In daily life, actions, tasks, thoughts and emotions can come in rapid succession, one after the other, piling-up like subway trains caught in a tunnel. Over time, the effect of this can become overwhelming until the mind succumbs to stress. Taking a moment to pause, to breathe, can be just enough to break this cycle and reset the mind, transforming a stressful situation into one that is manageable, perhaps even pleasant.
In the practice of tea, the mere act of sitting for tea can become this moment. Even while one may be in the midst of the chaos and clamor of the daily world, to sit and make tea can have the effect of making space; emotionally, spatially, and even temporally. Space, and all the dimensions it can encompass, becomes a distinct feature of tea. The empty space of a teapot can define how much liquid it can hold and how much the tea leaves can expand within it. The space between objects can establish their relationship to each other and even infer their function. Objects and beings, when given their own space, can become both independent of each other, as well as interdependent to one another. It is this space that imbues them with both latent and infinite possibilities.
In Japanese, the term 間 “Ma” (“Jiān” In Chinese) is used to describe this notion. Roughly translating to “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”, Ma is found in all manner of ways, from a pause in action to the space between objects and the nature of a void. In the classic literati and Zen art of Japan, China and Korea, objects are often given their own space, surrounded by a significant amount of “empty” space. Whether mountains, trees, scholarly equipage or even six persimmons arranged together, Ma is allowed to exist both around the objects and, to an extent, within them. Compositions can juxtapose this interrelation of matter and space in dramatic ways, creating dynamism or, equally, a sense of harmonic serenity.
Setting up my teaware to enjoy a moment to taste tea, I try to strike this balance between forms, matter and emptiness. Placed on an expanse of gnarled wood, I arrange each object based on their function and flow. The carved bamboo teascoop sits next to the red Yixing clay 茶船 chá chuán (lit. “tea boat”), in the center of which sits a small 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot”).
Shadows fill the empty space within and between each object, turning each void into dark pools.
A grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) are set closely to one another, yet do not touch each other. Their concave hollows are empty, save for the shadows and light gathered within them.
The bamboo scoop sits with its back facing upward, the dark, smooth skin set in contrast to the cursive characters carved upon its surface. Even here, space exists between the written words.
Turned over, thick, curled tea leaves are set upon the interior space of the scoop.
Placed into the teapot, the leaves occupy the entirety of the empty space. A void becomes full. Filled with hot water from an iron kettle, the tea is left to steep. Seconds pass, allowing the tea leaves to unfurl and expand. In the space of my tearoom, silence fills the void. In my mind, thoughts sit side-by-side with quietude.
Pouring the tea out completely, I set the lid ajar, allowing hot vapor to exit the teapot and cooling the tea leaves.
Turning my gaze from teapot to sookwoo, I view the amber-hued liqueur that came from from the coiled leaves of 紫紅袍 Zǐ Hóng Páo (“Purple Red Robe”) 武夷山岩茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá (Wuyishan “cliff tea”).
Then, from sookwoo to teacup, I pour the tea, and in the space between this teacup and my lips, I can sense the complex, spicy aroma of this brew.
One more pause and I am filled with anticipation. One sip and my mind is flooded with sensations, flavors, and lingering notes onto which instinctively and habitually I try to attach words and qualifying definitions. Even as the taste of tea becomes fleeting, the empty space of this moment after tea feels full with thoughts swirling and a mind still grasping. As this settles, time between steepings expands and silence, once again, returns. A time to pause. An empty space. A cup full of tea. A moment brimming with possibilities.