Studying a traditional art

What does it mean to study a traditional art?  Well, of course there are traditions.  That means things are passed down from teacher to student, generation to generation.  There is a way to do things based on many people refining and perfecting the craft. Like playing classical music, ballet or other traditional art, learning the basics takes time and practice.  Until you can understand basic vocabulary, do the basic moves, and have the discipline to train your body as well as your mind, it can be limiting and frustrating. 

Sometimes there is a tendency to shortcut the training, skip steps and move ahead before techniques are mastered.  This results in essential teaching and learning getting lost and limits to furthering ability that leads to mastery. 

Some people try to make training easier and more comfortable, but as top athletes know, an easy, comfortable workout doesn’t help you progress and get better. 

In tea, we train in temae.  Not only are we training our bodies to do the procedures in the correct order, but we are also training our minds not to wander and to be present with each step.  We are also training to make it look beautiful and effortless.  We are training our awareness of what else is going on in the room and we are training our hearts to think not only of ourselves but others, too. And of course, we are training to make a good bowl of tea for our guests. 

“If you wish to break with tradition, learn your craft well, and embrace adversity”
Soke behzad Ahmadi  

On the other hand, study of traditional art can be bound up in doing exactly the same things over and over again for the sake of form.  Innovation gets stifled and we repeat the same things because it is what we have always done.  Meaning is lost as going through the motions without thought becomes normal. 

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
Gustav Mahler 

A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it. 

Henry James 

When traditions get internationalized, there is always simplification.  It is difficult to transmit cultural contexts and there are language translation difficulties.   Many times, when the cultural context is lost, there is substitution of values or meanings.   I was reading the other day about a kintsugi workshop.  One of the materials required was that participant bring a bowl or plate that would be broken so that it can be repaired.  There was to be a meditation on fixing the object as a means for fixing the broken things in the participants’ life.  With the newly repaired object, the participants could proudly display that they had healed the brokenness of their life.  

Unlike my understanding of kintsugi, it is a cherished object that is well loved that has been broken, rather than a throwaway object that we deliberately break to repair.  In traditional kintsugi, the repair is visible and highlighted by gold, not hidden so that the break becomes part of its history and essence, and the piece could continue to exist and be cherished. 

Sometimes traditional arts are adapted to the non-native culture and the context and values of the tradition are done away with as the new culture has no connection to them.  I joined a chado group online once where they were discussing how to adapt Chado to American culture.  One of the aspects of the discussion was how to make Chado more accessible to Americans by making it more comfortable.  They decided to eliminate seiza and do it cross legged at a coffee table, no need for a tea room.  Kimono was too complicated and uncomfortable, so yoga pants was designated as appropriate dress. Matcha was too bitter and contained caffeine, so it was also eliminated in favor of herbal blends that could be steeped rather than whisked, therefore eliminating the need for a chasen.  And because nobody in America bows, they did away with bowing.

There was no discussion about the deeper meanings of Chado, the spiritual development, or the hospitality of the host.  It was somehow lost in context of the comfort of the participants.   At what point then, can we say that this is still Chado?  By innovating, changing, or eliminating aspects of the form because the context, essential learning, and values have been lost or not transmitted, we can completely change the meaning of a traditional art.  

Americans are great at taking aspects of other traditions, eliminating context and substituting other values.  Yoga, martial arts, Tibetan philosophies, ancient Mayan and Native American traditions can be all smooshed together to create new ”healing arts” exemplified by the New Age movement. 

Many people think that they can learn a traditional art by viewing videos online.  While you can learn a lot about a traditional art, it is like learning to play the violin online.  Would you train in ballet by watching videos?  Traditional arts are best passed on teacher to student.  So find a teacher and train with them if you really want to learn a traditional art.

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Yoshitsugu Nagano Sensei comes to Portland

The Portland Japanese Garden invited Yoshitsugu Nagano sensei of Ueda Soko school from New York City to come and present tea at the Cultural Corner floating tatami space. It is always interesting to watch other school’s temae to compare the different styles of making tea. And I think that is what it is, stylistic differences. The history of Chado is the same, the seasons of Japan are the same, the philosophy of zen and tea are the same, and largely the utensils and procedures are very similar. Most importantly, sweets and tea are the same.  

We enjoyed a casual dinner with members of Kashintei kai, the group of tea practitioners who help to maintain Kashintei, the teahouse at the Japanese Garden. This group also hosts a private chakai once a month for members and presents public tea once a month. Nagano-sensei had two students accompanying him from New York, Chie Ogura and Minji Koo, and we had a lively exchange over food, sake and wine. 

Later in the week, Nagano-sensei came to Issoan, where I hosted him and two other students who traveled from New York to assist him. I had been given a gift of shincha, fresh tea from this year’s harvest, so I shared it with my guests. We enjoyed sweets and usucha, Urasenke style. To my surprise, sensei made a bowl of tea for me Ueda Soko style. It is not often that other people make tea for me, and I was astounded how good it tasted.

Afterwards, we had a wonderful discussion of bringing tea to people in America, teaching students about Japanese culture and tea. Through all of this, I formed friendship with him and his students, Wentao Wu and Suzy Wang. I also secured an invitation to tea the next time I am in New York. Thank you Yoshitsugu Nagano sensei. I will take you up on the invitation!

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Tea presentations as training

As part of tea training, I encourage all my students to take part in tea presentations.  Last week we had several opportunities at the Portland Japanese Garden to do so.   There are weekly presentations at the Cultural Corner platform, an elevated tatami mat that looks like a floating platform.  It is a little challenging as this platform is in a building where there is traffic through the space to get from outside to the gift shop to the bathrooms. 

We also had an opportunity to present public tea at Kashintei, the tea house at the Japanese Gardens. In these venues, we can have 40 – 100 people observing at a time. 

These tea presentations are good training for students as they get to do their temae without sensei sitting there to correct and prompt the student.  My students call this “tea without a net.”   When you forget where you are in your temae, you just must figure it out in front of the audience.  If you make a mistake, you have to “hataraki” or work it out. 


For those who get stage fright, I always remind students that even in a presentation, we are still making tea for the guest. If you concentrate on making good tea for your guest, it is easier to do it in front of an audience.

My sensei said that in a chaji or chakai, if you are going to make a mistake, make it beautifully.  The same thing in a presentation.  Often in keiko, students will make mistakes stop, and call attention to what just happened.  “Oh no, I forgot to put the chakin on the lid and now I have just poured hot water on it! What do I do?”  In a presentation, if you just matter-of-factly wring out the chakin and refold it, everyone will think that is what is supposed to happen.

It is okay to pause, breathe and figure out where you are and how to get back to where you need to be. A pause under stress feels like a million years, but in reality, it is probably only half a minute. 

This training helps students to think on their feet, solve problems, and move forward without acting like it is a disaster.  Having poise and presence of mind in a tea procedure can be applied to other areas in life where you can recover and move forward gracefully. And don’t forget to breathe.

Haku un onozukara kyoraisu. White clouds come and go by themselves

Thank you to Sean Tooyoka, Gabi Blaug, Heather Loden, Ryan Merrill, and Chie Tanaka for participating in these presentations.

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Weekend intensive training

Two weeks ago, I returned from my vacation in the Canadian Rockies to go right into an intensive training for Chanoyu.  Every year, Christy Bartlett sensei comes to Portland for a weekend of intensive training. We are very lucky to have this opportunity to train intensively, as questions and practice in front of a very goodteacher.  This year as I was off for two weeks, I was very stiff in sitting seiza for that long. Thank goodness for Tylenol and hot baths every evening.

In these intensive training weekends, we go from very basicmoves such as folding fukusa to the highest temae that we can study.  Since Christy sensei likes kagetsu, we always have a few rounds of this ensemble training exercise, where participants make 4 bowls of tea by drawing lots to decide who will make tea and who will drink tea.  It is like drinking from a firehose, there is so much information conveyed.

I have been participating in these intensive activities for more than 30 years, and yet I always learn so much.   As I get older, I find myself running to the break room or bathroom between temae to jot down a few notes.  But as I tell my own students now participating, “If you can take one thing from the weekend, you will have learned more than you knew before.”

Christy sensei is always so kind, in that when a student makes a mistake it is an opportunity for everyone to learn.  If every student did every temae perfectly, then there is no chance for others to learn.

It is also a good time to get together with other tea people from around the region, some who travel hours to get here for the chance to participate. Everyone comes with their best behavior, willing and eager to learn.  It is a good atmosphere where everyone gets along, everyone wants all the others to do a good job, and we get to share sweets and tea.

I must also compliment the Tankokai sensei for providing tea and sweets.  When we have upper temae we get the full complement of 5 or 7 different kinds of sweets.  It is always popular to be guest at these temae — who wouldn’t want to eat a fantastic sweet and drink tea?


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Things Chado has taught me, part 4


There are so many things I have learned from Chado that it is difficult to articulate them.  This post is the 4th of a series of things that Chado has taught me.  These are not necessarily what everyone learns from Chado, but I find my life is so much richer and meaningful because of these things I have learned.

What about you?  What have you learned from Chado?

Previous blogs, What Chado has taught me
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

  1. Doing something and putting your heart into doing something are two very different things.
  2. Sensei, senpai, kouhai, and students will all teach you in different ways. Be open to learning from all of them.  
  3. Hai, Sensei. Whoever is teaching at the moment is correct – even if you’ve learned differently in the past. Accept their teaching as it is.  
  4. Tea exists all around the world. It connects people of all kinds and shows us we have more in common than might be seen at first glance.  
  5. Awareness. Be aware of your own physical space and the space, objects, and people around you. 
  6. Be enthusiastic. I love teaching beginners.  To see with the eyes of someone learning things for the first time captures the excitement and eagerness I want to embody in my love of tea. 
  7. Sounds are such an important part of the experience of chanoyu. 
  8. You can feel the presence of other people in the tearoom.  There is no substitute for being together in a small space, acting in harmony with each other. 
  9. When you are fully present, time stands still.  You do not notice how much time has passed, nor does it matter. 
  10. Nature is not separate from us.  It is all around us and it is us.

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