As April wanders onward at its casual pace, Spring’s glory continues to build into a bright, vibrant crescendo. Birdsong fills the air. Blossoms, big and small, cluster on tree tops and flowers push up through the rich soil. Rain clouds gather in bright blue skies, ready to quell any heat that might rise. Despite all that plagues the world today, I’ll find a moment’s joy in the brief and beautiful respite nature has to offer.
It is the second Sunday of the month and for much of the Western world, Easter is being celebrated; the resurrection mirrored in the resurgence of life at the apex of the season. I find my partner, a devout Catholic, listening to the Pope’s Easter mass as we walk through our quiet neighborhood.
As for me, a practitioner of tea, I find myself dipping into a book of poetry by 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) poet-priest 良寛大愚 Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831), looking for inspiration as I ready for a bowl of tea in observance of his death, traditionally memorialized on the second Sunday of April. Page after page of the few books I have on the eccentric Zen monk offer endless ideas.
Rather than get lost in the infinite possibilities, however, I make the ultimate nod to the humble man and opt to keep things simple. A plain wooden 平棗 hira–natsume, an irregularity shaped 鬼萩茶碗Oni-Hagi chawan, and a 木魚 mokugyo in the 床間 tokonoma.
As I sit to make a bowl of tea, I let it become a meditation on the practice of Ryōkan and the traces of his life he left with his poetry. Throughout his early life, Ryōkan traveled, leaving his hometown and his inherited post as the village headman in search of a Zen teacher and a life beyond the weight of the worldly. He travelled from temple to temple, studying the dharma, as well as poetry, both Classical Chinese and 和歌 waka. After learning of his father’s suicide in 1795, he returned to his hometown and began living in an empty hermitage. There, he would live out the rest of his life, writing poetry, deeming his practice in meditation, forgetting his responsibilities whilst playing with local children, and producing loose and beautiful calligraphy the likes of which the world had never seen.
Like myself, he was inspired by the poets of the past. In one poem, me proclaimed “In my hermitage a volume of Cold Mountain Poems — It is better than any sutra. I copy his verses and post them all around, Savoring each one, over and over.”
As I sit with the etched-out memories Ryōkan, my iron kettle coming to a boil and a natsume full of 抹茶 matcha, I begin to make a bowl of tea. With the sun climbing down the Western sky, I enjoy the quiet peace of the afternoon, the soft hiss of the kettle, the gentle space created by the infusing of sunlight with the scent of incense.
I produce my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa and begin to cleanse the bare wooden lid of the low-slung hira–natsume.
I then turn my attention to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku.
I lay the tea scoop across the top of the tea container, appreciating the natural patterns upon the surface of its skin.
The tiny bamboo sprout pushing up from the center of its 節 fushi. It reminds me of the story how once Ryōkan, upon seeing a small bamboo shoot growing up through the floorboards of his hermitage, attempted to burn a hole in the ceiling with a candle for the bamboo shoot to grow up and out, only to end up accidentally burning his hut to the ground.
I then begin the process of warming the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl. The light of the day beaming through the windows of my tearoom, collecting under the water and reflecting against the white interior of the chawan.
With all utensils ready, I peer down into the center of the bowl, noting it’s form. Noting the small cracks in the glaze.
Small pits that have formed over use and time.
I lift my chashaku and open the natsume. I dip the tip of the scoop into the low mound of powdered tea and pull out a small measure of matcha. A fluid arc, a direct movement, and I place the tea into the center of the teabowl.
I repeat this two more times and finish by drawing the sigil of my school into the pile of tea dust. A sign of a double cross. Perhaps the sign of a hidden Christian (隠れキリシタン Kakure Kirishitan).
I tap the excess matcha powder from the tip of the tea scoop and return the chashaku back atop the lid of the hira–natsume. The dark bamboo peeking through a light dusting of tea.
I focus my mind and draw water from the iron kettle, pouring half of the 柄杓 hishaku’s cup into the bowl. I focus again and begin to whisk the tea. For a moment, the sunshine, the lingering scent of incense, the warmth of the 茶釜 chagama seems so lovely. For a moment, my focused mind forgets itself, getting lost in the action.
Ryōkan would forget his walking stick whilst drinking 酒 sake, his wooden begging bowl whilst playing with the village children, his daily duties while sitting with friends.
I forget myself in this bowl of tea. A vast and tiny world inside its earthen walls. A bamboo scoop my wanderer’s pole. A low-slung caddy all the nourishment I need. A whisk to whip-up a bowl of tea, to sweep away the dust of the world.
I call my partner in from her studies to savor the first bowl of tea I’ve made and set it down beside me for her to pick it up.
She sits with me and we meditate briefly together in the light that filters through the window. For a moment we savor each other’s company and the minute break we’ve taken from our daily responsibilities.
She offers thanks and then I set to making a bowl for myself.
I drink the tea I’ve made heartily and set the bowl down to appreciate the pattern of the remaining dregs. The mundane nature of it reminding myself that this is all we are. Do not take myself so seriously. Ryōkan, himself an honored Buddhist monk, was often called “Ryōkan-sa” by the local children, an informal shortening of the honorific “san” following his name. This, too, reminds me to not take myself so seriously.
I cleanse the bowl with the cool water from my 水指 mizusashi. Together we admire the eccentric and irregular shape of the white Oni–Hagi teabowl. The large dark voids on its surface where the glaze was kept at bay. The curious 切十文字高台 kirijumonji–kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) form favored by by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.
Such a foot was purportedly favored by Kakure Kirishitans who practiced tea. I let this bowl of tea stand in for a number of things today.
For the eccentric nature of Ryōkan. For the resurrection of my partner’s god. For the crossroads we all find ourselves at during this beautiful and terrifying time.
I cleanse the bowl once more and set the utensils back to rest. The sunlight pouring over the teaware, over the large wooden board that stretches across my tearoom’s floor.
It eddies and collects in corners. Offset by shadows. A mokugyo in the tokonoma. Dewdrops on a lotus leaf.
Ryōkan once wrote “Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. When you know that my poems are not poems, then we can speak of poetry!”
As I close this sitting set to a bowl of matcha, I quip, “Who says my tea is tea? My tea is not tea. When you know that my tea is not tea, then we can speak of tea!”
For more information on Ryōkan Taigu and a selection of translated poems by him, I recommend Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, translation by John Steven (Shambala Centaur Editions, 1996) and Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, translated with essays by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel (University of Hawaii Press, 1996).