Saturday, May 19, 2012

今朝茶の湯のお稽古 (Tea!)

Beautiful tea class today. Sunshine, blue sky, cool breeze, many visitors at Shofuso. We were doing 薄茶 (usucha, thin/weak tea), so as sweets we had delicious wafer-like cookies called (I think) zenbei*, with a maple-y flavor and a little outline of a ginkgo leaf on each. We had class in the larger room (書院, 15 mats), rather than in the 4.5-mat 茶室, so I had to recalibrate my walking a bit; went well pretty overall, but I need to practice more over the week so I can be more confident in the flow, especially in お仕舞い (oshimai, closing). My ankle injury made even more clear the contrast between 正座 (seiza, "sitting correctly") and 安座 (anza, "sitting comfortably")—there was no 安 whatsoever in my 正.

The first guest (正客, shoukyaku) really has to be on the ball throughout the event, because, aside from the scripted formalities, the other guests are rarely allowed to speak. After each bowl is returned from the guest to the host and rinsed out, the first guest has to signal to the host whether to make another bowl, to make him-/herself a bowl, or to move on to the closing-up (お仕舞い) activities. The phrase for making a bowl of tea for oneself, when asked to, is one that (I think) is used only in this context: 御自服 (gojifuku, honorific–self–powder/tea). We call it "playing the gojifuku card". Maybe it's just a way of being thoughtful, or maybe it was a way for your enemy, whom you've invited to a formal tea meeting and who now suspects you've just poisoned them with matcha, to make you do the same to yourself. I wonder whether there's a protocol for refusing.

*When I was trying to confirm the word 先生 used for the sweets, Google helpfully suggested I meant "Japanese tea sweet zombie". A few more zenbei, and I could turn into one of those!) 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tobira, Genki, and new resources for students.

日本語のレッスン this evening—yay!—so last night I was rereading the current chapter in the Tobira textbook (上級へのとびら, Gateway to Advanced Japanese), which is the third book we've worked with, after the two Genki (元気) books. Tobira is a pretty big step up from even Genki 2; Genki seems designed for foreign students studying in Japan—先生 said it's probably for Korean students specifically—so it tends to focus on issues (such as majors and host families) that pertain to students more directly than to ancients such as I. Its vocab* is pretty basic and its usage generally normal–polite, and although it covers a good deal of grammar the sentences tend to max out at compound.* Tobira expects much more of the reader; it includes very little English in most areas, more kanji, and much longer and more syntactically and semantically complex sentences. So, Tobira can be frustrating sometimes, at least for me.

For example, a passage I was reading last night on basic speech styles (plain, polite, etc.) includes an (apparently literary) style it calls である体, the "de aru" form. In parentheses it labels this as the "expository" form, but it seems not to explain what it means by "expository", or who or what is being exposed to what or whom and in what context. I've seen this form in essays and literature, so I think I pretty much get it, but it's difficult to be sure.** OK, granted, this isn't a big deal, and overall the book is terrific; but from time to time I do want to (respectfully) wing it across the room. 扉 >> 飛びら。 飛び扉。


Anyway, today there's good news on the learning-resources front. I've been thinking for a while of coding a quiz app for the Tobira (and other) vocab, like the very helpful one that Usagi-chan made for Genki, but I've been short on time; today I thought maybe I'd try to contact her and, instead of reinventing the wheel, ask for the existing code (and permission to use it) and just populate it with the Tobira content. Still haven't decided on that, but while surfing around about it I discovered this useful page of resources for students of Japanese, which in turn led me to this amazing page of links. Much fun stuff to explore! I also like to flip through 朝日毎日新聞, Goo, and (I dutifully read the news and culture stories, but I admit I find the horoscopes and personal ads more fun. I'm still looking for a good online source for daily manga, puzzles, etc.) I've also been trying to get away from "crutches" like the plug-in Rikaichan, which are immensely helpful but which sometimes make things too easy. Tough to find a middle ground between looking up 30-some kanji per page, by radicals (as with a paper novel), and skating over unknown kanji online with a quick pop-up, without taking the time to look at the kanji carefully and get used to them.

*Genki's approach to vocabulary is (from my POV) ちょっと可笑しい; I'm all for situational vocabulary units, but the groupings in Genki tend (1) to be not quite as thorough as one might hope for that context (eg, some airport words, but not all you'll need for that experience) and (2) sometimes to seem random (eg, learning how to express having been regrettably groped in the subway, or how to inform the police about a burglary, before you officially learn tree or socks. What if someone steals your socks?). 

**Reminds me of how, when I was learning French in school, my teachers told us we didn't need to learn the passé simple tense, as it was "a literary tense" that we'd never encounter in real life. Probably a reasonable approach for most students, but of course I ended up as a French lit major in college and then grad school. Mais c'est la vie, quoi. しょうがないですね。(「仕方はありません」と言うこともありますかなぁ。Googleでhitsが263千つ(?)あります。「為さい片は御座いません」。。。。へへへ。)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

落葉両三片 (two or three fallen leaves).

A friend from Tea class asked for help reading a set of shikishi she bought a while ago, written by a notable Zen monk, and 習字の先生 was kind enough to help me figure them out. Some of them are pretty standard stuff, like 寿 (kotobuki, longevity / good fortune / auspiciosity of various kinds), or 福 (fuku, good fortune), but a few have really stuck with me.

One that I've been thinking of today is 落葉両三片 (rakuyou ryou-san hen), "two or three fallen leaves", an appealingly haunting image that on the shikishi is backed with sumi-e of leaves and pine needles. I've been nosing around online, and it seems this is from a longer phrase that's often written in a Zen context:

seifuu ichijin (kitaru, kitarite),
rakuyou (ochiba) ryou-san hen

(depending on how you read 来)
a gust of the west wind comes;
two or three fallen leaves
two or three fallen leaves(,)
come on the west wind

Online sources relate this to both Zen and 茶の湯 (Tea). One says it was written by 千利休, Rikyuu, the great(est) Tea master, to commemorate his son—questions about both Rikyuu's death and his succession are well worth exploring—but I haven't found anything else to corroborate. A published translation of anecdotes about four Chinese Zen masters who lived in "turbulent times" gives a totally different view, attributing it to Gujin (13th century), in a moment of either humor or anger:
Gulin said, "In the scriptural teachings it says that if a single person generates true intent and returns to the origin, then all of space in the ten directions crumbles away. The ancestral teachers of Zen said that if there is a single person who generates true intent and returns to the origin, then he bumps into [the ultimate] at every turn.

"Here at Kaiyuan Temple I have a living road that I will walk along with all of you."

Then Gulin slapped the meditation bench and said, "One gust of the west wind, two or three pounds of fallen leaves."

(The teacher presents the teaching in a public forum[;] a handful of people in the audience are reached.)


(片=pounds, rather than individual leaves?)

Other mentions see in it profound loss, associating the west wind with both death and impending rain—apparently it's considered a September thought (禅語)—and, in a Zen context, an opportunity to (re)consider one's character and life choices and make changes. I prefer the more melancholy interpretations (as I am a generally melancholic guy). Reminds me of a four-kanji set I practiced in 習字 a while ago, 秋物感人—autumn makes people contemplative.

Seems this one is sometimes written just as the first half (西風一陣来), rather than, as in the shikishi, the second; but below is an example of the second half:


Interesting that 両 is written with just one horizontal and the vertical cutting through, rather than (what I think of as) the usual 行書 style of 冂.