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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.