“Ichi-go Ichi-e, ONE time ONE chance,” said sensei* Atsuko Nishida-Mitchell. She was quoting the great 16th Century tea master, Sen No Rikyu who laid down the principles of what we know today as the Japanese tea ceremony. According to Rikyu, every tea ceremony had to be approached as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. And so it seemed to me, this opportunity to learn about the tea ceremony in a series of classes, the first of which took place this past weekend at the Enkyoji Buddhist Temple of Rochester.
Sensei Nishida-Mitchell, the only certified teacher in the Urusanke school (there are three schools of Japanese tea ceremony) in Western NY, had driven all the way from Buffalo to give the class to a small group. It was a blessing to be allowed into this great tea tradition that I have only watched from afar with awe! I cannot be thankful enough to Enkyoji Temple and sensei for bringing this rare opportunity to town.
Did you know that practitioners of the Japanese tea ceremony are not comfortable with the term “tea ceremony?” Sensei noted that the words Chado or Chanoyu used to describe the Japanese tea ceremony, means “the way of tea”, or “tea, as a way of life.” The tea ceremony is just a part of this philosophy that encompasses a whole worldview that includes culture and aesthetics.
According to her, the principles of Chado include creating harmony, self-purification and finally joy. There were couple more which I cannot recall now. In keeping with the traditions we were discouraged from taking notes and pictures during the lesson. I actually found this refreshing. It reminded me of not only the great traditions of the East being passed down through generations strictly orally (these were mainly spiritual practices that were kept secret in fear that it would otherwise be misused if it got into the hands of wrong people), but also helped me to be totally present in the moment, in the spirit of ichi-go ichi-e.
Harmony is achieved by selecting tea utensils, which include tea bowls, scrolls, flowers, etc that are in consonance with the season. At a deeper level this is about being aware of the nature and its passing. There is emphasis on ceremonial cleaning of the tea utensils, which is reflective of the purity sought by a chado practitioner in his thoughts and actions. The goal is to ultimately find joy within himself and the world around.
The lessons are going to be spread over five classes. The focus of the first class was on the right way of drinking out of a tea bowl and to properly fold fukusa or a cloth napkin that is used during the making and serving of the tea by the host.
We also experienced a short a demonstration of a tea ceremony itself which was supported by James Cody Kroll, a potter who specializes in Japanese tea ware, and who has been sensei’s student for a long time.
When it came to our turn to learn how to drink tea, we were first offered wagashi or Japanese confections. These semi-hard sugar candies complement the mild bitterness that may be found in the matcha, or the powdered green tea that is used for the ceremony.
The host presents the tea bowl with its “face” (or front) facing the guest. Before picking up the bowl, you bow deeply and then turn to the guest next to you and say “osakini” (with your permission). You pick up the bowl with both hands. The bowl sits on the palm of your left hand with the right palm and fingers holding one side gently. The bowl now needs to be turned couple of times clockwise (the idea is to take the front of the bowl away from your face) and then you can begin drinking the tea in sips. You continue to hold the bowl with both hands. You finally “slurp” the final sip, signalling the host that you are done.
Once finished, you turn the bowl anti-clockwise until its front faces the host. You then place the bowl in front of you bow down and stay there taking your time admiring the bowl. Again the spirit of ichi-go ichi-e is invoked - you may never see this beautiful bowl again because each bowl, as noted before, is particular to a season.
I cannot wait for the next class which will take place two weeks from now. I will be sharing with you my learnings of this wonderful tradition - a tradition that reminds me why I came to tea in the first place. For peace and joy.
*Sensei means teacher in Japanese.