The tea ceremony lessons had been my husband’s idea. I wanted to take up a martial art, like kendo or karate.
“No, he said, “You are already dangerous enough without a weapon!” When he was done chuckling, he continued, “Anyway, all proper Japanese ladies study tea.”
In our marriage, everything had to be the Japanese way. I think he loved to see me rise to every challenge. Though I sometimes resented his teasing, (I am not your Eliza Doolittle!) I had to admit, the lessons touched me in ways I never would have imagined. Especially now—during these slowed-down, stretched-out days of sheltering at home—Tea Ceremony has provided me with important skills for navigating what is the new normal.
My husband didn’t know this when he suggested it, but my earliest interest in Japan had been the tea ceremony. I was a philosophy major at UC Berkeley, struggling through Being and Time. My professor was a world-famous Heidegger scholar, who was himself very interested in Japan. In one of his lectures, he was trying to explain the way our “understanding of being” can be uncovered in our everyday practices. Americans, for example, see the human condition in terms of productivity. That is the ultimate aim, he said. Everything in the world must become under our human control for the purpose of rendering it productive. In Heideggerian terms, all of the world is seen as a resource to be used—even our very selves.
To make his point he asked us to consider the Japanese tea ceremony.
“In Japan, to make a bowl of tea in the tea ceremony, a person must study for years. The ceremony takes approximately forty-five minutes and every movement is constrained to evoke a perfect moment with friends in the tea room. Nothing about this practice can be seen as productive or efficient. What do we have for tea in America?”
My professor mischievously scanned the room to see if any of his students would venture a guess.
“Come on, we stick a tea bag in a Styrofoam cup, put it in the microwave and wait a few seconds—then “ching” tea time!”
I had been in Japan ten years by then, but my professor’s words replayed in my mind as I walked across town to attend my first lesson. It was a warm day in mid-May. Stepping through the gate into my teacher’s garden was like entering a fairyland. An explosion of dazzling magenta. Everywhere I looked were waist-tall peony bushes. Heavy under the weight of giant pink blossoms, each flower was the size of a small child’s head.
Walking along the stepping stones, I passed through the garden’s inner gate. The tea hut was now in sight. Slipping out of my shoes, I entered the tea room. Waiting was a group of five young women, and they were visibly excited to have an American joining their ranks.
“Look and learn, Leanne-san,” my teacher instructed.
A deep silence fell on the small room as one of the students entered carrying the tea utensils to be used for the ceremony. Later I would learn that Reiko had been born into a long-line of tea teachers. The other students joked that she had tea flowing in her veins instead of blood. She was the top student and always got to act as teishu—or host—before the rest. After bowing deeply at the sliding door, Reiko glided across the mats to sit squarely in front of the raised brazier. She made it look so easy.
Sensei told me to watch carefully the way Reiko walked.
“How many steps did she take to walk across each tatami mat?”
When she saw I had no idea, she told me that I really must pay careful attention to even the most seemingly insignificant details. We are supposed to take six steps to make it across one mat with the seventh crossing over to the next mat—and never—not ever—stepping on the brocade border between the mats.
Tea is about paying attention to things, she repeated this again and again.
“What we are attentive to is what we care about,” she said gesturing her hand toward Reiko, who had taken up the bamboo water scoop to pour hot water into the tea bowl. She began to whip the tea until it was frothy, like cappuccino. Slowly moving the bamboo whisk in one slow circular motion along the inside of the tea bowl, she checked that no matcha was left clinging to the sides. Turning her head toward me and bowing slightly, she smiled.
Forty-five minutes just to make a cuppa. I smiled back and thought, Only in Japan.
The bowl was rough on my lips; the tea bitter and yet fresh. After finishing it with a slurp, as protocol demanded, I used my red silk cloth to wipe off the spot on the bowl where my mouth had touched and then rotated it counter-clockwise so that the front of the bowl now faced Reiko. Setting it down carefully on the mat, Reiko and I then bowed in unison to the bowl. It was time to begin the ritualized appreciation of it. Our teacher, who had been sitting silently in the back of the room now guided us through this most challenging part of the ceremony.
“First, let’s appreciate the crackle and color of the glaze. It might evoke a mountain landscape. Can you spot it? And be sure to notice the exposed clay that is visible along the foot of the bowl. Isn’t it charismatic?”
I had to work hard to follow her words, as her Japanese made use of honorific speech, which was so different from the Japanese of my daily life. I was still sitting in the formal seated posture of seiza. Legs tucked underneath my knees, bottom resting on my heels, it was extremely uncomfortable to sit that way for long periods of time. But to sit in seiza was non-negotiable. I felt my legs going completely numb and silently cursed my husband.
Sensei continued, “Like all famous teabowls, this one has a name. You can read it on the box which I placed in the alcove.”
That is when I took the time to look behind me. There was a hanging scroll with calligraphy and one perfect peony blossom from my teacher’s garden situated in a rustic vase. Sandalwood incense was smoldering in a porcelain container, keeping steady time.
The scroll was written in “grass script” cursive.
ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会).
“Have you heard of this saying?” My teacher asked me.
I nodded yes. Roughly meaning “One time, one encounter,” it was a phrase evoking the preciousness of every moment.
As I prepared to leave that day, my tea teacher, stopped me and asked if I knew the term fūryū 風流. The Chinese characters mean ‘wind’ and ‘flow.’ She explained that originally, the word denoted a person having “good manners” or “elegant deportment.” In Japanese tea ceremony, however, fūryū signifies someone who is capable of “flowing through life like the wind.” Gesturing again toward Reiko, she continued,
“People with fūryū are those who have time to notice things that are beautiful or somehow charming in the present moment. In tea, we cultivate our five senses so that we can appreciate the world more profoundly.”
I bowed deeply and thanked her for allowing me to become one of her pupils.
I studied tea ceremony in Japan for many years, and in my practice fūryū was a word I heard used often by my sensei and tea friends—held up as a value of supreme importance on the path of character-cultivation. In tea, having fūryū means you have the time to write a haiku, or time to stop and smell the roses; fūryū is having the heart to stop and linger; to look up at the moon or the stars; or lovingly tend to a way of life that is mindful of beauty and style. These days, so often I hear from friends and family complaining how busy they are and how they have no time. This is a shame, for self-cultivation and self-reflection first and foremost is about taking the time, the time to breathe and the time to really look at things—and also to listen, smell, and taste with one’s heart.
Heidegger pointed out that a minimally meaningful life requires sensitivity to the power of shared moods that give mattering to our world and unity and meaning to events. According to Heidegger, moods are not something inside a person but rather are something to which a person can be attuned. That is, moods come over us; overcoming us. The German word for mood reflects this, as philosophers like to remind us that Stimmung means mood—in terms of atmosphere (“ambiance”). Often likened to music or to weather, Heideggerean mood wraps itself around our bodies. It is something that we unconsciously attune ourselves too. Indeed, it is one way we have to grasp the way the world discloses itself to us.
In tea, we are constantly encouraged to cultivate our ability to attune ourselves to the world around us. This is something that Marcel Proust surely understood. Proust’s younger brother was a successful doctor. He was also a respected family man, an athlete, and a leader in his community. In a nutshell, he was everything Proust was not. For Proust could hardly get out of bed. Unable to hold down a job, he had chronic poor health and probably never had a successful love affair in his entire life. Despite these initial short comings, Alain de Botton, in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, is very persuasive when he cautions us not to be too quick to think it was Proust’s handsome and wealthy brother Robert who had the better lot. For according to de Botton, despite all the brother’s financial and romantic successes, Marcel Proust had something far more closely linked to human happiness: Proust really looked at things.
But what does that mean to say “Proust really looked at things”?
A man who could be utterly captivated by the vision of pollen scattering in the wind, as seen from an open window, Proust upon returning from a journey to Marseille found himself unable to climb the stairs to his room—so afflicted was he by altitude sickness—from what could only have been about a 400 feet difference in elevation! And De Botton asks, what is better?—To go through life a huge success in practical issues but be utterly unable to notice the beauty of pollen scattering outside your window; or to rarely get out of bed but feel every inch in elevation when you do?
Make no mistake about it: de Botton believes we have much to learn from Marcel Proust in how to live our lives.
Another important term from tea ceremony is matsukaze 松風? Notice the character for wind 風 which we saw in fūryū風流?
So what is matsukaze 松風?
Matsu松means “pine,” and Kaze means “wind.”
“Winds in the pines”
The great tea master Sen no Sōtan (千宗旦) (1578–1658) said:
The nature of tea ceremony
Say it’s the sound
of windblown pines
in a painting
Wind in the pines is the sound the tea kettle makes when the water begins to boil. The “wind” coming in waves—shush, shush, shush—settles in the body creating a feeling of harmonious peacefulness in the tearoom. Because the sound is so admired, small pieces of iron are attached with lacquer to the floor of the kettle specifically to generate the sound called matsukaze.
But you will miss it if you don’t attend to it.
This is fūryū!
And as Hannah Arendt so poignantly told us, mindfulness is also a question of care.
Famously, Basho’s Narrow Road to the North (Oku no hosomichi) begins with this poem:
The beginnings of fūryū—
Rice planting songs
In the deep north
Fūryū—no, not just fūryū, but the journey itself—begins in this mindful noticing of the world.
Ten years have passed since I left Japan and returned home to Los Angeles. Nothing could have prepared me for the isolation and relentless focus on consumerism that I have experienced in moving back to the U.S. after twenty-five years in Japan. Our model of endless growth, personal optimization and “consumerism as citizenship” is simply not viable. Not for the planet and maybe not even for those winning the race. Truly, we are optimizing ourselves into oblivion.
And then came the pandemic and six months of being in isolation.
Like a lot of people, I have felt time taking on a stretched-out quality. Feeling myself slowing down, it has been a luxury to be able to savor the seasons changing, the birdsong, the peaceful sound of the rustling leaves in the palm trees—all those things my tea teacher taught me to stay mindful of. To listen to the loud rustle of the grapefruit tree just before a huge, round fruit falls smack into the ground was like a revelation the first time I heard it. And how did I reach fifty years old and never once heard the sound of baby birds chirping to be fed—like crickets!
Happiness, as Marcel Proust suggested, demands an attunement of oneself to the local environment/community and to place (terroir). That is because when you slow down and become attentive to the world, you come to belong to the land as much as the land belongs to you–even if just in that moment. The world is no longer a resource to be efficiently consumed but instead becomes lit up and embodied with voice and with sentiment.
It also takes the time to stop and linger; for Proust concluded, an hour is not merely an hour but rather is “a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, places and climates! . . . So we hold within us a treasure of impressions, clustered in small knots, each with a flavor of its own, formed from our own experiences, that become certain moments of our past.”
In all my years of study, I can with great embarrassment tell you that I never did learn to make a bowl of tea properly. It is very complicated: every time I felt myself—at last!—to be on the cusp of memorizing the ritualized procedures, the season would change. Why couldn’t we first memorize one procedure before going on to another? I would have to put aside all that I had learned to absorb the new rituals of the new season… So many seasons, so many ways of making tea! But the one thing that I managed to learn by heart was this concept of “One time, one encounter.”
Life is, after all, constantly shuffling the deck, and each and every tea gathering was precious and unique; a once in a life time combination of people, utensils and experiences. Never again would the same exact group come together to drink tea in a room with just that particular combination of hanging scroll, blend of tea, fragrance of incense; with that one-of-a-kind arrangement of flowers (appearing in the vessel “as if growing in a field…”)—the tea bowl and the brazier; the colors of my friends’ kimono and the quality of our laughter that day–it was all a unique moment. A heightened moment. A perfect unfolding of “now.”