giving weight, paying attention

Catherine Ann Lombard learns the significance of small offerings through the ritual elements of tea ceremony.

photos by Emrys Miller

I first met Kikuchi-Sensei during springtime. Our meeting was particularly serendipitous because Sensei and I both happened to be living far from our homes of Tokyo and San Francisco. Sensei had spent her final years in the Italian countryside surrounded by olive groves. Twenty years earlier when her only son fell in love with a woman from Sardinia, her husband decided to move the family from Tokyo to Italy.

There is an ancient Japanese proverb: “No sleeve touching unnoticed.” This means that two people passing each other on the street, their wide kimono sleeves barely brushing, is no accident.

I was living and working in Italy as an English teacher, when my colleague, Alice, mentioned that she was studying tea ceremony. I had lived in Japan in the late 1980s and yearned to reconnect with this place that had blessed me with many unique and inspiring experiences. Alice asked Sensei if I might attend class as a guest, and the next Saturday we drove to Sensei’s tea house in the Umbrian hills.

I felt nervous and excited as I entered the tea room, hoping to behave in an acceptable Japanese way despite my foreignness. I had brought the customary gift of sweets, which I offered with a perfunctory bow and “Hajimemashite. How do you do?” Sensei was cordial and welcoming and dressed in a patterned green kimono with orange accents and a russet and black obi. She returned my bow and invited me to sit in the place of honour. Sensei was seventy-five years old and a master of the Ura Senke Ryu school of tea ceremony. Petite in stature, she nevertheless commanded a strong presence with clear black eyes that seemed to hold me in place. Framed by short wavy hair, her face revealed little.

Class began with sumi demae, the ceremony where charcoal is added to the fire. Steve, an Italian who had studied with Sensei for ten years, performed this initial ritual, which precedes any tea making or drinking. After arranging the charcoal in the burner, he lit incense and placed the iron kettle on the brazier. Each of his precise, controlled and slow rhythmical movements rose and fell with every breath. And every utensil seemed to have its own secretive place on the tatami, invisibly marked to the untrained eye.

Next was an actual tea ceremony and Alice prepared to make a cup of the weaker tea, or usucha, for me. I was told that it took three years to learn how to make usucha and ten to master the making of koicha, the thicker, pasty, and more bitter tea.

The rules that Alice attempted to follow seemed endless. Still, as I watched Alice’s calm and careful motions, I felt as if a deeper space was being created inside and around me. There was a minimum of effort in all her movements, yet each gesture brought vital energy. Nothing was wasted. Nothing was exaggerated. Everything was carefully handled and placed to create an esthetic of proportion, space and tranquility. The objects themselves – the tea bowl, tea caddy, bamboo spoon and whisk – were simple, functional yet elegant works of art adding to the beauty and mystery of the event.

But I knew that I wanted to study tea ceremony when I watched Alice fold her fukusa. This act signifies the spiritual cleansing of the mind and heart, during which all thoughts of the outside world should be dismissed. When Alice held this square piece of silk before her and silently eased it up and down through her fingers, I felt an unexpected surge of emotion. The fluidity of the cloth and its subtle dance seemed fleeting and eternal at the same time. I suddenly felt connected to thousands of others through countless years who had knelt on tatami poised for a cup of green tea.

Catherine Ann Lombard is an essayist who has practised Iyengar Yoga for 23 years. She and her husband have recently left Italy for the Netherlands.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life