Monthly Archives: September 2019

In Anticipation of Autumn’s Colors

IMG_1939Today is the Autumnal equinox, and for for now, the light of the Sun lasts as long as the dark of the night. Morning wakes with leaves coated in dew, giving way to skies covered in a thin veil of wispy clouds, blown by the Autumn breeze. Slowly, the colors of Fall begin to unfurl. While some of Summer’s emerald leaves still hang onto the canopies of trees, others, like the sycamore, begin to turn yellow as September continues onward. The dogwood exchanges its green lacquer leaves with ones touched with crimson, along with berries as red as cinnabar. Quince fatten and glow like pale jade, and the spiny husk of the chestnut burr begin to turn a rich tawny hue. Fields of wild grasses wave and ripple in the wind like flowing sheets of golden silk, dappled with bright field flowers.

For weeks now, I have seen these slow and subtle changes play out from the vantage point of my tearoom window and wait in anticipation for Autumn’s colors. Unable to resist any longer, I decide to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”) in a brightly-colored Autumn 茶碗 chawan. Setting water to boil in my iron antique 茶釜 chagama (spoutless kettle), I begin to assemble a collection of teaware.

IMG_1996The Autumn chawan, with its flashes of dark red, ocher and gold, is set in contrast to the other elements made of unadorned wood.

IMG_1997Against this bright field of color, the eye is drawn inward, towards textures of cut bamboo and woven linen.

D934C016-B69B-495A-84CA-937606960F5FCleansed, the chawan beams even in the low light of the tearoom, showcasing iridescent spots of gold and red borne from the heat of the kiln.

9E2CFE3F-F647-494C-AA97-4F6E267CECC9Even the small 棗 natsume (tea container) and bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), set one on top of the other, contain the rich, earthy tones of Autumn.

5EF5D76E-5F1F-4BD9-AEDF-516BAA9E0F6EIssuing-out three scoops of 抹茶 matcha powder into the center of the warmed teabowl, the clean grassy scent of green tea rises.

BBE28EF7-599D-42A3-B1D0-449E9BA066D1Whisked into a light foam, both tea and teabowl glow before me.

42A3154D-0086-4C92-9711-C30EC5FA9128A moment passes and I admire the setting: the tea and teaware, the heat emanating from the antique iron chagama, the sound of the Autumn breeze pushing through the trees outside my window. Lifting the bowl to my lips, I savor the crisp and fleeting flavor of the tea.

B7EEA72B-B399-4DE7-B7C1-E75ED706E065Even this moment has its end, and I finish by cleansing the teaware once again. Teabowl and whisk are rinsed. Residual matcha powder is wiped from the chashaku. Whisk and tea scoop are set within the teabowl. The wooden natsume is set beside them.

3B78F96E-FCBE-4388-A940-4240FBCAB1A7Still enjoying this moment, I pause and arrange a simple 拝見 haiken (a final moment to view teaware during a tea gathering). Inspecting the natsume and chashaku, I am reminded of things to come. The bold colors of Autumn, too, shall come and pass.

DACBA660-B4AF-4E33-BBD2-D86DB7B1B658Once gone, only the dull colors of Winter will remain, save for the bright green shoots of next Spring’s splendor pushing up from beneath the snow.

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The Importance of Space

IMG_1928In daily life, actions, tasks, thoughts and emotions can come in rapid succession, one after the other, piling-up like subway trains caught in a tunnel. Over time, the effect of this can become overwhelming until the mind succumbs to stress. Taking a moment to pause, to breathe, can be just enough to break this cycle and reset the mind, transforming a stressful situation into one that is manageable, perhaps even pleasant.

In the practice of tea, the mere act of sitting for tea can become this moment. Even while one may be in the midst of the chaos and clamor of the daily world, to sit and make tea can have the effect of making space; emotionally, spatially, and even temporally. Space, and all the dimensions it can encompass, becomes a distinct feature of tea. The empty space of a teapot can define how much liquid it can hold and how much the tea leaves can expand within it. The space between objects can establish their relationship to each other and even infer their function. Objects and beings, when given their own space, can become both independent of each other, as well as interdependent to one another. It is this space that imbues them with both latent and infinite possibilities.

In Japanese, the term 間 “Ma” (“Jiān” In Chinese) is used to describe this notion. Roughly translating to “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”, Ma is found in all manner of ways, from a pause in action to the space between objects and the nature of a void. In the classic literati and Zen art of Japan, China and Korea, objects are often given their own space, surrounded by a significant amount of “empty” space. Whether mountains, trees, scholarly equipage or even six persimmons arranged together, Ma is allowed to exist both around the objects and, to an extent, within them. Compositions can juxtapose this interrelation of matter and space in dramatic ways, creating dynamism or, equally, a sense of harmonic serenity.

BE1F111E-8D1E-425B-82F9-553139E27009Setting up my teaware to enjoy a moment to taste tea, I try to strike this balance between forms, matter and emptiness. Placed on an expanse of gnarled wood, I arrange each object based on their function and flow. The carved bamboo teascoop sits next to the red Yixing clay 茶船 chá chuán (lit. “tea boat”), in the center of which sits a small 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot”).

D614A507-A844-4884-9229-E76947B16649Shadows fill the empty space within and between each object, turning each void into dark pools.

D9855589-503F-401E-AF94-252BAF32774BA grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) are set closely to one another, yet do not touch each other. Their concave hollows are empty, save for the shadows and light gathered within them.

7E55465B-9D1B-4526-BB21-8B5B0791CB7AThe bamboo scoop sits with its back facing upward, the dark, smooth skin set in contrast to the cursive characters carved upon its surface. Even here, space exists between the written words.

13EA25BD-6B3F-41C8-BA99-BEDEA0464BBCTurned over, thick, curled tea leaves are set upon the interior space of the scoop.

C1A3305B-1042-4FE5-94BD-A2FEB45E20C3Placed into the teapot, the leaves occupy the entirety of the empty space. A void becomes full. Filled with hot water from an iron kettle, the tea is left to steep. Seconds pass, allowing the tea leaves to unfurl and expand. In the space of my tearoom, silence fills the void. In my mind, thoughts sit side-by-side with quietude.

B31967BA-EFE7-4B27-BC21-277C989F3342Pouring the tea out completely, I set the lid ajar, allowing hot vapor to exit the teapot and cooling the tea leaves.

C367E4AC-B7BA-4E35-8B7F-1277A76570B3Turning my gaze from teapot to sookwoo, I view the amber-hued liqueur that came from from the coiled leaves of 紫紅袍 Zǐ Hóng Páo (“Purple Red Robe”) 武夷山岩茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá (Wuyishan “cliff tea”).

7C663A01-DED5-4FEE-9006-885252FA8457Then, from sookwoo to teacup, I pour the tea, and in the space between this teacup and my lips, I can sense the complex, spicy aroma of this brew.

One more pause and I am filled with anticipation. One sip and my mind is flooded with sensations, flavors, and lingering notes onto which instinctively and habitually I try to attach words and qualifying definitions. Even as the taste of tea becomes fleeting, the empty space of this moment after tea feels full with thoughts swirling and a mind still grasping. As this settles, time between steepings expands and silence, once again, returns. A time to pause. An empty space. A cup full of tea. A moment brimming with possibilities.

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

Tonight We All Enjoy the Same Moon

0A5529B4-8922-4BFE-B437-2E03668B22B2Since ancient times, the presence of the full moon has represented an important moment. Especially true in Autumn, the mid-Autumn full moon bears great significance, heralding the harvest and the slow but inevitable shift towards Winter. Still warm during this time, enjoying the glow of the full moon during the night is refreshing, something to be celebrated.

In East Asia, many cultures observe this moment. In Japan, 月見 Tsukimi (lit. “Moon viewing”) is a big occasion, with festivities focused on enjoying the sight of the moonrise. In 茶の湯 chanoyu, tea takes on the “flavor” of the moon, with tea practitioners skillfully incorporating lunar elements into their tea gatherings. 月の茶 tsuki no cha (“tea for the moon”) is a popular event, with tea gatherings being held to the light of the moon, on moon-viewing platforms, open pavilions, and even on moon-viewing boats (月見船 tsukimi-bune). Some tea people go so far as to have a special “moon-viewing” window cut into the roof of their 茶室 chashitsu (“tea house”), special-built for such an occasion. Needless to say, the moon, with its ever-changing face and importance in marking the passing of the seasons, holds a special place in tea people’s hearts.

06B1DA20-F7D9-449E-963D-A2DF2777EC33On this evening, as the moon begins to rise in the night sky, I sit with my partner for a bowl of tea. To open the intimate gathering, a large 月見団子 tsukimi-dango is offered, placed atop a shallow celadon bowl.

31FE84E8-D84D-4503-880D-FA0438A46CE7Next, as the soft rolling boil of the kettle rises in the still of the night, tea implements are brought out and cleansed. A white 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl) and small, perfectly round 文琳茶入 “bunrin” chaire (“bunrin” ceramic tea container) are brought together, along with a 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) with a mark upon its dark bamboo skin that resembles a bright glowing moon behind a veil of clouds.

58D209DC-ADBC-4CCE-B3AB-615CDAC34DB3Pulled from it’s brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch,

98202163-10A7-4B23-9571-982327F6E5FBthe little ceramic tea container sits in the dim light of the tearoom,

B25B6100-D2FC-4A26-AD01-306CAEDB430Citself looking like a small moon.

15E97BE0-6C93-4119-B6FD-09A6D9E44C34The teabowl, cleansed with the water from my boiling 茶釜 chagama (“tea kettle”) sits looking fresh, sparkling in the moonlit evening.

165AD248-6351-469E-BEE0-BD9F1C35FEFAAs I scoop the initial three scoops of 抹茶 matcha into the teabowl, my partner begins to eat the tea sweet, and we both enjoy the quietude of the night.

62E1370E-7697-4794-B9F4-573B8D29170EAfter three scoops are issued into the teabowl, I tilt the chaire sideways, letting the remaining matcha powder cascade down into the chawan. In this instance, I am reminded that the tea, too, contains a reference to the moon as it was given the poetic name Tsuki” (“moon”) by its purveyor, Setsugekka, a local tea shop that ground it for me.

917437A1-478A-4BCE-B504-FC956E56BE9CPouring a small amount of hot water into the teabowl, I begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. Immediately, the scent of tea fills the small tea space, filling us both with joyful anticipation.

C637709B-6B58-43ED-8A8E-FDC52C881B20More water is added and I finish making the bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). As I pass the bowl to my partner, we enjoy how dark and lustrous the tea looks against the white, cloudy background of the hakeme chawan.

010F04A8-15C4-41C7-978F-D4861492E6B9.jpegShe takes a sip and wipes the rim. She then passes it back to me and I finish the bowl with a smile. As we enjoy the same moon together, we also enjoy the same bowl of tea. Terms like “host” and “guest” fall by the wayside and we sit together as dear friends.

C597B77D-5AB1-49F0-94FC-7F7B69C2481C.jpegWith so much tea still left in the teabowl, I opt to finish the night’s celebration with a final informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”), whisking the remaining dregs with more hot water. The soft, bright foam glows in the pale light of the night. Its flavor is sweet and relaxing.

08CF035D-9725-445F-BFC4-E4A85826DBEEFinally, before we settle in, a simple 拝見 haiken is held, offering us both a final instance to enjoy the tea objects before they are put away.

D580A311-4C17-4532-8074-A512E821C30FThe round little bunrin chaire.

154F6CFD-AFA5-49B4-9698-3BD4A3593193Its silvery blue shifuku. The moon-like glow upon the bamboo skin of the chashaku.

AD4F1F7A-E9A7-4395-8EB3-8C8DE7D897C2The moon, itself, making its journey across the Autumn night’s sky. When we look upon the moon tonight, we all enjoy the same moon.

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

To Have Flowers Without Flowers

IMG_1764According to the 易經 Yìjīng (I Ching), the ninth day of the ninth month is said to have too much  yáng force and is therefore seen as a potentially harmful date. On this day, it is believed that climbing a high mountain, drinking chrysanthemum liquor, and wearing 茱萸 zhūyú (Cornus officinalis, a type of dogwood) would prevent harm. For this reason, a main feature of the festivities and customs surrounding the “Double Nine Festival” are chrysanthemums. In Japanese tea culture, 菊の節句 Kiku no Sekku, or “Chrysanthemum Festival”, is observed, often through the unavoidable display of the flower in the 床間 tokonoma alcove of the tearoom.

Usually, I find myself making a small arrangement on this day and making tea, enjoying the vibrant colors and delicate forms of chrysanthemums. However, on this September ninth, I found myself busy with work and terribly jet lagged, having just returned from a trip to the Philippines. With little time and much less energy, I found myself unable to even step out to procure the necessary flowers. Undaunted, I managed to muster up enough energy to put together a solitary sitting for tea.

Having finished my daily work, I lit a stick of incense and I set my antique 風炉 furo (“wind furnace”) to boil water. Next, sliding open the doors of my antique wooden tea cabinet, I brought out an arrangement of teawares: a vintage 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan, a teascoop and whisk carved by master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, and a small Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container.

7DFD038D-5FA1-4BE8-985E-10532B6F3ED8As the iron kettle began to boil, I began to sift a small amount of 抹茶 matcha into the shallow interior of the incense container. Although not common in 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), I’ve made it a personal practice to occasionally use 香合 kōgō to hold tea. In this instance, I deliberately chose to do this as the incense container is decorated with an inlaid chrysanthemum motif.

D5FB44AE-62AF-46EC-8C23-40A8FE838865Finally ready, I sat down to enjoy a bowl of tea. Cleansing the celadon kōgō, I had a brief moment to enjoy the traditional inlay design of deep red, pale white, and dark green against the soft celadon background. Lifting the lid, I admired the low mound of bright green matcha encircled by a ring of russet-colored unglazed clay.

10EE9B16-FD96-426F-A7C8-77275CEDAA9CNext, I turned my gaze to the teabowl, scoop and whisk.

5F8C8726-EC7C-44C7-8A93-1E86D3B82935With the folded 袱紗 fukusa (a silk cloth used to purify teaware), I cleansed the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), setting it down atop the flat lid of the celadon kōgō.

987770C4-4A2A-4B0B-A4FD-8A955DD1C517Next, whisk in hand, I began to cleanse the teabowl. Once purified, I set the bowl down, ready to produce a bowl of matcha.

13F6B62E-F8A8-48E6-839D-71BCDC34136CIssuing-out three scoops of tea powder from the incense container, I set each within the well of the teabowl. Scooping-up a ladle if hot water from the iron kettle, I poured half of it into the teabowl, returning the remainder back into the kettle.

BE37C626-9923-4E0B-A60B-FE354BE7F5B8Whisking the matcha powder and boiled water concoction into a light foam, the tea and teabowl seemed to come to life in the golden glow of the late afternoon light.

B0903613-F9DB-49B1-9DFE-498E492B2DEETaking all objects together, I appreciated the personal gesture of making tea despite the busyness of my workday. Often is the case I don’t make time for tea. Even when I was traveling, I had not given myself a moment to pause and slack my thirst with the beverage. An email here, an assignment there, and even the self-imposed pressure of “performing” can sometimes keep me from stopping to take in my surroundings and meditate on the “now”. Yet, how subtle a gesture it is to make tea. To involve my whole mind and body in a simple process. No ritual. Just action. Just a recognition of a basic procedure, of the breath, of the feeling of a warm teabowl in my hands as I lift it to my lips. This is just enough to bring me back to the present moment.

7EED1D84-519F-43C4-A59C-FA5236A31856On a day with no flowers in my alcove, I found the means to have flowers without flowers. A bouquet of senses. A ring of chrysanthemums decorating a makeshift tea container. Just enough to turn this day into a celebration.

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

Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

In Autumn, the deep emerald green of Summer wanes and fades in exchange for the umber, ocher and amber of Fall. Looking up into the canopy, gilded edges circle each fluttering leaf, and those which have since fallen gather like flecks of gold in the gutters and gullies of the broad city streets.

In the remaining heat of the day, a lone cicada calls out a solitary threnody to its fallen brethren until it, too, becomes a hollow shell, victim to the chill and the gusting winds. Yet, as seasons shift, not all is lost. Instead, as one moment fades, it transforms, and in this change, something new materializes. Fall’s resplendent colors emerge and encourage meditation.

Golden leaves inform my choice to bring out a bright yellow 黃泥 huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Yixing teapot. Similarly, I select a small leaf Taiwanese red tea, the initial aroma of which strikes a harmonious tone with the sweet, fleeting scent of decaying Fall leaves.

Sitting alone in my tearoom, a single grey Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) accompany me. In the air hangs the warm scent of lingering incense and the rising steam from my boiling kettle. In this time, I give myself a moment to pause. So often do we forget to do this; to sit with the change we are constantly caught within.

Peering down at the small yellow teapot, I see this transformation embedded in the pores of its clay body. A subtle shift from gold to brown. Quiet marks upon its skin from every tea it’s ever steeped. A slow metamorphosis to maturation.

The soft glazed surfaces of cup and cooling vessel, crazed and crackled, too, bear the imprint of time. Once immaculate, the patterns laced upon them now look like the veiny remnants of decomposing leaves. In this there is beauty too.

Laying the tea leaves atop a scoop fashioned from old bamboo, they appear dormant, caught in hibernation.

Placed within the belly of the small teapot, they slowly begin to wake, releasing a faint aroma which is sugary and rose-like.

A quick steeping wakes them and they begin to writhe and unfurl. Poured out, the liqueur they produce is tawny and slick.

Decanted from sookwoo into the lone cup, I first savor the color, then the scent, and finally the taste.

Straightforward and satisfying, simple and sweet is the nature of this tea. As I drink, I am reminded of its origin; a gift from a friend years ago, procured from a farm tended by a group of Buddhist nuns. How in these years the flavors have changed. How in this time, the essence of this tea still remains.

The chattering of the iron kettle in my tearoom. The rustling of leaves outside my window. The final notes of incense passing as I continue to brew tea. A parade of clouds in a clear azure sky. The sharp chirping of a cricket off in the distance.

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Filed under Ceramics, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea