Category Archives: Incense

Tea for a Sunset and Autumn Rain

IMG_2201A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.

E59E1F05-8A0E-4116-98E4-B6BE55A708FEAs the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.

IMG_2221As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.

61473BB2-4BA8-4910-A874-4418F6591314As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.

D9931783-6303-454E-B403-C090A8463DA9With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.

155B6781-714B-42B7-9854-316586FD4F66As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.

352E95D1-CD09-4F51-9DE5-4F91CE86FAA8Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.

459C9A0C-5554-4E03-9FB0-16F8CF25545CAs I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.

IMG_2222Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.

90EFEF11-4F4F-4BBF-8698-5BA2AA96A000I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.

6363EDA4-50D6-4285-9926-395E165CB778Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.

0063DBF8-7FE7-49A5-8A28-45DD41A28332A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.

 

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As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).

IMG_2223

秋雨夜眠

涼冷三秋夜,
安閒一老翁。
臥遲燈滅後,
睡美雨聲中。
灰宿溫瓶火,
香添暖被籠。
曉晴寒未起,
霜葉滿階紅。

Qiūyǔ yè mián

Liáng lěng sānqiū yè,
ānxián yī lǎowēng.
Wò chí dēng miè hòu,
shuì měiyǔ shēng zhōng.
Huī sù wēn píng huǒ,
xiāng tiān nuǎn bèi lóng.
Xiǎo qíng hán wèi qǐ,
shuāng yèmǎnjiē hóng.

Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain

It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month,
Peacefully within, a lone old man.
He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, History, Incense, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting

To Have Flowers Without Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Facets of the same spirit. Interdependence.

In the tradition of my California-based Japanese Sōtō Zen lineage, July 4th is celebrated as “Interdependence Day”. As a coy musing on the American national holiday, Interdependence Day takes into account the inter-connectedness of all beings, of time and space. It honors the interplay of individuals, the connections we forge and have yet to forge. It recognizes that no one person is an island, and that we are all part of a larger whole. As 洞山良价 Dòngshān Liángjiè (807–869), a famous Zen master, said,

“The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

There is a source and a product of the source. Each depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.

As a practitioner of tea, I see this natural tendency everywhere. Tea, the plant (Camellia sinensis), has its origins somewhere along the edges of modern-day Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal. Chinese tea culture has its origins in these otherwise “foreign” cultures. Similarly, Korean and Japanese tea culture borrows heavily from Chinese tea culture(s) from various points in time. What you see (and taste) today is the result of centuries of cultural interplay. Each depend on one another without being wholly dependent on one another.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), the act of making tea calls upon a multi-faceted history. Chinese methods of preparing tea from the 唐 Táng, 宋 Sòng, 元 Yuán, and 明 Míng periods (618-1644) all have had their influence on the development of Japanese tea ceremony from the 15th to 17th century. From the teaware to the manner of use and even the psychology of the tea ceremony have been marked by a “foreign” culture (as well as many other “foreign” cultures).

Similarly, too, chanoyu has been influenced by other arts. 香道 kōdō (xiāngdào in Mandarin; lit. “Way of incense”), an art that originally has its roots in ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist incense ceremonies of India, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan, has had an immense influence on tea. From the way incense and incense utensils are used, held, cleansed, and shared, each were eventually echoed in the tea ceremony. Even the mentality of kōdō, which attunes the host and guests’ mind to the singularity of a moment, is present in tea. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the two arts, one will find how influential early incense practitioners such as 志野宗信 Shino Sōshin (1444–1523) were to the bourgeoning art and practiced chanoyu.

On this Interdependence Day, I can’t help but to bring together these arts. Normally I burn incense prior to sitting for tea. This is commonly done before the guests come for tea as the aroma of incense should typically not compete with the flavor of tea. However, today I opt to enjoy both together. Setting a piece of glowing charcoal into a small 楽 Raku family 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), I place a thin leaf of mica and fine sliver of 沈香 jinkō (aloeswood) atop the shaped mound of warm ash. Placed within an antique wooden タバコ盆 tabako-bon (“tobacco tray”), I take a moment to pause and appreciate the quiet aroma of the rare incense wood.

Next, I set out my tea equipage: a modern 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made by Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango. These I set within a Song period 青白 qīngbái “green-white” porcelain 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki 香合 kōgō made by my dear tea friend Nessim. Purifying each, I am reminded of how similar the action is to cleansing the incense wares. A 袱紗 fukusa (silk cloth for purifying objects) is used for both incense and tea. The chashaku is cleansed as if it were a silver incense implement.

The bowl is warmed and set before me as if it were a cleansed incense cup.

Three scoops of tea are placed into the center of the teabowl, as if I were issuing-out a small heap of 抹香 makkō (“powdered incense”) into an incense burner.

The tea is whisked and the aroma is instantly evident, growing stronger as it lifts upward from the small, shallow Summer bowl.

Set side-by-side, I appreciate the delicate scent of aloeswood with the bright fragrance of tea. Lifting the bowl to my lips, both tea and incense are enjoyed. The silky foam of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) and the warm resin of rare wood.

With the tea finished, I take a moment to view the final dregs clinging to the jade-like ancient porcelain.

Cleansing the implements one last time, I savor the lingering flavors and intermingling of spirits. Of cultures. Of flavors. Of host and guests.

When we share in a bowl of tea, we also celebrate this. With this bowl of tea I give to you, I humble myself. By accepting the bowl of tea, you reflect and respect the effort and attention that I put into preparing the bowl of tea. The feeling is different yet mutual, and ultimately in unison. When I look across the table, I see a buddha.

Happy Interdependence Day.

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The First Sign of Summer

As the month of May opens, the weather warms, the air becomes heavier with moisture, and the blossoms that adorned trees in April have been exchanged with fresh, emerald leaves. The tree peony are in full bloom and the hydrangea buds are just beginning to appear as small green pearls amidst dry weathered stalks and ruffled emerging shoots.

In the twenty-four seasonal points of the year (Japan traditionally divides their year into 24 parts, 二十四節気 Nijūshi sekki, which, when divided by three, expands to 72 micro-seasons, 七十二候 Shichijūni-kō), this time is referred to as 立夏 Rikka, “Beginning of Summer”. While by Western standards, this begins the new season more than a month earlier, this intention reflects the subtle change that is now palpable to the most observant.

In the traditional 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) calendar, this day marks the beginning of the use of the 風炉 furo (portable brazier, lit. “wind furnace”). While I began this earlier in May (as is often the case when warmer days arrive prematurely), I find myself still beaming over the use of the furo and especialaly its use in conjunction with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle). Made of a thin rod of cut bamboo, the feeling of the hishaku in the hand is akin to holding a finely-crafted arrow.

Coming into the tearoom during the morning, holding the hishaku in one hand and the 建水 kensui (waste water bowl) in the other, the action marks the true “beginning” of tea preparation. Before setting the hishaku down, I raise it before me, pointing it upright, with the open end of its cup facing towards me. This gesture, known as 鏡柄杓 kagami-bishaku, literally translates to ”holding the hishaku as if it were a mirror”. As one tea person explained to me, it is as if one is looking into one’s own heart, inspecting it prior to making a bowl of tea.

Softly resting the cup of the hishaku down onto the 蓋置 futaoki (lid rest), I let my fingers slide down to the end of the long bamboo handle, gliding off as I gently set it down.

Moments pass as I begin to purify each tea object. First the antique lacquer 棗 natsume, adorned with a playful 壺 tsubo (round jar) motif.

Followed by the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop).

As I go through the actions of purifying the teawares, the final act is the cleanse the 茶碗 chawan (teabowl). To do this, I lift the hishaku up, pinched between the fingers of my left hand.

Next, I lift the lid of the 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) off and set it atop the futaoki.

I scoop a ladle’s-worth if hot water out…

… and pour it into the teabowl.

I set the hishaku atop the open mouth of the kettle, letting it bathe in the rising steam.

Once cleansed and dried, the bowl becomes a vessel to accept the 抹茶 matcha.

On a hot day, I cool the boiling water of the kettle by first scooping fresh cold water from the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) and pouring it into chagama. This instantly quiets the rolling boil, causing a still silence to fill the tearoom.

Pulling one ladle’s-worth of water out from the chagama, I only use half the amount to make a bowl of tea, returning the rest back to the kettle.

With tea fully whisked, I enjoy it alone on this warm day. The sun beaming upon the treetops. The clouds drifting by. The scent of 伽羅 kyara (aloeswood) wafting in the air.

As I finish today’s sitting, I once again blend cold water with hot, letting the water pour down from the cup of the hishaku one more time, the sound resembling that of a gently gurgling stream.

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The tree peony flowers. The season of the furo begins.

In tea, there are two major shifts that mark the year: the time when the 炉 ro (sunken hearth) is used and the period when the 風炉 furo (portable brazier, lit. “wind furnace”) is used.

Encompassing both symbolic and functional reasons, the shift from ro to furo at the height of Spring reflects the necessity of the tea person (茶人 chajin) to instill a sense of coolness in the tea space. With the furo, one is able to move the source of heat further away from the guest, which, as Summer approaches, is not only preferred but necessary. The arrival of the furo in early May happens coincidence with the blossoming of 牡丹 botan (tree peony).

For me, a person who practices both 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) and 功夫茶 gōng fū chá (a traditional Chinese method of brewing tea), the shift to furo is a joyous occasion. The furo which I use is a replica of a Song period (960-1279) kettle. In many ways, this shift represents a uniting of these two traditions.

Today as I stare out of my tearoom window upon the deep verdant green treetops, I am drawn to make tea. Alone, I bring out my furo and 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle). As I wait for the water to come to a boil, I light incense, a gentle 白檀 byakudan (sandalwood), and scoop fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha powder into a red and black lacquer 棗 natsume tea container. Set together with an antique Vietnamese blue-and-white teabowl from the mid-to-late 15th century, a new 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) both by the Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, I finally sit to enjoy an informal 初風炉 sho-buro, the first use of the furo.

Purifying each tea object offers-up small landscapes and vistas. Valleys of carved lacquer.

The mottled skin of a bamboo stalk.

The wiry canopy of finely cut bamboo paired with the rough texture of an old bowl’s rim.

Once cleaned, the antique vessel seems to glow in the soft light of the day.

With no flower set in a vase, the cursory painting of a tree peony blossom within the center of this antique bowl will have to do.

Lifting the tea scoop from atop the red lacquer lid of the natsume, I begin to measure-out scoops of tea into the 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

Three scoops and a light tap of the chashaku within the inside of the teabowl as a sign of respect.

Pulling water first from my 水差 mizusashi (fresh water container) to then pour into the boiling water of the chagama, I finally ladle one half-scoop of water into the blue-and-white chawan. Whisking the matcha into a fine foam, the small space of my tearoom is transformed by the scent of tea. Where once the warm, spicy scent of sandalwood lingered, now the aroma of a tea field in Spring arose, overtaking my senses and lifting my spirit.

With teabowl before me, I bowed to all that worked together to bring me to this moment.

Another sho-buro! Another Spring! Another time to see the tree peony blossom again!

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And just like that, the blossoms have come and gone.

April arrives and leaves like a blur. The air gets crisp and clean, the sky bright and clear. The small shoots of grass that were once pressing upwards through the last drifts of snow in March are now climbing skyward, abundantly across the rolling hills. The bulb-bound flowers have all bloomed. The blossoms on trees, like fireworks above our heads, have all exploded and are now cascading downward, blowing with the wind and collecting in small pools and eddies at our feet. What heralded the peak of Spring has now come and gone and the approaching heat of Summer seems closer than ever before. Winter is now just a distant memory.

In my tea practice, this means coming change. The last days of the 炉 ro (sunken hearth) have waned. The 風炉 furo (lit. “wind furnace”, portable brazier) is eagerly waiting for its use. The wooden incense container sitting at the ready. The scent of sandalwood arriving again, replacing the soft and warm scents of the 練香 nerikō (kneaded incense). And the shape of teabowls begin to change too.

In this remaining Springtime, I collect myself and make a bowl of tea. To this, I feel as if the motions come too quick. The moment passes too fast. 拝見 haiken (the final instance to view tea objects used during a tea ceremony) comes too soon. As I sit to look upon the lacquered tea container, with its swirling layers of colors, I cannot help but feel this tumbling energy about me.

As I hold the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made of cherry wood in my hands, I cannot help but to feel as if this, too, will disappear.

Will I again employ this object to make tea? Or, like the blossoms that have since faded, will I have to wait for another year to pass before I can see it once again?

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In a Bowl of Tea, There is a Path to Wander

Two week’s ago, I sat down in my tearoom and whipped-up a single bowl of 抹茶 matcha. The moment this produced, the pause it enabled, and the thoughts that it encouraged, was just enough to calm me before I set off for two weeks of travel to the American West Coast.

As I stepped into the taxicab that took me to the airport I could still taste the flavor of green tea on my palate. As I boarded the plane, the gentle awakening of the bowl of tea remained. As I stepped-off into the cool Spring air of the San Francisco Bay Area, the fresh grassiness of the matcha paired perfectly with the scent of sprouting grass wafting on the wind.

Returning to my boyhood home, the hills greeted me like a loving parent with open arms. I eagerly walked to them, allowing for their cool, familiar embrace. The old path I had walked my whole life welcomed me again. Tucked along the fold of a rolling ridge, I wandered against the forest’s edge.

A bright green field cast against a dark grey sky like the foam of tea against a ceramic bowl.

Lifting the bowl to my lips, the hills tilted sideways.

Old trees with deep roots gripping tight to soft Spring soil and ancient boulders buried below the earth.

Pressing deeper into the woods, I encounter smaller beings. Lacey leaves of hemlock with their bittersweet smell.

Bright lobed leaves rise upward on spindly stalks skyward.

Tiny flowers pushing through a canopy of grass.

Just as my mind pulls the last dregs of tea from my memory I encounter a soft bed of moss, its curling and looping fibers hospitable. While this patch may be minuscule in size, it feels like a vast world, akin to the 露地 roji (“dewy path”) garden that surrounds a 茶室 chashitsu (tea house).

Sitting in the forest that surrounds my boyhood home, I somehow feel as if I were back in my tearoom. Silence. The scent of fragrant wood. The pleasant sound of gurgling water. Wind pushing through reeds and the leaves in the trees.

Just as I emerged from this meditation a gentle rain began to fall. A bowl of tea set down, ready to be cleansed.

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