Guest Post by Andrew Nguy. Andrew was in China on a Fulbright scholarship when Covid broke out. Andrew studied with me online through the Covid pandemic. He is now off to Yale for East Asian graduate studies.
One wintry morning as I roamed the halls of a temple in China’s historical southern capital, I received an email from the American embassy. A novel coronavirus had been identified in Wuhan, and despite being highly infectious, it seemed that the cases were geographically isolated. No further action needed. I spent my day visiting shops near the city wall, a landmark left over from when walls were still effective in protecting its inhabitants from invaders on horseback, less effective in protecting inhabitants from an invisible virus travelling in the air.
A few days later, I heard whispers at the temple—we would be closed starting today as the novel coronavirus had spread into other major cities. There were undoubtedly unreported cases in our own city already, and we could not risk an outbreak. The American embassy soon followed with a notice to leave the country immediately. I booked the next ticket possible back to Portland.
Upon returning home, I was relieved, but also still dazed from the living nightmare that had occurred. All of my belongings were still locked in my university dorm in China. I traveled light when I stayed at the temple, and so I came back with five changes of clothes and a laptop. It hadn’t registered that a pandemic had wreaked havoc in China, that thousands had died, and that I would never return to say goodbye to my professors and friends. At the time, we were still planning on returning in March, which is when the situation was expected to subside. As the days dragged on and the infections showed no sign of decline, I expressed less and less faith in my own plans. I found myself now with nothing to do, no plan, and not much of a future.
One of the main perks of returning to Portland was being able to resume tea classes. My studies with Margie-sensei have always been on a sporadic schedule. In my college days, we would squeeze in a maximum of four sessions before I was off on another adventure. This time, I was bound to Portland indefinitely, and if nothing else, I was intent on refining my practice of tea.
However, this also came to an abrupt halt when just weeks later, the news of coronavirus spreading throughout the continental US ended the new normal I had just adjusted to. Suddenly Americans were wearing masks, something I had seen all the time in Japan, Taiwan, and China, but never thought I would see here. One week later, toilet paper had disappeared off the shelves of all supermarkets. Suddenly, we were in a “lockdown” for two weeks.
Margie-sensei was quick in adapting to the new pandemic normal. We shifted to keiko in a virtual environment, and she taught me how to put together a Chitosebon using a cookie tin to practice temae at home. This flexibility and quick shift helped me retain a sense of normalcy at the beginning of the pandemic. Its regularity punctuated my existence with a steady schedule on days when I woke up and no longer knew the day of the week. It forced me to prepare my dogu in the mizuya—washing bowls, sifting tea, and heating water when all I had been doing that day was staring at my phone. In a sense, tea during the pandemic kept me living, rather than just existing.
As the months went on, I accumulated dogu—some from senpai moving away, other pieces from local families who had no use for it, and others yet from online sales. But then, in August, a delivery truck pulled into my culdesac and dropped a pallet of large cardboard boxes. I opened them to find all of my possessions I had left in my university dorm in China. Included were the four and half Kyoto-sized tatami mats I ordered the previous November. I quickly got rid of my bed to make room for my newfound mats. Within a week, my bedroom became a tea room, and I began to request more frequent lessons, eventually having four classes per week with Margie-sensei.
Now, I was preparing for tea every day. On days without keiko, I left it to a random number generator to tell me which temae to practice, and I tried my best to put together flower arrangements with wildflowers sprouting in my backyard. Of course, there were plenty of days I didn’t feel up to it. There were mornings when I woke up and questioned why I sacrificed sleep for tea, but at the same time, I enjoyed it every step of the way. The four-class-per-week schedule kept me disciplined, and the thought of Sensei frowning at her computer screen because I overslept was enough to jolt me up no matter how tired I was.
Through Sensei’s generosity, I was able to study intensively for an entire year. During this time, we covered lots of ground in temae, but also covered a plethora of other topics: we learned incense and flowers, cooking and sweets, and discussed tea values and concepts. Over the course of a year, I developed as a tea practitioner, but also as a person. Having grown up Buddhist, I was more or less familiar with many of the concepts present in tea but being able to practice them from a new angle sparked a deeper internalization of teachings such as impermanence, discipline, and gratitude.
Learning tea online is certainly not ideal. It took me a full year to realize I had been tying my shifuku improperly, and I am sure there are many other fine details which do not show up well on a webcam. However, we made the most of it, and Sensei guided me through both the guest and host roles I progressed through the introductory curriculum. Over the course of the year, I realized that it was the sheer number of hours I had spent with tea that really made a difference.
In one of our earliest classes together, Sensei told me the story of her ten thousand ichi. As a calligraphy student in Kyoto, her teacher instructed her to practice writing ten thousand ichi. This simple character made up of just one horizontal stroke helped her develop the patience, nuance, and control that forms the foundation for her calligraphy practice today. Similarly, I spent my year practicing foundations—the very basics of making tea, drilling my movements and receiving corrections on the angle of my arms, my posture, and my breathing.
There’s a story about a bronze Buddha statue and a bell in a temple. The bell, frustrated from being hit with a stick all day long, complains to the Buddha, “You and I were both made of copper from the same foundry! It’s so unfair that you just sit there all day while I get hit with mallet.” The Buddha responded earnestly to the bell, saying, “Back when we were unshapen lumps of copper, I was carved and cut, polished and molded meticulously. Every time the artisan saw any imperfection in me, he would bring out his tools and I went through immense refinement to become the statue I am today.” Hearing this, the bell realized that despite sharing the same potential as the Buddha statue, it had barely gone through any trials and tribulations, and already it was complaining about being hit by a soft wooden mallet.
I thought about this story a lot in the process of learning tea. Tea is a process of refining ourselves. This is most apparent in learning the movements of tea, from walking on tatami to the infinitely detailed steps of temae, but it also refines our mindsets. It teaches us to gaman, to persevere and put up with difficulty. It teaches us to be better than who we currently are, and to strive to put the values we learn into immediate practice. Tea is especially helpful because it doesn’t allow for the armchair speculation that philosophy would. It tells us exactly what needs to be done and how to do it, and instead of indulging our desire to fully grasp it with our intellect, pulls us in and says, “do it now.”
After a year of studying on Zoom, vaccination had been successfully rolled-out in Oregon, and it seemed that we would return to in-person keiko soon enough. As the world recovered from the pandemic though, my time in Portland became increasingly finite, and it was only a matter of months before I would fly to the east coast for more school. Sensei graciously offered me the opportunity to study in-person for my last month in Portland, and it was a nostalgic feeling to be back in Issoan. At the same time though, it felt strange. After using my own dogu for a year, Sensei’s dogu now felt unfamiliar to me. The size of the tatami mats, although just a few centimeters different from mine, felt foreign to my feet. But in this new environment, I learned as much as I could.
During those crucial weeks, Sensei had me practice haigata and sumi as much as possible. This, I knew, was a privilege. Not only was sumi a rare commodity in the US, it was also pricey, and I wanted to make sure these lessons did not go to waste. In tea, we often talk about the phrase ichigo ichie. Often translated as “the meeting of a lifetime,” it refers to the ephemeral nature of the world—that we will not have the same meeting twice, and thus we must appreciate it as it is here before us.
Each lesson is also an example of ichigo ichie. There is no guarantee that we will receive the same instructions, corrections, and pointers ever again, and thus we need to make the most of our learning. It is, of course, natural for students to forget, and with sumi I came in each week remembering very little of what we did the previous week. However, I made it my goal to retain as much of what Sensei was teaching as possible. To do anything less felt disrespectful and ungrateful towards her openness and generosity in teaching.
As my year of intensive study comes to an end, I am extremely grateful to Sensei and all of my senpai. Studying the way of tea helped me maintain a sense of normalcy as we weathered a pandemic, wildfires, and a blizzard. It has shaped me to become more diligent, more proactive, and more tactful. Learning the way of tea has always been about more than just tea, and it’s the way that has expanded my horizons through tea. While I certainly have a long way to go on this path, I am humbled and inspired by this year of study, and I look forward to what’s to come.
Lastly, I would like to thank Margie-sesei for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts and reflections on this past year. The process of writing itself was an invaluable lesson in thinking about my progress and experiences.