Category Archives: Poetry

The Less Said, the Better: Tea in Remembrance of Bashō.

IMG_2514How does one capture the fleeting essence of a moment? How can words sum-up the feeling of an Autumn’s breeze or the surprise of a falling leaf? How can one connect to a world that seems to grow ever more distant each day?

As a practitioner of tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, and others), I grapple with this regularly. In my practice, whether it is the mindful selecting of teawares, tending to my guests, or the silent contemplation of the seasons, my own inability to capture with words the qualities of a moment is both a challenge and a meditation. During this last weekend, I had the opportunity to engage with this as I organized an informal and solitary tea outing in observation of 芭蕉忌 Bashō-ki.

As a memorial day for the 17th century haiku poet 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), I was reminded of his terse and oftentimes frank poetry that sought to humble the reader through describing small vignettes of natural, unfettered everyday occurrences. Using poetry as a means to communicate this, Bashō never sought to elevate a moment through flowery words or diversion. His world, existing on the edge of society and often caught in a melancholic state, summed up, with seventeen syllables alone, the dirt and the dead, the evanescence of Spring’s bright flowers and Autumn’s falling leaves. Always there was change and, always, was the ego in the state of exposing itself.

IMG_2515As I set forth from my apartment to settle underneath a stone arch and maple tree on a brisk mid-October’s day, I brought with me as much and as little as I could hold in my small woven grass tea basket. Limited by the size of the basket, I chose to look upon this moment in the same way Bashō might have composed a haiku. Five-seven-five. The confines of a haiku. Within this can exist an entire universe. Thus, this small box, placed upon the broad expanse of a brocaded cloth, was itself a tiny and infinite universe.

IMG_2510Opened, I looked upon a world of opportunities. A fine 茶杓 chashaku, a deep purple 袱紗 fukusa, an antique ink brush washing pot that will double as a 振出 furidashi, a travel 茶筅 chasen contained in a bamboo tube.

76B8C80E-5EB2-49EA-B62A-44366EF81D57Removing these reveals even more layers. As I unwrap each object, a scene unfolds.

1554EE9D-B412-446A-89E3-D6AB7476AC2FA cloth emblazoned with red and white 紅葉 momiji conceals a hidden jewel.

0EADE223-F1CF-4C9B-9F42-F420F5356905An old lacquer 棗 natsume with a simple 壺 tsubo motif.

177D79A0-9BD6-4CB2-A7FA-A612D337BB7CA small dark red 茶碗 chawan.

D38E98C2-D58D-4992-9B41-0AA7F65E9391A monk’s old wooden eating bowl.

A863EB7F-AC34-4C3F-B295-04E71C3DE516In the shifting breezes of the daytime, I began to arrange the objects in front of me. Tea container and tea whisk. Chasen and chawan. Each were purified before I began to make tea.

F9EC0BAE-343A-4233-AFBA-A02EA474A225As I moved through these wordless motions, a passerby walked by and I invited them to join me. Curious, they asked about the unusual furidashi. Upon describing its use and origin, I removed its lid and tapped-out three red 枸杞 góuqǐ (goji berries) onto a curled maple leaf.

D1D3B351-ACEB-46F3-B671-CB55704A72D1As they enjoyed the dried fruit, I began to make them a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Lifting three scoops of 抹茶 matcha powder from the natsume, I became highly aware of the shifting winds. Small flecks of matcha powder blew off each tiny mound I placed into the center of the bowl.

IMG_2511Resting the small bamboo chasen atop the small hill of tea, I then poured a thin stream of hot water from my thermos into the teabowl.

IMG_2512The soft scent of Fall leaves mingled with the bright aroma of tea. As I whisked the tea, leaves continued to blow around both me and my guest. Gusts of wind moved a collection of idle leaves around the brocaded tea cloth, floating and spinning as if caught in a dance.

344A4DCD-B69F-4E0F-8AD8-A43A4CD87966As they settled I lifted the whisk from the teabowl and for a moment we enjoyed the silent vignette of a bowl of tea and fallen leaves. How these told us of the changing season. How this moment spoke volumes. How a tiny bowl of tea captured a wordless dialogue between host and guest.

IMG_2517In both the practice of tea and in the works of Bashō, one is offered the opportunity to merge with the natural world and to forget the self. The leaves. The trees. The sound of water collecting in the wooden 建水 kensui. The feeling of wind fluttering against one’s sleeves. With nothing elaborate present, the mind has nothing to cling to. Straight-forward words. A humble bowl of tea. We can read into each a freedom that is gained when we unhinge ourselves from our egoic mind, accepting things as they truly are. In Japanese, this may be called 無我 muga, an act of self-renunciation.

IMG_2516In this moment, on this brisk mid-October day, two minds connect, tea is shared, and something unspoken is understood. The less said, the better.

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

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

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If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

A Rancid Old Crock Peddling Roadside Tea: Tea and the Memory of Baisaō.

On the sixteenth day of the seventh month of the era 宝暦 Hōreki (October 1751-June 1764), an old, hollow-cheeked man passed quietly into death. What he left to the world were primarily words scrawled on pieces of paper and memories collected by his closest friends. His only worldly belongings of any value, of which he had carried for years on his own back, had already been set ablaze by his own hand years before. Dying with the name 高遊外 Ko Yūgai, the man who died this day centuries ago was none other than the famed master of 煎茶 sencha, 売茶翁 Baisaō (the “Old Tea Seller”, 1675–1763).

A former monk of the 黄檗 Ōbaku school of Zen Buddhism, Baisaō would become famous for traveling around the hills of Kyōto selling tea, and imparting mindful (if not often gruff and self-effacing) reflections upon those whom he would share tea with. Breaking from the time-honored tradition of whisked powdered tea (抹茶 matcha) that had become a mainstay of Japan’s elite during the Edo period (1603-1868), Baisaō brewed sencha, a new style of whole leaf green tea that came to Japan through the influence of Ming China (1368-1644).

Baisaō lived much of his life in abject poverty, never asking for money in exchange for the many cups of tea he poured or the calligraphy he wrote. Considered an eccentric for his unorthodox way of asceticism, he attracted the attention of Kyōto artists, writers, poets and aesthetes, all of whom were drawn to his simple lifestyle spent in appreciation of tea. Despite his popularity, Baisaō refused to establish a formal school of tea in his own lifetime, preferring to leave no trace.

Upon his retirement from selling tea, he famously burned his belongings. In the poem he offered to the remembrance of his bamboo basket named 僊窠 Senka (“Den of the Sages”), he mused “After the world-ending kalpa fires consume all things, Won’t the emerald hills still soar into the white clouds? With these words I commit you to the flames.”

Following his death, Baisaō’s tea practice would become the foundation upon which later practitioners of 煎茶道 senchadō (“Way of sencha) would emulate. Over time, his influence led to the popularization of sencha, both as a more accessible form of tea and as an alternative to the formalism of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony).

Baisaō wrote of himself “Years ago old Tu-chan predicted I’d be a great Dharma vessel, sixty-nine years come and gone, time it takes to crook a finger, wouldn’t he laugh to see me now, a rancid old crock peddling roadside tea.”

As I spend the morning in meditation on this, on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I decide to commemorate the life of Baisaō in a way he may (or may not) have deemed fit. With a small clay kettle coming to a simmering boil atop a small brazier, I ready my teaware. An old sencha set I found years ago when I, much like Baisaō, had been living a life of chosen poverty in San Francisco. The tiny 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) and 湯冷まし yuzamashi (water cooling vessel) sitting before me.

Five small cups, turned upside-down, waiting to be cleansed.

A small celadon sweets caddy in the shape of a gourd as a tea container. A cut piece of bamboo inscribed with a poem to measure tea leaves. Hammered plates of copper to rest tea cups upon.

Pouring a small amount of boiled water into the yuzamashi, I let the water cool and warm the uneven shape of the ceramic tea object before I empty it out into the hōhin and then into the cups.

A small amount of tea is measured out from the celadon jar into the open void of the bamboo scoop. The leaves of this particular 冠茶 kabusecha (a partially shade-grown style of green tea) are a deep emerald.

Tilting the scoop downward, I let the leaves slide into the warmth of the open and empty hōhin.

The heat from the ceramic begins to activate the aroma of tea, which now, alongside the gentle scent of incense, begins to waft throughout the room.

Slowly I pour cooled water over the leaves and set the lid atop the tea vessel to steep the tea. Within a few seconds I begin decanting, pouring the tea into each cup.

Once emptied, I place the hōhin back down, lifting the lid off to allow the tea to breathe.

With a single mind, enjoying the moment at hand, I set each cup atop their copper rest. As I sit and sip the refreshing tea from the tiny earthenware cup, enjoying its lush flavors and long finish, I give pause and meditate on the life of this old master, on his will to leave no trace, and of the ripples he set into motion which are still felt today. As Baisaō said himself, “I offer a taste of my one cup tea, a Dharma transmission worked out on my own.”

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If you would like to learn more about Baisaō, I highly recommend Norman Waddell’s 2008 book “The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto”. Throughout this article I’ve sourced information and translations from this wonderful text.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Poetry, Sencha, Tea

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 Wisteria Vine Winds Up the Tree

It is Summer and balmy breezes carry the fragrant aroma of flowers and fresh leaves. As I walk around my neighborhood, I crisscross paths and can’t help but to take the long way home. Strolling over a tattered bridge under which train tracks run, I look along the causeway’s edge. A wisteria vine, in full bloom, winds up an old gnarled tree. Its bright purple flowers cascading and jostling in the wind like long silk sleeves. I breathe in the air around it in the hopes to glean some of its fleeting scent, a perfume that has probably passed and remains elusive.

Coming home, I am reminded of its beauty. The hue of its petals. The fresh verdant color of its leaves. Wanting to quell the heat that followed me inside, I opt to make a pot of tea.

Feeling inspired, I draw from my tea cabinet a small ceramic teapot, glazed in a flamboyant purple 鈞窯 Jūn yáo (Jun kiln) glaze. Next, I produce a small celadon 振出 furidashi, a ceramic sweets container which I have turned into a tea caddy. Along with this, I bring out an antique tea scoop, three Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teacups and sookwoo (decanting bowl).

Letting a kettle come to a roiling boil, I quietly prepare to brew tea, enjoying the array of colors and textures set before me.

The muted grey of the Korean ceramics next to the deep purple of the teapot.

The warm color of the wooden plank against the assembled teawares.

The soft, creamy green of the celadon tea container.

Issuing-out a small measure of tea, I admire the hand-twisted leaves of a Winter-harvested 高山烏龍茶 gāoshān wūlóngchá (high mountain oolong) from 阿里山 Ālǐshān in Taiwan.

Placing the leaves into the warmed teapot, this produces an initial release of fragrance. It is sweet and ephemeral.

Pouring hot water over the leaves, I briefly witness their unrolling before placing the lid atop the teapot.

I wait as the tea brews, and as I do, I enjoy the sound of a light breeze outside my window. As this pause lingers longer, I let the tea continue to brew. As a tea now out of its season, I hope to draw forth its flavor.

Upon decanting the tea, a golden liqueur emerges, along with the bright scent of oolong tea.

Poured into three cups, I sit and relax, letting time pass, letting the heat subside. Once sufficiently cooled, I bring the first cup to my lips. A soft aroma of sugarcane and guava. A gentle flavor of honey, rock sugar, fruit and flowers arises with every sip.

As it was brewed with a glazed vessel, the tea’s flavor is brighter and crisper than it would have been had I brewed it with a more porous, unglazed Yixing teapot. The result is satisfying, refreshing, like the tranquil Summer breezes that come from the south, cooling the air that lingers in my tearoom.

I am reminded of poetry written by the Song period writer, poet, painter, gastronome, and statesman 蘇軾 Sū Shì (1037-1101):

薰風自南來,殿閣生微涼。

“Xūn fēng zì nán lái, diàn gé shēng wēi liáng.”

“The balmy summer breezes come from the south. It becomes a bit cooler at the palace.”

As time passes, so too does the heat. The sun shifts in the sky. The fragrance of tea mixing with the swirling scents of Summer.

* Translation from Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac by Sasaki Sanmi (Tuttle Publishing, 2011).

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A black bowl. A depth for an eternity.

In East Asia, it is customary to celebrate the anniversary of the death of an individual. While not marked by bombastic festivities, such an occasion is met with somber reflection on a life well led. In the tradition of Japanese tea ceremony (茶の湯 chanoyu), the life (and death) of 千利休 Sen no Rikyū (who many consider the “founder” of the art) is considered to be one of the most important dates in a year of tea. For the “Sen” schools (schools of tea that directly trace their lineage back to Sen no Rikyū), this day is marked by a observance of their founder and his exit of the world upon which he had left an indelible mark upon.

A layman, a merchant, a student of Zen, an advisor to the state, an artist, a tea person: Sen no Rikyū was all of these. As a multi-faceted individual who lived over four centuries ago, we were left countless treasures shaped by his hand and a practice that was undoubtedly shaped by his spirit and keen mind. However, he still remains an enigma.

One of his most notable contributions to tea was uniting and refining of the 侘び wabi aesthetic and spirit with the elegance of tea practiced in both temples and amongst the well-healed and everyday tea people of 16th century Japan. Illustrative of this was his commissioning and favoring of the simple 黒楽茶碗 kuro Raku chawan (black Raku teabowl) made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō (himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent). The form he created was both rustic yet subdued, suitable for both the most formal and informal tea setting.

On the morning of this day, I, too, favor a kuro Raku chawan. For my own 利休忌 Rikyū-ki (anniversary of Rikyū), I bring out a teabowl by famed Raku potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

As this is a solemn occasion, I decide to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). For this, I set out a 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki (“shouldered”) 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container).

While making tea this morning I find myself pausing throughout the formal yet informal 点前 temae (procedure of making tea). Little nuances that I might otherwise overlook seem to stand out in the pale light of the dawn. The soft textures upon the back of the 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop), the stippling of the slick black glaze of the Raku teabowl, the contrasting bright white fabric of the 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth). This small vignette, itself, a tiny universe, an eternity of decisions made by a long line of those who practiced the Way of tea.

Removing the chaire from its 仕服 shifuku (silk brocade pouch), I go about the process of cleansing and purifying each item.

Every piece I call into action, waking them before setting them down again in a new arrangement.

As I touch each object I begin to realize how Rikyū has touched each object. How the chashaku is set down onto the lid of the chaire.

How the tea is scooped and then poured out into the chawan.

Even how the thick tea is kneaded from powder into a viscous liquid. Although subsequent schools and masters developed their own styles and forms (even my school, 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū), each still was (and still is) influenced and informed by the decisions of Rikyū.

Much like all schools of Zen look to Bodhidharma, tea, too, has its dharma lineage. Each has their own embodiment of “Buddha mind”. In this way, there would be no Sōhen-ryū without Rikyū. No Rikyū without 紹鴎 Jōō. No Jōō without 珠光 Shukō. No Shukō without 一休 Ikkyū. A line extending far into the past and into the future.

Working the koicha into its final form is akin to polishing a roof tile until it becomes a mirror. The end result is reflective and lacquer-like. Sitting at the bottom of the black teabowl, it feels like staring into a bottomless well or out into eternity. With a deep and resolute breath I raise the bowl to my lips. With three hearty sips I drink the thick tea, its aroma and intense character instantly waking me from a morning haze.

Returning the bowl in front of me, I cleanse it and turn it over to appreciate its shape. A single spiral set within its 高台 kōdai (foot of teabowl) seems to indicate a descent into something deeper, or a turbulent force within something inanimate.

This, perhaps, is the other meaning of Rikyū-ki. It is not just the celebration of his life and his achievements as a master of the Way; it is a observance of his suicide, which came as an order from his lord and then ruler of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

In this, there remains something of a grim warning. Perhaps it is to never seek to own Rikyū, to never seek to appropriate him. While each school vies to weave the story of Rikyū into their own tapestry of tradition, we must call into question whether this was something he would have wanted.

Much like the art of Rikyū, the life of Rikyū was one of further reduction. His forms became more minimal. His teaware became less ornate. Even his tea rooms shrank over time, eventually reduced to a one-and-one-half mats. This reductive quality even appears in his death poem (here, using the translation done by the Meiji period scholar 岡倉覚三 Okakura Kakuzō):

Welcome to thee,

O sword of eternity!

Through Buddha

And through Daruma alike

Thou hast cleft thy way.

With the sword he used to end his live, he cut through his achievements, his legacy, his ego, until there was nothing left, not even a Buddha. In this, the wares and the memories he imprinted upon his followers become just the worldly flesh and bones; material like a finger pointing to the moon, or the sound of windblown pines in a painting. What remains of Rikyū are figments, fragments, sentiments. Nothing to own but to think and ultimately act upon.

I finished the morning with an informal 拝見 haiken (moment to view teaware). Tea container. Tea scoop. A silk brocaded pouch. All now sitting empty. Hollow.

What did they contain before that they do not contain now? Is there still life after it has all been poured out? Fully consumed? Where does it go and what happens afterwards? How do memories of a person’s life still hold sway over us still? Is this the means by which a Way is constructed?

In the growing light of the day I sat and meditated upon this. On a life. A black bowl. A depth for an eternity.

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

A bright green mountain as if it were smiling

By the middle of March, Winter has receded and the verdant splendor of Spring arrives. Before the flowers bloom and the buds that swell upon each branch blossom, the tiny shoots and grasses make their presence known. The effect is refreshing, crisp, and clarifying. To be present in this moment is quite enjoyable, and an effervescent quality can easily overtake one’s spirit.

In his text 《林泉高致》“Línquán Gāo Zhì” (“The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams”), 11th century Song period literatus poet, painter and scholar 郭熙 Guō Xī offered up his own observations on this sudden change of the season. In the opening verse of 《山水訓》”Shānshuǐ Xùn” (“Instructions on Landscape”), Guō reflects upon viewing a mountain vista in the emergence of Spring, saying that with the appearance of such brilliant green colors in the mountains, it appeared as if they were smiling (春山澹冶而如笑, “Chūnshān dàn yě ér rú xiào”).

Feeling just as content in this moment, I decide to make tea. Selecting a fresh, 杉林溪烏龍冬茶 Shān Lín Xī wūlóng dōngchá (Winter-picked Shān Lín Xī oolong tea), I pair this to an impromptu teaset, made up of a 綠泥 lǜ ní (“green clay”) Yixing teapot, and an antique (possibly Song/Yuan) 青白 qīngbái (“green-white”) porcelain teabowl.

For a 茶荷 chá hé (“tea leaf viewing vessel”), I select a piece of contemporary Taiwanese 汝窯 Rǔ yáo (“Ru kiln”) celadon.

Set inside the soft-colored celadon vessel, the leaves remain coiled, hinting at their potential.

Upon viewing teapot and tea leaves together, I can’t help but to smile.

Placed into the teapot and allowed to brew momentarily with the lid set beside it, the aroma of the awakening tea is intoxicating. Bright and floral, with notes of tropical fruit. A preview of what’s to come.

Set to steep for only a few minutes, I pour the brewed tea into the shallow teabowl. Set side-by-side, the teapot looks like the dark void of nature (青 qīng), whereas the teabowl, filled with fresh-brewed tea, is vibrant and glowing.

The color of the pale celadon of the qīngbái porcelain brings out the tea’s natural green-golden hue.

Pausing to view the tea for just one more moment, I feel refreshed. Bringing the antique bowl to my lips, I notice the liqueur has cooled. The flavors are crisp and complex. The mouthfeel is full and buttery. The lingering finish (回甘 huí gān, “returning sweetness”) is long-lasting, with a distinct minerality. The energy (茶氣 chá qì) that is left is uplifting and strong.

As a tea from the mountains, this Shān Lín Xī, is just coming into its own. With energy stored in its leaves to survive a cold Winter’s frost, it opens now, bright and green, as if it, too, was smiling.

For those interested in the entirety of Guō Xī’s 《山水訓》Shānshuǐ Xùn” (“Instructions on Landscape”), I offer up the poem below (a full translation featured in “Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac” by Sasaki Sanmi):

春山澹冶而如笑

夏山蒼翠而如滴

秋山明淨而如妝

冬山慘淡而如睡

Chūnshān dàn yě ér rú xiào

xiàshān cāngcuì ér rú dī

qiūshān míngjìng ér rú zhuāng

dōngshān cǎndàn ér rú shuì

“A bright spring mountain as if it were smiling,

An emerald summer mountain as if it were oozing with moisture,

A clear fall mountain as if it were all dressed up,

A withered winter mountain as if it were sleeping.”

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting