Tag Archives: Brewing Tea

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

As I sit in my New York City apartment for my daily tea brewing session, I sit looking out upon the treetops, grey sky, and the faint rolling outline of Manhattan’s silhouette. The soft booming of thunder peels in the distance. A storm is coming. With the windows open, I can feel the change in the atmosphere. The air grows cooler, thicker with moisture. Latent with entropy.

For a moment I meditate, giving pause as I wait for the old 鉄瓶 tetsubin to boil water for tea. Spread out before me are implements that I’ve collected over the years, each one brought forth to serve a purpose. Despite their beauty as art objects, they are worth more to me as tools, items that serve a purpose. A wide-rimmed 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) teabowl from a kiln in Fujian which I shall use as a 茶船 cháchuán.

A mid-20th century replica of a 清 Qīng period (1644-1912) 思亭壺 Sī Tíng Hú.

A jade archer’s ring which I’ve repurposed as a lid rest.

Other wares include items foreign to the Chinese tea tradition. A Japanese porcelain tea container, decorated with orchid blossoms, an image borrowed from Chinese visual culture, referring to integrity and scholarly pursuits.

An antique carved bamboo 茶合 sagō used for 煎茶道 senchadō, inscribed with a poem. A thin branch from a willow tree.

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

Each item I’ve adopted and adapted over the almost twenty years I’ve been practicing the traditional Chinese method of tea brewing known as 功夫茶 gōng fū chá.

Over these many years, I’ve come to realize through the quiet efforts of brewing tea daily in a mindful manner the meaning of this approach to making a cup of tea. To simply pour water into the cavernous hollow of a small teapot.

To warm each teacup so that the radiant heat of the water can be felt on the outer surface.

To wait until the steam rising from each vessel subsides. These are things that are learned after years of practice and observation. A skill acquired by being challenged.

I remove the lid from the porcelain tea container and slowly roll out a healthy portion of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá. Years of practice, of study under teachers, and travel to tea farms and tea markets has given me insight into this tea. Even before I know what this tea will taste like, I have a thought as to what to expect. With this knowledge, I can quickly pivot and adjust my actions once this tea is brewing in order to make the very best pot of tea I can with what I am given. The dark green side-by-side the rusty-red coloration upon each leaf hints at the level of oxidation this tea has incurred. The tightness of each curled leaf indicates the manner and method it was rolled.

A mindful tilt of the bamboo tea scoop and a gentle push by the thin willow branch aids in arranging each of the leaves into a small mound at the center of the teapot.

Leaning over to peer down into the vessel, I inhale to admire and analyze the aroma of the tea as it comes into contact with the wet interior surface of the teapot. This, too, is a sign, a means to guide my approach to brewing this tea.

Each time I take in an observation, I change my tack. These are not huge changes but subtle ones. Over time and accumulated experiences, this method has shaped not only my practice but also my mind. Rather than become more rigid in my ways and more resistant to change, I’ve become more fluid, more adaptable, more welcoming of taking chances, being challenged, open to surprises. It has brought about a real sense of joy to face these, both in tea and in life.

To say that these are challenging times we live in today would be quite an understatement. All around, people are justly fighting for their voices to be heard, for their civil rights to be recognized. The world is faced with a deadly pandemic. Our fragile earth continues to be threatened by greed, war, destruction. Faced with such dramatic changes, it is common to do what most do: avoid them, resist them, claim ignorance of these changes, shut them out and find solace in a life of ease and moments of joy. Perhaps, like the Summer storm that is now currently raging outside my window here in New York City, some may believe that these changes will subside. The turmoil will calm down. Things will go back to normal.

But as I lift my kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour hot water into the teapot, I am reminded that this does not need to be the way.

As I close the lid of the teapot and pour a drought of hot water upon it, waiting for the telltale signs that the tea is brewing, I reflect on what it takes to understand each moment.

We must be quiet to let others speak their mind and tell their story, as I must quiet my mind to truly take in the moment. I must observe the context of each time and place, as I do when I watch the heat rise from the teapot and the water dissipate from its surface, keeping in mind the temperature of the air around it, the time of day, the heat or chill of the season, and perhaps the guests and their preferences.

I have to be attentive to what might be going on from an internal level, and what external cues I can draw from, in the same way I watch the small meniscus rise.

In the same way I watch it fall down the interior of the teapot spout, indicating the movement and unfurling of the tea leaves within the teapot. And I must ask myself what I take for granted, what do I not have the ability to see, in the same way I must wonder what is going on inside the teapot.

All of this goes to further highlight certain truths. Change is a constant. Nothing remains the same forever. Each moment exists only in that moment and then it is gone, transformed into something else. Oftentimes, we have the choice to meet these changes and learn from them, or ignore them. To engage and adapt with change, or to resist it.

Tea has taught this. It has taught me patience. It has given me the ability to practice this and eventually trust in my practice. Whereas in the beginning of my life as a tea person I would have doubted and maybe even judged myself, with a litany of internal self-directed micro-aggressions telling me that I was “doing it wrong” or “I don’t know enough” or that I was “unable to do this” or “that properly”, I now have enough direct experience brewing tea to not judge myself and, instead, recognized when I feel this way and recognize that it’s okay. The tea will be fine. I will be fine.

I’ve made a lot of bitter tea in my day, even over-brewed tea. I actually enjoy this flavor now. It is the flavor of quality. In truth, an excellently-crafted tea will still taste excellent even if you over-brew it. This was something I only learned when I stopped being afraid to make mistakes and to be challenged.

As I pour out the tea from the teapot, moving from cup to cup to cup in a circular motion, I adjust my hand and the pitch of the teapot to increase or decrease the velocity of the tea liqueur coming out of it. As the liquid pours out faster, the tea has leaf time to brew, resulting in a slightly lighter steeping.

Conversely, if I slow the pour, the tea steeps a moment longer and the liqueur has a chance to become darker and more profound in flavor. This may depend on the style of tea, the manner it was finished by the tea master’s level roast or oxidation, or by the season the tea was harvested. Subtle changes to one’s practice can make all the difference.

As I shake out the final droplets of tea from the teapot and return the teapot back the center of the Sòng teabowl, I remove the lid of the pot to enable all remaining moisture and heat to escape the teapot. Experience has shown me that doing this helps to prevent unintended over-extraction of flavor through residual hot water sitting with the tea leaves.

I admire the color of the tea liqueur. It is a rich copper color, deepening at its center and becoming a light blush gold on the periphery. As I bring the first of three cups to my lips, I savor the multi-layered aromas the tea gives off. Florals like gardenias, marigolds and rose. Light incense. Toasted biscuit. As I take the first sip, I draw back it over the back of my mouth and into my cheeks, both cooling the tea and atomizing the liquid, enabling a greater sensory experience. I’ve made the tea strong. The flavors of dried apricots, marigold, rose water, and toasted walnut are pronounced. As my mouth empties, lingering flavors of cacao nibs, sweet caramel and baked apple remain.

I pause to let these flavors play out and fade before I move on to the second and third cup. Each time I sip I use the moment to meditate and observe. To open my mind rather than fixate on a particular aspect of the tea or of the time and space that I’ve found myself within. As I continue to brew the tea, steeping after steeping, I practice this mindset. I use the moment to explore the tea and it’s flavors, as I also use the moment to explore my mind and the many sensations that arise.

As I’ve said before, these are challenging times. We might find ourselves up against some very intense situations. Ourselves, as well as our friends and family may be affected by the many upheavals that have come. How to give space to each so that we can explore these moments together and individually is important to foster true learning and awakening. This is core to being compassionate. How we can practice this in our own practice of tea can be a beautiful first step.

Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition Thích Nhất Hạnh discusses this form of practice in his 2002 book “Anger”. What he describes as “knots of anger” are “blocks of pain, anger, and frustration“. Over time, these knots can tie us up and obstruct our freedom to learn, to be open-minded, and be able to communicate with others and ourselves. If we practice aggression towards others or ourselves, these becomes trained. Like brewing an excellent cup of tea, we can become excellent at being angry, at harming others, at denying their freedoms and our own.

However, one can practice the opposite. One can practice love, compassion and empathy. Much like how one brews tea, changing one’s habitual mind takes patience, presence, observation. It requires breathing and practicing a capacity of awareness that includes listening to both body and mind, material and environment. In the same way we can learn from the tea that we’ve over-steeped, we can learn from our anger, our sadness, and our frustration. We can still love a bitter brew in the same way we can still love ourselves and others despite how we fee about them or they about us. This needn’t become a block to our freedom. Rather, it can become the way forward.

As I finish the final cup of tea, I begin the processes of cleaning the equipage. The cups are cleansed once again and placed together.

So, too, are the wooden trivets they sat upon.

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

For a brief moment, I appreciate the teapot, the small Sī Tíng Hú. The shape, volume, clay, and firing, all honed and practiced by the craftsperson who created it to be a tool to best brew tea.

Next I turn my attention to examine the tea leaves. Each leaf tells a story. Every color of dark emerald green, russet and red speak to the journey that they’ve endured.

Now, in their unfurling, they sit as a knot untied. As a result of the water’s heat, of time elapsed, of attention given. They’ve become a grip loosened. A moment explored. A heart opened.

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

Clear and Bright

Looking out my tearoom window, the sky is clear and bright. Peering down upon my wooden tea table, the light casts long shadows. All around me, the world faces sickness and death. All around me, Spring is in full bloom.

On April 4th this year is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié, a day when families in China traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors and the day when green tea picking begins in earnest. While the world has been forced to adjust to the impact of a broad-sweeping pandemic, the traditional, as well as natural cycles still continue.

I offer incense in respect to the dead. I pour cool fresh water into my kettle and set it to boil. I bring together a vintage white porcelain 潮州茶盤 Cháozhōu chápán, 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, and four 品茗杯 pǐn mìng bēi.

The white porcelain is intended to enable the tea drinker to enjoy the unaltered color of the tea liqueur. Alas, in East Asia, white is often seen as the color of death and mourning. The four cups, too, infer this as the number four (四 ) in the Chinese language is a homonym for the word “death” (死 ).

This set up is not typical for me. Rarely do I use four cups. Rarely do I invite the notion of death to my tea table. Yet, it seems fitting. The world is in the grip of death, now seemingly more than ever. However, today is clear and bright. Both forces happening at the same time, not in opposition.

For tea, I bring forth a small handful of 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn. Made up of uniformly curled small leaf buds, this tea was harvested in March of 2019, a week prior to that year’s Qīngmíng festival. Picked this early means that the weather in the mountains surrounding 太湖 Tài Hú in southern 江蘇 Jiāngsū will still be cold.

The young tea buds will still be covered in a coating of silvery hairs (白毫 bái háo). If picked and processed correctly, the resulting flavor of this 清明前 Qīngmíng qián (pre-Qīngmíng) tea will be sweet, complex, and brighter than teas picked later in the year.

Now over a year old, I expect this tea to be a shadow of itself. However, in light of the current state of the world, it will be a taste of life before all of this happened. What will it taste like?

With the water boiled, I rinse the wares, warming them in preparation for making tea. Leaving the lid of the kettle open to allow it to cool down in order to properly brew this delicate tea, I wait and let the heat dissipate. As I wait, I open the window to my tearoom. The sound of birds. Breeze pushing the steam from the mouth of the kettle.

As the water cools, I begin to place the tiny tea leaves into the center of the warmed gàiwǎn, using a thin twig from a willow tree to arrange them evenly along the bottom of the porcelain vessel.

Slowly I pour water along the inner edge of gàiwǎn so as not to directly touch the heap of tea, ensuring that it is able to cool slightly before coming in contact with the tea leaves. The tiny curls of Bì Luó Chūn lift upwards, buoyant for a moment as the water rises in the gàiwǎn.

As I finish pouring water from my kettle, the leaves slowly begin to cascade downwards, spinning and setting at the bottom of the porcelain vessel, occasionally rising and falling again. I leave the lid of the gàiwǎn off and watch this dance play out, admiring how the tiny buds writhe and open, releasing their pale green pigment into the warm water.

A few seconds later and I carefully place the lid atop the gàiwǎn and tilt the cup, pouring its contents from one cup to the next until all are full. I give the gàiwǎn a quick shake and return it back down upon the ceramic surface of the Cháozhōu chápán.

I lift the lid and let the leaves cool. As I place the lid down atop a jade archer’s thumb ring, I marvel in two tiny sprouts that have affixed themselves to the bottom of the lid. Two tiny artifacts from the previous year. Remnants of an early Spring. How much the world has changed since then. How much still remains the same.

I call for my partner to break from her weekend work and join me for cups of tea. The flavor is still vibrant, grassy, intoxicating. Having been stored away for a year, time has not had a dramatic effect on the tiny leaves.

The color of the tea liqueur is bright and clear. A pale green gold against the clean white porcelain. The aroma is sweet like the flowering fruit trees of Spring.

As we finish the first steeping, I continue to brew a second and third.

The leaves open further, unfurling and expanding, offering up a golden hue and lasting flavor.

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

All that is left by the last brew are spent leaves and a fond memory.

As late morning turns to midday, the sun climbs high in the sky, the shadows shorten, the sky becomes clear and bright.

Birdsong beams through canyons of brick and concrete. Breezes bush through blossoms and trees. The scent of tea mingles with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers. Another stick of incense is lit in memory of the dead.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Incense, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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

In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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

The First Drift of Snow

Morning woke with a flurry of snow. To peer outside my tearoom window to see a world covered in white. Rooflines obscured. The forms of trees reduced to black spindles, looking like calligrapher’s ink on paper against a flat grey sky. Snowflakes spinning roughly in the breeze, tumbling and forming the first snowdrifts of Winter.

Prior to now, the days have been just warm enough to allow for the remaining green grasses of Autumn to stand upright, the last of the leaves of the climbing ivy to look full. Today, each wilt with frost and flatten under the weight of the snow. All that is left are soft, undulating fields of bright white snow.

Brimming with inspiration, I pull forth an item of teaware that I had long awaited to use, waiting for just this moment. I place it, hidden in its unopened 桐箱 kiribako, upon the wooden surface of my tea table, next to an antique peach-colored 萩焼 Hagi-yaki 宝瓶 hōhin.

What does this box contain? What treasure is buried underneath a snowbank? I wait, allowing the water in my iron kettle to begin to steam, before I open the small wooden box.

From it I pull a small irregularly-shaped cup. Pure white, save for the portions of exposed clay left unglazed, the tiny vessel is a piece of 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan. Procured during the warm months, I’ve waited until today to use this special teacup.

For a moment I hold it, admiring its form from various angles. Its sides billow like mounds of snow.

Its foot is rough, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner.

With steam rising steadily from my iron kettle, I begin the process of warming my assembled ceramic wares, first the hōhin. The heat escaping from the warm and wetted clay interior caused sounds of expanding glaze resembling the almost imperceivable ringing of melting ice.

Next the teacup. It, like the soft drifts of snow outside my window, remains silent.

Alongside the tiny hōhin and teacup I set a small celadon tea container and wooden tea scoop.

Pouring out a measure of Spring-picked 冠茶 kabusecha into the concave surface of the cut bamboo 茶合 sagō, I place tea into the warmed recess of the Hagi-yaki hōhin.

The crazing of the ceramic surface, intermittent with splashes of pinks, purples, and grey. The lacquer-like shine of the deep emerald tea leaves like pine needles heaped together.

I carefully pour hot water over the leaves, making sure not to disturb them, instead, allowing them to gently tumble as I fill the hōhin.

Closing the lid, I pause, letting the inward and outward motion of my breath dictate the time I let the tea steep. Slowly, I wrap the fingers of my right hand around the curve of the hōhin’s warmed walls, lifting and tilting it to calmly decant the steeped tea into the bright white hollow of the Oni-Hagi teacup.

The color of the freshly brewed tea against the pure white glaze is startling. Like a bright jewel beaming an unearthly glow, the tea shines within the unblemished space of the teacup. Next to its more orthodox Hagi counterpart, the Oni-Hagi lives up to its demon-like name, with its wild, uneven glazing.

Alone, it feels as if it were a found object; an organic form pulled from nature.

Like a small, haphazardly-formed ball of snow, I admire the eccentric quality of the cup as I sip from it.

Steeping after steeping, the warmth of the tea finally permeates into the body of the clay until, finally, like the mid-day sun warms the earth, small cracks form in the icy glaze. No longer will this piece remain as it once had. A sign of use, of life pushing up through the snow!

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Meditation, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting

Everything Has Its Cycle

IMG_3630Winter is here. As I look out my tearoom window, all evidence points towards this. The tops of trees grow more barren by the day. The sky glows a dull matte grey in all directions. Birds huddle on bare branches and against brick buildings, trying to eek out the last vestiges of warmth. Only a few weeks before, Fall stood resplendent in all its colors. Months before that, sweat collected on my brow. And what now seems like a distant memory, I can recall the first fragrant breezes of Spring. Everything has its cycle.

Sitting in my tearoom, I collect myself around the warmth of my wooden and copper 火鉢 hibachi and the radiant heat given off by my old iron 鉄瓶 tetsubin. As the water inside its metal husk begins to boil I set before me a thin, clay-bodied Yixing teapot. Poetically referred to as a 水平壺 shuǐpíng hú, the shape of the pot is round, balanced, sturdy. It exudes strength and delicacy all in one simple and structured form.

B863EB7C-4430-45D1-B5B8-2EF8A70AAB23As the sound of boiling water climbs to an audible chatter, I open the teapot, set its lid down on top of the crest of its handle’s arc, and pour a measure of hot water into its vacant interior. I warm the teapot and pour the water out, again, to rest the lid atop the teapot’s handle.

23F61326-677C-46AC-A89E-53017AD518ABInto the space now I place a bamboo scoop’s worth of tea leaves. With a tilt of the scoop, they fall into place.

2E3C65E0-BB0B-4571-82DF-004F7B9C7D8FA jumbled mess of wiry fronds. Blades like grass of green and gold.

B41F19E0-1ED0-4350-8F4B-4F91B6540BBBAs it often does, the residual heat of the water begins to wake up the flavor of the tea, sending aromatic wafts of delicate floral notes into the air. This tea, a hand-picked and processed 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá, was harvested in Spring, yet now is joining me to aid in staving off Winter’s chill.

I sit for a while, listening to the water in my iron pot, waiting for the moment it begins to quiet. Steam rises from its spout, coiling like threads, at first just one and two, then more, and then as a steady stream as if it were a column piercing the air. Bubbles break the surface of the water and roil like a babbling source, until it, too, becomes a constant effluence. It is only now that the water has ripened and is finally ready for tea.

551ECADC-FE47-41C8-9815-7322B53E8736I pour the water over the twisted network of tea leaves, being mindful to move in a circular action so as to evenly cover them.

3DBAD72B-9E16-41FE-9E6C-091A7BA14915I place the lid back over the leaves and wait. In this pause I breathe. In this moment, the tea breathes. In and out my chest rises. In and out the tea leaves tumble and unfurl inside the walls of the red clay vessel. Inside my body is an entire system of organs working together to ensure me life. Inside the teapot is a dance of forces, of heat and of unfolding leaves, offering up their flavor. I wait for the moment they settle and absorb their last draught, causing a minute amount of liquid to draw down, back inside the spout of the teapot. I wait a moment more, breathe, and observe the color of the Yixing clay deepen and glow as if it held within it an otherworldly light.

9855E1BF-B4A6-49A0-8827-F4EFF60D3EF8I wait and breathe a last breath and draw the teapot up and out from the clay bowl it is set within. For a moment, as I pour the tea liqueur out, I contemplate on a void. A vast nothingness that exists within the clay bowl where once the teapot sat. The empty space between the branches of the trees where once bright verdant leaves sprung forth. The great hollow expanse of sky that stretches in all directions outside my tearoom window. The emptied vessel of my teapot as I set it back down to play host to another steeping.

FF4F5623-63FD-47C6-8CA0-DCD8801BCBA3And yet in this void there is abundance. In the open cavity of the teapot springs forth a bounty of tea leaves, and held within their once dried skin now exists a sense of life. In the once empty cup that sat beside me is a volume of brightly-colored liquid, and from this rises a complex array of flavors hearkening back to a time and place once thought to be distant and unreachable. As I sit upon the threshold of Winter I am reminded of the blossoming of Spring. On the flat grey of a November day I see the tawny reds and olive greens of Autumn in my teapot. Against the bright white porcelain of my teacup, I see the golden beams of Summer’s sun.

D9E95988-45E4-44BD-90AC-C16FA8928EF1In a world where we get caught within a single moment, how refreshing it is to know that everything has its cycle. When once we feel that we might know all there is to be known, how wondrous it is to be brought back to a place of boundless curiosity. How when we find ourselves in the grip of some unbreakable mental quandary, to scratch and claw against some unknown source of resistance, only to find that the solution was simple and naturally arising. Answers to all we seek are found within us and all around us. In the chill of a Winter’s day. In the scent lifting from a tea leaf. In the hollow of an empty vessel. In the silence that arrives when the water comes to a boil. In the cycles we can observe and in those we cannot.

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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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The Importance of Space

IMG_1928In daily life, actions, tasks, thoughts and emotions can come in rapid succession, one after the other, piling-up like subway trains caught in a tunnel. Over time, the effect of this can become overwhelming until the mind succumbs to stress. Taking a moment to pause, to breathe, can be just enough to break this cycle and reset the mind, transforming a stressful situation into one that is manageable, perhaps even pleasant.

In the practice of tea, the mere act of sitting for tea can become this moment. Even while one may be in the midst of the chaos and clamor of the daily world, to sit and make tea can have the effect of making space; emotionally, spatially, and even temporally. Space, and all the dimensions it can encompass, becomes a distinct feature of tea. The empty space of a teapot can define how much liquid it can hold and how much the tea leaves can expand within it. The space between objects can establish their relationship to each other and even infer their function. Objects and beings, when given their own space, can become both independent of each other, as well as interdependent to one another. It is this space that imbues them with both latent and infinite possibilities.

In Japanese, the term 間 “Ma” (“Jiān” In Chinese) is used to describe this notion. Roughly translating to “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”, Ma is found in all manner of ways, from a pause in action to the space between objects and the nature of a void. In the classic literati and Zen art of Japan, China and Korea, objects are often given their own space, surrounded by a significant amount of “empty” space. Whether mountains, trees, scholarly equipage or even six persimmons arranged together, Ma is allowed to exist both around the objects and, to an extent, within them. Compositions can juxtapose this interrelation of matter and space in dramatic ways, creating dynamism or, equally, a sense of harmonic serenity.

BE1F111E-8D1E-425B-82F9-553139E27009Setting up my teaware to enjoy a moment to taste tea, I try to strike this balance between forms, matter and emptiness. Placed on an expanse of gnarled wood, I arrange each object based on their function and flow. The carved bamboo teascoop sits next to the red Yixing clay 茶船 chá chuán (lit. “tea boat”), in the center of which sits a small 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot”).

D614A507-A844-4884-9229-E76947B16649Shadows fill the empty space within and between each object, turning each void into dark pools.

D9855589-503F-401E-AF94-252BAF32774BA grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) are set closely to one another, yet do not touch each other. Their concave hollows are empty, save for the shadows and light gathered within them.

7E55465B-9D1B-4526-BB21-8B5B0791CB7AThe bamboo scoop sits with its back facing upward, the dark, smooth skin set in contrast to the cursive characters carved upon its surface. Even here, space exists between the written words.

13EA25BD-6B3F-41C8-BA99-BEDEA0464BBCTurned over, thick, curled tea leaves are set upon the interior space of the scoop.

C1A3305B-1042-4FE5-94BD-A2FEB45E20C3Placed into the teapot, the leaves occupy the entirety of the empty space. A void becomes full. Filled with hot water from an iron kettle, the tea is left to steep. Seconds pass, allowing the tea leaves to unfurl and expand. In the space of my tearoom, silence fills the void. In my mind, thoughts sit side-by-side with quietude.

B31967BA-EFE7-4B27-BC21-277C989F3342Pouring the tea out completely, I set the lid ajar, allowing hot vapor to exit the teapot and cooling the tea leaves.

C367E4AC-B7BA-4E35-8B7F-1277A76570B3Turning my gaze from teapot to sookwoo, I view the amber-hued liqueur that came from from the coiled leaves of 紫紅袍 Zǐ Hóng Páo (“Purple Red Robe”) 武夷山岩茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá (Wuyishan “cliff tea”).

7C663A01-DED5-4FEE-9006-885252FA8457Then, from sookwoo to teacup, I pour the tea, and in the space between this teacup and my lips, I can sense the complex, spicy aroma of this brew.

One more pause and I am filled with anticipation. One sip and my mind is flooded with sensations, flavors, and lingering notes onto which instinctively and habitually I try to attach words and qualifying definitions. Even as the taste of tea becomes fleeting, the empty space of this moment after tea feels full with thoughts swirling and a mind still grasping. As this settles, time between steepings expands and silence, once again, returns. A time to pause. An empty space. A cup full of tea. A moment brimming with possibilities.

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Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

In Autumn, the deep emerald green of Summer wanes and fades in exchange for the umber, ocher and amber of Fall. Looking up into the canopy, gilded edges circle each fluttering leaf, and those which have since fallen gather like flecks of gold in the gutters and gullies of the broad city streets.

In the remaining heat of the day, a lone cicada calls out a solitary threnody to its fallen brethren until it, too, becomes a hollow shell, victim to the chill and the gusting winds. Yet, as seasons shift, not all is lost. Instead, as one moment fades, it transforms, and in this change, something new materializes. Fall’s resplendent colors emerge and encourage meditation.

Golden leaves inform my choice to bring out a bright yellow 黃泥 huáng ní (“yellow clay”) Yixing teapot. Similarly, I select a small leaf Taiwanese red tea, the initial aroma of which strikes a harmonious tone with the sweet, fleeting scent of decaying Fall leaves.

Sitting alone in my tearoom, a single grey Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) accompany me. In the air hangs the warm scent of lingering incense and the rising steam from my boiling kettle. In this time, I give myself a moment to pause. So often do we forget to do this; to sit with the change we are constantly caught within.

Peering down at the small yellow teapot, I see this transformation embedded in the pores of its clay body. A subtle shift from gold to brown. Quiet marks upon its skin from every tea it’s ever steeped. A slow metamorphosis to maturation.

The soft glazed surfaces of cup and cooling vessel, crazed and crackled, too, bear the imprint of time. Once immaculate, the patterns laced upon them now look like the veiny remnants of decomposing leaves. In this there is beauty too.

Laying the tea leaves atop a scoop fashioned from old bamboo, they appear dormant, caught in hibernation.

Placed within the belly of the small teapot, they slowly begin to wake, releasing a faint aroma which is sugary and rose-like.

A quick steeping wakes them and they begin to writhe and unfurl. Poured out, the liqueur they produce is tawny and slick.

Decanted from sookwoo into the lone cup, I first savor the color, then the scent, and finally the taste.

Straightforward and satisfying, simple and sweet is the nature of this tea. As I drink, I am reminded of its origin; a gift from a friend years ago, procured from a farm tended by a group of Buddhist nuns. How in these years the flavors have changed. How in this time, the essence of this tea still remains.

The chattering of the iron kettle in my tearoom. The rustling of leaves outside my window. The final notes of incense passing as I continue to brew tea. A parade of clouds in a clear azure sky. The sharp chirping of a cricket off in the distance.

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As Summer Wanes, No Autumn Leaves

Late Summer sees the loosening of heat’s grip over the day. Cool breezes flutter even as the asphalt of the streets outside simmers in the sun. Day after day is met with rain and thunder, and I am left to make tea indoors.

On such a day, I pull together a teaset to brew a sample of tea recently sent to me from a tea farmer in China’s Wuyishan tea growing region. The tea, a 老欉水仙 Lǎo Cóng Shuǐ Xiān (lit. “Old Bush/Grove Water Immortal”), is a long-leaf dark oolong, harvested from tea bushes over fifty years old.

To brew this, I select a teapot I rarely use, a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot). In the murky light of a rainy day of early Autumn, the teapot’s crisp form casts hazy shadows from the sharply-hewn lines.

The subtle dome of the lid rises gently off the conical body. The bridge-like handle atop the lid seems to be carved as if emerging out from a mist. The delicate pattern of grains in the clay give the piece an overall glow.

In contrast, the clean white surface of three contemporary 哥窯 Gē yáo cups beam brightly against the warm wooden top of my tea table. Thin lines of crazing, long-ago given the poetic name 鐵弦 tiě xián (lit. “iron wire/thread”), cover each cup and break their circular form into minute fractures for the mind to wander through.

In preparation for brewing, I issue-out a portion of the Shuǐ Xiān leaves into an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”, nickel silver) scoop, itself in the shape of a broad banana leaf that were commonly featured in the classic gardens of scholars and poets of China.

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, I open the teapot and pour hot water inside to warm the tiny vessel.

Emptied, I place the tea leaves into the pot’s warmed interior.

Filling the teapot once again, I close the lid and pour hot water over its exterior, further warming the tea within.

Moments pass and the sound of rain fades. I pour the tea out into each cup until the pot is completely empty. Lifting the lid and placing it against the ridge of the handle, the hot, moist air caught inside the teapot is allowed to escape, rising upward, cooling the tea leaves for subsequent steepings.

Peering upon the copper-colored liqueur of the brewed oolong, my mind is caught in the anticipation of Autumn’s arrival.

As I look out of my tearoom window, the leaves on the trees still shine a slick emerald green, not yet ready to transform into the lacquer-like reds and golds of Fall. As I quiet my mind, the sound of thunder rises in the distance, sounding against the cacophony of the cicada’s cries. As I sip from the first cup, I am reminded of the scent of fallen leaves, of cold weather’s warming spices, and the clean crisp air of Autumn.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Tea