Zen Center Retreat – Day 1, Tea House

I drop my things in the guest house; also in the Japanese style and pushing my geek buttons pretty hard. All the rooms revolve around a central hub, two levels high, and there is an openness that doesn’t exist in Western architecture. There are paper windows open to the common area, and though I can slide them closed, I enjoy overhearing all the sounds of a house full of people. There is also complimentary bread, baked at the farm, and homemade granola. I am pleased with the the offerings.

My first activity is a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the tea house, which isn’t part of the work week but when I saw it offered online I needed to sign up. Before we even step in to the outer garden, the three tea masters introduce themselves and start to explain the process. Almost immediately, the warm tingle I sometimes feel in my brain when I’m in a real good place starts up. It’s like a drug, and I sometimes wonder if it’s the feeling people chase when they’re doing heroin.

We begin by walking slowly through the garden, which, like the Gulch, is a blend of native plants and Japanese imports. There is a stone path surrounded by moss amidst smaller gardens full of beautiful trees and shrubs. There are two large, enchanting Japanese maples along one wall, and junipers here and there. I don’t know what the natives are, but they complement the more traditional parts. Near the end of the path, we come to a stone bowl filled with water so clear it looks spring fed. We wash our hands, clearing ourselves of the dust of the world, before entering the house.

We come to the sliding paper doorway of the tea house, and we are asked to kneel upon entering so that we have to wiggle our shoes off and let them drop on to the large stone below, where they are collected by the person behind us and placed to the side.

Here’s where things become tricky for our lovable buffoon of a protagonist. Kicking my shoes off is no problem, but as I do so I remember that there are several glaring holes in each of my “Darn Tough” socks, socks designed to be almost indestructible; a boast so grand that the manufacturer gives away a lifetime guarantee with each pair. Unfortunately, they never reckoned on the destructive powers of one David C. Stewball.

All this careens around in my head as I shuffle on my knees into the tea house. I am the only male in a group of 15, and I fear female judgment of my clothing much worse than I would in a group of dudes (we all get holy socks, right bros?). What troubles me more than even that is the idea that taking one’s shoes off before entering the house is a sign of respect and an effort to maintain the sanctity of the space. I feel like I am violating both of those creeds with my janky foot coverings.  I push these thoughts away and try to focus on engaging fully with the ceremony. This is why I’ve come to Green Gulch; to engage and experience.

Crossing the threshold into the tea house is like stepping 6000 miles and 500 years into feudal Japan. I think, ‘I could happily die in this room,’ which is an exaggeration but I am in love with everything about it. It’s an eight rectangle tatami mat floor, multiple levels of ceiling, sliding paper doors with traditional Japanese landscapes painted on them (though I later learn the landscapes are native to this area and painted in the Japanese style), a glowing brazier with an actual chunk of charcoal heating it, and a calligraphy scroll flowing down one alcoved wall, the meaning of which escapes me. It all screams authenticity.

We 15 tea drinkers cram in and kneel around the outside of the room, thus heralding the second phase in the troubles of Stewball.

I don’t often, which is to say never, sit in the common Japanese kneeling style. This is a traditional position of respect where one sits on one’s ankles, knees in front and posture erect. The form allows for bowing from a sitting position, as well as providing access to tea or sweets. I can sit this way. I truly can. It’s completely fine for about six minutes. Then the pain, which really ramps up around minute five, spikes to an unbearable level. I try to tough it out, but near that six minute mark my ankles are screaming and every muscle in each leg is tense from trying to hover and relieve the pressure. This tension causes sweat to bead along my scalp, which is itself embarrassing, and it is not until the kind woman to my right tells me that it’s okay to sit cross-legged do I give in and change positions.

After this, I never feel fully engaged in the ceremony. I am still monstrously uncomfortable and unwilling to infringe on the personal space of either person to the side of me. I feel cut off from the ritual, and that pleasant tingle in my skull fled a long time ago. I observe as best as I can, noticing the tea makers very specific routine and thinking that this is exactly the kind of thing that I love. The tea maker, a woman born in Japan and wearing the traditional kimono and obi of a tea house servant, spoons matcha into a drinking bowl with a handcarved wooden teaspoon crafted by one of the other tea masters in the room. The matcha is a thick powder, fresh and smelling of the sea. She has a specific ladle with a long handle that she dips into the cauldron over the coals, scoops up very hot water and pours it gracefully into the drinking bowl. She balances the ladle on top of the cauldron with an elegant flourish of her wrist, then takes up her special wooden tea whisk. She whips the water and tea together to create a frothy suspension, pauses, then places the bowl softly to her right. A different master, also traditionally garbed, takes the bowl and places it in front of a guest. She bows to the guest, the guest bows back in thanks. The guest then bows to the tea maker, bows to both of her neighbors, and drinks the entire bowl.

This matcha blend is very bitter and not unlike a cup of blended seaweed, but the creamy texture and perfect temperature create an experience unlike any other. The bitter taste is offset by the earlier gift of a small, jelly-like dumpling filled with a sweet almost paste.

It’s all so ceremonious and perfect that it would take a Zen Buddhist to pull it off (rimshot).

Despite the kindness of my neighbor and the beauty of everything, when we wrap up I feel a melancholy that the discomfort and pain kept me from fully experiencing the event. Iimg_1593 know this will not be the last tea ceremony I participate in, and I try to comfort my failure with that notion.

I take the time remaining to me to wander around the farm and center grounds, and am
repeatedly struck with the beauty of the architecture and integration with the natural features. What surprises me is how cold it is here, and while the sun is clouded over and has been since I arrived, it is the valley’s depth that makes it so frigid. It feels like autumn, and my love for the fall season only heightens the good vibes I’m taking in as I make my way towards the first supper of the week.

Day 1.1
Day 1.3
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6

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