Name: Randy Channell Soei
Occupation: Tea ceremony master
Likes: Good things
Dislikes: Bad things
1. What first brought you to Japan? I came to devote myself to the study of budō (martial arts).
2. What’s keeping you here? A total lack of common sense?
3. When you think of Japan, you think of … Traditional Japanese culture.
4. Whom in Japan do you most admire? The current Urasenke Grand Tea Master Zabosai and his father (the previous Grand Tea Master Hounsai), not only for the personal guidance and support they have given me over the years but because they selflessly devote their lives to promoting the way of tea both in Japan and around the world.
5. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? One of my favorites would have to be “Nana korobi ya oki“(“Fall down seven times, get up eight”). It describes my life.
6. What’s your favorite phrase in any language? “Just do it,” because it means you’ll actually be doing something instead of just thinking or talking about it. At some point if you want to learn how to swim, you’re going to have to get wet.
7. What first inspired you to study the tea ceremony? The phrase “bunburyōdō,” which, roughly translated, means the way of the cultural and martial arts together in unison. By doing only budō I had too much yin and not enough yang — if you know what I mean. I needed to find a balance and the way of tea made my studies complete.
8. What role did the tea ceremony play during the Edo Period (1603-1868)? Edo was relatively peaceful and many arts began to flourish in that period. As the way of tea spread from the clergy, aristocracy and warrior to the townspeople and craftsmen, the ideals, philosophy and aesthetic sense began to have a stronger influence on Japanese culture (and continue to do so even today).
9. What role does the tea ceremony play in modern Japan? For the general population, sadly not so much. The ceremonies are commonly used to promote the spirit of Japanese hospitality, not only to Japanese but also to (overseas) tourists. As it is the representative cultural art of Japan, mostly visiting dignitaries at some point during their trip will experience the way of tea.
10. What’s been the catalyst for change? In the Edo Period, practitioners would have been predominately men whereas today women by far are the majority. The changing roles of men and women in modern-day Japan dictated the change.
11. If you could share a cup of tea with anyone from history, who would it be? Why? (Tea ceremony master) Sen no Rikyu, because he’s Sen no Rikyu!
12. In your new book, “The Book of Chanoyu,” you write that tea is “the master key to Japanese culture.” How difficult is it to unlock? To unlock is not so difficult. After unlocking the difficulty would depend on how far one wants to enter. “Oku ga fukai,” which means “the back is deep,” is a phrase that is often used when speaking of tea and other Japanese cultural arts. There are so many “ways” to go and the path to mastery of each one is deep.
13. Can the way of tea be classified as a complete art form? How? Yes. It’s actually referred to in Japanese as a sogō bijutsu (comprehensive art) or sogō geijutsu (total work of art). Without going into too much detail, with even just a cursory look at a tearoom one can see various arts represented: architecture, calligraphy, flower arrangement, woodwork, ceramics, lacquer ware, iron work, bamboo — the list goes on and on.
14. I like the way you describe the sound of a tea ceremony. How important is silence in this process? It’s very important, as is sound. Silence not in the absolute sense but in a nonverbal silence. There are natural sounds throughout a gathering: the water boiling in the kettle, which we refer to as the wind through the pines; the gentle whisking of the tea in the bowl; the rustling of the kimono on the tatami — these all enhance the atmosphere of the moment. Observing in silence heightens the awareness of the other senses and gives focus to the here and now.
15. What do you think about during the pauses in a tea ceremony? Hopefully nothing! Ideally I want to achieve a state of mushin or muso — being in the groove without thinking about it, so to speak. If I try to think about nothing, that means I haven’t achieved it as I’m “trying” not to think.
16. How important is the role of guests in a tea ceremony? What is their function? The guests are absolutely vital. No guests, no tea! Guests inspire their host to make and serve the best bowl of tea for them, and for guests to partake of the bowl with humbleness, gratitude and respect.
17. What can tea offer that coffee doesn’t have? As a drink, a beautiful vibrant green color with less caffeine and a unique flavor. As a “way,” it offers a whole other life.
18. Who would win a fight between a lion and tiger? Why? Yes. Because.
19. What do you want to be when you grow up? Maybe have to change “when” to “if”?!? (A fire truck?)
20. Do you have any words of advice for young people? My answer to question No. 6 — “Just do it!”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5