Early August and Summer’s heat peaks. Out in the garden, daylight glows radiant orange, beaming off of the flat broad maple leaves, through skin of squash flowers, through vines that crawl over the wire trellis down onto sunburst tomatoes.
In the high heat of late Summer, 大署 Taisho (Dàshǔ in Mandarin, lit. “Major Heat”), the intense warmth of the day is inescapable. Tea practice, if in the environs of my makeshift tea hut, is limited to the very early mornings or late evenings when the air is cooler and the light is low. Otherwise, I sit by the glass doors of my studio, looking out on the garden, waiting for the inevitable rainstorm to grace me with a momentary respite from the heat.
Summer rain in the Hudson Valley is frequent, so much so that I’ve begun to sense it. Bright sunlight gives way to dark clouds and warm breezes kick up, pushing the canopies of trees in great green tumbles and swirls. Within minutes, a storm can swell and, for a moment, abate the heat of the day.
As I walk and wander through the garden, enjoying vignettes of flowers and foliage, daylight dims and the first drops of rain begin to scatter.
Quickly, I pluck small, ripe fruit from beneath jagged leaves and bring them with me back into my studio space before the downpour begins to swiftly overtake me.
In my studio, the air is sweet with lingering incense. The temperature cool. The smooth surface of the wooden floorboards invite me to sit upon them and set before me an arrangement of objects for tea.
It is an informal affair. The sound of water boiling echoes the sound of rain. The shuffle of my bare feet across the floor and the quiet landing of a lacquer tray upon a flat plank of wood. Tea and teabowl. A clean cloth and utensils of bamboo. A deep breath and I let thoughts and feelings fall away.
The neatly rounded edges of a small 平棗 hira-natsume feel slick in the hand. If left to wander, the plain curving pattern of time-polished wood grain would have me imagine the cool climes of an 縁側 engawa, the kind of enclosed porch I wish my own home had on days like today.
The cream color of the old bowl is welcomed and relaxed.
The soft crazing of the antique glaze feels at ease alongside Summer’s heat and the sudden showers.
I cleanse each object.
I cleanse the bowl.
Hot water from the kettle feels refreshing and cool as it sparkles translucent, catching sunlight as it filters through the rain clouds, through the glass doors of my studio,
…through the thin cut bamboo tines of the wetted 茶筅 chasen.
Even when wiped clean does the old bowl exude freshness. Even as it sits within the wide expanse of the shallow vessel does the white linen 茶巾 chakin feel inviting like a crisp breeze.
Tea is drawn from the wooden caddy and placed down in the center of the bowl where a circle of glaze sits, surrounded by exposed clay where once the bowl had been stacked with others upon it in the kilns of Vietnam perhaps as long ago as the 14th or 15th century.
The bright green mound of freshly sifted tea glows against the soft earthen colors of the old bowl. Three scoops. A sigil is carved.
The 茶杓 chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner edge of the bowl.
Shadows collect in the cool concave.
On the hottest of Summer’s days, I relish when I am given the chance to make a bowl of tea, when I can softly set the whisk’s tines upon the heap of powdered matcha, and delight as I pour water from my kettle down through their spindling structure.
Small beads of water cling to these thin cut tines, resembling drops of dew, glittering jewels. So refreshed I feel upon seeing these that I, perhaps just for a moment, forget the heat of the day and the worries of life. I sometimes struggle not to daydream, caught in the vision of being contained with such a dewdrop.
Hand to chasen, I center myself and whisk the tea. Soon, 抹茶 matcha powder, water, bowl, motion, and breath combine, giving rise to a fine light foam. The shallow bowl cools the tea and, as I lift the whisk, a slight dome rises upwards from the center of the 茶碗 chawan.
Light dims as thunder peals and the sound of rain surrounds me. I pluck a fruit that I’d picked from my garden and remove it from its lantern skin. Tart and sweet akin to the pressed sugar sweets I once savored in tea gatherings long ago.
I pause for a moment and let the flavor of the fruit fade. I observe the time it takes for the sensation to pass. For the light to shift.
For bubbles to burst within the foam that floats upon the tea. I note time in the space it occupied, in the shape of the tea bowl, the cracks in its glaze, the unevenness of its edges.
I breathe and lift the chawan, holding it wide in the palms of my hands. The heat of the tea radiates through the clay and glaze and out onto my skin, and, although warm, the effect it has on my mind is cooling.
I watch as the matcha’s foam crawls down the inner walls of the shallow bowl. Down the cream colored slope of the surface. Down until the ring of exposed clay emerges. Down until the tea reaches my lips.
Three sips is all it takes and then it’s gone, save for a bit of residue that has collected against bubbles and bursts in the glaze.
As the storm outside settles, I cleanse the bowl and objects once more. The bowl is wiped clean and the chasen is set upright as one does in my school during the hottest days of Summer. The scoop is set beside it.
The natsume is moved once more.
Bowl and objects are placed once again atop the lacquered tray. At rest.
Summer rain and a bowl of tea. Shadows collect in concave shallows. Cool comfort and moistened surfaces. The lingering flavor of tea, of fruit from the garden, of fragrance of long faded incense. As Summer’s heat peaks, rain clouds come and cause reason for pause. As they part and the heat rises again, what did we glean from this momentary respite? Was it enough to cool the mind? Is this the first sign of Autumn?
A hike up a mountain in the morning. Parting fog exposes the forest floor.
A path covered in gold and amber leaves.
Rocks and trees, mushrooms and things of all manner of sorts.
A large stone beside a waterfall becomes a platform to sit upon…
…a table enough for a pot of tea and cup to reside.
Rest the mind for a while and brew some roasted tea.
Hot water from an old thermos pours and brings out flavors locked inside.
Floral notes, incense notes, aroma of vanilla and cacao blend and meld with the scent of desiccating leaves, earth and wet rocks.
Colors deepen as time progresses.
A single pot and a single cup…
…results in three stages of one steep.
Opening leaves unfurl and uncurl like flags in a soft breeze.
Slowly, over time, like the season.
Softly at first.
Then more pronounced.
The mind sees bitterness, spiciness, color and form.
Loudness, quietness, voidness and full.
Trapped and lost, wandering through the woods of sensation.
Groping in the darkness of these twisted timber maples and oaks and pines.
Down the small rivulet streams the marks of death from the year and from the season, floating downward towards the tidal bore, downward towards the ocean’s end, merging with the everything expansiveness…
…to become rain and dew and life, blood and tears and viscera in the body, cellular walls and components of rare earth metals that are placed inside cellular phones.
Up in the mountains beside the stream none of this and all of this are packed inside my traveler’s pouch, packed tightly inside this tiny teapot.
Steeped with memories. Steeped with time.
Steeped with the fondness of an Autumn’s morning, the sound of birds reverberating through the forest and the absence of combustion engine clamor against the gentle din of the water rolling off of rocks down the ravine I’ve been climbing up.
Too much time has been put between the last time and now since I trekked up this steep hill and away from the world that occupies my mind.
“Why did I not make this time before?” becomes the cane which I whip myself with.
But, beside this water’s edge I let go of the rod and pick up the more refined tools of self-exploration.
A hand-hewn pot filled with hand-hewn leaves. The textures of a world the earth provides. Kiln-fired clay. Basket-roasted oolong. A color caught in liquid mirrored in the color caught in Autumn’s leaves.
Deepening the breath once more before I pack these items up. Back into my book bag satchel.
Back down the mountain to where people roam.
Back down into my body as I place one foot before the next over stones covered in gold leaves and spreading moss.
Back down to where I can recollect these thoughts as memories, somehow changed by time and reflection and whatever happened in between this now and that now.
Even the taste of tea and the forest smell will have changed by then.
Turned into an object of sorts, far beyond their original bodies.
These, too, will eventually evaporate.
Like time. Like the seasons.
Back into the earth, to rot away and feed future worms, feed future trees, to regrow a forest somewhere off in the distance we cannot yet imagine.
Morning comes and soft light filters through the doors and windows of my studio. Books on the shelf smell of old paper. Last night’s incense still seems to linger in the air. Cold breeze. Dew on grass. The din of crickets and morning’s traffic.
Inside the studio, stillness. Sitting with me is a small collection of objects. Teapots drying on the black-lacquered surface of my desk. Five teapots once brewed five teas. One more pot and it would feel like the six persimmons in 牧谿 法常 Mùxī Fǎcháng’s (1210?–1269?) 六柿圖 liùshì tú.
Their clay bodies now cold in the space of my studio. No longer holding the heat they once contained. Their lids, all of different shapes and sizes, cocked at angles to allow for air to flow within the caverns of their empty hollows.
On some, the stain and patina of years of brewing tea. For some, several decades now mark their skins. Some dark, some light, each telling of their age and their use and their utility.
Shapes and forms abound, each pot more different than the next. One, the shape of a concubine’s breast.
Another’s lid the form of a cow’s nose.
While most are without decoration or adornment, one carries the vignette of a bat and bamboo.
Look closely and you’ll see it has a poem on its obverse side. In this raised clay, our mind tells stories and gives itself the chance to wander.
The lone glazed pot sits in contrast to the others, blazoned in purples and pinks and what other colors came forth during its firing. When I brew from this vessel I’m reminded of the artist who gave it to me, a gift from a life that now seems far removed.
I am reminded of the dark hole I climbed out from to escape that life. How my practice in tea and the support of friends helped point the way.
Skin like that of a pear. Skin like that of leather. Like an old river stone washed and polished yet still holding onto its innate texture.
Clay and stone and vitrified sand sandwiched and pressed deep into the bodies of each pot. Green and red and brown, orange and violet. Colors and shapes, grains and grit. Cold air on cold clay and dried spent tea leaves.
A bamboo scoop, each joint a day of growth, the moving of the sun, the return of the moon.
Each node the presence of a root that once held it firm into the ground. Now pulled from its source and sitting here with me, with these five drying teapots. Time.
This is what it always had been. A meditation on drying teapots. This, too, is part of the practice. When they have all dried up, when their pores have emptied, when they finally go back to containing nothing, then they can be of use again.
It’s the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month. In the old lunisolar calendar, this is Chrysanthemum Festival. Sitting in my studio, looking out across the garden, vines wrapped around the trellis, flowers of the bitter melon bursting against a dark green canvas, I think about the months that have passed since I’ve given myself time to write, to put thoughts down on page.
The cicada’s hum seems to now be giving way to the sound of field crickets, to the call of crows, to the geese and katydid. Gone is the heat that, as a tea person, I sought to abate with references to water, to coolness, to impossible ice. Soon, the decay of Autumn will be all around me. Winter’s withered repose soon there after.
To sit and ask “what happened?” or “how did I get here?” will not do. Questions of the past rarely help to give a clear picture of the present. Instead, as I sit, I find myself using the stillness as an opportunity to examine my current practice and reflect on this Summer as a great moment of change.
It began amidst a flurry of activity. I had become engaged to my partner earlier in the end of Winter-beginning of Spring, and found myself planning for a wedding in the time of an unpredictable pandemic. For what “free time” I was sporadically given, I used most of it to piece together the logistics and physical material that would eventually make up the wedding celebration. Like a massive 茶事 chaji, I threw myself into the act, ideating with my partner, collectively envisioning what a day built on intention and mindfulness would look like. In those brief in-between moments, I would make tea.
As the heat of Summer climbed, I sought momentary solace in my garden shed. With resources and time stretched thin, my hopes of transforming the meager structure into a full-fledged 茶室 chashitsu was put on hold. The result was a meditation on what life gave me. A weather-worn hut. Barely walls enough to keep the rain out, barely doors firm enough to keep a mouse or squirrel from wandering in. Spiders clinging to the rafters. A butterfly caught against the window pane, let free to soar skyward.
The hut became a refuge against the world outside. The path became grown-over. Slick with dew in the morning, the high humidity of the day left the stones wet until dusk.
Inside the shack, I made impromptu 点前 temae. 葉蓋点前 Habuta-temae became my regular favorite, using leaves from the local maple trees found around my property.
Hydrangea from my garden glistened in my makeshift 床の間 tokonoma.
Mulberries from the woods made for a readily available 和菓子 wagashi, their uneven leaves providing for a perfect surface to set them upon.
Old wares kept me company.
A shallow tea bowl from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) became my Summer bowl.
A 茶杓 chashaku fashioned from speckled bamboo became my wish for rain.
The light that gathered on the plywood floor of my teahouse was the first to fill the cup of my 柄杓 hishaku, well before hot or cool water did.
It was a world of light and a world of shadow. A realm to calm the mind, to cool the soul.
The practice that evolved over the Summer, from one tea session to the next, came in fits as starts. All the while, I felt my hands becoming steadier, my form more fluid. Subtle adjustments that had come from regular practice joined now with accepted muscle memory.
Water from kettle to 茶碗 chawan. Light flooding into water, illuminating the interior of the small, shallow bowl.
Tines of the 茶筅 chasen opened up. The practice expanded into regions of my life I had not anticipated.
The mere act of setting down the tea scoop lost its gravitas. In exchange came the ordinary.
Wiping of the tea bowl from when it was first wetted felt like polishing a mirror, in that I could see my reflection on the action.
Cool light against a warm ceramic surface. Woven textures. Rumpled edges. Old fabric, as old as my practice.
The steam that rose from the 茶釜 chagama and the freedom of being able to make tea outside of the home gave me a new sense of levity against the deadlines and time stamps that came with planning a wedding and building a life. Work felt like it was somewhere else, somewhere outside the four thin plywood walls of my tearoom. The regular roar of a far-off road a reminder of how busy everyone and everything can be. The hum and hiss of the kettle became a quiet reminder of the need to stop everything. To sit and practice.
Scooping tea from the wooden interior of an old 平棗 hira-natsume felt like Summer. Deep, soft, luscious tea powder placed into a crisp blue-green celadon bowl. The mark of my school’s sigil upon the bright green mound.
The delicate tap and bell-like sound that rang from the small shallow bowl.
The shadows that collected in the concave, in the pits and scratches, the ripples and edges fashioned and formed a thousand years ago.
The kiln of life shaping me now as I practiced tea in the heat of a Summer morning, in the scant spare time I gave myself, in the brief interludes between work and work after work.
The lifting of the large maple leaf off of the glass 水指 mizusashi.
Folding it and placing it into the dark void of the 建水 kensui.
Dipping the ladle into the depths of the cool water so as to bring it forth and let it mix and coalesce with the bubbling boiling water of the 釜 kama. Fierce forces merging with the gentle. Quiet and still with moving and churning. Sitting amongst these forces, the mind isn’t given the chance to discern which is “right” or “wrong”. No value to these elements as they conjoin. Instead, just a reverence for their place within a practice. Their importance to the moment. As important as the tea. As important as the wares. As important as the space they all occupy. As important as the persons who brought them into being.
Tea and water are brought together, first in a great wave, one upon the other.
Whisked and whipped into a single concoction, both combine, suspended one alongside the other.
The bowl is lifted and passed.
I, practicing alone, move to the space of the guest and delight in the flavor of wild fruit before enjoying the soft, bittersweet flavor of tea.
Light gathers upon the foamed 薄茶 usucha.
Sipped and savored and gone, the empty interior of the tea bowl feels vacant.
Warmth still radiated from its clay and glazed body. The scent of tea still lingered in the air. The afterglow of a moment still present.
Cleaned and objects put away, the practice in the shed did not end when it was over. The steady pace of work and life kept on and pushed me forward.
Tomatoes grow green on the vine, slowly turning red as they ripened.
Okra flowers blossomed and bloomed and bore their bright green and red pods.
Ground cherries formed little lanterns upon their hairy stems.
My partner and I wed, first over a bowl of tea, then before our friends and family. Like a beautiful storm, it came and passed, and scattered all who came to witness the moment back across the earth, back to their homes and back into memories. Now, savoring the flavor of the tea that was served in silver and shared between my love and I, it’s impossible to encapsulate the experience of this Summer in words alone.
There were sounds, sensations, scents. A great fragrance made of a myriad of qualities wafted through the terrible and terrific world and kept me buoyant throughout it all. Stress and pressure would sometimes rise and crescendo, but in moments like this, I’d walk across the garden and find time with myself alone.
Now as Summer is gone and Autumn is here, the clinging to desires, to goals, to wants and needs, seems to have mellowed. Where once I had wracked my mind to write and to perform the very best I could, to turn each moment with tea into poetry, each allotted time at work into productivity, I’ve now since let this give way to a settled practice.
I am reminded of sitting by a rushing stream; its movements fluid and sure. Water passes over the rocks and around the rocks. Rocks and trees and mountains get in the way of the water and yet a river forms between them. Letting life get in the way of practice does not hinder it but shapes it. Let life get in the way. Assuredly, your practice will form around it, with it, conjoining into one form, one concoction of the surrounding elements.
As Summer turns to Autumn, the earth cools again. The skies, once a bright azure, turn a buff grey. The pumpkin blossoms bloom.
The wild grape leaves grow weathered more and more each day.
Old carrot flowers dry beside fresh morning glories.
The path and the first fallen leaves.
As a final note: Thanks to Sam Bufalo LLC, @sambufalo for the photo of the outdoor tea gathering!
Autumn has passed and Winter’s presence grows more and more each day. Morning’s light emerges later and darkness arrives over the horizon sooner than the weeks and months before. Winds whip and howl through bare trees.
The mountains, evermore, replace their vibrant pigment in exchange with varying hues of umber and shades of purple. The colors that do remain cling to branches and scatter on the forest floor. The last of Autumn’s leaves.
The rich soil.
The slick cascade of water rushing from the rivers and over rocks. I spend the last of these days, where the final forces of Fall remain palpable, crawling up the edge of a waterfall to the top of a mountain.
In the foothills that mark the trailhead, one final stand of bright, golden maples eek out their last celebration for the year.
A cathedral’s nave cast from nature.
Further into the forest, the trees grow bare. Looking upward reveals a spindly network of branches, none coming too close to touch, forming empty channels between them. Bright blue rivers of sky. Birds call and sing. The swirl of the wind. The sound of the brook echoing and beckoning me deeper into the forest, further up the mountain.
As I ascend I pause to appreciate small chance-made vignettes that adorn the forest world. A gnarled old root caught in decomposition.
Two fallen tree trunks, blackened by fire.
In Winter’s cold decay, life still pulses through the forest. Springing up from the thick carpet of fallen leaves, young saplings find a foothold.
Ferns of all forms unfurl.
Moss find shelter in cracks and crevices.
On twisted roots.
Halfway up the mountain, I stop to savor the rush of the cascade.
Perched on a stone boulder outcropping, I spread out a tea set kept in my side bag. A brocaded box and tea-stained linen cloth.
A small 內紫外紅 nèi zǐ wài hóng 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from the early 1980s set atop an oak leaf.
Opened, it becomes a vessel to contain the moment, a chance to pause, an opportunity to meditate in nature. No extraneous noise, just the sound of the waterfall and the wind pressing through the trees. No unnecessary thoughts, just those enough to attend to the act of making tea.
Thoughts enough to guide my hand as I place old tea leaves intro the center of the open teapot. Twisted, dark, aged leaves of an old 普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá that mirror those fallen on the path that led me to the waterfall’s edge. Red and russet and warm. Dry and leathery like a worn boot.
I pour out a measure of hot water into the open teapot and, for a moment, watch as the tea leaves roll and slowly expand. The deep blue of the sky overhead reflecting in the tiny pool of the open teapot.
I replace the lid and wait for the tea to brew.
In this moment of waiting, I observe the world around me.
The waterfall, the rocks, the forest. The cascade and the rush of water.
The pool in which it all collects and churns.
The mountain stream that ambles and coils downward.
The water, disappearing over a bend and humped back of the hillock. Water, merging with earth, with the wood of the forest, with the light caught against the leaves and the skyward stretching columns of trees.
I pour out the first of many steepings from the tiny teapot into a single cup.
The color of the brew is a deep scarlet. The aroma is rich like healthy soil. The favor is sweet and satisfying, akin to a fine wine, with a soft lingering finish that tapers off slowly until it merges and fades with the myriad of scents that define the forest.
I continue to sit and steep tea. Time passes, marked by the slow shifting of light through the trees.
The change in color of the tea’s liqueur
The expanding of the tea leaves.
One last cup and I close the pot and wrap up the small tea set to continue on my journey up the mountain. Further up the mountain, the forest thins. Yet, here, too, Winter’s blooms can be found. ￼
Witch Hazel flowers burst atop the knobby and twisted branches of their weathered trees.
New moss emerges from underneath desiccated leaves.
Even a fallen sycamore leaf appears new, alive, fiery against the cold earth.
Climbing higher still, I reach a mountain lake, the source of the waterfall.
Here I rest and sit for tea, spread out atop a warm, sunbaked stone.
The same tea is brewed from before.
It’s flavor seems gentler now, it’s color paler.
I let each steeping go on longer, letting the leaves soak and expel their flavor slowly.
Atop the stone, I sit with the teapot in silent mediation. The chill of Winter abated by the heat of the sun, yet its presence surrounds me. The umber and purple mountain tops rising up against the lake’s edge.
The bare branches stretching up to the sky. The cold wind that creeps between the folds in my coat. The last of Autumn’s leaves, clinging on to a season long since passed.
Autumn wanes and all around the world seems to be settling into a state of slow, eventual decay. The fire-hued leaves on trees have mostly fallen, tumbling and collecting in copper-colored patches along the edges and corners of the garden and earthen forest floor.
Flowers have all but succumb to the chill in the air, save for the few that remain, twisted and torn. Bushes once verdant and full now appear as a threadbare patchwork of twigs and thorns and tattered pages that tell the story of a hard year gone by.
Even the stones contain a sense of cold melancholy, coated in moss and lichen and the cold dew of the morning. All that remains of Autumn is the thin offering laid before the altar of Winter to come.
A hollow hornets’ nest, a fitting home now for the whipping winds and all that is now dead. Its grey paper walls greet me this morning as I set out along the garden path to huddle in my tearoom in the biting cold.
Gone are the crickets sounding their high-pitched melodies. A lone crow caws across a silver sky.
Before I open the wooden door to my tea hut, I pluck one of the last flowers from a bristling thicket. In the dark interior of my tearoom, I place the bright yellow flower in my 床間 tokonoma. It stands stalwart, despite its damage, rising from a cut-out channel in a old red brick.
With the door now closed behind me, I sit down to prepare a solitary bowl of tea. The soft glow of morning illuminates the small space of the tearoom.
Shadows collect in the teabowl, behind the thin tines of the 茶筅 chasen, and along the woven contours of the white linen 茶巾 chakin.
The uniform grains that envelop the wooden 平棗 hira-natsume disappear into the darkness that lingers around its smoothed edges.
Scant rays of light stretch and bend around the surface of the antique metal thermos flask. In the early morning, I prepared just enough to make tea. No kettle. No brazier. Just a handful of objects, put into motion to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Tea paired down to its simplest form. Just enough.
Objects are cleansed, one after the other. The natsume. The 茶杓 chashaku. The tea whisk made of mottled bamboo. The pressed-metal cap of the thermos flask is removed and steam rises upwards, catching the morning light.
The teabowl, a simple grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, mirrors the colorless sky over the roof and trees and mountains that surround the tiny tea space. Flecks of vitrified sand and muted purples and blues hide in the clay, awoken as the heat of the water touches them.
I rest the thin tines of the bamboo whisk into the hot water, allowing them to open and expand outwards.
The bowl is cleansed and the refuse water is poured into the adjoining 建水 kensui.
The chakin wipes up the residual moisture inside of the bowl, refolded, and placed into the upturned cap of the thermos flask.
I breathe and for a moment am able to taste the sweet aroma of decomposing leaves mixed with morning dew. In the stillness of my tearoom, once inaudible sounds stand out. The flapping of a sparrow’s wings. The falling of a single leaf. The last drops of the previous night’s rain.
I reach out for the teascoop and wooden natsume. I measure three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the grey teabowl.
I lightly tap the edge of the teascoop against the inside rim of the chawan, knocking off the remaining tea dust that clings to the curved tip of the chashaku.
I return the natsume and scoop back to rest, one on top of the other.
I lift the chasen and place the blades of the whisk over the small mound of matcha. I breathe and lean forward to lift the thermos flask, untwisting the stopper from its metal mouth, and pouring a steady stream of hot water from it. The water runs through the thin tines of the bamboo whisk, dispersing over the tea powder. A plume of steam gusts high from the teabowl, from the thermos flask, from the space between the blades of the chasen. So thick is the steam on this cold morning that one can barely see the tea rising within the chawan.
As the steam settles, so too does the matcha, resting on the bottom of a moss-green pool of hot water. With my left hand in a half-moon shape I grip the side of the teabowl. With my right hand, I grasp the handle of the chasen. One hand steady, the other in motion.
The tea is whisked into a light foam. I lift the chasen from the surface of the freshly whisked tea and set it down beside the natsume.
In the dull glow of the early morning I sit for a moment, resting to appreciate the tea, the teaware, the way shadows amass around the edges of objects and then blur and fade into the floor, into light and into shadows.
I lift and turn the bowl and place it before where a guest would sit. I rise and reposition myself. I sit as a guest. A host becomes the guest.
I admire the teabowl and tea I’ve presented to myself. An offering of time, of effort, of a pause to practice. I lift the bowl and bring it closer to me, across the boundary that is normally demarcated by the brocaded boarders of 畳 tatami.
I bow and thank myself for this gift and, as I do, I peer into the depths of the teabowl.
Minuscule bubbles cling to one another. Huddled like leaves collected against the edge of a pond. Light collects here too, like a thin crescent moon, like a fine silver ring. I lift the bowl to my center, turn it a quarter turn twice and drink from the reverse face of the faceless chawan.
The teabowl emptied, I rest it in the palms of my hands to inspect it in the low light.
Rough clay emerges underneath unctuous glaze. The form of a potter’s knife cut edge beneath undulations of a grey coat.
Up close, the shape of the bowl is not perceived. Instead, light and shadow, articulated form and unarticulated improvisation.
Intention and chance. The form wears-away. Fine lines obscured by the randomness of coincidence.
I turn the bowl over once again and look into the center void. A stark line between light and dark.
I return it to the place of the host. Repositioned, I prepare to cleanse the bowl once more. The whisk is wetted and washed and placed with the chakin together into the open well of the teabowl. The chashaku is wiped of the last remaining particles of tea that remain on its curved carved tip.
The natsume is placed beside the teabowl. Outside my tearoom the wind whips and scatters leaves. Inside, I prepare a solitary 拝見 haiken. For this I bring forth an old 香盤 kōban. Regularly used in my previous tea space in New York City, it seems like a new object in the roughly-hewn environment of my makeshift hut.
I lift the natsume from beside the chawan and cleanse both the lid and inner rim with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.
Once cleansed, I place the tiny wooden object upon the swirling grain of the kōban.
I refold the fukusa and purify the chashaku, placing the carved scoop next to the natsume.
In the new setting of the makeshift teahouse, light and shadows enrobe each of the objects in unexpected and unfamiliar ways.
A once unobserved depth emerges from the grain of the wooden tray. Volume and form appear more pronounced in the soft morning light.
The warmth of the lathe-hewn wood.
The mysterious world captured in the smoky patterns upon the bamboo scoop.
The abruptness between surfaces, finished and unfinished.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the boundaries between worlds is emphasized and celebrated. One often enters the tearoom through a crawl-through door, the 躙口 nijiriguchi. A refined piece of smooth lacquer if often contrasted with a piece of rustic bamboo.
The sacred space of the tokonoma often contains the most mundane of item: a single flower or a word or phrase to meditate on.
Yet, with time and through practice, these once well-defined borders begin to fray. The threshold between spaces and surfaces begin to erode. The clean lines give way to tattered edges. In the almost twenty years of practicing tea, even my fukusa has begun to look threadbare. In these almost twenty years, the once impermeable partitions between the world and the world of tea have all but been torn apart. All things, with time, decay. In the cold, late Autumn air, this truth is unavoidable.
Before Autumn’s end, snow falls. I wake to the sound of sleet gently tapping against my bedroom window. Light filters through trees, silhouetted against a matte grey sky. In my kitchen, I boil water and prepare for tea.
Stepping out with teawares and thermos in hand, smooth rocks and Autumn leaves sparkle, slick with snow.
With early snow, the boundary between seasons commingles and fades. Where the fiery colors of Fall reside, now are blurred along the edges of freshly mounding snow.
Grass pushes up through the crystalline veil, as do the rocks and stones that sit along the borders of the garden path.
Crunching and cracking are the sounds of every footfall as I traverse this transformed world to the stone step that sits before the door of my makeshift hut.
Two river rocks greet me, performing their task of holding the wooden doors closed from the gusts of wind.
I remove my boots and close the door behind me. A sliver of light breaks through a gap between the doors.
A soft cascade of light pours through a single window, illuminating the space where I will sit and prepare a bowl of tea. No brazier, no 炉 ro in my makeshift teahouse. Only bare floors made of roughly-hewn plywood. Each flattened particle sparkles and beams against the diffused light. I set the old metal thermos before me.
Next, a 茶碗 chawan and a wooden 平棗 hira natsume.
Beside me, I place a crackle-glazed 建水 kensui.
I rearrange the teaware so they align to a central axis.
I cleanse the natsume and place it beside the thermos.
Next, the 茶杓 chashaku, placing it atop the natsume. As I perform each motion, I breathe. As I breathe, thin clouds of condensed air appear with each exhalation.
I remove the 茶筅 chasen from the chawan and place it upright beside the natsume.
I bring the bowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin. I slowly uncap the old thermos. Weathered steel and green metallic lacquer against the cold air. A gust of heat and steam rise from its open mouth as a stream of water enters the teabowl. I tighten the cap back atop the thermos bottle and place it again behind the chawan.
I lift the chasen and press its tines into the hot water, down against the inner void of the teabowl. Steam lifts upward as I cleanse the bamboo tea whisk. The sound of the wind outside my tearoom walls. The warmth of the water beginning to radiate out from the ceramic bowl.
I return the whisk back beside the wooden tea container and hold the teabowl in my hands. I slowly roll the vessel and the water within it until I can feel the clay become warm. I pour the excess water from the bowl into the kensui and dry it with the chakin before I place it, now empty, before me.
For a moment, I inspect the humble piece of teaware. Two swathes of dark green glaze against a cream-colored body, typical of 織部焼き Oribe-yaki ware. Two cursory images of plum blossoms painted in iron-rich pigment, today look more like snowflakes that fall and collect atop the maple trees and the wooden roof of my makeshift hut.
One blue-green drip of glaze caught mid-movement stopped as it did glide down the inner edge of the teabowl’s empty pool. Captured in suspension by the heat of the kiln, preserved now as an object of inspection for the host and guest to enjoy and ponder.
I lift the chashaku. I lift the natsume. I remove the carved wooden lid off the tea container and place it before the teabowl. I scoop three mounds of 抹茶 matcha from the natsume and place them one on top of the other in the center of the chawan, marking the pile with the sigil of my school. I tap the teascoop against the inner edge of the teabowl’s rim and return it atop the natsume.
A measure of hot water is poured over the low hillock of tea and the chasen is placed atop this. Layers of actions, one on top of the other, leave their mark. Even a snowflake makes a hole in the snowdrift as it falls from the sky. Only over time do these actions make something of substance. Something that the mind can eventually perceive.
As I whisk the tea, I focus on the sound of the hot water and the chasen, of the thickening foam and glazed ceramic. The light that comes through the one window and down upon the floor also enters the void of the teabowl as I lift the whisk and uncover the soft, flat field of prepared tea.
Minuscule bubbles collect and create low-lying drifts upon the surface of the thickened liquid.
Steam rises from the teabowl in the cold air of the tearoom. Upon the instruction of my teacher, I serve myself as if I were a guest, turning first my body and then the bowl of tea and placing it beside me. Next, I stand up and move to where the 正客 shōkyaku would sit. Here, I observe a different vantage point. The light of the room changes. The borrowed scenery from the one window of the tearoom is visible. The contents of the 床間 tokonoma can be seen. Even the teabowl looks different, as light and shadows play off of its form.
I bring the bowl towards me and set it down. I pause for just a moment and lift the bowl to my center, turning it so the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I lift the bowl to my lips and take the first of three sips. Instantly I am caught by a realization: to take tea outside, as snow falls, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The bitter cold. The chill of the air. The silence of the space, save for the sound of snowflakes falling upon the roof of the wooden hut. All this met with the gentle warmth that the teabowl contains. The heat that radiates outward from its ceramic skin. The same heat that enters oneself as each sip is taken.
I enjoy the remaining draughts of tea and place the bowl back before me. The dregs cling to the inside of the chawan. I lift the bowl once more and inspect it, looking first at its interior and then its exterior.
The snowflakes upon the shōmen. Persimmons on the reverse side. Early snow before Autumn’s end. Like many subtleties in life, a surprise.
I return the bowl to where the host would sit and return to cleanse the bowl and collected wares. Water is once again poured from the thermos into the chawan and then from chawan to kensui. The chakin is placed into the teabowl and the chasen on top of this. The chashaku is cleansed again, removing the residual tea dust that clings to its bamboo skin, and is placed atop the teabowl. The natsume is placed beside this. The metal cap of the thermos is secured atop the shaped steel flask and the solitary preparation of tea concludes.
The sound of snow falling upon the wooden roof of my hut increases. The scent of incense fades. A bright Autumn leaf clings to the stone step outside my makeshift hut.
Snow accumulates upon the wireframe of a garden trellis and the twisting thread of a long bean vine. Early snow before Autumn’s end.
In the clamor and chaos of this year, I’ve chosen to retreat. Escaping a city which I have grown to love, I’ve moved my life back closer to nature. Closer to the mountains and the rivers. Closer to the trees, the rocks, the rich soil, the wildlife. While not isolated by any means from civilization, the small town up the Hudson that I’ve relocated to seems far enough (even if only in the mind) from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.
The view from my front door is a mountain, currently in the throes of Autumnal transformation. Part of the reason why I wanted to move from the city was this: to replace the brick and steel and concrete facades with the mountains, the trees, the creeping vines within which I could create a space to deepen my tea practice. Part of this, still, was the hope that I could build a dedicated tea space.
Upon the land which I live now, tucked along the edge of a vegetable garden, an overgrown patch or raspberries, a cluster of rocks, and a grove of trees is a small, ten feet by ten feet wooden garden shed. It is here that I shall make a tea space; a makeshift hut.
In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, there is the tradition of 見立て mitate. Simply stated, this is the act of selecting something that was not intended for tea and incorporating it into the context of tea. Often this is seen with such things as rice bowls being transformed into 茶碗 chawan, well buckets into 水指 mizusashi, and cooking pots into 茶釜 chagama. Rarely does an entire structure, such as a wooden shed, become a 茶室 chashitsu. Alas, this is what I have done.
In truth, the chashitsu, too, has always been, at least conceptually, something repurposed, originally modeled after the huts of lone hermits, meditators and herb pickers. As I clear out the contents of my makeshift hut left over by the previous owners and two field mice, I am reminded of the poet and essayist of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), 鴨 長明 Kamo no Chōmei (1153 or 1155–1216). In his 1212 work 方丈記 Hōjōki (literally “square-jō record”, variously translated as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut), Chōmei wrote of his own retreat from the chaos of the imperial capital of Kyōto, from the fires and the famine, from the destruction and the infighting, to a small hut. There he dedicated his life to the devotion of Amida Buddha and the pursuit of tranquility.
Of my ten-foot square hut, I’ve made a tea room. All around its exterior is nature. Vines climb up its wooden walls. Moss grows on its shingles.
The paint is worn and weathered.
Two river rocks hold the door close.
Flat flagstones set the boundary between the outer garden and inner space. Inside, two broad planks of plywood supported on stacks of bricks become my floor.
A corner and some spare beams for a 床間 tokonoma.
In the alcove, I hang a sprig of wild grape. For a kettle, I use an old metal thermos. When I open the two double doors, light floods into the space and gives views of the garden for the seated guests. When I close them, a single window is just enough to illuminate the space in front of the host.
In the meager light of a still Autumn morning, I wake with the crickets and walk to my makeshift hut with thermos and teabowl, tea and whisk. I employ a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III for my first bowl of tea to be prepared in this new tea space. Its uneven shape and the empty void it creates feels fitting, for it, like the hut, is a dark crucible of creation and possibility.
I measure out three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the teabowl. What little light creeps in through the solitary window beside me catches on the scattered flecks of tea powder and on the dimpled surface of the chawan.
I pour water from my thermos into the teabowl and place the tines of the 茶筅 chasen into the warm concoction.
The wetted bamboo disappears in the shadows caught in the kuro-Raku chawan.
Once fully whisked, the scent of tea and incense and worn wood combine.
As dawn breaks, the interior space of the tearoom begins to glow, sending long shadows stretching across the floor, causing the chaotic mosaic of compressed wood to sparkle and iridesce. The deep black of the Raku chawan accentuates the bright green of the matcha foam.
I lift the bowl and set it before the space reserved for future guests. As instructed by my teacher, as I meditate on the developing state of this makeshift hut, I will need to try different arrangements. To sit in the host’s position can only give one a single point of perspective. To create a space for the practice of both host and guest, must also know what it is like to be a guest. In this instance, as morning’s light grows, I stand up and sit back down at the 正客 shōkyaku position.
There, the bowl seems darker, more of a mystery. The shadows collect inside the bowl, creating a small vignette of the glowing tea within it.
I lift and turn the bowl a half turn. I pause, giving a moment to look out from the window. Maple and pine and the shape of a low hill. Fog and morning’s dew. The sound of a solitary songbird breaking the chorus of crickets.
I lift the bowl to my lips and imbibe the first sip of tea. A second and third soon follow. Soon all that is left are the final dregs. An empty bowl. Faint remnants of past creation. New possibilities to come. A makeshift hut on the edge of a small forest. Twisting vines curling up its sides. Light of the morning to illuminate both host and guest. A space to seek what is still unknown.