Tag Archives: Brewing Tea

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

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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Clay and Kiln. Wood and Leaves.

There is a sort of meditation that naturally arises from making tea. I’ve tried to ignore it and cannot. It is unavoidable. It is the meditation on change. You put leaves in a vessel. You bring water to a boil. You steep the tea until it offers up its flavor, until it cannot offer any more. The aroma and notes that play on the air and in the mouth come and slowly fade into nothing. Into memories. Over time, these too may pass.

This ebb and flow of actions, of movement and resting, of coming forth and waning into ether are mirrored in the material affects of tea too. It is in the way the clay of an old teabowl was once locked within the earth, formed in the hand of the potter, fired in a furnace, brought into this world and has since, by chance, lasted for generations. It is how the forces of heat and flame bring rise to vibrant reds and earthy greens, turning glaze to glass and clay to stone.

I sit with this as I sit for tea, pairing a newly-acquired antique 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) from the kiln of 信楽 Shigaraki with an ancient Chinese teabowl.

Together with these I place a wooden teascoop, made from a branch of an old gnarled tree.

Once turned over, the rough, sinuous exterior gives way to a smooth and shaped interior, revealing the flame-like colors of heartwood. In turn, this vibrancy was kept in suspension through the artist’s application of a thin layer of translucent lacquer.

Onto this void I place the twisted leaves of an ancient tea tree, 景迈古樹生茶 Jǐngmài gǔshù shēng chá, a fresh, raw puer tea from Jǐngmài in southern Yúnnán, purportedly from tea trees several hundred years old.

For a moment I admire the contrast of leaves upon wood until this, too, shifts as I follow by placing the tea within the warmed stoneware vessel.

Pouring boiling water atop the leaves begins the process of brewing, causing them to slowly unfurl, returning them to a state which closely resembles when they were once alive atop an ancient arbor.

With the lid set over the hōhin, the tea continues to brew until the desired flavors have been expressed.

Emptied, the leaves appear caught in mid-phase, somewhere between tightly-curled and fully-opened.

Peering into the wide expanse of the shallow teabowl, the color of the tea is a soft, amber hue. A gentle aroma lifts from the surface of the liqueur. A complex flavor invites my senses to explore the depths of the lush forests from which this tea was grown.

How much it has changed since when it was but a seed. How much it has developed over the many years it grew. From this came leaves which were labored over by countless people, which now I have just begun the process of understanding.

Caught in constant change. From clay to kiln. From wood to leaves. Moment after moment, a meditation.

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