Tag Archives: Life

Raising the Bowl of Tea

The rite of tea is a condensed form of daily life. It comprises the vital values that make human existence meaningful and allows us to maintain and remember the old values that in contemporary society have been rendered seemingly trivial or have been forgotten. A great deal of what has been of great importance in the past has become common sense today, which only brings us further from the true core of our existence.

By remembering and practicing this tradition, we re-align ourselves with those values and bring true meaning back into our current situation. The one practice that embodies this elementary knowledge most significantly is when we raise the bowl of tea before drinking from it. What this gesture signifies is commonly described as thanking the gods and Buddha’s, or the one god, or the universe for providing it. But this religiously sounding connotation does not resonate with us any longer since over time we have distanced ourselves from religion in today’s secular political environment.

We do however realize that gratitude and being grateful for the things that are bestowed on us is important, but most often we don’t remember what it is we should be grateful towards. Is it the labors of the people who contributed to farming and producing the tea? Is it the environment in which the tea grew? Is it the host who prepared the tea? Yes, it is all of them, including the religious precedent we believe (or don’t believe) in.

Nevertheless, none of them actually captures truly what it is in essence we should be thanking for. Receiving a bowl of tea is receiving life. By consuming a bowl of tea we consume the life of another living organism in order to support our own. It is because we recognize this that in order to sustain our own lives we are dependent on the life that resides in other organisms, and therefore we express gratitude, but also respect for that organism, by lifting the bowl up before consuming. This action also expresses our humility, because we place our own being second to another.

It is this notion that life resides in every being present in nature that is strongest in Japan’s tradition. In pre-modern Japan it was common practice to raise a bowl or plate before receiving something, because this understanding was strong, and life and co-existence was ever valued. The Shinto tradition, most often referred to as Japan’s indigenous belief-system makes mention of eight million gods, which is interpreted as a number equal to infinity, in fact stating that every organism in nature is of god-like status, and should be treated as such. And when we take the life of such a being in support of our own life, we should be aware of our interdependence while being grateful, respectful and humble in receipt.

Nature has always played a tremendous role in Japan where earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and similar natural disasters are not uncommon, and certainly not only something contemporary. The Japanese people have always lived with the knowledge that someday nature may have a destroying effect on life, and while we cannot avoid it, we can only be prepared. Our lives are affected by nature and sometimes we fully depend on it in support of our existence. But nature also depends on us to observe the natural laws and treat it with respect. The co-existence between man and nature is a matter of give and take and should be conducted in harmony with each other. This harmony originates in us by respecting nature and being grateful for what we take from it, and through being humble in doing so, not being wasteful, but only take what we need.

Practice in the rite of tea allows us to remember this co-existence, and provides training-ground for us to reconsider our vulnerable yet valuable position on this earth. Raising the bowl before we consume tea may seem as a trivial gesture, but in essence it engraves in our hearts the knowledge we need to gratefully and respectfully build our interdependent relationship with mother earth.

How I Activated Lazy Me.

We are being told this same thing over and over. The internet is overflowing with blogs and content aiming to convey the exact same message. We have heard the phrase so many times that when it appears, we say “yea yeah, I know this already”. But in reality, we only understand its literal meaning, but not the idea behind it, and the impact that understanding this can have on our lives.

Do, act, get off your ass.

Only by doing something, you will achieve something.
By doing nothing, you will achieve nothing.

I am a lazy person, and rather sit back thinking about what I could do, rather than to actually go out and do it. But being self-employed, this unfortunately won’t get me very far. When I began selling tea, set up a tea ceremony classroom, started teaching and giving lectures about tea among various other freelance activities, I very soon realized that just thinking about what I should to, where to go or who to contact wasn’t going to get me very far, so I started looking for inspiration on how to activate my lazy self.

I found guides on how to improve my productivity, read books on entrepreneurship, sales, management, etc. but in the end, I still found myself doing everything that wasn’t going to lead to the collaborators and students I needed for my activities. I made a beautiful homepage, set myself up on every possible social network, spent a lot of time on selecting the teas for my store, and after a few months, I was still surprised that I hadn’t been selling much tea, nor wasn’t getting a lot of students for my classes. What I was in fact doing was painting the walls of my bedroom in the hope that someone on the outside would notice how beautiful it was.

Something had to be done, and the next step I took was to learn about setting goals. I made to do lists, set short-term goals, long-term goals, and began to take action little by little. The words on paper compelled me to get up and get out to actually do something, but this quickly started to feel as an obligation, rather than as a positive boost. Something was lacking, and it was Simon Sinek who helped me understand the importance of our beliefs. No matter how beautifully composed your to do lists are, or how large you have written your ultimate goals on the wall, if it doesn’t resonate with why you are doing it, you just won’t do it.

Setting goals can be a drive to get moving forward, but if it doesn’t stroke with the reason why we are doing what we are, interest is easily lost. For me, figuring out that the main reason why I do everything regarding tea and Japanese tradition is because it inspires me to live a simple and happy life, while it allows me to share with others what I have learned and feel passionate about, helped me attain a different mindset. Rather than pushing myself to send x emails to x existing and x new contacts, and to update my Facebook status x times a day, and so on and so on, in order to reach a goal of x total students in x years, I now began doing everything I felt was right, when it was right, because it was in line with my core belief. I actually started doing more because it was what I loved doing.

For some setting goals may work, for others clearly defining your beliefs may be more beneficial. Nevertheless, what I have learned is that we shouldn’t spend too much time on pondering on and polishing our goals or beliefs. Set a goal, write down your beliefs the way they appear to you now, and move on. Focusing on getting these things right for too long is impairing. In fact, even without having a goal written on your wall, or without a clear idea of your beliefs, it is far more important to get out and do what you love, rather than to spend hours at a desk trying to figure out why you are doing what you actually aren’t doing at all.

Get up, get out, do something and enjoy it. Make adjustments where necessary and move on. A clear view on the goals you want to achieve, or the core reason why you are doing what you are doing will become clear eventually. If you are doing what you feel is right, and resonates with who you are, then results will show. In the end, if you are doing what you love doing, people will recognize your passion and beliefs. Don’t forget to listen to them; because it is usually those persons that will tell you what you need to know about your own beliefs.

About ‘Buji’

Proverbs that originate in Zen Buddhism play a significant role in the rite of tea as well. Some of these proverbs have been adapted in secular circumstances, and in most cases their meaning has been altered to our immediate contemporary needs.

‘Buji’ [無事] for example is one such proverb. The word is formed of two characters of which the first (‘mu’ [無]) means ‘none’, and the second (‘ji’ or ‘koto’ [事]) means ‘thing’ or ‘matter’. In its secular meaning, the word ‘buji’ is most frequently used to indicate that everything is all right, or that nothing is untoward; ‘Nothing’ is amiss. But the spiritual meaning in relation to its origins in Zen Buddhism requires a bit more consideration to be understood.

The highest achievement for a Zen monk in training is to reach enlightenment. His spiritual journey guides him on the way to achieve this ultimate state. However, enlightenment must not be treated as a goal one has to work towards in order to be obtained. The practice of the monk is in the conduct of everyday affairs, maintaining a steady state of mind. He who pursues enlightenment is unlikely to ever reach it, but he who abandons this perception, and halts his pursuit of the ideal, will eventually obtain full comprehension.

It is this knowledge that is recognized in the above proverb. ‘Buji’ in its purest form means that there is ‘not a thing’ one can do to obtain enlightenment; Comprehension of our being cannot be forced, it will come when it comes.

This belief applies not only to Zen monks, but also to every aspect of our spiritual, private and professional lives. Whatever we pursue or attempt to master demands effort, patience and perseverance. When we take up a new hobby, commence learning a new skill, or even start a new business, we can’t expect to grasp the essence of whatever endeavor we engage with in a matter of mere months, or even years.

Every time we engage in our undertaking, we gain new insights. Every insight adds to our understanding of our pursuit, and eventually will contribute to mastery of the art. But it is only through continuous study and engagement that these insights can be obtained, and regardless of how strongly we wish to achieve something, it is only through ‘doing’, and by taking step by step that someday we will reach that level of full comprehension.

In addition, from my perspective as an adept and instructor in the art of tea, I have come to understand that ‘mastery’ is not something that is obtained after a certain amount of lessons, or a period of years, but that true mastery lies within engagement in the art for as long eternity lasts. Every occasion, every person we interact with is different, and continuously allows us access to new insights. Becoming able to perfectly execute an art is not where our realization of mastery ends, it is where the journey towards true mastery begins.

Meditation in Hospitality; Hospitality in Meditation

What is the rite of tea? Some refer to it as a meditational practice, others point to the considerate alertness it nurtures within the practitioner to the needs, comfort and delight of others; in short, the hospitable face of this praxis. Although these two sides are seemingly opposite to one another, it is my belief that the true value of what we can learn from the praxis of tea is hidden in the paradoxical combination of simultaneously the meditational aspect, which works on the individual, and the hospitable side, which nurtures mutual respect and consideration for others.

Both items indeed seem to work against each other. When we are in meditation, then how can we be considerate of others? And when we are working to serve others, how can we also be in meditation? I believe that it is exactly this paradoxical combination – of unbroken meditation with considerate alertness to the needs, comfort and delight of others – that characterizes this rite as something of which I feel contemporary society is in sore need.

The point in the seeming impossibility of combining meditation, and consideration for others in one and the same praxis, lies in how we perceive meditation. Meditation is most commonly seen from a Zen perspective, in which an adept sits cross-legged for an extended period of time. We see this exercise as a means to ‘distance‘ ourselves from what is current, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Through meditation, the learner practices ‘being present’ in his current environment. The exercise gives means to train his/her mind to become free from conceptions, and to focus on exactly what is actual in our direct environment, seeing it for what it in essence is without distinguishing between right and wrong.

Meditation is an activity that trains us to nurture inner peace and to accept. And I have consciously chosen to call it an ‘activity’ for two reasons. 1) Obtaining peace requires an effort. 2) Meditation is not limited to only sitting quietly. The practice of sitting was originally selected from a wide range of Yoga exercises by Zen monks, from the belief that it was the most effective practice to nurture inner peace and train in the objective observation of our surroundings. But this practice can in fact come in various forms, ranging from being focused and present in the most difficult of Yoga poses, to sneaking out of the office for a 30-minute swim during lunchtime.

The rite of tea is meditation in practice. It is only through the exercise in hospitality that this rite becomes meditational, and it is meditational because the activity and environment demands the practitioner’s full attention and focus. Through meditation, an adept trains in 1) introspection to understand and accept his/her true nature, and 2) selflessness to take peace with who he/she in essence is to enable oneself to fully commit to love and give to others. It is this component of meditation that is essential to the rite of tea, for without the ability to unconditionally love and give to others, a service of tea cannot come about.

The hidden minstrel in a cup of tea

Tea is more than just a heap of dried and/or oxidised leaves. Tea is associated with relaxation; taking time to distance ourselves from everyday activity and to allow our mind a moment of peace. Recent research has pointed out that tea contains certain components that actually help us to relax and relieve stress. And more than coffee – which is mostly consumed for its stimulating effects – tea has become identified as the tool to obtain that what we lack most in our contemporary lives.

But tea is not a medicine; and stress is not a sickness. Tea cannot be relied upon the way we do with contemporary medicaments. Whereas with coffee for example, we can drink a mug of black to get an instant boost, tea doesn’t ‘work’ in this magnificent manner. A cup of green won’t give us instant relaxation. It isn’t the wonder potion we sometimes believe it is. But then how does it work?

Tea, as I indicated above, is but the ‘tool’ that can aid us in finding a rare moment of peace and tranquility. It provides us with the means and the opportunity to create such a moment for ourselves, but unfortunately it isn’t going to do it for us. Running to the kitchen to pour some hot water in a mug in which to dip a low quality tea bag, just to hurry back to the computer to continue work won’t do anything more than just quench our thirst. Tranquility is not obtained that easily and, contradictory it may seem, in fact requires a little effort.

It is not the tea that relaxes us, it is the moment; that instant with tea, that provides that well needed break to reset. Now, how does tea actually help us to obtain such a treasured moment? Since we have all become too used to teabags, instant coffee and vending machines, tea does seem tedious to prepare. But it is exactly the time taken in carefully brewing a cup of tea that focuses our attention on doing just that. The care and caution taken in the preparation, simultaneously enhances our drinking experience, because our taste is not just limited to ‘strong or weak’, ‘sweet or bitter’. We can start to recognize less outspoken flavors and scents that – even with the same tea – change with each brewing. It is the understanding of how we brew our tea that allows us to recognize in greater depth what it as a beverage comes to express.

This being said, it isn’t only our understanding of the brewing process that adds to our experience of the tea. It is ‘understanding’ in general that widens our pallet, and the way we get to enjoy our brew. The more we understand, the more we start to recognize the true taste of tea.

It is my experience that – having sampled a great variety of tea – it is not the one that said ‘premium’ on the package that was most delicious; it was the tea that I understood best that appealed most to my taste. If we allow ourselves to fully emerge in that tranquil moment with tea, and open ourselves to listen to it carefully, we may discover that tea can tell us many stories. Some teas tell stories of blood, sweat and tears; the effort that went into their production. Others bring tales from the times of old. Each tea has a story to tell, and listening to this story while savoring the moment in the company of tea is what I believe to be the strongest tool to momentarily forget our daily worries and find that moment of peace that we so strongly crave.

A New Space To Share My Stories.

This is the first post after having fully transferred this blog to a different provider and blog server. From this point on I will be using wordpress for its functionality, readability and accessibility.

Personally, this transfer also marks a new chapter in writing this blog. When the blog was incorporated on The Tea Crane homepage, it mainly served as a source of information on the tea I sell under The Tea Crane brand, and a newsfeed for updates on the store. Now that the homepage/store and the blog are somewhat separate, I feel freer to write about a broader range of topics and more personal topics as well.

Japan has been my home for the past decade. Initially, I came here as a student because I wanted to learn about its tradition and related arts and crafts. After obtaining a postgraduate degree in Japanese 17th century literature, I gave up on my dream to get a Phd. in Japanese studies, and instead chose for a family life as a regular salary worker. This is where my culture shock (or better said ‘never ending series of culture shocks’) began.

In less than four years time, I got married, became father of two children, worked at two different Japanese companies, founded my personal tea business, obtained certifications in Japanese tea and tea ceremony, and as a teacher in tea ceremony, while simultaneously working as a consultant, I am day in day out struggling to keep head above water. I wouldn’t have thought that, when I started my first job in Japan things would go so fast, and that I would learn and experience what I have learned in the past few years.

Given the repositioning of this blog, I am happy to now also have found a space where I can collect and share stories of the experiences I had these past few years as a salary worker, as well as some of my thoughts on Japanese work ethics and company culture, in addition to articles on the subjects that I care about most; Japanese tea and culture. In the posts to come, I will give more precedence to writing about why I am in Japan, what I have experienced, the perceptions I have on certain cultural and social phenomenon, and what keeps me busy everyday.

I hope that you, the readers of this blog, may enjoy my entries, and will also give feedback or share your stories on subjects that I have written about.

Life Managed as Constant Guest

Let us take note of something that experience – of whatever extent – of being a Tea-guest can actually teach us all, about living in this world gracefully.

It was written by a close friend of the Founder of this School (Lord Enshū). The writer was also a spiritual director sought out by – among a multitude of others – the famous samurai-swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, and a guest often welcomed by the supremely-powerful Tokugawa family, the heads of which were shōgun, or military dictators, appointed by the Imperial Household.

153rd Abbot of the Daitoku Zen Motherhouse, he is now known by his priestly name, Takuan Sōhō Zenshi. What he wrote is this.

You, yes you     born into this world

so long as you     keep enduringly in mind

that you are here     come as its guest

hardship need never     prove to be your lot

 

Whenever a meal     that this world provides

tastes to you good     of course praise it well

When another does not     you are here as guest, so

address it with just     as great a gusto

 

The heats of summer     bear you must, and

since you are here as guest     winter’s rigours alike

 

Once you recast those unruly     fruits of your loins

as fellow-guests alike     living in amity

shared with them all     will surely result

 

Do but this and     when you must take

your final farewell     this you will find you complete

without need to repent     or endure regret

And I have one thing more to add. When things go wrong, and thus disappoint you, ask yourself just this question:

Haven’t I, somewhere in my past, effectively chosen this?

Seriously considering your answer to this can often prove … surprisingly restorative. And what is this but, in another form, the following Tea-principle?

As host any guest’s blunder

is ultimately one’s own