My apologies for the long absence! The last few months have been a tiring time for me, and the financial crisis hasn’t helped matters. However – as one of my sensei’s tea scrolls says, Nishi nishi kore koujitsu: every day is a good day (which I think is an exhortation to practice equanimity). We may prefer nice experiences over not-so-nice ones, but when it comes right down to it, life is precious and we are lucky to be breathing!

And it’s been a great Year of the Ox* so far. I was lucky to celebrate not one but two Hatsugama-s this month … one overseen by my own sensei, and one hosted by an affiliated Urasenke center in a nearby city. There’s nothing like enjoying two “First Kettles” of the year!

There’s always a very festive feeling at Hatsugama; the participants wear brighter, flashier kimono than usual (well, at least the women do), and there’s a lot of smiling and laughter, plus a sense of excitement. The toriawase or selection of tea utensils tends to focus around the zodiacal animal of the year, or traditional New Year/long-life motifs such as cranes and willow branches – or both. Now, oxen (or cows) aren’t the most poetic-looking creatures, but I’ve noticed that a lot of this year’s items feature the akabeko, a stylized folk toy that depicts a red calf. It’s cute as a button, and also rather mysterious (although a bit less so if you click through to the Wikipedia article to read about its origins). It also holds a rather special place in the Japanese heart.

Akebeko or red calf. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Now that so much is uncertain, in terms of jobs/investments/money and many other things besides, this seems to be a good time to make a New Year’s resolution or two about tea practice. One of mine is: I vow to be content with what I have. It’s so easy to be beguiled by tea utensils (I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard), but right now I am determined to practice contentment, and to really appreciate and enjoy – and share with others! – what I’ve already got. As Rikyu said: “Having one kettle you can make tea; it is foolish to possess many utensils.”

I also want to focus on what is really the heart of Tea, namely (among other things) the expression of genuine generosity on the part of the host, the expression of genuine gratitude on the part of the guest, and the meeting of the two in serene mindfulness. In that respect, it doesn’t matter whether the teabowl is a priceless heirloom or a piece of Tupperware. Rikyu: “Tea should not be an exhibition of what the tea man owns. Instead the sincerity of his heart should be expressed.”

And finally, I vow to put more effort into cultivating mindfulness. This means bringing my full attention to each moment, and – when my monkey-mind drifts away and I get caught in distraction – to return to the task at hand without self-recrimination, trying to see it as if for the first time. (As I learned in my first meditation retreat, when keeping my attention on my breathing for more than five seconds seemed purely impossible, each breath offers the opportunity to reawaken.) Rikyu: “When using your right hand, your attention should also be on the left hand.”

P.S. Nearly forgot. I will drink up all my matcha while it’s still good and fresh! 🙂

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*Did you know that while it’s possible to wish someone Happy New Year in Japanese (the usual phrase being Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu), there’s actually no way to say “Happy Year of the Ox [or zodiacal animal of choice]”? The best I could manage was Akemooshite omoodetou gozaimoosu. (Oh, well. At least my Japanese-pun-loving friends enjoyed it.)

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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!
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*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.