In Morning When the Lotus Bloom

With mid-July comes 小暑 shōsho (“minor heat”), the week’s that precede the hottest part of Summer. Even so, the heat of the day is hard to bear, leaving tea people to want to gather in the early morning.

In the dim light of dawn, a sense of coolness pervades, the muted colors and dark pools of shadow paring down the environment to its essentials. In the tearoom, this continues, with only the bare minimum used. A teabowl, a bamboo 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk), a well bucket containing cool water.

On this morning, as a light rain aids in keeping down the heat, I bring into the tearoom a small porcelain tea container from the 景德鎮 Jǐngdézhèn kiln, upon which blossoming lotus flowers have been painted in a deep cobalt blue. For my guest, this becomes a subtle nod that in July lotus viewing tea gatherings (蓮見の茶 hasu-mi no cha) are held in the early morning, right at the moment the floating aquatic flowers begin to bloom.

Holding it in my hand, I purify the porcelain container, the soft silk of the 仕服 shifuku gliding off its smooth surface.

Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku.

I take pause, to let myself and the guest appreciate the bamboo of the teascoop, its skin dappled with tiny spots which resemble light rain.

Finally, I cleanse the teabowl, an antique 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan, the color of which is similar to the light blush pink of a lotus bud.

Placing the first scoop of tea into the teabowl feels like entering into a dark cavern; the dawn producing voluminous swaths of glowing light and soft shadows.

Whisking the tea into a foam, I can’t help but to peer down into the teabowl, appreciating the low peaks and minute textures that give rise.

Finished and ready for my guest, we sit to enjoy the glowing presence of the 抹茶 matcha, itself, like a blossoming lotus, fragrant and electric.

Quietly enjoyed, the teabowl is returned to be cleansed once again, a thin residue of tea foam still clinging to its interior.

Concluding the tea gathering becomes its own meditation. The sound of the 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle), the light patter of rain, the shifting of silk over the chashaku once more.

A final appreciation of the teaware and the light of the day begins to creep through the screen of 簾 sudare (woven blinds made of reeds).

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

A Rancid Old Crock Peddling Roadside Tea: Tea and the Memory of Baisaō.

On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the era 宝暦 Hōreki (October 1751-June 1764), an old, hollow-cheeked man passed quietly into death. What he left to the world were primarily words scrawled on pieces of paper and memories collected by his closest friends. His only worldly belongings of any value, of which he had carried for years on his own back, had already been set ablaze by his own hand years before. Dying with the name 高遊外 Ko Yūgai, the man who died this day centuries ago was none other than the famed master of 煎茶 sencha, 売茶翁 Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, 1675–1763).

A former monk of the 黄檗 Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, Baisaō would become famous for traveling around the hills of Kyōto selling tea, and imparting mindful (if not often gruff and self-effacing) reflections upon those whom he would share tea with. Breaking from the time-honored tradition of whisked powdered tea (抹茶 matcha) that had become a mainstay of Japan’s elite during the Edo period (1603-1868), Baisaō brewed sencha, a new style of whole leaf green tea that came to Japan through the influence of Ming China (1368-1644).

Baisaō lived much of his life in abject poverty, never asking for money in exchange for the many cups of tea he poured or the calligraphy he wrote. Considered an eccentric for his unorthodox way of asceticism, he attracted the attention of Kyōto artists, writers, poets and aesthetes, all of whom were drawn to his simple lifestyle spent in appreciation of tea. Despite his popularity, Baisaō refused to establish a formal school of tea in his own lifetime, preferring to leave no trace.

Upon his retirement from selling tea, he famously burned his belongings. In the poem he offered to the remembrance of his bamboo basket named 僊窠 Senka (“Den of the Sages”), he mused “After the world-ending kalpa fires consume all things, Won’t the emerald hills still soar into the white clouds? With these words I commit you to the flames.”

Following his death, Baisaō’s tea practice would become the foundation upon which later practitioners of 煎茶道 senchadō (“Way of sencha) would emulate. Over time, his influence led to the popularization of sencha, both as a more accessible form of tea and as an alternative to the formalism of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony).

Baisaō wrote of himself “Years ago old Tu-chan predicted I’d be a great Dharma vessel, sixty-nine years come and gone, time it takes to crook a finger, wouldn’t he laugh to see me now, a rancid old crock peddling roadside tea.”

As I spend the morning in meditation on this, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I decide to commemorate the life of Baisaō in a way he may (or may not) have deemed fit. With a small clay kettle coming to a simmering boil atop a small brazier, I ready my teaware. An old sencha set I found years ago when I, much like Baisaō, had been living a life of chosen poverty in San Francisco. The tiny 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) and 湯冷まし yuzamashi (water cooling vessel) sitting before me.

Five small cups, turned upside-down, waiting to be cleansed.

A small celadon sweets caddy in the shape of a gourd as a tea container. A cut piece of bamboo inscribed with a poem to measure tea leaves. Hammered plates of copper to rest tea cups upon.

Pouring a small amount of boiled water into the yuzamashi, I let the water cool and warm the uneven shape of the ceramic tea object before I empty it out into the hōhin and then into the cups.

A small amount of tea is measured out from the celadon jar into the open void of the bamboo scoop. The leaves of this particular 冠茶 kabusecha (a partially shade-grown style of green tea) are a deep emerald.

Tilting the scoop downward, I let the leaves slide into the warmth of the open and empty hōhin.

The heat from the ceramic begins to activate the aroma of tea, which now, alongside the gentle scent of incense, begins to waft throughout the room.

Slowly I pour cooled water over the leaves and set the lid atop the tea vessel to steep the tea. Within a few seconds I begin decanting, pouring the tea into each cup.

Once emptied, I place the hōhin back down, lifting the lid off to allow the tea to breathe.

With a single mind, enjoying the moment at hand, I set each cup atop their copper rest. As I sit and sip the refreshing tea from the tiny earthenware cup, enjoying its lush flavors and long finish, I give pause and meditate on the life of this old master, on his will to leave no trace, and of the ripples he set into motion which are still felt today. As Baisaō said himself, “I offer a taste of my one cup tea, a Dharma transmission worked out on my own.”

****

If you would like to learn more about Baisaō, I highly recommend Norman Waddell’s 2008 book “The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto”. Throughout this article I’ve sourced information and translations from this wonderful text.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Poetry, Sencha, Tea

Two Magpies

This week saw the coming and going of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. Throughout East Asia, this day is celebrated, each culture with its own observation. In China, 7/7 marks 七夕 Qīxī (“Evening of Sevens”, Tanabata in Japanese, Chilseok in Korean).

In the ancient mythology that describes this day, lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) were not allowed to love one another. Banished to the opposite sides of the 天河 Tiānhé (“Heavenly River”, the Milky Way), they were only allowed to join on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day a bridge made from a flock of magpies would span across the Heavenly River, allowing the two lovers to meet.

In Chinese symbolism, the magpie is believed to be the bringer of joy. The word of magpie, 喜鵲 xǐquè, contains the word “joy” (喜 ). In Chinese art, when two magpies are seen together, they are supposed to represent “double happiness”, a wish for eternal happiness between lovers.

On 7/7, while I spent the morning preparing a bowl of 抹茶 matcha in observance of Tanabata, I spent the remainder of the day enjoying steeped tea in observation of Qīxī. As this day is sometimes called “Chinese Valentines Day”, I opted to use a pair of antique celadon 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (lidded tea cups), each of which were decorated with images of two magpies.

Made during the late 清 Qīng to early Republican (中華民國 Zhōnghuá mínguó) period (1880s-1920s), the two gàiwǎn, like the magpies painted upon them, had been kept together. Originally the two tea vessels would have probably have been given to a married couple, the image of the two magpies acting as a visual wish for perpetual happiness. Used on Qīxī, the two gàiwǎn reunited again, across space and time, to make tea together.

Recently arrived from China, I place the thin, wiry leaves of a 杏仁香鳳凰單欉 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cóng (“almond fragrance phoenix single grove”) carefully into the two tea vessels.

Entering into the empty and warmed gàiwǎn, this lets off a subtle hint of the flavor the oolong tea has to offer.

Finally, with the water used from the morning’s tea gathering, I begin the quiet process of brewing tea. The pale color of tea liqueur begins to steep-out from the unfurling tea leaves. The soft green-blue color of celadon darkening as the tea continues to brew.

Placing the painted lid atop each cup, I let the tea sit and strengthen. Time passes, the silence of the interim pause offering a moment to reflect on the meaning of love. Who had enjoyed these cups together before? How long was their happiness shared? A lifetime of love one can only wish for. Perpetual happiness.

I tilt back the lid of one of the gàiwǎn to reveal the deepening color of tea. Slowly I sip from my cup, and offer the other to my partner.

Once emptied of their liquid, the tea sits ready again, all that remains is the fleeting, quiet flavor of crisp, bitter almonds, soft on the palate.

As it often does, one cup becomes two, two becomes three, and countless cups come from this wedded pair. Cups that bring joy. Two magpies joining each other over time and space. On this, the seventh day of the seventh month.

****

To note (for all you who know your traditional Chinese lunar calendar), the date which 七夕 Qīxī falls on changes every year. In 2019, it falls on August 7th. That said, stay tuned for when tea is made on this day… More to come!

Leave a comment

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

For Star Festival, a Leaf for a Lid

On the seventh day of the seventh month, Japan celebrates 七夕祭 Tanabata matsuri (“Star Festival” or “Festival of the Weaver”). Based on the ancient Chinese legend that stars Vega and Altair were married, but could only meet once a year. The two stars, separated by the Milky Way, were said to be able to meet on this day.

In Japan, this coincides with a Shinto purification ritual in which a special ritual garment was woven on a loom called tanabata (棚機), which would be offered to a god for the protection of rice crops. On this day, people also affix strips of paper with wishes written upon them to bamboo.

In tea, many traditions exist to observe this day. In my own practice, I cannot help but to play off of this multitude of customs. While I am a student of the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), at times I play with elements from other schools. In the 裏千家 Urasenke tradition, a mulberry leaf is used as a lid for the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) on this day.

With mulberry leaves being linked to silk weaving, and since July 7th is typically a warm day, I cannot help but enjoy the meaningful and refreshing presence a broad, verdant mulberry leaf in the tearoom. For a mizusashi, I opt for a contemporary piece of glassware.

For a teabowl, I select a 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl), the marks upon which look like the cloudy swath of the Milky Way. For a tea container, I select a 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume (“Wakasa lacquer tea caddy”), the layers of sparkling lacquer looking like swirling nebulas or refreshing pools of water. Even the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) appears to have a bright patch of glowing stars against a dark field of bamboo.

Purifying the teaware brings a sense of freshness to the tea space.

The teabowl, slick with water, is cooling.

Adding 抹茶 matcha into its center releases the fresh aroma of tea.

As I whisk the tea into a soft, bright foam, my guest is treated to a seasonal tea sweet.

Set into a translucent jelly are two plump loquats. Glowing like two radiant stars, they’ve been set upon a dark green mulberry leaf, of which is resting in a Chinese monochrome celadon bowl.

Finally offering the bowl of tea to my guest, they let the sweet flavor of the candied loquat blend with the deep, rich flavor of matcha.

As we sit and relax for the remainder of the day, time passes slowly. Two stars meet together. Two friends grow closer. No trace of this except for the flavor of tea that lingers, the heat of the day that persists, the cool water that sits in my mizusashi, and the folded mulberry leaf that was used as a lid.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Tea

Along the Path

July has come and so too has the scorching heat of the day. The Sun’s rays are blinding. The humidity can easily sap one’s strength. The air is heavy and fragrant with grass.

For the tea practitioner, Summer presents a myriad of challenges. Overcoming the pervasive heat and inducing a sense of lightness and coolness is paramount. During this time, holding tea gatherings shifts to early morning, right as dawn’s light begins to push through the trees.

In a tea garden, one which culminates with the stone and mossy path of the 露地 roji (lit. “dewy ground”) that leads to the 茶室 chashitsu (tea room), the mere act of walking along the path during the first light of day is enough to cool the mind and ready the spirit to share in a bowl of tea.

Waiting in the 待合 machai of the outer garden, one contemplates the space between the stepping stones. Some stones are jagged and worn, others cut and chiseled by hand.

Looking out upon the garden, the mind is led to wander.

Up a hill or through a vignette framed by an open window.

In the morning, empty 灯籠 tōrō (stone lanterns) guide the way. One set into gnarled roots.

Another set beside the calm water of a shimmering pond.

Light becomes diffuse as it pushes through the leaves of a twisted maple tree. Bright pinks and blues collide with emerald greens and the muted greys and earthen tones of wood and stone.

Trees frame a view to another path in the distance. A lonely wooden bridge. Towering cedars. The sound of a waterfall.

A slight breeze sets leaves to dance atop their canopies. The smell of wet stone. An old well turned into a 蹲踞 tsukubai (a basin to purify oneself before entering a tea room).

Pebbles and old roof tiles pressed into the soft earth. Hand-hewn rocks next to timeworn stone.

A woven gate to an inner garden. A pause before one waits for tea.

****

Images featured come from the Portland Japanese Garden, taken during a recent trip to Portland, Oregon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

Facets of the same spirit. Interdependence.

In the tradition of my California-based Japanese Sōtō Zen lineage, July 4th is celebrated as “Interdependence Day”. As a coy musing on the American national holiday, Interdependence Day takes into account the inter-connectedness of all beings, of time and space. It honors the interplay of individuals, the connections we forge and have yet to forge. It recognizes that no one person is an island, and that we are all part of a larger whole. As 洞山良价 Dòngshān Liángjiè (807–869), a famous Zen master, said,

“The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

There is a source and a product of the source. Each depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.

As a practitioner of tea, I see this natural tendency everywhere. Tea, the plant (Camellia sinensis), has its origins somewhere along the edges of modern-day Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal. Chinese tea culture has its origins in these otherwise “foreign” cultures. Similarly, Korean and Japanese tea culture borrows heavily from Chinese tea culture(s) from various points in time. What you see (and taste) today is the result of centuries of cultural interplay. Each depend on one another without being wholly dependent on one another.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), the act of making tea calls upon a multi-faceted history. Chinese methods of preparing tea from the 唐 Táng, 宋 Sòng, 元 Yuán, and 明 Míng periods (618-1644) all have had their influence on the development of Japanese tea ceremony from the 15th to 17th century. From the teaware to the manner of use and even the psychology of the tea ceremony have been marked by a “foreign” culture (as well as many other “foreign” cultures).

Similarly, too, chanoyu has been influenced by other arts. 香道 kōdō (xiāngdào in Mandarin; lit. “Way of incense”), an art that originally has its roots in ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist incense ceremonies of India, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan, has had an immense influence on tea. From the way incense and incense utensils are used, held, cleansed, and shared, each were eventually echoed in the tea ceremony. Even the mentality of kōdō, which attunes the host and guests’ mind to the singularity of a moment, is present in tea. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the two arts, one will find how influential early incense practitioners such as 志野宗信 Shino Sōshin (1444–1523) were to the bourgeoning art and practiced chanoyu.

On this Interdependence Day, I can’t help but to bring together these arts. Normally I burn incense prior to sitting for tea. This is commonly done before the guests come for tea as the aroma of incense should typically not compete with the flavor of tea. However, today I opt to enjoy both together. Setting a piece of glowing charcoal into a small 楽 Raku family 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), I place a thin leaf of mica and fine sliver of 沈香 jinkō (aloeswood) atop the shaped mound of warm ash. Placed within an antique wooden タバコ盆 tabako-bon (“tobacco tray”), I take a moment to pause and appreciate the quiet aroma of the rare incense wood.

Next, I set out my tea equipage: a modern 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made by Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango. These I set within a Song period 青白 qīngbái “green-white” porcelain 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki 香合 kōgō made by my dear tea friend Nessim. Purifying each, I am reminded of how similar the action is to cleansing the incense wares. A 袱紗 fukusa (silk cloth for purifying objects) is used for both incense and tea. The chashaku is cleansed as if it were a silver incense implement.

The bowl is warmed and set before me as if it were a cleansed incense cup.

Three scoops of tea are placed into the center of the teabowl, as if I were issuing-out a small heap of 抹香 makkō (“powdered incense”) into an incense burner.

The tea is whisked and the aroma is instantly evident, growing stronger as it lifts upward from the small, shallow Summer bowl.

Set side-by-side, I appreciate the delicate scent of aloeswood with the bright fragrance of tea. Lifting the bowl to my lips, both tea and incense are enjoyed. The silky foam of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) and the warm resin of rare wood.

With the tea finished, I take a moment to view the final dregs clinging to the jade-like ancient porcelain.

Cleansing the implements one last time, I savor the lingering flavors and intermingling of spirits. Of cultures. Of flavors. Of host and guests.

When we share in a bowl of tea, we also celebrate this. With this bowl of tea I give to you, I humble myself. By accepting the bowl of tea, you reflect and respect the effort and attention that I put into preparing the bowl of tea. The feeling is different yet mutual, and ultimately in unison. When I look across the table, I see a buddha.

Happy Interdependence Day.

Leave a comment

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

A Mirror Onto Tea

I recently received a package from a farmer in Fujian, China. Filled with individually-wrapped samples of various 岩茶 yánchá (“cliff tea”) from the ancient tea producing region of Wuyishan. Wanting to test each tea and assess their flavors without distraction, I set about creating a minimal tea space in the center of my brightly-lit apartment in New York City.

In the clear, bright light of the mid-Summer’s day, I could easily discern the various qualities of each teas’ leaves. Opting to do a “focused tasting”, where I would methodically work through teas based on variety, I decided to first test several 肉桂 Ròuguì (lit. “cinnamon”, referring to the characteristic flavor of the tea).

Opening up the first package of tea, I carefully set the long, twisted leaves atop an old 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) tea scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. In the bright light of the day, I could instantly note aspects of the tea’s overall health, care taken during production, oxidation level, and degree of subsequent final roasting done by the tea master in Wuyishan. Pockets of red intermixed with darker shades hinted at mid-level roasting, one meant to preserve complexity of the tea’s original flavor, supported by layers of roasted flavors.

Placed within a warm and wetted white porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (“lidded bowl”), the rich aroma of the tea began to lift upward, foreshadowing flavors to come.

As the mid-afternoon began, I sat before my tools for tasting: the white gàiwǎn, a matching white porcelain 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán (lit. “Chaozhou tea boat”) and white porcelain tasting cup. These, plus a kettle of boiling water, were all I needed to assess the qualities this tea had to offer.

Pouring the first round of hot water over the leaves, a light foam arose from the coiled bundle of tea that sat submerged in the tiny porcelain vessel. From this, I could determine how oily the tea would be (something I often look for in a high quality yánchá).

Placing the lid atop the gàiwǎn, I waited for the tea to steep, using the small space between the lid and the bowl to see the color of the tea liqueur darken with time.

Once ready, I fully decanted the tea, letting the now unfurled leaves rest in the gàiwǎn for the next brew, an opportunity for me to further investigate their physical attributes.

Finally, tea in cup, I admired its color; a deep reddish brown, akin to a burnt umber. Next, lifting the cup to my nose, I assessed it fragrance. Sweet aromas of chestnut and spices intermingled with notes of peppercorn, roasted barley, and the haunting scent of incense.

Lastly, I sipped the tea, slurping as I aerated the tea liqueur across my soft palete to enhance my ability to taste the tea’s flavor. Layers upon layers of spice notes, cacao, wet limestone, bittersweet chocolate, caramelized sugar, and cinnamon bark flooded my senses. Even after the tea had been fully consumed, the flavor lingered on.

Breathing out again produced a residual sensation, a cool, slick finish and the characteristic 岩韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”). This, classically, is defined through five distinctive points found in all great yánchá of Wuyishan: 活 huó (liveliness), 甘 gān (sweetness), 清 qīng (clarity, pertaining to the liqueur and taste), 香 xiāng (fragrance), and 岩骨 yángǔ (lit. “rock bones”, as if the tea has substance or the heartiness of eating meat).

Not content with drinking just the first steeping, I continued long through the remainder of the afternoon brewing cup after cup of this tea. Even as the day wore on and my partner returned home from work, I invited her to join in on the appreciation of this fine tea. Brewed in a simple white porcelain gàiwǎn, enjoyed with small white porcelain cups, each acted as a mirror upon tea, reflecting back to us the complex and shifting flavors of this superb Ròuguì yánchá in the bright light of the mid-Summer’s day.

****

If you would like to learn more about Wuyishan’s many varieties of classically-crafted yánchá by experiences them directly, I hope to soon offer some of my favorites through connections I’ve collected throughout my years in tea. If you are interested to learn more, and perhaps would like to purchase some of these select teas, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Additionally, I cannot help but to give credit where credit is due to Austin Hodge of Seven Cups Tea. His eloquent definition of 岩韻 yányùn, as well as his detailed information about yánchá was a great help to my developing of this article. You can find his full write up on yánchá here on his website.

Leave a comment

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