Friday, September 21, 2012

Tea, Zen, Yoga, and Hard Knocks

One Month in Japan

I've recently become a student of chadō (translates as "tea way"). While this study will open my eyes to many foreign customs and rituals, refine my skills for entertaining guests, help me acquire graceful movement, and refine my sensibility to beauty, I think the cardinal lesson in studying tea is learning that the way of tea is the way of Zen.

Chadō can be understood as a study in three forms: through discipline of the mind, through acquisition of knowledge, and through practice. In everyday life we live skillfully by adhering to this road map. As a personal example, I work every day to discipline my mind by judging between hunger, boredom, and procrastination of other (a distinction, I humbly admit, that is never easy to make). I seek (and sometimes procure) knowledge about my new surrounding, its culture, and language. I practice yoga daily. Whether it’s a two-hour arm balance practice or a five minute meditation practice, I make sure to cultivate awareness of breath, body, and mind at some point every day. 

In essence, these practices are Zen. Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki tell us, "Zen spirit has come to mean not only peace and understanding, but devotion to art and to work, the rich unfolding of contentment, opening the door to insight, the expression of innate beauty, the intangible charm of incompleteness. Zen carries many meanings, none of them entirely definable. If they are defined, they are not Zen."

I had a nervous breakdown last week, an old-fashioned, teenage anxiety attack. It was one of those instances very similar to an asthma attack: I couldn't breathe because I was freaking the fuck out, and I was freaking the fuck out because I couldn't breathe. This angst came from nothing in particular, but (I think) was a manifestation of daily life in a new country with such a persistent monoculture my isolation and the constant input of unrecognizable sounds led me to a breaking point. I understand that sometimes all we need to do is cry, to let it out, to feel, experience, and understand that while these things shape us, they are not us. However, at that particular moment, the last thing I needed to do was revel in the uncertainty- the used to, why not, I miss, someday- that hits when you suddenly realize just how big of a change you actually brought into your life.
(What I needed was to be in the present, breathe, and thank my thoughtful husband for compassionately and logically explaining our current state and his understanding of it).

Three lessons are certainly not enough to make me an expert of chadō. It will take many years to learn the movement and vocabulary of this ancient art, and, as all rituals go, I know I will mess up, forget, relearn, spill tea, misunderstand, quit, restart, and make a fool of myself. But in all of these moments, I also know that my desire and intention will be pure and simple: to give my guests a sweet dose of hospitality and to show my gratitude when receiving such. When this is realized I finally understand that it's okay to bonk on remembering how to fold the silk cloth, forget to turn with my right foot instead of my left, get frustrated by the complete isolation at work and in this new culture, and skip practicing hiragana (one of four Japanese scripts based on tones, not an alphabet) to write a blog post.

It is important to identify the essential intention of chadō (of yoga, teaching, learning, working, life), which lies in the matter of how we should live our lives as human beings. "Of primary importance in chadō is that, just as you successively progress step by step in your lessons, you diligently reflect on yourself and cultivate you mind and heart through your practice day to day" (Urasenke Chadō Textbook, 2004).

In yoga, we call this krama: a [divine] chronology based not on the fruit of our actions, but on the work itself. (Act without desire for result, teaches the Bhagavad-Gita). I do not wish to fold my cloth perfectly or to prepare tea flawlessly and without effort, the same way I don't wish (and this is a TOUGHIE) to snap my fingers and suddenly be fluent in Japanese, because how would I grow, see, or understand without the effort? Besides, according to this (amazing) RadioLab podcast our brains get very agitated when our ears hear something we can't assimilate into previous experience (or sound), but our ears (and brains) actually learn very quickly so that a dissonant sound, if heard repetitively and understood in a certain capacity, can become a consonant sound (See Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" Take 1, May 1913, and Take 2, April 1914).

It's also fascinating to me how much of this Zen or this anxiety comes simply from preconceived notions. (Tea ceremony is stupid ritual. I don't understand Japanese. I will never do arm balances.) But when we let go of these, when we accept that maybe we did not previously understand chadō, or understand another language, or practice eka pada koundinyasana 1, what we do now, in this very moment, is less a true limit than a limit we mentally place on ourselves. (Side note: I understood my first Japanese sentence spoken by a native and successfully practiced that pose for the first time, all in the same day, simply because I was able, even if only momentarily, to let go of preconceived notions I held about myself).

Now, a Zen story:


Ikkyu, A famous Zen teacher of the Ashikaga era, was the son of an emperor. While he was young, his mother left the palace and went to study Zen in a temple. In this way, prince Ikkyu also became a student. When his mother passed on, she left him with a letter. It read:

To Ikkyu:
                I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am [in hell] and whether I am with you or not.
                If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower the Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for forty-nine years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don't and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.
                                                                                         Your Mother,
                                                                                                  Not born, not dead.
                                                                                                   September first.

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament. 

In this moment, sitting here, breathing, and in the now, I am indulging in some very non-Buddhist motions...drinking wine and considering that I am no less incorporeal because I haven't been to a temple in Japan yet; I don't know the ritual of washing my hands at the entrance or paying homage or sitting in zazen. But in my heart, the study of tea, the practice of yoga, the willingness to change, and the capacity to being here now...I am in a temple, and paying homage, and meditating on the beauty, wonder, and union of it all.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post, Leah. I'm looking forward to reading more.