Firefly Light

The Desert and The Tearoom

HomeTradition of TeaEventsWritingsStudyMembershipContact




Essays on Tea

Reflections on the Occasion of the Urasenke
San Francisco Joint Anniversary, April 2012

by Sen Soshitsu XVI, Zabosai Oiemoto

It has been 35 years since I last visited San Francisco. At the time, I came as a university student with my friends. After arriving at the airport, we went to the hotel to check in but were told at the front desk that for some reason our reservation had been cancelled. Naturally, my friends and I were confused and could not believe that this was happening at the beginning of our first trip to the U.S. Completely at a loss as to what to do, we began blaming each other. But then I remembered a longtime family friend, Mr. Ritchie, and thought perhaps he could help us.

Finally we figured out Mr. Ritchie's phone number, then I nervously made my first call on an American payphone and was warmly welcomed by Mr. Ritchie's family. After that, we enjoyed several wonderful days with the Ritchies. I feel so grateful to the Ritchie family that I again extend my heartfelt gratitude to them.

Now, when I was young, I had the opportunity to practice Zen at Daishu-in, a subtemple of Ryoanji monastery. I received the guidance of Morinaga Soko Roshi, who was living in retirement there. This was a life experience I continue to treasure to this day. Training monks from Japan and around the world came to meet this Zen master. Amongst these monks, two especially lived up to the Roshi's expectations—Daijo-san and Ursula-san who built Daishu-in West Temple in Garberville, CA. When the Roshi passed away, some of his ashes went to Daishu-in West. If I had a little more time on this trip, I would like to go there to offer my prayers, however, as my schedule is quite tight, I will have to postpone it for another time. For these reasons, although I have visited San Francisco only once before, I have fond feelings for this place where I received the hospitality of the Ritchie family and where my Zen master rests. And perhaps it is inevitable that I feel especially sentimental here.

Another thing that strongly influenced me in my youth was literature. I was fixated on the German novelist Thomas Mann and loved modern and contemporary American literature. Compared to the subtle literary style of Thomas Mann, the sharpness of John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner's works was like a heavy, wide-blade knife. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Caldwell's Tobacco Road especially left me with a powerful impression. That is, these novels became the impetus for me to realize that everyone must become conscious of correcting social inequalities.

Because I am the Grand Tea Master, I feel all the more that I must always keep in mind how to devise ways to change the world of tea in order for those who study tea, especially those who are Urasenke members, to continue to enjoy and deepen their practice. Hereon, taking this to heart, I hope to visit various areas [in which tea is practiced]. I have also been visiting even the smallest branches and groups in Japan that no one from Konnichian has gone to until now. I call this my “Iemoto Express Delivery Project” or perhaps in the U.S., “Iemoto Fedex.”

Chado or the Way of Tea is a composite of Japanese culture. That is not to say that this cultural tradition is superior or inferior in any way. If we liken it to a desk, one could say that, “it is a tradition with many drawers or compartments.” In addition to preparing and enjoying tea, it involves flower arrangement, burning incense, sitting in meditation, partaking in a multi-course meal, and reading poetry. It involves calligraphy, applied arts such as ceramics, lacquer, and metal ware. There is architecture, landscape gardens, and etiquette. Even with a general list, chanoyu contains a multitude of components. In a sense, chado is perhaps the total package. For this reason, through the study of chanoyu, there are those who also study flowers for tea, while others become Zen priests or chefs. That is why I say that chado is like an internet portal for Japanese culture.

Sen Makiko sama presenting tea at the anniversary event

Here, I would like to discuss the term “culture.” There are several explanations for the etymology of the word “culture.” I heard that one pertains to agriculture, which involves digging up hard soil, removing rocks and tree roots in the ground, and bathing the cold earth in sunlight to make the soil easy to work with and fertile. This is what it takes to cultivate new land.

Let us now apply this to culture. Please think about the work involved in culture. By coming in contact with culture, one's hard heart and mind are dug up. The stones and roots in one's heart and mind—in other words, the human tendency towards small-heartedness and malice—are removed. Nourishment can then spread through the heart and it becomes a bountiful place, where kindness and affection can be easily fostered. Perhaps the phrase, “to cultivate the heart,” comes from here. I imagine that those gathered here today would agree that your heart is all the more rich since you have come in contact with chado.

With the passing of time, people make new discoveries. Taking my own life as an example, there was the time I got married, the time I was blessed with children, and the time I came to a position of responsibility. I have repeatedly thought deeply about each moment in which I have lived. As I was doing this, I came to think that the future is an indefinite, anxious place. Last year, Eastern Japan was struck with an unprecedented calamity. My grandmother came from Sendai. Her ancestral temple is also in the city of Sendai. Many historic buildings met with destruction. So this was very personal for me. As you know, there was also the crisis of the nuclear power plant, and although we are told that it is nearly resolved, there is still great unease in regard to our lives hereon.

In college, I studied psychology and specialized in anxiety. The scholar Schlesinger stated, “Anxiety is the official emotion of the modern world.” In today's world, the concept of anxiety, which is extremely obscure, is in fact made up of many extremely small, interconnected parts. The word “stress” is often used to describe this anxiety. There are situations in which we give or are given stress. In experiments, one can be loaded with stress.

This word, “stress,” originally came from the realm of physics and was borrowed in psychology and medicine. In physics, “stress” refers to the force, which works upon a structure or system. It can be withstood to an extent, however, once it surpasses a certain amount of force, it increases and causes deformation in the structure.

When we receive emotional or psychological damage from stress, we are under considerable strain and can no longer endure the burden of it. For this reason, I understand anxiety and stress in the following way. Anxiety is like a large building. Stress is like a small room within this building. I thought of anxiety as something that always came with life.

The conclusion that I reached with this idea was that anxiety was a “shadow” to me. Whether one is a human being or a thing, solid matter will cast a shadow, which is something that cannot be severed no matter how hard we try. I thought of anxiety as a shadow. On a sunny day, it can be seen clearly. On a rainy day or at night, we may not be able to see it. Even if they cannot be seen, shadows can always come back. If they are always there, we should not try to make shadows disappear, instead we should not concern ourselves with shadows but rather accept them as part of our lives. Just by being alive, we are bound to get hurt. Even if the wound heals, the memory of it remains. This results in new anxieties. However, if I put too much effort in making my shadow disappear, ultimately I have to make myself disappear. This is not what I want.

Since realizing that my shadow is a part of me, whether I like it or not, I feel that I have become a little stronger. Every day, we come upon a new day. At the very least, if we wake up in the morning tomorrow and are still alive, we will encounter a new day. That is, we will meet with the unknown. Encountering the unknown means that our sense of anxiety increases. New seeds of anxiety, seeds of worry appear. However, if we resist these fears, we would have no choice but to make ourselves disappear as mentioned earlier. I came to realize that encountering a new day did not mean that I will meet with anxiety, rather I am being given a chance to learn something new.

The sense of security and the sense of insecurity are meant to arise alternately. Those who have understood this to be so are the ones who have produced Japanese culture. There is heaven in contrast to earth, the sun in contrast to the moon. We have black and white, outside and inside, and material and spiritual. Similarly, we have the relationship between parent and child, male and female, teacher and student. The idea that the human world is made up of such opposites or relatives relates to the concept of yin and yang.

In Japanese, this is what is called mono no aware, the pathos of things, empathy towards the other, or sensitivity towards the ephemeral, which is what gave birth to the concept of wabi—understated refinement, rustic beauty. Hegel said that the truth of the universe is contradiction. Giordano Bruno stated, “everything in the universe is absolutely coincidentia oppositrum, the coincidence of opposites or the unity of opposites.” Wise people around the world were aware of this.

Nowadays, it seems that those who feel dissatisfied or discontent with the world have increased. With the advances we have made, we can obtain anything we wish. Things we thought were mere pipe dreams until recently are now available to us. For instance, today we have cellular phones, which we take for granted. However, the first mobile phone I ever held of was the size of a brick. Carrying one of those around in a bag was like weight training. Before I knew what happened, they became increasingly compact. We can now send messages and watch television on them.

I saw a comic strip in the newspaper, which went like this: “Ma'am, could you please look at this? It's a new cell phone. See, you can send messages, watch TV, and on top of all that, you even can make phone calls too!” Now we are in the age of smartphones. News stories on the latest models decorate the papers. But just as soon as these models are launched, they become classics because the next models are already being developed.

The other day, someone asked me, “What do you think is the opposite of 'thank you'?” Then the person answered, “atarimae,” meaning “taking things for granted or as a matter of course.” Taking things for granted is what makes us suffer. We are completely immersed in a lifestyle in which we take things as a matter of course and fall into decadence. For example, when questions or doubts spring forth, we must naturally try to find the answer ourselves. This is our responsibility. If we try our best and find that it is too difficult, then we should ask for help. But some of us immediately rely upon others. We may look on the internet. Without thinking, we borrow someone else's answer.

If we expect an answer from the beginning, we will feel dissatisfied and displeased with everything. If we remain feeling that way, then we will unenthusiastically, halfheartedly, and cynically face that day we finally encounter. And we will feel regret towards that one day, which passes by right before our eyes, and even if we try to focus and reach out, we will not be able to seize it. Our arms cannot reach it. This is what I always tell myself. Life cannot be reset nor can life be rehearsed. Every single day is the real thing. We should live with this attitude that every day is the real deal.

Whether a day is good or bad, favorable or loathsome, it is not that only one side of this pair will last forever. Though there may be waves, life moves forward through a repetition of yin and yang. The word wabiru does not mean “to be ruined or forlorn” or “to perish or decay.” Please take a look at the moon. After the full moon, the moon gradually begins to get chipped away, until it eventually disappears from the night sky. Is that the end of the moon? No. It is reborn as the new moon like a thin thread of light in the dark sky. It does not perish but always returns.

The winter appears to be a time when everything disappears but it is actually a time in preparation for spring, a time to celebrate life. Even if we cannot see anything, therein lies the breath of joy. Like the moon, the seasons come and go like a relay of life. Wabiru is an idea filled with honor and respect towards the changes of nature, which governs life and death. This is why I would like you to look firmly and carefully at each day you encounter. The view that every day is the real thing or moment is directly connected to the spirit of ichigo ichie (“one time, one meeting” or “once in a lifetime chance”), which is the foundation of the tradition of chado. The idea that life is not a rehearsal itself is ichigo ichie. Upholding this attitude will become the light that shines upon your anxieties, which is the darkness in your heart.

After finishing university, I was given the opportunity to train and practice in a Zen temple. “Enlightenment” in Zen shows us that answers should not be sought outside ourselves but within our own hearts and minds. It depends on how genuinely we can look at our own hearts and minds without rose-colored glasses. How willing we are to look honestly at ourselves. I believe that this is the path to enlightenment. As discussed, mass consumption society today is full of things that make people lose self-restraint in desire and appetite. Even if we close our ears and eyes, our desires and appetites will find an opportunity to steal in. If we aimlessly let ourselves be swept away, an unlimited amount of desire will spring forth more and more towards everything. In spite of having everything we need, our greed in thinking that we do not have enough creates anxiety. Perhaps this is retribution for not cultivating our hearts.

Buji kore kinin, calligraphy by
Sen Soshitsu XVI, Zabosai Oiemoto

A healthy society is based on people in different fields respectively accomplishing a role that suits them. We have the Zen phrase, Buji kore kinin—“A noble person is one without anxiety.” This phrase often appears in the tearoom. Perhaps you may be acquainted with it. I like this phrase very much or perhaps I should say I take its meaning as a teaching of life. The characters buji exude the nuance “without injury or harm” or being safe. For example, in horse racing in Japan, kinin or the “noble one” may be replaced with “horse” and the phrase will be used in the context “The celebrated horse is safe.” This perhaps suggests that the lucky horse will not fail.

The Chinese Zen master Linji, or Rinzai in Japanese, explained, “[He who has] nothing to do is the noble one. Simply don't strive—just be ordinary.”* Here, buji means to “not do anything,” being ordinary is a good thing, meaning you should be as you are. Today, we go around with bloodshot eyes saying, “I want this, I want that.” It is shameful, isn't it? As I say this, I look back on my own heart and mind and often feel ashamed. Desire is like a gas tank with a hole in it. No matter how much fuel you add, it never becomes full. A car with such a tank, no matter how good it looks on the surface, is a lemon. Many today forge their way on a lemon of a path and do not even realize this. But this “car” that you call yourself cannot be replaced by buying a new one. I do not believe that people can be reborn. That is why you cannot be replaced. So what can you do to improve yourself?

If we could rid ourselves of that which is unnecessary, then we would feel lighter both physically and emotionally. But like hungry ghosts, we are spurred on by insatiable greed. As a result, we can see the unsightly emotional excess that modern people have put on themselves. Only by removing this excess can we return to our original, natural selves. This natural self itself is a precious existence, which cannot be replaced, in other words, this true self is the kinin, the noble person.

If we understood our own abilities, there would be a certain benefit to compare ourselves to others in improving humanity. However, if we remain unknowing of our capabilities and merely swing from joy to sorrow in our comparison of others, this would be counterproductive. This is because there is the danger of automatically assuming that we must have extraneous things.

Let us think again about the moon. How beautiful is the moon, which floats across the night sky? The moon does not swagger around as if it is the only thing in the night sky, does it? It does not compete with the stars. It floats in mid-air, seemingly unconcerned with the manmade lights below, rather it welcomes the various silhouettes that appear from its faint light. Isn't it as though it knows that its ephemeral beauty becomes all the more so because it shares the sky? That is why its elegance and profundity increase.

There is a way of thinking about beauty, based in spirituality, which has been passed down in Japan from ancient times that defines beauty as knowing what is enough. It is the heart and mind that thinks about what is truly necessary for oneself. If we understand this, we can suppress unnecessary feelings of discontent and will be able to admonish our hearts, which seek flaws in things. Naturally there will be differences between yourself and others. Those who cannot control themselves become aggressive and will do everything they can to attack those differences. Such people have been increasing; hence, there is strain and tension around the world. And people work at finding faults in others. There is nothing more deplorable than this.

What is Japanese aesthetics or sense of beauty? If I am asked this, I answer, “It is to live together while mutually recognizing our differences.” This does not mean simply living with compromises. If one reflects firmly on oneself and goes out into society, then I think the chances of getting more confused than necessary decreases. Whether or not one can do the training represents the crossroad in which one becomes an adult or remains a child in the body of an adult.

Culture is like taking vitamins. However, just because we take vitamins or supplements does not mean there is an immediate effect. But if you continue taking them, they will improve your health and wellbeing. Please believe this to be so for the future that will be delivered as a result is sure to be rich. I would like to conclude my talk by saying I have great hopes for a future created by all of you, who cultivate your hearts and minds through chado and various other cultural forms.

Translated by Maya Hara.

*The Record of Linji, translation by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, edited by Thomas Kirchner, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009, p. 178.

Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.






CopyrightAddressContact Urasenke  
The First Tea of the New Year Tenshin Gathering Foundation Student's Gathering Hatsugama Open Hearth