June 1, 2016
In 2004 I left San Diego and went to live in Japan. A significant motivation for moving there, in addition to furthering my Aikido and Iaido practice, was to study tea ceremony. This was first suggested to me by Murashige Sensei while I was still in San Diego, and as time went on, the idea held more and more appeal for me. Soon after moving to Tokyo, I began searching for a tea teacher, and was eventually fortunate enough to find my teacher, Yamada Kazuharu Sensei, head of the (very small) Tokyo-based Azumino-ryu tea school, through connections with Ichikukai Dojo.
Yamada Sensei turned 80 this year, but he looks and acts as though he were in his mid 60s. He has studied tea nearly all his life, and is extraordinary not only for his expertise in tea, but also in ceramics and flower arranging, being a recognized master in all three disciplines. He is also unusual in his close association with Zen, a connection which is, to my knowledge, fairly tenuous in other schools of tea; he gives weekly lessons to the monks at Heirinji temple in Saitama, and at an associated temple in Kawasaki. He is also one of the most senior members of Ichikukai Dojo, and until a few years ago taught tea there as well.
I have studied tea with Yamada Sensei for more than five years now. Though I am by no means an expert in tea ceremony, I would like to offer my own observations about the connections between tea ceremony and the study of martial arts, and about how studying tea has affected my training in the martial arts.
The first thing Yamada Sensei taught me was how to bow upon entering the tearoom. More than the bowing, what struck me as significant was his instruction that when I finished the bow, I was to look up to see who was in the room, where they were sitting, and what they were doing. Like every other movement in tea, this has a purpose: you need to know whether you need to wait to enter (for example, if the person currently serving tea is at a point in the ceremony where they will be leaving the room soon, in which case you would be in the way if you enter), where you will walk once you enter, and who else is in the room so you know where you will sit. Thinking about this, I realized that when I entered the Aikido dojo, I didn’t consciously look to see who was already there and what they were doing. At the next Aikido practice, I watched other people as they came in and saw that most of them, like me, rushed headlong onto the mat without looking up after bowing. A-ha, I thought. I’ve been missing something.
Careful thought and preparation before acting are crucial to success in performing the ceremony. For example, the person who performed the ceremony before you may have used all the powdered tea in the tea caddy, or not left enough water in the kettle. The tines of the chasen (tea whisk) may be breaking; if you don't pull the broken ends off they may end up in the tea. You need to have your fukusa cloth folded and ready at your side, and your kobukusa (a cloth on which the bowl and/or tea scoop is placed to prevent contact with the floor during the presentation) and kaeshi paper tucked into a handy place. All the tools that will be used in that particular presentation should be checked for cleanliness and soundness and laid out so they are ready to use when the time comes. Basically this preparation encourages you to think ahead, consider carefully your plan of action, and to be as ready as possible for what you are about to do: a martial mind-set. With Yamada Sensei, who often suddenly barks at me to perform a particular presentation on the spot, then growls, "Hurry up!" it can be difficult to remember to check everything—which I suspect is his intent.
In tea, you bend your awareness to others. When you are performing the ceremony, your own position, the positioning of the bowl, the utensils, the lid of the water container, etc.—all are undertaken with a clear understanding of the viewpoint of the guest. When you are served tea as a guest, you will be careful to acknowledge the others around you before you take the sweets or drink your tea. The most beautiful part of the bowl will face you as you are served; in order not to drink from this part, you turn the bowl before drinking. It probably sounds obvious, but this kind of awareness of others—where are they in relation to you? What do they want? How are they feeling?—is exactly the same as the awareness demanded of a martial artist; it's just a different perspective. Timing? You move more slowly or rapidly in preparing the tea as you observe how your guest eats the sweet, whether the water is not quite hot enough yet, whether they look really eager for a bowl of tea. When you are the hanto, or assistant, you have to be precisely attuned to the progress of the ceremony, as you bring a fresh bowl to the host, serve the guests their tea, and take away their empty bowls. Distance? When you sit on the tatami as a guest, you should be 16 tatami-lines (ju-roku me) from the cloth edging, and you really can’t count—you have to “know” the correct distance. And if you are performing the ceremony, the bowl, the tools, the water container, and the ladle rest are all precisely placed in relation to each other to make the ceremony as efficient and pleasing as possible; however, in different presentations, the positioning of these articles changes. Finally, footwork in tea must be precise; you enter the tearoom with the foot furthest from the guests, and you must walk naturally, never stepping on the cloth edging that borders the tatami.
There are no wasted movements in tea. Every movement has a very practical purpose, and once you understand why something is moved at a certain time, to a certain place, it becomes much easier to remember that particular temae, or presentation. There are also basic guidelines in the tearoom that determine your movements, but sometimes, such rules are superseded by additional considerations. For example, one basic rule is that if you have to turn around in the tearoom, you always turn in the direction of your guest. However, at the close of the ceremony, the first thing you take away from the tearoom is the kensui, or waste water container. In this case, you turn your back to the guest. The reason? If you turn toward the guest and move too rapidly, there is a chance (very remote, but possible) that the waste water will splash on your guests. The rule of always facing the guest is therefore broken. Martial arts are no different. If there isn’t a reason to move, you shouldn’t move there. Yet you can’t get stuck on “the way” of doing something when other considerations demand a different response. These kinds of realizations, in tea, have made me think a little more about the why behind my movements in Aikido and Iaido, allowing me to (hopefully) prune some of the unnecessary baggage from my techniques.
Posture, as well as awareness of your center, is another key point in tea. In this regard my martial practice has informed my tea practice, and vice versa. I discovered early on that if I involved my center in the whisking of the tea, I could produce finer, more voluminous froth (which, to me, makes it tastier—though not all schools of tea make their tea with froth). If you are wearing a kimono, it is nearly impossible to rise gracefully from seiza unless your back is absolutely straight—exactly as it is impossible to do sonkyo suburi properly with a bent back. Related to posture and center is an injunction which I have heard from my teachers in Aikido, Iaido, and tea: “Chikara wo nuite” (difficult to translate, but maybe, “Don’t force it”). Everyone knows that relaxing allows you to move faster and more powerfully. However, this is difficult to put into practice, especially in the dojo—an environment that doesn't lend itself to relaxation. Studying how to let go of my strength in tea—not just when whisking the tea, but when handling the utensils, especially the ladle—helps me to get the feeling and confidence to do the same in the dojo.
All these small connections aside, for me probably the most useful aspect of tea ceremony in terms of informing my martial training is the cultivation of “ordinary mind.” For a foreigner—but increasingly for many Japanese as well—the movements and constraints involved in tea ceremony seem mannered, archaic, and unnatural; even advanced students can be overly self-conscious when they make tea. It is especially difficult to "just make tea" in front of twenty strangers at a formal tea gathering, being aware of all the factors at play, neither anticipating nor panicking, but simply responding to what happens during the ceremony without having to think about it. It's a lot like randori practice, but with different stakes.
Like Aikido, tea ceremony is a lifelong study with infinite possibilities. Of course, it offers a good counterbalance to the intensity of regular martial arts practice. More than that, however, I believe that it offers a way to explore martial principles from a different perspective.