Tag Archives: Autumn

The Last of Autumn’s Leaves

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 lichen.

The moss.

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.

Fluttering leaves.

Filtered sunlight.

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.

Over rocks.

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.

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

Autumn’s Decay

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.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Early Snow

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.

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A Makeshift Hut

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- 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.

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

Tea Without Tea

October came and now closes. Early Autumn, with its cool breeze, cricket songs, and spangled leaves fades into the chill and rain an approaching Winter. In these days, I, along with the local songbirds and squirrels, wait for the first frost. I wonder when the portable brazier will be exchanged for the sunken 炉 ro.

In this time I’ve not been making tea. Instead, my life has been in the grip of a constant state of movement. Moving from my apartment in New York City to a home tucked along the Hudson and folded into the mountains of upstate. Moving into boxes and out of boxes. Moving old objects into new spaces. Moving one life along another twist in the thread.

This movement, while exciting, has kept me away from the much needed moments of stillness. Far from the quiet I have known when I was sitting in my now old tearoom. Quiet replaced with the hammering and drilling, the sawing and stomping that comes with building a new space to live and practice in.

Kept from my regular practice of tea, the “tea mind” finds itself engaging with different processes and different objects. Even with no tea to steep in a pot or whisk in a bowl, the tea mind still continues to address the world in accordance to the context of tea. Instead of sitting down for tea, I find myself retreating up to the mountains. Here, the forms are different but the meditation remains the same.

Twisted tea leaves which I place within a pot are replaced by the golden leaves of Fall which are scattered upon the forest floor.

The appreciation of a thick, unctuous glaze that wraps around a 茶碗 chawan is exchanged with a pause to enjoy a moss-covered rock along a path’s edge.

The sound of the kettle familiar to me in my tearoom is echoed in the soft sound produced by a waterfall that cuts its way down the mountainside.

I breathe deep, measured breaths as I climb throughout the yet explored terrain of my new environment. I recall the countless wanderings of my youth, when weekends were spent hiking the hills and mountains of California. The mind remembers this, the muscle memory, the cadence of actions and inactions.

Deeper still, the mind recalls the flavors of the forest in Fall, yet, now, these too are different. The trees and shrubs, rocks and soil have subtly changed. The practiced tea mind, the one that has focused itself for many years on the flavors of tea, is now attuned to appreciate these new tastes too.

The concepts familiar with the tea mind are transformed and repurposed as well. The “one moment, one meeting” of 一期一会 ichi-go ichi-e returns, not now for a guest coming to my tearoom or a piece of teaware to be shared, but for a brightly-colored maple tree, which today bursts with golden leaves, tomorrow to change to orange and later brown.

The notion of 侘び寂び wabi-sabi, which is normally epitomized by the rustic beauty found in a weather-worn object or a piece of ceramic transformed by the furnace, is pushed closer to its source, to nature itself. It is found at the ebb of a river’s bank, where a thin line of leaves swept up upon the rocks, to where one recognizes the impermanence of every mind-formed state.

It is found in the silver-grey clouds that glide over the mountains, dark and mysterious as is encompassed in the concept of 幽玄 yūgen.

While these concepts come to mind, in a tea practice without tea, do they still maintain their significance? Can the tea mind exist without tea? Is there tea without tea? As I find my current life packed-away in piles of boxes, in the dust that clings to me here and there, I ponder this.

As I look out the window of my new tea hut in the making, I wonder if this has always been for naught. Is this practice defined by the objects it contains or is it defined by nothing at all? Is the boundary that separates form and formlessness firm or permeable?

Is the cloud, the sky, the lake, the earth separate or intertwined? As I continue my current life without tea, is this, too, a life with tea?

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Upon Which the Winds Will Carry

In the hurried moments between months, time and opportunities for tea can slip by as quickly as an early Autumn’s breeze that pushes through the tops of trees. As August passes into September, the winds increase their vigor. In some parts of the world, this brings cool air, calming the residual heat of lingering late Summer. In other parts, winds whip and whirl and wind-up cinders and smoke, causing great conflagrations that climb up mountains and rip through forests.

Within my new abode in the mountains of upstate New York, I escape the clamor of the city. On cooler days, I find myself wandering through my garden or walking by the river’s edge. At dawn, morning glories climb and uncurl in bursts of purple and pink.

Tall grasses bow slightly to the weight of morning’s accumulated dew. Sparrows and crickets chirp and sing.

As the sun climbs upward, the haze across the broad river’s expanse rises, revealing the opposite shore like a phantom ship. Darting here and there, the last of the dragonflies lollop and land on the smooth rocks and on cattail shoots.

Tucked in my traveling tea chest, I’ve brought a container for tea, a teabowl, a wooden rest, whisk and scoop. In my new home, I set up a temporary space for tea, marked out by an old plank of wood and assorted wares. In time, this will transform into something more formal. For now, the limited assemblage of teaware, a portable 風炉釜 furo-gama and 水指 mizusashi is all that is needed to practice 点前 temae.

With water boiling in the iron kettle, I enter the temporary space with a small, wide-bodied 大海茶入 daikai chaire. As I set it before the mizusashi, I glance at the knot tied in the long cord of the 仕服 shifuku, the 長緒 nagao. For this brief moment of early Autumn, the cord is tied in the shape of a dragonfly. The knot twists and curls, letting the imagination play with the implied shape. Making the mind think of a river’s edge.

Stepping out again, I return with a formal 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Setting down the teabowl and accompanying equipage, I let my eyes wander through the iridescent undulations of thick glaze that are the hallmark of a 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako-yū tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl).

With 建水 kensui, 蓋置 futaoki and 柄杓 hishaku brought into the tea space, I close the door and ready myself for tea. The morning sounds of the mountains differ from the city I’ve left. The cacophony of cars and busses, trains and trucks are gone. In their place is the prolonged hum of Autumn’s insects. Crickets, katydids, cicadas, bees and wasps buzz and blare a low, collective chorus. Like me, they wake with early morning’s light.

I set the teabowl between the 茶釜 chagama and mizusashi. Before this, I place the chaire.

With both hands, I reach down and begin to untie the long cord. A gentle pull and a hooked finger and the dragonfly is gone.

I place the enrobed tea container in my left hand and loop the excess cord onto my left little finger. With the outer edge of right hand, I peel back the sleeves of the brocaded shifuku that encase the chaire. I remove the broad-bodied tea container and arrange the shifuku and cord in the manner befitting this distinctive form.

With the chaire now freed from its pouch, I purify it with the silk 袱紗 fukusa. The wide, flat lid is cleansed, then the outer edges before the daikai chaire is placed back before the mizusashi. The vast ocean of the daikai chaire’s lid in contrast to the dark brown and blue of the 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki ceramic body becomes a brief point of contemplation.

The ocean, the source of much of Autumn’s wind, is warming as this world has been in these past decades. What will be borne upon its churning waves? What future does this great expanse contain?

I continue and refold the fukusa to next cleanse the carved wood 茶杓 chashaku. Pressed deep into the purple silken folds, the teascoop is then placed atop the lid of the chaire.

I remove the 茶筅 chasen and 茶巾 chakin from inside the teabowl. Water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured into the center of the chawan. I lift the chasen and press its thinly cut tines into the hot water. They bend and flex and expand.

As I lift the whisk from the bowl, tiny droplets cling to the bamboo blades, reminiscent of dew upon tall grass.

The tenmoku-dai is cleansed with the fukusa. The water is poured from the teabowl into the kensui. The teabowl is placed back atop the wooden stand.

The objects sit together for a moment, waiting in their cleansed state. The void of the empty teabowl. The unseen mass of tea sitting inside the chaire. The open kettle with steam rising from the boiling water it holds. The mizusashi with its lacquered lid covering the cool liquid within its ceramic wall.

The interplay of volumes and voids, motion and stillness. The sound of the hissing kettle and the humming insects. The quiet of incense and objects at rest. In a moment, all this will be disturbed to make a bowl of tea. To make the seasons change. To have the wind rise. Disturbed by a breath. By a desire. By the turning of the earth on its axis.

I lift the chashaku with my right hand and with my left I bring the chaire before me. I remove its lid and scoop three mounds of 抹茶 matcha from the ceramic tea container.

I place the chashaku along the flange of the wooden tenmoku-dai. The handle of the teascoop peers out from one end below the tenmoku chawan.

Its carved tip emerges from another end.

I tilt the chaire and roll it in my hand, letting tea powder incrementally drop out from its wide mouth into the center of the teabowl.

The cascade of tea piles irregularly, making small impact craters and clouds of fine tea dust. I return the lid to the chaire and place it back beside the chasen. I lift the teascoop and carve a sigil in the center of the bright green mound of matcha before placing it back atop the lid of the daikai chaire.

I remove the lid from the mizusashi and pull boiling water from the chagama, pouring a small portion of it into the tenmoku chawan. The water and tea powder bleed and mix together, congealing into a thick, liquid mass.

I press the tines of the chasen into this concoction and begin to knead it into a consistent form. Back and forth I slowly pull and mix the tea.

It clings like lacquer against the blades of the bamboo whisk. Additional water is added and the tea becomes thinner, more pliable, flattening into a dark mirror, against which the reflections of the makeshift tearoom can be seen.

I slowly lift the chasen vertically from the center of the teabowl, encouraging any remaining drops of 濃茶 koicha to run down back into the deep chawan.

I return the whisk back, upright, next to the chaire, the tip of each tine covered in a thin coat of tea.

The bowl of matcha now sits, full, still.

The light of the day grows as the scent of incense fades and the rich aroma of koicha rises. The breeze of the morning wafts through the crack in the window. The sound of bees, of crickets, of cicadas billowing and crescendoing.

The bowl is lifted, not directly but indirectly through the aid of the tenmoku-dai. I shift myself and teabowl and set the bowl before the longer edge of the wooden board. The uneven surface of the thick tea shimmers like old glass in the low light. The traces of where the dark green liquid crawled against the inner edges of the teabowl become more apparent.

The rim of the teabowl, edged in silver, appears as one continuous halo along a tide pool. Where once my mind was at a river’s edge, it now drifts to a coastal shore. Where once my heart was nestled in the mountains and rivers of my new and current home, I am momentarily returned to the craggy ocean cliffs and coastlines of my childhood home. A wind has carried me there. Not cool breezes but the hot torrents that make fires swift and that now engulf the forests of my youth. What these wooded spaces taught me as a child now speak to me again as an adult.

Nothing is permanent. A wind will blow and dissipate. A forest will grow and burn and disappear. Childhood, too, will wax and wane and from it an adult life is born. What moments come and go over a lifetime. What a treasure it is to hold this in your hands as one bowl of tea.

I lift the bowl, turn it a quarter turn, and sip from the silvered edge. The slightly sweet metallic taste mixing with the bitterness of thick tea. The slow movement of the liquid up and down the inner edge of the teabowl. Down the depression that runs along the inner rim. Tea collects and languidly returns back to the center.

I set the bowl back down and ponder on this momentum. The slow movement and quick movement of time. My eyes shift to look out onto the garden. A dragonfly settles on a blade of tall grass and darts away.

My eyes move back to the tea space. The shifuku pouch. The chashaku tip covered in tea dust. The thick coat of koicha clinging to the upright chasen. The sound of boiling water. The residual tea collected inside the chawan.

I move the teabowl aside and prepare a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The shallow brightness of the antique 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) teabowl acts as a contrast to the deep darkness of the namako-yū tenmoku chawan.

I pour a measure of cool water into the chawan and then place the chasen into this.

I cleanse the whisk, transforming the clear water inside of the kae-chawan into a dark green pool.

With the whisk cleaned, I pour the refuse liquid into the kensui place the chakin and chasen into chawan. Next, I cleanse the chashaku and rest it against the rim of the teabowl. 

Finally, I move the teabowl slightly to the left and place the chaire next to the teabowl.

Today, I opt not to perform a 拝見 haiken. While the setting is formal, I prefer to sit alone in my new makeshift tea space. The sound of the breeze, once again, pressing through the open window and through the leaves of the maple, the pine and the oak trees that surround my new home.

This moment in Autumn, when the mountain air cools in this part of the world. This moment in Autumn when the warm coastal winds on the other side of the continent stoke the flames of forest fires. This violent imbalance met with natural ease. The sadness of things lost met with the pang of insecurity that comes from living in a precarious time.

What does the future hold? What cinder will be set aloft by an errant breeze? What revolution will be set in motion from the flapping of a dragonfly’s wing? A subtle change and dramatic movement, upon which the winds will carry.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

To Sit Where You Are, Now

As the year presses onward, the dramas of life, of the world at large, still bow to the subtle shifts of the season. While one may not perceive it, by the second week of August, around the seventh or eighth day, Autumn quietly arrives. Still present is the heat of Summer. Still not seen are the red and ocher colors of Fall. The change does not come in a bold or showy way, rather, it appears on the edges of existence. In the dim glow of the morning or the waning light of dusk. In the cool breezes that push through the trees. In the fresh coat of dew on the new tall grasses that grow wildly on the entrance to forests and against the banks of rivers.

立秋 Risshū, the beginning of Autumn, is a liminal time and space. A moment of transition and transformation. In the tearoom, this is no different. Remaining is the overarching emphasis on coolness, as the first days of Autumn still remain hot. Still, too, is the preference to gather for tea during the morning, just as the sun begins to peer over the horizon.

In the 床間 tokonoma, wildflowers spill-over from the fields, bursting into the alcove, set into rustic baskets. Summer’s lightness and refinement slowly shifts to the more 侘び wabi aesthetic as the year begins to cool down and decay with time.

Even with the choice of teabowls, the lingering influences of Summer on the nascent Autumn is felt. Shallow vessels are preferred. Delicate, wide-rimmed 平茶碗 hira-chawan are still a mainstay. 馬盥茶碗 badarai chawan, with their flat bottom and low-profile walls, are still favored, although this is the final moment they are used. As I prepare for my own solitary early Autumn tea gathering, I bring forth my own answer to assuage the remaining heat.

Kept in its wooden 桐箱 kiribako for much of Summer, it is now during Risshū that this unusual teabowl will finally make its appearance.

Opening the lid to the shallow box, the shape of the vessel can be made out through the soft folds of a 風呂敷 furoshiki, emblazoned with the refreshing pattern of 麻の葉 asanoha.

Unwrapped, what emerges is a low-slung and irregularly-shaped 黒織部 沓形茶碗 kuro-Oribe kutsu-gata chawan. Neither fully round nor angular, like the first days of Autumn, the kutsu-gata chawan seems like a fitting match to this “in between” period. I pair this with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume, a 茶筅 chasen made of dappled dark bamboo, and a 茶杓 chashaku with a light cloudy pattern.

Before I bring these into my tearoom, I heat the water in my bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama, and set beside it cool water, kept in a green 丹波立杭焼縄簾水指 Tanba-Tachikui-yaki nawasudare mizusashi. The gentle cascading comb pattern upon the mizusashi is a subtle visual nod to the woven rope curtains used during Summer. A reminder of the heat and the coming breezes.

As I set the mizusashi down, I gaze for a moment at the soft, reflective surface of the black lacquer lid that sits atop its open mouth. This, too, feels refreshing. A perfect shape placed atop an imperfect object. A black void set alongside the organic colors of a verdant season. The stillness of lacquer. The dynamism of ceramic.

Once brought into the tearoom, teabowl and natsume are placed before the mizusashi. The 柄杓 hishaku and 建水 kensui are places beside me. With the door now shut, the only sounds heard in the tearoom is the quiet hiss of the kettle boiling and the growing din of the cicadas outside my window.

The chawan is set before the 風炉 furo. The natsume is set before the chawan. Each item sits, for a moment, as they are. Each space between each item measured and remembered through practice.

How the chashaku lays nestled in the undulations of the chawan’s rough-hewn rim. How the chasen lightly rests against the pinched folds of the 茶巾 chakin.

The wooden natsume appears smooth, polished like a well-worn floorboard of an 縁側 engawa. How this, too, feels refreshing in the growing heat of the morning.

I remove the 袱紗 fukusa from my belt and cleanse the lid of the wooden natsume. As I set it down, I appreciate the weight of the tiny container filled with powdered tea. Next, I refold the fukusa and press the tip of the chashaku into it, running the purple cloth back and forth over it several times before placing the teascoop atop the lid of the natsume. I remove the chasen from the teabowl and place it beside the natsume and chashaku.

I remove the chakin and refold it, placing it momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi. Next remove the lid of the chagama and draw forth a ladle of hot water, which I pour slowly into the teabowl.

I lift the chasen and set it into the irregular folded edge of the kutsu-geta chawan. It fits perfectly into the imperfect shape. I grip the whisk and press the thin tines against the bottom of the bowl. I lift the chasen and turn it a third of the way around and press the tines back into the hot water, back against the bottom of the bowl. I repeat this two more times until each thin blade of bamboo has been flexed and inspected, wetted and warmed.

I return the whisk back beside the natsume and chashaku.

I lift the bowl and roll the warm water around its interior, watching how the liquid climbs up and runs down the hand-formed inner edges. How light gathers in the odd corners and spins around the curves and knife cuts.

The bowl is emptied and dried. It sits against the swirling grain of the wooden slab, a board I use in lieu of having 畳 tatami in my city apartment. Myself. The bowl. The board. We find ourselves in this moment, together.

The bowl, a gift from a now-deceased friend, reminds me of his guidance. Upon its outer surface, the design of interlocked squares. To me, they appear as the wooden or stone slabs used to line the opening of a well.

To stare down into this dark cavern. To feel the rush of cool air that billows out from the depths. I am refreshed.

I lift the tiny natsume and remove its carved lid. I remove three scoops of 抹茶 matcha from it and press each into the center of the clog-shaped bowl.

I place the lid back atop the tea container and set the chashaku atop this. I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour this into the chagama.

Next, I pull hot water from the kettle and pour a measured amount into the center of the teabowl. The remaining water is returned to the chagama. The chasen is placed down into the concoction of water and tea. I breathe and taste the flavor of fresh green tea that rises from the teabowl.

With one hand placed along the edge of the chawan and the other gripping the chasen, I begin to whisk the tea into a light foam. The tea moves vigorously around the interior of the bowl, matching the motions of my hand. A rhythm is maintained until the foam begins to form and rise and collect.

I slow the chasen and gently lift it from the center of the bowl.

A small low-lying peak forms where the whisk left it last. In the low light of the morning, the tea glows from the interior of the chawan.

From my vantage point, each angle appears different, dynamic. The round edge of the teabowl is like a vast sea.

The angled edge, like a dark valley. The shape is serious and somber, playful and irreverent.

I lift the bowl and turn it so that the angled edge now points towards me. From this I will drink the tea. I lift the bowl again and take the first sip. The liquid is warm, the texture soft. The sound of the matcha bubbles rolling and bursting, shifting and pulling as they run down the inner edges of the teabowl are audible, amplified by the shape of the bowl. I take two more sips, each feeling expansive in the short period of time it takes for each draught to pull down the interior of the vessel. All that remains are the the dregs.

Even once empty, I enjoy the patterns that remain inside the bowl. How the residual foam pools into the curl of clay and glaze. I cleanse the bowl, first with hot water, so I may for a moment inspect the bowl.

I hold the emptied vessel in my hand, turning it over to appreciate the carved 高台 kōdai.

The bare clay appears like wind-cut sandstone, much like those found around the hills and mountains of my boyhood home.

The dark black-brown glaze against this looks translucent, pooling and revealing the clay edges beneath it, reminiscent of the shell that covers a stag beetles’ wing.

Beside this, in contrast, is the crisp white glaze, common to most kuro-Oribe ceramics.

Setting the bowl upright once again, I appreciate the various motifs painted in glaze. The mouth of the well as the 正面 shōmen.

The abbreviated stripes, perhaps representing the grasses of Autumn, on the reverse side.

I cleanse the bowl once more, this time with the cool water drawn from the mizusashi. The chakin is refolded and placed into the teabowl. The chasen is placed with its tines pointed upward.

The chashaku, still covered in tea dust, is cleansed once again with the fukusa. Once purified, it is placed back atop the edge of the chawan. The natsume is brought beside the teabowl.

Between each object is a space. Room to breathe. Room to think.

Before I remove the wares from the tearoom, I prepare a solitary 拝見 haiken. With the sound of cicadas now booming from the trees, the natsume and the chashaku are placed atop an old 香盤 kōban.

Between each item, again, space is made. Between Summer and Autumn, too, there is a space. It is not marked by a specific moment or one particular attribute. Instead, signifiers abound in incalculable ways.

Carried on the arrival of a breeze. On the sudden realization of a subtle shift. Caught in a liminal place, where fields turn to forests, rivers to river’s edge. A band of mud. A stripe of grass. A patch of flowers pushing up past their leaves. To sit where you are, now. This, too, is like this very moment. A moment caught between moments.

Unannounced, it arrives. At first, not so perceptible. Not so special. But, this, too, is worth noting. When Summer fades to Autumn. Before the leaves turn color. Before the world decays. Before the heat subsides entirely. Like the warmth caught in the clay of a teabowl, or the condensation that collects on the side of the mizusashi.

This world, even now, is enough to awaken the mind, refresh the soul, remind oneself of the importance of this moment. This, too, shall pass. This now will, soon, turn to past.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Remnants of the Year

IMG_3215In the final days of October, Autumn slowly begins to give way to the chill of Winter. The light rain that falls makes patterns on the ground and feels cooler, more biting than it had earlier in the month. The splendor of Autumn’s leaves still hangs in the canopies of trees outside my window, yet some trees begin to look more barren, creating a spotty patchwork of gold, red and green, resembling a monk’s old 袈裟 kesa (priest’s mantle). It is in this time of year that all things born from Spring fade and finally wither away.

In the world of tea, this marks the moment when 茶人 chajin begin to bid farewell to the 風炉 furo, replaced in the following month by the humble 炉 ro. It is also when the last leaves of tea in tea in the tea jar (壺 tsubo), opened the previous year, are used up, bearing only enough 抹茶 matcha for two or three bowls. These remnants (名残 nagori in Japanese) set the tone for these final moments, making each bowl of tea feel as if it may be the last. They are special and somber. Simple and good.

In my tearoom, I’ve set the furo to boil the last kettle of tea I will have for the month. Come November, I will exchange this for an old wooden 火鉢 hibachi (which I use in place of a sunken hearth). As I sift tea into a gourd-shaped lacquer 棗 natsume, I am aware of this change. A year of tea is coming to a close. The warm months are over for now.

IMG_3211Opening up my wooden tea cabinet, I admire the iron fixtures and the hand-worked knobs that are in the shape of chrysanthemum, a flower of Fall.

IMG_3175From this, I pull out a 茶碗 chawan by friend and ceramicist 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, one which I had first used at the beginning of Spring. Atop this, I place a bamboo 茶杓 chashaku carved by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Sitting and waiting for the kettle to come to a boil, I listen to the sound of light rain hitting the windowsill of my tearoom. A moment passes, the sunlight that has crept into my tearoom grows dim. Soon the sound of the boiling 釜 kama begins to mesh with the sound of the rain. Silently I begin to go through the motions of making tea.

BEB2F0BC-4D5F-43A2-98AF-E2893D706EE1The natsume is brought forward and is cleansed. I lift its lathe-turned lid from its body to inspect the mound of powdered green tea.

BD05C918-C553-4C2E-A333-20C55393253DNext, I turn my attention to the implements within the teabowl.

IMG_3216The chashaku is set atop the natsume. The 茶筅 chasen is set beside it. The 茶巾 chakin is removed from the chawan, lightly twisted over the 建水 kensui, refolded, and placed atop the lid of the 水差 mizusashi.

Cleansing both bowl and whisk with the boiling water I draw from the kettle, my body feels at ease with the motions, practiced now for the past six months. How I will have to subtly adjust my hand, the turning of my wrist, the lifting of the 柄杓 hishaku once I put the furo away.

F73C376A-8BF3-4CD0-9B95-7B01DB6D4AD8With the teabowl cleansed, I issue into it the first of three scoops of matcha. The tea powder, soft and fine, feels like the last of the sand running through an hourglass.

0917D9B5-BBC0-4455-91C7-0ACAA3DCAD2CI pour half a ladle’s worth of water into the teabowl and the aroma of tea begins to lift upward. For a moment, the only sound heard in my tearoom is of the whisk moving back and forth as the matcha is transformed into a light, bright foam.

F361A80E-269B-411F-BD38-44FCFB0A9910A freshly prepared bowl of tea sits alongside the rest of the teaware. How the matcha glows off the fired lacquer interior of the chawan. How the remnants of tea powder cling to the chashaku. How the shadows stretch across the plank of wood I use, fading into the serpentine grain. How the charcoal glows in the kama.

There is joy and sadness caught in this moment. In the final withering of the year there is death. Old friends who have passed are recalled. Old memories well up and sit with me. Ghosts of the year are invited for tea. The last leaves of 碾茶 tencha have long since been pulverized into dust.

1FED5E8F-D557-4C7B-BDFA-BD1D5A1AA1B3I lift the bowl as if it were my last and with three hearty sips I imbibe the final vestiges of the previous year’s tea. A thin foam remains against the walls of the teabowl, which I admire for a moment before this, too, is washed away. No turning back.

EE9DCC44-BCF4-4876-81F8-E9BD0C707BD2I wipe the bowl clean and set the utensils within it. Closing the kettle one last time, I slide its bronze lid over its gaping mouth. The sound of metal against metal produces a final resounding knell.

769F5A8F-6A00-4233-BA04-D4A6AA3C96A2As the room returns to a solemn silence, I arrange for a quiet 拝見 haiken. Placing the lacquered natsume and bamboo chashaku next to one another, I admire how they harmonize.

IMG_3213The shape of a gourd to commemorate the harvest.

IMG_3212The small node atop the chashaku’s 節 fushi acting as a reminder to the vitality of nature, preserved and faded by October’s end.

E7429460-A217-4E15-A5B1-7E3487C73A5DI lift the lid of the natsume one last time to view the small landscape of tea within and look upon it as if parting with an old friend.

In the wordless exchange between objects and a season’s end, there lies an answer to a 公案 kōan (Chinese: gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 gong-an; Vietnamese: công án). There is no logic to the feeling of sadness at this moment. What comes when Autumn passes? Do the leaves turn to radiant colors only to wither and rot upon the cold earth? How many cycles around the sun will my life see? Boxed-up and put away, the furo won’t be seen again until the last remnants of Winter wane, to return in Spring. This, as sure as shoots of grass pushing up through the snow.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tea on a Rainy Day

IMG_2257There’s something about a cold, rainy October day that inspires me to want to make tea. The crisp air, grey skies, the sound of rain hitting against the window of my tearoom. All of this seems to come together and quiet the mind. Brewing tea seems to naturally follow.

Rain is not always ideal for tea. I can remember when I made my first trip to a tea farm, I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was climbing Jirisan, one of Korea’s oldest tea-producing regions. As I clamored towards a tea master’s home, I was told that no tea was being harvested that day. “Good tea,” the tea master informed me, “was not picked on rainy days.” Rather than witness tea picking and processing, the master sat me down and prepared for me a delicious cup of tea. Rainy days were, as it turned out, perfect days for enjoying tea.

IMG_2334As I sit in my tearoom, enjoying my forced sequestering due to inclement weather outside, I’m reminded of this early tea memory. Inspired, I set my large iron kettle to boil and pull forth a small, tea-filled celadon 香合 kōgō, itself a reproduction ancient Korean 고려/高麗 Goryeo period (918-1392) inlay celadon container.

4C87D024-9041-46AF-83E1-CC78E4BA6344Setting this aside with a cut bamboo teascoop, I put together a traditional set of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea ceramics: three small teacups, a side-handle teapot, and a 숙우 sookwoo. Like the rain outside my window, the there is a certain rhythm to the preparation of Korean tea.

IMG_2335First, water is brought to the perfect “ripeness”, indicated by it coming from an audible rolling boil to a quiet, energetic simmer. Once achieved, a small amount is scooped out from the kettle with a lacquered gourd.

D53124A4-11EA-40F1-AC32-188374862F3FFrom the gourd, the water is poured into the sookwoo. I pause and let the water warm the open vessel.

7EA07296-CCFF-4ABA-BE67-AE9158C16694The lid of the teapot is removed and the hot water is transferred from the sookwoo into the teapot. As the teapot warms, I once again pour water into the sookwoo. I wait for a brief moment and then water is poured from teapot to teacups.

B9EDDEA1-F5AF-425E-8755-8EE3750012D1As the cups warm, I open the wide lid of the celadon kōgō and I carefully place the long, dark, wiry leaves of a semi-oxidized 발효차 balhyocha atop the concave side of the bamboo tea scoop.

A9B8082C-2E60-4E4B-BEA1-76B40CDF1609The leaves are then placed into the warmed teapot.

08BEC89B-3688-4F44-9A1D-DAC6BA0E8ECAWith every inward action, I breathe in. With every outward action, I exhale out. As I reach down to the sookwoo, I exhale. I inhale as I lift it towards my center. With a drawn out exhalation, I pour the water into the teapot. I pause and inhale. As I set the sookwoo down, I exhale. As I draw the lid of the teapot inward towards me, I inhale, enjoying the warm, fleeting aroma of the balhyocha.

FCF370D5-0155-4C04-90DF-A733BD9B8930As I exhale, I gently place the small grey ceramic lid atop the opening of teapot. I wait and, as I do so, I hear the sound of rain growing louder. As the rhythm of the rain quickens, I bring each teacup towards me and empty the warm water from them. This, in turn, echoes the sound of water outside, bright and refreshing.

IMG_2341Once emptied and placed back onto the wooden tea table, I reach back to grasp the teapot, pouring its contents into the now vacant teacups.

54D34264-ED92-43FB-8775-ED6F6DAE888DLifting the lid from the teapot, I let the tea leaves cool, enjoying, yet again, their aroma, this time transformed by the passing of time and the sustained heat of their brewing.

6FDDCE99-5A86-46BA-841F-E787FF039F3CWith the sound of the storm keeping steady outside my window, I sit and quietly admire the color of the first steeping and the quietness of the boiling water as it once again reaches its perfect ripeness.

IMG_2339One steeping turns to two, two into a third, and then countless more. The rich amber hue of the first brew deepens with the second and continues to darken with the third and fourth. The earthy and organic notes of boiled chestnut and baked apples evolve into bright, high tones of raw honey and the sweet pith of roasted pumpkin, eventually quieting into a subtler and more elusive flavor akin to aromatic pine resin.

IMG_2336All said, I exhaust myself before I exhaust the tea and as the storm lifts, I empty the teapot to view the leaves, still warm and steaming. What were once thin, twisted spindles have since unfurled into uniformly russet leaves.

IMG_2337Like the storm that passed and the rain that presided over much of my day, the tea may be done, though its sweet memory and complex flavors still linger. I am left only to wait for another rainy day.

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