the “Shehechiyanu”, fits the moment perfectly:




Baruch ata Hashem,
Blessed are You,
Eloheinu Melech Haolam
Master of the Universe
Shechehiyanu
Who has kept us alive,
V’ki'imanu
And sustained us,
V’higiyanu lazman hazeh
And enabled us to reach this moment.

The beauty and complexity of the tea event, with its ritualized preparation of matcha (抹茶), the powdered form of the green leaf of camelia sinensis, was codified and inspired in Japan by Zen Buddhists, early in the Muromachi Period. The taste of tea and Zen have been said to be equals in matters of attainment of nothingness, (mu ) and emptiness (kû ). Our modern practice has come to us through an unbroken lineage of  over 16 generations of tea masters, of whom Sen no Rikyu (1522 – 1591), is considered to be our greatest ancestor.

Chanoyu captivated the imaginations of egomaniacal warlords and their swashbuckling samurai retainers, providing a moment of peace in the midst of battle, and instilled a reasonable amount of refinement and upward social mobility. To be the ultimate action hero of the time, a warrior needed to know how to prepare tea for one’s “enemy” while seated together in a tiny, rustic, no-swords-allowed hut with walls no thicker than a sheet of paper. In later years geisha training included performing the ritual for clients.

Images abound of the host methodically and seemingly mysteriously wiping precious utensils and scooping water from a sunken kettle barely visible above the tatami mat floor, its steamy voice hissing, “matsukaze” (松風), the sound of “wind in the pines”. The quest of the guest is less known. She[4] is usually depicted silently awaiting the tea sitting motionless, on her heels, hands resting in her lap. But in fact, if she’s in the tearoom, she would have just traversed the path of “The Great Way”[5] and is engaged in a liminal journey of rebirth.

Slowing it Down to Promote Social Harmony, Appreciation

"Day and night, with the monastic rules of the Zen temples as my guide ...
I unfolded the world of the Pure Land in the locus of the roji..."
-- Sen no Rikyu "Metsugo" section of Namporoku[6]

Today, while the world is smaller and the battlefields seeming more distant, individuals of all backgrounds throughout the world find in chanoyu practice opportunities for purification and self-refinement. While contemporary technology moves us at the speed of light and multi-tasking is considered a valuable capacity, there are no “short cuts” in chanoyu. We continue to aspire to attain Rikyu’s objectives: to create a condition of tranquility (jaku ), then harmony (wa ), respect (kei ) and purity (sei ). 

in an ideal setting of repose, free from anxiety, where there is “no guest, no host”,[7] our roles are nonetheless specifically defined along the lines of studied procedures learned over many years of practice that foster the communitas we seek.

On the outside, all the bowing might be misconstrued as a duel of humbleness, but in sado, too low is too rude and professing great skills and utensils is nothing short of vulgarity. The essence of this journey is implied in the notion of wabi, わび, a Japanese poetic “ideal that finds surpassing beauty and deep significance in what is humble or commonplace and appears natural or artless.”[8] Combined with the notion of sabi, さび, withered with age, the expanded concept conveys the sentiment of a life well-lived in harmony with the laws of nature.

Along the “Dewy Path”

I was one of a handful of invited guests who had arrived at the location. While the journey is extremely personal, we needed to become a cohesive group. We unanimously invited the respected chanoyu instructor among us to serve as the first guest (shokyaku 正客); she would conduct the prescribed discourse with our host on our behalf.

Chanoyu begins in the roji (露地)[9] the “dewy path” of the garden that leads to the rustic tea hut (chashitsu 茶室).
The feeling is traveling along a metaphorical riverside “mountain” path through a symbolic forest. According to the monk Jakuan Sotaku of the Eastern Capital, “…

“ … ro means “to be disclosed,” “to appear,” and ji,  ground, refers to the heart and mind. Thus, the term actually means “to discloser self-nature.” Eradicating all blind passions, one manifests one’s original nature.”[10]

The roji is designed, constructed and maintained as if it were indeed the path to Buddha’s Pure Land. Like the Israelites fleeing bondage in Egypt in the mystical interpretation of the Exodus, we would progress through a series of progressively smaller and lower gates, our “narrow” places, leaving behind the dusty defilement of the mundane world. Freed of all such encumbrances and purified, we hope to be reborn by the end of this experience.

In its earliest form the roji was an empty space, neither planned nor conceived as a garden. It was void of vegetation, resembling more the barren “open space at a crossroads,” referred to in the third chapter (“Smile and Parable”) of the Lotus Sutra.

Today most rojis include tightly-manicured, low, naturally placed foliage, such as moss, as well as evergreen, bamboo and broad-leafed trees that one would find by a mountain path running adjacent to a year-round creek. Our host’s roji included a “sleeve brushing” pine tree (sode-zuri matsu 袖摺の松) near the path to enhance a feeling of being on a narrow path in a dense forest. The garden sparkled as a result of his having carefully sprinkled water with “refined discrimination” just before we arrived.

Passing through the first gate, that of the outer garden, we reached a rustic roofed waiting arbor (machiai 待合; the bench was covered in dark blue felt upon which were straw cushions. The host was there and with a silent gesture  he opened the small gate to the “inner” garden, then turned and walked away to the tea hut.

The roji footpath itself is a series of elevated, uneven rocks (tobi-ishi, ) and occasional slate pavers naturally set into the bare earth through grass and moss covered areas. The layout subtly coaxed us to turn this way and that, providing views of the tiny garden from many vantages. The sound of our shoes on the rocks gave the host a sense of our progress toward the tea hut. The experience of walking on irregular ground immediately made us mindful of our gross, physical body. Over the three-hour chaji experience, the reminders will become more subtle as we become more attuned to the more spiritual aspects of our journey.

Here and there, our host allowed a small cluster of freshly fallen leaves appropriate for the seasonal, temporal nature of our reality. There were no flowering tress or plants that would otherwise compromise the use of naturally arranged flowers in the tea room itself. in a few feet, the roji path split, the wrong-of-way was indicated through the placement of a “barrier-keeper” stone (sekimori-ishi, 関守石), a fist-sized rock tied with a black straw chord placed in the middle of one of the stepping stones.

Purification of the Body and Mind

In about a minute’s time, we reached the proverbial “river’s edge”, represented by an informal patch of ferns shading the stooping basin rock (tsukubai 蹲踞). A signature elements of a roji, the large, low rock had a natural depression in the top into which fresh, cool water trickled from a system of freshly-cut bright green and yellow bamboo “pipes”, flowing over into the river stones below. Proceeding one by one, we each crouched down to perform the purification ritual (misogi ) of rinsing hands and mouth, and thereby the mind, using the bamboo dipper. A stone lantern (ishi-tuorou 石灯籠, another signature of a roji, stood sentry nearby.
  
“His body cleansed, the guest passes from one world to another and, with a sense of keen awareness increasing at each step of the way, finally arrives at the teahouse, whose interior has become less the realm of the connoisseur than a sacred space.”
--- Kimakura Isao[11]
Arriving

After about 15 minutes since we first gathered, the small frame of the chashitsu around the corner, resembling the hermitage o a lone aesthete, was now apparent through the trees. The host intentionally left the sliding hatch door of the guest’s entrance (nijiri-guchi 躙口) slightly ajar. The nijiri-guchi is about 26” high and 25” wide and is yet another “narrow place” for the guests, regardless of rank, to traverse as equals: one must duck inside and slide forward with the hands propelling the knees. In the earliest days of chanoyu the nijiri-guchi was the entrance through the outer wall of the garden – hut complex itself.

Negotiating the large rocks needed to access the raised entrance, one by one, we removed our shoes and made our way through the hatch, pulling one’s head and shoulders and knees up into the space. The last guest slid the door shut, touching the wood to the door frame with a “click” to indicate to the host that we were now inside. inside the room, the host had hung a scroll in the raised alcove (tokonoma 床の間), “Kan. Nan Boku Tô-zai Katsu Ro Tsûzu”,  interpreted as “Barrier. South. North. East. West. Make your escape anyway you can,” setting the mood for the remainder of the gathering.

Together At Last!

“[He] had left the burning house of the three worlds, and dwells now in the pristine garden (byakuroji). To leave the roji and take one’s seat at chanoyu is the same as escaping the afflicted world of desire and becoming a person without rank in this existence. Therein lies true “unconditional freedom.”
-- Hounsai, Sen Soshitsu XV (Daisosho, Genshitsu, 
Retired Grand Master, Urasenke)[12]

The full chanoyu, including the host’s serving a multi-course meal and sweets (and not eating with the guests!), the laying of charcoal to heat the water and two preparations of tea, took an additional three hours. It was a seamless “dance” of give and take, engaging the Taoist paradigms of yin and yang, and the five elements (earth, wind, fire, water and metal). Nothing was lacking in that tiny space.

After the final tea preparation utensils were inspected by the guests and returned to the host, he requested our pardon for having made any mistakes. Then we made a final exchange of bows and prepared to reenter the mundane world from which we came. At once physically tired but spiritually renewed, we wriggled out of the nijiri-guchi, the last guest closing it with a “click”, signaling to the host that the room was empty. The garden sparkled as it did earlier as the host had lightly watered it anew. One by one, we walked back through the “narrow places”, which seemed to be roomier than before. Closing the gates one by one, we left the “Pure Land”. Bidding each other a safe return to our homes, we went our separate ways.

If you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.
When you walk the Way, it is not near, it is not far.
If you are deluded, you are mountains and rivers away from it.[13]

***
A note from the author: I hope you enjoyed this article written for Parabola, a nonprofit journal. The original publication has many additional photographs. Please consider purchasing a copy of the magazine, (volume 35, no. 3) and support this wonderful publication. (www.parabola.org). Thanks!


[1] Sen no Rikyu quoted in Sadler, A.L., Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (Tuttle, Boston, 1962)
[2] Several sources of kanji, Chinese characters used in Japanese language, were used for this article, including http://japanese-tea-ceremony.net/chashitsu.html\ , http://www.j-prep.com , http://en.wikipedia.org/ and http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/. While one cannot fully acquire the skills and heart to practice chanoyu from any media, it is gratifying to have these language tools to help me go deeper into what I have learned through direct oral transmission of my dear sensei, Sosei Matsumoto.
[3] Also pronounced “cha-do”.
[4] The roles of host and guest in chanoyu are not gender-specific; although, the position of Grand Master and his official agents, gyotei sensei, are male.
[5] ibid, quoting the Nampôroku, the collection of writings about chanoyu attributed to Sen no Rikyu.
[6] http://wiki.chado.no/Roji
[7] ibid.
[8] www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus. A concept that combines the literal notion of “languishing” and the sentiment of “spiritual loneliness”. This is the essence of the legacy of Sen no Rikyu and his teacher Murata Juko of the 16th Century.
[9] Originally roji was written 路次 or 路地 indicating a "path through which one passes" on the way to the chashitsu.
[10] From Zencharoku (The Zen Tea Record) by Jakuan Sotaku of the Eastern Capital, included in Wind in the Pines: Classic Writings of the way of Tea as a Buddhist Path, Hirota, Dennis, ed. (Asian Humanities Press, Kyoto, 1995)
[11] Kumakura, Isao, “Sen no Rikyu” in Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu

[12] Sen Soshitsu XV (Sen Genshitsu, Hounsai Daisosho, Fifteenth Generation Grand Master of the Urasenke Tradition of Chanoyu) ”Reflections on Chanoyu”, in Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu, Varley, Paul and Kumakura, Isao, eds. (University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1989)
[13] Sandokai (Harmony of Sameness and Difference) by Sekito Kisen (700-790)

Review: The Korean Way of Tea: An Introductory Guide

The Korean Way of Tea: An Introductory Guide

by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Hong Kyeong-Hee
(2007. Univeresity of Hawai'i Press. Honolulu.)


Reviewed by Lauren W. Deutsch 
KYOTO JOURNAL 71

LAtea“Too fussy,” observed a member of the audience watching the formal presentation of the “Korean Tea Ceremony” at the consulate’s culture center in Los Angeles. The demonstration by members of the local Korean tea culture group was consciously but gracefully paced and helpfully narrated by a young woman dressed in hanbok, traditional jacket and skirt. A grass mat was spread in front of a display of a “woman’s room” of a literati class family, a landscape painted screen stood to one side and gayagum music filled the air. Having studied chanoyu, Japanese tea ceremony, for 25 years, I can attest that the preparation effort seemed anything but “fussy”. In fact, it looked particularly natural in its economical movements and resulted in a few sips of yellowish liquid that tasted warm and soft on the palate. Not fussy at all.
masterKorea has had a “Way” of tea but it hasn’t been widely seen, much less described or studied by foreigners. This new guidebook full of color illustrations, created by Brother Anthony and Hong Kyeong-Hee and published by Seoul Selection (available online), is a welcome edition to one’s tea or Korean culture library.
The book is a labor of love produced by two simple, cultured gentlemen whose relationship has been refreshed again and again over cups of tea. Having enjoyed tea with them in Mr. Hong’s Anguk-dong residence, I could imagine these two literati having met centuries ago, the former a renowned translator of Korean poetry and literature into English and the latter an unassuming scholar / teacher of letters.
prepBeautifully illustrated and filled with poetry, history, science and anecdotal material, the book itself feels like the un-fussy nature that one associates today with enjoying a cup of carefully prepared Camelia Sinensis, seated on a floor pillow or low stool in one of the many tiny, rustic tea rooms crammed one upon and next to another in Seoul’s Insadong antique district.
The contents of the book constitute a refined and expanded text developed from the “blog” presented by Brother Anthony on his website. The site contains an index, links to his articles in the Korea Times and other tea sites.) A “congratulatory” message from tea master Chae Won-Hwa, founder and head of the Panyaro Institute for the Promotion of the Korean Way of Tea, certifies the authenticity of sentiment and literal meaning of their words.
altarDuring Korea’s 19th – 20th century Colonial Period, the Japanese were happy to lay claim to Korea’s tea resources as they did the potters who were taken back to Japan to support their burgeoning Japanese tea culture in the 16th century. While some Koreans pride their culture as lacking the “fuss” usually associated with Japanese arts, this does not mean it lacks form or focus. From the growing of tea leaves and their processing for packing, to the preparation of self and leaf into beverage, Zen Buddhist philosophy – Seon Cha – as well as the courtly arts may be infused in every leaf and gesture.
Panyaro (“’Dew of Enlightening Wisdom”) green tea is meticulously grown on and hand-processed at a plantation near Bomgmyeong-san mountain in the southern area of Jiri-san. Chae Won-Hwa has formalized a rltual for preparation also, interpreting the manner taught to by her teacher, the Venerable Hyodang, head monk of Dasol-sa temple near Jinju. This temple is still a source of fine hand-made tea, and wild tea plants may be found along the mountain slopes.
Tea, like Korean cuisine in general, was also enjoyed in a courtly manner by ladies and gentlemen who attended the royalty, so naturally, there were appropriate embellishments, such as in the utensils and manner of offering the beverage to their Esteemed Majesties. Such external “fuss” may have been implied in the Los Angeles demonstration critique but the preparatory manner was clearly well-intentioned.
I have enjoyed very informal tea with Buddhist monks in Korea. A cloth-covered tray with small cups lined up next to a stack of small wooden coasters, a horizontal handled tea brewing pot, two lipped bowls for cooling, a source of hot water and a box of tea and good will is all that is necessary. We joked and he poured. Laugh. Pour.
It has taken Korean over 50 years to reconstruct and appreciate its own unique Way of Tea. The vast majority of Koreans would rather drink small paper cups of instant coffee prepared with creamer and lots of sugar and to sit at Starbucks or a French pastry cafe. Now, through the efforts of such men and women of tea, Korea’s cultural traditions are finding their way to a renaissance and broad interpretation.
While we’re waiting, we can enjoy a cup of tea. Hold the “fuss”.
 
monktea
Photographs: Lauren W. Deutsch
Copyright held by the author
(better images will be uploaded soon)

Opera Review: Tan Dun's "Tea: A Mirror on the Soul" from Kyoto Journal 71




Review: Wabi Savvy: When Less is, More or Less, More


Review by Lauren W. Deutsch
KYOTO JOURNAL 29

Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
by Leonard Koren (1994. Stone Bridge Press. Berkeley CA)

Should you not be one of the types listed Leonard Koren's irresistibly titled 96-page murder-mystery-who-done-it lamentation in two acts and wish to venture forward, fear not; for wabi-sabi is as close as the classic pair of blue jeans you have hanging in your closet.  According to author, this "most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty," is an endangered species, taking its most direct hits from the very forces which nurtured it: the Japanese tea ceremony establishment. 

Trained as an architect and creator of one of the premiere avant garde magazines of the 1970s WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, as well as such books as 283 Useful Ideas from Japan, how to rake leaves, how to take a Japanese bath, and others, Tokyo / San Francisco resident Koren self-inflicted the challenge to wrestle in writing the most slippery of ethereal-material notions.  His goal is to thrust it into "a meaningful system", "'saving'", he says, "what once constituted a comprehensive and clearly recognizable aesthetic universe."  In a sense he asks whether the experts at saving face can save their aesthetic soul.  

Definitions are in order.  Koren loosely appoints the word "rustic" as the meaning of the confederation of two quite distinct concepts.  Classically, wabi, refers to the "misery of living alone in nature, away from society" in a "dispirited, cheerless emotional state," and sabi, "withered" or "lean."  The wabi-sabi compound is contemporary, a lackadaisical slur suffered from years of misuse, and, as Koren intimates throughout the book, clandestine abuse. 

A wise mortal nevertheless, Koren honestly pursues a dialogue.  No doubt with the popularity of this black-white "sabi-esque" photograph-illustrated book, he will get his wish.  Not willing to defend spiritual materialism on any front, this reviewer wishes to ask: Why should  anyone hold on to anything in this universe ... whether it is our breath or our ideals, much less / much more how could  anyone "save" that which by its very nature must disintegrate.  Whether we are philosophers or philosopher-plumbers, the least we can do is to be sensitive to the wabi-sabi seasons all around us.  On the way, in concert with Koren, we face many pitfalls. 

The high priest of wabi-sabi was, of course, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), chajin-for-all-seasons.  While not the first man of high rank to discover beauty in something simply, commonly fabricated, new or old, Rikyu and his progeny -- a carefully accounted for 400 year lineage of 15 generations of oiemoto  (grand masters) set wabi-sabi standards to be appreciated and valued through Chado, the Way of Tea.  And, as Koren more than once mentions, Rikyu's heirs have carefully honed and refined this into a capital concern of great magnitude.  Throughout the book, though a bit helterly-skelterly, Koren indicts the imperial-like patriarchal system for its presumptuous hold on what's right and what's wrong.  Who's asking?

Politics aside, the book does provoke the mind, making one wonder what's the fuss all about anyhow.  Is there really a difference between a pair of blue jeans well-worn in "real time" and that stone-washed "look" created by fast-forwarding the fabric through a chemical process?  Do the pants create the woman or man or vice versa?  And who cares?  This is fun.

Many years ago during a camping trip in the Smoky Mountains, I attended a Saturday night town social in Galax, Virginia attended by probably everyone -- old and young -- who could get up the fire house stairs to the community hall.  My city-slicker partner and I put on our clean(est) blue jeans and prepared to blend in with the natives for some down-home bluegrass music and dancing.  But we were the only ones in blue denim; everyone else turned their work clothes in for fancier duds.  Not even a pair of "designer denims" were to be found anywhere.  Being "correct" is very complicated.

Koren's "unswerving principles of wabi-sabi " are illustrated here: #1/ "No one object or element ... shall stand out above any other."(We tried to blend in.)  #2/ "Thou shalt not revere the old for old's sake."  (If the pants fit, wear them.)  I wish the book would consider other principles (the author's), such as: #3/ Some things build up over time like young mountains; others, like old ones, wear down; (Patch holes over the knees were once the rage -- quite practical, actually -- now it's the holes themselves which are sported with savoir faire.)   #4/ How to detect wabi-sabi fraud?  (The pants cost more than a day's wages and have been dry cleaned.); #5/Wabi-sabiness is not transferable from symbol to significant nor vice versa.  (Beware of tourists!)

Pablo Picasso once reflected, "I want to live like a poor man with a lot of money."  Poverty has never been as chic as it has emerged in the 20th Century USA and Western Europe.  Take the current "home boy" gang-inspired fashion, the city rapper fatigues ... baseball cap perched brim backward, huge, funky pants (how do they keep them up?), layers of flannel shorts atop a hooded sweatshirt?  Mucho dinero  from Japan to Paris ... soo cool even in the "I hated the riots, didn't  you?" Westside of L.A. 

As for the notion of refined rusticity, that "further retired" feeling, an L.A. art critic once noticed how artists are the real estate tycoon's bloodhounds in the property speculation hunt.  Once artists move into what is usually the dangerous, depressed (read "cheap rent") parts of town, these areas become trendy and rents quickly inflated, driving the artists further and further into more dangerous, depressed ... etc.

Poverty is not inherently chic and, it's very expensive.  Most homeless people of sound mind* would like to get out of the cold.  What they would do with Picasso's wealth is certainly another story.  Given the preference of a classic structure from L.A. architect Frank Gehry (walls made from inexpensive corrugated metal, cinder block and adobe with chain link trimming) or something which resembles Versailles or Katsura, who knows what would be #1.  (Don't mention which would be more cost-effective for a government to build.)  We're not talking about urban camping which could a delightful social experience on a hot night.

In short, becoming vulnerable is an essential humbling, human experience.  It shows we are living.  Perhaps it is a dulling of our sense of responsibility for our actions individually and collectively, in the name of science and art, about which Koren is sounding the alarm.  I hope he writes a sequel for people like me.  (Disclosure: I worked for Koren at WET in the late 1970s).


* There are reports of homeless people living on the streets in L.A. who have been identified by social service agencies as preferring not to  be tied to a regular form of shelter, even if they could afford it.  In New York, there have been legal battles about whether someone by law must go to a shelter if offered.)

Reviews: "The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan" and "Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History and Practice"



Reviews by LAUREN W. DEUTSCH
KYOTO JOURNAL 71


The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan: Bodies Re-presenting the Past
by Etsuko Kato
(2004, Routledge Curzon, New York)

Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History and Practice
Morgan Pitelka, ed.
(2001, Routledge Curzon, New York)


Coffee–table books about tea tend to offer pristine views of paradise and bowls of world peace. Page after page of steamy shadows and shadowy steam, dewy landscapes fashioned by gods with impeccable taste, a solitary red maple leaf or cherry blossom petal captured mid-fall, fresh green tea froth (or sludge, depending upon your “school”) glaring up through ceramic ensos like the third eye of the Wizard of Oz. Enough!
For a breath of fresh wind in the pines, two books from the scholastic press of Routledge Curzon are recommended for those with a serious inquiry into the world and way, practice and place of the tea ritual in Japanese culture: The Tea Ceremony and Women’s Empowerment in Modern Japan: Bodies Re-presenting the Past, a dissertation by Etsuko Kato, and Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History and Practice, a collection of sometimes quirky but scholarly essays edited by Morgan Pitelka.
“We participate in a tradition of commentary and critique that extends back to the sixteenth century … In writing, we participate in the ongoing cultural production of tea,” states editor Morgan Pitelka, editor of the first book mentioned. One thing for sure is that the do (way) of cha, like the yu (hot water) for cha, is not a catalyst strictly speaking. It has changed in the process of changing culture.
Kato’s book illuminated and clarified many of my own observations as a practitioner of chanoyu for 24 years, mostly in the company of Nisei, Sansei and recent Ise expats living in Southern California. She presents a thoughtful critique from behind-the-scenes of the growth and development of chanoyu as enterprise for women in particular.
On the other hand, Pitelka, a professor of Japanese culture with an expertise in ceramics for tea practice, is the “outsider.” His contributors look at tea through a diverse set of filters, from social and art historians, current and former functionaries of tea schools, museum curators and an academic anthropologist. He promises that “This book is in no way representative of a new school or movement of tea scholarship.” Neither is it another gospel patronized by or in homage to the current chanoyu “establishment”.
Each book has a section that addresses the sanctification of Sen no Rikyu, chanoyu’s great tea ancestor and in whose name we study and practice the craft / art. The fact of Rikyu’s imprint on tea since the mid 16th Century, and through him, the likes of scholar-priest Eisai, Murata Shuko Takeno Joo, Kobori Enshu and his contemporary Furuta Oribe and progeny are admired, is not in question, but his “word” has become legendary and subject to commentary, much like what Talmud is to Torah.
In Pitelka’s book the essay “Rikyu Has Left the Tea Room”, tackles Rikyu’s star-power through analysis of three modern biographical films. Kato, on the other hand, looks at the commodification of the Rikyu mythology and the bloodline of the iemoto system (hereditary lineages producing quasi-monopolistic authorities).
If we were to take Rikyu literally, we would we only need to acquire tea, carry water, chop wood, make a fire, boil water and knead the mixture. By alchemical extension, we would convert history into tradition, tradition into spirituality, spiritually into social propriety, social propriety into intellectual expose.
Both books also discuss in detail how chanoyu’s economic, social and cultural “capital” have developed and been manipulated to suit the needs the tea establishment. Tea as enterprise impacted clusters of complementary professionals (e.g. ceramic craftspeople and merchants) who were able to make a living sharing the practice, even if only limitedly, to a willing and impressionable populace.
If there was such a cultural complex as chanoyu a half century ago in the USA, it would have been studied as home economics. To elevate it to the status it enjoys in Japan would require patronage by someone as pop culturally powerful as Martha Stewart or Oprah Winfrey. This is clear from Kato’s feminist approach. For example she takes us to a Japanese department store “art” gallery exhibition entitled “Saint Rikyu”. More than just “big box” stores of today, in Japan they are to women in the tea world the equivalent of men’s social clubs: natural, “safe” places that present chanoyu as “high” art and socially acceptable places for women to gather in public outside the home and tea room. I was told by a tea informant that Japanese women were more liable to travel independently of their husbands and with their female friends to national or international destinations following their grand master teachers around in the name of tea. The delegations of dozens of middle age women chajins who have visited Los Angeles over the years is proof.
A significant portion of her writing covers the practice of temae, the set of choreographed movements comprising the modular elements of the longer, more “formal” chaji tea gathering. The “birth of tea as “sogo-bunka” discourse, the “cultural synthesis” or compendium of every traditional Japanese cultural “art” form has important implications. She also distinguishes tea benkyo (study) of tea as geijutsu (artistic form) fromsaho(“etiquette or good manners with emphasis on mind”). Given the emphasis on “bodies” in the subtitle, I did expect a deeper discussion by Kato about body image and the physicality of practice. She does mention wearing of kimono but doesn’t mention anything about the painful practice of sitting seiza.
Both Pitelka and Kato utilize chanoyu as a portal, rather than as metaphor for further social and cultural studies. She takes the tack of feminist theory and looks at the lives of women in the post-Pacific War period, their achievements in higher education, marriage-ability, vocation / avocations, etc. Chanoyu practice is regarded with high status among all cultural elites in Japan, and a woman’s top rank could even place her in some circles above her corporate executive husband.
One of Pitelka’s authors presents how 20th Century excavations on Sanjo-dori in Kyoto at known sites of ceramics merchants’ shops are revealing how Momoyama folks shopped for “pots for tea”, what types and styles of goods were sold during that period.
Pitelka’s own writing examine the Edosenke school’s “warrior tea”, prominent in the late Tokugawa period, and the often-marginalized Sen Koshin Sosa, the founder of Omotesenke tea school. Another of his contributors offers insight into the early karamono (Chinese objects) utensils as they made the transition from use in sencha (leaf tea) ceremonies to matcha (powdered tea). Two other essays explore how chanoyu utensils were valued by warlords’ as battle spoils. In some ways chanoyu seems a bit like a Mata Hari, something that could stop the boys in their tracks and make them find true happiness.
I have always wondered whether there was any tea practice among Japanese-Americans relegated to remote concentration camps and the chado studies of my own sensei who spent that period in Japan at the home of the XIV Urasenke grandmaster. I cannot imagine that making tea was as forbidden as was the practice kyudo or kendo, Zen archery and sword, respectively for two reasons. First, neither tea ladle nor scoop could be mistaken for a weapon; although they are handled with those in mind. Secondly, no one would consider a female master chajin’s making a bowl of tea a threat to national security.