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.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Walk towards the Mountain


        (Fossil from the Natural History Museum of Utah)

Twenty-one months have passed since I last traveled. And I am on the road again, finally. 

Like many others, I ever thought 2021 would end the pandemic and bring the world back to order. Who dares to predict that living with the pandemic becomes new normalcy. Yet, on Labor Day weekend, the Delta variants of COVID hit a new record. In this background, I made my first travel during the pandemic. I was nervous since I could not bear the risk of spreading the exposure to my infant baby and the toddler. For two times, I almost wanted to give up the trip and asked the seminar organizer to switch to the virtual format. 

I am glad that I still made the journey. 

It is memorable. 

"Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light."

Like my paper has argued, human physical interactions are important and cannot be substituted by virtual ones. It is true not only for collecting soft information but also for experiencing life. Before this trip to Utah, I had not thought about life could be so simple, close to nature, and passionate. Over the years, I have lived in big cities like Washington DC, New York City, and even earlier, Chicago and Shanghai. The city culture is always sophisticated, so does the city life and city dwellers. Here in Salt Lake City, however, life is different. At least, it is a city where mountains are always in the vision anywhere you go. 

(Rainbow near the University Guest House, with mountains in the distance)

Being able to travel again is so wonderful. It forces me away from my DC routines, thus offering fresh and distant observations on my life in the pandemic. Like what I have experienced from other journeys, this trip also helps me identify what is truly important and valuable in life --- When one is stranded in routines, those important and valuable become blurred, masked, and even inundated by daily activities.

Traveling also introduces me to an alternative life of others on the road. Can you imagine going hiking after work with colleagues? Even better, to have a beer afterward? Can you imagine hiking and mountain biking every week? Let alone live in the mountain with a million dollars view. Can you even imagine having skiing clubs to babysit your children? Yet, this is what can happen in Salt Lake City, at least for some of my local friends. No doubt, this is a totally different life from DC or NYC, a life I have never imagined before!

I have half-day leisure time and thought I could visit some museums, as I always do in other cities. Matt kindly drove me around near my lodging and suggested his favorite trail, short but scenic with mountain views and a happy companion of a creek. 

                             (view on the trail)

By the end of the trail, I followed the sound of the creek and unexpectedly embarked on another trail, the one towards the mountain peak. When I climbed all the way to the hilltop, the world became so tranquil that I could hear my heartbeats; I could feel the pleasant touch of the wind, and I overlooked the city and saw more mountains on the other side. 

       (View from the hilltop, the overlook of the city)

     (Vegetation on the trail towards the mountain peak)

(Stones at one exit of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, located in front of the Natural History Museum of Utah.)

Before dropping me at the hotel, Matt told me, "you will not miss the path. The mountain is over there. Just walk towards the mountain, and you will find the way to enter it."

Yes, the mountain is there! The most important and valuable things in life that are worth lifelong effort, patience, and passion to go after. We may feel puzzled, get lost, and make detours. But they are there. Just walk towards the mountain! 

Thank you, my friends, for an inspiring journey! 

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

Related articles: 

Utah -- Hoodoos! 

Montana - The Journey of Understanding

Abisko - Arctic 'Adventure'