In 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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.