When I first saw that ARTHIST 287A, “The Japanese Tea Ceremony: The History, Aesthetics and Politics Behind a National Pastime,” was a course offered during Stanford’s spring quarter I was floored. I couldn’t believe that such a nuanced interest of mine was woven into the fabric of Stanford’s academic net. Needless to say, I was quick to sign up, early to the first day and sleepless the nights before class.
This past Wednesday found me biking down sunlit Alvarado to attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at Sensei Hamilton’s home. While Sensei Hamilton is not the professor of this course, she is a participant in what can only be described as the way of tea. Upon entrance into this tea connoisseur’s glorious temple, I was greeted by the kimono-clad Sensei and her assistant, a Ph.D. student from Stanford. She had assembled a makeshift tea room complete with five tatami mats, a carefully selected piece of calligraphy, a hot water heater, etc. She lamented that she wasn’t able to have hot coals heating her water, a garden for us to mill in before the start of the ceremony and a proper alcove to house her calligraphy and flower arrangement. Meanwhile, the eight of us students were just so happy to be in a home again, surrounded by texts on Japanese philosophy and a selection of family photos.
The next two hours unfolded in a graceful sort of dance, Sensei mixing matcha with a delicate whisk and incredible ease, and tea bowls turning around in the fingertips of eager students. Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, Sensei revealed that her theme was “The Tale of Genji,” a classic Japanese literary text written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. Sensei had interwoven chapters of “The Tale of Genji” into the ceremony through the selection of her calligraphy, the type of tea served and the tea bowls whose histories and shapes she had specifically selected based upon their relationship to “The Tale of Genji.” Such care and attention to detail was remarkable and communicated the depth of the host guest relationship that we had been studying so fully in class. Sensei Hamilton had truly shown us deep love and we felt it from the moment we entered her home.
To say that this experience was spiritual would be an understatement. It was instead a reshaping of time, the delicate unfolding of moments rife with meaning and intention. Every action was careful, every word was valuable and every moment was precious. I am so grateful to have had the experiences I have had in this class. From reading Okakura’s “The Book of Tea” to attending this past week’s tea ceremony organized by Professor Takeuchi, I have begun to think deeper as a student of tea, and of life.
What started out as an intellectual interest has become a philosophical meditation on how to be in the world, all of which is the result of this exceptional class. Learning from experiences such as this one, in which practical application or future security become less of a central focus, are truly precious. They move the mindset of education away from financial success and push instead for a greater depth of character and understanding of self. When the time next comes to enroll in classes I beg you all to discover the hidden wonders that Stanford and learning have to offer you. To put aside your inclination towards the comfort of pragmatism and experiment instead with your curious and perhaps less acknowledged side.
Contact Hannah Broderick at inbloom ‘at’ stanford.edu.