Iris by the River’s Edge. Carp Leaping Up a Waterfall.

With the beginning of May, the heat of Summer seems to be growing day by day. As the glories of Spring have come and gone, blossoms are replaced by the deep greens of the forest and the occasional burst of color as flowers bloom by the river’s edge. The soft murmur of a creek or stream blends with the wind pushing through the trees, bringing a sense of coolness to the mind, even when temperatures are on the rise.

In Japan, early May is marked with the events of Golden Week (黄金週間 Ōgon Shūkan), reaching its climax on the fifth, with 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no sekku, Iris festival. Also known as 重五 Chōgo (“Double Five”), 端午の節句 Tango no sekku (“Beginning of the Horse Month”), and こどもの日 Kodomo no Hi (“Children’s Day”), May 5th is packed with meaning, both in the profane world and in the nebulous world of nature and the supernatural.

Just as Summer begins to appear, people in ancient times would take measures to fortify themselves agains the heat, which also brought about plague, famine and the premature death of young children. In ancient China, sweet-flag (Acorus calamus), as well as mugwort, was hung under the waves of homes to purge evil spirits and avert fires. Similarly, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month is marked with the observation of 端午節 Duānwǔ jié, where it was believed that an offering of rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves to the river dragon would avert dangers that came with the arrival of the rainy season.

In Japan, the water iris (Iris ensata var. ensata) bloom during this period, which spring up like violet-colored arrow points. Their likeness to this article of martial spirit joins the often warrior-infused ethos that surrounds the precursor of Children’s Day, Boy’s Day. Imagery of arrows, samurai armor, and the refined warrior, thus often are abundant in Japan during this time.

As one’s eyes go from the river’s edge to the sky, fluttering multicolored carp-shaped banners can be seen, representing family members in a household. These, too, trace their origin to the dragons of ancient China, as it was believed that dragons originated from carp that swam up waterfalls. The notion of this determined fish to overcome great difficulties and become something greater, more noble than itself, is analogous to a child growing, studying, and cultivating the skills to become an adult, to beat all odds, to awaken to their true self.

As I sit for tea on this May 5th, I cannot help but to engage with this swirl of energies around me. Summer’s heat is finally here and I’ve begun to use the 風炉 furo to heat my 茶釜 chagama. So, too, have I begun to use lighter, wider teabowls. For today’s sitting in observance of Shōbu no sekku, I use a modest 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, which has subtle hues of grey and purple.

For a tea container, I employ a small antique lacquered 小棗 konatsume, upon which is the playful design of 壺 tsubo in a warm gold.

As the kettle comes to a soft, roiling boil, I cleanse the small natsume. After running the 袱紗 fukusa over its glossy surface, I lift the lid, revealing a mound of bright green tea powder.

Placing this to the side, I begin to remove the other items, one by one, to cleanse and prepare for making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

The 茶杓 chashaku, as straight as an iris, is cleansed and placed atop the natsume. The skin of the bamboo conveys a murky landscape, akin the mists and clouds that surround a waterfall as it pours and torrents through a canyon.

The 茶筅 chasen is lifted and set beside the natsume.

The 柄杓 hishaku is lifted and held in the left hand.

From where it had rested, a 蓋置 futaoki made from a jade archer’s thumb ring, once a symbol of the military elite of 清 Qīng and, later, of scholars.

Water is drawn from the kettle and poured into the bowl. The chasen is dipped and whisked and returned to sit beside the natsume once again.

The bowl stands alone, slick with moisture, clean and fresh and refreshing to view. Small gusts of wind push through a space underneath the window of my tearoom and the coming heat of the day is assuaged for a moment.

I lift the chashaku from atop the natsume and bring it before me. I lift the natsume and remove its lid. I place the first of three scoops of 抹茶 matcha into the teabowl. The bright color contrasting against the soft greys and purples of the teabowl’s glaze.

Once all three have been placed in the center of the bowl, I mark the small heap with the sigil of my school and lightly tap the chashaku along the inner rim of the teabowl, removing any excess tea dust from the scoop. A soft ringing sound rises like a small bell.

I place the chashaku back atop the natsume, its tip coated in tea. Cool water is added from the 水指 mizusashi into the chagama and the sound of boiling ceases. The tiny world of my tearoom is silent and still. My mind focuses as I bring the ladle down towards the teabowl. A small gust of wind. A splash of water. The rhythmic motion and sounds of whisking tea.

I draw the chasen out from the bowl. A small peak of foam rises in the center of the chawan. A tiny mountain for the mind to climb. I lift the bowl before me. A solitary offering as I take a moment for myself to pause between work and life and the ongoing challenges of the world. The mind flutters like a flag in the wind. Like a carp leaping up a waterfall. Caught in these actions all day, we often don’t take moments like this to just return to simply sitting. Simply doing. Simply being.

As children, perhaps we unlearned this quality of life. For what? To become a warrior like mom and dad? A scholar, resting their head upon a stack of books? A poet, forced from their home into exile? The carp jumps out of the water. The iris springs from the river’s edge. Dragons are born and people awaken.

The bowl of tea vanishes as quickly as it was made. All that is left are the frothy dregs.

I turn the bowl in my hands and inspect its every imperfection. The bubbling glaze on its foot reminding me of who I am.

I cleanse the bowl, the chasen, and the chashaku once more.

I decide on a whim to enjoy a final 拝見 haiken by myself. The natsume is placed beside the chashaku on a tray of mulberry wood. Set against the swirling of the wooden grain, I lose myself in the little objects and the moment they helped to make possible.

A painting of tsubo playfully dance and roll across the lid of the tea container.

I open the lid to see the remnants of the tea inside. A concave carved-out represents this one meeting of myself with myself.

The chashaku, with its mountains and canyons, mists and waterfalls all made by some moisture that had once accumulated against the skin of a bamboo stalk now become the journey I have taken.

Leaping and fluttering, flapping and climbing.

My eyes glance over to the alcove. A scholar’s carp-shaped water-dropper sits in the 床間 tokonoma. This carp, too, will become a dragon.

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The Peony Blooms, The Bowl Widens, The Furo is First Used

Bright cloudless skies hang over head. Grass pushes up through earth in the fields. The first heat of early Summer hangs in the air. Over the weekend, I escaped to the countryside to see all of this unfold before my eyes. Nature in full transition. The constant force. Coming home, I carried this feeling with me. A souvenir. An お土産 omiyage. Something brought back, special to a particular place.

As I walked the streets of my urban neighborhood, however, early Summer was still there. Lush green leaves on the maple trees. Mugwort growing tall in the shadows cast by fences. A burst of color as the tree peony blossoms (牡丹 botan) in the city gardens. All telltale signs that Summer has arrived.

For me, all this subtle change produced an upwelling of desire to make a bowl of tea. As is the custom for practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the “tea year” begins with the beginning of early Summer. Akin to a flower beginning to bloom, the energy of this time is on the rise, not yet cresting with the oppressive heat of the season, nor waning with the slow retreat and cool of Autumn.

Reflecting this, 茶人 chajin shift from using the sunken hearth (炉 ro) of the colder months and begin to use the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. To observe this major shift, both in the technology used in the tearoom, as well as with the arrangement of the tearoom itself (as the hearth is closed (炉塞ぎ rofusagi) and the 畳 tatami are shifted), a special gathering to mark first use of the furo is held, 初風炉 sho-buro.

In keeping with this change, I adjust my 取り合わせ toriawase, bringing wares into the tearoom that reflect the fresh feeling of early Summer. In my 床間 tokonoma, I hang a scroll with light cursive calligraphy reflecting upon the coming of Summer. Below this, I place a small wooden incense container (香合 kōgō), inside of which is kept small cut pieces of 沈香 jinkō, the fragrance I am featuring in my sitting.

Below my tearoom window I have set my antique bronze furo, atop which sits its paired iron 茶釜 chagama, wisps of steam rising from the small gap between the mouth and lid.

Beside this is the 水指 mizusashi. Sitting before this, a small 文淋茶入 bunrin chaire. Before I prepare tea, I meditate for a moment, to listen to the sound of the kettle and to appreciate the dim light that filters through the rough hempen shades of my tearoom window. The heat of the kettle is soft, mingling with the heat of the day.

I leave the tearoom and return with my additional tea equipage.

I set the teabowl down and the chaire before it.

Slowly I untie the braided silk cord from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku, spangled in a motif of shimmering tree peonies against a sky blue field. I remove the chaire from the silk pouch and cleanse its glazed exterior with my 袱紗 fukusa.

Next I turn to the assembled implements with the teabowl.

I purify the 茶杓 chashaku, pinching it between the folds of the fukusa, cleansing the handle and curved scoop, placing it atop the lid of the chaire once cleansed.

I then lift the 茶筅 chasen out of the bowl, placing it next to the chaire.

I bring the teabowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin twisting it above the open mouth of the 建水 kensui that rests beside my left knee. I unfold it and refold it, placing it momentarily on the lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the 柄杓 hishaku off from the tiny porcelain plinth of the 蓋置 futaoki. With hishaku in my left hand and chakin in right, I lift the lid from the chagama. Steam rises steadily from the mouth of the kettle. The sound of the bubbling water breaking the silence of the tearoom. I place the bronze lid atop the futaoki and folded chakin atop the lid.

Passing hishaku from left hand to right, I draw a ladle’s worth of water from the kettle and pour it mindfully into teabowl. I press the chasen into the hot water. The tines slowly expand outward. Once cleansed, I return the whisk back next to the chaire, and pour the hot water out into the kensui. I wait for the water to drain completely from the teabowl, save for a final drop, which I catch with the chakin.

Now clean, I sit for a moment to appreciate the teabowl. Brushstrokes of glaze against the uneven, crackled surface of a white 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan. Refreshing now, knowing that Summer’s heat will come in the weeks and months ahead.

From the chaire, I remove three scoops of 抹茶 matcha, placing each in the center of the bowl.

I place the chashaku along the rim of the chawan.

With both hands, I lift the tiny tea container and empty it of the remaining tea, allowing it to cascade and fall into the chawan, creating a loose mound of bright tea powder.

In order to make the first bowl of 濃茶 koicha of the new year in tea, I pull forth a ladle of hot water from the kettle, pouring only a small measure of this into the chawan, returning the remainder back to the chagama.

The hot water pools around the edges of the tea, producing a small island of matcha amidst a emerald sea.

I bring the chasen down into the teabowl and slowly begin to work the tea into a thick paste. As the tea powder begins to bind with the water, the intense aroma of freshly ground green tea begins to rise, filling the tearoom, overcoming the lingering scent of aloeswood. I add an additional measure of hot water and continue to slowly, methodically whisk the tea. Back and forth, in a rhythmic manner. My hand slowly whisking. My breath keeping pace. Slowly the tea transforms into a slick opaque liquid. It is ready to consume.

I sit for a moment, having placed the chasen back beside the chaire, its tines coated in a thick layer of tea.

I stare down at the bowl of koicha. The dark green of the matcha looking back up at me.

In this pause, I hear the wind outside my window. Birds singing. Trees swaying. Even though I do not see the indicators of Summer, I can sense them.

I stare down into the bowl. The koicha appears like a void, like a mirror reflecting back at me. Does this reflect the future? The season that is due to come? The moment that is near to end? How to sum up a period of time so brief as a bowl of tea. Thousands of moments have I now had like this. The breath before I sip. The sensation of the tea changing my heart and mind. A feeling of being part of some sort of indescribable transformation. How a peony blooms. How we drink from a wider bowl as Summer nears. How the ro is closed and the furo is welcomed into the tearoom.

In this moment I quiet the mind and raise the bowl. I turn it ninety degrees so as not to drink from its 正面 shōmen and take the first sip. The flavor instantly washes over me. I pause and sip again. The flavor deepens. One more sip and I watch the tea pull from the center of the chawan down to the rim and into my mouth.

As I place the bowl before me once more, I see how time, gravity, my own production have played out over the crazed and crackled surface of the teabowl.

White brushstrokes of glaze. Grey streaks of clay beneath it. Tea. Steam. Sunlight filtering through the woven blinds. This moment caught in the empty space of the teabowl.

I cleanse the bowl, the whisk, the chashaku. I set each object to the side. Hishaku atop the kensui. Futaoki set below.

I produce an antique 香盆 kōbon upon which I set the chaire, chashaku and shifuku for 拝見 haiken. Light extends across into the tokonoma. I observe how light plays across the ceramic surface of the chaire. How colors and tones emerge as the day’s light grows.

How the grain of the chashaku feels warm.

How the silk of the shifuku is refreshing. A peony blooms across its brocaded expanse.

Leaves and blossoms, twisting and curling, billowing over the empty volume and undulating into the gathered folds. The kettle hums and the scent of aloeswood returns. Early Summer has arrived and the furo is welcomed back into the tearoom.

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Saying Goodbye to the Past

April has come and now wanes. The days seem to get gradually longer. The cold of Winter is now just a distant memory. The cherry blossoms hang heavy from their branches. The early blooms of dogwood explode against the deep blue sky. The buds wisteria and peonies swell. Spring has climbed to apex and, now, begins to close. The gradual shift to Summer comes slowly, yet, all around, it is palpable.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the tea practitioner marks this with the closure of the 炉 ro. For the tea person, this moment, 炉塞 rofusagi, marks the end of the cold months, when heat needed to be conserved, and guests gathered closely to the sunken hearth. As with the shift of the seasons, this transformation is gradual, first with the hanging kettle (釣り釜 tsurigama) being suspended with a chain, later succeeded by kettles that may have a wide flange (透木釜 tsukigigama), held up by small wooden supports.

As the shape and style of each kettle changes, so too, do their relation to heat, becoming cooler as Winter’s chill fades. So loved is the ro, with its cozy, informal attitude, that poet and tea person 三味 Sanmi stated 「塞ぐ炉に五徳の痩もなつかしき」, “Even the naked trivet is missed when we close the ro”.

Now, in the final days of Spring, as the heat increases, one must decide when to close the ro all together, to begin the other half of the tea year. In saying goodbye to the ro, one says goodbye to the past.

While I do not have a ro, I bear all of this in mind. My attitude towards tea during the ro season is to keep things more 侘び wabi, more rustic, more understated. Rather than use my 風炉 furo, I opt for using an antique 火鉢 hibachi, one made of a single burl of 桐 kiri. Like the ro, the hibachi brings about a more relaxed feeling, one which favors simple austerity over refinery.

Early this morning I set up the hibachi under the window of my tearoom. Next to the charcoal, I place a small hand-shaped ball of 練香 nerikō into the ash, and set the iron kettle over the heat of the brazier for it to boil.

As the water warms, I begin to prepare for tea, sifting bright green 抹茶 matcha into a multi-color 若狭塗棗 Wakasanuri natsume. In my New York City kitchen, I wash a teabowl and wet a white linen 茶巾 chakin and 茶筅 chasen made of spotted bamboo. I bring these into my tearoom, right as the water begins to come to a boil.

As I prepare the wares for tea, I set them before me. A small teabowl made by contemporary potter 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro accompanies the Wakasanuri natsume, its deep purple interior and rough exterior, swathed in brushstrokes of carbonized lacquer, harmonize with the irregular patterns of polished lacquer of the tea container.

I cleanse the natsume. It sparkles like a jewel.

I shift my attention to the simple wooden wares set into the teabowl.

The 茶杓 chashaku of dark bamboo, which I set atop the lid of the natsume.

The chasen, which I warm and cleanse in the water drawn from my kettle.

The bowl dries unevenly. Tiny facets of sand shine, embedded in the clay.

I place three scoops of matcha into the center of the teabowl. With a light tap against the interior, I remove any excess tea dust from the tip of the chashaku.

I draw water from the kettle and pour half a ladle’s worth into the bowl. With this last ladle of water drawn from the kettle, what will I make? The last water warmed by the hearth of Winter. Half a year has come and gone. What has happened during this time? What will be left in the past?

I breathe deeply and bring the whisk into the water, mixing the tea as I begin to whip it into a fine foam. The scent of tea and the aroma from the nerikō meld together into a sweet, spicy, warm fragrance. The world around me feels quiet as my mind and body concentrate.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a low peak of tea is formed. As I sit and turn to the informal hibachi, I join it, the stillness, and the sound of the water climbing back to a boil.

The teabowl is warm in my hands. The rough surface of its outer walls feel like bark on an old cypress tree. The uneven patination of its interior of deep purple contrasts against the bright green of tea. I take a sip, letting the warmth of the tea sink into my body. I sip again, filling my heart. I take one final sip, pulling up the last of the foam in one inhalation.

All that remains are the dregs.

I close the sitting by cleansing the wares once again. The chasen is wetted. The bowl is rinsed. The dust that clings to the chashaku is wiped away and brushed off into the 建水 kensui. Cool water is drawn from the 水指 mizusashi and mixed with the warm water of the 茶釜 chagama.

The tearoom becomes still again and in this silence I sit and meditate.

From the 床間 tokonoma, I bring out a small 織部焼き Oribeyaki 香合 kōgō by 松本鉄山 Matsumoto Tetsuzan.

Its rough shape and uneven application of glaze feels relaxed yet warm, comforting. Memories of the past Winter and early Spring, when new sprigs were bright green on the pine, when drifts of snow first came and last melted away. A sense of nowness melding with the bittersweet quality of the past. This is how memory works. It is joy tinged with sadness. What is gone shall never come back. When we see it again, what reappears shall be different, transformed.

I open the little kōgō to find two remaining hand-formed balls of nerikō. Their fragrance is soft, warm, spicy and relaxed. In time, this too will fade. Everything subtly, constantly, instance-over-instance, transforming, waxing and waning, until Winter turns to Spring, then Spring to Summer. In this, we are always saying goodbye. Saying goodbye to the past.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

No Mind. No Tea.

For the past few months, as I’ve been forced by the current pandemic to remain inside, more and more I’ve found myself practicing 茶の湯 chanoyu. Whereas prior to the “shelter in place” ordinance I was seriously practicing maybe once or twice weekly, I now find myself practicing once or twice daily. Where mornings were once languid awakenings, they are now purposeful and full of activity, in preparation for setting the kettle and arranging the 茶道具 chadōgu. My afternoons used to be a long and arduous push to the end of the day. They’ve since been transformed into a glorious close as I sit by my tearoom window, accompanied by the mellow hiss of my iron 茶釜 chagama and the setting sun.

Not only has this change in my practice’s frequency shifted my daily routine, it has also had a palpable impact on my body and mind. Recently, I sat with my tea teacher, who, over our more regular virtual tea teachings, noted that I had begun to exude 無心 mushin (wúxīn in Mandarin). When I asked what he had meant by this, he said “no mind”, stating that my actions seemed less hesitant, more continuous, more focused. Actions seemed more fluid and the space between actions more expansive.

Being a practitioner of 弓道 kyūdō as well as tea, he made the analogy of how when an archer releases the arrow, they remain in stance, expanding their gaze across the range, following their action with an equally mindful non-action. In short, as they prepare to shoot the arrow, they empty their mind of attachment. As they release the arrow, they maintain this state of non-attachment. In that moment of focus and release, there are no more rules, no more structure, just action. When they let go of the arrow, the let go of any expectations. As they release the arrow and watch it fly towards the target, they release their mind of the desire, of the mental grasping that wants it to hit the target. They just release. The arrow just flies.

As I continued my practice throughout the week, I meditated on this notion. In a sense, I did not know what my teacher meant, but I could feel it. My practice had become stronger, more sure. Without questioning my practice, I could finally trust it. I had practiced the forms, I knew the forms, and now, fully knowing, I could forget the forms.

I found myself preparing for a morning’s practice with what my teacher said still on my mind. Funny enough, it struck me just as I was in the process of filling a small 文琳茶入 “bunrinchaire with tea.

“No mind”. What did this really mean? I knew the definition. I could read this in a book or hear this from an expert. However, in practice, meaning often evades logical description, instead, it appears in the practice itself. Elusive and fleeting, yet spontaneous and ever-present. As I peered into the empty ceramic tea container, I continued to think about this.

Next, I pulled out a wooden box, the contents of which was a 黒楽茶碗 kuroRaku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

This I would be using for my morning practice.

As I began to untie the 桐箱 kiribako, loosening its cord and lifting the lid to reveal the wrapped bowl within, I kept thinking about this notion.

“No mind”.

Unveiled, the bowl looked up at me. Empty. Receptive.

What makes a teabowl a teabowl? Is it the clay? The glaze?

The foot?

The form?

Or is it the emptiness that it contains? The space? The opportunity for tea?

I set the chaire and bowl together.

The space between them became the space of action and inaction. As I breathed between motions, an outward breath for my outward motion, my inward breath to bring objects towards me, I found my body and mind joining into one constant action.

As I pull open the silken cord of the chaire, I loosen the knot and peel the 仕服 shifuku off of its clay body. I fold the 袱紗 fukusa and lightly touch the rounded shoulders of the chaire. I lift the lid and look inside.

From chaire to 茶杓 chashaku, from whisk to bowl.

Each motion arises, exists, fades and ends, but never stops. Instead, there is a constant motion.

Waves rising and crashing and returning out to sea, to churn back upon the shore again. The body follows this. The mind follows this. The division between the two fades.

As I scoop tea from the chaire and place it into the center of the black chawan, I am reminded that just moments before I was placing this tea into the container which I am now drawing it from. As I place the chashaku down upon the rim of the teabowl and tilt the chaire to pour the remaining tea powder into the bowl, I let the tea fall out freely. I am not worried that it will not fall out or that it will. I just let it do what I know it will do.

As I bring the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku over the gaping mouth of the teabowl, I tilt it slightly, letting free only a small measure of hot water, which mixes with the heap of 抹茶 matcha, producing a vibrant gasp of green tea aroma. For a moment, I watch the water mix with the tea, the mound of bright powder slowly sinking. Whereas before I may have worried whether I had added too much or too little hot water, after so many years of practice I no longer worry. I know it will be just enough.

I lift the 茶筅 chasen and begin the methodical act of kneading the tea and water into a thick paste in order to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. In the process, I cannot go too fast nor too slow. The motion, now, feels fluid; unencumbered. The tea and water shifts from two distinct states to one united form. The new concoction clings to the thin tines of the chasen. A forest of uniformly-spaced trees with moss of deep green climbing up their trunks. I add more hot water to this, letting it pour through the whisk’s blades of cut bamboo, thinning the liquid out just enough so that it can be consumed.

Once complete, I allow for a brief moment to pass, to appreciate the bowl, the tea, the cavernous space it creates and the shadows that obscure the line between black glaze and the dark green of the tea.

I pull back and appreciate the objects as they are arranged.

Years of practice inform their placement. No thinking is required at this point.

No judgement or questioning of whether they are correct or not. No mind.

I turn to the window of my tearoom and place the bowl before me. Dim light of morning is growing increasingly bright. The sun illuminated the bright green and yellow buds atop the branches of trees. Leaves unfurl like small sails on a ship’s mast. The sky begins to shift from dawn’s deep purple to the warm blue of morning.

I lift the bowl to my lips and breathe in the overwhelming fragrance of the tea. No space is left for me to exist outside of this. With three sips I drink all that I can.

The remaining dregs cling to the inside of the bowl. Evidence of action. No hesitation. No mind.

I cleanse the objects as I always do and arrange them for a final solitary 拝見 haiken. The lid of the chaire is lifted and left on the center side of the wooden tray before it is returned atop the little tea container.

The chashaku is placed next to the chaire, picked up and set down over the course of one inhalation and one exhalation. The shifuku, emblazoned in peony brocade of silver and blue, is lifted from between the 水指 mizusashi and 風炉 furo, shaped with the hands in a manner to emphasize its inner volume, and placed beside the chashaku. It is empty. It is full. It is the container and the void it contains.

I look down upon each object, enjoying them for what they are. Each crafted by masters of their art. Each reflecting different paths walked upon. Full strides. Confident. Assured.

How can one judge a tea container? It is neither good nor bad.

How can one assess a shifuku? It could be made of the finest silk and still, over time, it will fade and tatter.

How can one determine the value of a chashaku? It was once a branch of a cherry tree. What use is it now? A twig in the path. A scoop to measure tea. A staff to quell fighting tigers. To be used without hesitation.

An empty bowl will hold all the tea in the world and none at all.

When we practice the forms and involve these objects, we recognize how essential they are. Yet the more we practice, this, too shifts. The mind becomes lighter. The gaze opens, widens, expands. When we release our arrows, they speeds down range. When we pour the last of the tea powder out, we return the container from back where it once had sat, empty. We see how necessary they are. We see how unnecessary they are.

Even when these object are fully removed, you’ll find that they are still there. In between breathes. In pauses during the day. As light shifts. As one’s hand moves. As one’s mind grapples. Object and mind object. Pause and practice. Action and inaction. Constant. Fleeting. Form and no form. No tea. No mind.

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Ryōkan-sa! Playful as a Child.

As April wanders onward at its casual pace, Spring’s glory continues to build into a bright, vibrant crescendo. Birdsong fills the air. Blossoms, big and small, cluster on tree tops and flowers push up through the rich soil. Rain clouds gather in bright blue skies, ready to quell any heat that might rise. Despite all that plagues the world today, I’ll find a moment’s joy in the brief and beautiful respite nature has to offer.

It is the second Sunday of the month and for much of the Western world, Easter is being celebrated; the resurrection mirrored in the resurgence of life at the apex of the season. I find my partner, a devout Catholic, listening to the Pope’s Easter mass as we walk through our quiet neighborhood.

As for me, a practitioner of tea, I find myself dipping into a book of poetry by 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) poet-priest 良寛大愚 Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831), looking for inspiration as I ready for a bowl of tea in observance of his death, traditionally memorialized on the second Sunday of April. Page after page of the few books I have on the eccentric Zen monk offer endless ideas.

Rather than get lost in the infinite possibilities, however, I make the ultimate nod to the humble man and opt to keep things simple. A plain wooden 平棗 hiranatsume, an irregularity shaped 鬼萩茶碗Oni-Hagi chawan, and a 木魚 mokugyo in the 床間 tokonoma.

As I sit to make a bowl of tea, I let it become a meditation on the practice of Ryōkan and the traces of his life he left with his poetry. Throughout his early life, Ryōkan traveled, leaving his hometown and his inherited post as the village headman in search of a Zen teacher and a life beyond the weight of the worldly. He travelled from temple to temple, studying the dharma, as well as poetry, both Classical Chinese and 和歌 waka. After learning of his father’s suicide in 1795, he returned to his hometown and began living in an empty hermitage. There, he would live out the rest of his life, writing poetry, deeming his practice in meditation, forgetting his responsibilities whilst playing with local children, and producing loose and beautiful calligraphy the likes of which the world had never seen.

Like myself, he was inspired by the poets of the past. In one poem, me proclaimed “In my hermitage a volume of Cold Mountain Poems — It is better than any sutra. I copy his verses and post them all around, Savoring each one, over and over.”

As I sit with the etched-out memories Ryōkan, my iron kettle coming to a boil and a natsume full of 抹茶 matcha, I begin to make a bowl of tea. With the sun climbing down the Western sky, I enjoy the quiet peace of the afternoon, the soft hiss of the kettle, the gentle space created by the infusing of sunlight with the scent of incense.

I produce my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa and begin to cleanse the bare wooden lid of the low-slung hiranatsume.

I then turn my attention to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku.

I lay the tea scoop across the top of the tea container, appreciating the natural patterns upon the surface of its skin.

The tiny bamboo sprout pushing up from the center of its 節 fushi. It reminds me of the story how once Ryōkan, upon seeing a small bamboo shoot growing up through the floorboards of his hermitage, attempted to burn a hole in the ceiling with a candle for the bamboo shoot to grow up and out, only to end up accidentally burning his hut to the ground.

I then begin the process of warming the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl. The light of the day beaming through the windows of my tearoom, collecting under the water and reflecting against the white interior of the chawan.

With all utensils ready, I peer down into the center of the bowl, noting it’s form. Noting the small cracks in the glaze.

Small pits that have formed over use and time.

I lift my chashaku and open the natsume. I dip the tip of the scoop into the low mound of powdered tea and pull out a small measure of matcha. A fluid arc, a direct movement, and I place the tea into the center of the teabowl.

I repeat this two more times and finish by drawing the sigil of my school into the pile of tea dust. A sign of a double cross. Perhaps the sign of a hidden Christian (隠れキリシタン Kakure Kirishitan).

I tap the excess matcha powder from the tip of the tea scoop and return the chashaku back atop the lid of the hiranatsume. The dark bamboo peeking through a light dusting of tea.

I focus my mind and draw water from the iron kettle, pouring half of the 柄杓 hishaku’s cup into the bowl. I focus again and begin to whisk the tea. For a moment, the sunshine, the lingering scent of incense, the warmth of the 茶釜 chagama seems so lovely. For a moment, my focused mind forgets itself, getting lost in the action.

Ryōkan would forget his walking stick whilst drinking 酒 sake, his wooden begging bowl whilst playing with the village children, his daily duties while sitting with friends.

I forget myself in this bowl of tea. A vast and tiny world inside its earthen walls. A bamboo scoop my wanderer’s pole. A low-slung caddy all the nourishment I need. A whisk to whip-up a bowl of tea, to sweep away the dust of the world.

I call my partner in from her studies to savor the first bowl of tea I’ve made and set it down beside me for her to pick it up.

She sits with me and we meditate briefly together in the light that filters through the window. For a moment we savor each other’s company and the minute break we’ve taken from our daily responsibilities.

She offers thanks and then I set to making a bowl for myself.

I drink the tea I’ve made heartily and set the bowl down to appreciate the pattern of the remaining dregs. The mundane nature of it reminding myself that this is all we are. Do not take myself so seriously. Ryōkan, himself an honored Buddhist monk, was often called “Ryōkan-sa” by the local children, an informal shortening of the honorific “san” following his name. This, too, reminds me to not take myself so seriously.

I cleanse the bowl with the cool water from my 水指 mizusashi. Together we admire the eccentric and irregular shape of the white OniHagi teabowl. The large dark voids on its surface where the glaze was kept at bay. The curious 切十文字高台 kirijumonjikōdai (“cross-cut foot”) form favored by by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.

Such a foot was purportedly favored by Kakure Kirishitans who practiced tea. I let this bowl of tea stand in for a number of things today.

For the eccentric nature of Ryōkan. For the resurrection of my partner’s god. For the crossroads we all find ourselves at during this beautiful and terrifying time.

I cleanse the bowl once more and set the utensils back to rest. The sunlight pouring over the teaware, over the large wooden board that stretches across my tearoom’s floor.

It eddies and collects in corners. Offset by shadows. A mokugyo in the tokonoma. Dewdrops on a lotus leaf.

Ryōkan once wrote “Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. When you know that my poems are not poems, then we can speak of poetry!”

As I close this sitting set to a bowl of matcha, I quip, “Who says my tea is tea? My tea is not tea. When you know that my tea is not tea, then we can speak of tea!”

****

For more information on Ryōkan Taigu and a selection of translated poems by him, I recommend Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, translation by John Steven (Shambala Centaur Editions, 1996) and Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, translated with essays by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel (University of Hawaii Press, 1996).

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Cherry Blossoms. Buddha is Born.

The morning came after a light rain. The sun rose from a full moon night. As I made my morning walk, face covered in a mask, I made my way through my neighborhood. As it has been in the past, my walks have felt more and more like a meditation, on the current situation, on the emergence of Spring its full glory. Below me, a ground covered in moss, bright green sprigs of grass, lush carpets of flowers, interrupted by dandelions of electric yellow.

Above me are canopies of blossoms. 梅 ume of March. Magnolias of purple, white and pale green. The 桜 sakura of all kinds. Those which explode like a firework. Those which bloom gently like a rose. Those that cascade from willow-like branches, pouring downward like peach-hued waterfalls.

Amidst this beauty, yes, there is great sadness, death, despair. A screaming ambulance flying by on the streets of Queens, New York City is the ever-present reminder of this. So, too, are the men, women and children huddled either underneath overpasses, by the doors of government buildings asking for handouts, or together in the long lines to enter markets.

A walk down my neighborhood street reveals this, the bare reality. How the many once grinning streets of commerce now bear gaps, hollow holes in the mouth of a once smiling community. How will we repair that which is gone, perhaps forever. The realization that nothing will be the same.

Yet, on this walk, I am reminded that this is April 8th. In my Zen practice, one that hails from the Japanese 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū tradition, today we observe 仏生会 Busshōé, the birth of the historical Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (c480 B.C.E – 400 B.C.E). During this day, it is common to create a small altar, situated in the center of which is a small statue of the Buddha as a newborn child. Surrounded in garlands of flowers, the statue is bathed in sweet tea (甘茶 amacha) and we are reminded that all great things come from small, humble beginnings and that all forms, too, shall be born and die and transform. As I walk home, back through the deaths of flowers and calamity, I formulate how I shall prepare tea to observe this day.

Entering my home I set my iron kettle to boil. As the water heats in this cauldron, I pull together teaware. Having recently acquired a tall 茶入 chaire, I opt to use this in my Busshōe tea gathering. I pull it forth from its wooden 桐箱 kiribako, its 緒 o tied in such a manner to indicate that it is empty of tea.

For a moment I inspect it, still enrobed in its silken 仕服 shifuku, one made not from the sacred 袈裟 kesa robes of a Buddhist priest but from the profane cloth of a kimono. The rippled texture and alternating colors of pink and blue, yellow and red remind me of the blossoms from this morning’s walk.

I remove the cloth and begin to scoop 抹茶 matcha powder into the chaire until there is just enough to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and myself to share. I then place this in front of the 水指 mizusashi which I’ve set beside my 風炉 furo.

Once the kettle has come to a boil I call my partner into the tearoom to join me for a bowl of tea. Before her, I place a small sweet to enjoy. After this I re-enter into the tearoom with teabowl in hand. It is a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan by 清和釜 Seiwa gama kiln master potter 祥雲 Shōun, the color of which harmonizes with the colors of the shifuku. Finally, I return with 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki made of split bamboo.

Together my partner and I sit to prepare a bowl of koicha. I set the teabowl and assembled equipage within it before me. Breathing out, I reach for the chaire, and place it before the chawan, creating a center line between myself, the wares, and the space between 茶釜 chagama and mizusashi.

I reach both hands down and lift them up the length of the chaire until my fingers reach the lightly-tied knot that ties the shifuku together. Carefully I unbind the silken cord and draw it open.

With well-practiced movements, I pull the chaire from the shifuku, placing the latter between the mizusashi and furo where it will sit for the remainder of the gathering as an empty shell.

Next, I cleanse the chaire, touching the lid with my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa, then the shoulders, and then the sides, until all surfaces which will come in contact with my hands have been purified.

Next I turn to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku which, rather than being fashioned from the more typical bamboo, is made of cherry wood. As I run the fine silk of the fukusa over its surface, I admire the iridescent sheen of tree bark which still remains, an echo of a Spring long since passed.

The 茶筅 chasen is warmed and set upright next to the chaire, its thick tines expanding slowly.

I bow to my partner and invite her to enjoy the tea sweet prior to receiving a bowl of thick tea which I will prepare for her. She bows back and we both set into action. I lift the chashaku from the chaire and bring it towards my center. Next, I bring forth the chaire and remove its lid, placing it next to the chawan.

I lift the first of three scoops of tea from the tiny ceramic tea container, slowing my cadence for a moment to appreciate the movement of matcha powder from caddy to teabowl.

Two more times do I dip the chashaku back into the chaire, removing glowing green tea powder each time from its dark interior.

Finally, I tilt the chaire over, pouring out the remaining powdered tea into the chawan. In the brief moment of random pattering of tea to teabowl I am reminded of how the amacha would fall onto the small metal statue of the child Buddha. How it made me feel like a child. A little sense of chaos and joy that comes from letting gravity take over.

I enjoy the scene that has been made inside the teabowl. A split second vignette of colors and textures, of volumes and voids, of actions and inactions playing out and recorded in this art of being.

I return the object back to their resting positions and draw a ladle of hot water from the steaming chagama. A minute fraction of the water is placed along the inner edge of the teabowl, slipping under the heaped mound of tea dust. The matcha lifts and slowly sinks, changing from bright green to a dark emerald.

I slowly press the chasen into this pool of thick tea and proceed to knead the tea into a firm paste. As I do this the scent of tea is overwhelming. Its lively, grassy and bittersweet notes merging with the warm and gentle fragrance of incense lingering in the tearoom, one which was commonly burned at my temple back in California.

Memories of the past merging with moments of the present. How eagerly the mind brings up such images, especially in times of sadness and despair. “Remember this?” my mind seems to call. “Remember what joy you had back then?” it abruptly interrupts the silence with.

It calls me to think of those times as if they were spotless, as if they were without their own trials and tribulations. How this mind clings and grapples with the past. Tosses and turns and trips over itself like a child at play, hurting itself in the process.

Another draught of hot water is added to the tea and I continue to whisk it slowly, methodically, using every motion of my practice to focus the mind.

Though the Buddha was born a child, it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he awoke to his own Buddha mind. It was said that he was met with thoughts of temptation, desire, fear and anger, but chose to simply sit, to bow to these notions, and to claim the earth on which he sat as his sole witness to this knowing.

In a similar way, I set down the chasen and offer up a bowl of tea to my partner, with no expectations, just to accept it and myself as we are. Perfectly imperfect.

For a moment she looks down into the bowl, a brief flash of trepidation before she accepts the tea. She then lifts the bowl, turns it slightly, and drinks from it. A thick trail of koicha pulls from the center pool across the inner wall of the teabowl. She returns the bowl to me with just enough left so I may have a hearty sip. I turn the bowl again and drink the remaining koicha. A second trail of tea runs along the inner wall of the teabowl. We take a moment to pause, to breathe, to meditate. The flavor of tea still present on both our palates.

Before I set into cleansing the wares, I admire the traces of tea upon them. The light dusting of tea coating the carved tip of chashaku.

The thick residue of lacquer-like koicha still clinging to the tines of the chasen.

The dregs of tea running back down into the center of the chawan.

I bow to my partner and prepare to close the tea sitting, cleansing the teawares once more. As I usually do, I offer up a simple 拝見 haiken as a chance to recall the moment had with tea. Each item, the chaire, the chashaku, the shifuku, like tracks of an unseen bull. We know the presence of tea. We can taste it in our mouths. Yet it no longer exists as it once did. It has been transformed into memory. We recall the actions as if it were in the past now.

We lift the lid of the chaire to look inside. We see only emptiness.

We lift the chashaku and imagine the weight of tea hanging on its hand-hewn tip, yet it feels as light as a feather.

We inspect the shifuku, made from a scrap of kimono fabric.

We imagine the body that it must have once been held close against. Perhaps this person is no longer alive.

The chaire, now emptied and cleansed, is wrapped up again. The knot of the o retied in the manner to show that tea no longer sits inside. It is left to be inspected once more atop the 香盆 kōban made of mulberry wood and then, it, too, is put back into storage.

The tea gathering closes as it began, with a silent bow. An exchange between two friends. A moment born, expired, transformed.

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Clear and Bright

Looking out my tearoom window, the sky is clear and bright. Peering down upon my wooden tea table, the light casts long shadows. All around me, the world faces sickness and death. All around me, Spring is in full bloom.

On April 4th this year is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié, a day when families in China traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors and the day when green tea picking begins in earnest. While the world has been forced to adjust to the impact of a broad-sweeping pandemic, the traditional, as well as natural cycles still continue.

I offer incense in respect to the dead. I pour cool fresh water into my kettle and set it to boil. I bring together a vintage white porcelain 潮州茶盤 Cháozhōu chápán, 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, and four 品茗杯 pǐn mìng bēi.

The white porcelain is intended to enable the tea drinker to enjoy the unaltered color of the tea liqueur. Alas, in East Asia, white is often seen as the color of death and mourning. The four cups, too, infer this as the number four (四 ) in the Chinese language is a homonym for the word “death” (死 ).

This set up is not typical for me. Rarely do I use four cups. Rarely do I invite the notion of death to my tea table. Yet, it seems fitting. The world is in the grip of death, now seemingly more than ever. However, today is clear and bright. Both forces happening at the same time, not in opposition.

For tea, I bring forth a small handful of 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn. Made up of uniformly curled small leaf buds, this tea was harvested in March of 2019, a week prior to that year’s Qīngmíng festival. Picked this early means that the weather in the mountains surrounding 太湖 Tài Hú in southern 江蘇 Jiāngsū will still be cold.

The young tea buds will still be covered in a coating of silvery hairs (白毫 bái háo). If picked and processed correctly, the resulting flavor of this 清明前 Qīngmíng qián (pre-Qīngmíng) tea will be sweet, complex, and brighter than teas picked later in the year.

Now over a year old, I expect this tea to be a shadow of itself. However, in light of the current state of the world, it will be a taste of life before all of this happened. What will it taste like?

With the water boiled, I rinse the wares, warming them in preparation for making tea. Leaving the lid of the kettle open to allow it to cool down in order to properly brew this delicate tea, I wait and let the heat dissipate. As I wait, I open the window to my tearoom. The sound of birds. Breeze pushing the steam from the mouth of the kettle.

As the water cools, I begin to place the tiny tea leaves into the center of the warmed gàiwǎn, using a thin twig from a willow tree to arrange them evenly along the bottom of the porcelain vessel.

Slowly I pour water along the inner edge of gàiwǎn so as not to directly touch the heap of tea, ensuring that it is able to cool slightly before coming in contact with the tea leaves. The tiny curls of Bì Luó Chūn lift upwards, buoyant for a moment as the water rises in the gàiwǎn.

As I finish pouring water from my kettle, the leaves slowly begin to cascade downwards, spinning and setting at the bottom of the porcelain vessel, occasionally rising and falling again. I leave the lid of the gàiwǎn off and watch this dance play out, admiring how the tiny buds writhe and open, releasing their pale green pigment into the warm water.

A few seconds later and I carefully place the lid atop the gàiwǎn and tilt the cup, pouring its contents from one cup to the next until all are full. I give the gàiwǎn a quick shake and return it back down upon the ceramic surface of the Cháozhōu chápán.

I lift the lid and let the leaves cool. As I place the lid down atop a jade archer’s thumb ring, I marvel in two tiny sprouts that have affixed themselves to the bottom of the lid. Two tiny artifacts from the previous year. Remnants of an early Spring. How much the world has changed since then. How much still remains the same.

I call for my partner to break from her weekend work and join me for cups of tea. The flavor is still vibrant, grassy, intoxicating. Having been stored away for a year, time has not had a dramatic effect on the tiny leaves.

The color of the tea liqueur is bright and clear. A pale green gold against the clean white porcelain. The aroma is sweet like the flowering fruit trees of Spring.

As we finish the first steeping, I continue to brew a second and third.

The leaves open further, unfurling and expanding, offering up a golden hue and lasting flavor.

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

All that is left by the last brew are spent leaves and a fond memory.

As late morning turns to midday, the sun climbs high in the sky, the shadows shorten, the sky becomes clear and bright.

Birdsong beams through canyons of brick and concrete. Breezes bush through blossoms and trees. The scent of tea mingles with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers. Another stick of incense is lit in memory of the dead.

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