the way of tea: an interview with jim (SOKI) herrmann

Jim (Soki) Herrmann has more than has more than 30 years experience with Chado, the Way of Japanese Tea Ceremony. He studied for a period of time at the Urasenke Headquarters in Kyoto, as well as with an advanced teacher in Tokyo for twelve years. He has received his teaching credentials and Tea Name (Soki) as well as Associate Professor status from the 16th generation Urasenke Grand Tea Master.

This interview is part six in my series of interviews with chanoyu practitioners.  You can read the previous interviews in this series here.

Tell me about your connection to Japan and what ignited your passion for tea.

I am not sure, except that Japan has always fascinated me.  And, I am a Catholic Priest – the Way of Tea seemed to have some similarities in philosophy and practice to the Catholic Mass.  And besides, once I learned that Sen no Rikyu – the great tea master who codified much of the Japanese Way of Tea – was familiar with the Catholic Mass and had several “disciples”-students who were Christian, the Tea Ceremony resonated even more for me.

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.

The basic four (4) principles of Tea speak to every person’s life, and the way a person shows respect to others, as well as basic instruments of living.  The four principles are:  Harmony, Respect, Purity and Peace.    In addition, one of the loved expressions for  the Japanese is:  One unique  experience, one unrepeatable moment (in Japanese, “Ichigo Ichie”).  Each experience is different than the next one… your first meeting of someone will be different than the second meeting; your first tea experience will be different than your second, or third…etc.

Can you tell me a little about your very first experience with chanoyu; and how long you have been studying chanoyu.

I began when another tea teacher invited me to come have “have a cup of tea”.  That was in the Fall of 1989.  That about twenty-one years ago. I was immediately attracted to the Way of Tea.   Now my study and practice of Chanoyu continues.  But, I know that I  must never stop studying and learning – otherwise I will lose the desire, interest, and understanding of Chanoyu.

What have you learnt through practicing chanoyu.

First of all, the Way of Tea encompasses all aspects of Japanese culture, and it continues to affect the way of life for Japanese.  For instance, the menus of Kaiseki restaurants in Japan (and elsewhere) reflect meals served in the Tea Ceremony.  The respect people show to one another often are learned through the Tea Ceremony.  Much of the way houses and construction occurs in Japan reflects the various crafts needed for the Tea Ceremony –at least 13 different craft skills are need to build a tea house, or conduct a meaningful tea ceremony experience.  One can learn much about the Japanese way and history of life by studying about the tea ceremony.

How do you translate the tea experience to your day-to-day life.

Now, I teach the Way and Principles of Tea to others, and I think it has influenced how I relate to others – as well as affecting the way I conduct my services as a Catholic Priest.  My experience of Chanoyu also affects my basic philosophy of life.

What do you like to drink at home, other than matcha and in the practice of the tea ceremony.

Unfortunately, I am an American who likes coffee.  I often start out the day with a cup or two.  When I am eating Japanese food, a glass of Japanese Sake sometimes tastes good.  When eating curry, a glass of beer often goes well with it—Japanese beer, of course!  But, Japanese Green Tea is still my favorite beverage much of the time.  And, of course, I drink a lot of water, which is good for digestion.

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I find it so interesting that Jim draws parallels between the Way of Tea and Catholic Mass.  In a previous post I quoted James Norwood Pratt along these same lines:

“The role Buddhism has played in the history of tea in Asia exactly parallels the role of Catholicism in the history of wine in Europe. Their respective beverages assumed ritual significance and the faithful of both traditions became devoted consumers.

Catholic monasteries became centers of grape-growing and wine-making the same way Buddhist monks took up tea-growing and evolved increasingly sophisticated methods of tea manufacture. Innovations like champagne, invented by the monk Dom Perignon, had their parallels in China where anonymous Buddhist monks gradually developed the various types of white, green, and oolong tea.”

* quoted directly from Tea Muse and authored by the amazing James Norwood Pratt.

The photos that accompany this interview were taken by Roger Walch, and are used under the Creative Commons license.  Roger has a beautiful range of photos on Flickr, including this tea ceremony set.

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