June 1, 2016
“Martial arts training is the training of the magnetic power to absorb the other as he is.” --Aikido Kaiso Morihei Ueshiba
On the face of it, the tea ceremony seems to be all about rules. There are rules for how to walk, how to sit, how to pick up a dish, a bowl, a ladle, how to drink the tea, what to say before and after the tea is drunk—every aspect of the ceremony seems strictly delineated. It’s like a long kata, or a series of kata that change with the season and the furnishings.
Much can be said about the meaning and results and ultimate utility of kata practice as it pertains to the martial arts, but at the end of it, such practice always has an end point, a goal. The goal of studying tea ceremony is hard to parse; most tea people I know have great difficulty articulating it. I have always felt, instinctively, that my study of tea is crucial to my study of martial arts. But how and why are questions I have been chewing on for the five-plus years that I’ve been engaged in tea practice.
The tea ceremony is about the relationship between the guest and the host. Its purpose, I believe, is to celebrate the ineffable uniqueness of an encounter between two people at a perfect, irreproducible moment in time and space. The role of the host is to anticipate the needs and desires of the guest; the role of the guest is to perceive and enjoy all the different aspects of the host’s preparations and the ceremony itself. A skilled host will know what is needed before the guest is conscious of any deficiency; a skilled guest will appreciate niceties both accidental and designed. When both host and guest are experienced practitioners, the ceremony becomes a smooth, floating, rarefied exchange of sentiment and aesthetic pleasure. From this point of view the guest and host relationship is very much akin to that between uke and nage in Aikido practice.
The host, while directing the ceremony, does not impose her will on the guest; matters should proceed naturally and spontaneously. What I’ve realized from watching my own teacher (whom I’ve never seen actually perform the ceremony all the way through, but who has presided over innumerable tea gatherings and tea practices I’ve attended) is that at its heart, hosting a tea ceremony means accepting the guest exactly as she or he is, and guiding them effortlessly through each prescribed step of the ritual so that they cannot help but enjoy themselves. In a way, the host almost disappears—there’s no sense of agency. In O-Sensei’s words, the guest is “absorbed as he is.” When I see my teacher interacting with guests or visitors who are not his students, I feel certain that no matter what they did—even if they upended the tea over their heads and sat there grinning—as long as they were genuinely appreciating the experience, it would be fine with him, and he would do exactly the right thing. At the same time, I don’t think there is any possibility that a guest would do such a thing, as he is so skilled at directing their actions without seeming to. I think about this and I remember what students of Jigoro Kano used to say about wrestling with the founder of Judo: that it was like fighting smoke, like dancing with an empty gi. He simply disappeared and let them throw themselves. I think that this is what I’m looking for in my study of tea.
Knowing what you’re looking for isn’t the same as knowing how to find it, though. How can I truly accept others just as they are, without wanting to change them or force them to fit my paradigm? How do I adjust my view of the world so that I’m not merely making allowances for a person’s ignorance or clumsiness or aggression, but truly accepting the whole person, and thereby giving them room to change? How can I, in conducting a tea ceremony, get rid of any expectations or preconceptions I might have about the person I am serving tea to, and thereby meet their needs perfectly? How can I absorb another’s violence without responding violently in return?
The answer to these questions lies not in any mastery of external technique or knowledge of external details. It lies in myself—in cultivating in my own self the ability to let go, to divest myself of the need to control. Paradoxically, of course, that answer cannot be realized without striving to master technique and learn detail, without endless repetition and daily practice, without sweat and violence and preconceptions and mistakes. In the end, though, it’s not training to master others. It’s training to lose the need to do so.