Monthly Archives: February 2017

tea-bowl-koetsu-honami

About Nostalgia

The future is what lies ahead of us. It is the only direction we can go. But what the future will become is not set in stone. It is what we do today that will affect the course we take in shaping the day of tomorrow. The past is what is done, and cannot be changed. But that does not mean that it isn’t valuable. The past is a resource we can rely upon for insight and information that will help us to create a brighter future.

If we look to the past, it allows us to discover what we like and what we don’t like. It gives opportunity to assess what we want for our own lives and what we prefer to avoid. In addition, history can tell us which actions lead to certain results, and in effect teach us which exercises we should eschew and which we must nurture to reach our desired destiny.

It is my feeling that our world today is not headed in a positive direction. Too much precedence is given to materialism and other things of a human nature, while we are forgetting about the natural environment that encapsulates us. We work hard for the accumulation of money and the ability to buy luxury items that temporarily soothe our personal needs, but in no way enhance our human existence. We pursue beauty to the extent that we change our appearance to become someone that other people will like, while we try to cover up who we in essence are. We not only try to control nature, we even attempt to change it.

Society has imposed values on us that stand in contradiction with our human nature, and instead of helping us for the better; it has created opportunity for new illnesses of a mental origin, with related side effects such as suicide and aversion to increase. We are made to believe in one approach, while we realize deep inside that this doesn’t stroke with our actual human convictions. This internal conflict is what makes us suffer, and what for some of us may prove to be ultimately fatal.

I look to the past, because to me it looks brighter than the future. I look to the past because I feel that as a human race we are headed in the wrong direction. I look to the past to learn from it what we can use to change course towards a brighter prospective.

To me, learning the rite of tea is an opportunity to re-learn our fundamental human values. It doesn’t only show us the fundamental beauty of things, regardless of whether items are seemingly perfect or imperfect, it also teaches us the way to appreciate and to be respectful of someone’s intentions, the course of an event, and what we have been presented with, before we make judgments about whether or not we like or dislike it.

We learn to take things as they come and to be grateful for exactly just that. We learn to respect people for who they are and not to be judgmental about their personality. And today, it are exactly those aspects of life that we struggle with most to maintain. In learning the art of tea, I wish to better understand the core of our human existence, and to become a better person myself. In the course of doing so, if my actions or beliefs may result to even inspire one person to do the same, I may never be able to fully repay my gratitude.

tea-ceremony-sweet

Once-and-once-only – My thoughts on ‘Ichi-go Ichi-e’.

Are you still the person you were ten seconds ago? And will you in ten seconds from now still be the person you are now?

The world is in constant flux. Things continue to develop and our environment keeps changing. We keep changing. In the past ten second you have read up to this point, and you may have wondered about the above two questions. You may have formed responses, or you may have realized something. Maybe you are just wondering what I am talking about. You are still wearing the same clothes. Your face looks the same. Your location maybe hasn’t changed. Everything is seemingly the same, but actually a lot has already changed. I could put up a list of external factors that have transformed while you are reading this, and that may affect your life somewhere in the near future. But I would like to turn my attention to what is happening internally.

You haven’t even spent one minute with me, but you already are a different person. My words have made you think, they may have raised questions, or triggered a certain feeling. At the very least, you will have read something you hadn’t before we met. These minor external impulses affect how we change internally, and each and every moment, every minute, second, or even millisecond, we will have changed.

You will be reading this text with a certain feeling, but you will never be able to experience that exact same feeling again. You have gained knowledge, you have had an experience that changed you and that will have changed how you read this text the next time.

In life, we can only have every encounter only once, for having it a second time will inevitably be different. Even if the environment is exactly the same, the people are absolutely alike, and the objects and topics are strictly duplicate, the time will be different, and we will have changed. In the tea environment, great precedence is given to this concept and understanding. Having the same occasion twice is sadly impossible, because the feelings of surprise or joy that you may have experienced during a certain conversations, or by encountering specific utensils, will never return.

This is what in the rite of tea is called ‘Ichi-go Ichi-e’ [once-and-once-only, 一期一会], or ‘every instant is a different encounter’. It however isn’t, or mustn’t be our goal to exactly recreate certain experiences. What is of importance is to understand that we can never feel the same about something, and that all emotions can only be had once. Therefore, and that is what the proverb actually alludes to, it is of utmost importance that we are present in each moment of our lives, and can be grateful for what we have received, because it is an experience that will never return.

The beauty of imperfection

For the rite of tea, utensils that are slightly damaged, or slightly faulty shaped are favored over mechanically looking seemingly ‘perfect’ utensils. While in the West we would simply throw away a teacup that fell to pieces, in Japan these objects are skillfully mended with for example gold lacquered glue, and may in addition become even more valuable than when they were whole. In flower arrangement for tea, to give an additional example, one would chose to arrange flowers until he feels that adding just one more will complete the display.

When in the rite of tea, this notion of imperfection, or the preference for what is damaged or incomplete is mostly expressed through the objects chosen for a service, I believe that this concept also applies to our lives in general, and to our handling as a human being. The trait of being a perfectionist is simultaneously perceived as strength as well as weakness. I can relate to this, since in our family this characteristic has been passed down for generations on my father’s side. Being a perfectionist, when we create something and complete it to the point where we feel confident to release it, it is most likely to become something great, but in most cases perfectionism limits us from getting things finished.

Having realized this, I have also discovered that being a perfectionist, originates in a lack of self-confidence and in the illusion that something is not good enough while it may already sufficiently serve its purpose. This brings me to my following point. What actually is something that is perfect?

I don’t believe that something as a perfect thing exists. A creation can always be improved. And when something is seemingly perfect in one instant, it may be insufficient on another. Also, what one person perceives as perfect, may be different for someone else. Perfection is a concept that has as many possible forms as there are people on this globe. The concept of ‘a perfect thing’ or ‘a perfect occasion’ is an illusion we have created of something that is ideal, but will never actually come to existence. Achieving ‘perfect beauty’ is something that may be attempted by girls putting on make-up, or we may wait for ‘the perfect moment’ to start a business, but what we actually do is only to turn ourselves away from what actually matters in life. That is, to be happy with what we have, to be who we are, and to do what we love.

What the rite of tea teaches us in this respect is that while things do not need to perfect, they may at the most be suitable to create an enjoyable occasion. This occasion in effect does not have to be perfect. What is more important than the proper execution of the service itself is that all participants can be grateful for having gathered together, and to have shared this special occasion. Because, even if we wanted to, and even if we would try to re-construct the same occasion with exactly the same implements, on the same location, with the same people, it will never be the same. This is what the Japanese proverb ‘Ichi-go Ichi-e’ [once-and-once-only, 一期一会] refers to. Rather than to look for perfection in the execution, be grateful for what is happening here and now because it will never return.

Shuko tea gathering

About the Shukō Tea Gathering in Nara

In 2010, Nara celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its ascension as Japan’s imperial capital. Nara was Japan’s capital during the Heian period (710 to 794) before it was moved to Heian-kyō, what is nowadays known as Kyōto. Contemporarily, Nara city is the capital of Nara prefecture, and still houses some of the greatest and oldest Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. Specifically Tōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Gangō-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji, and the Heijō Palace are noteworthy.

The people of Nara take pride in their cultural heritage and actively seek to maintain the ancestry that lies at the origin of this country’s wide range of traditions. These customs include traditional rituals and processions conducted at the old temples and shrines,  arts and crafts practiced and performed at the court, etc.

The rite of tea (Tea ceremony) is believed to have its roots with Murata Shukō (1423 to 1502), who preferred implements of native manufacturing for the consumption of tea. This style later became known as ‘wabi-cha’. It is said that he first came in contact with tea through attending ‘tōcha’ gatherings (or tea tasting contests) by tea connoisseurs. The competitive aspect however held no appeal, and he rather looked to tea as a stimulant to stay awake during his studies.

In order to pursue his Zen studies under Ikkyū Sōjun, and to simultaneously get a deeper understanding of the aristocratic practice of tea ceremony from the Dōbōshū (aesthetic advisors to the Shogun), he moved to Kyōto. Prior to this, he grew up in Nara as an attendant at Shōmyōji, a Buddhist temple of the Jōdō sect.

It is this episode in Shukō’s life that is featured in this specific tea gathering. As the progenitor of Japan’s most culturally revered praxis – even abroad – it is strongly felt by the people of Nara that the tradition of Tea also has its roots in the old capital. This grand tea gathering seamlessly combines Nara’s most ancient cultural sites with the tradition of the rite of Tea.

 

Every year during the second week of February – and this year for the 4th year, the Juko Tea Gathering: Nara Tea Congress is held. The event extends over the span of one whole week, and is hosted throughout Nara city at a total of 8 different temples and shrines. To be precise, the event is hosted at Kasuga shrineGangō-jiTōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Daian-jiYakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji, and Hokkei-ji.

At these grand venues, some of which are protected as national and international cultural heritage sites, 7 different schools of tea ceremony collaborate to provide a whole week of tea gatherings. In between the venues busses are laid in to smoothen the transfer from one venue to another, and thousands of tea practicants and aficionados come from throughout the country to participate in this event.

The schools of tea that take part in this gathering are the following: Urasenke, Omotesenke, Mushanokōji senke, Enshū-ryū, Sekishū-ryū, Yabunouchi-ryū, and Sōhen-ryū.

I, together with my tutor Stephen Sōshun participate in this gathering every year and serve tea at sessions hosted by our school of practice, Enshū-ryū. During the second and third edition of this event, we served at thick-tea sessions hosted at Yakushi-ji and thin-tea services at Gangō-ji. The top image of this post is from last year’s service at Yakushi-ji.

This year the grand master of the Enshū tradition was invited to conduct a ceremonial offering of tea for the opening of the event, which was on February 7th. In succession, two services, one of thick-tea, and one of thin-tea were hosted for the guests who attended. We served thin-tea in the large meditation hall at Gangō-ji, where we employed  the ‘Tenrai’ desk in a chair-seated service.

As the event is still in progression, we will participate again at two different services hosted at Tōdai-ji on February 10 and 12. On the 10th, we will conduct a demonstration of a service in the Enshū-style, at a comparison meeting between the 7 different schools of tea that are collaborating in this congress.

I will add more images of the services in the slideshow below after the gathering has come to conclusion.

 

 

Entry into the Realm of Compassion – The ‘Nijiri guchi’.

After having passed through the tea garden and under the inner-gate, we climb through a tiny door measuring merely 66.7cm square to enter the tea-pavilion. This ‘crawl-through’ entrance (JP: Nijiri guchi) is used by anyone (regardless of social standing). Some tea pavilions may also have a larger entrance, which can be used standing upright, but it is uncommon for anyone apart from the truly eminent (for example the Dalai Lama) to use this passage. Why would anyone choose to construct such an inconveniently small door for the praxis of tea? Several explanations can be given, but I believe that the most prominent reason can be found in the idea that during a tea-occasion everyone is perceived as equal to each other.

In a previous post I have briefly referred to the possible functions of a crawl-through entrance (See here for the full post). In this entry I would like to recount the three major purposes of such an entrance, and discuss the last item a little further.

  1. From a practical point of view, the limited size of such an entrance obliges a samurai warrior to take his sword out of his sash for otherwise he would not be able to crawl through this door.
  2. Secondly, it is said that when crawling through this entry the guest inevitably has to bend forward and is (willy-nilly) forced to enter the room taking a respectful posture. – I however feel that this approach may have been a later forgery by contemporary students of the rite of tea.
  3. Finally, this narrow entrance resembles the entrance that 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 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.

To enter the tea-compound, participants temporarily disrobe themselves from their social cloaks, and for just a moment become relieved from social status, rank, prejudice and complementary boundaries. This stage marks the process of self-purification. In the tea-hermitage or tea-chamber participants gather together, and this is where everyone collaborates with each other to bring the event to a fruitful ending.

In the tea-area, even rivals should be able to share a bowl of tea. While such a happening would be unthinkable in the common world, a tea-occasion provides a space where participants can reveal the person underneath their mundane coverings and metaphorically become naked. In the tea-chamber, there is room for understanding, empathy and respect for others, regardless of who they are and what they believe in. The tea-occasion constitutes a moment to share a bowl of tea in a friendly and respectful manner, allowing each other to be who they are through showing compassion, empathy and understanding.

Yet, it is therefore not necessary to agree with the beliefs or values that the other person proclaims in the day-to-day world, but it at the very least it is a world-changing thing to try to understand their position and motifs, even if that person may seem as your worst enemy.

It is this world that I envision for the future, and my wish that this beautiful form of interaction should not stay hidden behind bushes, gardens and earthen walls. For, allowing a moment of time to show empathy with someone and to fully try to understand that person’s being can change the world we live in. And in allowing other people to be who they are, instead of forcing them in a set social pattern, can only be the beginning of a chain of freedom in which everyone is able to have full possession of their person and act according to their own strengths and traits.

In the tea-area participants don’t have to be someone. They are simply who they are, and in that, they again allow others to be who they are. The tea chamber is the medium through which this becomes possible. From my point of view, in order to allow such a world to become possible, it is our responsibility to introduce this medium into everyday society. Start with yourself. Trust in who you are and allow (and empower) others to be who they are. Only so can we inspire others to do the same, and only so can we move towards a peaceful and harmonious world. Find the little ‘nijiri guchi’ in your heart and open it to let love and compassion fill our human lives.