Tag Archives: Aged Tea

Meditations on war

Good morning friends. Perhaps you woke up today like me. It’s a dark day, not just for the cold and stormy weather we’re experiencing on this Thursday in late February, but also because of the announcement that the Ukraine is now under attack (more so than previously).

New York and New York City is home to many Ukrainians, to many Russians, Belarusians, Moldavians, and peoples near and around the affected areas. War and armed conflict anywhere is tragic and the fallout, seen and yet to be seen, will be terrible.

As tea people, I hope we commit to practicing peace and non-violence. I hope we can not just be against war and violence but be anti-war and anti-violent, both in our actions and our thoughts. Consider why war has been waged and consider how we, both far and close to this conflict, can understand the human costs. Perhaps we should meditate why we live in a world that is more inclined to wage war than to wage peace.

I leave you with some images of an early morning tea session I had while listening to the news and to the accounts of journalists who are now currently in the Ukraine. I wonder if tea and meditation can change any of what has happened or what may happen.

I’ve met many in my lifetime who come from cultures that love tea. Perhaps offering tea and a chance to meditate together can be of support to finding peace between the areas currently affected by war. Perhaps combatants and civilians can ignore the commands of their leaders, put down their weapons, come out of their bunkers, and share a cup. I’m sure they’d prefer this over killing and death. In this hope, I offer up this meditation.

Meditations on war

Perhaps it’s too soon to meditate on war

Perhaps too few people have been killed

Too few lives broken

Too few cities burned

But despite the costs, waging war is easier

When every government known to us is made to wage war

We’ve made it so it’s easier to wage war than to wage peace

Easier to call a missile strike than to solve hunger

Easier to round-up and execute civilians than to secure their rights

Easier to bomb cities and invade countries than to make them ecologically sustainable

Easier to pit neighbors against neighbors than to end systemic racism

War is easier than peace because it’s now a practiced habit

So let’s meditate on war, the ease we want to complicate, a habit we want to break

And practice peace as a habit to create

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Filed under Ceramics, History, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea

Meeting of Two Masters

Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.

I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.

As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.

Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.

These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.

Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.

Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.

Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).

Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.

With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.

I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.

The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.

Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.

Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.

Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.

Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.

Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.

The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.

As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.

I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.

Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.

Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.

The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.

The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.

I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.

It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.

As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.

The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.

Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 , ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.

In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.

Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Between Winter and Spring

As I begin writing, I await the coming of the new season. One more day, a few more hours, and we pass from 大寒 Dàhán (lit. “Big Cold”) to 立春 Lìchūn (the beginning of Spring). In the mountains and rivers of New York, cold rain comes, just warm enough to melt snow. The process, the thin winnowing-away of Winter into Spring, is slow. It doesn’t happen all at once (not yet, at least). Nature reminding us, always, to pause, appreciate each moment, savor the length of time things take to emerge, grow, mature, ebb, flow, and then wane and fade into nothing.

Looking out onto my garden, the snow becomes soft until it gives way to thick frosty puddles, where grass that survived the cold Winter pushes upwards through. Leaves that fell last Autumn emerge preserved from their chrysalis of ice. Colors still vibrant, but only for today.

Looking out onto this world, a mirror of what transformative forces nature brings, I sit and set a kettle to boil beside me. While the air grows warmer, the space of my studio remains cold, its walls cut into the side of the hill atop which my house is built. Warmth comes from the brazier, the kettle, the sunbeams that stretch across the wooden floor and wooden board I use to make tea upon.

As water warms, I ready objects to steep. A cloth. A scoop made of carved bamboo. A pick fashioned from a twig of a fruit tree.

A small purple-glazed pot gifted to me years ago by an artist acquaintance.

A cup gifted to me by a tea friend from South Korea, its maker a famed ceramicist from the same country.

An archer’s ring for a lid rest.

Soft light stretches across the tea table. Warmer in tone than days before.

This same warm light flickers against warm water which I use to heat the pot and cup. This same warm light settles and creates soft shadows on the twisted leaves of old white tea.

野大白 Yě Dàbái, a wild large leaf white tea from Fújiàn province, was once a fresh tea. Bright, green, silvery in its complexion. Now, more than seven years old, the leaves have darkened. What was once emerald and lacquer-like in appearance now looks leathery and worn. Spring-picked leaves for the last day of Winter.

Lifting the lid from the pot and placing it down atop the jade archer’s thumb rest, I place the leaves inside the tiny vessel.

Warm water is poured atop the tea and the leaves tumble and twirl within the teapot before they come to rest.

The lid is lifted and placed over the opening of the pot and the tea begins to steep.

Waiting for the tea to steep. Waiting for Winter to fade into Spring. Waiting for this world to change. Each season seems to bring something new to us all. Anticipation building each time the weather warms. An unarticulated promise that things will get better and we, somehow, collectively, will be able to step out from our own self-enforced solitary confinement.

As each season arrives, this promise, however, invariably falls flat. Steep expectations eventually evolve into deep resentment. Underlying aggravation arises from the denial of simple freedoms. Reluctant realization sets in as we recognize that the big problems of life don’t just melt away.

The tea, once poured, gives me some hope for what waiting may bring. Patience for a pot to brew brings deep colors and warm amber hues. While outside my window Winter wanes, the flavors inside this now aged tea still remain strong. Subtle notes of caramel, of cardamom, of honey, and sweet dew. They linger and last, as successive cups are poured, each deepening in color and flavor, until no more liquid is left in the pot.

Lifting the lid off the teapot again, more water is added and a second steeping begins.

The sound of rain is gentle and silvery pools of water begin to collect between the shrinking mounds of snow that have covered the concrete platform that leads out to the garden. Concentric circles of ripples from raindrops bend and break.

I pour out the next round of tea into the same small cup from South Korea. The color darker than before. The flavors more open and complex.

One cup turns to two, then three, and then more water is poured onto the leaves again for another steeping, and another steeping after that.

Light from the day continues to shift and, too, wanes like Winter, and I set the lid back atop the teapot once more, this time, empty of liquid. I opt to stop brewing tea for now and to wait until morning comes the next day to return for one final steeping. The cold of my studio space enough to preserve the leaves in the pot and let me enjoy the tea for one more day.

The next morning, I wake to the sound of ice rain against my window. Bright, crystalline, like unearthly chimes in their resonance against the quiet that only exists before the sunrises. Lìchūn is here and yet the cold seems stronger. Where once there were pools and puddles that harkened to an early Spring, today there is sleet and carpets of piling ice that blanket the concrete platform and pathway stones of my garden.

Trees, too, are coated in a frozen sheath. Plum are covered. So, too, are the pine.

The preserved Autumn leaf that inspired my tea time the day before is covered again in a layer of ice, returning to its hibernation for a few more hours or a few more days.

I sit down again beside my kettle like I had done before a day ago. Today is Spring and still there is snow. Ice rain seems to be a fitting harbinger for the new season. A light chiming knell for the end of Winter. A bright shining sparkling tree covered in ice.

The day-old tea, when brewed for one last time, the color that comes is light.

The flavor has faded. The last notes from a Spring seven years passed are finally gone.

A new Spring is here, and yet it’s colder now. For how long will it remain?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea

Ten Years

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

When we offer a bowl, or cup, or pot of tea, do we think of the effect it will have on our lives and the lives of others?

Do we think beyond the singular moment that this simple gesture represents?

The leaves are selected with care…

…and placed within the teapot gently.

The kettle is warmed to a boil…

…and water is poured with attentiveness.

The pot is closed and, through one’s own awareness of what is happening within the tiny vessel, tea is brewed to a quality nearing perfection.

In truth, much of this effort to make this happen was already complete well before the tea made its way into the pot. Effort by the countless farmers, artisans, and trades people who cultivated, picked, produced, packaged and delivered tea to you and I, the tea brewer or lucky tea drinker, was done with a level of mastery and attentiveness that we may never fully appreciate.

What one is left with is the mere navigation of knowledge of leaves and wares, of material qualities and the qualities of one’s own self.

In steeping tea and offering tea, there is no true goal, only the hope that through offering tea you can somehow offer something of yourself to others.

This, coupled with showing one’s appreciation and respect to the art and craft and effort that went into producing the fine tea that you have chosen to brew.

Ten years ago, I published the first blogpost on Scotttea. Then, as now, I set out with no goal in mind, just a hope to explore the world of tea and the thoughts that would invariably arise as I sat down to make tea. Since then, a lot has happened.

Almost two hundred blogposts have been written, with enough content to fill several books. Incalculable amounts of tea were made, some shared with others, most savored alone.

However, as I’ve discovered since starting this blog, the vast expanse that defines the digital divide seems less expansive. In many ways, the space that separates you and I is the width of my tea table, the space between one 畳 tatami mat, the space between where we sit in my makeshift tea hut.

The true distance I find that changes is time. Time between ten years ago and now seems vast as it does miniscule. Ten years ago I was living and working and making tea in San Francisco. Less than an hour away from where I grew up. Less than a walk away from the hospital where I was born. Living in a small apartment in a 100-year-old Victorian townhouse furnished with three tatami mats, a few antique 箪笥 tansu cabinets, and a collection of tea and teaware.

For almost a decade I lived in this space and continued a tea practice that I had begun since my childhood, one I further honed and developed during my formative years in college. Little thought was given to writing down these experiences. When I did, they never amounted to much. I’d start a blog about tea and soon after abandon it. There was little staying power. In many ways, Scotttea was no different.

What kept me writing is hard to define. Perhaps the desire to log memories. Perhaps a hope to guide others in the often confusing crossroads of the internet and tea. Maybe it was just to see if writing about tea could encourage myself to just keep at it. An experiment at best. No expectations for an outcome.

Looking back at many of my old posts, all I see are the glaring mistakes of a neophyte, groping and stumbling along the Way. A misplaced 茶杓 chashaku. Too much or too little tea. Poor camera angles. Missed opportunities.

In trying to overcome all of this, my posts seem to have grown in size and length. The desire to want to say everything and show everything combined with a sort of endless thread of thought approach has seemed to evolve over the years, much to the chagrin of readers who may have hoped for a quick musing on tea, a poetic vignette, or singular statement.

The practice that has emerged has been one that longs more and more for the connection with others in the real world, in real time. The hut on the edge of my property remains empty, save for maybe the pair of mice I once evicted or a queen hornet trying to survive the Winter cold. Instead of opening the door, I write and hope that once this pandemic ends and once the sickness of our too busy world is over that you and other tea people like you may join me in a bowl or cup or pot of tea.

Until then, I share with you the same tea that I made ten years ago. A fantastic aged 水仙武夷山巖茶 Shuǐxiān Wǔyíshān yánchá from the mid-1980s that was gifted to me by a dear friend more than a decade ago, the same I featured in my first blogpost. With ten additional years of age on this tea, the leaves have an aroma akin to a fine incense. The brewed liqueur is medicinal, both in its flavor and its affect of the body.

Tea like this is rare and special not because it exists but because of the forces that work against it. It’s delicious. It’s too good to pass up. A fool would store it away. And, yet, I’ve done this so I can enjoy it today.

Perhaps this blog is similar. The tea it documents is, more often than not, amazing. It demands to be savored and enjoyed in the moment. To snap photographs, to think about what I will write about it, memorializing each tea experience with word, prose and pictures to produce a blogpost is, in some sense, madness. I’ve often thought of what happens as I make tea and then invite these thoughts and actions into my otherwise unobstructed, often austere practice.

It is a fool who saves these moments. Old used up tea leaves. The dregs of 抹茶 matcha. The dust and patina that accumulates on old teaware. Memories captured and catalogued. And, yet, here we are. Ten years since I put word to virtual page and pressed share. I’m deeply thankful to all who’ve joined me. I hope some day we can join for tea together in real life, beyond this digital space. Just know that the door to my tea room is always open and my message box is just a click away.

Ten years. Almost two hundred posts. Several books somehow locked within these pages. Who will know where we’ll be in ten more years. More tea leaves? A darker patina on my old teaware? Oil and residue accumulating in the cracks and fissures of old teabowls and old tea pots? We’ll see. Until then, let’s have another cup and see what it inspires.

Thank you,

Scott

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

Sailing Vessel

The year is new and the tea I crave is old. What comes to mind is singular: a memory of a 1999 金帆牌 Jīn Fān Pái “Golden Sail” 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá from a life long ago. This tea was easily one of my first pǔ’ěr experiences when I was still wading around in the shallow waters of my then nascent 工夫茶 gōng fū chá practice back in the early 2000s when I was still a wide-eyes college student in Santa Cruz, California. I can remember when David Wright of Chaikhana offered me a sip of this tea. Back then, it was sold to me under the name “Sailing Vessel” and, indeed, it helped me to venture further into the depths of the larger tea world.

I can recall the experience drinking this tea quite vividly. It was dark, earthy, inky. The texture was slick, viscous, one that would leave a slight resinous feeling in the mouth. Notes of redwood, pine sap, clean wet river stone. I was hooked. Even then, when this tea was relatively young, I felt it had a lot to say. The favors were incredibly active in the mouth for a shú pǔ’ěr, let alone one that is relatively widely produced.

I remember purchasing this tea (for a price now so low that I am amazed I didn’t buy more) and running back to the house I shared with my fellow tea-heads So Han Fan and Sylvia Levine and drinking quite a bit of it (probably all of it, which makes this particular cake the second one I must have bought soon there after). It became the tea that I’d learn how to brew cake pǔ’ěr with, studying how the compression unique to 餅茶 bǐngchá affects the way it brews, how the heat of the water and saturation of the tea are key to unlocking the tea’s potential, and how the shape of a teapot (from the circumference of its opening to the height of its profile) can determine the trajectory of the steeping experience. Tea as teacher became a core understanding from this point onward.

I’d shelve this tea for years, pack it away and almost forget I had it. As I moved from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, and then from San Francisco to New York City, the tea would travel with me, wrapped-up in paper and a Japanese 風呂敷 furoshiki.

Since moving to the Hudson Valley, I kept the tea stored away in an antique 桐箪笥 kiri-dansu, the light, relatively porous wood of the Paulwonia acting as a great neutral environment for the tea to live and age. Now that Winter has arrived here along the rivers and mountains of the Hudson, the tea is dormant, its oils and active flavors less readily available.

The cold air that continues to creep through the windows and doors of my studio are both a challenge and an opportunity to make tea. The kettle that I keep by my side is drawn closer to me on the coldest of days. I remove the tea cake from its cloth and paper wrapping and set it down beside me. The compressed leaves look unchanged from when I last opened this cake up for inspection years ago. The scent of the dried tea is sweet, akin to loamy wood and dried black mission figs.

I arrange a setting for tea upon the swirling grains of my tea table (admittedly less a table and more a plank of wood that rests upon two tea boxes).

A pick for loosening a portion of tea from the cake.

A scoop fashioned from a piece of bamboo to set the leaves within.

A dark 紫砂仿古壺 zǐshā fǎnggǔ hú by ceramicist 尹紅范 Yǐn Hóngfàn (1963 – present) which I’ve employed for making cake and brick pǔ’ěr for almost fifteen years now. A shallow 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán to set the pot within.

A wooden cup stand made of cherry wood.

A small 鬼萩焼 Oni Hagi-yaki teacup with unctuous white glaze by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan that has been accompanying me on many of my tea sessions since Winter came.

The pot and cup are warmed by the water that has been boiling in my iron kettle. The portion of broken-off tea cake is set within the open pot. The scent of the dried tea leaves coming in contact with the warm and wetted interior of the teapot reveals just a hint of the tea’s flavor. Again, notes of redwood, of dried black mission fig.

I pour hot water upon the compressed leaves within the pot and close the lid. I wait and do not rinse the tea fearing that this extra step will remove some of the flavor that this tea has acquired over the years.

In waiting I watch the steam rise from the water inside the tiny white-glazed cup, the steam rise from the spout of my boiling kettle, the slight wisps of steam that hover over the dark clay pot.

Waiting has brought this tea here today for me to taste. Waiting has made this moment happen. Waiting will let this now-aged tea express what time and change has allowed it to achieve.

Minutes pass and I pour the first of many draughts from the teapot. The color of the tea is dark, inky, opaque. I am reminded of the first time I sat to drink this tea with David two decades ago.

The aroma wafting from the cup, the sparkling wave that dances across the surface of the dark red liqueur, the bareness of its presentation. I lift the cup to my lips, inhale its profuse aromatics, and sip from the tiny teacup. Time evaporates. I’m for a brief moment brought back to that old time. I feel as if I’m about to cry.

The tea is nothing special and yet it really is. The flavors are big and sweet. There is complexity and layers and unfolding of depth but I am brought back to when I was just first beginning to perceive these things.

I can remember the layout of David’s old shop. The nooks and cavernous shelves that seemed to contain a trove of then-unknowns. Teapots and teas. Books and postcards. Lamps and cups. Tea picks and tea boats. Old lacquered items nexts to objects and figures carved of boxwood and rose wood and agate and jade. The jumble of things and the curl of David’s short beard and the wry smile he’d make when he’d tell you a dry joke that would invariably go over my head.

“Clouds,” he once told me. “Goals are like clouds. You watch them pass in the sky. You might focus on one or two, but you can’t grasp at a cloud.”

They disappear. The dissipate. The dissolve into the something bigger that’s out there. He never said the last part. I’d have to come to realize this on my own years later.

Sitting with this tea I look into the past from the vantage point of now. I’ve aged, no longer the young man I was. This tea has aged too, and yet it contains with it the bright, fresh, buoyant memories of my youth. It’s a good tea.

It steeps for days. On day two, on steeping who-knows-now, the color begins to wane and the once dark opacity it had held breaks and the liqueur becomes slightly transparent. Sunlight finally enters the bottom of the cup and the crimson leathery tones of a typical pǔ’ěr finally emerge.

The staying power of this tea amazes me. So, too, does the staying power of these memories. Sweet and bittersweet. Sad in a sense. Longing. Unable to go back. Happy that I’ve come this far. The cake that we called “Sailing Vessel” has in some way lived up to its name. “Golden Sail” sounds a bit luxurious. This is a simple yet sturdy tea and it and I have ventured for quite a while, for quite a distance. Far from when we first left off.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Once New Tea Seems All the More Older

Today, on this bright December day, the cold that had locked me indoors seems to have warmed, if only momentarily, enough to bring me outside. As the light of the day passes swiftly during these Winter months, I use time outside to close-up my garden for the season, covering the raised beds with tarpaulin, and heaping leaves over my compost mounds to help keep the heat of their decomposition in as the days grow colder.

The sweet scent of the desiccating leaves is wonderful. The rich aroma of dark piled earth beneath them complex, a swirl of vegetation and minerals, roots and mud, rocks and clay. The heat of the turned compost heap lifts in steam like tiny clouds drifting off a mountain’s top in the morning.

I tap off my boots and leave them by the door to my studio. Before I set down to return to my daily work, to my email replies, spreadsheets and presentations, I pour cold spring water into my stainless steel kettle which I’ve had for almost twenty years now.

The click of the polished metal switch. The red glow of electric light that signals “ON”. The hum of energy coupled by the growing noise of water coming to a boil. The rattle of the flapping metal lid.

As water boils, I assemble a tea setting for one. A hand-carved wooden tray from Korea. A 茶船 chá chuán made of 朱泥 zhūní clay. A large 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (sesame-colored fortified clay Yíxìng teapot) shaped like a compressed meditation pillow.

The handle atop its lid carved to look like an arch reminiscent of a bridge, reminding me that this pot was gifted to me by a former tea teacher of mine, his knowledge of tea crossing over to me.

I bring out a cup I’ve been favoring ever since Winter arrived. An 鬼萩 Ono-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) cup by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.

Its foot, rough and unctuous in the hand, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner. This I set atop a burl-wood cup rest.

From the kettle, I pour forth a draught of hot water into the clay teapot. The sparkle of water in the late-day sun reflects the ceiling of my studio and my face as I peer down into the wide opening of the warming vessel.

I pour this water into the white glazed tea cup and return the pot to the empty tea boat.

With the bamboo scoop, I arrange a handful of old wild leaves I’d sourced years ago when on a trip up to 南糯山 Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà (ᩈᩥ᩠ᨷᩈ᩠ᩋᨦᨻᩢ᩠ᨶᨶᩣ/西双版纳州).

What were once bright, silvery green leaves of 毛茶 máochá have, over the course of nine years, transformed into darker, more russet curls akin to the fallen leaves I had just been piling against the edge of my garden. Time and the heat of the kettle will only tell how these leaves have fared over the many years they’ve been packed away.

I lift the scoop and tilt it down, letting the twisted leaves fall into the empty and wetted pot. The quiet aroma of this now-aged tea is faint, warm, still grass-like, yet a shadow of its former self.

Water from the kettle poured downward upon these leaves and they tumble and twirl in tiny vortices until they settle on top of themselves, already beginning to show signs of their expansion.

The lid closed, the leaves continue their process of steeping and expelling their flavor, darkening the color of the brewed liqueur in their quiet ecstasy.

As the tea steeps, I pour out the warm water from the waiting cup. As I pause once more, I grip the pot, readying my hand to lift it and pour the first of many cup’s worth of liquid from it.

I place my index finger atop the tiny carved clay bridge that spans the softly beveled lid.

I pinch the uppermost portion of the teapot’s handle between middle finger and thumb. As I lift the pot from the red clay chá chuán, the tiny vessel feels balanced in the hand. Pouring out the brewed tea liqueur feels as natural as holding the pot level.

As tea enters the empty tea cup, the true color of this aged tea is revealed. A bright golden hue. Almost the color the tea would have produced when it was still young. However, as I pause and place the pot back into the tea boat, I begin to sense the fragrance of the tea. Gone are the wild grassy notes of a young 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr. Instead, I detect the bittersweet aroma of old, wetted leaves, of clean river stones, of rich, loamy soil.

I lift the cup to my lips and breathe in this aroma one last time before I sip from uneven edge of the thick-glazed teacup. The flavor upon my palate is soft and sweet. Much like the tea’s aroma, its liqueur is complex, earthy, active. Leaves picked in Spring of almost a decade ago still hold their energy. Their large, rumpled surfaces still taste of their natural sugars, their vegetal bodies, their woody branches that they sprung from, the mountain soil from which they were grown.

I am reminded of the bumpy bus ride from 景洪 Jǐnghóng up to the roadside stop to meet tea master Li Shu Lin and his wife Cai. I am reminded of that trek up to their family’s tea farm where we picked leaves and ate rice and chicken and mountain vegetables in the smoke of their ancestral home to the sound of their family singing songs in their local dialect.

Sweet and bittersweet is the tea and these memories. Their home burned down this past year. This tea is a fading hold-out, disappearing more and more I sit down and take moments like this to reminisce and drink a small handful of my woefully small collection I’ve kept stowed away. Still smoky like a young shēng pǔ’ěr but more clear and settled like an older one. Caught somewhere in between. Will it last to be older than this memory I hold onto now? Will it darken to the point that it feels and tastes and smells like the old rich earth that I dug my fingers into as I clamored and climbed up those hills to see the ancient tea trees Master Li kept hidden on his family’s mountainside?

Light from the day stretches across my studio floor and I find my mind buzzing and drunk from the tea I’ve been sipping now for an hour. The kettle rattles some more and I pour another drought from its curved and molded mouth into the clay teapot.

The tea’s color is darker now, like a deep brandy. The leaves, now stretched and unfurled, do not flag in their flavor, but, instead, keep giving, like the memories and knowledge I gained from that first trip I took to visit tea farms in China.

As this year comes closer to its close, once new tea seems all the more older. I, for some reason, do too. 2021, a year that seems to have come and gone, passes like a dangerous beast we have all been hiding from. We, huddled close to the hearth, try to wait it out until it has gone. Clutching close to this moment, to the sweet flavors that this tea reminds me of, the calm this pause brought me now. Will it fade? Or will it grow and become more beautiful and profound, much like these once new, now old, tea leaves have done?

****

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

If you would like to help fund the recovery of tea master Li Shu Lin’s tea production in Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed his family’s home, tea producing facility, and over twenty years-worth of stored and aged tea, please visit the currently ongoing fundraiser set up by So Han Fan of West China Tea. Your support helps to rebuild the home and tea production of Li Shu Lin and his wife and fellow tea master Cai. Anything and everything helps!

Thank you!

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Winter’s Sun

Grey slate skies. Birds huddled in brambles and twisted thickets.

Ocher and orange leaves tumbled dead between stones in the path.

Cold wind whips against the thorn vines.

Old green moss caught against the worn walls of my garden shed.

The world creeps closer to its Winter torpor, slowing down until it barely moves. The mountains along the skyline are already dark from the shadows cast by Winter’s sun, which settles shallow against the horizon in this more northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.

Settled in my studio in the early afternoon, I look out upon this vista, a pallid visage of 大雪 Dàxuě (Major Snow), a period that extends from approximately December 7th to December 11th in the traditional lunisolar calendar. Each day, expecting snow. Each day, the birds scavenge hungrily at any scant seed or borrowed insect, searching to eek out a meager existence, to make their way through the coming cold that the depths of Winter will bring. I see this in their speed as they move, against the lumbering backdrop of Winter.

I, in my studio, remain in a seated meditation, made up of only necessary motions, enough to make tea. The kettle I fill with cold water and set within the recess of an old wood and copper brazier.

The long plank of weathered wood I push beside the window to my garden, positioned to appreciate the drab scenery outside.

An old and seasoned 茶船 chá chuán. A cloth. A coin.

Take off my ring and place it beside a bamboo scoop.

Set down a pear-shaped teapot to brew tea within.

A 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white plate to catch excess liquid upon.

Three 宜興 Yíxìng and white porcelain 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi to enjoy the color, aroma, and flavor of tea from. Three cups. Enough to capture the qualities of tea. Three cups, each enough to contain the universe in its entirety.

The hiss and bubbling of the cast iron kettle comes just as a long stick of incense burns away. The steam rises from the kettle’s spout as a single, twisting column up to the ceiling, dissipating in the cold air of my studio cellar. I lift the lid off from the pear-shaped pot and set it down atop the old coin from two centuries ago.

Into the empty hollow I pour boiled water, heating the air, the clay, the body of the teapot.

On goes the lid. Out goes the water into the three small cups. The clear, clean light of early afternoon catches in the convex and concave of water and cup. The surface tension of the liquid pressing upwards, distorting the small world it captured within it.

As the cups warm and wait, I pull leaves from an old tea tin and place them within the upturned cut bamboo scoop.

Large, dark, twisting leaves of a now-aged 武夷山巖茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá that I left to settle as once they were too strong in taste for casual enjoyment. Now, since eight years passed, I’ll taste them to see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve mellowed, how little they’ve changed.

Even knowing what tea they are escapes me now. The old tin is marked 「大紅袍 」 “Dàhóng páo”, but I wonder if this was just a marketing ploy. Still, the tea smells sweet, the dried leaves still exude a scent of warming spice and of aged citrus peel and smoked salted plum.

The cool light of Winter’s sun makes these leaves look blue and inky. 烏龍 wūlóng seems most fitting in this part of the day and time of year.

, the dark blue-black of a crow’s coat.

lóng, the long, twisting body of a dragon as it climbs out of a thermal vent, billows from a mountain’s pass, or undulates beneath the ocean’s wake or river’s tidal bore.

I lift the scoop and in one motion place tea into open pot. Black leaves disappear into black shadows.

Hot water is poured and fills the once empty vessel. Foam and oils rise and collect against the opening’s edge and settle before I rest the lid back down upon them.

Shrouded in the darkness of the covered pot, the leaves perform their dance, uncurling and untwisting from the many years they’ve been locked motionless by time, by the heat of the charcoal heap, by the choices made by the tea master to produce this type of tea, just a hike’s trip down from the mountain side they were picked and grown.

Only seconds pass, enough to empty the little cups of their clear warm water, and then they’re filled with tea.

One, after the next, receiving a portion from the pot.

Around and ‘round, until each cup is brimming and even in color and taste.

The pot is returned atop the center of the chá chuán. The lid is lifted off and placed, again, upon the old silver coin. The aroma of tea, with notes of incense wood and warming spice rises, whether from cups or pot or both.

The hiss of the kettle beside me. The quiet chatter of birds outside. The low din of an airplane’s roar overhead against the cold, slate grey Winter’s sky. Colors caught in the distance. Sparse leaves still clinging to their single tree branches. Their brethren piled below. Softer blues and purples and browns along the mountain’s edge. The flat green of grass now since met the first of Winter’s snow.

I sit and admire the cold quiet of Winter from the warmer climes of my studio hall. Peering down to enjoy the sight of three tea cups, their surfaces bulging with the abundance of tea they hold. Dark red is the color they contain. Rich and wonderful. The presence of oxidation, the mark of an even and heavier roast, of catechins and polyphenols, of time and the pause I took while the tea was steeping.

I take my time with the first of three cups. Sipping slowly, reading the flavors, colors, and aromas as if they were a good book, a short story that develops quickly but leaves you ponderous as to how it will end. The first and second sip are sharp and full. Spices and aromatic incense woods are there, but so too are the more subtle and sweet notes of aged orange peel, reminiscent of the kind once gifted to me by the mother of a tea merchant I once worked for. She’d place a slice within her pot of 普洱 pǔ’ěr she had imported from China by way of Hong Kong and it would soften the bit the tea had acquired from the heat and the dank moisture of the humid harbor city it had aged in.

One cup,

then two,

then, finally, three.

Each cup a part of the tasting process that is represented in the character 品 pǐn. Sipped and savored until empty again. Empty and ready to be filled with a second and third and fourth steeping of tea. Each an empty canvass upon which the tawny colors of this “Big Red Robe” will be splashed upon. An empty vessel where I can fill my mind with all manner of fleeting visions and fading sensations.

The day grows on and the sunlight grows dimmer. Even at 4pm, the light of the day is as dark as evening was in Autumn. The sun pushes its amber-hued light through the trees, through the twisted branches of an old plum that grows beside my studio door.

Much like the light of day, the tea continues and deepens in its color. Long past its seventh steeping, its liqueur remains dark. The flavors have long since transformed, from spicy and complex to warm and woody, with tones of the charcoal that once dominated its profile years ago when it was first purchased in a tea market in China. Even as the flavor wanes, it still exhibits the qualities of a fine yánchá.

After one final sip before I prepare another steeping, of which number I’ve now since lost count, I breathe out and enjoy the crisp, clean, mineral flavor that continues to linger. The characteristic 巖韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”) of the tea is still here. So, too, are the other classic five distinctive qualities found in all great yánchá of Wǔyíshān.

huó, which exudes the liveliness and active flavors that still play upon my palate. 甘 gān, the sweetness of smoked and dried plums that lingers in the back of my throat and space beside the base of my tongue. 清 qīng, found in the clarity of the tea’s liqueur and taste. 香 xiāng, still present in the residual aromatic fragrance that still continues well past the tenth brew. And, finally, 巖骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones” of the tea, as it still has substance and the heartiness akin to eating meat.

For a moment more, I sit, and let the flavors fade. One last draught of hot water is poured out from my kettle. One last chance to taste that which will come forth from these leaves.

I pause for a while and watch the steam rise and dissipate from the open mouth of the teapot. The dull, dim light of late afternoon shining across the flat surface of water.

Lid placed atop the pear-shaped pot, my focus shifts to admire the objects one more time, now caught in the cool light of a Winter’s day.

The gold of my ring still warm.

The grains of the bamboo still soft.

The wide expanse of the old wooden plank I use for a tea table wave-like and wondering. A field upon which the mind can get lost within its many swirls and gentle curves.

Even in the dwindling dusk, the old silver coin sparkles, light reflecting against its worn edges and the condensation left behind by the teapot lid that once rest upon its face.

I lift the teapot once more and pour its contents out, again, between the three small cup. The tea is still there, still giving, not waning like the light of the day; its color dark, instead, like the coming night.

In the quiet of this time I sit in silence. I observe stillness that exists between night and day, as one world fades into another. I look down to enjoy the sight of the empty teapot, its lid resting at an angle atop the open mouth of the cooling clay vessel. This, too, is caught in a moment between action and inaction. In a tenuous stillness of doing and not doing.

Not yet emptied of its tea leaves, not yet cleaned. Not yet boxed up, not yet put away. Not yet forgotten, not yet remembered. Not yet longed for, and not yet brought back for enjoyment. It, like a memory, is caught in a liminal space.

As the light of the sun disappears over the hills beyond my home, I peer from my window up towards the now deep blue sky. A half moon. On its way to fullness. Bright against the bleakness of a season that has yet to fully form. Half way towards realization. All it will take is time.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Get Lost

Light emerges in the morning before the sun climbs over the mountain’s summit. Earth still cold from night, this is the best time to set out on the trail.

Between day and darkness, the forest feels foreboding. Where once I trusted myself, my mind now plays tricks on me in the shadows. Noises emitted from far corners echo through the knotted woods. Pathstones, once my guide, now confuse me, making me doubt the way. Steps fall shorter than they did before, second-guessing as I stumble and grope in the low soft dim of the swiftly approaching day. My ambition is to make it to the top and then some before the sun hangs high in the sky, but at this rate, I’ll settle for somewhere next to a cool cascade to abate the sting of sweat upon my brow.

Upon this compromise, I slow my pace and my heartbeats follow. What’s the use of racing one’s self? That old competition between ego and the true self has gone on long enough. Time for this, too, to take a break as I walk up the side of the mountain.

Morning birds call, rustling invisible in the fresh green canopies. Towering trees stand tall, unmoving. No breeze this Summer’s day.

The fear that gnawed at my stomach before has subsided now. My feet move more assuredly across stones in the pathway, pressing me further upward towards some undetermined destination. The crashing of water booms now before me. The small rivulet I’ve been walking beside has been traced to its source. A series of falls fades upwards against the rambling hills, cutting narrow passages through rock and wood. Moss and fern and dappled branches collect in chaotic brambles, soaked and saturated by the sparkling water.

I stand and sigh. No views from the summit today. No peering down on the thousands of villagers who occupy the river valley below. Just to sit and look within. There must be a hundred or so persons within me alone.

Set down my satchel. Unearth my worldly belongings. Unwrap the contents of my box. A cup. A pot. A measure of old leaves. A book. An antique thermos (though not antique when first purchased). I feel old, though not worn out. Just old enough to know what five decades look like. Old enough to have seen this world in a better spot. Old enough to have lived several lives in this one life and just begin to laugh.

Before I load the leaves into the little pot, I open up the book of poems by 寒山 Hán Shān and read a passage at random. Of course it’s something biting. Something melancholy. Something longing for that which has been lost but perfectly settled since life in the mountains. Never has a poet said “Get Lost!” to their readers so succinctly before than the old words of this cave-dwelling writer.

Book now closed, I toss the aged leaves into the open pot. They no longer bear the vibrant greens and opalescent blues of a fresh Taiwanese oolong, but now look like old wood, twisted and tawny from years of storage. I pour hot water into the pot and close the lid.

While my mind wants to wander, replaying the words of Hán Shān and the many stories I often regale myself with, I opt to just sit and let the sound of the mountain stream wash my ears. The loud crash of the falls quiets the rest of the world around me. The ever-present din of combustion engines subsides, though still there. The chatter of birds muted, though undoubtedly they still sing on. The regular patterns and habitual verbosity that usually keeps me in constant conversation with myself keeps on but I choose not to listen. The serenity of the forest, sitting beside the waterfall, is not without this chorus of the world, both inner and outer. It all just exists.

I pour the first of three cups of tea from the initial brew into my cup. It is light and mellow. Years from when the tea was harvested and now enjoyed have calmed the wild flavors that would normally be expressed. The tea now tastes of age. Sweet. Simpler. Softer, too.

I sit and sip, breathing out intentionally to capture the fleeting following flavors that get caught on the tongue and back of throat. “Why have I been so quiet?” I ask myself. “Why have I failed?” another voice mutters. “You used to be so prolific,” yet another voice adds. What company I have brought with me to this quiet spot. Perhaps I shall invite them to have some tea.

A second cup and third I pour. Each becoming darker and darker as the tea opens. Another steeping and I sit with the teapot, the shape reminding me of a puffed-up meditation cushion. “They collect farts,” I remember one monk saying. “Perhaps they do,” I recall thinking to myself.

I sit and try and ultimately fail to be in the now. Instead, my mind plays tricks on me and begins to spin stories of past, present, and future. Past obligations come to haunt me. Present situations arrive to tug at me. Future expectations invite themselves and don’t get the hint to leave me be. They all come to join me at this ever-growing tea gathering.

I breathe and pour out the next of three cups that are bound to come from this second steep. Golden-hued, it captures the light that filters through the forest. A cup of polished brass or untarnished bronze. A glint of sunlight. The outline of a tree painted upon its flat, reflective surface. I peer into this little world, a miniature vignette in situ.

Where does this world go when I drink the contents of this cup? Into my belly? Into my mind? Was it there before? Did these rays of light collect themselves within the concave of this cup before there was tea within it it? I bet they were there even before I sat down to idle away this moment. Why, now, are they deemed so special? Now that they have a vessel to reside within? And what to make of them once they’re gone? They’re my memory now. Will they die with me when I die or will they pass along and upon which dimension will they exist?

I don’t usually bother myself with such questions, but sometimes find myself being asked something like this by my partner at night, only to anger them by my all-to-clinical response. Who knows? Who cares? But then, who is “who”?

Each subsequent cup of tea poured is a reminder to sit down and shut up, and this time I listen. Finally there comes a minute of peace, which expands more and more as I breathe. The troubles of the world won’t go away when I sit for tea, nor will they subside when I hole myself up in this mountain crevasse next to a gushing cascade. They won’t disappear when I write about them, nor when I scorn them. In fact, they won’t ever disappear at all. They will always remain in me, in you, and in this world, and, as such, we must always work on them constantly.

Make friends with our fears and with our phobias, and invite them to tea. Let those whom you don’t understand speak up first and just listen actively. Don’t look for an answer when you yourself are lost. Get lost, and then get lost again. Learn how to disappear completely. Don’t speak, especially when you shouldn’t. Don’t write when you haven’t first determined what to say.

Words are like staccato actions. They’ll leave their mark on the world like thousands of chisel marks. To those who are privileged and think that all they produce is art, they will find their unpracticed hand produces a greater mess. Let those who are practiced make the masterpiece and learn by the examples they’ve set.

Done with my diatribe, I find myself sitting alone. Cup and pot and thermos beside me. The pulsing water falling. The leaves in the trees fluttering as they did before. Birds, calling to one another with words unintelligible.

One more pot of tea before I go. No trek to the summit. Content with halfway up the mountain. The tea leaves rise with the flood and shimmer on the surface, caught in the low light. Darkness abounds still. The morning sun hasn’t yet climbed above me or the mountain. It will be on my back as I walk down the sloping trail home.

One more poem from the poet read in silence. The last cup of tea slacked. Teaware wrapped up and packed. Tossed into my bindle and upon my back. Back down the mountain I wander. Back down to the world with all the problems. Back to where I have friends that I love. A garden that needs tending. A dog that expects to be fed. The sun finally crests over the rolling ridge and floods the river valley with light. Is this what I was waiting for?

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Filed under Ceramics, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Stop Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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