“Hump Day” is what we call it. A sort of apex or summit we must climb. For those who have a “regular” work week, this day marks the middle of your “stuck-at-work” situation. An equidistant point from weekend to weekend. From freedom to freedom. What if I told you there was a way to freedom that you could get to now? What if the freedom you seek was with you all along?
If you can, find yourself a quiet space. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.
You don’t need to close your eyes. You don’t need to assume a posture. Just rest the body and let the mind wander without judgement, without enforcement. Just observe the mind and your thoughts, just as one observes clouds in the sky, waves on water. Without fixating on one thought or the other.
If you’d like, you can make a cup, or bowl, or pot of tea. I’ll join you.
First, get yourself some clean water. For much of us in this world, this may be the hardest part. If you do have readily available clean water, consider yourself lucky. Privileged.
Set the water within a vessel to boil and just wait in silence and relative inactivity while the water rises in temperature. You may feel like the water in the vessel as it comes to a boil. You may feel your seatedness dissipate into a sense of agitation and unrest until your inner entropy grows and breaks. Or, you may find that, as you meditate, you quiet down, your mind becoming smooth, the once roiling surface of inner activity becomes calm. As the heat rises, so too may your awareness of the moment and space around you. That centeredness you might feel becoming like a soft, gentle hum, similar to the sound water achieves when it is early in its boil. When it is “ripe”.
Rather than use this time to prepare for your next action, for your next meeting, or for readying your accouterments for making tea, just sit with the water until it begins to boil. Not only will this give you the opportunity to listen to the many “stages” water goes through to rise to its boiling temperature, but you might also find that this reduction in any additional activities helps you to focus on the current task at hand. So, until the water boils, just sit. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.
When the water does come to a boil you will know. Depending on your particular elevation, this may mean that you will arise at this moment quickly upon hearing the rolling bubbles upon the water’s surface or need to wait until a few moments afterwards. Regardless, once boiling has been achieved, now should be when you prepare to make tea.
Set up should be quick. If you need more time, consider adding cool water to the now boiling water. Begin with selecting your tea. For me, I’ve chosen a Spring of 2021-picked, semi-wild 작설 Jakseol from Jirisan, Hwagae Valley, gifted to me by a dear friend who sourced the tea for her own tea shop which is located in Insadong, Seoul, South Korea. For you, choose any tea you’d like. It can be a “true tea” (Camellia sinensis/assamica), a tisane, or just something you’d like to brew, whisk, or steep. Regardless, the fact that you have something to enjoy makes you quite lucky. To know what type of tea it is, where it came from, who made it… This is truly a gift if you have this.
Next, with tea ready, find yourself a cup, bowl, or pot.
Since I am making a loose leaf tea, I will use a teapot, with an accompanying water vessel (숙우 sookwoo) and teacup.
If you want to, maybe consider pairing your vessels with the locale and method of where your tea came from.
This might help to brew the tea in the intended manner of its origin.
Otherwise, use what is readily available to you. Do not feel that you have to go too far out of your way to adjust your approach, your wares, or your means. As a meditation, use what is around you, and as little as possible helps.
Before you begin to brew tea, warm the wares. If you are making a bowl of 抹茶 matcha, pour hot water into the bowl and wet the whisk. Roll the bowl in your hands to let the water climb up the inner walls of the bowl. This will help to warm the bowl before use. If you are making a cup of tea, omit the wetting of whisk and simply pour hot water into the cup, again, rolling the water within the cup to let it evenly warm the interior walls. For me, I first pour the hot water into the sookwoo. From sookwoo, I transfer the hot water to the pot. I gently roll the pot to warm its insides and then pour the water into the teacup.
Since I am only using one cup, I pour out the remaining hot water into a waste water bowl that I keep beside me. I will keep the hot water in the cup until I am ready to pour tea into it. Prior to that moment, I will pour out the hot water so as to keep the cup warm for the duration of the tea’s brewing.
With vessels warmed, next comes the tea. For any tea, take a moment to appreciate it in its dried form. Whether it be a bright green mound of matcha powder, a jumble of herbs, a scraggly pile of roots, a compressed cake or brick, or a collection of loose leaves, pause and enjoy the sight of these once-living things.
Think of the care, the preparation, the time, and the effort that went into making these, and to the skill, talent, and choices that contributed to bringing them to you to enjoy today. There may have been many challenges for the people who made the tea. Maybe many obstacles both human-borne and natural that created difficulties. There may have been suffering that occurred. Now as you enjoy the dried tea, think of these. Acknowledge this. Be aware and be gracious.
As you place the tea into the vessel of your choosing, breathe in and inhale the aroma that rises. Heat and moisture act as a catalyst which unlocks tea’s flavors. Even in its minute form, that of condensation and residual heat held upon the surface of the tea vessel, it is enough to “wake” the inner qualities of tea even before it has been steeped. For me, when I employ a teapot to brew tea, I like to lift the pot to my nose and inhale deeply so as to examine the many more subtle flavors that tea has to offer. As I return the pot back down, I like to notice how these flavors change and dissipate over time. This, too, can become a meditation.
Now that your tea has been placed into its vessel you must introduce the element of water in order to produce a tea liqueur. In some practices, this means drawing a measure of hot water from a cauldron with a ladle. In others, it may mean hot water is poured directly from a boiling kettle. For this particular tea and the practice that comes from Korea, it means water must first be poured from kettle to sookwoo and then from sookwoo to teapot. This set of actions allows the water to cool slightly, adjusting it to ensure that the tea’s flavor is less astringent once it has been served.
Upon closing the teapot and beginning the tea’s steeping, wait. If you are whisking a bowl of matcha, whisk and breathe. Regardless of what action you are doing, either waiting in pause or whisking in motion, breathe. Make your inward breath fluid and measured. Make your pause before exhalation steady. Have your outward breath direct and gentle. Have your pause before inhalation focused.
As you wait for your tea to steep, do not worry if it will be too strong or too weak, too bitter or too watery. Rely on your experience, your intuition, your practice and your patience. If you are whisking tea, work gently and without a goal achieving mind. If your practice is to make a thick foam for thin tea (薄茶 usucha), adjust your motions so that this will arise gently. If you are making a bowl of thick tea (濃茶 koicha), work smoothly. Your smooth actions will result in a smooth concoction.
Once you have prepared your cup, bowl, or pot of tea, serve the tea. If you are alone, as was initially prescribed in this meditation, serve yourself. If, during this meditation and as you’ve been preparing your tea, others have gathered, serve them first and then yourself. You’ll find that the act of offering up something you’ve made with care to others can become its own meditation too.
Before you and/or your guest(s) drink the tea you’ve prepared, take a moment to enjoy the color and aroma of the tea. Look down into your bowl or cup and let the colors and scents come to you. Observe their delicate qualities, and let them soak into you as if you are appreciating a fine piece of art, a beautiful blue sky, a humble stone against a mossy tree. Enjoy its unique qualities and the sensations that arise within as you do this. And then let them go.
As I pour the steeped tea liqueur from my teapot and then (not traditionally) into the sookwoo and then cup, I marvel at its color and escaping aroma. The tea is a beautiful bright golden green. The fragrance is floral and grassy. Even as I sit upon the floor beside my work desk, I feel as if I’m both here in this moment and also transported elsewhere to a place where nature and vitality abound. Having visited the tea farm where this particular tea was made, I imagine that I am there as I enjoy the sight and smell of this tea.
Before I drink the tea, I thank all the various forces that brought me to this moment, to where I can enjoy a cup of tea, even on a busy Wednesday. I am reminded of the many times earlier in my life when I felt that I could not take a moment to meditate, even in its most minute of form. I recall the feeling of being so bound to my work and duties and busyness that I could not even justify to myself to take a moment for myself. I recognize now that I am quite lucky and quite privileged to even be able to take this moment to make tea and hope others, like yourself, can do so too.
Before we drink tea together, across this expanse of space and time, let’s pause once more. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.
Whatever you’ve made, cherish it. Whatever you have come to share with yourself and others, enjoy it. Your time is precious. Once it has passed you will never get it back. No price or currency can replace it. Tea, as I’ve come to know it, is, in a sense, a gift of time. Time to sit and let the water boil. Time to sit and appreciate a piece of nature. A time to sit and steep, to wait and wonder.
We can use this moment to give time to ourselves or share time with others. As we lift our bowl or cup (or pot… if you happen to want to drink directly from it…), let’s not forget the many forces and many choices that come to create this moment.
Sip and enjoy the flavors. Sit and enjoy the time. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.
The year is new and the tea I crave is old. What comes to mind is singular: a memory of a 1999 金帆牌 Jīn Fān Pái “Golden Sail” 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá from a life long ago. This tea was easily one of my first pǔ’ěr experiences when I was still wading around in the shallow waters of my then nascent 工夫茶 gōng fū chá practice back in the early 2000s when I was still a wide-eyes college student in Santa Cruz, California. I can remember when David Wright of Chaikhana offered me a sip of this tea. Back then, it was sold to me under the name “Sailing Vessel” and, indeed, it helped me to venture further into the depths of the larger tea world.
I can recall the experience drinking this tea quite vividly. It was dark, earthy, inky. The texture was slick, viscous, one that would leave a slight resinous feeling in the mouth. Notes of redwood, pine sap, clean wet river stone. I was hooked. Even then, when this tea was relatively young, I felt it had a lot to say. The favors were incredibly active in the mouth for a shú pǔ’ěr, let alone one that is relatively widely produced.
I remember purchasing this tea (for a price now so low that I am amazed I didn’t buy more) and running back to the house I shared with my fellow tea-heads So Han Fan and Sylvia Levine and drinking quite a bit of it (probably all of it, which makes this particular cake the second one I must have bought soon there after). It became the tea that I’d learn how to brew cake pǔ’ěr with, studying how the compression unique to 餅茶 bǐngchá affects the way it brews, how the heat of the water and saturation of the tea are key to unlocking the tea’s potential, and how the shape of a teapot (from the circumference of its opening to the height of its profile) can determine the trajectory of the steeping experience. Tea as teacher became a core understanding from this point onward.
I’d shelve this tea for years, pack it away and almost forget I had it. As I moved from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to New York City, the tea would travel with me, wrapped-up in paper and a Japanese 風呂敷 furoshiki.
Since moving to the Hudson Valley, I kept the tea stored away in an antique 桐箪笥 kiri-dansu, the light, relatively porous wood of the Paulwonia acting as a great neutral environment for the tea to live and age. Now that Winter has arrived here along the rivers and mountains of the Hudson, the tea is dormant, its oils and active flavors less readily available.
The cold air that continues to creep through the windows and doors of my studio are both a challenge and an opportunity to make tea. The kettle that I keep by my side is drawn closer to me on the coldest of days. I remove the tea cake from its cloth and paper wrapping and set it down beside me. The compressed leaves look unchanged from when I last opened this cake up for inspection years ago. The scent of the dried tea is sweet, akin to loamy wood and dried black mission figs.
I arrange a setting for tea upon the swirling grains of my tea table (admittedly less a table and more a plank of wood that rests upon two tea boxes).
A pick for loosening a portion of tea from the cake.
A scoop fashioned from a piece of bamboo to set the leaves within.
A dark 紫砂仿古壺 zǐshā fǎnggǔ hú by ceramicist 尹紅范 Yǐn Hóngfàn (1963 – present) which I’ve employed for making cake and brick pǔ’ěr for almost fifteen years now. A shallow 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán to set the pot within.
A wooden cup stand made of cherry wood.
A small 鬼萩焼 Oni Hagi-yaki teacup with unctuous white glaze by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan that has been accompanying me on many of my tea sessions since Winter came.
The pot and cup are warmed by the water that has been boiling in my iron kettle. The portion of broken-off tea cake is set within the open pot. The scent of the dried tea leaves coming in contact with the warm and wetted interior of the teapot reveals just a hint of the tea’s flavor. Again, notes of redwood, of dried black mission fig.
I pour hot water upon the compressed leaves within the pot and close the lid. I wait and do not rinse the tea fearing that this extra step will remove some of the flavor that this tea has acquired over the years.
In waiting I watch the steam rise from the water inside the tiny white-glazed cup, the steam rise from the spout of my boiling kettle, the slight wisps of steam that hover over the dark clay pot.
Waiting has brought this tea here today for me to taste. Waiting has made this moment happen. Waiting will let this now-aged tea express what time and change has allowed it to achieve.
Minutes pass and I pour the first of many draughts from the teapot. The color of the tea is dark, inky, opaque. I am reminded of the first time I sat to drink this tea with David two decades ago.
The aroma wafting from the cup, the sparkling wave that dances across the surface of the dark red liqueur, the bareness of its presentation. I lift the cup to my lips, inhale its profuse aromatics, and sip from the tiny teacup. Time evaporates. I’m for a brief moment brought back to that old time. I feel as if I’m about to cry.
The tea is nothing special and yet it really is. The flavors are big and sweet. There is complexity and layers and unfolding of depth but I am brought back to when I was just first beginning to perceive these things.
I can remember the layout of David’s old shop. The nooks and cavernous shelves that seemed to contain a trove of then-unknowns. Teapots and teas. Books and postcards. Lamps and cups. Tea picks and tea boats. Old lacquered items nexts to objects and figures carved of boxwood and rose wood and agate and jade. The jumble of things and the curl of David’s short beard and the wry smile he’d make when he’d tell you a dry joke that would invariably go over my head.
“Clouds,” he once told me. “Goals are like clouds. You watch them pass in the sky. You might focus on one or two, but you can’t grasp at a cloud.”
They disappear. The dissipate. The dissolve into the something bigger that’s out there. He never said the last part. I’d have to come to realize this on my own years later.
Sitting with this tea I look into the past from the vantage point of now. I’ve aged, no longer the young man I was. This tea has aged too, and yet it contains with it the bright, fresh, buoyant memories of my youth. It’s a good tea.
It steeps for days. On day two, on steeping who-knows-now, the color begins to wane and the once dark opacity it had held breaks and the liqueur becomes slightly transparent. Sunlight finally enters the bottom of the cup and the crimson leathery tones of a typical pǔ’ěr finally emerge.
The staying power of this tea amazes me. So, too, does the staying power of these memories. Sweet and bittersweet. Sad in a sense. Longing. Unable to go back. Happy that I’ve come this far. The cake that we called “Sailing Vessel” has in some way lived up to its name. “Golden Sail” sounds a bit luxurious. This is a simple yet sturdy tea and it and I have ventured for quite a while, for quite a distance. Far from when we first left off.
With the first day of the new year, I find myself wanting to climb a mountain. Ever since moving away from the city, I’ve used these moments of wandering the trails and streams to reset the mind, recalibrate the heart, and refresh the spirit. With the chaotic year that was 2021 now behind me, momentarily losing one’s self within the ramble of woods and ravines feels like closing the door on the world behind me and opening another on what’s to come.
The path, as always, is winding. However, today, it seems noticeably different, shockingly similar to when I last hiked along this trail. This Winter has been warm. Autumn leaves still lay scattered on the forest floor.
Ferns and the green leaves of mountain plants still abound.
The water that normally by now would be frozen still cascades and pools as it runs down the carved cut it created over centuries.
Memories of trying to climb this mountain last year return. Memories of ice and snow, of Winter’s lock in frigid torpor. These running headlong against what I see today, which is a forest that is very much awake, very much alive in a warmer time.
As I climb higher, I relish the rare instance I find myself in. While I fear that this weather is somehow linked to the greater warming pattern that our future holds, I cannot help but to find myself enjoying the sight of spiny moss poking up through the rocks…
… of bright yellow mushrooms in bloom…
…of buff and woody shelf fungus climbing up a tree. Simple pleasures found in times of warning. These are for certain demarcators of things to come.
More twists in the trail, more steps up the steep hill, and I find myself back beside my usual waterfall stop. The same rocks and fallen trees welcome me as if it were months ago, still full of energy and color and water surging forth from the recent Winter rains. I sit down upon the wet rocks and spread out a cloth kept in my rucksack. Upon this, I sit a teapot and cup. The sound of water rushing off the rocks. The sound of water pouring from my thermos into the open pot over rolled leaves of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá. The last of this tea for the first of this year.
Pot closed, I wait and wonder what the year will bring, what the tea will taste like, and what the warm weather will set forth for years to come. The sound of the waterfalls rushing beside me. The occasional chatter of birds and backpackers in the distance. Silence before I pour out the pot into a single red and white cup, pouring out as much as the tiny open vessel can contain.
Golden hues from the tea leaves left against the enameled interior of the 宜興 Yíxìng cup.
Gold and the reflection of the trees above it.
The bare cold trees that stretch skyward against the dull grey expanse. Their branches skeletal against the sky.
Below, copper-colored leaves collect in wetted piles and flat, matted carpets across the forest floor.
Between these two worlds, the river cascading…
…the rock which I sit upon…
…the tiny tea set which is keeping me warm.
With each successive pouring of the pot the tea grows darker, the flavors more complex, shifting from sweet butterscotch to deep notes of incense wood.
Bitterness is there and so too is a lingering complexity that coats my tongue and throat.
In the ancient texts, they note the occurrence of 甘露 gānlù, an auspicious omen, the sweet dew that comes from nature, moisture that clings to leaves, that is said to be a medicine that is far above others to replenish the body and bring immortality.
In tea, it can describe the saliva that is produced on the back sides of the cheeks, that carries the flavor of the tea into the body, that continues to permeate long after the tea is gone (producing the sensation of 回甘 huígān).
My only hope is that this flavor lingers longer as I pack up my bag and head up the mountain, and that this may be a harbinger for a harmonious year to come.
The warm Winter weather makes the trek up the mountain gentler. No footsteps in the snow to mark the way. Instead, an uneven ripple of leaves that runs up the side of the hill points to where others have gone before me, guiding me to the top.
Fallen trees and the forest thins as I get closer to the mountain’s peak.
Toppled limbs and trunks with scarlet veins brought to life and luster in the moisture of the morning.
At summit, I see nothing. Just a blanket of fog across the town and wide river below. The sound of a train in the distance is muffled by the soft lumbering clouds. Thick mist and no vista to speak of.
I’m reminded of the tradition in many East Asian cultures, where upon the first of the new year, people climb mountains to watch the sunrise for the first time, to see its rays of golden glow peek and creep over the horizon. Wishes are made and offered up to the new day on the new year in the hopes that they will come true.
On this first of the year, in the obscurity of the fog and cold clouds, I wish to remain up this mountain a little longer, waiting for Winter’s chill to bite me. On this warm Winter day, I worry for our little planet, for the forces that we don’t yet know. I hope for a better year than the one that has now since passed, and for a better future not yet here.
Winter is here and the days grow colder, the shadows that are cast from the bare trees grow longer, daylight’s passage shorter. The festivities of the Western calendar seem to run headlong against the chaotic times we all seem to find ourselves in. The pandemic. The global climate crisis. War. Indifference. As the year draws closer to its close, to pause and sit and meditate on what we’ve just been through seems like a heavy task. And, yet, in these most difficult of times, it is when meditation seems most fitting.
It is December 21st, 2021. Today is the Winter Solstice. 冬至 Tōji in the old lunisolar calendar of Japan (Dōngzhì in Mandarin). On this day, I prepare the last kettle for the year that has now grown older and colder over these last few months. Since Autumn, I’ve transitioned from using the portable brazier to my improvised 置き炉 okiro made of an old New York apple crate. Its pine wooden walls are about the shape and size of the real thing, close enough for this tea practitioner to adopt it into his little world of tea in an act of 見立て mitate, whereas items not normally used in 茶の湯 chanoyu are incorporated and adapted for this purpose.
In the cold dark world of my tiny makeshift tea hut, I light a candle in the 床の間 tokonoma.
I carry the old iron kettle from my studio across the still frozen pathway that weaves from my home through the garden. I set the dark iron and patina’ed vessel down into the old wooden crate and within ten or so minutes small threads of steam begin to rise from the gap left open in the lid. Soon after comes the faint sound of the water boiling. 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama. Kettle for the year-end.
I wander back out into the cold world of the garden and then back into the warmth of my studio to gather more items for the 点前 temae. Since my makeshift tea hut has yet no 水屋 mizuya attached to it, I venture back and forth server al times before all tea objects are brought into the tea space. A tall, white glazed 水指 mizusashi made by a former tea teacher. A small eggplant-shaped 茶入 chaire enrobed in a 仕服 shifuku emblazoned with motif of pine sprig and chrysanthemum.
Other items come in last. A blush-colored 赤志野茶碗 akashino chawan, a 茶筅 chasen by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, a 茶杓 chashaku made of carved cedar. These, I place beside the tiny tea container. Finally, I trek once more from hut to studio and back, bringing with me an old 建水 kensui, a 蓋置 futaoki made of a piece of mottled bamboo, and 柄杓 hishaku.
In the dim light that illuminates the speckled and patterned plywood floor of my makeshift tea hut, items are arranged by their use. I place the futaoki beside the old apple crate. Atop this, I set the cup of the hishaku. The kensui is moved upward towards the edge of my left knee.
The chawan and its accompanying wares upon and within it are set at an angle beside the mitate okiro. The chaire in its pine sprig and chrysanthemum brocaded coat are set before this.
In a 炉点前 ro temae, during the season of the sunken hearth, objects are placed at forty five degree angles against the right angle positions of the open 炉口 roguchi or okiro and accompanying mizusashi. This all in accordance with the angle in which the host sits, which, during the dark and cold days of Winter, is made more informal and adjusted to feel as if closer to the guests. Even in my solitary practice, I take this stance, angling myself so that the small space between the upper left corner of the okiro and the uppermost border of my knees becomes the area in which tea will be made. While it may initially feel more limited, the movements of the host become more open as the Winter position allows for the arc of the right hand to move from one’s far left to draw water from the mizusashi to its far right to offer a bowl of tea to the invited guest. In this, there remains a naturalness to it all, with a heightened sense of down-to-earth informality that embodies the markedly more rustic and 詫び wabi aesthetic found in Winter.
The meditation of the tea practice continues well before its beginning and well after its end. The pause that comes before one sets forth to make tea is preceded by a myriad of actions to enable this moment to happen. Steps in the path between this moment and the many moments that led to it. I feel this most of all during the silence that exists once I place the chaire before the chawan and before I reach down with both hands to untie the cord that binds it within its shifuku pouch.
The motion is simple and direct. Both palms remain flattened, fingers pointed downward as they gather first around the base of the brocaded bag and then upward towards the purple braided cord. One finger holds onto one loop of the tie, the other loosens the other and pulls.
The 緒 o is drawn towards the body and the knot opens.
The tiny tea container and pouch are turned a quarter turn and each side of the gathered fabric is pulled flat. The tiny object and its covering are then placed in the left palm and each side of the cloth is peeled away with the heal of the right hand.
The chaire is then lifted out of the pouch and placed before the chawan.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
In preparing a bowl of tea, each step flows into the next. In a similar fashion, Winter emerges each day. At no time does one day seem more different than the next. The change over time is gradual until one suddenly realizes the truth of what it means to be cold, to see ice, to know what snow feels like and how it sounds as is falls. In the tearoom, the stillness is broke too by action, silence broken by the sound of the kettle coming to a boil, of the gentle setting down of wares, of the gliding of cloth over objects as they are cleansed.
The folding of the 袱紗 fukusa comes first with an inhalation and the sensation of cold air filling my chest. The left hand grips the silken cloth and pulls it from the side pocket of my Winter jacket. Pinched with the thumb and index finger of my right hand, I open it along one of its folded corners as if lifting a page from a book. I lift it upward and the cloth unfurls. with my left hand, I fold the cloth in midair into a series of triangular corrugations and then over onto itself. It is folded and then folded once again, moving from the right hand to the left and then back again.
With the left hand, the chaire is brought upward and cloth and tea container meet. The chaire is turned against the smooth silk fabric of the fukusa, first cleansing the sides. The fukusa is then pinched and the corners are used to lightly cleanse the lid of the tea container. The lid is then lifted momentarily to inspect that the chaire contains tea, and the chaire is closed once again.
Once the tea container is placed down, now between mizusashi and okiro, my gaze shifts to the teabowl with its collected wares. First the fukusa is refolded and the chashaku is cleansed. The silk cloth runs over the thin handle and carved top of the cedar scoop several times. It is then placed atop the white bone cover of the chaire, beside the nodule that is unique to the 瓶子づくの牙蓋 heishi-zuku no gebuta style lid, the shape of which is reminiscent of ancient jars used to hold offertory 酒 sake in 神道 Shintō shrines. The angle in which it is set points away from me towards the crack in the door that I entered, towards a small shaft of light that tells me that morning’s time continues to pass.
I breathe again and lift the chasen out from the deep-set teabowl and place it beside the resting chaire and chashaku. The line that the whisk and tea container creates connects the space between the place of the cold water container and the position of the okiro, the heat of the hearth, and the element of water boiling within the void of the iron kettle. Between this small space is contained all that is needed to make a bowl of tea. Heat and cold. Fire and water. Metal and wood. Leaf and clay. Space and the air between.
The bowl is moved forward, the 茶巾 chakin is pulled from its interior, refolded, and placed momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi.
I breathe and, upon the exhalation, I reach for the long thin handle of the hishaku that has been resting parallel to my right thigh. I shift the water scoop from right hand to left. With my right hand, I return to lift the chakin, pinched between thumb and the first two fingers. The angle of my arms opens up as keep the hishaku stationary, pointed cup facing upward, in line with my left thigh, while I move my right arm to reach to uncover the boiling kettle. I use the chakin, pinched between my forefingers and thumb, to grasp the hollow copper knob of the kettle’s lid. The thin, folded linen cloth protects my hand as I tilt and lift the circular metal top from the boiling 茶釜 chagama.
Steam rises wildly from the kettle as I remove the lid and place it atop the cut bamboo futaoki. I let go of the hollow bronze finial of the lid and rest the chakin beside it. The shadows these resting objects cast are dark and muted in the low light that filters through the sole window of my makeshift tea hut.
I transfer hishaku from left to right hand and dip its bamboo cup into the hot and boiling water of the kama. The stippled and curved shape of the ladle disappears in the dark world of the kettle’s interior, reappearing filled with bright clear water.
For a moment I naturally pause, the cup of the hishaku hovering above the open mouth of the chawan.
A moment more and, with the turn of my arm, the water cascades into the empty teabowl.
I set hishaku down upon the open kettle, its cup turned downward, the flat side of the bamboo handle rests against both the rim of the kettle’s mouth and the pine wooden edge of the okiro.
I return my gaze to the teabowl. Clear, clean, steaming water glistening within its concave interior. What little light of the morning enters and curves against the edge of the water that meets the inside surface of the bowl. Colors and cracks and crazed glazes come forth from what were once dull features. The heat and the liveliness of the boiled water reanimates the body of this small, handheld tea vessel that hasn’t yet been used since last when Winter’s words were spoken, during the final moments of the cold months, before Spring’s arrival, as the days grew incrementally lighter. Today, on the shortest day of the year, the darkest of days, seeing this bowl again is like being visited by an old friend. The passage of time, of the almost twenty years now since I first made tea with this bowl. The decades seem as if they are momentarily forgotten as I peer down at the bowl, the sparkling light through the water, remembering when we were both much younger than we are now.
I lift and dip the bamboo chasen into the warm water held within the chawan. The carved and sharpened tines fade into the shadows and the steam.
Pressing and whisking and placing the chasen back beside the chaire. Lifting and turning and warming the round teabowl in my hands before I pour its contents out into the until now empty kensui. I catch the last drop of hot water with the folded chakin and begin to use this simple moistened cloth to cleans both rim and interior of bowl.
Surfaces where lips will touch, where tea will be made. These are wiped and made clean, both for the eyes and for the mind. As I cleanse the bowl, it remains firm in my hands. Whereas other schools may tilt the bowl, my school holds it level, steady, keeping it upright as a gesture of respect and reverence to the object. The bowl is set down in a similar manner, leaving the chakin pressed against its inner edge.
The moistened cloth is then plucked up by the right hand, placed into the left, and then refolded to be set down again atop the kettle’s lid.
For a brief moment, everything in the tearoom is still, save for the rolling water of the boiling kettle. The shadows of the morning light rest on each object, collecting in dark pools.
The deep, narrow concave of the round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shaped teabowl) seems especially dark in the low light of the Winter solstice. A faint layer of steam still rising off of its red and umber glazed skin.
Minute amounts of still warm water collected in the tiny fissures that mark where heat caused expansion in the kiln sparkle like snow and ice.
I set forth to begin to make tea, a hearty bowl of koicha to fortify my spirit and body on a cold day. I grip the thin handle of the chashaku between my thumb and fingers of my right hand and bring it towards my body within the span of one exhalation and inhalation. One out breath and I reach for the chaire with my left hand. One in breath and I bring the tiny ceramic jar towards me.
The lid is removed with the right hand and is placed beside the teabowl.
The chaire is brought down to the level of the chawan’s rim and the chashaku is dipped into the dark open void of the tea container, the carved cedar scoop disappears in the shadows cast by the low light of the early morning.
Three heaps of powdered tea are placed into the center of the bowl and the chashaku is placed at an angle along the edge of the iron basin-shaped chawan.
The chaire is held in both hands and is tilted and turned slowly over the teabowl, sending a thin, bright green cascade of 抹茶 matcha downward, piling into an ever-growing mound of tea at the center of the chawan. Once fully emptied, the chaire is turned upward again, the lid placed back upon it, and the small ceramic tea jar is set back beside the chasen.
I lift the chashaku once more, and with its rounded tip, carve the sigil of my school into the small hill of powdered tea.
With chaire, scoop, and bowl at rest, I draw a scoop of hot water from the boiling kettle. Carefully, I pour a small measure of the water down upon the mound of green tea, focusing my awareness on how much water I am adding and what initial effect it will have on the matcha. I pour the remaining water in the hishaku’s cup to the kettle.
I return the bamboo ladle back to the kettle and lift the chasen with my right hand. With my left hand forming a half moon shape, I grip the side of the teabowl to steady it against the wooden floor of my makeshift tea hut. With my right hand, I bring the chasen downward into the hollow of the chawan, pressing down into the wetted mound of matcha and begin to slowly and methodically whisk the concoction into a thick, even paste.
As I stare down into the dark world that exists within the teabowl, I feel as if it is a mirror to the world which I currently occupy. Dark yet warm and full of activity, creation, transformation. To successfully produce a bowl of 濃茶 koicha requires a keen understanding of uncertainty and meeting a multitude of challenges. In the cold of Winter, the kettle requires a higher heat. In the dark of the year’s shortest day, one cannot see clearly into the depths of the teabowl and, therefore, must feel one’s way through the action, as water and tea combine into one fluid matter.
At this point, all one has is the senses. The feeling of the resistance of the tea as it slowly melds and blends. The intense aroma of matcha as it lifts upwards into the cold air of the tea space. The sound of the whisk as it slowly pushes through the thick tea liquid.
I move the handle of the chasen from right hand to left, keeping the tines inside of the teabowl. With right hand, I lift and dip the ladle into the hot boiling water of the kettle, drawing from it another draught. Carefully, calmly, I inhale as I bring the hishaku’s cup down towards the bowl. I exhale and let a minute amount of hot water pass from ladle’s bamboo cup through the tea-covered tines of the chasen whisk to the dark interior of the teabowl.
指湯 sashi-yu. Adding more hot water so one can adjust the thickness of the tea. If this is done correctly, it means that the koicha’s consistency will be perfect. Too much water and it becomes too thin. Not enough and the reason won’t flow down the tall, narrow walls of this particular teabowl. In this practice, experience leads to balance.
I return the remaining water in the ladle’s cup back to the kettle and set the hishaku back upon the kama and okiro. Breathing inward, I return my focus to whisking tea. Breathing outward, I press the whisk back and forth, slowly, attentively, until the mixture is even, the surface of the liquid flat, glossy, mirror-like akin to that of lacquer.
I lift the whisk upward above the bowl and turn it right-side-up in mid-air. A thick coating of koicha still clings to the cut bamboo tines of the chasen.
I set the whisk back down beside the chaire, beside the carved cedar scoop.
For a moment I sit once more, pausing to hear the sound of the kettle, to the breeze pushing through the pine trees that tower over this simple garden shed, to the large iron bell that hangs beneath the eaves of my home on the other side of the curving stone path.
The bustling world outside the quiet of the tea hut. The chaos and clammed as people rush from this place and that in preparations for the holidays and for the year’s end. The craziness of the current state of the world and the death that hangs heavy in the air. The fear, the sadness, the longing and grief.
To think this is kept at bay by these thin walls of mine, to fool one’s self into thinking that the crack in the door that lets in the light of the early morning won’t also let these energies pour forth into here as well. To resist the crashing waves only leads to one’s collapse. To dive deep into the swirling and turbulent times may prove to be a wiser choice.
In the dim light of my garden shed, the koicha I’ve made looks especially dark. As I lift the bowl to turn it and place it in the guest position, I notice how the light wraps around its round, globe-like shape. How the shadows it casts stretch and crawl across the chaotic patterns upon the plywood floor. How the edges of these shadows fade into light so that the boundary between light and darkness is not defined but permeable, nebulous.
As I stand up and reposition myself to accept the bowl of tea as a guest, I’m given a new perspective of the space I’ve been sitting in. From this vantage point the light is brighter, catching in the wisps and plumes of steam that rise from the kettle’s open mouth. I see the shaded outlines of bare tree branches, of roof tops in the distance, of ice crystals that form at the edges around the sole window pane. I see the dark lustrous emerald green of the warm, flat, lacquer-like surface of tea that I’ve produced for myself as host enjoy by myself as guest.
The small world of the empty tea room feels both constrained and expansive. The space between where I once sat and where I sit now seems a world away, yet barely an arm’s length.
The alcove in the corner, with its lone burning candle light shimmers and glows, flickering with the wind that creeps between the boards, between the joined edges of walls.
I lift the bowl of tea and drink from it whole heartedly. The liquid is thick, warm, awakening. The bitter and bittersweet of koicha is arresting. A shock to the system. All previously drowsiness abated. The instantaneous quality of the moment made incredibly clear.
I tilt the chawan back again and drink twice more from it, the remainder of the tea is reduced to a thick coating upon the inside of the bowl. I set it down once more before me to appreciate its shape, its dried persimmon-like color, the upward path of the residual koicha along its inner walls.
I return the bowl back to the host’s position and return myself to the position of the host. Before I opt to cleanse the bowl, to close-up my day’s tea practice, and to close-up the small tea hut to retreat once more into the warm interior of my studio space, I decide to use the remaining tea left in the chawan to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
To do this, I draw cool water first from the mizusashi and blend it with the hot water of the kama. Next, I draw water from the now cooler kettle and pour half-a-ladle’s-worth into the bowl.
I whisk the tea in a vigorous manner, pulling it from the inner walls of the teabowl and whipping it into a bright, light foam.
I pause for a moment more as I enjoy the sight of this impromptu bowl of tea. Observing how the light of the day dances on the surface made of tiny bubbles. It serves as a reminder that even in these dark days there is still light, however minute they may be. It is found clinging to the imperfect, rough surfaces of everyday life, of practice, of the choices we make, as we take time to sit and be silent with ourselves away from the clamoring masses and social requirements. The light of meditation found in the dark corner of an old, run-down garden shed at the edge of a small forest.
I lift and turn the bowl and silently thank the madness of the world that pushed me to take time to be alone. I tilt and drink up the last bowl of tea made from the waters of the last kettle of the year’s end. It is sweet, bright, sparkling with a gentle flavor that lingers.
As I place the bow in my hands to inspect it, I gaze upon the small collection of foam against its dimpled surface. The depth of darkness of this deep-set bowl. Light and the residue of tea just eking-out a foothold.
With cool water I cleanse the bowl finally. I place the chakin back within its hollow form.
I set the chasen against the fold of the linen cloth, the thin bamboo tines silhouetted against its pale white woven surface.
I cleanse the chashaku once more with the folded silk of the fukusa and place it down upon the rounded rim of the teabowl.
I return chawan and chaire before the mizusashi. Cool water is placed once more into the steaming center of the boiling pot. The lid placed once again on top. The hiss and tumble of water settles momentarily to a quiet stop.
In the stillness that exists as the water cools and the light shifts, I put objects at rest.
The hishaku is placed atop the kensui and the bamboo lid rest placed below it.
Items once used to prepare tea are then arranged once more to be viewed and appreciated in a simple 拝見 haiken.
An old 香盆 kōban incense tray becomes an open field upon which objects are placed upon. First the carved lid of the chaire is set on its side, waiting as its corresponding other half is cleansed.
When they finally meet again and are placed upon the tray they appear jewel-like in the low glow of the morning light.
Next, the shifuku is lifted from its resting place beside the mizusashi and is formed in the hand to appear full, voluminous. It is placed down beside the chaire it had first enrobed, now both empty of their hallowed contents.
Finally, the carved chashaku scoop is set between both brocaded pouch and small tea jar.
These, the tools that came into contact with the tea.
Offered up to the guest to enjoy once more before they are, like a memory, packed away.
Warm light cast against cooling objects. Dark pools of shadows collecting in corners. Set within the alcove there is a single candle light. No flower for this gathering. Just the flicker of a flame and the cold iron rings of the kettle’s 鐶 kan set on old weathered Beacon brick. Dark days for this moment in time, followed by the deepening of Winter’s cold. This, the last kettle for the old year. What potential to come from its boiling and bubbling core? What will come from the chaos with its dark interior? Perhaps it will engender this practice of mine as I sit in these shadows now.
Today, on this bright December day, the cold that had locked me indoors seems to have warmed, if only momentarily, enough to bring me outside. As the light of the day passes swiftly during these Winter months, I use time outside to close-up my garden for the season, covering the raised beds with tarpaulin, and heaping leaves over my compost mounds to help keep the heat of their decomposition in as the days grow colder.
The sweet scent of the desiccating leaves is wonderful. The rich aroma of dark piled earth beneath them complex, a swirl of vegetation and minerals, roots and mud, rocks and clay. The heat of the turned compost heap lifts in steam like tiny clouds drifting off a mountain’s top in the morning.
I tap off my boots and leave them by the door to my studio. Before I set down to return to my daily work, to my email replies, spreadsheets and presentations, I pour cold spring water into my stainless steel kettle which I’ve had for almost twenty years now.
The click of the polished metal switch. The red glow of electric light that signals “ON”. The hum of energy coupled by the growing noise of water coming to a boil. The rattle of the flapping metal lid.
As water boils, I assemble a tea setting for one. A hand-carved wooden tray from Korea. A 茶船 chá chuán made of 朱泥 zhūní clay. A large 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (sesame-colored fortified clay Yíxìng teapot) shaped like a compressed meditation pillow.
The handle atop its lid carved to look like an arch reminiscent of a bridge, reminding me that this pot was gifted to me by a former tea teacher of mine, his knowledge of tea crossing over to me.
I bring out a cup I’ve been favoring ever since Winter arrived. An 鬼萩 Ono-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) cup by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.
Its foot, rough and unctuous in the hand, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner. This I set atop a burl-wood cup rest.
From the kettle, I pour forth a draught of hot water into the clay teapot. The sparkle of water in the late-day sun reflects the ceiling of my studio and my face as I peer down into the wide opening of the warming vessel.
I pour this water into the white glazed tea cup and return the pot to the empty tea boat.
With the bamboo scoop, I arrange a handful of old wild leaves I’d sourced years ago when on a trip up to 南糯山 Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà (ᩈᩥ᩠ᨷᩈ᩠ᩋᨦᨻᩢ᩠ᨶᨶᩣ/西双版纳州).
What were once bright, silvery green leaves of 毛茶 máochá have, over the course of nine years, transformed into darker, more russet curls akin to the fallen leaves I had just been piling against the edge of my garden. Time and the heat of the kettle will only tell how these leaves have fared over the many years they’ve been packed away.
I lift the scoop and tilt it down, letting the twisted leaves fall into the empty and wetted pot. The quiet aroma of this now-aged tea is faint, warm, still grass-like, yet a shadow of its former self.
Water from the kettle poured downward upon these leaves and they tumble and twirl in tiny vortices until they settle on top of themselves, already beginning to show signs of their expansion.
The lid closed, the leaves continue their process of steeping and expelling their flavor, darkening the color of the brewed liqueur in their quiet ecstasy.
As the tea steeps, I pour out the warm water from the waiting cup. As I pause once more, I grip the pot, readying my hand to lift it and pour the first of many cup’s worth of liquid from it.
I place my index finger atop the tiny carved clay bridge that spans the softly beveled lid.
I pinch the uppermost portion of the teapot’s handle between middle finger and thumb. As I lift the pot from the red clay chá chuán, the tiny vessel feels balanced in the hand. Pouring out the brewed tea liqueur feels as natural as holding the pot level.
As tea enters the empty tea cup, the true color of this aged tea is revealed. A bright golden hue. Almost the color the tea would have produced when it was still young. However, as I pause and place the pot back into the tea boat, I begin to sense the fragrance of the tea. Gone are the wild grassy notes of a young 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr. Instead, I detect the bittersweet aroma of old, wetted leaves, of clean river stones, of rich, loamy soil.
I lift the cup to my lips and breathe in this aroma one last time before I sip from uneven edge of the thick-glazed teacup. The flavor upon my palate is soft and sweet. Much like the tea’s aroma, its liqueur is complex, earthy, active. Leaves picked in Spring of almost a decade ago still hold their energy. Their large, rumpled surfaces still taste of their natural sugars, their vegetal bodies, their woody branches that they sprung from, the mountain soil from which they were grown.
I am reminded of the bumpy bus ride from 景洪 Jǐnghóng up to the roadside stop to meet tea master Li Shu Lin and his wife Cai. I am reminded of that trek up to their family’s tea farm where we picked leaves and ate rice and chicken and mountain vegetables in the smoke of their ancestral home to the sound of their family singing songs in their local dialect.
Sweet and bittersweet is the tea and these memories. Their home burned down this past year. This tea is a fading hold-out, disappearing more and more I sit down and take moments like this to reminisce and drink a small handful of my woefully small collection I’ve kept stowed away. Still smoky like a young shēngpǔ’ěr but more clear and settled like an older one. Caught somewhere in between. Will it last to be older than this memory I hold onto now? Will it darken to the point that it feels and tastes and smells like the old rich earth that I dug my fingers into as I clamored and climbed up those hills to see the ancient tea trees Master Li kept hidden on his family’s mountainside?
Light from the day stretches across my studio floor and I find my mind buzzing and drunk from the tea I’ve been sipping now for an hour. The kettle rattles some more and I pour another drought from its curved and molded mouth into the clay teapot.
The tea’s color is darker now, like a deep brandy. The leaves, now stretched and unfurled, do not flag in their flavor, but, instead, keep giving, like the memories and knowledge I gained from that first trip I took to visit tea farms in China.
As this year comes closer to its close, once new tea seems all the more older. I, for some reason, do too. 2021, a year that seems to have come and gone, passes like a dangerous beast we have all been hiding from. We, huddled close to the hearth, try to wait it out until it has gone. Clutching close to this moment, to the sweet flavors that this tea reminds me of, the calm this pause brought me now. Will it fade? Or will it grow and become more beautiful and profound, much like these once new, now old, tea leaves have done?
Dear Beloved Blog Readers,
If you would like to help fund the recovery of tea master Li Shu Lin’s tea production in Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed his family’s home, tea producing facility, and over twenty years-worth of stored and aged tea, please visit the currently ongoing fundraiser set up by So Han Fan of West China Tea. Your support helps to rebuild the home and tea production of Li Shu Lin and his wife and fellow tea master Cai. Anything and everything helps!
Grey slate skies. Birds huddled in brambles and twisted thickets.
Ocher and orange leaves tumbled dead between stones in the path.
Cold wind whips against the thorn vines.
Old green moss caught against the worn walls of my garden shed.
The world creeps closer to its Winter torpor, slowing down until it barely moves. The mountains along the skyline are already dark from the shadows cast by Winter’s sun, which settles shallow against the horizon in this more northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.
Settled in my studio in the early afternoon, I look out upon this vista, a pallid visage of 大雪 Dàxuě (Major Snow), a period that extends from approximately December 7th to December 11th in the traditional lunisolar calendar. Each day, expecting snow. Each day, the birds scavenge hungrily at any scant seed or borrowed insect, searching to eek out a meager existence, to make their way through the coming cold that the depths of Winter will bring. I see this in their speed as they move, against the lumbering backdrop of Winter.
I, in my studio, remain in a seated meditation, made up of only necessary motions, enough to make tea. The kettle I fill with cold water and set within the recess of an old wood and copper brazier.
The long plank of weathered wood I push beside the window to my garden, positioned to appreciate the drab scenery outside.
An old and seasoned 茶船 chá chuán. A cloth. A coin.
Take off my ring and place it beside a bamboo scoop.
Set down a pear-shaped teapot to brew tea within.
A 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white plate to catch excess liquid upon.
Three 宜興 Yíxìng and white porcelain 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi to enjoy the color, aroma, and flavor of tea from. Three cups. Enough to capture the qualities of tea. Three cups, each enough to contain the universe in its entirety.
The hiss and bubbling of the cast iron kettle comes just as a long stick of incense burns away. The steam rises from the kettle’s spout as a single, twisting column up to the ceiling, dissipating in the cold air of my studio cellar. I lift the lid off from the pear-shaped pot and set it down atop the old coin from two centuries ago.
Into the empty hollow I pour boiled water, heating the air, the clay, the body of the teapot.
On goes the lid. Out goes the water into the three small cups. The clear, clean light of early afternoon catches in the convex and concave of water and cup. The surface tension of the liquid pressing upwards, distorting the small world it captured within it.
As the cups warm and wait, I pull leaves from an old tea tin and place them within the upturned cut bamboo scoop.
Large, dark, twisting leaves of a now-aged 武夷山巖茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá that I left to settle as once they were too strong in taste for casual enjoyment. Now, since eight years passed, I’ll taste them to see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve mellowed, how little they’ve changed.
Even knowing what tea they are escapes me now. The old tin is marked 「大紅袍 」 “Dàhóng páo”, but I wonder if this was just a marketing ploy. Still, the tea smells sweet, the dried leaves still exude a scent of warming spice and of aged citrus peel and smoked salted plum.
The cool light of Winter’s sun makes these leaves look blue and inky. 烏龍 wūlóng seems most fitting in this part of the day and time of year.
烏 wū, the dark blue-black of a crow’s coat.
龍 lóng, the long, twisting body of a dragon as it climbs out of a thermal vent, billows from a mountain’s pass, or undulates beneath the ocean’s wake or river’s tidal bore.
I lift the scoop and in one motion place tea into open pot. Black leaves disappear into black shadows.
Hot water is poured and fills the once empty vessel. Foam and oils rise and collect against the opening’s edge and settle before I rest the lid back down upon them.
Shrouded in the darkness of the covered pot, the leaves perform their dance, uncurling and untwisting from the many years they’ve been locked motionless by time, by the heat of the charcoal heap, by the choices made by the tea master to produce this type of tea, just a hike’s trip down from the mountain side they were picked and grown.
Only seconds pass, enough to empty the little cups of their clear warm water, and then they’re filled with tea.
One, after the next, receiving a portion from the pot.
Around and ‘round, until each cup is brimming and even in color and taste.
The pot is returned atop the center of the chá chuán. The lid is lifted off and placed, again, upon the old silver coin. The aroma of tea, with notes of incense wood and warming spice rises, whether from cups or pot or both.
The hiss of the kettle beside me. The quiet chatter of birds outside. The low din of an airplane’s roar overhead against the cold, slate grey Winter’s sky. Colors caught in the distance. Sparse leaves still clinging to their single tree branches. Their brethren piled below. Softer blues and purples and browns along the mountain’s edge. The flat green of grass now since met the first of Winter’s snow.
I sit and admire the cold quiet of Winter from the warmer climes of my studio hall. Peering down to enjoy the sight of three tea cups, their surfaces bulging with the abundance of tea they hold. Dark red is the color they contain. Rich and wonderful. The presence of oxidation, the mark of an even and heavier roast, of catechins and polyphenols, of time and the pause I took while the tea was steeping.
I take my time with the first of three cups. Sipping slowly, reading the flavors, colors, and aromas as if they were a good book, a short story that develops quickly but leaves you ponderous as to how it will end. The first and second sip are sharp and full. Spices and aromatic incense woods are there, but so too are the more subtle and sweet notes of aged orange peel, reminiscent of the kind once gifted to me by the mother of a tea merchant I once worked for. She’d place a slice within her pot of 普洱 pǔ’ěr she had imported from China by way of Hong Kong and it would soften the bit the tea had acquired from the heat and the dank moisture of the humid harbor city it had aged in.
then, finally, three.
Each cup a part of the tasting process that is represented in the character 品 pǐn. Sipped and savored until empty again. Empty and ready to be filled with a second and third and fourth steeping of tea. Each an empty canvass upon which the tawny colors of this “Big Red Robe” will be splashed upon. An empty vessel where I can fill my mind with all manner of fleeting visions and fading sensations.
The day grows on and the sunlight grows dimmer. Even at 4pm, the light of the day is as dark as evening was in Autumn. The sun pushes its amber-hued light through the trees, through the twisted branches of an old plum that grows beside my studio door.
Much like the light of day, the tea continues and deepens in its color. Long past its seventh steeping, its liqueur remains dark. The flavors have long since transformed, from spicy and complex to warm and woody, with tones of the charcoal that once dominated its profile years ago when it was first purchased in a tea market in China. Even as the flavor wanes, it still exhibits the qualities of a fine yánchá.
After one final sip before I prepare another steeping, of which number I’ve now since lost count, I breathe out and enjoy the crisp, clean, mineral flavor that continues to linger. The characteristic 巖韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”) of the tea is still here. So, too, are the other classic five distinctive qualities found in all great yánchá of Wǔyíshān.
活 huó, which exudes the liveliness and active flavors that still play upon my palate. 甘 gān, the sweetness of smoked and dried plums that lingers in the back of my throat and space beside the base of my tongue. 清 qīng, found in the clarity of the tea’s liqueur and taste. 香 xiāng, still present in the residual aromatic fragrance that still continues well past the tenth brew. And, finally, 巖骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones” of the tea, as it still has substance and the heartiness akin to eating meat.
For a moment more, I sit, and let the flavors fade. One last draught of hot water is poured out from my kettle. One last chance to taste that which will come forth from these leaves.
I pause for a while and watch the steam rise and dissipate from the open mouth of the teapot. The dull, dim light of late afternoon shining across the flat surface of water.
Lid placed atop the pear-shaped pot, my focus shifts to admire the objects one more time, now caught in the cool light of a Winter’s day.
The gold of my ring still warm.
The grains of the bamboo still soft.
The wide expanse of the old wooden plank I use for a tea table wave-like and wondering. A field upon which the mind can get lost within its many swirls and gentle curves.
Even in the dwindling dusk, the old silver coin sparkles, light reflecting against its worn edges and the condensation left behind by the teapot lid that once rest upon its face.
I lift the teapot once more and pour its contents out, again, between the three small cup. The tea is still there, still giving, not waning like the light of the day; its color dark, instead, like the coming night.
In the quiet of this time I sit in silence. I observe stillness that exists between night and day, as one world fades into another. I look down to enjoy the sight of the empty teapot, its lid resting at an angle atop the open mouth of the cooling clay vessel. This, too, is caught in a moment between action and inaction. In a tenuous stillness of doing and not doing.
Not yet emptied of its tea leaves, not yet cleaned. Not yet boxed up, not yet put away. Not yet forgotten, not yet remembered. Not yet longed for, and not yet brought back for enjoyment. It, like a memory, is caught in a liminal space.
As the light of the sun disappears over the hills beyond my home, I peer from my window up towards the now deep blue sky. A half moon. On its way to fullness. Bright against the bleakness of a season that has yet to fully form. Half way towards realization. All it will take is time.
A hike up a mountain in the morning. Parting fog exposes the forest floor.
A path covered in gold and amber leaves.
Rocks and trees, mushrooms and things of all manner of sorts.
A large stone beside a waterfall becomes a platform to sit upon…
…a table enough for a pot of tea and cup to reside.
Rest the mind for a while and brew some roasted tea.
Hot water from an old thermos pours and brings out flavors locked inside.
Floral notes, incense notes, aroma of vanilla and cacao blend and meld with the scent of desiccating leaves, earth and wet rocks.
Colors deepen as time progresses.
A single pot and a single cup…
…results in three stages of one steep.
Opening leaves unfurl and uncurl like flags in a soft breeze.
Slowly, over time, like the season.
Softly at first.
Then more pronounced.
The mind sees bitterness, spiciness, color and form.
Loudness, quietness, voidness and full.
Trapped and lost, wandering through the woods of sensation.
Groping in the darkness of these twisted timber maples and oaks and pines.
Down the small rivulet streams the marks of death from the year and from the season, floating downward towards the tidal bore, downward towards the ocean’s end, merging with the everything expansiveness…
…to become rain and dew and life, blood and tears and viscera in the body, cellular walls and components of rare earth metals that are placed inside cellular phones.
Up in the mountains beside the stream none of this and all of this are packed inside my traveler’s pouch, packed tightly inside this tiny teapot.
Steeped with memories. Steeped with time.
Steeped with the fondness of an Autumn’s morning, the sound of birds reverberating through the forest and the absence of combustion engine clamor against the gentle din of the water rolling off of rocks down the ravine I’ve been climbing up.
Too much time has been put between the last time and now since I trekked up this steep hill and away from the world that occupies my mind.
“Why did I not make this time before?” becomes the cane which I whip myself with.
But, beside this water’s edge I let go of the rod and pick up the more refined tools of self-exploration.
A hand-hewn pot filled with hand-hewn leaves. The textures of a world the earth provides. Kiln-fired clay. Basket-roasted oolong. A color caught in liquid mirrored in the color caught in Autumn’s leaves.
Deepening the breath once more before I pack these items up. Back into my book bag satchel.
Back down the mountain to where people roam.
Back down into my body as I place one foot before the next over stones covered in gold leaves and spreading moss.
Back down to where I can recollect these thoughts as memories, somehow changed by time and reflection and whatever happened in between this now and that now.
Even the taste of tea and the forest smell will have changed by then.
Turned into an object of sorts, far beyond their original bodies.
These, too, will eventually evaporate.
Like time. Like the seasons.
Back into the earth, to rot away and feed future worms, feed future trees, to regrow a forest somewhere off in the distance we cannot yet imagine.
Morning comes and soft light filters through the doors and windows of my studio. Books on the shelf smell of old paper. Last night’s incense still seems to linger in the air. Cold breeze. Dew on grass. The din of crickets and morning’s traffic.
Inside the studio, stillness. Sitting with me is a small collection of objects. Teapots drying on the black-lacquered surface of my desk. Five teapots once brewed five teas. One more pot and it would feel like the six persimmons in 牧谿 法常 Mùxī Fǎcháng’s (1210?–1269?) 六柿圖 liùshì tú.
Their clay bodies now cold in the space of my studio. No longer holding the heat they once contained. Their lids, all of different shapes and sizes, cocked at angles to allow for air to flow within the caverns of their empty hollows.
On some, the stain and patina of years of brewing tea. For some, several decades now mark their skins. Some dark, some light, each telling of their age and their use and their utility.
Shapes and forms abound, each pot more different than the next. One, the shape of a concubine’s breast.
Another’s lid the form of a cow’s nose.
While most are without decoration or adornment, one carries the vignette of a bat and bamboo.
Look closely and you’ll see it has a poem on its obverse side. In this raised clay, our mind tells stories and gives itself the chance to wander.
The lone glazed pot sits in contrast to the others, blazoned in purples and pinks and what other colors came forth during its firing. When I brew from this vessel I’m reminded of the artist who gave it to me, a gift from a life that now seems far removed.
I am reminded of the dark hole I climbed out from to escape that life. How my practice in tea and the support of friends helped point the way.
Skin like that of a pear. Skin like that of leather. Like an old river stone washed and polished yet still holding onto its innate texture.
Clay and stone and vitrified sand sandwiched and pressed deep into the bodies of each pot. Green and red and brown, orange and violet. Colors and shapes, grains and grit. Cold air on cold clay and dried spent tea leaves.
A bamboo scoop, each joint a day of growth, the moving of the sun, the return of the moon.
Each node the presence of a root that once held it firm into the ground. Now pulled from its source and sitting here with me, with these five drying teapots. Time.
This is what it always had been. A meditation on drying teapots. This, too, is part of the practice. When they have all dried up, when their pores have emptied, when they finally go back to containing nothing, then they can be of use again.
It’s the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month. In the old lunisolar calendar, this is Chrysanthemum Festival. Sitting in my studio, looking out across the garden, vines wrapped around the trellis, flowers of the bitter melon bursting against a dark green canvas, I think about the months that have passed since I’ve given myself time to write, to put thoughts down on page.
The cicada’s hum seems to now be giving way to the sound of field crickets, to the call of crows, to the geese and katydid. Gone is the heat that, as a tea person, I sought to abate with references to water, to coolness, to impossible ice. Soon, the decay of Autumn will be all around me. Winter’s withered repose soon there after.
To sit and ask “what happened?” or “how did I get here?” will not do. Questions of the past rarely help to give a clear picture of the present. Instead, as I sit, I find myself using the stillness as an opportunity to examine my current practice and reflect on this Summer as a great moment of change.
It began amidst a flurry of activity. I had become engaged to my partner earlier in the end of Winter-beginning of Spring, and found myself planning for a wedding in the time of an unpredictable pandemic. For what “free time” I was sporadically given, I used most of it to piece together the logistics and physical material that would eventually make up the wedding celebration. Like a massive 茶事 chaji, I threw myself into the act, ideating with my partner, collectively envisioning what a day built on intention and mindfulness would look like. In those brief in-between moments, I would make tea.
As the heat of Summer climbed, I sought momentary solace in my garden shed. With resources and time stretched thin, my hopes of transforming the meager structure into a full-fledged 茶室 chashitsu was put on hold. The result was a meditation on what life gave me. A weather-worn hut. Barely walls enough to keep the rain out, barely doors firm enough to keep a mouse or squirrel from wandering in. Spiders clinging to the rafters. A butterfly caught against the window pane, let free to soar skyward.
The hut became a refuge against the world outside. The path became grown-over. Slick with dew in the morning, the high humidity of the day left the stones wet until dusk.
Inside the shack, I made impromptu 点前 temae. 葉蓋点前 Habuta-temae became my regular favorite, using leaves from the local maple trees found around my property.
Hydrangea from my garden glistened in my makeshift 床の間 tokonoma.
Mulberries from the woods made for a readily available 和菓子 wagashi, their uneven leaves providing for a perfect surface to set them upon.
Old wares kept me company.
A shallow tea bowl from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) became my Summer bowl.
A 茶杓 chashaku fashioned from speckled bamboo became my wish for rain.
The light that gathered on the plywood floor of my teahouse was the first to fill the cup of my 柄杓 hishaku, well before hot or cool water did.
It was a world of light and a world of shadow. A realm to calm the mind, to cool the soul.
The practice that evolved over the Summer, from one tea session to the next, came in fits as starts. All the while, I felt my hands becoming steadier, my form more fluid. Subtle adjustments that had come from regular practice joined now with accepted muscle memory.
Water from kettle to 茶碗 chawan. Light flooding into water, illuminating the interior of the small, shallow bowl.
Tines of the 茶筅 chasen opened up. The practice expanded into regions of my life I had not anticipated.
The mere act of setting down the tea scoop lost its gravitas. In exchange came the ordinary.
Wiping of the tea bowl from when it was first wetted felt like polishing a mirror, in that I could see my reflection on the action.
Cool light against a warm ceramic surface. Woven textures. Rumpled edges. Old fabric, as old as my practice.
The steam that rose from the 茶釜 chagama and the freedom of being able to make tea outside of the home gave me a new sense of levity against the deadlines and time stamps that came with planning a wedding and building a life. Work felt like it was somewhere else, somewhere outside the four thin plywood walls of my tearoom. The regular roar of a far-off road a reminder of how busy everyone and everything can be. The hum and hiss of the kettle became a quiet reminder of the need to stop everything. To sit and practice.
Scooping tea from the wooden interior of an old 平棗 hira-natsume felt like Summer. Deep, soft, luscious tea powder placed into a crisp blue-green celadon bowl. The mark of my school’s sigil upon the bright green mound.
The delicate tap and bell-like sound that rang from the small shallow bowl.
The shadows that collected in the concave, in the pits and scratches, the ripples and edges fashioned and formed a thousand years ago.
The kiln of life shaping me now as I practiced tea in the heat of a Summer morning, in the scant spare time I gave myself, in the brief interludes between work and work after work.
The lifting of the large maple leaf off of the glass 水指 mizusashi.
Folding it and placing it into the dark void of the 建水 kensui.
Dipping the ladle into the depths of the cool water so as to bring it forth and let it mix and coalesce with the bubbling boiling water of the 釜 kama. Fierce forces merging with the gentle. Quiet and still with moving and churning. Sitting amongst these forces, the mind isn’t given the chance to discern which is “right” or “wrong”. No value to these elements as they conjoin. Instead, just a reverence for their place within a practice. Their importance to the moment. As important as the tea. As important as the wares. As important as the space they all occupy. As important as the persons who brought them into being.
Tea and water are brought together, first in a great wave, one upon the other.
Whisked and whipped into a single concoction, both combine, suspended one alongside the other.
The bowl is lifted and passed.
I, practicing alone, move to the space of the guest and delight in the flavor of wild fruit before enjoying the soft, bittersweet flavor of tea.
Light gathers upon the foamed 薄茶 usucha.
Sipped and savored and gone, the empty interior of the tea bowl feels vacant.
Warmth still radiated from its clay and glazed body. The scent of tea still lingered in the air. The afterglow of a moment still present.
Cleaned and objects put away, the practice in the shed did not end when it was over. The steady pace of work and life kept on and pushed me forward.
Tomatoes grow green on the vine, slowly turning red as they ripened.
Okra flowers blossomed and bloomed and bore their bright green and red pods.
Ground cherries formed little lanterns upon their hairy stems.
My partner and I wed, first over a bowl of tea, then before our friends and family. Like a beautiful storm, it came and passed, and scattered all who came to witness the moment back across the earth, back to their homes and back into memories. Now, savoring the flavor of the tea that was served in silver and shared between my love and I, it’s impossible to encapsulate the experience of this Summer in words alone.
There were sounds, sensations, scents. A great fragrance made of a myriad of qualities wafted through the terrible and terrific world and kept me buoyant throughout it all. Stress and pressure would sometimes rise and crescendo, but in moments like this, I’d walk across the garden and find time with myself alone.
Now as Summer is gone and Autumn is here, the clinging to desires, to goals, to wants and needs, seems to have mellowed. Where once I had wracked my mind to write and to perform the very best I could, to turn each moment with tea into poetry, each allotted time at work into productivity, I’ve now since let this give way to a settled practice.
I am reminded of sitting by a rushing stream; its movements fluid and sure. Water passes over the rocks and around the rocks. Rocks and trees and mountains get in the way of the water and yet a river forms between them. Letting life get in the way of practice does not hinder it but shapes it. Let life get in the way. Assuredly, your practice will form around it, with it, conjoining into one form, one concoction of the surrounding elements.
As Summer turns to Autumn, the earth cools again. The skies, once a bright azure, turn a buff grey. The pumpkin blossoms bloom.
The wild grape leaves grow weathered more and more each day.
Old carrot flowers dry beside fresh morning glories.
The path and the first fallen leaves.
As a final note: Thanks to Sam Bufalo LLC, @sambufalo for the photo of the outdoor tea gathering!