Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wa and the "bud of hope"

Dear Tea Friends,

Last Thursday morning I put my usual day’s work aside and took the subway into New York to attend the first Buddhist ceremony to be held in an American Catholic Church. The event was officiated by Shinso Ito, the spiritual head of the Japanese Shinnyo-en Buddhist order (

Ms. Ito was visiting the United States when the Twin Towers were attacked; the following year she met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, where they mutually pledged to promote world peace. The interfaith Service for Peace and Harmony was hosted at the Church of St. Peter ( The Greek Revival Church, founded in 1785, serves the oldest Catholic parish in New York State.

The first floor was packed by the time I arrived, but when I saw a man climb the stairs at the back of the church, I followed him, stepping carefully over a tangle of electric cables. The loft bristled with photographers, both still and film, as well as engineers monitoring sound and recording equipment. I promised to be quiet and not use my camera, so I was allowed to stay.

The gentleman I followed turned out to be the mayor of White Plains, N.Y., where the Japanese organization founded a Buddhist temple. The mayor had been brought up Catholic and we were both pleased and proud that the church of our childhood was hosting this historic event.

We had front row seats for the pageant spread out below. The white marble altar was dressed with bright, bittersweet-colored flowers and the lacquered-wood Buddhist altar held candles, bells and pedestals mounded with oranges and violets.

The service began with traditional Japanese Buddhist music, played on recreations of ancient Silk Road instruments, to accompany a 1,200-year-old chant sung by four turquoise-robed Buddhists. One of the instruments looked like a hand-held chimney, but sounded something like a bassoon. A hammer-wielding percussionist played a hensho, graduated metal “bells” hung on a wooden frame, and what looked like metal “tags” tied to another frame. The instruments are said to represent prayers for all life – past and present.

Rev. Kevin Madigan, pastor of St. Peter’s, told the story of a Jewish physician walking to a meeting at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th. After planes struck the towers he helped carry the wounded to this church, located one block north of Ground Zero. There were no medical supplies so the doctor snatched up altar cloths and tore them into strips for bandages. Later, when he apologized to the priest, Rev. Madigan reassured the doctor that he had used the worship fabric appropriately “to care for others.”

Madigan said that the church, damaged in the terrorist attacks, was grateful for the opportunity to host the historic ceremony during Lent, when the faithful focus on the life of Jesus and his message of peace, hope and love. He ended his remarks reciting the venerable prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…”

When Father Madigan sat down, four emerald-green robed Buddhists carrying golden plates bowed to the altar, chanted and tossed decorated paper to the altar and into the congregation. Then Her Holiness Shinso Ito bowed to Father Madigan and the congregation, mounted the steps, handed her fan to a purple-robed attendant, and seated herself on a stool facing the high altar.

I don’t know enough about Buddhism to explain Shinso Ito’s actions, but she seemed to use a long wand to stir something in a series of bowls, then tapped the edges to make them reverberate. She “blessed” the air with the wand, rang bells, bowed, and clapped her hands as she chanted sutras. The program stated, “This is a ceremony where Buddha’s teachings and merits are praised. It is believed that ceremonial rites lead to the manifestation of Buddha and the gods’ protective power throughout the world … participants are encouraged to awaken their innate Buddha nature which brings genuine compassion to others.”

Following the prayers the tiny woman stood tall and faced the congregation. Through a translator Ms. Shinso Ito said that she had prayed for “all souls connected to this place.” Buddha, she explained, means the “Enlightened One” and that if each of us looked into our own hearts, we would find a “bud of hope.” No matter how small, our good actions create ripples of hope in the world. “May our efforts today plant seeds of hope and harmony as we work together for peace in the world.”

The service concluded with the choir singing “Amazing Grace.” And it was amazing to hear a shaven-headed, African-American Buddhist nun rock the church with her soaring gospel solo of that old hymn about the reformation of a man who had captained slave ships.

And what does this have to do with tea? As we gathered our coats, I asked the mayor if he knew what the Buddhists had tossed to the congregation. “They looked like leaves,” I said. “Here,” he said, handing me a leaf-shaped piece of paper printed with an image of a seated Buddha on one side and calligraphy by Shinso Ito on the back.

She had written the symbol for "Wa" which stands for harmony, unity and peace and is one of the key concepts of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center adopted the ancient symbol to honor “the history, achievements and aspirations of Saint Francis Xavier Japanese Mission … dates back to 1912, when Bishop Berlioz of Hakodate promised … that he would send a Japanese-speaking priest to tend to the spiritual needs of the Japanese Catholics in California.”

“Wa” came full circle when I arrived home and opened an e-mail from a friend in California that ended with this beautiful quote: There is so much coldness in the world because we do not dare to be as cordial as we really are.” – Albert Schweitzer. Perhaps we might all touch our own “bud of hope,” and warm the world by offering a stranger a cup of tea.



Friday, February 15, 2008

Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea Pennsylvania Horticultural

Noticed this on the Philadelphia Flower Show site:

Thursday, June 12, 2008
5:45pm - 7:45pm
Book Club: Stories From the Garden
Open to the public and members of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

In this book discussion group, which meets in the McLean Library, we read
and discuss works of fiction or non-fiction having to do with gardens,
plants, or the land. Participants need to obtain books and read each monthly
selection prior to the discussion.

June selection: Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea Pennsylvania Horticultural
Society McLean Library 100 North 20th Street, 1st Floor Philadelphia, PA

Members: Free
Non Members: Free

For more information, contact:

Priscilla Becroft


No connection with the organization, just found the tea-garden connection interesting.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Valentine Tea Tale

A coffee-drinking friend sent me this Valentine Tea Tale from a tea-drinking friend of his:

“One day my mother was out and my dad was in charge of me. I was maybe 2 ½ years old and had just recovered from an accident. Someone had given me a little “tea set” as a get-well gift and it was one of my favorite toys. Daddy was in the living room engrossed in the evening news when I brought Daddy a little cup of “tea” that was just water. After several cups of tea and lots of praise for such yummy tea, my Mom came home. My Dad made her wait in the living room to watch me bring him a cup of tea, because it was ‘just the cutest thing!’ My Mom waited, and sure enough, here I come down the hall with a cup of tea for Daddy and she watches him drink it up. Then she says, ‘Did it ever occur to you that the only place that baby can reach to get water is the toilet?’ (Notice she didn't say that until AFTER he drank that last cup...)”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Vintage textiles

Vintage textiles add color, pattern, texture, warmth, and nostalgic charm to contemporary homes. Everything old is popular again as any fan of the Antiques Road show knows. According to the BBC television show “House Call,” heirloom linens as well as a wide variety of antiques associated with tea drinking are becoming very valuable and increasingly hard to find. Tea connoisseurs can widen their enjoyment of the cup that cheers by searching out a variety of vintage table linens and tea cosies for use on their afternoon or high tea tables.

I began collecting hand-made vintage tea cozies and tea table linens at parish bazaars, jumble sales, charity shops, and antique fairs around the UK, when I lived in London. When they began to mushroom out of the cupboards in our compact rented flat, I reluctantly sold some of my things at tea talks and book signings for my first book, “Tea With Friends.”

One afternoon, a tiny silver-haired woman, dressed in a plain gray coat, circled my display table several times before edging past a pair of shoppers for a closer look at a felt tea cosy. She reverently ran her fingers over the embroidered roses then flipped it inside out to examine the fabric lining. Inspection completed, she looked up at me and demanded, “Do you know what you’ve got here?” “I think so,” I stammered. “I doubt it,” she rejoined. “I used to be in service. When maids had a free moment they were set to darning household linen or crocheting lace for pillowslips. I was good with a needle and know proper work when I see it.” She tenderly stroked one knitted cosy and said, “Nobody bothers with this sort of handwork anymore. They’re too busy watching the telly (television.)”

She began to quiz me about the names of embroidery stitches. When it was clear that I couldn’t identify anything more exotic than the daisy stitch she said that she had a book I should see. At the end of the day, the little woman re-appeared and thrust a copy of “The Art of Needlecraft,” circa 1930, in my hands said, “You need this,” and walked away. “Wait,” I exclaimed, “How will I return it?” “It’s for you,” she insisted and refused my offer to buy the book. Although she didn’t tell me her name the inscription on the flyleaf reads “For Rosemary.” I’ve turned the 639 pages of her treasure many times since that day to determine whether a piece of crotched lace was attached to a tablecloth by overcast or ladder stitch.

My first vintage textile purchase was a well worn felt tea cosy crafted to look like a thatched cottage with mullioned windows and embroidered red roses climbing over the blue front door. The back and sides are just as elaborately decorated with larkspurs, fuchsia and other cottage flowers. There’s even a rain barrel to catch the overflow from the roof’s gutter. The original stained lining attests to many years of faithful service.

Sometimes I read “The Art of Needlecraft” just for fun. The philosophy of that bygone era is charming, “It is said that those who can knit or crochet are never lonely or discontented, and perhaps this is true.”