Monthly Archives: May 2016

Empathy Between Host and Guests.

A late eighteenth-century feudal-lord Tea-practicant, Matsudaira Sadanobu, has left us the following sage admonition:

As host     any guest’s blunder

is ultimately     your own

As guest     any accident caused

by your host is the fault     of you and your fellows


This should be     well thought over 

and taken     to heart


His guests’ feelings     no perfect host

ever ignores     while admirable guests

strive always     to become one

with the intentions     of their host

In addition, our present Grand Master rightly points out that few Tea-assemblies can be conducted perfectly without the empathetic exertions of at least one participant who customarily remains unseen and unheard by any guest. This person is the tactful manager of the preparation-room, who must, from behind the scenes, fully take to heart, and also spontaneously intuit, the needs of both the guests and their host. This involves listening for certain sounds – taps and different tricklings of water, hot and cold – and, through these, grasping what may need to next be done in the preparation-room, and how soon and swiftly this requires being accomplished.

This participant is, in short, just as important as are both the host, who presents (at least) sweetmeats and then serves tea, and the chamber-master, who offers whatever explanations may enhance the impact of the occasion.

The interaction among these three key participants forms an important (though easily-unnoticed) example of what any Tea-occasion essentially constitutes: a collaborative endeavor. And, in this respect, the praxis of Tea quite perfectly exemplifies a major, because so long-enduring, component of Japanese culture. The cultivation of Asian rice (Oryza sativa), Japan’s most prized staple food, requires not only (like that of wheat or corn) collaborative planting and collaborative harvesting, but also (unlike the case of wheat or corn) collaborative and uninterrupted distribution of running water. This means that, during three quarters of any year, channels for such water must be scrupulously maintained; and managing this requires almost ceaseless collaboration.

Consequently, Japanese culture’s worst non-physical sanction, imposed upon breakers of accepted social codes, has always been a community-ostracism – We can do quite well without your help, thank you – so complete as to be suspended only in cases of either threat from conflagration or the funeral of a member of the offending family.

The cult of Tea, however, is one major example of collaboration also imbued with both spiritual and artistic aspects; and that is why we at The Tea Crane love and revere it so much.


Activation of All Six Senses During a Tea-occasion.

As, during a service of Tea, you will be regaled with a hand-crafted moist sweetmeat, an ample portion of thick tea and, finally, your individual bowlful of thin tea, that your sense of taste becomes activated goes without saying.

Again, that you have before you within the display-alcove that is the focus of any Tea-chamber at least a calligraphic hanging scroll, and a modest arrangement of native flora offered within an interesting flower-vessel, and, upon the utensil matting-segment, unique utensils severally fashioned from iron, bronze, pure black lacquer, ceramic ware or Japanese bamboo, all obviously invites a response to stimulus for the eye.

What may be less obvious, however, are appeals to the remaining three senses.

The building within which we conduct our Workshops has been created only recently, and by employing the very finest paulownia timber, which exudes a fragrance all of its own. Moreover, from within the floor-brazier that is employed in order to heat the hot water for your tea, an oleaginous combination of incense-woods will be gradually releasing a faintly-opulent blend of scents.

In further addition, once your host begins to blend your shared bowl of thick tea, the aroma of that tea will drift towards you, promising a surprise for your sense of taste, and further satisfaction.


Easiest to miss, however, are subtle appeals to the sense of hearing. In this geisha-quarter, and at this hour of the day, distant, plangent notes plucked upon the three-stringed shamisen may drift into this chamber.

More audible will be the sounds set up by your host’s handling of both hot water and cold – the former seething in the cauldron before you, the latter poured twice into that cauldron, as swell as twice into the principal tea-bowl – and the leisurely resonance created by hot water being scooped up and returned to the cauldron, so as to even up the water-temperature within that vessel.

And we should also like you to miss neither the tiny sound of bamboo tapping pottery nor the abrupt impact of a sliding door being closed against its jamb, used as a signal to those serving behind the scenes.

Finally, you will be invited to take into your own hands the most essential utensils that have been chosen to delight you today. Doing this not only further pleases – we hope – the eye; it is the sense of touch activated by ceramic texture, and your sense of pressure, as stimulated by the weight of what you handle, that play crucial roles in serious appreciation of objects worthy of such – as we hope to be offering you too, during our Workshop.

Zanshin* in Elite Warrior-style Tea.

*Zanshin means ‘lingering attention’.

What is zanshin? Zanshin in martial arts

Of all Japanese martial arts – many of these far more venerable – it is judo, alone, that has been accepted as an Olympic sport, and thereby placed on a par with both Graeco-Roman and freestyle wrestling.

But why should this be? If Western fencing is an Olympic sport, then why isn’t kendō – Japanese swordsmanship – too? If Western archery is an Olympic sport, then why isn’t kyūdō – Japanese bowmanship – too? But neither nor is granted such recognition, and both are as unlikely to receive it as is either of karate or kung-fu. But why should this remain the case?

Well, something that is crucial to Japanese swordsmanship is zanshin.

There, it concerns what dueling warriors (now, contesting competitors) do after a pair of these has run past one another and, in passing, one of them has successfully struck the other.

That blow alone will, however, not suffice. The warrior needed (as the competitor still needs) to maintain attention to what is now happening, behind his back, as he proceeded to the point at which he faced about, and again confronted his opponent.

This attention he maintained in order to ascertain that his blow had been effective. For, if a Japanese duelist merely takes it for granted that his blow can only have defeated his opponent (this nowadays meaning having achieved complete victory), and so, over-confident, now allows his attention to become distracted by his assumed victory, he may well leave himself open to sudden re-attack. Differ though a deadly medieval confrontation and a contemporary competitive bout certainly do, neglect or abandonment of zanshin can in either case only cost a participant most dearly.

And, if with subtle differences, the same applies to those other East Asian martial arts that have likewise failed to gain Olympic recognition. For instance, in Japanese bowmanship, it is a sense of oneness with the moment of release of the arrow that should be carried on into, and infuse, daily life.

For judging the outcome of any bout that concerns exercise of such a martial art is a task of undertaking which only extremely-seasoned practitioners of that art are capable – and, even then, only after completing special training.

This is because maintenance, or instead neglect, of zanshin in a participant’s performance is matter that is unlikely to be detected by all but the truly initiated.

For example, it often happens that, during a swordsmanship-match, a competitor does succeed in inflicting upon her opponent a visible blow, and yet no judge’s flag goes up – a result by which spectators lacking awareness of zanshin usually find themselves perplexed.

For the cause of her failure may well be that, once she has struck her blow, she has carelessly abandoned zanshin. And, while trained judges will unanimously detect such negligence, this is a failure to which the rest of us are more than likely to remain oblivious.

In the case, however, of judo – at least as it is practiced in the West, and increasingly here in Japan – lack of application of zanshin is not only almost universal: it has also come to constitute no obstacle whatever to winning acknowledgement of victory.

This has reduced contemporary judo to a mere sport: an activity just as easy to follow as is, say, free-style wrestling. Having beaten – by flooring – her/his opponent, and now treating that fellow-competitor as basically irrelevant, the victor tends to do the human equivalent of a gorilla’s drumming its chest, and yet no points are therefore withheld, and the victor’s supporters remain ignorantly ecstatic.

So here we have a trio of answers to the riddle of judo’s unique Olympic status.

One: Zanshin both has become irrelevant to judo and also remains invisible to the masses.
Two: today’s Olympics are fundamentally spectator-entertainment for those masses. And
Three: the sole Japanese martial art that passes muster as such … is judo. And, in the case of the latter, perhaps /art/ is by now largely a misnomer.


Let us now turn to the realm of hospitality: zanshin in the rite of Tea:

Here, on one hand, teppan-yaki, for instance, is a spectacle that is perfectly easy to understand – because it requires no application of zanshin.

A superior service of Tea, however, is unified by ceaseless, naturalized application of zanshin; but, until this is pointed out, such a service can tend to resemble nothing more significant than playing at dollies’ tea-parties – if on a rather larger and more costly scale.

Although each of the individual acts that constitute a given service is indispensable, and should be executed gracefully and economically, none of these is, in itself, of lasting interest. What, nevertheless, is indeed of interest is the manner in which the participant in question connects one such act to the next.

To wit, timing determined by care for zanshin.

And, in daily life, such an approach is sheerly practical: for instance, no act of setting something down ends merely with contact between deposited object and receiving surface: the placer then needs at least to make sure that the object has been left resting stably.

Zanshin also has social importance: to snatch away one’s hands, or one’s attention, immediately after having presented someone with a bouquet will risk being found discourteous.

For the majority of the warriors that strove to survive during Japan’s century of violent military unrest, it can only have been common sense to apply zanshin to whatever they did, and thus likewise to their practice of Tea – a form of meditational hospitality in which they sought temporary peace, and spiritual solace. (One illustration of this application can be seen in the fact that, during a service of warrior-Tea, the host is hardly ever left without something in his hand with which he could, if necessary, at least deflect a physical attack.)

At the same time, the principle of applying zanshin does not solely result in a fierce vigilance: it also generates a seamless flow of one act into the next – thereby generating a rhythm resembling that of small waves calmly yet unfailingly breaking upon a shore.

Since, and for both guest and host, such a rhythm still has an effect that is surprisingly therapeutic, its healing quality can only have proven precious to men then living with a constant threat of sudden death. Today, the healing effect of application of zanshin calms the mind, and quite noticeably soothes the body, thereby alleviating stress and tension – ills that, in the present, constantly threaten our own wellbeing.

Collective Contribution to a Tea-occasion

So what is it that those participating a service of Tea actually do? Well, let’s start by taking a look at the two types of Tea-chamber that have remained very much in use.

One of these is a spacious reception-room that is part of a much larger building. The other is the main room of a Tea-hermitage, by which is meant a free-standing, one-story, subtly-rustic-style hut, comprising at least two rooms, characteristically situated in a quiet nook hidden away amid a bustling urban conglomeration. (While people didn’t often live in such a building, at a pinch one could.)

The main room of such a hut was usually given two entrances: one of these could be entered upright, and was reserved for the very old, and the truly eminent. The other, however, was no more than 66.7 cm square.

Now, why should such a door have first been incorporated into Tea-hermitages, and why should it have remained a feature still reproduced in any such hermitage newly constructed?

The historical reason is that such an entrance made it impossible to enter a Tea-hermitage with that supreme emblem of warrior caste-hood, the five-foot long sword, stuck into one’s sash. This meant that all warriors had to leave their precious long-swords, and with them their jealously-preserved secular status, outside the hermitage. Like the latter, its garden, too, was regarded as part of a zone of purity – customarily termed ‘the dew-path’ – surrounding the hermitage, and thereby sealing it off from the profane every-day world; and, within that zone, all participants were by its purity freed from the grip of the caste-system of the time, thereby temporarily becoming Buddhist novices.

The enduring reason, however, is that so narrow an entrance characterized the above-deck cabin of a sea-going boat of the medieval period. Such an entrance was made so small to prevent the cabin becoming flooded by high seas. In the case of a Tea-hermitage, however, an entrance of this size not only humblingly necessitates all entrants bowing as they slide their way through; it also reminds them that, just as refraining from violent conflict is on such a boat essential to the survival of all on board, so each guest is just as responsible as is any other participant for ensuring that this once-and-once-only voyage attains its intended conclusion.

This is what is here meant by ‘collectivity’.

When an extended family gathers, the result desired is usually mutual harmony; and achieving that is the responsibility of each and every person present. And, if one of these chooses to express discontent, the atmosphere is at once spoiled, for all. All must work towards maintaining a shared equilibrium – as on a medieval Japanese boat.

What such business actually requires of any guest is an attitude of intent gratitude and unstinted respect: each guest has been invited here; the combination of utensils has already been selected for her delight; and she takes her seat among fellow-guests. All of these things merit from her both thankfulness and solicitude for others. And, combined, these two attitudes can generate mutual harmony.

Concentration, however, is itself a guest’s third essential contribution. When the form of tea that the guests are about to be offered is finally being blended with piping-hot water, everyone must concentrate, with the host, on willing that delicately-responsive combination to become delicious.

The result is then consumed communally from a shared bowl/shared bowls. And, should the tea prove delicious, and should its communal consumption proceed smoothly, that will furnish a most happy climax to the service.

What is ‘Tea ceremony?’

Actually, what we are here discussing is no ceremony, but rather a shared, meditative rite of hospitality, composed of many brief actions that must be woven into a single larger process, the object of which is to communicate the host’s care for his guests, and the guests’ appreciation of that host’s efforts.

Such a single larger process (for instance, running on a track, driving along a highway, or even cooking, writing, or cleaning) inevitably comprises its inception, its continuation, and its conclusion: this is to say, initially getting ready for action, actual execution of the intended act, and then slowing to a final halt.

This applies likewise to the structure of a single service of tea. Such a service begins with setting out the utensils for use, and ritually cleansing them as an expression of the host’s deep concern for his guests’ wellbeing, reaches its climax in carefully and strenuously blending tea-powder with very hot water, and concludes in offering the most important utensils for each guest’s individual examination, and restoring to their original state the other objects employed, against the event of unexpected guests deciding to drop by.

The difference, however, between a service of tea and those examples of everyday actions or processes mentioned earlier is that, while matters like housework or even writing are often conducted in combination with many other tasks, and in hectic and even stressful environments, the rite of Tea allows everyone admitted to the Tea-chamber – host and guests alike – to achieve a restorative single-mindedness within an extra-worldly setting, and to enjoy the refreshing and even therapeutic effect of focusing on just one activity – complex and yet conducted single-mindedly – thereby for the time being laying all worldly cares aside.

Use itself of a tranquil environment expressly devised for, and suited to, enjoyment of the rite of Tea is the most fundamental way in which a host can express his earnest desire to demonstrate care for his guests, and to afford them release, pleasure and comfort.

Now, were someone to present you with a gift, but then, having passed it to you, quickly snatch their hands away, and pay no further attention to either you or that gift, such behavior would surely strike you as discourteous. Nor does a good host simply suddenly serve his guests tea, and then abruptly leave the chamber, task finished, but not yet completed; what he additionally does in order both to initiate the service and to conclude it gracefully is just as much an expression of his courteous consideration for his guests.

The success of any Tea-occasion is not, however, the responsibility of its host alone. Such an occasion cannot come about without full participation by at least one guest. Consequently, all participants are tacitly expected to make it their business to help bring the occasion to a successful and mutually-satisfying conclusion.