Dear Beloved Blog Readers,
What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.
In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one.
But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.
Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture.
But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable.
As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.
While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?
While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.
When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture.
As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.
This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.
This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm.
In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?
Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.
Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?
In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice.
“Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.
If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.”
Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.
I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253):
“To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.
To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy.
What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.
New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.
In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.
In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.
In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.
As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamono temae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.
Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles.
The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).
The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.
Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.
While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?
Additional Readings & Resources
As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.
1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.
2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.
3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.
4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.
5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.
6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.
7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.
8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.
9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.
10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.
Writers & Authors
Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson
Articles & Online Resources
Anti-Racism Resource Collection
White People 4 Black Lives
“A Toolkit for White People” – Black Lives Matter
“Anti-racism Resources to Become a Better Ally” – JDSUPRA
Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good