the way of tea: an interview with michael ricci, colorado

This is part four in my series of interviews with chanoyu practitioners, This time with Michael Ricci, Urasenke instructor in the Boulder and Fort Collins Colorado area of the United States.

You can read part one of this interview series with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here and part three with Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada here.

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Tell me about your connection to Japan and to tea.

My initial attraction to Chado was sparked by my interest in Zen Buddhism. From there I, being interested in the arts, was fascinated not only by the aesthetics of tea ceremony but how the Japanese have a brilliant knack for elevating anything into the artistic realm. I studied with a couple teachers in Colorado for about two years and was so drawn to it I eventually quit my job, sold most everything I owned and moved to Japan to study. I spent two and a half years in Japan and had the most fortunate opportunities to study Tea at Urasenke for a year, live and practice Zen at Daitoku-Ji for six months and study raku pottery for a year at the Ohi Kiln in Kanazawa. Since then I’ve been practicing and studying ever since.

tea ceremony - creative commons by michael cornelius via flickr

The tea ceremony, while being very special, can be a little intimidating to newcomers – why is it special to you and what do you think non-Japanese can take and learn from it.

Tea ceremony is so special to me because I learned so much about myself, others and nature from practicing it. It can be intimidating at first, but so can any discipline that has substance.

When a situation is uncomfortable it actually offers the participant the perfect opportunity to cultivate awareness. That’s why tea is so special to me now; it cultivates awareness. And I believe awareness is the first step in solving anything and everything. A good teacher provides a safe place where students can feel comfortable making mistakes and being human. As for non-Japanese people, I think anyone with the right intention can learn a great deal from the Way of Tea. With harmony, respect, purity, tranquility and the cultivation of awareness being the guiding principles it’s a practice that can benefit anyone.

Can you tell me a little about your very first experience with chanoyu.

tea ceremony – creative commons by francisco javier argel via flickr

My first experience with chanoyu was at the tea house at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I had recently watched the movie “Rikyu” and had come across references to Chado in my readings on Zen, Japanese poetry etc., and I was eager to learn more. So, I registered for an introductory class the school was offering and immediately became hooked after about the first 20 minutes. I think the two things that made the most impression on me that first day were the enthusiasm of the teacher and the introduction of the concept of wabi. I teach now at that same teahouse every week, and I hope my enthusiasm is as influential as my first teacher’s was.

In terms of instruction, how long have you been practicing chanoyu, how has your learning changed over time.

I’ve been practicing a little over 11 years now, and teaching for about 6. Teaching has really changed my practice a lot. I really feel an obligation to know what I know and know what I don’t know. There’s a lot of grey areas in tea and that makes it difficult. So, I consciously have to be aware of letting students know what is set in stone and what is not.

This is important to understand there are few absolutes in tea.

Also, I understand now how important it is to learn the rules, those that exist, and to master the fundamentals. If a student masters the fundamentals they will have a strong practice for life and will benefit a lot from the way of tea. One of the most important thing for a student to do in my class is to come with clean white socks. Tea, first and foremost, is a state of mind, an attitude. These are all things that I’ve learned through teaching.

What have you learnt through practicing chanoyu (about Japan, rituals, yourself)

My answer to this is similar to the previous question; if you understand the basic rules and traditions and you master the fundamentals you can break the rules successfully. This is a very important idea to understand in tea ceremony. And cultivating self awareness this too is very important, maybe the most important thing about what a discipline like chanoyu offers.

Awareness of self and others is imperative to exist peacefully. And the lack of it breeds pain and suffering. I’m talking about a self-awareness that only comes with radical self honesty-asking yourself what am I doing/feeling right now and why.

Tell me how you best translate the traditional tea ceremony to your tea practices at home, how are they simplified, what is still really important.

The most two important things about adapting traditional tea ceremony into a different time and culture is balance and non-attachment. You must always respect the tradition as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean adhering to it always. It’s simply impossible to do that and a creative and sensitive person will find ways to make the translation both successful and enjoyable. By being balanced a person will have equal understanding of tradition and change, and by being non-attached a person will have the freedom and ability to make changes where they are needed without causing any kind of disturbance in himself or others.

Outside of matcha and the ceremony, what do you like to drink at home.

Unfortunately, I’m a little sensitive to caffeine so I drink a lot of herbal teas and water. I usually only drink matcha during tea ceremony.

In terms of language – are you fluent in Japanese? I am curious as to whether knowing (or not) the language is a help or a hindrance, or can you get what you need just by watching, observing and participating in the ceremony.

I lived in Japan for over two years so I know enough Japanese to be dangerous. But actually I wish I knew more, especially kanji. There is so much great information out there that isn’t translated yet into English and it’s really a shame for the serious practitioner. There is something to be said about watching and absorbing.

However, I’ve had many English-speaking students who studied briefly in Japan from non-English speaking Japanese teachers and they have all said they’ve learned so much more from me because I can explain things about tea ceremony in a language they understand. As with any traditional art, to really understand it you have to become extremely familiar with the culture and language. I think if anyone really wants to have a grasp of the spirit of chanoyu they must study in Japan for some length of time and absorb as much of the culture and language as possible.

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Michael Ricci is a certified instructor in the Urasenke lineage of Chado (The Way of Tea). Over the past 11 years he has studied from various instructors across the U.S. and Europe, and he lived for 2 ½ years in Japan where he studied tea ceremony at the Urasenke headquarters in Kyoto.

While in Japan he also lived at Daitokuji where he trained in Zen Buddhism, and he studied pottery for a year in Kanazawa working as an apprentice under the raku potter Toshio Ohi of the Ohi Chozaemon Kiln. He currently practices and teaches private lessons in Fort Collins and in Boulder at Naropa University.

You can contact Michael via email at: riccimjr@hotmail.com or via phone on: (970) 530-0436.

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  1. […] This is part five in my series of interviews with chanoyu practitioners, This time with Drew Hanson, Urasenke instructor in the United States.  You can read part one of this interview series with Gabrielle Soga Caciula of Belgium here; part two with Morgan Beard of Philly Tea, Philadelphia here, part three with Rebecca Lyn Cragg from Camellia Teas in Ottawa, Canada here, and part four with Michael Ricci here. […]



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