The Exuberance of Imperfection

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With Autumn in full swing and the chill of Winter creeping in, I sit down to enjoy an afternoon of tea within the warmth of my tearoom. The sky is a muted grey, framed by bright, white clouds above and the emerging Fall colors upon the tops of every tree.

IMG_1122As I sit and take in this changing view I pull a treasured antique 石灣窯 Shíwān yáo (Shiwan pottery) teapot from my tea cabinet. In the soft light of the day that filters through the tearoom window, the bottle-green/blue glaze of the tiny teapot seems to glow and radiate in flamboyant swirls and unctuous pools. Paired with two 織部焼 Oribe-yaki cups (upon which the abstract motif of rain and/or 簾/すだれ sudare “blinds” are inferred upon their surface with an iron-oxide glaze) from a now-extinct kiln, the tea objects seem to be in a sort of silent conversation.

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Deciding to brew a beautiful 九龍袍 Jiǔlóng páo (literally “Nine Dragon Robe”) Wuyishan oolong tea with this vessel, I pull a scoop-full of dark, twisted leaves from a large ceramic tea leaf storage vessel. On closer inspection, they appear slightly purple in cast, due to a specific mutation found within this variety. As such the tea is sometimes referred to as 紫紅袍 Zǐhóng páo (“Purple-Red Robe”, as it is a mutation from the famous 大紅袍 Dàhóng páo, “Big Red Robe”).

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The curling leaves enter the dark, empty void of the Shiwan teapot like a dragon entering a cave.

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The roughly-hewn shape of the teapot becomes more apparent with every passing moment. Often unseen, the underside of the lid bares the marks of simple hand construction, the subtle indentations of the maker’s fingers visible from when they last touched the soft, unfired clay.

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Filled with hot water from my antique 鉄瓶 tetsubin (“iron kettle”), a fine foam bubbles to the top of the Shiwan teapot and the tea leaves begin to wake. Gentle aromas evocative of wet wood, incense and warm spices rise from the open tiny ceramic vessel.

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The teapot, made in the bustling kilns of Nanfeng (located in Shiwan town of Foshan City) during the late-Qing/Republican period, is a loving tribute to the mass-produced common-ware that once dominated the Pearl River Delta of southern China. Enticed by the more luxurious (and expensive) works of the famous kilns of the Song, Ming, and Qing (Shiwan potters were highly active starting in the late Ming), the artisans of Shiwan pottery developed their own style that both made reference to and “riffed” upon antique forms. The result were the employing of beautiful glazes, and pure forms. Now a relative rarity at the tea table, this little Shiwan teapot still exudes a simple elegance.

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Rough in form and full of imperfections, from the way the lid rests awkwardly or how liquid pours unevenly from its spout, the little teapot has a vibrant sense of character that most other teaware lack. Unlike the crisp, precise forms found in the teapots from 宜興 Yíxìng (the shape of which this vessel is undoubtedly attempting to replicate), the Shiwan teapot, in contrast, feels softer, more natural, humble, human.

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Brewing the beautiful 九龍袍 Jiǔlóng páo, its deep flavor unfolds over the course of the afternoon. Hints of carob, marigold, rose water and blueberry swirl and emerge from every cup the little teapot produces.

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Light shifts and clouds lift and the little Shiwan teapot is emptied and left to dry, waiting for the next time it is invited to brew tea. Even in its resting state, there is a sense of liveliness in this antique pot. From the soft impression of the artisan’s stamp to the ice-like crackles upon its glazed surface, to the sandy grit of the exposed clay; every aspect of this tiny vessel is a celebration of imperfection.

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If you are interested in learning more about Shiwan ceramics, I highly recommend the book Shiwan Ceramics: Beauty, Color, and Passion by Fredrikke S. Scollard, Terese Tse Bartholomew, and the Chinese Culture Foundation (1995).

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Tea for a Broken World

With October at its halfway point, Autumn’s grip on the world seems at once soft but typified by a growing chill. Cold winds whip through the trees, pulling leaves from limbs and giving the world a distinctive weathered and worn appearance.

Sitting down for tea this afternoon, the sound of the wind outside my window, I cannot help but to be inspired.

Desiring something darker and stronger, as if to offer some sort of resistance to the weather outside, I select a 老欉水仙 lǎo cóng shuǐxiān (“Old Bush Water Immortal”) Wuyi oolong. To brew it, I choose an antique 思亭壶 Sī Tíng hú Yixing teapot, set within a broken Ming-period shallow celadon bowl.

With a kettle set to boil, I methodically warm each vessel; the teapot, the Korean sookwoo, the three small buncheong-jagi cups.

The light of the day shifts from bright to muted dark as clouds pass over the sun. The large, twisted leaves of the dark oolong tea offer up their aroma upon first wetting.

The frantic actions of the bending trees outside offer a stark contrast to the thoughtful, measured movements within the tearoom.

Small vignettes of water rising from the teapot’s spout, steam swirling from the kettle’s mouth, and the Yixing clay darkening as the tea fully steeps.

As the world outside my window tears itself apart in preparation for Winter’s still and ice-bound cadence, within the world of tea, life continues to change and evolve.

The tea is brewed and it’s liqueur seems to glow like copper in the tiny grey cups.

A moment is left to linger as the leaves drift upon a softening breeze.

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Autumn and the Year Begins to Decay

IMG_2061Autumn marks the steady decline of the year into the chill of Winter. Like a gourd fully ripening on the vine, Autumn always has the most tenuous existence. At once brilliant with its vibrant bursts of color, then falling, collapsing upon itself, broken and rotting.

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The evanescence of Fall is beautiful but bittersweet. In tea, this is celebrated with the joyful use of broken (and often repaired) tea items. In October, one finds the yabure-buro (敗風炉) iron tea kettle brought into the tearoom, distinguished by its broken and tattered iron flange. Often, too, are pieces of lacquer repaired teaware employed, their incomplete and fused-together profiles seem to fit perfectly amidst the contemplation of Autumn leaves and the growing chill of the season.

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On this early October morning, I opt to bring out a small antique porcelain hōhin (宝瓶, handleless teapot). While it gleams a pure white glow in the soft morning light, the broken and repaired edge of its circumference seems right at home in the season, adding character to the otherwise plain piece and giving a glimpse into the story of this little vessel.

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To accompany the small hōhin is a collection of Chinese monochrome porcelain teacups, the size and shape of each being slightly different from the other. Their irregularity seems fitting alongside the other imperfections Autumn brings.

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Repaired with gold lacquer (金継ぎ; kintsugi), the coldness of the white porcelain hōhin is softened by the warmth of the mottled gold mend. How evidence of an injury can humble an individual, so too does the presence of this repair evoke a sense of humility. How Autumn, too, can remind us of how weak we are against the biting cold of Winter, and how all eventually decays with time.

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Yet in Autumn we are also reminded of how the year progressed.

Pulled from a tightly-sealed tea canister where they had remained packed away since Spring are the uneven twists and coils of a roasted 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea).  Revealed for a second time since when the weather was warmer and the world was shining in green and glimmering leaves, the tea seems to infer this season; a “second Spring” amidst the chill of an October day.

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As the kettle comes to a full boil, the tiny world of the tearoom seems to warm and glow.

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The tiny hōhin , initially rinsed and warmed with boiled water, is now filled with the leaves of the oolong tea. Almost instantly, the residual heat of the water within the vessel wakes the tea and its intense floral aroma begins to drift upwards into the air.

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Mere seconds pass and the tea is decanted. With finger tips and thumb holding the tiny vessel, I mindfully and methodically move from one cup to the next and back again.

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As the tea continues to steep, and cup after cup is enjoyed, its color deepens, changes, and fades. As Spring turned to Summer and now to Fall, the world around us, too, transforms. Perhaps we’ve become wiser, maybe a bit jaded. The chill in the air, maybe, feels a bit colder for this reason too. But, in some small way, tea brings us back to center.

What a subtle gesture it is, to enjoy a broken and mended tea vessel during this time of year. To be reminded of our faults and our mistakes, and to still be able to smile. Its not folly but wisdom to break something and repair it again. To patch up the fissures with lacquer and gold. Repaired in such a way, a tea object becomes stronger. Repaired in such a way, we choose not to forget but to celebrate our imperfections.

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Opening a Mystery

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In the middle of a thunderstorm my iron kettle begins to boil. In the dim light of the tearoom, I produce a wooden box from an antique tea cabinet. Tied-up in silk cord, the box contains a mystery.

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To the unknowing, it’s difficult to tell what this container holds. However, for a tea person like myself, the sight of a box like this produces a bubbling sense of joy and an eager sense of curiosity grows as I sit down for tea.

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Once opened, nothing is revealed, save for what appears to be a dark and endless void.

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From the folds of cloth emerge the form of a black 楽焼 Raku-yaki teabowl.

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With a thunderous boom, the sky alights with a bolt of lightning and the rain beats heavy on my window. Holding the bowl in my hands, it feels sturdy yet featherlight. It’s form is uneven, shaped by the hands of the master potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. As third generation of the Shōraku kiln, his hands have created a vessel whose history spans back centuries to the 1500s, in an era when the “tea ceremony” was in its formative years.

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It was during this period, one aptly named 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States”, the Japanese archipelago was undergoing tremendous upheaval and change. In this age marked by endless war, the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu (tea ceremony, literally “hot water for tea”) emerged as an art form and way to cultivate the self.

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By the late 1500s, the Way of tea (茶道; sadō or chadō) was being promulgated by a number of tea masters, the most notable being 千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522 – April 21, 1591). Influenced by Buddhist notions of humility and directness of action, Rikyū’s approach to tea stressed simplicity. From the use of a one-and-a-half mat tearoom to the employment of pared-down tea utensils, Rikyū’s tea was, itself, a practice in austerity.

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As one who often adopted (and adapted) objects for tea, Rikyū commissioned a tile-maker named 長次郎 Chōjirō (1516-?1592) to produce hand-moulded teabowls to fit the wabi aesthetic of the tea ceremony. From this, Chōjirō, who was himself a son of a Korean emigrant, would produce what would become his signature style of teaware: an adorned and lustrous black teabowl, the color of which was derived from the very rocks pulled from the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto.

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Recognized as a ceramics master in his own lifetime, in 1574 Chōjirō was presented a seal inscribed with the character “楽” raku (meaning “joy”) by the then leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣 秀吉. Since then, the Raku family and families affiliated with it have been producing beautiful and characteristically understated ceramics for use in tea.

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Pulled from the crucible of the kiln, this jet-black bowl now lights the way in the darkness of the Autumn storm. The scent of freshly-made matcha illuminating this moment, marking it forever in my mind.

As the downpour lingers on, so too does the flavor of tea, the first of many sips shared with this beautiful bowl.

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Humbled by History

IMG_2138In many ways, the path of tea has a humbling effect. Throughout its long history, one can see this repeated many times and in many ways. Sometimes this can be quite literal, as with the small door of a chashitsu 茶室, the nijiriguchi 躙口, in which one must crawl through to enter before accepting a bowl of matcha. To even accept tea is to humble oneself to something created, offered and shared.

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Sometimes the humility of tea can be something quite different, if not more elusive. At times, tea can open one’s mind to new ways of thinking, to new ways of viewing one’s place in this world and in the time they live in. Sometimes this realization can humble oneself to the expansiveness of history and to the minute nature of our own existence.

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Recently, I submitted a small glazed tea jar to be appraised by a group of ceramic experts.  For years, I have used this tea container to store tea, having been gifted the piece by a collector while traveling in Korea. What I had originally believed to be a Northern Song period (960-1127) Dìngyáo 定窯 (Dìng kiln ware) tea jar was put to the scrutiny of the group. Many different appraisals were put forth, some even questioned the object’s veracity (which often is the case given how “accurate” modern fakes can be).

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This morning I received word from one expert, saying that this piece was most likely from the Northern Song period, but was not Dìng. Instead, he posited that it was in fact Yǐngqīng 影青 (literally “Shadow Green”) ware, most likely from a more remote kiln in the Anhui region (located in eastern China, inland and approximately 400 kilometers west of the modern-day metropolis of Shanghai).

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Sitting down for tea this morning and giving a closer inspection of this small cháyè hú 茶葉壺 (literally “tea leaf vessel”), I guess the tell-tale signs were always there. The soft, greenish-yellow hue, the pressed images of a coiled dragon and small língzhī 靈芝 (Ganoderma lucidum) shaped cloud, and the subtle crackle of the glaze; all are characteristic of these early “porcelain-like” ceramics of the Song period Qīngbái 青白 kilns (of which Yǐngqīng is a style of this early porcelain, though the name Yǐngqīng seems to only appear starting in the 18th century).

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This surprising turn of events has since offered a new insight into and appreciation for the piece, of which I had not expected. Real or fake, from one kiln or another, putting an object up against the expertise of respected collectors was a humbling act.

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Rather than feign knowledge, I asked for guidance. Rather than defend a stance, I opened myself up to inquiry and examination. In the end, history revealed itself, as it will continue to reveal itself each time I further inspect this object.

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Whether it is real or fake, new or old, I will continue to treasure (and use) this small tea leaf container. It will remain as a constant reminder to walk this world with humility, and as a subtle encouragement to continue to meditate on this point.

I cannot help but to play upon the words of the thirteenth century Zen master and founder of the Sōtō school (曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū) Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 1200–1253). To investigate history is to investigate the self, and to investigate the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by a myriad of things.

 

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EXCLUSIVE: All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots

All About Yixing & Chaozhou Tea

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

I have been on the road (and in the air) for much of August. Now back on terra firma I final have a brief moment to catch my breath and add more delicious video content from a Summer’s worth of tea talks and interactive workshops. So, without further ado, I present to you “All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots”.

As with previous tea talks (uploaded to this blog and those still pending), “All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots” delves deep into the singular and diverse topic of China’s most famous ceramic ware for the brewing of tea. Prized since the Ming period, Yixing teaware became the hallmark of quality and refinement for any 茶人 (chá rén, “tea person”) from the Ming up to this very day. Conversely, Chaozhou teapots have remained relatively unknown outside of the region of Chaozhou until relatively recently. In this event and live broadcast, we explore the historical and creative interplay of the two as they developed over time in conjunction with the history of tea and tea culture in China. Additionally, we went deep into the qualities that define teapot construction and functionality, and offered insights into sourcing, selecting, seasoning, and brewing with both unique teapot styles.

As part of an ongoing series that examines the diversity of China’s tea culture, “All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots” was  a fully-immersive workshop and tea talk, featuring tea tasting, discussions and education on art history, and offered hands-on opportunities to brew tea and hone teapot brewing skills. Participants were encouraged to ask questions, taste tea, and bring their own teapots to use and share.

“All About Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots”

Link to video

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To aid in the watching of this almost 3 hour-long recording, I offer you a brief table of contents. The first half of the tea talk and interactive workshop is a presentation of over 30 slides (a fraction of which is pictured above), followed by a break-out discussion and tea brewing session.

Presentation Contents:

  • Locating Yixing and Chaozhou
    • Clays, Quarries, Kilns, and Tea
  • Origins and Evolution of Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots
    • Precursors to Popularlization
    • Historical Forms
    • Place in Tea Culture
  • Qualities of Yixing & Chaozhou Teapots
    • Clay
    • Firing
    • Pot Construction
    • Pot Form & Function
  • Brewing with a Yixing & Chaozhou Teapot
    • How to Pour, Brew, Hold & Other Considerations

Break-Out Discussion: Teapots Used and Teas Tasted:

  • 1970s-1980s 綠泥 lǜ ní (“green clay”) 西施壺 Xīshīhú (“Lady Shi of the West Teapot”) brewing 大禹嶺 Dà Yǔ Lǐng from Taichung County, Taiwan (elevation 2650 meters)
  • Late 19th-20th century 朱泥 Zhū ní (“cinnabar clay”) 思亭壺 Sī tíng hú (“Master Si Ting Teapot”) brewing a traditionally oxidized and roasted 鐵觀音 Tiě Guān Yīn “Iron Goddess of Mercy” from Anxi County, Fujian, China
  • Late 1990s 朱泥 Zhū ní (“cinnabar clay”) 肉扁 Ròu biǎn (“Lump of Meat”) teapot, commissioned by Roy K. Fong of Imperial Tea Court, brewing 大烏葉 Dà Wū Yè (“Big Black Leaf”) 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) from Chaozhou County, Guangdong, China
  • Late 1980s-early 1990s 黃泥 Huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Chaozhou high-fired 羅漢 Luóhàn-shaped teapot brewing a 大赤甘 Dà Chì Gān (“Large Red Sweetness”) from Wuyishan, Fujian, China

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Look out for more tea talks and workshops soon to be added to this blog. I regularly present and moderate at museums, universities, tea houses, cultural centers, etc. For speaking inquiries, feel free to reach out to scotttea888 (at) gmail.com.

 

 

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Respite in the Heat of Summer: Images from a Morning Tea Meditation

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The heat of a Summer’s morning sparked creativity, leading to improvisation. As has been my practice for the past few months, I’ve set out every Sunday morning into the island of Manhattan to offer a meditation paired with tea. Seeking to put into practice the notion of 一期一会 (In Japanese it’s ichi-go ichi-e, literally “one moment, one meeting”), I try to employ a variety of sensory cues to differentiate each gathering. From the scroll or flower in the alcove of the tearoom, to different tea, teaware, cups, or even waste water bowl, each will change in keeping with the subtle shifts that the seasons present. Beyond just the selection and using of a combination of utensils to set the tone and perhaps “tell a story” (known as 取り合わせ/とりあわせ toriawase in Japanese), this also helps to keep the setting fresh and, in the context of Buddhist mediation, encourage the cultivation of a “beginner’s mind” (初心, chūxīn in Chinese, shoshin in Japanese).

In moments like this, fresh-picked mulberry leaves become an accompaniment to the enjoyment of tea, inviting their refreshing verdant quality into the tearoom. Drops of dew, still present on their emerald surface, gleam in the soft light of the tearoom and cool the mind as cups of tea are sipped. Atypical to the usual wooden or metal cup stands often employed in a tea gathering, these humble leaves act to wake the mind and stir the curiosity of the guests. What a treat it is to enjoy something so ephemeral as this!

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With the chiming of the meditation bell the preparation of the tea begins. The participants sit in silence as the motions to make tea take place. The teapot is placed within a shallow bowl and warm water is poured from the kettle into its empty interior. The pot is lifted and held in the hands, rolled in a circular motion to warm its ceramic walls. After, the contents are distributed into the empty and waiting cups, warming them and adding to a sense of refreshing cleansing.

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The long, wiry leaves of a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) are pulled from an antique Korean Goryeo-style incised celadon incense container and placed upon the concave hollow of a bamboo tea scoop. With a single motion, the leaves are then poured into the wide opening of the teapot. The residual heat from the water used to initially heat the teapot now works to activate the fragrance of the tea, a fresh 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”), releasing an incredibly subtle scent of orchids and magnolia into the air.

At this moment, I could not resist but to pick up the pot one more time and pass it to the guests to appreciate the beautiful aroma of this tea. This brief interlude within the beginning of the meditation became a means to further focus the sitters’ minds on the moment at hand.

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As the kettle comes to its first boil, the water is poured into the pot and over the leaves. In a matter of seconds, the tea is brewed and the teapot makes its way from cup to cup, filling each over a series of successive passes. This procedure helps to distribute the flavor of the tea evenly, so each cup tastes the same. As such, one does not need to use an additional serving vessel, or 公道杯 gōngdào bēi (“fairness cup”), as is typical in many modern tea settings.

As with the practice of mediation, tea, too, is a reductive process. Through modulating one’s practice to reduce and remove objects from the tea gathering, one further refines and clears the tea space and the mind of “things” to attach one’s self to. Simple practices like this not only reinforce being resourceful, but also stress a mindset of “doing more with less”, a mentality core to both Buddhism and gong fu cha.

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As the participants of this morning’s meditation take a moment to sip from their cups, their eyes naturally begin to move around the tearoom. Sparsely furnished and containing objects meant only for the making of tea, the presence of a flower and a work of calligraphy in the tea space act as focal points to aid in the deepening of one’s meditative practice.

For this morning, a fan decorated with a piece of calligraphy referring to the season helps to bring the sitter closer to the moment. Much like the mulberry leaves, the presence of a paper and bamboo fan on a warm Summer’s morning helps to further infer a sense of coolness into the room. It is as if the fan, while motionless in the alcove, is still able to produce a relaxing breeze, if only in the imagination of the guests.

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As time passes and each cup gradually empties, the gentle sound of the kettle coming to a boil heralds the beginning of a second and third steeping of the floral oolong in the small Yixing clay teapot. The clamor of the street outside subsides briefly and a beautiful sense of quietude is welcomed to sit with us in the room as we meditate. A light breeze mingles in the air and brings the scent of aloeswood incense to the guests.

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Steeping after steeping occurs, one after another. In this process, one finds a practice.

It is often said that in tea, one has to make a hundred bowls of tea before they can make a bowl of tea. Read literally, this statement makes no sense, but taken as a koan to aid in one’s meditation, the reality of this saying becomes clear.

After performing an action over and over again, one becomes more comfortable in it. After one sits cross-legged or in the lotus position for the first time, it may hurt one’s legs. However, if one makes a practice of it, the posture becomes more routine and more second nature. Similarly, the first time to meditate might seem difficult, and one’s mind might become preoccupied with questions of “Am I doing this right?”,  “Am I doing this wrong?”, or “Why can’t I focus”. However, as one’s body and mind adjust to the action, it, too, becomes more natural.

Tea, too, is like this. A tea not brewed before may present itself as a challenge. Naturally, questions of “Will I over-steep it?” or “Will I make it too bitter?” may arise. Yet, here, the focus is not the tea, but is the “I”. This fear or preoccupation with how one will perceive (or be perceived) is additional and ultimately distracting from the action of making tea. In truth, tea can over-steep and tea is naturally bitter. With practice, one will get more natural with bringing out tea’s flavors. In time, one will just steep tea. In this repetition of action, the “I” falls away and all that is left is the tea.

In steeping 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”) this morning, the actions of brewing the tea may seem repetitive, and, to some extent, this is true. Boiling the water, pouring the water, brewing the tea, and pouring the tea. Repeat.

However, as the challenge of brewing this tea results in the better understanding of the tea and how to access its myriad of flavors, a new sense of freedom develops. It is at this point that one no longer is attached to the notion of making the tea too bitter. Instead, one just makes the tea. With this mindset, aspects such as the teapot, the heat of the kettle, or even something as subtle as the temperature in the room can further inform each steeping. In this moment, the mind is fully open, ready to mindfully respond to everything it can perceive.

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With the tea fully brewed-out, its final flavors become just a sweet remembrance of its initial strength. After the last steeping, I conclude by pulling every leaf from the tiny Yixing clay teapot. This, too, helps those gathered to admire the tea and to focus on the moment. A minute later, as the mind settles, a final chime of the bell marks the end of this morning’s meditation.

At times like this, I cannot bring myself to speak. Instead, I let the moment convey its countless volumes. A poem in every sensation. A stanza comprised of sunshine written across the grass mat, collected in a teacup. Verses made of steam rising from a teapot and the smile of anticipation that forms on my face.

When tea accompanies meditation, it, too, becomes the meditation. With each rising of the kettle’s boil comes the potential for infinite possibilities. Each moment different from the last. Flavors from one steeping to the next change and transform, and the mind is left to explore itself. A fresh-picked mulberry leaf can become a tea cup stand and become a point of introspection upon one’s self in space and time. A paper fan can typify the moment and cool the mind. The simple act of brewing tea can awaken one during a warm Summer’s morning and become the means to cultivating a lifelong practice.

 

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