Taking Tea, ceremonially

You enter on your knees, your white socked feet tucked under you, your head low, bowing, a curled, almost embryonic posture, signalling humility. The small tatami room is cozy, a bronze kettle peeps out, bubbling in its space just under the level of the floor, and adds a soothing warmth. Here you become small and soft. Shed the ego & the facades you use in the outside world. Relieve yourself of your swords. No defences can enter with you. Here, simply be, natural and calm. 

To be welcomed in this humble space is a chance to remember yourself. Sit up straight, relax, breathe. This is a world within a world. A space apart. In this ancient, tradition-refined ceremony there are hidden complexities that, over time, release ever more flavours and fragrances. They cannot be forced but, like happiness or the alighting of a butterfly, are glimpsed, recognised, (somehow, – impossibly – ) real. In their wake, gratitude ruptures, wearing away the old, bringing something fresh into the soul.

What is it? I don’t know. I only love it. Therefore, I praise. I am no expert; I do not study the way of tea, but I take great delight in the stories of the friends who do. It is a tempering art: you go through the fire before you begin to take shape at it. There is so much that has to be dropped to become self-effacing enough to adequately perform the ritual. Fidelity to the practice is all.

The room is, in its way, spare. Each item is freighted – with history, meaning, purpose, play. Nothing is superfluous. This makes for coherence. Our recent narrative theme for the spring ceremony was that of the local legendary hero, Momotaro. The hanging scroll was an old calligraphed poem and likeness of the founder of the ceremony, Rikyu. The Master decided we would use Rikyu to stand in for Momotaro. There was a small porcelain pheasant ornament in the alcove, on the right, perched on a folded sky-blue paper pillow, an incense burner. The vase in which the pale pink peony stood, a petal fallen onto a lower leaf and dew still quivering on it in drops, was tall, dark and rough-hewn: this was the arm of the demon with whom Momotaro does battle in the legend, protruding from below.

The chawan (tea bowls) are all different and uniquely precious pieces: each bearing a story, of origins, of ceramic artists, of design. Having entered the room, and before sitting down, an elaborate twittering dance between the participants takes place, one from which I, thankfully, as an outsider, am exempt. The more experienced the guest, the closer to the Master, s/he is seated. It is considered etiquette not to appear knowledgeable; hence the twittering. I sat, a bit reluctantly, but obediently, in the third position, recommended by my friend, a teacher of ceremony herself, who sat in fourth, she having whispered— like this was a good thing—that the third guest gets one of the really good tea bowls … (Ah, well, as the only foreigner in the room, I was standing out already. Might as well enjoy it! 😉)

Everyone knows that the guest nearest the Master has to perform the most. Usually this guest has been chosen and notified in advance and is experienced in the forms necessary to the cultivation of the atmosphere. Their duties include just the right kind of admiration (of the art, in particular), the right kind of comment and/or conversation, light and easy and effortless, exercising, where called for, wit that does not draw attention to itself, but contributes to the relaxation of all, the kind of words that enter the flow, maintain ease and heighten the enjoyment. 

I, as third guest, did indeed get a beautiful bowl which fitted, in shape and weight and size, comfortably in my hand. It was watery in design and was made by a third generation potter of a lineage whose founding eccentric artist’s story, I had first heard a week before. As I finished my dark green tea in the requisite three gulps, out of the depths, the opening lotus blossoms appeared.


Farewell, the Castle

At first light, one trumpet-like sound blasts one note across the sleeping valley and a clattering chorus of response erupts. The herald is bold, insistent but with no sense of oratory: no rhyme, no respect for time (or timing), neither is there harmony, nor any perceptible musical pattern. This is the sound of the neighbourhood murder, shattering, definitively, night from day.

The contrast between these sounds splitting heaven and the sight of the delicate and serene majesty of the sakura in bloom, is striking. The white-pink snow storm clouds  like candy-floss trees, as in a dream. Being the neighbourhood of Crow Castle, there is, naturally, a resident crew of brassy, jet-black guardians, gangster-rough and full-voiced. Particularly potent in the spring, they carry on all the live-long day, keeping you, slightly irritated, grounded.

Classically, because the blossoming season is so short, we are given to meditations on mono no aware — the temporal nature of things, the brevity of life, the passing of beauty, the limits of our incarnation, possibly dreaming of what lies beyond what can be seen and known. Raucous bacchanalia ensue, following a certain logic. The trees, revived from winters’ rest, reach for heaven; the crows remind us that, for the time being, we are of the earth. Spring invites us to show up, to embrace liminality: here we are between heaven and earth.

For most institutions in Japan, April is the season of new beginnings. The new academic year starts, without a trace of irony, on April first. I’ve grown to appreciate the arc of the timing. It’s good to be opening and growing with the light and to be winding down and finishing, fully absorbed, in the dark. Surely, for new beginnings we have the most energy for transformation having emerged from wintery realms.

A breeze picks up and I enjoy my favourite seasonal sight of all: swarms of petals looking for all the world like butterflies!

As the part of the planet I inhabit tilts toward the sun, Crow Castle, visible for half the year from the living room window, disappears, first behind a burgeoning veil of sakura where its outline gradually fades from view, then, soon, to be completely obscured behind a wall of fresh green foliage. Whiskers of green already hint at what is to come, just as the tight knots of rust-coloured buds did for the glorious tide of blossom that’s now washed up. This rhythm of revelation and hiddenness that the changing of the seasons brings is precious; a visible metaphor I grow slowly to understand.

The Castle and its daydreams fade into the background as the beauty of the trees begins to flourish and appears to come nearer. In the autumn and the winter, I dream with the castle of higher things. Preparing to no longer see it through the bare branches means, I take it, that the time has come to get to the work of manifesting.

Castle & Sakura