Category Archives: History

Let Life Get in the Way

It’s the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month. In the old lunisolar calendar, this is Chrysanthemum Festival. Sitting in my studio, looking out across the garden, vines wrapped around the trellis, flowers of the bitter melon bursting against a dark green canvas, I think about the months that have passed since I’ve given myself time to write, to put thoughts down on page.

The cicada’s hum seems to now be giving way to the sound of field crickets, to the call of crows, to the geese and katydid. Gone is the heat that, as a tea person, I sought to abate with references to water, to coolness, to impossible ice. Soon, the decay of Autumn will be all around me. Winter’s withered repose soon there after.

To sit and ask “what happened?” or “how did I get here?” will not do. Questions of the past rarely help to give a clear picture of the present. Instead, as I sit, I find myself using the stillness as an opportunity to examine my current practice and reflect on this Summer as a great moment of change.

It began amidst a flurry of activity. I had become engaged to my partner earlier in the end of Winter-beginning of Spring, and found myself planning for a wedding in the time of an unpredictable pandemic. For what “free time” I was sporadically given, I used most of it to piece together the logistics and physical material that would eventually make up the wedding celebration. Like a massive 茶事 chaji, I threw myself into the act, ideating with my partner, collectively envisioning what a day built on intention and mindfulness would look like. In those brief in-between moments, I would make tea.

As the heat of Summer climbed, I sought momentary solace in my garden shed. With resources and time stretched thin, my hopes of transforming the meager structure into a full-fledged 茶室 chashitsu was put on hold. The result was a meditation on what life gave me. A weather-worn hut. Barely walls enough to keep the rain out, barely doors firm enough to keep a mouse or squirrel from wandering in. Spiders clinging to the rafters. A butterfly caught against the window pane, let free to soar skyward.

The hut became a refuge against the world outside. The path became grown-over. Slick with dew in the morning, the high humidity of the day left the stones wet until dusk.

Inside the shack, I made impromptu 点前 temae. 葉蓋点前 Habuta-temae became my regular favorite, using leaves from the local maple trees found around my property.

Hydrangea from my garden glistened in my makeshift 床の間 tokonoma.

Mulberries from the woods made for a readily available 和菓子 wagashi, their uneven leaves providing for a perfect surface to set them upon.

Old wares kept me company.

A shallow tea bowl from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) became my Summer bowl.

A 茶杓 chashaku fashioned from speckled bamboo became my wish for rain.

The light that gathered on the plywood floor of my teahouse was the first to fill the cup of my 柄杓 hishaku, well before hot or cool water did.

It was a world of light and a world of shadow. A realm to calm the mind, to cool the soul.

The practice that evolved over the Summer, from one tea session to the next, came in fits as starts. All the while, I felt my hands becoming steadier, my form more fluid. Subtle adjustments that had come from regular practice joined now with accepted muscle memory.

Water from kettle to 茶碗 chawan. Light flooding into water, illuminating the interior of the small, shallow bowl.

Tines of the 茶筅 chasen opened up. The practice expanded into regions of my life I had not anticipated.

The mere act of setting down the tea scoop lost its gravitas. In exchange came the ordinary.

Wiping of the tea bowl from when it was first wetted felt like polishing a mirror, in that I could see my reflection on the action.

Cool light against a warm ceramic surface. Woven textures. Rumpled edges. Old fabric, as old as my practice.

The steam that rose from the 茶釜 chagama and the freedom of being able to make tea outside of the home gave me a new sense of levity against the deadlines and time stamps that came with planning a wedding and building a life. Work felt like it was somewhere else, somewhere outside the four thin plywood walls of my tearoom. The regular roar of a far-off road a reminder of how busy everyone and everything can be. The hum and hiss of the kettle became a quiet reminder of the need to stop everything. To sit and practice.

Scooping tea from the wooden interior of an old 平棗 hira-natsume felt like Summer. Deep, soft, luscious tea powder placed into a crisp blue-green celadon bowl. The mark of my school’s sigil upon the bright green mound.

The delicate tap and bell-like sound that rang from the small shallow bowl.

The shadows that collected in the concave, in the pits and scratches, the ripples and edges fashioned and formed a thousand years ago.

The kiln of life shaping me now as I practiced tea in the heat of a Summer morning, in the scant spare time I gave myself, in the brief interludes between work and work after work.

The lifting of the large maple leaf off of the glass 水指 mizusashi.

Folding it and placing it into the dark void of the 建水 kensui.

Dipping the ladle into the depths of the cool water so as to bring it forth and let it mix and coalesce with the bubbling boiling water of the 釜 kama. Fierce forces merging with the gentle. Quiet and still with moving and churning. Sitting amongst these forces, the mind isn’t given the chance to discern which is “right” or “wrong”. No value to these elements as they conjoin. Instead, just a reverence for their place within a practice. Their importance to the moment. As important as the tea. As important as the wares. As important as the space they all occupy. As important as the persons who brought them into being.

Tea and water are brought together, first in a great wave, one upon the other.

Whisked and whipped into a single concoction, both combine, suspended one alongside the other.

The bowl is lifted and passed.

I, practicing alone, move to the space of the guest and delight in the flavor of wild fruit before enjoying the soft, bittersweet flavor of tea.

Light gathers upon the foamed 薄茶 usucha.

Sipped and savored and gone, the empty interior of the tea bowl feels vacant.

Warmth still radiated from its clay and glazed body. The scent of tea still lingered in the air. The afterglow of a moment still present.

Cleaned and objects put away, the practice in the shed did not end when it was over. The steady pace of work and life kept on and pushed me forward.

Tomatoes grow green on the vine, slowly turning red as they ripened.

Okra flowers blossomed and bloomed and bore their bright green and red pods.

Ground cherries formed little lanterns upon their hairy stems.

My partner and I wed, first over a bowl of tea, then before our friends and family. Like a beautiful storm, it came and passed, and scattered all who came to witness the moment back across the earth, back to their homes and back into memories. Now, savoring the flavor of the tea that was served in silver and shared between my love and I, it’s impossible to encapsulate the experience of this Summer in words alone.

There were sounds, sensations, scents. A great fragrance made of a myriad of qualities wafted through the terrible and terrific world and kept me buoyant throughout it all. Stress and pressure would sometimes rise and crescendo, but in moments like this, I’d walk across the garden and find time with myself alone.

Now as Summer is gone and Autumn is here, the clinging to desires, to goals, to wants and needs, seems to have mellowed. Where once I had wracked my mind to write and to perform the very best I could, to turn each moment with tea into poetry, each allotted time at work into productivity, I’ve now since let this give way to a settled practice.

I am reminded of sitting by a rushing stream; its movements fluid and sure. Water passes over the rocks and around the rocks. Rocks and trees and mountains get in the way of the water and yet a river forms between them. Letting life get in the way of practice does not hinder it but shapes it. Let life get in the way. Assuredly, your practice will form around it, with it, conjoining into one form, one concoction of the surrounding elements.

As Summer turns to Autumn, the earth cools again. The skies, once a bright azure, turn a buff grey. The pumpkin blossoms bloom.

The wild grape leaves grow weathered more and more each day.

Old carrot flowers dry beside fresh morning glories.

The path and the first fallen leaves.

****

As a final note: Thanks to Sam Bufalo LLC, @sambufalo for the photo of the outdoor tea gathering!

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

What Welcomes Winter

November began and now seems as if it is almost over. What began as a last stand for Autumn’s glory now seems torn and tattered like the many leaves that still cling to the trees around my tea house. Save for the few maple trees that still hold onto their leaves, the small forest that abuts my wooden hut is bare, wind whips through the branches, whistling sweetly. Mornings are cold. The rain of October is replaced with lighter occasional showers, intermittently broken by bright blue skies of daybreak.

Frost forms. A thin surface of ice covers small pools of rainwater left on the edges of my garden. Bright red rose hips alight the otherwise colorless world. Autumn’s last hydrangeas are dry and brittle. What welcomes Winter are these minute indicators. Not one but all at the same time seem to arrive like a royal retinue, heralding the new season, forcing all beings to bow to Winter’s undeniable influence.

The tea world is not immune to these effects. Everything about the practice shifts at this time. Gone are the regular outings to the river’s edge for an impromptu 野点 nodate. The matchstick partitions and 簾 sudare blinds that once welcomed cool breezes have been folded up and stored away, not to return until Summer’s heat rises. The last of Autumn’s wild grasses are featured in the 床間 tokonoma, but hazel and Winter chrysanthemum seem more appropriate. The tea jar is cut open and the 風炉 furo is finally put away in favor for the 炉 ro. The tiny world of the tearoom becomes all the more intimate as people gather closer to the sunken hearth.

In these times of pandemic, I have only one guest, my partner, and I do not invite friends to share tea. We huddle together in the biting cold on the first day of the tenth lunar month to mark the shift in season. 立冬 Ritto. The first day of Winter on the old lunar calendar. In lieu of having a sunken hearth, I use an old 火鉢 hibachi made from a single burl of paulownia wood. In the makeshift tearoom, it, and the iron kettle set within it, are the only source of heat.

Typically, the opening of the ro (炉開 robiraki or 開炉 kairo) comes sometime between late October to early November, when the presence of Winter is first felt. The 16th century teapractitioner千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took a rather poetic approach, shifting to the 囲炉裏 irori only once the 柚子 yuzu turned color. Others, still, wait for the first day of the tenth lunar month. It was believed that on the tenth (double) hour of the first day of the tenth month (the hour of the boar on the first day of the month of the boar) that it would be safe to transition to a sunken hearth, as this hour was linked to the element water, ensuring a safe use of fire in the house (and tea space). I have chosen to make tea in accordance with this tradition, however, given how cold the day was, I opted to set the time earlier.

Regardless, as we enter the small tea hut, the light remains dim. Steam rises from the kettle, its lid resting at an angle. The sound of the boiling water within it produces a steady hiss, akin to the sound of wind pressing through the small forest.

With the door closed behind us, we spend a brief moment to appreciate a lone dried-out sprig of hydrangea flowers, worn and weathered yet still brilliant and sparkling like silver in the limited light of the tearoom.

As I set down in the position of host and my partner in the position of guest, I offer a bow and tea sweets made of fragrant jelly and sweet chestnut, set atop a large leaf plucked from a nearby maple tree.

Before me sits the 水指 mizusashi and 茶入 chaire enrobed in a silk 私服 shifuku pouch.

Stitched upon the green and gold brocade are the patterns of chrysanthemum and pine. One, the last echoes of Autumn. The other, the fresh arrival of new Winter’s growth. A time of transition.

I move the chaire over to the right and place the tea bowl, 茶筅 chasen and 茶杓 chashaku beside it.

Next, I bring out the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki, setting these on either side of me.

Preparing tea in the ro season calls for a more intimate arrangement. The 茶碗 chawan and chaire are placed at an angle, set closer to the guest and to the heat of the sunken hearth.

As each object is cleansed, they are set between the mizusashi and kettle, bridging the gap between the source of hot fire and cool water.

The chaire is removed from the shifuku.

The chashaku is placed atop the lid of the tea container.

The chasen is placed beside this.

The chawan is brought closer to the host. Hot water is drawn from the kettle for the first time and poured into the black void of the 黒瀬戸茶碗 kuro Seto chawan. Steam rises and swirls in thin plumes as the water enters and settles into the tea bowl.

I set the flat tines of the chasen into the bowl and for a moment they catch the light that filters through the one window cut into the tearoom. The whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmed. The chasen is returned beside the chaire.

The water is poured from tea bowl to kensui. I pause and wait for the final drop of water to roll out of the chawan before wiping the vessel dry with the 茶巾 chakin.

I return the bowl before me and reach for the chashaku. I bow and motion to my partner to enjoy the sweet as I begin to prepare a bowl of tea. I bring the chaire to my center and remove the lid, placing it beside the tea bowl. I press the curved tip of the chashaku into the opening of the chaire and pull out three scoops of bright 抹茶 matcha powder.

I place the teascoop atop the rim of the chawan. As I tilt the chaire over and pour powdered tea into the tea bowl, I notice how light and shadow play off of one another. The bright green cascade of tea falling into the black bowl. The angled darkness forming from the edges of the chawan and lid of the chaire. The dark skin of the smoky-colored bamboo and the thin layer of tea clinging to it.

I lift the tea container and place the lid back atop it. I pick up the chashaku and mark the mound of tea.

I remove the lid of the iron 茶釜 chagama and pull water from it, pouring a some of the water into the chawan and over the tea and returning the rest to the kettle.

The tea is kneaded slowly with the thick, flat tines of the chasen. Slowly the concoction becomes a thick green paste. Slowly the scent of tea overtakes the aroma of incense, of the decaying leaves outside, of the fresh pine needle buds that brush against the moss-covered roof of the tea hut.

More water is added to the mixture and the tea is, again, slowly whisked until it achieves a mirror-like appearance. Light once again enters the tea bowl, illuminating now the emerald pool of thick tea.

I lift the bowl and place it in front of my partner. A bowl to share, unconventionally, between guest and host. As they lift the bowl and enjoy the first sip, I wait in silence.

As second and third sip are enjoyed, I pick up the last lone tea sweet and eat it before the tea is passed to me.

A single trail of 濃茶 koicha runs up one side of the inner wall of the tea bowl. As I lift and turn the bowl to drink from it, I make sure that I drink beside this track of tea. Slowly, as I tilt the bowl to drink from it, the koicha climbs down from the center. Light from the window bounces off the rounded well of the chawan, off the unctuous layer of tea that lines the vessel, off the minuscule pocks and pores of the black glaze. The tea slowly makes its way to my mouth and soon is gone. All that remains is a thin layer that now coats the bottom of the tea bowl.

With bowl placed once again before me, I opt to make an informal gesture and whisk the remaining tea into a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Hot water is scooped once again from the chagama and poured into the chawan.

In the swirling steam that emanates from the tea bow, I quickly whisk a bowl of tea for my partner, offering another moment to enjoy the shift from Autumn to Winter, from something somber to something light, unexpected, relaxed. In this transition from furo to ro, the sentiment in the tea space becomes less formal and less constrained.

The ro, itself, was not part of the formal tea room arrangement, only making its way into the emerging practice of tea as the rustic aesthetic of 侘茶 wabicha became more widely adopted. Appropriating, adopting and adapting forms from kitchens, travelers’ inns and hermit huts, the sunken hearth calls host and guest to gather closer, to share the heat, to offer everything that one can muster as what is available becomes more meager in the cold Winter months. To transform the “waste” and dregs of tea as an offering to one’s guest is, itself, a gift during this time. Unconventional but welcomed. Like the ro itself, or, in the case of my makeshift tea hut, an old hibachi.

With the final bowl of tea drunk, I cleanse the bowl one last time. Water is added first from the chagama to the bowl and then poured into the kensui. Next, cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chawan. The bowl and chasen are cleansed and placed one inside the other. The chashaku is wiped again with the 服紗 fukusa, removing the residual tea dust from the tip of the tea scoop.

The chaire is moved back to rest in front of the mizusashi. The chawan and collected wares resting within it are placed beside the chaire. A drought of cool water is added to the chagama and the lid is placed atop it.

The mizusashi is closed. The black lacquer lid appears like a dark void, caught in the angular light that beams through the small tearoom.

In the waning moments of the tea gathering, I offer 拝見 haiken to my partner, giving them a final opportunity to appreciate the tea ware and the quiet of the tea space. Each item is purified before presented.

The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.

The shifuku is plucked from its resting position beside the mizusashi and rearranged to sit beside the chaire it once covered and protected.

Finally, the chashaku is cleaned one last time and placed between the shifuku pouch and tea container.

In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.

The glaze of the small chaire holds an iridescent golden shine.

The shifuku pouch, emblazoned in a tessellated pattern of pine and chrysanthemum, sparkles.

The hazy pattern upon the bamboo skin of chashaku appears like a moon peering through a thick clouds of night. Despite the chill in the air, the light in the tearoom is warm, echoed by the heat that radiates from the simmering kettle.

Objects are returned to the host and the chawan is offered for one last viewing. A kuro Seto tea bowl.

Coated mostly in a black glaze, the texture of which is reminiscent of the dimples surface of citrus skin (柚子黒 yuzu-guro), save for the exposed clay of the foot.

The cut calligraphic mark of the potter, 杉浦芳樹 Sugiura Yoshiki (1915-1982) catches shadow and light.

The imprint of the artist’s life left within the clay, felt by the palm of those who’ve since held his work. The imprint of this moment left in the minds of guest and host, two partners as we endeavor to make a life together amidst the chaos of the world. All set against the ever-changing constant swirl of the seasons, one transitioning into another.

What welcomes Winter is what we see and what we feel. Demarcations on a calendar, one the freezing of the earth, on the chafing colors of the leaves on the trees and on the surface of a citrus’ skin. A hole cut out in the center of a tea space. A void where once the furo sat in Summer. The exchange of one thing for another. Of time. Of things that may no longer return come the next year. Of death and decay. What welcomes Winter now may, indeed, never be seen again, save for the impressions they’ve left on our mind.

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

A Makeshift Hut

In the clamor and chaos of this year, I’ve chosen to retreat. Escaping a city which I have grown to love, I’ve moved my life back closer to nature. Closer to the mountains and the rivers. Closer to the trees, the rocks, the rich soil, the wildlife. While not isolated by any means from civilization, the small town up the Hudson that I’ve relocated to seems far enough (even if only in the mind) from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.

The view from my front door is a mountain, currently in the throes of Autumnal transformation. Part of the reason why I wanted to move from the city was this: to replace the brick and steel and concrete facades with the mountains, the trees, the creeping vines within which I could create a space to deepen my tea practice. Part of this, still, was the hope that I could build a dedicated tea space.

Upon the land which I live now, tucked along the edge of a vegetable garden, an overgrown patch or raspberries, a cluster of rocks, and a grove of trees is a small, ten feet by ten feet wooden garden shed. It is here that I shall make a tea space; a makeshift hut.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, there is the tradition of 見立て mitate. Simply stated, this is the act of selecting something that was not intended for tea and incorporating it into the context of tea. Often this is seen with such things as rice bowls being transformed into 茶碗 chawan, well buckets into 水指 mizusashi, and cooking pots into 茶釜 chagama. Rarely does an entire structure, such as a wooden shed, become a 茶室 chashitsu. Alas, this is what I have done.

In truth, the chashitsu, too, has always been, at least conceptually, something repurposed, originally modeled after the huts of lone hermits, meditators and herb pickers. As I clear out the contents of my makeshift hut left over by the previous owners and two field mice, I am reminded of the poet and essayist of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), 鴨 長明 Kamo no Chōmei (1153 or 1155–1216). In his 1212 work 方丈記 Hōjōki (literally “square- record”, variously translated as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut), Chōmei wrote of his own retreat from the chaos of the imperial capital of Kyōto, from the fires and the famine, from the destruction and the infighting, to a small hut. There he dedicated his life to the devotion of Amida Buddha and the pursuit of tranquility.

Of my ten-foot square hut, I’ve made a tea room. All around its exterior is nature. Vines climb up its wooden walls. Moss grows on its shingles.

The paint is worn and weathered.

Two river rocks hold the door close.

Flat flagstones set the boundary between the outer garden and inner space. Inside, two broad planks of plywood supported on stacks of bricks become my floor.

A corner and some spare beams for a 床間 tokonoma.

In the alcove, I hang a sprig of wild grape. For a kettle, I use an old metal thermos. When I open the two double doors, light floods into the space and gives views of the garden for the seated guests. When I close them, a single window is just enough to illuminate the space in front of the host.

In the meager light of a still Autumn morning, I wake with the crickets and walk to my makeshift hut with thermos and teabowl, tea and whisk. I employ a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III for my first bowl of tea to be prepared in this new tea space. Its uneven shape and the empty void it creates feels fitting, for it, like the hut, is a dark crucible of creation and possibility.

I measure out three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the teabowl. What little light creeps in through the solitary window beside me catches on the scattered flecks of tea powder and on the dimpled surface of the chawan.

I pour water from my thermos into the teabowl and place the tines of the 茶筅 chasen into the warm concoction.

The wetted bamboo disappears in the shadows caught in the kuro-Raku chawan.

Once fully whisked, the scent of tea and incense and worn wood combine.

As dawn breaks, the interior space of the tearoom begins to glow, sending long shadows stretching across the floor, causing the chaotic mosaic of compressed wood to sparkle and iridesce. The deep black of the Raku chawan accentuates the bright green of the matcha foam.

I lift the bowl and set it before the space reserved for future guests. As instructed by my teacher, as I meditate on the developing state of this makeshift hut, I will need to try different arrangements. To sit in the host’s position can only give one a single point of perspective. To create a space for the practice of both host and guest, must also know what it is like to be a guest. In this instance, as morning’s light grows, I stand up and sit back down at the 正客 shōkyaku position.

There, the bowl seems darker, more of a mystery. The shadows collect inside the bowl, creating a small vignette of the glowing tea within it.

I lift and turn the bowl a half turn. I pause, giving a moment to look out from the window. Maple and pine and the shape of a low hill. Fog and morning’s dew. The sound of a solitary songbird breaking the chorus of crickets.

I lift the bowl to my lips and imbibe the first sip of tea. A second and third soon follow. Soon all that is left are the final dregs. An empty bowl. Faint remnants of past creation. New possibilities to come. A makeshift hut on the edge of a small forest. Twisting vines curling up its sides. Light of the morning to illuminate both host and guest. A space to seek what is still unknown.

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

Breaking the Heat: Lotus Viewing and Morning Rain

The bridge that extends between July and August marks the hottest days of Summer. Known in the traditional lunar calendar of Japan as 大暑 Taisho, this brief period marks the final knell of the season’s heat, before the eventual ease into the cool of Autumn. All around, the air grows heavy and damp, and the earth swells with moisture. In this climate, earth and air conjoin in an exchange, often met with occasional Summer showers and outbursts of rain and thunder.

After a night of intense heat, I wake to find the world quiet and cool. During the early morning, rain broke the heat of the arriving day, running down the broad leaves of trees and refreshing the earth. Inspired, I take to my tearoom and prepare water to bring to a boil.

Once set, I sift bright green 抹茶 matcha into a tall ceramic 茶入 chaire. I pull from my tea cabinet a wide 桐箱 kiribako.

Wrapped in a cloth decorated with twisting vines, I pull forth an old Vietnamese celadon teabowl from the Lý-Trần period (13th-14th centuries), worn and weathered by time. I wet the bowl to bring it to life. Liquid fills its pores. Color returns to the clay.

I submerge a 茶巾 chakin in cool water and squeeze the linen cloth in my hands, pushing out the water it had absorbed. I fold the chakin and place it in the center of the old moss green 安南焼茶碗 Anam-yaki chawan. Atop this, I place a wetted 茶筅 chasen made of dark bamboo.

Wares are brought into the tearoom in waves. First the chaire, which is placed before the 水指 mizusashi. Next the teabowl and accompanying équipage. Finally, the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki.

The door is shut. The fading scent of incense lingers in the air. The light in the room is muted. The sound of the rain outside the window blends with the low boiling hum of the kettle. I sit and breathe. I arrange the wares and ready each in preparation for a bowl of tea.

The chawan is placed before the kettle. The chaire, in its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch, is placed before the chawan.

Set together, the soft colors of shifuku and the old celadon harmonize.

I reach down with both hands and undo the cord that ties the silk cloth together.

Methodically, I loosen and remove the chaire from the shifuku.

I place the pouch between the mizusashi and the edge of the wooden 小板 ko-ita, atop which the 風炉 furo stands.

I cleanse the chaire with the folded 袱紗 fukusa and place it back a before the mizusashi.

I slowly inhale as I refold the fukusa. Holding it in my left hand, I exhale as I then reach out with my right hand to pick up the 茶杓 chashaku.

I press the carved and smoothed tip of the tea scoop into the folds of the purple silk of the fukusa, running the cloth from center to rounded end, back to center and back to tip.

I repeat this motion once more and place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire in one fluid action.

I remove the chasen and place it beside the chaire. I remove the chakin, lightly twist it between my left and right hands over the kensui, and refold it, momentarily placing it atop the black lacquer lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the hishaku, hold it between thumb and index finger of my left hand, and with my right hand, remove the lid from the boiling 茶釜 chagama, setting it upon the ceramic futaoki. The sound of the kettle grows once the lid is removed. A thin, wispy column of steam rises from the open mouth of the chagama. Beads of moisture condense and cling to the edge of the opening. I transfer the bamboo ladle from left to right hand and dip the carved cup into the boiling water. Air caught in the wooden scoop exhales audibly as it fills with water. With a steady hand, I breathe inward, drawing forth a ladle’s worth of hot water.

Exhalation, and I pour the water into the center of the teabowl. The color of the glaze deepens around the edges where the water meets the bowl, as liquid saturates the centuries-old vessel. I dip the flat tines of the chasen into the warm water. Their color darkens too as they drink up the water, absorbing it, becoming more pliable.

Once cleansed, I place the chasen back next to the chaire. I pour the water from the teabowl to the kensui and wipe the edges and inner surface of the chawan with the chakin. I look down at the teabowl. It looks back up at me, refreshed like a stone in a garden path after a Summer’s rain. Beaming and glistening. It is an ancient color caused by the creative energies of an artisan, affected by the countless years.

Along the rim, glaze once pooled and held to the clay body, caught forever in suspension by the heat of the kiln.

Along its outer edges, a craftsperson’s knife lightly pressed into the still-soft clay to create a subtle foliate design, an impression of lotus petals unfurling as Summer’s heat gently coaxes each fragrant bud to emerge, first from the baked mud of the wetland, to later bloom after a refreshing rain. Even after the centuries, even after the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, and even after the myriads of awakenings, the pattern still remains clear.

I turn back to the chashaku and chaire. I open the ceramic tea container, setting the lid beside the chawan.

I dip the teascoop into the soft green tea powder and lift out the first of three scoops of matcha.

Once a small heap has formed in the center of the bowl, I place the carved chashaku atop the edge of the chawan.

I tilt the chaire and let all remaining tea cascade down into the bowl. A fine cloud of tea dust rises from the bowl, followed by the fragrant scent of fresh green tea. The lid is placed back onto the chaire and the container is placed back beside the chasen.

Plucking the teascoop again as if I were lifting a calligraphy brush, I inscribe a simple sigil into the mound of tea dust, breaking its gentle organic form. Adding an impression upon perfect chaos.

I return the teascoop to the lid of the chaire. I remove the lacquered lid of the mizusashi and place it upright against the side of the fresh water vessel. I notch my hand along the long handle of the hishaku and press the bamboo cup deep into the hot water of the chagama.

A minute amount of water is poured into the chawan, slowly surrounding and seeping into the tea powder. I return the remaining liquid back to the water boiling inside the iron chagama.

I lift the chasen and slowly press the tines into the tea. With a series of repeated back and forth motions, I methodically fold and knead the tea and water together into a thick, lacquer-like paste. Small peaks form and curl and fall as the blades of the chasen cut and comb into the tea and water concoction.

In the quiet stillness of the tearoom, the aroma of matcha replaces the scent of aloeswood. With my left hand, I lift and tilt the chasen to the side, momentarily enjoying the sight of tea paste clinging to the curled tips of each bamboo tine. With my other hand, I lightly balance the hishaku and scoop water out of the chagama, letting it run through the blades of the tea whisk as I pour into the teabowl.

The hishaku is returned to rest upon the opening mouth of the kettle and the chasen is put to work to further knead the tea and water into a consistent brew. In this process, I focus my mind. Time begins to slow down. All that is around me falls away. The rain outside. The kettle before me. The glimmer of fresh water in the mizusashi. The shadows that pool around the edges of each object. The swirling grains within the wide wooden plank atop which I’ve set the wares. The patterns cut into the tea.

The repetition of motion. Whisking. Scooping. Lifting up and setting down of objects. One mind observing these. One mind caught in each moment. Is this the same mind that was once a baby? Once a child? Once a teenager? Now an adult, realizing this moment? Each past mind seems so different, so distant. Each with its own sense of self. Its own sense of truth. What was the mind before it was born? A lotus pushes up from the mud.

I lift the whisk straight up from the thick pool of 濃茶 koicha. I place it back down next to the chaire. The objects sit together in the dim light of the morning. Together with the gentle sound of the rain and the tea kettle.

I peer down into the antique chawan. The soft color of aged celadon and the striking emerald of the tea. As I bring the bowl towards me, I see my reflection caught in the mirror-like surface of the koicha. It bends and changes as the thick liquid draws down the inner edge of the teabowl, slowly pooling and pouring and pressing against my lips as I take my first sip from the bowl. The feeling of the first taste instantly awakes me. It courses through me. Enlivens my mind. Quickens my pulse. Two more sips and the tea is fully consumed, save for the dregs that cling to the side of the bowl.

I produce from my inner chest pocket a 古袱紗 kobukusa, a square of woven silk of with patterns of water plants stitched in 金蘭 kinran gold brocade. I unfold this and press it flat against the wooden plank.

Upon this I place the antique teabowl and for a moment I enjoy the single track of bright green tea against the old celadon. I admire how it catches the light. Iridescent like rain running off a roof tile. Slick like a lotus leaf floating on a pool.

I reposition the antique chawan to my side and place a grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan before me. Out of respect for the ancient Vietnamese vessel, I use this humble grey bowl as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan, a spare teabowl used to clean the chasen.

I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour it into the Ido chawan. I press the chasen into the bowl and whisk-off the residual tea that clings to the flat bamboo tines. I pour the cool water from the teabowl into the kensui and place the folded chakin into its center.

I rest the chasen pointed upright against the chakin. With the fukusa, I cleanse the chashaku before it, too, is set atop the kae-chawan. The bowl is shifted to the left. The chaire is placed beside it.

As I close my sitting for tea, I pour cool water into the chagama, halting the rolling boil of the hot water for tea. The lid is placed back upon it. The lacquered lid is returned atop the mizusashi. The hishaku and futaoki are placed together with the kensui.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken of the chaire, the shifuku and the chashaku. I cleanse the chaire and place it upon a 香盤 kōban.

I pick up the shifuku from between the mizusashi and furo and carefully place it atop the kōban.

Finally, I place the chashaku between the two objects.

For a moment, I sit and admire each. The way their different spirits harmonize with one another. How their textures play off of one another. How their colors differ yet are at ease.

The striped pattern of the shifuku and the grain of the teascoop.

The flecks of black and copper-blue hues within the glaze of the chaire in contrast with the warm tones of the chashaku.

For a brief moment the rain pours heavy outside my window. I spend this time in meditation, cleansing the remnants of koicha from the antique teabowl. As the Summer storm lifts, I place the cleansed bowl before me.

As light returns to the morning sky, pushing through the dark clouds that had collected, I inspect the chawan, turning it in my hand. The carved 高台 kōdai catches the light coming through the windows. The soft indentations upon the clay carved by the artisan’s knife.

The deep brown glaze brushed within the center of the 高台内 kōdai-uchi. The bowl reveals small features with each viewing. The first time is not like the last. Nuances emerge.

Cracks and crazing on the surface. Depth from pale color. Detail found in simple patterns. The clay retains the coolness of the water it once held. It feels refreshing in the hand. The last of the rainwater is heard dripping from the eaves over the window. The heat of the day rises once more.

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

The Salt in the Sea: Catharsis and the Way of Tea

In late July, Summer drags and the heat of the day is felt most severely. From July 22 to August 6, 大暑 Taisho, “Major Heat”, marks the final apex of Summer’s heat. For the practitioner of tea, any measure to mitigate the effects of this heat are taken.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu, tea gatherings are held in the early morning, before the sun is able to warm the earth, affording a fleeting moment of coolness. Everything about the tearoom at this time is lighter, and airier. Glass containers and teabowls are often employed. 簾 sudare hang from the eaves and 葦簀 yoshizu screens replace the 障子 shōji.

With these changes, the world of the tearoom seems evermore fragile, made-up of grasses, reeds, light woods and translucent glass. In this tenuous existence, however, there is life, vitality, and an ever-present awareness of how precious our existence is and how unique our chance to ever meet again must be.

With months of the pandemic still raging strong, I sit in my New York City apartment and wonder whether I will ever gather for tea the same way I had prior to this time. The feeling is bittersweet. A sense of longing for something from my past, yet a recognition that things will never be the same. A deep and gentle sadness for friends and family who have been separated, and from the time lost. A great feeling of my own mortality now rarely escapes me, a realization of how transient life is. 物の哀れ mono no aware.

Finding myself caught in the brief moment of the morning between the cool of the night and before the pervasive heat of the day, I decide to make a bowl of tea. Unable to shake the sadness that I’ve been feeling, I decide to meditate with this emotion and involve it in my daily practice of tea.

From my antique tea cabinet I remove a small 桐箱 kiribako, tied-up with a woven silk cord. Written across it is the signature and seal of 茶平一斎 Chahira Issai, a famous 蒔絵 maki-e artist from 輪島 Wajima, 石川 Ishikawa prefecture.

The words 汐汲 shio-kumi, “salt-scooper”, are written is a light calligraphic script.

Untying the cord and removing the lid, I pull from the box a dark maroon lacquer tea container in the shape of a 金輪寺棗 “Kinrinjinatsume. A shape that purportedly has its origins in lacquer containers from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), the “Kinrinjinatsume was apparently popularized by 後醍醐天皇 Go-Daigo-tennō (Emperor Go-daigo) (1288-1339). Originally, the natsume would have been used to contain 濃茶 koicha and would have been used in more formal tea settings. However, by the 1600s, the practice of using it as a container for 薄茶 usucha seems to have emerged.

Atop this particular version, the words 松風 matsukaze are written on the lid. Wrapping around the exterior of the cylindrical body of the lacquered natsume are images of curling and churning waves, with salt and foam rendered in cut flecks and dust of gold. This is the 汐汲棗 “shio-kuminatsume, favored by 圓能斎 Ennosai (1872 to 1924), the 13th generation head of the 裏千家Urasenke school of chanoyu.

I take a moment to fill the tea container with fresh 抹茶 matcha, producing a softly pointed mound of tea powder. As I do this, the kettle in my tea space comes to a low boil. Cool fresh water is drawn and poured into a green 縄簾 nawasudare 水指 mizusashi. A bamboo 茶筅 chasen and white linen 茶巾 chakin are wetted and placed in the center of a shallow antique Sòng period 平茶碗 hira-chawan. A 茶杓 chashaku made of cut bamboo is placed atop the teabowl.

In the low light of the morning, the chawan and shio-kumi natsume are brought into the tea space. As I sit down, the light of the day begins to grow.

Soft shadows collect under the edges of objects placed first in front of the mizusashi and then arranged between the warm 風炉 furo and myself.

The shio-kumi natsume is lifted and its lid is cleansed in the manner similar to a 茶入 chaire before being set down in front of the mizusashi.

The chashaku is purified next with the refolded 袱紗 fukusa and then placed atop the lid of the natsume. The thin carved shape of the tea scoop running along the center of the silver lacquered 漢字 kanji. The natural pattern of the bamboo resembling waves.

I fold the fukusa again and return it back to my side. With my right hand, I reach for the chasen, lifting it from the teabowl and placing it beside the natsume.

I remove the lid of the lid of the 茶釜 chagama and a ladle’s worth of hot water is pulled from it. While I pour water from the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the shallow of the teabowl, I watch as a fine mist of steam spins along the water’s surface. Small whirlpools form and dissipate, dissolving as fast as they appeared.

I dip the thin tines of the chasen into the warm water, pressing them and flexing them, appreciating the tiny beads of water that collect upon them like clear dew that collects on grass after a night’s rain or a morning’s mist.

I pour the water from the teabowl into the 建水 kensui and dry its surface of the shallow chawan gently with the linen chakin.

I take care to ensure the woven fibers do not tear upon a small rock that has broken through the teabowl during its firing a thousand years ago.

The shio-kumi natsume is brought forth again and the lid is placed before the teabowl.

Three scoops of bright green matcha are issued from the tea container and placed into the center of the chawan.

The chashaku is tapped lightly against the inner edge of the tea vessel and the natsume is placed back beside the chasen. I transfer a ladle’s worth of cool water from the dark green mizusashi to the bubbling chagama. Warm water is pulled from the iron kettle and half a ladle is poured into the teabowl.

The sound of water, the mixing of water, the foaming of both water and tea. The whisk frothing-up foam as if it were waves upon the seashore. In this Summer, I have not yet seen the sea. I have not yet seen friends or family. Some of those friends and family I may never see again in my lifetime.

As I prepare the bowl of tea to serve to myself, in this moment of quiet solitude accompanied by the sound of water, I am reminded of the sadness that surrounds shio-kumi.

Shio-kumi is not just a poetic name given to a tea caddy. Shio-kumi refers to a tale of love lost. Of a woman, named Matsukaze, herself a person who works hauling brine to make salt on the shores of 須磨 Suma (near modern-day 神戸 Kobe). The story was retold in the 1811 歌舞伎 kabuki play titled “七枚続花の姿絵” “Shichimai-tsuzuki Hana no Sugata-e” (“A Dance of Seven Changes”), itself, originating from a 能 play titled “Matsukaze”.

In the play, the lovelorn character of Matsukaze pines for her poet lover 在原 行平 Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893), who was momentarily exiled to the shores of Suma, where the two met. As she scoops saltwater from the sea, she recalls her love and the feelings she had for him, now a distant and bittersweet memory.

As the foam of the tea rises, I peer into the center of the teabowl.

A low mound of whisked matcha floats, tiny bubbles suspended in liquid.

I sit back and my gaze widens as I set the chasen back beside the natsume.

The quiet hiss of the boiling water in the chagama. The sound of a gentle breeze outside my tea space. Silence. Solitude. The missing of friends and family. The longing for their company. The recognition that the apex of Summer is here. Half a year has come and gone. A year of death and disease. Of change and revolution. Of awakening. Of letting go.

I lift the chawan and drink the tea. As I tilt the teabowl, I watch as the fine foam of the matcha catches against the rough surface of the small rock embedded in the ceramic. Small, bright green waves pressing against the trapped object. Moving over and around it. The tide pulling outward, leaving the shore exposed, uncovered.

Dregs of tea dry quickly, like salt on the edge of briny pools. I pour warm water into cleanse the bowl and then finally cool water to cleanse the chasen.

The bowl is overturned and I inspect the carved 高台kōdai. The cracks that have formed over time. The small entrapped rock visible from both sides. The warmth still held in the clay.

I turn the bowl back over. The chakin is folded and placed into the chawan’s center. The whisk is placed with its tines pointing upward. Small beads of fresh water cling to the thin bamboo blades.

The chashaku is purified once again and placed back down onto the rim of the shallow teabowl.

The shio-kumi natsume is placed beside the bowl.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken to admire the wares one-by-one. The natsume is cleansed once again. The chashaku is placed beside it.

I admire the broad, rounded end of the teascoop.

Images of waves come to mind.

The silver calligraphic characters atop the lid of the shio-kumi natsume bring a sense of coolness and ease.

I lift the lid and turn it over. Five 千鳥 chidori are rendered in gold. I recall the sensation of sea breezes. The sadness that comes as you hear their shorebird cries. The shape of the tea caddy is akin to the salt-scoop buckets on the sea’s edge of Suma. The motif of waves the same that once decorated the hem of Matsukaze’s 着物 kimono. The reminder that the feelings of loss are both sad and sweet. To have once loved and lost. To have known that feeling of closeness with those you love. To remember that now, now that they are not here, now that they are gone, perhaps gone forever.

The heat of Summer grows as the day continues until it is unavoidable. Even in the shade of my tea space, it still creeps in. Through the reeds that cover the windows. Through the gaps between fragile woven grass. The feeling is transient and vital, precious and unique.

****

Additional Notes & Resources

As this particular post contained quite a bit of research, I wanted to make sure that I included additional notes and resources to follow.

Above, I’ve included an image of 初代 坂東 しうか Shodai Bandō Shūka (1813-1855) performing Shio-kumi, staged in the 7th lunar month of 1847, image created by 三代 歌川 豊国 Sandai Utagawa Toyokuni (1786-1865). In this, you can see how the salt-scoop buckets were rendered in the same way that the natsume wave motif was decorated, including chidori (which appear flying above the waves on the blue sky). It is my belief that this motif (which was common and popular during the 井戸 Edo period, 1603-1867) probably came to reside upon the natsume through way of this prop from this much-loved kabuki dance.

As always in tea, pull one thread and you reveal a tapestry. In this case, a simple natsume reveals a story that spans centuries, interwoven with various arts!

If you’d like to learn more about this particular piece of teaware and the play that inspired it, I’ve linked several resources below:

“Shiokumi” – Kabuki 21

https://www.kabuki21.com/shiokumi.php

“Kinrinji natsume” – Chanoyu.World

https://chanoyu.world/natsume-kinrinji/

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

Waterfall

With the coming of July, Summer’s heat becomes a constant feature, one that practitioners of tea have to devise inventive ways to overcome. In the traditional lunar calendar, July 7th heralds 小暑 shōsho, “minor heat”, the moment when the first hot winds begin to blow and the experience of heat becomes unavoidable. The only respite from this seems to be water.

Water plays an important role in tea. The term 茶の湯 chanoyu refers less to tea and more to the water for tea. “Chanoyu” literally means “hot water for tea”. In his 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762), the 唐 Táng period (618-907) tea practitioner 陸羽 Lù Yǔ (733-803) wrote about the flavor qualities, grading, procurement and manipulation of water more than he did about tea.

Water, too, plays a key role in the world of the tea gathering. Water is ideally to be drawn at the hour of the Tiger (3:00-5:00 am), as it is believed to have the most vitality at this time. Likewise, water is sprinkled on the 露地 roji path to enliven and refresh the surroundings before the guests’ arrival. Water, too, is used to purify the hands and mouth before entering the 茶室 chashitsu, drawn from the 蹲踞 tsukubai. Water is used to create harmony, evinced by the 水指 mizusashi which moves closer to the guests the hotter the seasons become, shielding them from the heat of the 風炉 furo and acting as a refreshing visual cue to the mind. Water is able to convey this feeling. Water conveys more than this.

Water conveys history, it conveys memory. Much of the water we drink contains trace materials that are billions of years old. If water could speak, it would tell tales of the many life forms that sprang from it, the many civilizations that were nourished by it, of ships packed with the souls of the enslaved riding upon it, of the poisons poured into it, and of the tears of millions who are constantly denied it. It is our past and determines our future. You can chose to ignore this yet water is, literally, part of you. It is part of all of us.

The seventh day of the seventh month carries an additional meaning. In Japan, 七夕 Tanabata is observed, celebrating the meeting of lovers, the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively), as they cross the Milky Way, a celestial waterway. Wishes are written on strips of paper (短冊 tanzaku) and tied to boughs of bamboo. The sound of these rustling in the wind create a fluttering akin to a babbling brook.

In the tearoom, a dew-covered leaf (often that of a mulberry) is used as a lid for the mizusashi. The site of this seems to invite the freshness of nature into the tea space, assuaging the heat of the day.

In the morning, just as the sun creeps over the horizon, I prepare my own 葉蓋点前 habuta-temae. I fill my old iron kettle with cool water and set it to slowly come to a boil. I fill a tall, slender glass mizusashi. Atop this I place a broad mulberry leaf that I had picked from a large mulberry tree near my New York City apartment, its surface slick with fresh water.

Bright green 抹茶 matcha is sifted into a black lacquer 棗 natsume. A shallow teabowl is cleansed. So too are the 茶筅 chasen and 茶巾 chakin. A 茶杓 chashaku is selected. Just before the water in the 茶釜 chagama boils, I light incense and take a moment to meditate. The scent of sandalwood rises and fades. The sound of boiling water fills the space of the tearoom.

The teabowl, a 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), is set between the furo and the glass mizusashi.

The natsume is placed before it. Each ware is then cleansed. The lacquer is purified by the silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. So too is the speckled bamboo of the chashaku, the 胡麻竹 goma-dake pattern resembling minute raindrops.

I lift the 柄杓 hishaku from a hammered silver 蓋置 futaoki and dip it into the water for the chagama.

I draw forth a dipper’s worth of hot water, pouring it into the shallow teabowl.

Thin networks of steam rises from the chawan as I press the thin tines of the chasen into the pool. Once cleansed, the chasen is returned beside the black lacquer natsume, beads of water still clinging to the blades of bamboo.

Tea is scooped and placed into the center of the pale blue-green teabowl. The curved scoop of the chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner rim, producing a clear, bell-like sound.

With my right hand, I take hold of the stem of the mulberry leaf, lifting it off the glass mizusashi. From right hand to left, I fold the leaf gently and place it into the large 建水 kensui beside me.

Cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chagama, arresting the rolling boil, silencing the kettle and the tea space. A full ladle is pulled from the steaming mouth of the cauldron and brought above the chawan.

Only half is poured into the teabowl. The other half is returned to the kama. This action calls to mind 曹洞 Sōtō Zen teacher 鈴木 俊隆 Suzuki Shunryū’s (1904-1971) discussion of the order’s founder, 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), and 半杓橋 Hanshaku-kyō at 永平寺 Eiheiji. In the story, Dōgen would cross the bridge leading to the temple of Eiheiji and draw forth a dipper-full of water to cleanse himself, returning half of the dipper’s worth of water back to the river.

To understand why Dōgen did this is quite difficult. As a means of economy or of efficiency it makes no sense. However, as Dōgen understood the river and felt at one with the river, his action, to use half a ladle of water and pour back the other half (半杓 hanshaku, “half-ladle”), was a sign of respect for the water. In Zen, this is a reflection of one’s “essence of mind” or “big mind”. An understanding of one’s self intrinsically linked to everything in the universe.

In the realm of tea, the half-ladle of water is a form of modulation. On a hot day, I use slightly more water. The result is a thinner tea. The swift motion of the chasen and the shallow draft of the teabowl will eventually cool the water down. The end result is a refreshing bowl of tea. If I take care to understand the moment at hand and the guests in the tearoom, I will understand what each moment needs. With time and practice and attention, this motion becomes second nature. I convey this. Water conveys this.

Within seconds of whisking, the matcha is whisked into a light foam. The bright green of the tea stands against the light celadon color of the antique qīngbái bowl. The bowl sits atop the wave-like pattern embedded in the wooden floorboards of my apartment. The expansive surface is cool and relaxed.

Sunlight filters through window shades. It pools in the center of the chawan. It collects in the prism of the glass mizusashi. Caught in the bubble that rise and churn in the chagama. Caught in the bubbles that cling to the side of the fresh water bucket’s translucent walls.

I stare downward into the foamy surface of the tea, mounding inside the concave of the shallow teabowl. The clean scent of 宇治 Uji tea. The scent born from earth, from sunlight, from the water that is found in the mountains. The water that I’ve used, sourced from the mountains of New York state, revive these flavors. One water meets another, converge and harmonize.

As I lift the bowl, the heat of the day creeps into the tearoom. Hot, heavy air laden with moisture, synonymous with Summer in New York City. I sip the tea and, despite the warmth of the liquid, my body feels revived. For a moment I enjoy looking upon the final dregs which cling to the bowl’s interior.

I rinse the bowl with water pulled from the chagama and turn the bowl over to inspect the 高台 kōdai. Patches of exposed rough clay show through the thin, green-blue glaze. Much of this teabowl’s life was spent sitting at the bottom of a river. For many hundreds of years it was protected by the water, kept away from the destructive forces of humanity. As wars tore civilizations apart, it remained below the surface, re-emerging once again to live out its current life as a teabowl once more.

I pour cool water in the bowl and cleanse the whisk. I remove the remaining matcha powder from the chashaku.

Bowl and natsume are placed side-by-side.

Each item appears slick with water. Before return to my busy day, I arrange a small solitary 拝見 haiken.

The natsume is cleansed once again and placed upon an old 香盤 kōban.

The chashaku is placed beside it. Swirling wood grains create a whirlpool around each item.

Like water pushing off rocks below a mighty waterfall. Each wave appears separate. Each an individual surge. A single body and mind. An event and action. Yet each motion is part of a single vast expanse. A river that runs to an ocean. An accumulation of memories, of pain, of trauma. Of joys, of celebrations, of boundless lovers finding one another, of beings awakening.

All of this is conveyed by water, held by it, harmonized by it. To assuage the heat of Summer. To return us to our most essential self. This, too, is refreshing.

 

****

Given how essential water is to tea, and how precious it is for life, below are links to resources that offer ways to become active in your own community. Each link gives an opportunity to learn more about water rights, clean water protection, the link between access to clean water and human rights, and ways you can become more actively engaged in ensuring that clean water won’t become a thing of the past.

Waterkeeper Alliance

https://waterkeeper.org/news/issues/covid-19/

Native American Rights Fund – Protect Tribal Natural Resources

https://www.narf.org/our-work/protection-tribal-natural-resources/

No More Deaths

https://nomoredeaths.org/en/

People’s Water Board Coalition

https://www.peopleswaterboard.org

Hydrate Detroit

https://www.hydratedetroit.org

The Human Utility – Detroit Water Project

https://detroitwaterproject.org

Navajo Water Project

https://www.navajowaterproject.org

Flint Rising

https://flintrising.com

Clean Water Advocacy Center

https://www.cwacenter.org/home-1

Publications on Race and Water Justice

(From Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) – Research Coordination Network (RCN))

https://hwise-rcn.org

Balazs, C. L., & Ray, I. (2014). The Drinking Water Disparities Framework: On the Origins and Persistence of Inequities in Exposure. American Journal of Public Health, 104(4), 603–611. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301664  

Ahmad, K., Erqou, S., Shah, N., Nazir, U., Morrison, A., Choudhary, G., & Wu, W.-C. (2020). Association of Poor Housing Conditions with COVID-19 Incidence and Mortality Across US Counties. MedRxiv, 2020.05.28.20116087. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.28.20116087 

Butts, R., & Gasteyer, S. (2011). ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEWS & CASE STUDIES: More Cost per Drop: Water Rates, Structural Inequality, and Race in the United States—The Case of Michigan. Environmental Practice, 13(4), 386–395. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1466046611000391 

Clonch, A. (2019). Annexation and Water Utility Extensions in Wake County, NC: The Role of Race, Income, and Other Demographic Characteristics. https://doi.org/10.17615/2qb3-5f55  

Deitz, S., & Meehan, K. (2019). Plumbing Poverty: Mapping Hot Spots of Racial and Geographic Inequality in U.S. Household Water Insecurity. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(4), 1092–1109. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2018.1530587  

Dyer, O. (2020). Covid-19: Black people and other minorities are hardest hit in US. BMJ, 369. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1483 

Gasteyer, S. P., Lai, J., Tucker, B., Carrera, J., & Moss, J. (2016). BASICS INEQUALITY: Race and Access to Complete Plumbing Facilities in the United States. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(2), 305–325. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X16000242  

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

Sitting with Discomfort

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.

In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one. 

But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.

Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture. 

But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large. 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable. 

As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.

While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?

While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.

When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture. 

As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.

This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.

This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm. 

In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?

Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.

Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?

In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice. 

She states:

Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.

If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.

Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.

I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253): 

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.

To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy. 

What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.

New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.

In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.

In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.

In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.

As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamono temae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.

Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles. 

The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).

The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.

Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.

While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?

 

****

 

Additional Readings & Resources

As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.

 

1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.

2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.

3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.

4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.

5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.

6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.

7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.

8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.

9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.

10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.

 

Writers & Authors

Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson

 

Articles & Online Resources

Anti-Racism Resource Collection

http://www.resourcesharingproject.org/anti-racism-resource-collection

 

White People 4 Black Lives

https://www.awarela.org/white-people-4-black-lives

 

“A Toolkit for White People” – Black Lives Matter

https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Toolkit-WhitePpl-Trayvon.pdf

 

“Anti-racism Resources to Become a Better Ally” – JDSUPRA

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/anti-racism-resources-to-become-a-36289/

 

Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/antiracist_resources_from_greater_good

 

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

Iris by the River’s Edge. Carp Leaping Up a Waterfall.

With the beginning of May, the heat of Summer seems to be growing day by day. As the glories of Spring have come and gone, blossoms are replaced by the deep greens of the forest and the occasional burst of color as flowers bloom by the river’s edge. The soft murmur of a creek or stream blends with the wind pushing through the trees, bringing a sense of coolness to the mind, even when temperatures are on the rise.

In Japan, early May is marked with the events of Golden Week (黄金週間 Ōgon Shūkan), reaching its climax on the fifth, with 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no sekku, Iris festival. Also known as 重五 Chōgo (“Double Five”), 端午の節句 Tango no sekku (“Beginning of the Horse Month”), and こどもの日 Kodomo no Hi (“Children’s Day”), May 5th is packed with meaning, both in the profane world and in the nebulous world of nature and the supernatural.

Just as Summer begins to appear, people in ancient times would take measures to fortify themselves agains the heat, which also brought about plague, famine and the premature death of young children. In ancient China, sweet-flag (Acorus calamus), as well as mugwort, was hung under the waves of homes to purge evil spirits and avert fires. Similarly, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month is marked with the observation of 端午節 Duānwǔ jié, where it was believed that an offering of rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves to the river dragon would avert dangers that came with the arrival of the rainy season.

In Japan, the water iris (Iris ensata var. ensata) bloom during this period, which spring up like violet-colored arrow points. Their likeness to this article of martial spirit joins the often warrior-infused ethos that surrounds the precursor of Children’s Day, Boy’s Day. Imagery of arrows, samurai armor, and the refined warrior, thus often are abundant in Japan during this time.

As one’s eyes go from the river’s edge to the sky, fluttering multicolored carp-shaped banners can be seen, representing family members in a household. These, too, trace their origin to the dragons of ancient China, as it was believed that dragons originated from carp that swam up waterfalls. The notion of this determined fish to overcome great difficulties and become something greater, more noble than itself, is analogous to a child growing, studying, and cultivating the skills to become an adult, to beat all odds, to awaken to their true self.

As I sit for tea on this May 5th, I cannot help but to engage with this swirl of energies around me. Summer’s heat is finally here and I’ve begun to use the 風炉 furo to heat my 茶釜 chagama. So, too, have I begun to use lighter, wider teabowls. For today’s sitting in observance of Shōbu no sekku, I use a modest 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, which has subtle hues of grey and purple.

For a tea container, I employ a small antique lacquered 小棗 konatsume, upon which is the playful design of 壺 tsubo in a warm gold.

As the kettle comes to a soft, roiling boil, I cleanse the small natsume. After running the 袱紗 fukusa over its glossy surface, I lift the lid, revealing a mound of bright green tea powder.

Placing this to the side, I begin to remove the other items, one by one, to cleanse and prepare for making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

The 茶杓 chashaku, as straight as an iris, is cleansed and placed atop the natsume. The skin of the bamboo conveys a murky landscape, akin the mists and clouds that surround a waterfall as it pours and torrents through a canyon.

The 茶筅 chasen is lifted and set beside the natsume.

The 柄杓 hishaku is lifted and held in the left hand.

From where it had rested, a 蓋置 futaoki made from a jade archer’s thumb ring, once a symbol of the military elite of 清 Qīng and, later, of scholars.

Water is drawn from the kettle and poured into the bowl. The chasen is dipped and whisked and returned to sit beside the natsume once again.

The bowl stands alone, slick with moisture, clean and fresh and refreshing to view. Small gusts of wind push through a space underneath the window of my tearoom and the coming heat of the day is assuaged for a moment.

I lift the chashaku from atop the natsume and bring it before me. I lift the natsume and remove its lid. I place the first of three scoops of 抹茶 matcha into the teabowl. The bright color contrasting against the soft greys and purples of the teabowl’s glaze.

Once all three have been placed in the center of the bowl, I mark the small heap with the sigil of my school and lightly tap the chashaku along the inner rim of the teabowl, removing any excess tea dust from the scoop. A soft ringing sound rises like a small bell.

I place the chashaku back atop the natsume, its tip coated in tea. Cool water is added from the 水指 mizusashi into the chagama and the sound of boiling ceases. The tiny world of my tearoom is silent and still. My mind focuses as I bring the ladle down towards the teabowl. A small gust of wind. A splash of water. The rhythmic motion and sounds of whisking tea.

I draw the chasen out from the bowl. A small peak of foam rises in the center of the chawan. A tiny mountain for the mind to climb. I lift the bowl before me. A solitary offering as I take a moment for myself to pause between work and life and the ongoing challenges of the world. The mind flutters like a flag in the wind. Like a carp leaping up a waterfall. Caught in these actions all day, we often don’t take moments like this to just return to simply sitting. Simply doing. Simply being.

As children, perhaps we unlearned this quality of life. For what? To become a warrior like mom and dad? A scholar, resting their head upon a stack of books? A poet, forced from their home into exile? The carp jumps out of the water. The iris springs from the river’s edge. Dragons are born and people awaken.

The bowl of tea vanishes as quickly as it was made. All that is left are the frothy dregs.

I turn the bowl in my hands and inspect its every imperfection. The bubbling glaze on its foot reminding me of who I am.

I cleanse the bowl, the chasen, and the chashaku once more.

I decide on a whim to enjoy a final 拝見 haiken by myself. The natsume is placed beside the chashaku on a tray of mulberry wood. Set against the swirling of the wooden grain, I lose myself in the little objects and the moment they helped to make possible.

A painting of tsubo playfully dance and roll across the lid of the tea container.

I open the lid to see the remnants of the tea inside. A concave carved-out represents this one meeting of myself with myself.

The chashaku, with its mountains and canyons, mists and waterfalls all made by some moisture that had once accumulated against the skin of a bamboo stalk now become the journey I have taken.

Leaping and fluttering, flapping and climbing.

My eyes glance over to the alcove. A scholar’s carp-shaped water-dropper sits in the 床間 tokonoma. This carp, too, will become a dragon.

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Ryōkan-sa! Playful as a Child.

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 hiranatsume, 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 hiranatsume.

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 hiranatsume. 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 OniHagi teabowl. The large dark voids on its surface where the glaze was kept at bay. The curious 切十文字高台 kirijumonjikōdai (“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).

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Cherry Blossoms. Buddha is Born.

The morning came after a light rain. The sun rose from a full moon night. As I made my morning walk, face covered in a mask, I made my way through my neighborhood. As it has been in the past, my walks have felt more and more like a meditation, on the current situation, on the emergence of Spring its full glory. Below me, a ground covered in moss, bright green sprigs of grass, lush carpets of flowers, interrupted by dandelions of electric yellow.

Above me are canopies of blossoms. 梅 ume of March. Magnolias of purple, white and pale green. The 桜 sakura of all kinds. Those which explode like a firework. Those which bloom gently like a rose. Those that cascade from willow-like branches, pouring downward like peach-hued waterfalls.

Amidst this beauty, yes, there is great sadness, death, despair. A screaming ambulance flying by on the streets of Queens, New York City is the ever-present reminder of this. So, too, are the men, women and children huddled either underneath overpasses, by the doors of government buildings asking for handouts, or together in the long lines to enter markets.

A walk down my neighborhood street reveals this, the bare reality. How the many once grinning streets of commerce now bear gaps, hollow holes in the mouth of a once smiling community. How will we repair that which is gone, perhaps forever. The realization that nothing will be the same.

Yet, on this walk, I am reminded that this is April 8th. In my Zen practice, one that hails from the Japanese 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū tradition, today we observe 仏生会 Busshōé, the birth of the historical Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (c480 B.C.E – 400 B.C.E). During this day, it is common to create a small altar, situated in the center of which is a small statue of the Buddha as a newborn child. Surrounded in garlands of flowers, the statue is bathed in sweet tea (甘茶 amacha) and we are reminded that all great things come from small, humble beginnings and that all forms, too, shall be born and die and transform. As I walk home, back through the deaths of flowers and calamity, I formulate how I shall prepare tea to observe this day.

Entering my home I set my iron kettle to boil. As the water heats in this cauldron, I pull together teaware. Having recently acquired a tall 茶入 chaire, I opt to use this in my Busshōe tea gathering. I pull it forth from its wooden 桐箱 kiribako, its 緒 o tied in such a manner to indicate that it is empty of tea.

For a moment I inspect it, still enrobed in its silken 仕服 shifuku, one made not from the sacred 袈裟 kesa robes of a Buddhist priest but from the profane cloth of a kimono. The rippled texture and alternating colors of pink and blue, yellow and red remind me of the blossoms from this morning’s walk.

I remove the cloth and begin to scoop 抹茶 matcha powder into the chaire until there is just enough to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and myself to share. I then place this in front of the 水指 mizusashi which I’ve set beside my 風炉 furo.

Once the kettle has come to a boil I call my partner into the tearoom to join me for a bowl of tea. Before her, I place a small sweet to enjoy. After this I re-enter into the tearoom with teabowl in hand. It is a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan by 清和釜 Seiwa gama kiln master potter 祥雲 Shōun, the color of which harmonizes with the colors of the shifuku. Finally, I return with 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki made of split bamboo.

Together my partner and I sit to prepare a bowl of koicha. I set the teabowl and assembled equipage within it before me. Breathing out, I reach for the chaire, and place it before the chawan, creating a center line between myself, the wares, and the space between 茶釜 chagama and mizusashi.

I reach both hands down and lift them up the length of the chaire until my fingers reach the lightly-tied knot that ties the shifuku together. Carefully I unbind the silken cord and draw it open.

With well-practiced movements, I pull the chaire from the shifuku, placing the latter between the mizusashi and furo where it will sit for the remainder of the gathering as an empty shell.

Next, I cleanse the chaire, touching the lid with my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa, then the shoulders, and then the sides, until all surfaces which will come in contact with my hands have been purified.

Next I turn to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku which, rather than being fashioned from the more typical bamboo, is made of cherry wood. As I run the fine silk of the fukusa over its surface, I admire the iridescent sheen of tree bark which still remains, an echo of a Spring long since passed.

The 茶筅 chasen is warmed and set upright next to the chaire, its thick tines expanding slowly.

I bow to my partner and invite her to enjoy the tea sweet prior to receiving a bowl of thick tea which I will prepare for her. She bows back and we both set into action. I lift the chashaku from the chaire and bring it towards my center. Next, I bring forth the chaire and remove its lid, placing it next to the chawan.

I lift the first of three scoops of tea from the tiny ceramic tea container, slowing my cadence for a moment to appreciate the movement of matcha powder from caddy to teabowl.

Two more times do I dip the chashaku back into the chaire, removing glowing green tea powder each time from its dark interior.

Finally, I tilt the chaire over, pouring out the remaining powdered tea into the chawan. In the brief moment of random pattering of tea to teabowl I am reminded of how the amacha would fall onto the small metal statue of the child Buddha. How it made me feel like a child. A little sense of chaos and joy that comes from letting gravity take over.

I enjoy the scene that has been made inside the teabowl. A split second vignette of colors and textures, of volumes and voids, of actions and inactions playing out and recorded in this art of being.

I return the object back to their resting positions and draw a ladle of hot water from the steaming chagama. A minute fraction of the water is placed along the inner edge of the teabowl, slipping under the heaped mound of tea dust. The matcha lifts and slowly sinks, changing from bright green to a dark emerald.

I slowly press the chasen into this pool of thick tea and proceed to knead the tea into a firm paste. As I do this the scent of tea is overwhelming. Its lively, grassy and bittersweet notes merging with the warm and gentle fragrance of incense lingering in the tearoom, one which was commonly burned at my temple back in California.

Memories of the past merging with moments of the present. How eagerly the mind brings up such images, especially in times of sadness and despair. “Remember this?” my mind seems to call. “Remember what joy you had back then?” it abruptly interrupts the silence with.

It calls me to think of those times as if they were spotless, as if they were without their own trials and tribulations. How this mind clings and grapples with the past. Tosses and turns and trips over itself like a child at play, hurting itself in the process.

Another draught of hot water is added to the tea and I continue to whisk it slowly, methodically, using every motion of my practice to focus the mind.

Though the Buddha was born a child, it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he awoke to his own Buddha mind. It was said that he was met with thoughts of temptation, desire, fear and anger, but chose to simply sit, to bow to these notions, and to claim the earth on which he sat as his sole witness to this knowing.

In a similar way, I set down the chasen and offer up a bowl of tea to my partner, with no expectations, just to accept it and myself as we are. Perfectly imperfect.

For a moment she looks down into the bowl, a brief flash of trepidation before she accepts the tea. She then lifts the bowl, turns it slightly, and drinks from it. A thick trail of koicha pulls from the center pool across the inner wall of the teabowl. She returns the bowl to me with just enough left so I may have a hearty sip. I turn the bowl again and drink the remaining koicha. A second trail of tea runs along the inner wall of the teabowl. We take a moment to pause, to breathe, to meditate. The flavor of tea still present on both our palates.

Before I set into cleansing the wares, I admire the traces of tea upon them. The light dusting of tea coating the carved tip of chashaku.

The thick residue of lacquer-like koicha still clinging to the tines of the chasen.

The dregs of tea running back down into the center of the chawan.

I bow to my partner and prepare to close the tea sitting, cleansing the teawares once more. As I usually do, I offer up a simple 拝見 haiken as a chance to recall the moment had with tea. Each item, the chaire, the chashaku, the shifuku, like tracks of an unseen bull. We know the presence of tea. We can taste it in our mouths. Yet it no longer exists as it once did. It has been transformed into memory. We recall the actions as if it were in the past now.

We lift the lid of the chaire to look inside. We see only emptiness.

We lift the chashaku and imagine the weight of tea hanging on its hand-hewn tip, yet it feels as light as a feather.

We inspect the shifuku, made from a scrap of kimono fabric.

We imagine the body that it must have once been held close against. Perhaps this person is no longer alive.

The chaire, now emptied and cleansed, is wrapped up again. The knot of the o retied in the manner to show that tea no longer sits inside. It is left to be inspected once more atop the 香盆 kōban made of mulberry wood and then, it, too, is put back into storage.

The tea gathering closes as it began, with a silent bow. An exchange between two friends. A moment born, expired, transformed.

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