Love and Parinirvana

February is a transformative month. It begins with the lunar new year, followed by the loosening of Winter’s grip and shift into the earliest moments of Spring.

On the 14th, lovers everywhere celebrate their amorous bonds with Valentines Day. While on the 15th, Buddhists worldwide observe Parinirvana Day, marking the death of the historical Buddha and the dissolving of his karmic bonds as he achieved nirvana.

The two days’ juxtaposition offers an intriguing meditation, one that perhaps calls into question the nature of love and the process of self realization. Tea, in a sense, offers this same consideration.

On the morning that sits between both days, I opt to brew an elegant 紅茶 hóngchá (“red tea”) gifted to me by a friend using a traditional Chinese wedding tea set.

Made of eggshell-thin porcelain, and hand-painted in vibrant colors, the distinctively-shaped teapot and its paired two cups are covered in an array of auspicious symbols meant to ensure prosperity and the happiness of lovers.

Red bats surrounding a stylized character for longevity (壽 shòu) carry with them a hidden rebus, as the word for “bat” in Chinese (蝠 ) is a homonym for “luck” (福 ). With the four bats arranged around the stylized symbol 壽 shòu, the character becomes a fifth bat. This, in turn, contains yet another rebus, 五福 wǔfú, “Five Blessings”.

Used in conjunction with a traditional marriage ceremony, the tea objects and the symbols they contain, are meant as a silent, visual invocation to deepen the connection between two lovers.

Used in the context of today’s reflection on the meaning of parinirvana, it is a wish for all beings to become free from suffering.

With one motion, tea can bring us together, and, through another, it can dismantle the ego. As a subtle art and mindful practice, the action of making tea can become a means to relocate the self in action. Through the observance and appreciation of its taste, we can enjoy its refinement and humble nature. To take a moment for tea is to take a moment for one’s self. To offer tea to a friend or lover is to open one’s heart.

In a way, the offering of tea is a form of death. The moment comes and goes. What was initially there in the beginning has now changed. What was once a living plant has been dried, then rehydrated and brewed. Once fully steeped, a tea leaf is as empty of a body as we will ultimately become with our own inevitable death. What remains is just a memory, of the flavor of tea and of life, and hopefully of love.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

Here But For Once a Year

Waking this morning to a flurry of snow and sheets of ice against my windowpane, Winter seems far from ending. While, traditionally, early February heralds 立春 risshun (“first Spring”), Winter’s grip seems tighter than ever. Dark grey skies and biting wind keep me next to the hearth in my tearoom.

On the coldest day of the year, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) employ a very special teabowl. Called a 筒茶碗 tsutsu-chawan (literally “tube teabowl”), the walls of this ceramic tea vessel are purposely high and its circumference is tight. Much like how I find myself huddling closer to the warmth of my iron kettle today, the shape of this bowl is meant to retain as much heat as physically possible, enabling one to enjoy tea at its warmest on the coldest day.

February 13th also marks 宗有忌 Sōyū-ki, the anniversary of the death of Yamada Sōyū, eighth grandmaster of the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of tea. The two combined makes the bringing out of this teabowl extra special.

Given that I only employ such a teabowl on the coldest day, I typically only use this teabowl once a year. Having learned this form many years ago, it makes remembering it next to impossible. Muscle memory, not the mind, must therefore act. This is to make tea with one’s heart.

Setting the teabowl down is like peering into a deep well.

In the dim light of the Winter’s day, everything seems to disappear into the shadows.

The teabowl, a contemporary piece of 備前焼 Bizen-yaki, feels like a smooth, worn brick in the hand.

Set in accordance to the 炉 ro (sunken hearth), everything is set to a comfortable angle. The bamboo teascoop, lacquer tea container, and whisk are set to my left.

Once purified, each object is ready for tea.

Three scoops of tea is finished by a light tap of the 茶杓 chashaku (bamboo teascoop) against the teabowl. The ceramic rings like a bell.

A brief moment passes before I lift the 柄杓 hishaku (wooden ladle) to draw water from the kettle, offering time to enjoy the vignette of powdered tea against the bare clay.

Whisked vigorously into a fine foam, the darkness that once dwelled within the deep void of the teabowl now seems to glow with the vibrant matcha.

Pausing once again to meditate on this moment, I am struck by the intense fragrance of this tea, the aroma floating upward from the depths of the tsutsu-chawan.

Here but for once a year, even the coldest day offers a moment for pause, to celebrate, and to make tea from the heart.

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A Voyage Upon a Tea Boat

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, February is marked by the long continuation of Winter’s grip. Here from the vantage point of my tea room window, overlooking the flurry of a snowstorm overtaking New York City, I cannot help but want to be indoors, nestled against near the warmth of a central heater, and tucked beside a boiling kettle and teapot. I, for one, find days like this quite inspiring for making tea. As a sort of “forced” predicament, snow days tend to make me venture inwards, both inside and into my mind. As always, tea follows.

On this particular day, kept indoors due to inclement weather, I set my kettle to boil and pull out a trusty 茶船 chá chuán, literally “tea boat”. But, what is a “tea boat”, pray tell? I thought I was remaining inside… Who would want to set upon an ocean voyage in such a cold and stormy day? Fear not… a “tea boat” is not quite what it seems.

Rather than a nautical vessel, a “tea boat” is a “warming” vessel! Constituting of an open shallow bowl, this enables the tea brewer to pour water into the teapot and then over the teapot, allowing one to warm the teapot from both the inside and outside! As one continues to do this, steeping after steeping, the water in the tea boat begins to climb up the surface of the teapot. If skillfully done, this water will retain its heat and help to “push” additional flavors out of each subsequent brews. Especially on cold days, this is essential, as teapots can cool down considerably by the latent cold air.

Over the many years I’ve been practicing gong fu cha, I’ve acquired several chá chuán, each with their own particular qualities. My very first was, like many of us beginning in tea, a simple porcelain rice bowl. Not pictured, I eventually gave this away to a tea friend. In its stead, I replaced it with a Yixing tea boat, found in the early 2000s at San Francisco’s Imperial Tea Court. Compared with its porcelain predecessor, the Yixing tea boat is ideal for using for brewing tea. The heat retention qualities of Yixing clay means that the water within the its walls remains hot over many “pour-overs”. Similarly, like the Yixing teapots it heats, over the years, with regular use, the clay has seasoned and attained a “jewel-like” patina.

Other tea boats I’ve collected throughout the years offer a variety of different brewing experiences. A Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white porcelain piece gifted to me by a dear friend and antiques collector is what I use in cooler days as it is more shallow and the water it keeps cools at a faster rate. Conversely, when I opt not to pour water over the teapot, I often use this dish to practice 干泡法 gàn pào fǎ (lit. “dry brewing method”). In this way, this piece is quite versatile.

In the Autumn months I use an ancient Chinese celadon bowl, the circumference of which has been broken. While still functional as a chá chuán, the imperfection of this piece is a poignant reminder of the effects of time and the ephemeral qualities of everything in this world.

Similarly, on nights set to a full moon, I often prefer to use another piece of ancient Chinese ceramics. In this instance, a large white teabowl from the Song period (960-1279) becomes a perfect complement to the big bright moon that lights the night sky.

When I step out into the world, I find other objects to use as tea boats. When I conduct tea meditations at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I use a piece of Japanese 懐石 kaiseki ware, skillfully repurposed by the tea house’s owner to become a beautiful tea object. While it functions perfectly as a tea boat, the fact that it is essentially a “found object” does not escape me. This, too, adds to the meditation, a worldly object used mindfully, a roof tile polished until it becomes a jewel!

An appreciation of chá chuán would not be complete until I mention the rather elusive and somewhat “endangered” 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán, the Chaozhou tea boat. Sometimes referred to as a 茶盤 chá pán, “tea tray”, the Chaozhou tea boat is made up of two pieces, a perforated “tray” that sits atop a deep basin. Originally made of ceramic or metal, these pieces are generally only large enough to fit a small Yixing teapot and, maybe, just three small tasting cups.

Once a common object in the everyday tea set of the inhabitants of the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province, over the years, the Chaozhou tea boat/tray became harder to find, often replaced by “fancier” and “splashier” bamboo, stone, and plastic “tea trays” (茶盤 chá pán). However, as people become increasingly interested in tea’s history, this older form, too, has seen a return in popularity, with modern replicas and contemporary re-imaginings appearing on the market.

So, as you cozy-up close to your tea set today to brew a hearty pot of tea, perhaps you’ll invite a tea boat along. As you sail these seven seas of a myriad of teas, this vessel may prove its worth to you. If you haven’t yet used one, perhaps you can “adopt” and “adapt” an object. Otherwise, use this “appreciation” as your guide.

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Friends for the New Year

Every year, as the new moon marks 立春 lìchūn (“beginning of Spring”), billions worldwide travel back to their homelands and to their families to celebrate what is known in China as 春節 chūn jié (“Spring Festival”). In what is regularly recognized as the world’s largest momentary mass migration, Spring Festival (and the events surrounding regional variations of Chinese New Year) becomes a moment when those who travel seek the respite of home and the warmth of close friends and family. In a period that is often known for great feasts and revelry, tea sits center stage, appearing at banquet tables, family gatherings, and adding an air of refinement amidst the clamorous celebrations.

Back in my hometown, I join my dear fellow tea friend Chris Kornblatt for tea at his sun-bathed tea space in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood. Entering his tearoom, which is a converted upstairs drawing room in an old Victorian home, the simple splendor of a space designed for tea is instantly evident. Set below a typical San Franciscan three-paned bay window, the wooden tea table beams a warm glow.

Placed atop its honey-toned surface, Chris expertly arranged a curated collection of teawares. Splashy Qing period small plates are set in a balanced juxtaposition against more sober contemporary Taiwanese wares.

A flawless Yixing teapot.

A teascoop hewn from flamboyant-grained wood found in an Eastern European forest.

Layers of fabric and woven reeds.

Sweet snacks made of dried persimmon and liquor-cured plums.

Teas emerge, one-by-one, from Chris’ tea chests. An array of Taiwanese oolong teas. A vibrant 高山茶 gāo shān chá (high mountain tea) from 杉林溪 Sān Lín Xī brewed in a handmade 蓋碗 gaiwan.

A beautifully oxidized and roasted 凍頂 Dòng Dǐng (“Frozen Summit”) oolong tea.

A fragrant 杏仁香鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (“Almond fragrance” Phoenix single bush oolong tea).

Every object has its purpose to make the moment happen. Teapots for brewing tea. Cups to enjoy it with.

A unique string of beads to count each steeping brewed.

A setting such as this reveals the traces of one’s 功夫 gōng . Everything within it are expressive of a life guided by tea, a mind that thoughtfully approaches the practice. With such attention to detail paid, one can’t help but to feel at home and to celebrate the beginning of Spring with dear friends.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

A Cold Day and the Shape of a Bowl of Tea

In the depth of Winter, we can’t help but want to be inside, enjoying the silence, a moment with friends, and nestled-up with a warm bowl of tea. In the tradition of Japanese tea ceremony (茶の湯 chanoyu), 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu said that “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. Beyond the heat of the beverage, this can mean many things. From the positioning of the fire in the tearoom, the transition from the 風炉 furo (lit. “wind brazier”) to 炉 ro (sunken hearth), to even the shape of the teabowl.

In the depths of Winter, one increasingly employs taller, more narrow teabowls, their construction meant to retain the heat of the 抹茶 matcha in what would be a very cold time of year. On the coldest day of the year (usually in January or February), one might employ a 筒茶碗 tsutsu chawan (lit. “tube-shaped teabowl”) or, in my case, a 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shapes teabowl). This bowl, with its rounded walls and mottled orange and white complexion I’ve named 柿 “Kaki”, as it resembles a big, round persimmon (a fruit which is dried in Winter and enjoyed dried as a sweet, leathery snack for tea).

As the year transitions from its deep freeze to Spring, Summer and Fall, the shape of the bowl changes. I’ve likened this to the opening of a flower, as teabowls become more and more open, from the 桃型茶碗 momo-gata (“peach shape” teabowl) I might use in Spring, to the wider 平形 hira-gata (flat) or 馬盥 badarai (“horse trough”) teabowls of Summer.

And on the hottest days, even I can’t resist to drink from a rough and misshapen 沓形 kutsu-gata (lit. “clog-shaped”) teabowl (pictured above).

In the Fall, as the world explodes in color and the signs of decay begin to come with the Autumn wind, teabowls once again gold inward, to hold-in the warmth. The sober 楽茶碗 Raku chawan seem to fit this time, as does a repaired 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan (“Ido” Korean-style teabowl) seems to fit this time.

As we enjoy the changes of the year, we can enjoy this in tea as well. Today, on this cold Winter’s day, I offer up this warm bowl of tea.

If you want to learn more about the many shapes of teabowls, the illustration above offers just a glimpse into the diversity of shapes and styles seen throughout the year.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Blue Sky Meditation

I once had a teacher instruct me, “When mediating, think of a big blue sky. Imagine this. A deep, clear, spotless blue sky. Soften your focus and widen your gaze so as to be expansive in all directions. In this sky, clouds may come and clouds may pass in front of you. Observe them without focusing on them. Let them drift naturally.”

Today, when I lead guided meditations, I often call upon this teaching. Paired with tea, I find this helps to settle the restless mind and inspire a mind of wonder. Set against an azure-colored 茶布 chá bù (tea cloth), the assembled tea and teaware for this morning’s meditation become the drifting clouds.

While making tea, we may need to momentarily put these items into use, it’s important not to focus on them.

The Yixing teapot, which has over the years been dedicated to brewing countless steepings of 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá (oolong tea) may feature in the process of brewing tea, but it, itself, is merely a vessel. Empty until filled with tea (and intention).

The other wares, too, have their role, but are not the primary purpose of tea nor a meditation with tea.

A teascoop is whatever you may find that conveys tea leaves into a teapot. Your hands will do just fine.

The wooden coasters upon which one places a teacup can be anything, from a leaf to a rock to nothing at all.

The cups, too, are not necessary. Even I have been known to drink directly from my teapot.

And the tea, yes, even the tea, is just that, perhaps nothing more. Don’t invest too much value into this lest it becomes yet another distraction.

All that is left, really, is nothing. No tea. No buddha. Just the blue sky. Expansive in all directions.

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When Drinking Tea, Remember the Source

A week ago I found myself slowly crawling out of a moment of stagnation. Facing writers block and feeling uninspired, I sat in my meditation room, the bright midday sun coming through a West-facing window. Caught in this moment, I decided to reconnect with my oldest “tea brother”, who I met years ago in college and who is now running his own tea business and tea house in Austin, Texas.

Rather than chat over the phone as we often do, he was busy unloading a new shipment of 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr (“raw” puer). Using this moment to virtually “drink tea” with my comrade, I decided to pull out a sheng puer of my own, a wild sheng puer picked in 1993, one I had been aging since my early days as a tea person and one I had acquired when I was working with Red Blossom Tea Company in San Francisco.

With tea and teaware set out in the warm light of the day, I began the process of making tea.

Paying homage to my days with Alice and Peter Luong, I chose to use a fine aged 硃泥 zhūní (“cinnabar clay”) Yixing teapot, undoubtedly procured by their father in the mid-1990s.

The tea leaves, placed in a 白銅 báitóng (“white copper”) and jade-accented leaf-shaped tea leaf-viewing vessel, the dark, curled leaves hinted at their wild nature, uneven, irregular and unpretentious.

I pause before I settle the leaves into the teapot just to breathe.

Once inside the red walls of the Yixing ceramic, a sense of anticipation comes over me.

My iron kettle comes to a boil and I pour water over the leaves.

Closing the teapot, what will emerge from this crucible is a mystery. I allow for a few minutes to pass to allow the tea to fully “wake”.

Pouring the tea out reveals a wonderful aroma. In the small space of my meditation room, abundant flavors of earth, of a dark forest floor, sweet incense, and wet stone rise into the air. Almost instantly I am taken back to the first moment I sat for tea, when everything was still new, when with every step I was still learning. It was humbling.

Just then, an old saying crossed my mind, one that a mentor of mine once taught me: 飲水思源 Yǐn shuǐ sī yuán, “When drinking water, remember the source.”

As I sat for tea, my mental blocks finally cleared, I contemplated this, perhaps to ask 飲茶思源 Yǐn chá sī yuán, “When drinking tea, remember the source.”

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