Today we celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain, when the division between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. Christians celebrate November 1 as All Saint’s Day and November 2 as All Souls. To mark this numinous time of year, I would like to share a story about Kikuchi-sensei, my Japanese tea ceremony teacher. A longer version of this story was originally published in Ascent Magazine, Issue 36, Fall 2007
The morning I went to the mortuary to see Kikuchi-Sensei, a cold wind whipped around the medieval cobblestone streets of the tiny Umbrian village. She had been fighting cancer for nearly a year and had finally surrendered at the age of 79. Dressed in a pale cinnamon kimono, she appeared so tiny in the lacquered coffin, framed by wild spring flowers that her daughter had picked from their garden, Sensei’s face was strong and peaceful; her mouth, set in her soft, unlined skin, was ready to break into one of her rare, indulging smiles.
Since Sensei had refused visitors during her treatment, I had just managed to accept life without our weekly tea ceremony lessons. But looking upon her still, frail frame, I hardly felt ready to surrender her forever. As I stood by her coffin, in my heart I thanked her for all she had taught me during the years we had spent together. I felt tremendously honored to have known her.
Before leaving, I bowed low and for a long time in the formal shin ojigi style and then paid my respects to her family. Her family then entered the mortuary. Standing around her coffin, they held sticks of incense and said their final farewells as the rest of us waited at a respectful distance outside.
Sensei had been my Japanese tea ceremony teacher for three years. But it wasn’t until the day she was cremated that I finally integrated her greatest lesson—that no matter how seemingly insignificant or small life’s offerings may appear, each must be esteemed for its immense value and held as a great weight.
Having spent two years living in Japan in the 1980s, I was attracted to tea ceremony for a number of reasons. But most importantly, for me, tea ceremony is a way to experience a ritualized art form. Ritual is an expression of the highest form of creativity and a very real human need. In any ritual, under any tradition, individual symbolic elements come together and synthesize into a unified expression of a higher order.
For example, in tea ceremony the five elements transcend their differences to synthesize into a cup of green tea, a symbol for the entire universe. The charcoal (Wood) builds a Fire which boils the Water in an iron kettle (Metal) which, in turn, is poured over the tea and whisked in a bowl (Earth). During the ritual, the five elements are in harmony, the right balance and correct proportion and together they transform themselves into a higher reality.
The ritual of tea ceremony takes a lifetime of training. My main challenge was the fact that I am quite careless with material things. In America, where everything is disposable and easily replaced, I was raised with the idea that if something breaks, you simply go out and buy a new one. Given this tendency, when I first started, I was scared to death to handle any ceramic items like priceless tea bowls and water containers.
But I never imagined that the bamboo whisk or chasen would be revelatory. “Lift the whisk as if it weighed something,” Sensei would often berate me. “You are simply grabbing the whisk and not giving it any meaning.” I understood this disregard was an unconscious manifestation of my lack of appreciation for material goods. I tried to become more aware, but often I found it difficult to be enough aware.
As I handled the chasen every week—cleaning it in a ritualized manner, whisking the tea, and placing it on the tatami, its vital truth did not come easily nor swiftly, even though I intellectually understood it for a long time. Just as each of the five elements are essential to the making of tea, so are each of the many implements—from the simple chasen to the most precious tea bowl. Each and every element, gesture, sound, and movement throughout the ceremony carries significance and weight.
In between her attempts to bring my full awareness to the chasen, Sensei offered broad strokes of Buddhist philosophy. Breathe with each movement. Make tea with a sincere and pure heart or kokoro. Whenever holding an object with two hands, round your arms to form a circle which is wa in Japanese writing and a homonym for “peace.” Pause with full awareness. Pauses are as important as each movement. Give thanks to the ladle as it enters the boiling water. Listen attentively to the five sounds that the kettle can make. Look your guest directly in the eye when you speak to him or her. Walk like silk sliding across tatami.
After a year or so, I noticed small gestures from tea ceremony were infiltrating my everyday life. While slicing a carrot, I was more aware of my breath and its rhythm. My senses became more astute. I recognized subtle differences in the tone of the singing kettle, in the musty smell of the forest floor. With people, I tried to allow for the pauses that inevitably expand a conversation. And as practice, I continually tried to bring honor to my ordinary wooden spoons and dishware, for example, by repeating to myself while taking a kitchen utensil in hand, “This is a spoon. This is a spoon.”
“You must learn all I know as quickly as possible,” Sensei often rebuked us. Perhaps she foresaw that we would not have her guidance for that much longer. On the night before her cremation, I dreamt about Sensei.
She was in the same pale cinnamon kimono she wore in her coffin. We were sitting together in a long valley in the Italian countryside. The cherry trees were in bloom and a river gurgled nearby. She had two sets of cards and was showing me how to hold them. They were the Japanese cards traditionally used on New Years Day.
She gave them to me to hold and I took them. But then she said sternly, “You are not handling them with the honor they deserve.” I looked directly in her eyes and said, “Gomen nasai. I am sorry. Please forgive me,” and immediately took more care with them.
Sensei then said that she had to write her waka, a poem consisting of five lines of 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllables. The Japanese cards she was holding actually are a deck of 100 waka poems. She said it was a Buddhist tradition to write a waka when you die. “I must write my waka,” she kept insisting.
“You can start the waka with ceremonia,” I offered, ceremonia being the Italian word for “ceremony.”
Then I woke up.
Greatly moved by this dream, I felt that Sensei had made a final attempt to urge upon me the vital lesson she had continually tried to impart with the chasen—that greatness exists in the smallest of things. We must honor all the cards we are dealt in life—the good, the bad, the insignificant and the wild.
Noting Sensei’s urgency in my dream, I felt compelled to write her a farewell waka. Five months after Sensei’s death, I finally met with her daughter Reiko. As I related my dream, Reiko started to cry.
“My mother was in a coma for two days before she died,” Reiko said dabbing her tears with a handkerchief. “And her last words to me were: ‘You must write my death waka.’ During the Heian period, most aristocrats wrote such a poem before dying.” As Reiko spoke, I could feel the skin of my forearms prickle and I knew Sensei was once more by my side.
I then read Reiko my poem. “It’s beautiful,” she said, promising to share it with her father.
Now, I offer this waka with all my kokoro in memory of Kikuchi-Sensei.
Silk slides across tatami
Iron kettle sings
Heart holds an empty tea bowl
A lifetime of spring blossoms
This story and its photos are © copyright of Catherine Ann Lombard, 2018.