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The Tearoom is Everywhere

In memory of Brother Joe Keenan who taught me how to fold a fukusa.

A man in my neighborhood, who knew I taught bi-annually in Japan, invited me to be his guest. He told me he was studying Chanoyu, Japanese Tea Ceremony, at LaSalle University. I had seen this in Japan, and was drawn to it, but was simply too busy teaching while in Japan to have the time to study it. I had no idea there was a teahouse, and very experienced Japanese tea teachers, just ten minutes from my home. 

Entering the Japanese tearoom for the first time, it was as if my eyesight had suddenly improved, as if I no longer needed my glasses. I had crossed a threshold and entered into a realm of art where, so it seemed, every object and every action had been designed to open my senses, my mind, and my heart. How was it possible that simply sitting and watching someone who I did not know make me a bowl of tea could move me so profoundly? Without knowing why, I was overcome with gratitude. I started crying. I felt embarrassed. The teacher, Taeko Shervan, said, “You are not the first person to come into a tearoom and cry. It’s fine.” It was as if life had been leading me toward this little room for forty years, and on this particular day, life said, “Yes, now he is ready.” 

Tea is made and served in a way that delicately cleanses, opens, and stimulates all of the senses. There is the slight scent of incense, clear and undistorted sounds that rise out of and disappear back into deep silence – feet quietly gliding along tatami mat, a light, wooden framed door sliding smoothly within its wooden groove, the sound of water boiling, bamboo knocking cleanly against bamboo. There is the handling of silk, of wood, of clay, the taste, smell, and warmth of fresh green tea as it blends with the lingering taste of sweets just eaten. There is the kinesthetic awareness of being, of breathing, of relaxed, alert sitting, of offering and receiving. There is bowing in thankfulness.

Though completely uncluttered, there is almost too much to see, yet time to see it all – the calligraphy, and the long scroll from which it hangs, a simple woven basket with fresh fallen flowers arranged in a way that looks unarranged. Soft light. Silent shadows. Is it dusk or dawn?

There is pottery, wood, stones, charcoal, fire. There is steam rising, sunlight diffused through soft, translucent rice paper windows. There is color and pattern. There are kimonos. But most moving of all, there are people close by, human hands, warm human lips touching warm tea bowls, all of us together in a small room sharing in a simple act of communion. 

When I would leave the tearoom, after four hours of practice, it was almost hallucinatory. I was in another world, a luminous world, a world just like it is after it rains and the sun suddenly appears, and everything begins glistening, each blade of grass, each tree, flower, spider web. But not only was my sight enhanced. I could smell everything. My nostrils were wide open. I could hear everything, omni-directionally. I could feel the earth under my feet, the cool breeze against my face, the warm blood running through my veins. I sensed every movement I made as I was making it. 

Eight years passed since that first day of entering the tearoom. Oiemoto, SEN Soshitsu XVI, the 15th generation grand tea master of the Urasenke tradition, would be coming to LaSalle to give the commencement address for the graduating class. Because the Urasenke School of Tea subsidized our little tea school, we wanted to have him as our guest and serve him a bowl of tea as a way of showing our gratitude. The tea teachers were either afraid to serve tea to Oiemoto or they thought a student should have the honor. For some reason, I was chosen. 

There was one particular, eternal moment. It was when I had just prepared a bowl of tea and had placed the chawan, the bowl of tea, on the tatami mat, and by doing so, nonverbally, silently invited Oiemoto to drink the tea. He takes the bowl. But no, it wasn’t like he took the bowl. He brought his hand close to the bowl, opened his fingers and it was as if the bowl was attracted to him and was drawn into his hand. He didn’t take the bowl. He wasn’t holding the bowl. He was embracing the bowl without any effort. He bowed to me. At the same time, I bowed to him. As we were coming up from our bows, that was when time stopped. He looked at me in the eyes, straight into my soul, and said thank you, and meant it, really meant it. I have never seen a man look so grateful, his body, his face, his hands. 

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Bruce Fertman with Oiemoto, SEN Soshitsu XVI

A couple years later I had my last tea lesson with Mariko LeFleur. I was traveling so much. There was little time to practice. I seemed always to be on the road when important tea gatherings were happening. I was frustrated. Mariko said, “Bruce, tea is only about giving and receiving, about being a host and being a guest. Go and do what you must do. The tearoom is everywhere.” 

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