Friends traveling far

Sowing the moon tea house, Green Gulch Zen Center

I just completed the week long seminar, Zen and Tea at Green Gulch Zen Center in California. The setting is serene and beautiful.  Walking to Muir Beach is something that just feeds the soul.  Waking the sound of birds and sitting zazen in the morning felt cleansing and empowering.

Thank you to all the sensei, Christy Bartlett, Alexandre Avdulov, Meiya Wender and Jessica Rosenberg for their dedication to the way of tea, for their generous teaching and willingness to share what they learned with all of us who attended.  And to all the attendees of the seminar, thank you for your support and help. Even though your legs were hurting during class, you offered encouragement and support.


One of the activities of the week was a chashaku carving workshop. Meiya-sensei had collected some truly wonderful pieces of bamboo the last time she was in Japan.  She spent the time before we arrived to measure, cut and split the bamboo. And she worked to thin the pieces and bend the curve of the chashaku by heating it and shaping it. All we had to do was take the blank, whittle it down to size, shape it, and smooth the final piece.

Even though I have had some experience carving chashaku, every piece is different. It has different grain, splits differently, and a personality of its own.  Sometimes you have to just go with where the bamboo leads you rather than try to fight it with ideas of your own.

After the workshop, I had the privilege to be asked to collaborate on a special chashaku by Janet Ikeda.  I had had met her before, but I had not seen her in more than 10 years. She wanted a chashaku to use for the Parents Family Weekend chakai where she teaches at Washington and Lee University.

She began the project by carving the sides down to the final width at the workshop.  After the seminar, I took it home and did the final shaping, and smoothing the back with sandpaper.

Then we had to name it. We came up with

“Tomo ari” (Friends of a like mind)

This phrase comes from an opening passage of the Confucian Analects. The chashaku name comes from the second phrase. First he said, “studying and practicing what you learned, is this not a wonderful thing?” Second, “when friends who share the same mind travel a long distance to visit, is this not a joyful thing?” The last part of the master’s words, “Even when I remain undisturbed if people do not recognize or notice me, is this not a sign of virtue?”

有朋自遠方来 不亦楽乎

tomo arite enpoo kara kitaru

mata tanoshikarazuya

I like that we met at Green Gulch to practice and study tea together. It is also a chashaku to be used at the University where people practice and study. And it is also true that friends of like mind who travel a long distance to visit is apt since many people traveled a long way to Green Gulch and spent a lot of our free time visiting and catching up with each other. And the third part, remaining undisturbed if people do not recognize or notice me, is very much a virtue in tea.

The bamboo tsutsu (case) was given to me more than 10 years ago by my very good friend Taikyo Nakamura who passed on 3 years ago.  I was saving it for something special.  It is my attempt to calligraphy the name and the makers on it. Janet is going to use it for the chakai coming up in October for the Parents and Family weekend at Washington and Lee University and now she has a wonderful story that the students can tell at the chakai.


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It is harder than it looks

I have posted some photos of the kintsugi projects that I have recently completed and it has gotten a lot of interest. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repair of ceramic objects with gold lacquer. Like anything Japanese, it looks easy, but really it is harder and takes longer than people expect. Unfortunately, you cannot learn kintsugi in an afternoon workshop, just as you cannot learn chado in one easy lesson. Or learn a language, play a musical instrument, or get in shape.

I have been attempting to practice this art for many years. Since I have no teacher, I am self-taught and am taking the long way. At first I was obsessed with it and collected as many photographs as I could get. I also went on YouTube to view all the videos I could, read some very academic papers and museum conservation treatises.

Then I purchased a kit online and tried it. It had a cheap epoxy based glue with a pearlized type of gold powder that you mixed with the glue and stuck the pieces together. The result was less than I wanted. The gold looked fake, and the epoxy was not food safe and left a large ridge where the pieces were stuck together.

Next I tried a synthetic lacquer kit with some gold colored metallic powder. The synthetic lacquer did not have to cure, only dry and could be handled within 24-48 hours. It looked better, but my technique was sloppy and still did not look very good. It was less toxic than traditional lacquer, but the metallic powder was not food safe.


I ordered a cashew lacquer from Japan, (very hard to find) that was supposed to be more authentic, but yipes, I am deathly allergic to cashews (I mean epipen and emergency here) so I could not use this material even though I used gloves and long sleeves and was very careful not get it on my skin.

I was able to convince someone from Japan to send me some authentic urushi lacquer that is traditionally used in kintsugi, and some 22kt gold powder. Boy that is expensive! (1 gram approx. $200).  Urushi has to cure in a warm, humid environment, so I built a humidity box. However, working with urushi is highly toxic. When fully cured, 22 karat gold urushi is food safe. I used instructions found on the internet and YouTube. So for more than 8 years, I have been practicing my technique. Even though I have sent photos to the craftsman,  I have never heard back from him.

My basic techniques are:
1. Fitting the broken pieces back together again. You have to look at each project to see how it fits together, what pieces are missing, where you have holes, and what order you are going to re-assemble the pieces.
2. Mixing a lacquer “glue,” usually with something like flour to make it sticky and hold together. It mustn’t be too thick or you get gaps between the pieces nor too thin or they won’t hold together.
3. Gluing the pieces together. Sometimes you can only do one side, let that cure and then assemble the other side. Sometimes you need to build forms to hold the piece while it is curing, sometimes you can use tape to temporarily hold it, sometimes rubber bands. Then it goes into the box to cure.
4. Filling gaps. Next you mix lacquer with something called tonoko. Basically it is powdered ceramic. This is what you use fill gaps and make make up for missing pieces. It then goes into the box to cure. Then you have to clean up the mixture where is has over filled or where you don’t want it, using a combination of sand paper and water. Be careful here or you may scratch the glaze. This process may take 2, 3 or more layers as you build up missing pieces or deep cracks. Each time it goes into the box to cure and then clean up.
5. Because the tonoko mixture is porous, I paint lacquer over the repairs I have made. Sometimes it takes 2, 3, or more layers to completely cover up the repair. Each time, it goes into the box to cure, and then clean up.
6. Finally when the seams are completely filled and lacquered over and cleaned up, you can paint over the repairs with lacquer and dust it with the powder. Then into box to cure. Then final washing away of the powder. Because the gold is so expensive, I try to be sparing in using it. When I wash the powder away, I try to save as much as I can.

So here is a project I have been working on for more than a year.  I received some tea cups from Japan, but they were not packed very well and they arrived broken. I used these cups to refine my techniques. This is how they arrived:

Intermediate stage where I was filling gaps left by pieces too small to glue, basically dust.

Finally gold added:

So yes, it is not a simple or easy process. You need a steady hand, patience to wait while it is curing, and be careful and meticulous about safety throughout. Get a good brush, it is painstaking detail work. Urushi is highly toxic. It causes rashes like poison ivy. I always use long sleeves, gloves, a respirator, work in a well ventilated area, and keep my workspace exceptionally clean. Still, I did get rashes and it seems like the more I do it, the more reaction I get. So I am not sure how long I can do it.

Finally, here is a piece done professionally.  Click on the photos to see the detail.  One day I hope I can get to this level.

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Heart to heart connection

Nichi nichi kore kojitsu

I have been little discouraged lately. After years of study, teaching, and writing about Chado, I feel like I am making little headway in sharing the way of tea. Teaching cultural concepts that seem to be at odds with modern American life sometimes is an uphill battle. Because American life has become so casual, semi-formal and formal occasions are almost foreign to people. Comfort and inward focus on what affects people personally seem to be more important than thinking about others or how actions and words affect other people.

That was how I was feeling the other day, but today is another day because something happened to me yesterday. I was invited to a spontaneous chaji by a Japanese friend of mine. It was to honor the new Emperor of Japan and the beginning of the new Reiwa era.

There was only me and one other guest. There was nothing fancy for the meal: simple miso and rice, a bit of fish, some vegetables and pickles. My host knows I like sake so served some from our local brewery. We then had sweets and tea and I could taste the love that went into them. The utensils were nothing special, but oh my gosh, I felt like a princess the way that she treated me.

The chaji was warm, intimate and caring. I think she could sense that I was a little downcast at the beginning, and she did her best to make me feel important, loved, and that I matter. At the end she thanked me for coming saying that she was sure that I could appreciate her chaji without judgment of the food or the utensils because of my tea heart.

It is special moments like this that make me commit all over again to the way of tea. True heart to heart connection and being truly seen straight through to my heart makes it all worthwhile. The way of tea has transformed my life and made me a better person. I am so grateful that I discovered this path.

So I am back and ready to share tea with as many people as I can. Thank you everyone who has encouraged and helped me with my journey.

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Issoan Website Updated

In the past year or so I have neglected to update parts of the website, but today, I went back and updated all the broken links in the “Links” section, confirmed all the links in the “articles” section, and added several new recommended books (with links as to where to obtain them) in the “For Further Reading” section. Next I will be updating the seasonal notes. I hope to have everything updated on the site by the end of next week, so please take a look at and other parts of the site besides the blog.

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Clear mind

Your temae will be better if you can do it with a clear mind. My Sensei used to say that my mind was always cluttered and that made it hard for me to concentrate and focus. When my mind is cluttered there is no room for new knowledge to enter. I needed to clear my mind. But how do you do it? Just like clearing up the clutter in your house, there are many ways to clear your mind.

I have written before about breathing your temae. Just by taking a few deep breaths before entering the tea room, you can clear your mind. When you are in the middle of your temae, bringing your breathing under control also helps clear your mind. Breathe in when picking something up, breathe out when putting it down.

Another technique I use in clearing my mind is to think about the doorways or gates that I go through as I enter the tea room. Outside each doorway or gate, I mentally leave something outside. I let go of traffic, work, phone calls and texts, housework, kids, shopping, chores. I can certainly pick them up again when I leave.

Slowly counting to ten and then counting to one again is another way I use to clear my mind. When I am working out at the gym, counting reps or push ups, I count to ten and then count backwards as one set. Clearing my mind to just counting makes the reps easier as I don’t have room to think about how hard it is or tired I am. Like they teach you in meditation to count your breaths from one to ten and then start again, it will help clear your mind.

The act of purifying utensils can also be used to clear the mind. As I go through the movements of temae, I try to do only the movements. I concentrate on just picking up the whisk, or just emptying the water into the kensui without worrying how I look, or wondering if I forgot something. Without thinking ahead or worrying about mistakes, keeps my mind clear to just concentrate and focus on what I am doing right now.

When I am shooting arrows, I do much better with a clear mind. I can see it in where the arrows go if I shoot with a cluttered mind. Even the smallest loss of focus or distraction shows up in where the arrows go. A couple of weeks ago I had my best round with all five of my arrows in the gold with a score of 47 out of 50. All of them hit at the same angle in the center of the target. My mind was so clear that I didn’t even realize the rest of the class had finished up.

平常 心是道 heijoshin kore do. ”The undisturbed (clear) mind is the way. This is a scroll that is often hung in the tokonoma.

Clear mind is not just about focus, concentration and meditation. Clear mind is also about being honest with myself. Sometimes it is a hard thing to do. For example, when I make a mistake, to have a clear mind is to apologize rather than defend the mistake. Sometimes, I have a hard time asking for help when I really need it.

Clear mind also means being transparent, with no hidden agendas. Instead of asking my husband what would the neighbors think about my housekeeping since the kitchen looks so messy. I could ask him to clean it up or just clean it up myself.

Clear mind is having a clean conscience. If I hurt someone, I should apologize. Apologizing and trying to make it right, rather than covering it up and trying to get away with it is a way to clear your mind. Lying and carrying secrets are no way to keep a clean conscience.

Clear mind is having integrity and being in alignment. Part of integrity is your word. When you say you will do something, you will do it. If you speak, it will be the truth. The famous saying, “Do what I say, don’t do what I do,” is not being in alignment. Having a clear mind is not asking someone to do something that you would not do yourself.

Clear mind is knowing what you know and admitting what you don’t know. Sometimes I don’t own up to knowing about something so that I won’t have to take responsibility, or get involved. It is when we don’t admit to ourselves that we know more and should do more that clutters the mind. Likewise, clear mind is admitting what you don’t know rather than making it up or bluffing your way through something.

Clear mind is seeing things in perspective. It is looking at the whole rather than just how it affects me. Just because it is raining doesn’t mean that the weather is conspiring to make my day terrible.

Clear mind is living in reality rather than in a story. Sometimes we like to embellish reality to make it seem better than it is, or make ourselves look better than we are. Having a clear mind is acknowledging the true state of how things really are rather than concocting a story to fit our own wishes of how it is supposed to be.

Clear mind is free from anxiety. I cannot just say “Don’t worry, or everything will be alright.” Excessive worrying and projecting worst case scenarios clutter your mind. If you can keep worry and projection to a minimum, it will help to clear your mind.

These are all lessons we already know, but sometimes are hard to put into practice. A clear mind will spark joy. And isn’t that our mission, to live a joyful life?

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