July 2008

In May 2008, Sen Genshitsu – the past grand master of the Urasenke school of Japanese tea ceremony (also my school, as it happens) – made an historic visit to Seattle, Washington. As he is now in his eighties, it was apparent that this might be his last visit to the Pacific Northwest. Therefore, several students from my tea group made a special effort to go and see him. From all accounts, his talks were wonderfully inspiring, and everyone who went was very glad that they did so. They were also won over by his considerable personal warmth, which – in tandem with his unprecedented willingness to share the tea ceremony with foreigners – is surely one of the factors that has permitted the Way of Tea to spread so extensively outside Japan.

After the visit ended, I learned that there were at least two students in our group who had not gone because they did not know who he was! These students (who are both non-speakers of Japanese) already knew that Sen Soushitsu was the penultimate grand master (o-iemoto) of Urasenke, and they were also familiar with the name Hounsai Daisousho from the haiken dialogues in the tearoom. However, they did not realize who this Sen Genshitsu was, or why it might be worth putting aside the time and funds to go and hear him. Imagine their shock when they realized that all three names referred to the same individual, and that they had missed their chance to meet him in person!

Non-Japanese students may not realize that in Japan, a person may have more than one name over a lifetime.* This is particularly the case for those in high positions and/or those whose function is religious in whole or part. In the case of the grand masters of tea, multiple names are the norm. This can be extremely confusing to anyone who is unfamiliar with this tradition.

In the following notes, I will try (according to my limited understanding) to summarize the various names used to refer to these individuals, and to explain the reasons behind them. As I know little Japanese and have pieced this together from primarily English-language sources (some of which seem to be contradictory), it’s probable that there may be errors! I would be grateful if anyone reading this who sees any factual mistakes can kindly contact me so that I can ensure it is 100% correct.

The most important thing to remember is that the “name” Sen Soushitsu (千宗室) is effectively an hereditary title that refers to the current grand master of Urasenke (裏千家). Sen (千) is the family name (as inherited from the great 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyuu). According to Japanese tradition, the family name precedes the given name; thus, you will usually see SEN Soushitsu (which is similar to saying “SMITH, John”) rather than Soushitsu Sen.

Hounsai, the 15th (previous) grand master

  • Given name at birth: Masaoki.
  • Zen name (bestowed in adulthood at Daitoku-ji temple): Hounsai Genshu Soko koji. Herbert Plutschow says that every grand master-to-be must “undergo Zen training and […] become a Zen monk [as a] prerequisite for assuming the role of Urasenke grand master”; this necessarily involves giving up one’s childhood name and assuming a tea name. The first part of the Zen name – in this case, Hounsai – will also serve as the tea name.
  • Heir-apparent title (bestowed in 1950, in anticipation of his becoming iemoto): Wakasousho. Wakasousho (若宗匠), “Young Master”, is the title given to the appointed successor of the current grand master.
  • Ceremonial name upon becoming o-iemoto (1964-2002): Hounsai (鵬雲斎 or “Hounsai” means Phoenix Cloud).
  • Title upon becoming o-iemoto (1964-2002): Sen Soushitsu.
  • Title upon yielding the post of grand master to his son (2003 onward): Sen Genshitsu (千玄室).
  • Ceremonial name (2003 onward): Hounsai Daisousho. The title Daisousho (大宗匠) refers to his status as the previous o-iemoto, and means “Great Master”.

He may also be referred to as Sen Genshitsu Daisousho or, more simply, as Daisosho. The Chado Encyclopedia also gives his “personal name” as Housou Soushitsu XV, while Wikipedia gives it as Hansou Soushitsu XV.

Zabousai, the 16th (current) grand master

  • Given name at birth: Masayuki.
  • Zen name (bestowed in adulthood at Daitoku-ji temple): Zabousai Genmoku Soshi koji. So far I have been unable to determine exactly what 坐忘斎 or “Zabousai” means in English.
  • Heir-apparent title (bestowed in 1982, in anticipation of his becoming iemoto): Wakasousho (here given in full as Wakasousho Sen Soshi).
  • Ceremonial name upon becoming o-iemoto (2003-present): Zabousai.
  • Title upon becoming o-iemoto (2003-present): Sen Soushitsu.

And Wikipedia gives his personal name as Genmoku Soushitsu XV; presumably the “Genmoku” comes from his Zen name. No wonder we students sometimes get confused!

The above information was taken from the Urasenke Konnichian website. For more biographical history on these two most recent grand masters of Urasenke, please consult that webpage. Some additional details were taken from Herbert Plutschow’s book The Grand Tea Master: A biography of Hounsai Soushitsu Sen XV, the Chado Encyclopedia entries on Hounsai and Zabousai, and the Wikipedia article on the Urasenke lineage.

An aside on transliteration

The lengthened -o sound found in certain Japanese words is transliterated here as -ou (as in Soushitsu, Zabousai, Wakasousho, Daisousho). Another way to represent this long -o sound is with a macron (a stroke above the vowel, indicating that the vowel is lengthened); however, this requires a special character that is not present in all font sets. Furthermore, readers should be aware that these words are often transliterated without any indication of vowel lengthening, however, so that it is very common to see Soshitsu, Zabosai, Wakasosho, and Daisosho.


*And after the end of their life; there is also the Japanese Buddhist tradition of giving the individual a Buddhist “posthumous name”, or kaimyo.

The ladle (hishaku) is always held with the right hand

Hello – and yes, I’ve been absent for a month! The reason is that I developed a nasty case of Repetitive Strain Syndrome (the not-so-fun version of RSS). The culprit? Too much time spent on the computer at work and at home. Since the pain that radiated through my neck, shoulder and right arm was pretty intense (sometimes it felt like a Doberman was gnawing through my shoulderblade), I didn’t find it too hard to take the doctor’s advice: avoid going anywhere near your computer keyboard and mouse!

But the shoulder and arm pain also presented certain… challenges when it came to tea practice. Right is right when it comes to the Way of Tea. When you’re in the tearoom, there are certain actions you must always perform with your right hand. For the first time in my tea life, I actually felt grateful for the pain that arose in my legs and feet when sitting seiza. It was a welcome distraction from the shoulder pain I felt when ladling hot water into the teabowl!

No place for lefties

The tearoom, and the way we move about in it when performing the Way of Tea, was constructed with right-handed persons in mind. That is the simple truth – unpalatable though it may be to southpaws! The position of the ro (sunken hearth), the placement of the fukusa (silken cleansing cloth) in the obi, the alignment of the various tea utensils on the tatami: all these and more are arranged under the matter-of-fact assumption that all tea people use their right hand as their dominant hand. In fact, you could argue that the left side is slightly taboo, since that is the side used for pouring away waste water and to “hide” the waste water vessel (kensui) from the guests. In general, the right hand is the hand of activity, of purposefulness; the left hand functions as a support, an auxiliary, only. It is the hand that does the cleaning up.

It is literally impossible to consider reordering the tearoom so that the positioning of the equipment and utensils could better suit a left-handed person. It would be like moving into Alice’s looking-glass world, or possibly a tea version of Bizarro World, where everything is done backwards or in reverse (“Us do opposite of all Earthly things!”). It is that unthinkable. I suppose that someone might design a mirror-image tearoom at home, for personal use, but any traditional Japanese tea person who saw it would likely be both amused and shocked at the idea.

I have often wondered what it must be like for left-handed tea students. Is it seriously challenging, when you’re a lefty, to perform movements that require higher-than-normal dexterity (sorry) such as hiki-bishaku?* Or do such things become second nature when you’ve done them frequently enough? None of my fellow tea students has shown signs of left-handedness outside the tearoom, so there is no one in my tea community that I can ask. I’ve even tried playing at “reverse tea” at home, just to see what it was like. The effect was most disconcerting.

If you are a left-handed student of tea, how do you feel about the right-handedness of the tearoom? Has it been difficult for you? Have there been any rewards – for example, an increase in mindfulness because it is not possible to perform such movements unthinkingly with the non-dominant hand? Please share your thoughts!

*This is the series of movements that you use, in the summer season, to return the ladle to the kettle after pouring cold rinse-water into the teabowl. Hiki-bishaku is said to emulate an archer as she draws her bow. Of all the ways in which the ladle (hishaku) is handled, this is the one that tea students find to be most challenging.