Final Reflections

Before I left for this trip, I was thinking mostly about the political position of traditional practitioners, practices, and arts in Japan. As my focus was on tea ceremony, I read most of Kristin Surak’s Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice, and was thinking a lot about the relationship between tea and Japanese nationalism and conceptions of Japaneseness historically and in the present. This train of thought was reflected in my questions, which revolved largely around access to, and standardization and appeal of tea ceremony. I don’t think my experience was unique in the group. Overall, most people in the class were thinking about traditional arts from an academic standpoint of one sort or another, because that was what we had access to.

After meeting all of the artisans that we did in Japan, though, my perspective on the traditional arts in the present has become much more visceral and multifaceted. My most profound experiences of this course haven’t been moments of more clearly understanding the nationalist politics of Noh or Zen, but instead those of experiencing the traditional arts in the present and recognizing their power to transport me to a different kind of mental space.

The most obvious element of the trip if we’re talking about mental transformation is obviously zazen. While I had experience with meditation before this trip as I noted in previous blog entries, this experience was different and much more profound. As I also mentioned in other entries, Kei-san, the Zen priest, spoke about Buddhist stories and teaching before each time we sat, giving us either a Kōan or an idea to reflect on while we sat. I posed a question about pain and zazen at the end of the second session, and Kei-san’s response surprised me. He said, among other things, that he could not count the number of times he had cried while sitting zazen. After a while, he followed up by saying that while zazen is often framed as a means to some abstract mindfulness or better ability to do work in the West, in reality it involves really facing oneself in the pursuit of a less goal-oriented practice. In this way, getting in touch with a true traditionalist connected me with an extremely powerful spirituality and state of mind, one that I hope to pursue with intention in the future.

Similarly, I enjoyed Noh a lot more than I expected to. To be honest, I expected to fall asleep (and I didn’t!). While Professor Bethe’s lecture certainly helped provide a foundation for my greater appreciation of Noh (and made it less boring), an important part of the experience was just to let each play wash over me: the flashy costumes, the guttural vocalizations of the drummers, the drone of the incomprehensible dialogue. While the performance was powerful in of itself, speaking with the performers of the Takabayashi family afterward only further deepened my experience. The Takabayashi family expressed the importance of living a Noh-like lifestyle, as their personality is inevitably reflected in their performance. They expressed that one of the most important aspects of a Noh-like lifestyle is focus. While, unlike with Zen, the spectator isn’t invited into the master’s experience, it seems to me that the importance of having people of observe such a strict regimen of focus goes beyond the preservation of tradition. Noh performers preserve a certain view of the world and way of existing in it that, based on my experience with zazen, Noh, and tea ceremony, I believe to be important to society. Plus, through their performace, they invite people into that focus (if they can stay awake).

Another transcendent experience that I had was tea ceremony. Our tea ceremony adventure lasted the whole day, starting with joining Kei-san on errands and looking at six objects he had selected for us. Taking part in acquiring each of the elements necessary for the ceremony made the event itself even more meaningful. Kei-san spoke about the importance of a host creating a space for his guests to feel the “wordless” gravity of the moment and I think he more than succeeded at that. The darkness of the room, the shadow that Kei-san cast on the ground as he went through the prescribed movements of temae, the single flower in the alcove, the taste of the warm sweet and the bitter tea did truly all serve to heighten my awareness of the moment and my gratitude for all of the small things that had fallen into place to allow me to be in Kyoto and in Dairiku-san’s house having tea. From Dairiku-san’s perspective, tea ceremony is about taking a moment in the overstimulating world we all live in to appreciate our senses and what’s around us. This (not some more abstract notion of accessibility to tradition) is what inspired him to start Kamo-cha, his initiative of offering tea on the banks of the Kamo river. Thinking of tea as a living tradition, and one that has the potential to alter our state of mind in the present, outside of informing some abstract conception of nationhood, is representative of what I learned through experiencing these arts. Doing tea changed my perspective on the present.

I am so grateful to this winter study course for inviting me into new ways of being, meditating, reflecting and sitting. I feel refreshed by learning in non-academic but still extremely rewarding ways, and will take my fresh energy into the new semester and my search for new journeys after graduation.

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