Sunday, October 29, 2023

Fall Foliage Lightens You Up

Thanks to the Four Corners Conference, I need to drive to Malvern, a suburb of Philadelphia. Over the years, I only took trains from DC to Philly and had no chance to explore its rich collections of gardens, like Morris Arboretum, Azalea Garden, Jenkins Garden, etc. Believe it or not, the Greater Philadelphia region has more gardens in close proximity than anywhere else on the continent, with 38 public gardens all located within 30 miles. Many of them are close to Malvern, the Vanguard company's headquarter.

This time, I have a car, so I plan to visit the long-awaited Shofuso Japanese Garden. Alas, I arrived in Philly too late for Shofuso on Wednesday afternoon. What one loses on the swings, she gets back on the roundabouts. I missed Shofuso, but I encountered the most beautiful garden I have ever seen: Chanticleer.

Chanticleer is romantic, imaginative, and exciting. The garden is a study of textures and forms, where foliage trumps flowers, the gardeners lead the design, and even the drinking fountains are sculptural. 

The gardeners have a clever idea. They collected dropped flowers into a water basin. Being together, these fallen angels gained a second life and became the best offering on the altar, the offering to the Goddess of Nature! 

Sit and enjoy the views. Relax, read, converse, meditate. Feel the sun on your back and the grass beneath your feet as you listen to the birds and enjoy the fall's breath.

My favorite part of the garden is an area called "Ruins." The incomplete masonry sets a contrast against the beautiful blue sky. The little fountain hosts several pieces of sculptures, sharply impressive. 


I walked and walked till the garden was closed, whole-heartedly purified and satisfied. Nature is always my sanctuary, in particular during this time of year when trees, plants, and flowers are coming to life. 

I saw more colors and spirits of the fall on the road back to DC. Meanwhile, I finished listening to the audiobook Klingsor's Last Summer, a book by Hermann Hesse, my favorite novelist. Many years ago, I encountered the Museum of Hermann Hesse in Switzerland during another conference (the story is here). Karma brings him to me again; I unexpectedly found this book before starting this road trip. His other books, Siddhartha and the Glass Bead Game, have profoundly affected me in some dark moments of my life. They have guided me on how to face the struggles and to find wholeness and meaning in life. And this book, again, hit my heart unexceptionally. 

Klingsor's Last Summer, is somehow autobiographical. It was written in 1919 at the end of World War I. That year, Hesse was 42 years old. His hometown turned into a ruin in the war, and so did his marriage. What he had been proud of and cherished was gone. "If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you" (Nietzsche). He suffered, looking for an answer and an uplift. I don't know how Hesse went through the ordeal. However, without the rotten leaves in the fall, there wouldn't be the beautiful flowers in the spring and the fresh fruits in the summer. Similarly, without the self-analyzing Klingsor's Last Summer (1919), there wouldn't be the more famous books later such as Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927), and The Glass Bead Game (1943). 

This book comes at such a time. I also experienced difficulties. But all cyclical dark moments in life are temporary. One can still cultivate inner peace, as Hesse told us through Klingsor's words:
There was not a thing in the world that was not just as beautiful, just as desirable, just as joyous as it’s opposite. It was blissful to live, it was blissful to die, as soon as you hung suspended in space. Peace from without did not exist; there was no peace in the graveyard, no peace in God. No magic ever interrupted the eternal chain of births, the endless succession of God’s breaths. But there was another kind of peace, to be found within your own self. It’s name was:
Let yourself fall
Do not fight back
Die gladly
Live Gladly!"

Photographed by Jennie Bai.
Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Ichigo Ichie 一期一会 いちごいちえ

一场新冠,恍若隔世。一期一会, 此生无憾。

Covid seems to have a time dilation effect... When people finally start meeting again in person, we feel like the last meeting was ages ago. Sometimes we couldn't remember the exact time of the last meeting except that it surely happened before Covid. The pandemic has taught us a lesson in many ways. One of them is to cherish the people around us and to live in the moment. In Japanese words, ichi-go ichi-e,いちごいちえ. 

I started learning Chado, the way of tea, in the summer of 2022. 

The idea of learning Chado, in particular, Urasenke, was a seed planted many years ago. In the early 2000s, I visited London for a graduate student conference. On a sunny spring day, I was strolling in the city and discovered a poster on a Japanese restaurant's window: "Keiko (tea classes) offered by the Urasenke London branch..." I was immediately absorbed by the small poster. Even after almost fifteen years, I still remember my eagerness then to take the tea classes, like a child lushing for her favorite toys. Unfortunately, Chicago, the city I lived in then, did not have such a resource. Also, I could hardly find the time. 

Without rhyme or reason, I googled "tea classes" on a spring day in 2022 and found the Urasenke  DC branch. It was such a joyful surprise! I sent an email consulting for class information and decided to study Chado against all odds. Looking back, this unexpected Google search action is probably the first lesson I learned on the tea journey: If you want to do something, do it now and do not wait for tomorrow. There are more than one hundred reasons to postpone action. But dreams cannot wait. You never know which will come first, your tomorrow or your end. I have entered my 40s and every tomorrow is a blessing. I want to live each remaining day without regrets. 

(Washin'an at Urasenke DC)

In May, I started my weekly Chado classes. The first class happened on the same day as Georgetown's commencement. Walking through the crowd (excited graduates and their parents) on campus, I scanned a share bike from Lyft and rode to Washin'an (和深庵), the tearoom in DC's downtown. I only knew later that I gained an award in the commencement, and my promotion from associate to a full professorship was formally announced too. So my tea journey started, with such an unforgettable opening. 

Washin'an is an authentic tearoom built by Japanese craftsmen in Kyoto and transported to Washington, DC in 2012. Washin'an consists of the words “wa” (harmony), “shin” (deep), and “an” (retreat), and translates as “retreat for deepening harmony.” Indeed, this tearoom became my retreat from secular worries since this summer. It not only teaches me Chado, but it also inspires me on a meditated journey. 

Since the Samurai period (1185-1868), Chado has been only for men of status, including high-ranking warriors. Before crawling into the tearoom, Samurai would take off his sword, second in importance to his life, along with his status. He relinquished himself in pursuit of the instant of profound serenity. Before entering the tearoom, I also wash my hands and try to empty my mind, leaving those endless thoughts, doubts, regrets, and concerns outside the small doorway. 

In tea, form comes first. You shape the form to provide a vessel for the spirit, which comes later. My esteemed teacher, Mioko sensai, often says, "Your hands know what to do. Trust your hands and try listening to them. Do not think with your head." In the tearoom, it is almost impossible for me to think about other things. I have to devote myself entirely and wholeheartedly to innumerable tiny details such as how to walk on Tatami, where to put my hands, how to purify a Natsume, how to fold the fukusa,  how to swish the bamboo whisk, and so on. The meticulous attention to hands and feet rules out the possibility of thinking, a similar experience I ever had in flowing yoga where Chi,  or prana, becomes the sole focus. In so doing, one becomes fully mindful and lives in the moment.

(Folding the fukusa, woodblock print by Shiro Kasamatsu)

Maintaining my weekly class is only seemingly easy. When there are deadlines or important issues, I always struggle with whether I should "waste" half a day for a non-urgent Chado class. However, I would always have that moment where I thought, " I am so glad I came after all!" There is always something waiting for me in the tearoom: seasonal wagashi and gorgeous utensils, let alone the delicious bowl of tea! In each class, Sensai will prepare flowers (ikebana), scrolls, sweets, and even her Kimono coherently with the season. Each piece is elegant and beautiful, purifying my mind. 

(Usagi Manju, a special sweet in celebrating the year of rabbit, 2023)

Such a pleasure came to a stop unexpectedly in August.

Toward the end of summer, my son got sick badly. We had to go to the emergency room and eventually sent him to the Children's hospital. After he got out of the hospital, my mother had a severe fracture, requiring surgery to change the elbow. Then came the intensive seven-week teaching, four days a week and five hours a day. With all the turmoil, I stopped going to tea lessons for several months. 

When I returned to the tearoom in December, I almost forgot everything, and my hands and feet became clumsy. Sensai consoled me, with a warm smile, "You have not practiced Chado for years. Eventually, your hands start to move of their own accord." Only after more practice, till my hands could do things more naturally, did I understand her words better. This is another lesson I learned on the tea journey, "Chado is not just about tea, it is more about physically experiencing the aesthetics and the way of life, which sets great store on living in harmony with the changing seasons. Planting a seed, simply wait for its own pace to bud, blossom, and harvest. Before then, water it, nourish it, and leave it to the mighty nature. " (isn't it similar to working on an academic paper? All we should and could do is to kindle a great idea and polish the paper while leaving the publication to its own path.)

Inspired by my experience in Washin'an, I converted a master bedroom into a tearoom, called Jo-An (如庵), the same name as my house. Whoever is reading this blog now--karma has led you here-- I would cordially invite you to visit Jo-An. Please allow me to serve you a bowl of tea. 

My tea journey will continue in the new year of 2023. I am sure that Chado will teach me more lessons in this journey. Till then, I look forward to seeing you in Jo-An. I also would like to share with you the excerpts from a book by Noriko Morishita, Every Day a Good Day

"When the flowers boom, celebrate. When joy comes to you, share it with others. when you find happiness, embrace and savor it wholeheartedly. If someone is special to you, seize every opportunity to eat with them, live with them, and enjoy their company. That, it turns out, is the meaning of ichi-go ichi-e..."

                       Copyright ©Jennie Bai. All Rights Reserved.