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Wednesday, June 10

Wabi Sabi & The True Spirit of Tea Ceremony

There have been several occasions in my time here in Japan that I have done tea ceremony. Some were abbreviated versions, other were definitely not. But in all of those times, I have never gotten much of its meaning beyond its sacred aspects to Japanese culture due to its antiquity. I think this consistently has something to do with my lack of knowledge of the Japanese language and the tea master’s lack of the English language. While they were able to get across the ritual facets of tea ceremony for me to learn, the meaning behind each part was left rather ambiguous.

I was, therefore, thrilled to hear about our special guest at the May Ikebana International program, Mr. Soshin Kimura, member of the Urasenke tea school and head master of the Hoshinkai tea school, who also recently appeared in a BBC documentary called “In Search of Wabi Sabi” which aired just a few months ago here in Japan. It has been said that Mr. Kimura is the spokesperson for the “tea ceremony world” here in Japan. He is also noted not only for his many oral locutions on the subject, but also many articles to the same. For the program, he planned a talk on Japanese “tea-ism” and how it ties in all aspects of Japanese culture… everything from flowers to ceramics, calligraphy, interior design, architecture, poetry, religion to philosophy. It is this last characteristic that is most important, as the philosophy of Japanese aesthetics was the title of his lecture as well as the name for the true spirit of tea ceremony – “wabi sabi.” While I need to be honest and admit that I cannot recall all the details of his speech, I do recall how impressively his homily introduced the subject and tied in each and every one of these aspects for a pretty complete reflection of wabi sabi. The biggest point that came across to me… and one that surprised me… was the fact that he believes Japanese tea ceremony shouldn’t be only about the very ritualized form of hospitality and the specific aesthetics of the art form. This was the very thing I learned in all my previous experiences with tea ceremony, so it seemed odd for the spokesperson to be so adamant about it not being all about the rituals. To illustrate his point, he provided slides of a tea house in Germany that he studied and taught in. First, let me state that the vision in my mind… and most minds… of a tea house is one that adheres strictly to ancient Japanese architectural aesthetics: low ceilings, small tatami rooms, corner cubby for Ikebana and calligraphy display, all wall structures in some type of wood. What Mr. Kimura showed us from Germany was a giant peanut. I’m not kidding. It was a large, white cloth covered structure, very light and airy inside, that was shaped exactly like a peanut laying on its side. Totally not what one would anticipate to be a tea house. Which is exactly Mr. Kimura’s point. In the word’s of our Programs writer: “In spite of all it’s physical trappings which are so famous, he believes that the philosophy of the tea ceremony is much more important than the form of the tea ceremony.” In his words, “To have no tea is OK, to use no cup is OK.” While I didn’t get a chance to speak to any of my Japanese friends before we left that day, I can only imagine that this way of thinking is a bit shocking to them. He also believes that many Japanese people do not understand the true essence of tea ceremony, which would also probably shock and, even, offend many.

What I took away from the program was… in all honesty… more questions in my mind about Japanese culture and its ability to maintain the sanctity of its art forms in this modern world. Perhaps I didn’t understand all of Mr. Kimura’s lecture post translation, because I am left to wonder, is he preserving the antiquity of wabi sabi, which I totally believe is his every intention, but it seems to me as if he is almost… unintentionally progressing Japanese culture to our modern times. Again, I do not believe that is the case. I do believe that he is trying to teach the spirit of wabi sabi and I am guessing it is probably a combination of the short time we had available for a lecture of such a broad topic and the translation of his comments that has left me a bit confused. I’m really hoping to come across his documentary to hear more on this subject.

After his lecture, he did take the time to perform a much abbreviated version of tea ceremony for some chapter members who had never tried it before. At the board meeting a week prior, I had thrown the name of my friend into the ring, and then quickly forgotten all about it. So I was thoroughly relieved when she was informed that she would be getting up on stage to do this in front of everyone and instead of being angry at my oversight in telling her about her volunteerism, she was thrilled at the chance to try it. She and two other international members of the chapter knelt down Japanese style for enough time to realize that a full tea ceremony sitting that way would be tricky to endure. I have never managed to stay in the proper position for an entire ceremony and have had to move my legs to the side on more than one of my tea ceremony attempts.

The rest of the event consisted of a delicious four course lunch of fancy foods I can’t recall, or spell even if I did, and then an Ikebana exhibition and auction of the flowers and containers. I rarely do the auction part because I always feel like Board members shouldn’t partake and win items away. I feel like I would be cheating, even though I absolutely wasn’t. But on this occasion, one of my fellow students in the Kozan school had exhibited and I really wanted her gorgeous black containers so I could practice more at home. The containers are quite expensive! So getting them as a steal through an auction is totally the best way to go. I bid way high. I won. I totally don’t know how to do this auction stuff the proper way, but… mweh… I got my containers and called it a day.

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