Everything for the First Time

With the beginning of the year, there is a sense of renewal and potential for firsts. The first rays of sunlight cascading over the horizon on New Year’s morning. The first flecks of snow dancing in the grey skies of January’s Winter. The first moment we enjoy time with close friends. The first opportunity we have to truly sit in silence.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the first gathering for tea is often heralded as a celebratory occasion, as everything from a bowl of tea, a flower in the 床間 tokonoma, the scent of incense wafting in the air is greeted with a renewed sense of freshness, as if the year itself was unfolding before one’s eyes.

For the first gathering, known in chanoyu as 初釜 hatsugama, literally “first kettle”, an atmosphere of freshness is emphasized. Sprigs of new pine often greet the guests as they wait. In the tearoom, long arching branches of green willow rise from a single tube of freshly cut bamboo, tied into a single circular knot, representing the commitment to togetherness and camaraderie in the year to come. For teabowls, often two are offered, one of gold and one of silver, together poetically called 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth.

For my own hatsugama, I chose not to be so ostentatious. For me, a single black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan would do. Serving this atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I would offer up a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha to my partner, a formal 感謝 kansha, an offering of deep gratitude.

Echoing yet another first, this would be the first time that I would prepare tea in such a manner after a series of focused trainings that I had conducted with my tea teacher. During these sessions, he had meticulously drilled into me the precision of form required to prepare tea with a tenmoku chawan and tenmokudai.

From the way the teabowl is carried into the tearoom to the way that the hand glides over the wide rim of the wooden flange of the three-section tenmokudai when setting it beside the 茶入 chaire, to the cadence adopted between each motion; each have been subtly changed and adjusted, following the instruction of my teacher. As these movements slowly become muscle memory, they open my mind again, as if for the first time, to the great expanse that is the creativity and endless meditation of tea practice.

Uncovering the 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) tea container from its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch felt like opening the New Year’s potential.

Once the silken cord was loosened, a weight seemed to have been lifted, a burden unbound.

What emerged was a humble jewel made of mottled ceramic containing just enough tea to share.

Once purified, I set about to cleanse the other tea implements. The 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned out of a piece of 檜 hinoki cypress, was cleansed with my 袱紗 fukusa and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Hot water was pulled forth from my antique iron kettle and poured into the chawan. The 茶筅 chasen was placed into this and allowed to warm.

The tenmokudai was then purified, running the folded edge of my purple silk fukusa first along the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup), and then upon the top surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

The bowl, itself, was as black as a starless night, save for an oily splash of glaze on its outer surface and for a rim framed in metal. Once clean, it stared up at me like a mirror, like a void.

Into its center, like a crucible, I issued the first scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder.

Next, setting the chashaku upon the flange of the wooden tenmokudai, I emptied the remaining tea into the teabowl.

Tilting the chaire, the matcha cascades downward, collecting into a free-form mound.

Closing the emptied chaire, I place it beside the chasen and set the chashaku once again atop its lid.

Pouring a small amount of hot water atop the tea, I begin to slowly and meticulously knead the concoction of water and powdered tea into a thick paste. Adding an additional measure of water into the bowl, I hold the chasen at an angle with my left hand so as not to let it touch the rim of the teabowl.

This, like many of the silent motions performed in this 点前 temae are a show of deep respect to both the honored guest and to the teaware itself.

Once fully mixed, the tea becomes a flat, opaque material; it, too, mirror-like in its appearance.

Pausing for a brief moment, I allow myself to breathe before I offer the bowl of tea to my partner. For a moment, we both peer upon the collected wares. Together, we wait for one another to respond. I break this pause as my hands meet to lightly grip the right and left edges of the hane of the tenmokudai. Lifting it up and setting it down closer between myself and my guest, I then turn my body to face my partner. Lifting the bowl atop the tenmokudai once more, I set it before my partner and we exchange bows. In this instance, I offer this bowl of koicha completely for her.

Offered in the formal manner using the tenmoku and tenmokudai, it harkens back to an earlier form once practiced during the 宗 Song period (969-1279), when tea was served to scholars, nobles and individuals of high honor atop lacquered stands. In this approach, the bowl is elevated above the dust and clutter of the world and was presented as an offering to one’s longevity, as tea was considered as a healthy elixir. As I offered this bowl of koicha to my partner, the first of the new year, I did so as an offering to her good health and continued vitality.

Finishing the tea, the residue of remaining koicha in the black expanse of the tenmoku chawan’s center appeared as a mere imprint of the passing moment.

As we finished our final pause before closing the early morning gathering, and before we both would part to begin our day of work, I arranged a simple 拝見 haiken of the 茶道具 chadōgu. A tea container in the shape of a small, round eggplant. A tea scoop fashioned from a portion of red-grained hinoki wood. A brocaded silk pouch decorated with chrysanthemums and pine needles. All arranged along the center of an old wooden tray for incense.

And in the alcove, a celadon 香合 kōgō made in the image of a glimmering moon, a reminder of the lunar eclipse, another first for the year.

In a singular moment such as this, we are offered the opportunity to enjoy something as if it were bestowed upon us for the very first time. The heat rising from the kettle. The soft, gentle sound of boiling water contrasting with the gusts of wind pressing through the trees. The bittersweet taste of tea still lingering in one’s senses.

As these moments come and fade, we are reminded that all time is like this. Constantly arising and constantly dying, one moment after the next. What we perceive to be future and past are merely shadows and echoes of what we know as now. One continuous moment. This first kettle for the year. The last dregs of tea. The beginner’s mind found when learning a new and ancient form. Everything for the first time, all the time.

1 Comment

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

One response to “Everything for the First Time

  1. Pingback: EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II | Scotttea

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