Anything worthwhile takes time

Things that are worthwhile require investment. Investment means devoting time, money, energy and effort to achieve something. Things like gardening, playing an instrument, learning a language, having a relationship, having a healthy body, being a good parent, building a successful business, saving for retirement, changing a habit, fine wine, or sharp cheese all require investment.

With our society focused on short-term results, investment seems rather old-fashioned. Who has time these days to spend energy and effort to do something when you can google a result or pay someone to do it for you. We see on reality TV, competitions where people can win a career in music, a million dollars, a fashion design house. All you need to do is spend a few weeks beating out 15 other contestants. There are so many schemes that guarantee quick results: Be wine connoisseur in three easy lessons, a 2 hour workshop to get rich flipping houses, the video to become a tea master in a day

A seminar or workshop does not substitute for experience and knowledge gained from time and effort. Without the time spent learning and making mistakes, when you get to a rough patch or in over your head, it is even more difficult to figure it out, problem solve and keep going.

How fast you go does not directly impact how far you make it. In truth, it is a myth of overnight success because there are no shortcuts. If something comes easily its value isn’t fully appreciated. The length of time it takes for you to succeed is generally a good measure of how long you will be able to sustain—and enjoy—something.

When we rush, we also risk missing integral parts of the process. Going too fast sometimes risks doing more harm than good, skipping steps and getting sloppy along the way. Great things take time. Don’t think your endeavor is any less great because it took longer than anticipated to get there. And don’t think it is any less great because it took longer than someone else did to get there.

Investment over the long term will get you to your goals. It’s the small steps that matter most. It is those small daily improvements that, over time, lead to results that last. They build confidence and competence from which you can launch into the next phase.

So where you are with your tea studies is where you can invest in doing the small things right, deepening your knowledge, and keeping your eye on your goal. The way of tea is worthwhile, I guarantee it.

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Building a charcoal fire

Rikyu says: Lay the charcoal so it boils the water.

When I first went to Japan to study the way of tea, I didn’t know how to build a charcoal fire. My sensei really did not teach us how to do it. We would have a charcoal fire for events such as Robiraki or Hatsugama, but always the senior students were the ones who did it.

One of the first lessons on building the fire, sensei taught us to choose the charcoal carefully. There are specific sizes in length and width for each piece and we had to learn the names of each one. We also had to learn the specific place each one had in the sumitori, the charcoal basket.

Once we had chosen the charcoal, the next step is to wash it. This must be done very gently and carefully. The charcoal still has the bark attached to it and when you wash it, you must be careful that it doesn’t break off.

Washing the charcoal minimizes the dust that causes sparks and the water adds oxygen to help the fire burn better. The charcoal should be dried overnight standing up on newspapers to help the water drain out of it.

Next the charcoal should be arranged in the sumitori. As I said previously, each charcoal has a specific place in the basket and as you build the fire, it comes out of the basket in a certain order. All of the rest of the fire building utensils are also arranged in the basket in a certain order so you can just take them out without fumbling around.

Three pieces of charcoal are reserved for the shitabi, or starter charcoal. I remember sensei said that you must choose these shitabi carefully, especially in the furo season because the first fire is built after the meal is served. The shitabi must last through the meal to start the fire.

Shitabi, the starter charcoal

Sensei said that the charcoal that isn’t perfect are the ones you should choose for shitabi. She said that the ugly ones with knots or twists have overcome hardship. These are the ones that last. Like people who have overcome hard times in their life, they are more resilient and better able to overcome obstacles and set backs. Those who have had an easy life may look good, but have a harder time dealing with adversity and burn faster.

Light the shitabi, and put them in the furo or ro. Hopefully, your ash form will help the fire breathe and keep it alive until it is time for the first laying of the charcoal.

When you lay the charcoal in the furo or ro, here are a few tips to help you build a better fire. Lay the charcoal so that they touch each other. If they are too far apart they will not catch fire. Also do not lay them too close together or they will smother and go out. By giving some space at the bottom near the ash, the air can get in to make the fire burn. Most of the charcoal should be placed inside the gotoku (trivet). Avoid placing the charcoal too high that it touches the bottom of the kettle.

The charcoal fire is the timing device for the chaji. The two layings of charcoal bring the fire to the perfect temperature to make the koicha, then you rebuild it and make usucha. When the fire dies down, you will know it because the sound of the boiling kettle stops. If the guests are paying attention, this is the signal to hopefully wrap up and not inconvenience the host to rebuild the fire to finish the tea.

It takes practice to build a good fire. It is a good idea to observe how the fire has burned when you take the kettle off at the end. It is also good to remember that no matter how beautifully you lay the charcoal, it is no good unless it can boil the water.

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Reading the room

Reading the room is something stand up comics are intimately familiar with. The difference between killing it and dying out there are vastly different. Jokes that get the biggest laugh with one audience may fall flat with another. How to handle a heckler and make them a part of your act is an art form that every comic needs to be good at, because sooner or later there will be a heckler in the audience. People are there to be entertained and have a laugh. If you are not funny or entertaining, audience feedback is instant. People are not shy about expressing approval or disapproval.

The same thing happens with live theater and public speaking. Presenters and actors know when they have lost the audience. They may not be as vocal as with comedians, but when people lose interest, you can feel it on stage or at the podium. Musicians and performers also know about reading the room. They have learned how to keep people engaged, energized and on their side.

The thing is, especially with public speakers, the speaker need not be slick and professional to hold an audience. I have seen terrible public speakers keep people on the edge of their seats. The presentation may take many wandering asides, or the story may make absolutely no sense, yet the audience will stay with the speaker, encourage them and give them energy.

The same thing happens with the host at a tea gathering. The host must learn to read the room. Like the terrible public speakers, a host at a tea gathering may not have a perfect and beautiful temae to keep the guests engaged. Learning to read the room and be flexible enough to keep the guests engaged is part of the art of tea.

I am reminded of the story of Rikyu and his disciple who went to a gathering. The host was very nervous and made many mistakes in his temae. His hand trembled and the tea scoop fell from the tea caddy, and without stopping to put straight the whisk which had rolled on the mat to his side, he presented the bowl of tea to Rikyu. The disciple snickered at the mistakes, but Rikyu said that the presentation of tea was the best he had ever seen. Later, on the way home, the disciple asked Rikyu what was so great about the presentation of tea. Rikyu replied that the host’s whole mind was so concentrated on giving me the bowl of tea before it cooled that he took no notice of the slips and accidents, but went straight on and finished serving it.
What is it about these stories that hold the guests and/or the audience in spite of the imperfections? For me, I have learned it is about authenticity, sincerity, and focus. In other words, kokoro. Showing up not just in your body, but in your mind, and your spirit. It is being present for your guests. It is about sincerely wanting to make the best tea for your guests rather than make no mistakes. It is about the focus on your guests, rather than how you look.

I believe guests show up to a tea gathering predisposed to want the host to do well. They are ready and eager to give the host their energy and focus. If they find themselves in the middle of a perfectly beautiful but cold temae, the energy of the room slips away a little at a time. If the focus of the host is to make no mistakes, the guests may have a good time, but not a memorable or life enhancing experience.

Nicely burning fire

One of the most memorable gatherings I have attended didn’t have beautiful or expensive dogu. The host’s temae was not perfect. But the host was masterful at reading the room, flexible to adjust himself to the guests, and the energy of the guests fed the host who returned it to the guests. I never wanted it to end. I just wanted to sit there at the nexus and feed on the energy and feelings of everyone in the room. We all could feel the kokoro.

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After the gathering

It has been the custom of my sensei and indeed myself, that after a chaji, chakai, or a demonstration of chanoyu, to make sure all students and helpers have a sweet and drink a bowl of tea before we clean up. After the guests leave, there is still so much to do. And yet, to take the time to serve everyone is important.

I understand in some venues we must clean up and be out of the building according to a timetable, but not before everyone has had the chance to enjoy sweets and tea.

Everyone on the host side has done their utmost to make the guests feel welcome and comfortable. So out of respect and appreciation for their time and work, they are served sweets and tea. This pause for sweets and tea takes only a moment. I think we need this pause before the bustle of cleaning up. Enjoying tea is not just for guests, but for hosts and host helpers as well.

I am reminded of  Ii Naosuke’s article, “Sitting alone in contemplation.”

After the gathering “One should, with a tranquil heart, return to the tearoom, now entering through the crawling in entrance. Sitting in solitude before the hearth, one should for a time, with the feeling that words yet remain to be spoken, consider how far the guests have gone in their return. One should reflect that this single encounter of a lifetime has now ended this day, never to recur, and perhaps partake of a bowl of tea alone. This is the practice that is the ultimate core of the gathering. This moment is one of stillness; there only the kettle for partner in conversation, and nothing else. It is indeed a realm that one must attain for oneself.”

Indeed, we have precious little time to “sit alone in contemplation.” There is so little stillness in our lives that are constantly in motion. After an intense experience, your resources and energy are at a low ebb. To take time to absorb the experience makes it all the more meaningful. This time of contemplation and stillness is nurturing and also refreshes our inner spirit and gives us energy and strength for whatever is to come next.

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The rhythm of temae

There is a regular rhythm in our daily lives. From the time we arise in the morning to when we go to sleep at night there is a certain rhythm to our day. Just as the rhythm of our heartbeat, the rhythm of our breathing regulates the processes of our bodies. The movements of our bodies, our energy, and our intention regulate the rhythm of temae.

I sometimes think of temae as a roller coaster. At the beginning, the cars start slowly climbing to the top of the first hill. The tension and excitement builds until we come to the top. For one indescribable moment at the top, the anticipation hangs before we drop down the other side.

Just as in temae during the purification of the utensils, the tension builds until the moment the guest turns the bowl to drink. The anticipation of how the guest will receive our tea hangs for a moment as the guest takes that first sip and down we go to the other side.

Then there is the build up for the next guests’ tea until all have had their bowl of tea. Up slowly, stop for a moment, down the other side, just like a roller coaster. During the closing, rinsing the bowl and whisk is going down until the anticipation starts to ramp up again as the first guest requests haiken.

The anticipation of seeing the utensils close up peaks as the host leaves the room and then haiken begins. Then we go climbing up again as the host returns to the room to tell the guests about the utensils. Down the other side as we realize the temae is coming to a close. This is a natural rhythm of temae.

Even within the high and low points of temae, there is a rhythm. For example, when whisking usucha, start slowly to incorporate the dry powdered tea into the hot water, whisk briskly to get bubbles forming and then slowly whisking across the top to pop the large bubbles before finishing in nonoji.

If the temae were all high excitement points one after another throughout the procedure, think how exhausting it would be. Taking advantage of these natural high and low points gives the guest some time to rest and recover for the next anticipated high point. Also, as the rhythm of the temae is varied, it provides more interest for the guests to pay attention as it flows from slowly to quicker to slower again.

And, Rikyu had something to say about the rhythm of temae. From the hundred poems of Rikyu:

なまるとは手つつき早く又おそくところどころのそろはぬをいふ

Namaru to wa te-tsuzuki hayaku mata osoku tokoro-dokoro no sorowanu o iu

I have a couple of translations to English:

Putting a so-called accent in (namaru) means to do the steps with uneven rhythm, fast here, slow there.
What is called namaru is the quality of making tea with varied tempo.
Namaru describes the quality of making tea in which one procedure is done quickly and another slowly.

 

So when you are practicing your next temae, think of the rhythm of it, how it generates excitement for the guests and how to allow space for the guests to rest up for the next peak.

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