Tea Diaries

Letting Go of Control at Japanese Tea Practice

Picture of a Video Game Controller | Where My Heart Leads

Tea Practice is a bit like a world of its own. It’s somewhat of an insular practice space, a Dojo (道場)for immersive learning. It’s freeing in a sense beause it doesn’t come with the stakes and stressess of a workplace. Because we gather because of our common interest in Tea, Practice, and Japanese culture.

Our Senior teacher once asked, “Do you know how Japanese and Chinese tea practice differ?”

To which we discussed,“The Chinese ‘art’ of tea probably places more emphasis on the taste, the origins, the tenor of the tea?” we continue, “Whereas Japanese Tea Practice, or Chado (way of tea) is about the practice of the whole person.” 

Our Senior teacher nods in acknowledgement.

Indeed, aside from the ceremony of serving the tea, almost everything around the Tea Practice serves as potential for learning. 

To Help or Hijack?

Last Saturday, before the start of class, we gathered in the Mizuya (水屋), the water room for prepping and cleaning utensils, arranging sweets. One of our teachers asked a classmate to help cut up a brick of Yokan (羊羮). He did as instructed. Placed the brick on the cutting board, cut open the plastic wrap and measuredly cut the elongated brick into smaller slices ready to serve. 

Seeing that the board overflowed with cut Yokan, I jumped in to ‘help’ and began to pile the cut pieces of Yokan into a plastic box. As the morning progressed, I noticed the teacher re-arranging the box I had filled. Painstakingly, she turned the Yokan the other way up and wiping away any excess syrupy liquid at the edges and bottom of the box.

和菓子 涼風の道
Japanese Wagashi “The breeze through the streets.” (c) IG: naonao_mix

Like I mentioned in Finding One’s Way in Japanese Tea Ceremony, a lot of the learning may be unspoken – you learn from what you manage to observe. So although the teacher didn’t point out that the direction I placed the Yokan was wrong, (since there is no absolute right or wrong – you can choose to place the bi-colored sweet another side up to convey another message or meaning in the practice), I am aware that pink on top and blue on the bottom is the prefered way of display. 

I also noticed how in jumping in to help, I perhaps hijacked my classmate’s practice. I willingly offer help, which in most cases are welcome. To clean up the bowls that had just been used to serve tea, or to add fresh hot water to the pot for the next tea sitting. However, in this case, I probably shouldn’t have jumped in. Part of me was probably thinking we are starting soon so let’s get this sorted ASAP. 

Opportunity for each and everyone

Our teacher as quietly as she does, has been asking different classmates to help cut Yokan on different mornings. Cutting and preparing the Yokan is as important as knowing how to whisk the tea. It’s a part of the whole. Tea is the sum of its parts – and mostly the energy. So by giving each an opportunity to have hands-on experience handling the sweets, we each learn.

My jumping in to ‘help’ without being asked, I kind of hijacked his full experience preparing and packing up the yokan. Our tea classmates are generally friendly and easy-going so we often help each other out. But then again, a good reminder to let things be and allow to be invited instead of jumping in!

Improvement comes from Experience

On a separate occasion, we brought the Chado experience to young students. A classmate was assigned to introduce what Chado is to the students. As she did, I was thinking, “Oh that’s a bit boring, and not engaging in the way it’s delivered either …I’d probably do it better.” I made my thoughts known to the classmate next to me and she was mute. Very soon however, I came to realise that I tried to hijack because I was thinking that I could do it better. But, everyone needs the practice and needs to start somewhere. Had I not been given the opportunity to start somewhere, I wouldn’t have the experience I have.  

We are lucky that our teachers give everyone opportunities to learn. Every task, every occasion is an opportunity to learn. That’s the Way – of Tea, of Life.

Food for thought

  • What is the best antidote for the control freak or the bossy boot?
  • What is the underlying need is for those people who like to control or boss people around around?
  • How might leadership look like without the need to control?