Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Cold Earth

The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.

The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.

The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.

These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.

The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.

Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.

Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.

The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.

Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.

The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.

Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?

I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.

Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.

I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.

I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.

For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.

I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.

In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.

The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.

I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.

The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.

Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.

I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.

I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.

I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.

I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.

I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.

I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.

The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.

All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.

I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.

The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.

The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.

The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.

I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.

Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.

I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.

The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.

I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.

Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.

I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.

I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.

I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.

As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.

The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.

I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.

I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.

In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.

As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.

The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.

I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.

Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.

The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.

Space exists between them both.

Room enough to breathe.

Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.

Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.

The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.

The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.

I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.

When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?

「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū.

“Once in a lifetime”.

“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? 

The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.

The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.

The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.

The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.

Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.

Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.

Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).

To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.

Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.

A void. A dark mystery still.

The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.

I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.

The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.

I return the bowl to its upright position.

The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.

Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?

Is the surface an indicator of the void?

Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.

An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.

Once in a lifetime.

Perhaps, soon, the ice will melt.

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

Stop Everything

The new year has arrived and with it comes the sensation of getting older. Winter’s snow comes and goes in fits and starts, blanketing everything in the evening, melting away by the mid-afternoon. All that seems to remain is the biting cold and a still, quiet hollowness. The previous year has left me burnt out. What energy is there left to pick up the pieces of a world that lies shattered? To bind a broken nation back together again? Time has told me that regardless of which way the winds of politics or the economy or a society as a whole may go, the old habits will die hard and the work to become a more enlightened person will never be done. Exhausted, like a well-spent bonfire, all I can do now is take pause. I need to re-collect myself. I need to stop everything.

Currently, my new home presents me with a conundrum. Too cold to be outside, the makeshift tea hut in my garden remains empty, unused. Still in the process of moving, my living space is still too disorganized to encourage me to make tea. For someone who finds comfort in order, the chaos depletes me, both body and soul.

Nestled between stacks of boxes, dusty floorboards, and buckets of paint and plaster, I eek out the faintest of foothold for tea and to find a moment’s peace. To stop everything means to put down my work, to, for a moment, ignore the emails and the incessant chiming and pinging of the digital world. It is to close the door behind me. To look out onto the world outside my window, and to look inward into the world within me. The snow-covered mountains, with their bare-branched trees. The low hiss that emanates from the warming kettle. The slate-grey sky with obscured sun. The Winter of early January is an empty space, enough to let the mind wander without chance of attachment.

I dust off the top of an old wooden desk and unearth a small 仿古 fǎng gǔ-shaped 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from a tattered cardboard box.

Other items are collected too. A white 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A bamboo tea scoop, an old coin to use as a lid rest, pinchers made of aromatic wood.

No ceremony. No ritual. No pretense guides me. Absent is specific form, aside from that which facilitates ease of movement, the maintenance of heat from kettle to pot to cup, and the subtle cues that guide me to make the best cup of tea possible.

The tea, the wares, the heat of the water; these will define the space and mindset of this moment.

Items now placed atop the wooden desk, I set forth to brew the selected tea, a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”. I breathe deeply and open the pressed-metal tin that has been holding the tea for the last eight years. I carefully place the thin, wiry leaves into the concave of the bamboo tea scoop.

Their color appears darker, their surface more lacquer-like since when I first procured them years ago when I traveled to the tea gardens of 潮州 Cháozhōu.

I warm the teapot and tea cup and discard the hot water into an old Japanese 建水 kensui. I return the kettle to boil and, as I do so, I remove the tiny tea pot’s lid. Its interior is slick with residual moisture.

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

I place the tea leaves gently within the empty vessel. A void now filled to the brim. Wild, wiry, unencumbered.

I pause. The faint aroma of the old tea wafts in the air, standing out against the scent of dry cardboard, of dust, of the layers of plaster and paint that surround me. A faint reminder of its former self when it was still fresh. A faint reminder of the tea processing room that was filled with the inescapable perfume of the harvest. A faint reminder of life when tea was freely shared between friends, having traveled great distances by airplane, over subway lines and through crowded streets to enjoy the warmth of tea and each other’s company. A faint reminder of life before it was boxed-up, shipped away, and stacked in corners.

I lift the kettle from the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the teapot, over the tea leaves. Bubbles and foam surface. Oils and fragrance re-emerge, long-locked within the curled tendrils of the coiled tea.

I place the lid atop the tiny vessel and let the tea begin to steep. No sound. No movement. Just stillness. Thoughts of work and life momentarily drop away. Worries, fears, anxieties that might normally arise come and go, but I pay them no heed. All there is now is a small pot brewing tea.

I breathe and hear the rise and fall, expansion and collapse of my chest. The rustling of the cloth of my shirt. The air passing through my lips and nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. I hear the creaking of freshly-laid floorboards. Of the furnace burning. Of my partner walking down the hallway in the distance.

Stopping everything does not mean everything stops. One just becomes more aware of their presence, their true nature. A quiet observer to one’s own experience and to the oft-overlooked actions of others. The habitual mind arises as it always does, trying to cling to sounds and movement, to thoughts and distractions.

Here, the act and action of making tea becomes my guidepost. If I am to make tea, I must remain in this moment, focused on this task. I stop. I breathe. I observe the heat of the pot and rely on intuition to know what is happening within its red clay walls. The collecting and evaporating of moisture off its surface, away from the bat and bamboo motif.

The pulling of the tiny droplet of water from the tip of its curved spout. The sigh it seems to release when the tea is ready to be poured.

I quickly grasp the teapot with the fingers of my right hand and tilt it above the white glazed Korean cup. Hot tea cascades downward at an even pace, a single, unbroken stream, into the cup. Once emptied, I place the teapot back down into the center of the Yíxìng 茶船 chá chuán, its lid removed to allow the leaves to cool and the steam to rise out from the interior.

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

I lift the cup to my lips and savor the aroma. It is bright, with notes of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit. I pause and sip from the cup. As a now-aged tea, I expect it to be calm, its flavors settled and muted. However, what I receive is far from this. The tea is beautiful. The flavor, arresting. It opens with a burst of fruit notes akin to guava and papaya, followed by sweet and lingering aromatics of blossoms and gardenia. More surprisingly is the presence of a refined, velvety vanilla pod note that awakens me. These favors, which may otherwise be in contrast to one another, blend, meld, and harmonize. It is at this moment that I am reminded of why the tea is poetically named “Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”.

The tea, grown on the slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in Cháozhōu, is comprised of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove. The two tea plants, kept in close proximity, develop flavors that are uniquely their own yet beautifully balance one another. They are two yet feel as one.

As I again pour hot water into my teapot, I further recall memories from my past, reminded of that first journey taken to Cháozhōu, alongside with my own tea brothers, Steve Odell and So Han Fan. There, digging through cities and climbing up mountains in search for direction, in search for tea, we worked at a breakneck speed, not wanting to squander our time and let the opportunity to learn from direct experience pass us by. I recall early mornings, long days, and late nights, tasting cup after cup, in pursuit of knowledge and beautiful tea.

Now, at this point in my life, almost ten years since that moment, these memories, too, seem fresh. Their fragrance and flavor still resounding and surprising.

All that is left now are these leaves. A fitting tribute to time well spent. Something so fragile as a memory, so fragile as a pile of leaves. Through steeping after steeping, their flavors are expelled and spent. All that remains is a sweet, honey-like water.

Even after the tea is gone, its scent still lingers in the empty cup. As I cleanse the wares once again and return to a day of work, I can feel the pull of daily duties, the tug of responsibility and of commitments. I sit and pause for a moment longer, using this time to ponder.

Action and inaction; at times the space between them feels defined and absolute. Here, the habitual mind is inclined to prefer one over the other: one becoming a welcome respite, the other, a dreaded chore. Yet, when you stop everything, inaction is the action. Even within inaction, thoughts, memories, and sensations will still arise. Worries and anxieties still exist. As nothing truly disappears, these, too, will continue.

In the more than two decades now of practicing tea, I’ve come to recognize this. In the inaction of making tea, there is action. Worries, thoughts, memories will still be there; they can help or hinder you, encourage you or deter you, focus your gaze or leave you distracted, expand your mind or cause you to fixate and become attached.

As I wipe the chá chuán and place the lid back upon the teapot at an angle to let the tiny vessel dry, I return to the notion of form and its absence as I’ve been brewing tea. The pot is tended to in a certain way. Warmed, cleansed, utilized as if it were a fine tool to prepare the perfect cup of tea. To do this, one must focus on what is needed for that very moment and let everything else drop away.

Extraneous objects and actions are not invited to the tea table. Neither are worries or distractions. Through practice, everything is honed-down to its most essential, until all that is left is just making tea. Memory serves to guide the body in its movements, the mind in its exploration. Worry is left by the wayside. Instead, care and attentiveness come to the forefront, in service to the moment, to the task at hand, to the invited guests. Habitual fixations and attachments burn away, as time burns away, a ticking clock reflected in the diminishing flavor of every steeping, of every cup consumed, of every last leaf used up until there is no more.

All that is left is the lingering heat of the kettle, the 回甘 huí gān of the tea caught in one’s throat, and perhaps feeling of lightness that carries on into the next task. A pot left to dry.

An overturned cup revealing the name of its maker. The emptiness of Winter in early January. The sensation of getting older. Disparate flavors that harmonize.

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