Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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

The Cold Earth

The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.

The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.

The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.

These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.

The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.

Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.

Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.

The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.

Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.

The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.

Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?

I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.

Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.

I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.

I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.

For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.

I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.

In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.

The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.

I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.

The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.

Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.

I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.

I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.

I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.

I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.

I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.

I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.

The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.

All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.

I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.

The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.

The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.

The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.

I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.

Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.

I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.

The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.

I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.

Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.

I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.

I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.

I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.

As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.

The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.

I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.

I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.

In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.

As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.

The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.

I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.

Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.

The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.

Space exists between them both.

Room enough to breathe.

Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.

Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.

The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.

The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.

I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.

When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?

「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū.

“Once in a lifetime”.

“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? 

The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.

The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.

The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.

The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.

Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.

Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.

Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).

To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.

Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.

A void. A dark mystery still.

The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.

I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.

The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.

I return the bowl to its upright position.

The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.

Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?

Is the surface an indicator of the void?

Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.

An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.

Once in a lifetime.

Perhaps, soon, the ice will melt.

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

Stop Everything

The new year has arrived and with it comes the sensation of getting older. Winter’s snow comes and goes in fits and starts, blanketing everything in the evening, melting away by the mid-afternoon. All that seems to remain is the biting cold and a still, quiet hollowness. The previous year has left me burnt out. What energy is there left to pick up the pieces of a world that lies shattered? To bind a broken nation back together again? Time has told me that regardless of which way the winds of politics or the economy or a society as a whole may go, the old habits will die hard and the work to become a more enlightened person will never be done. Exhausted, like a well-spent bonfire, all I can do now is take pause. I need to re-collect myself. I need to stop everything.

Currently, my new home presents me with a conundrum. Too cold to be outside, the makeshift tea hut in my garden remains empty, unused. Still in the process of moving, my living space is still too disorganized to encourage me to make tea. For someone who finds comfort in order, the chaos depletes me, both body and soul.

Nestled between stacks of boxes, dusty floorboards, and buckets of paint and plaster, I eek out the faintest of foothold for tea and to find a moment’s peace. To stop everything means to put down my work, to, for a moment, ignore the emails and the incessant chiming and pinging of the digital world. It is to close the door behind me. To look out onto the world outside my window, and to look inward into the world within me. The snow-covered mountains, with their bare-branched trees. The low hiss that emanates from the warming kettle. The slate-grey sky with obscured sun. The Winter of early January is an empty space, enough to let the mind wander without chance of attachment.

I dust off the top of an old wooden desk and unearth a small 仿古 fǎng gǔ-shaped 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from a tattered cardboard box.

Other items are collected too. A white 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A bamboo tea scoop, an old coin to use as a lid rest, pinchers made of aromatic wood.

No ceremony. No ritual. No pretense guides me. Absent is specific form, aside from that which facilitates ease of movement, the maintenance of heat from kettle to pot to cup, and the subtle cues that guide me to make the best cup of tea possible.

The tea, the wares, the heat of the water; these will define the space and mindset of this moment.

Items now placed atop the wooden desk, I set forth to brew the selected tea, a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”. I breathe deeply and open the pressed-metal tin that has been holding the tea for the last eight years. I carefully place the thin, wiry leaves into the concave of the bamboo tea scoop.

Their color appears darker, their surface more lacquer-like since when I first procured them years ago when I traveled to the tea gardens of 潮州 Cháozhōu.

I warm the teapot and tea cup and discard the hot water into an old Japanese 建水 kensui. I return the kettle to boil and, as I do so, I remove the tiny tea pot’s lid. Its interior is slick with residual moisture.

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

I place the tea leaves gently within the empty vessel. A void now filled to the brim. Wild, wiry, unencumbered.

I pause. The faint aroma of the old tea wafts in the air, standing out against the scent of dry cardboard, of dust, of the layers of plaster and paint that surround me. A faint reminder of its former self when it was still fresh. A faint reminder of the tea processing room that was filled with the inescapable perfume of the harvest. A faint reminder of life when tea was freely shared between friends, having traveled great distances by airplane, over subway lines and through crowded streets to enjoy the warmth of tea and each other’s company. A faint reminder of life before it was boxed-up, shipped away, and stacked in corners.

I lift the kettle from the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the teapot, over the tea leaves. Bubbles and foam surface. Oils and fragrance re-emerge, long-locked within the curled tendrils of the coiled tea.

I place the lid atop the tiny vessel and let the tea begin to steep. No sound. No movement. Just stillness. Thoughts of work and life momentarily drop away. Worries, fears, anxieties that might normally arise come and go, but I pay them no heed. All there is now is a small pot brewing tea.

I breathe and hear the rise and fall, expansion and collapse of my chest. The rustling of the cloth of my shirt. The air passing through my lips and nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. I hear the creaking of freshly-laid floorboards. Of the furnace burning. Of my partner walking down the hallway in the distance.

Stopping everything does not mean everything stops. One just becomes more aware of their presence, their true nature. A quiet observer to one’s own experience and to the oft-overlooked actions of others. The habitual mind arises as it always does, trying to cling to sounds and movement, to thoughts and distractions.

Here, the act and action of making tea becomes my guidepost. If I am to make tea, I must remain in this moment, focused on this task. I stop. I breathe. I observe the heat of the pot and rely on intuition to know what is happening within its red clay walls. The collecting and evaporating of moisture off its surface, away from the bat and bamboo motif.

The pulling of the tiny droplet of water from the tip of its curved spout. The sigh it seems to release when the tea is ready to be poured.

I quickly grasp the teapot with the fingers of my right hand and tilt it above the white glazed Korean cup. Hot tea cascades downward at an even pace, a single, unbroken stream, into the cup. Once emptied, I place the teapot back down into the center of the Yíxìng 茶船 chá chuán, its lid removed to allow the leaves to cool and the steam to rise out from the interior.

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

I lift the cup to my lips and savor the aroma. It is bright, with notes of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit. I pause and sip from the cup. As a now-aged tea, I expect it to be calm, its flavors settled and muted. However, what I receive is far from this. The tea is beautiful. The flavor, arresting. It opens with a burst of fruit notes akin to guava and papaya, followed by sweet and lingering aromatics of blossoms and gardenia. More surprisingly is the presence of a refined, velvety vanilla pod note that awakens me. These favors, which may otherwise be in contrast to one another, blend, meld, and harmonize. It is at this moment that I am reminded of why the tea is poetically named “Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”.

The tea, grown on the slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in Cháozhōu, is comprised of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove. The two tea plants, kept in close proximity, develop flavors that are uniquely their own yet beautifully balance one another. They are two yet feel as one.

As I again pour hot water into my teapot, I further recall memories from my past, reminded of that first journey taken to Cháozhōu, alongside with my own tea brothers, Steve Odell and So Han Fan. There, digging through cities and climbing up mountains in search for direction, in search for tea, we worked at a breakneck speed, not wanting to squander our time and let the opportunity to learn from direct experience pass us by. I recall early mornings, long days, and late nights, tasting cup after cup, in pursuit of knowledge and beautiful tea.

Now, at this point in my life, almost ten years since that moment, these memories, too, seem fresh. Their fragrance and flavor still resounding and surprising.

All that is left now are these leaves. A fitting tribute to time well spent. Something so fragile as a memory, so fragile as a pile of leaves. Through steeping after steeping, their flavors are expelled and spent. All that remains is a sweet, honey-like water.

Even after the tea is gone, its scent still lingers in the empty cup. As I cleanse the wares once again and return to a day of work, I can feel the pull of daily duties, the tug of responsibility and of commitments. I sit and pause for a moment longer, using this time to ponder.

Action and inaction; at times the space between them feels defined and absolute. Here, the habitual mind is inclined to prefer one over the other: one becoming a welcome respite, the other, a dreaded chore. Yet, when you stop everything, inaction is the action. Even within inaction, thoughts, memories, and sensations will still arise. Worries and anxieties still exist. As nothing truly disappears, these, too, will continue.

In the more than two decades now of practicing tea, I’ve come to recognize this. In the inaction of making tea, there is action. Worries, thoughts, memories will still be there; they can help or hinder you, encourage you or deter you, focus your gaze or leave you distracted, expand your mind or cause you to fixate and become attached.

As I wipe the chá chuán and place the lid back upon the teapot at an angle to let the tiny vessel dry, I return to the notion of form and its absence as I’ve been brewing tea. The pot is tended to in a certain way. Warmed, cleansed, utilized as if it were a fine tool to prepare the perfect cup of tea. To do this, one must focus on what is needed for that very moment and let everything else drop away.

Extraneous objects and actions are not invited to the tea table. Neither are worries or distractions. Through practice, everything is honed-down to its most essential, until all that is left is just making tea. Memory serves to guide the body in its movements, the mind in its exploration. Worry is left by the wayside. Instead, care and attentiveness come to the forefront, in service to the moment, to the task at hand, to the invited guests. Habitual fixations and attachments burn away, as time burns away, a ticking clock reflected in the diminishing flavor of every steeping, of every cup consumed, of every last leaf used up until there is no more.

All that is left is the lingering heat of the kettle, the 回甘 huí gān of the tea caught in one’s throat, and perhaps feeling of lightness that carries on into the next task. A pot left to dry.

An overturned cup revealing the name of its maker. The emptiness of Winter in early January. The sensation of getting older. Disparate flavors that harmonize.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, 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

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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Filed under Ceramics, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

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

Breaking the Heat: Lotus Viewing and Morning Rain

The bridge that extends between July and August marks the hottest days of Summer. Known in the traditional lunar calendar of Japan as 大暑 Taisho, this brief period marks the final knell of the season’s heat, before the eventual ease into the cool of Autumn. All around, the air grows heavy and damp, and the earth swells with moisture. In this climate, earth and air conjoin in an exchange, often met with occasional Summer showers and outbursts of rain and thunder.

After a night of intense heat, I wake to find the world quiet and cool. During the early morning, rain broke the heat of the arriving day, running down the broad leaves of trees and refreshing the earth. Inspired, I take to my tearoom and prepare water to bring to a boil.

Once set, I sift bright green 抹茶 matcha into a tall ceramic 茶入 chaire. I pull from my tea cabinet a wide 桐箱 kiribako.

Wrapped in a cloth decorated with twisting vines, I pull forth an old Vietnamese celadon teabowl from the Lý-Trần period (13th-14th centuries), worn and weathered by time. I wet the bowl to bring it to life. Liquid fills its pores. Color returns to the clay.

I submerge a 茶巾 chakin in cool water and squeeze the linen cloth in my hands, pushing out the water it had absorbed. I fold the chakin and place it in the center of the old moss green 安南焼茶碗 Anam-yaki chawan. Atop this, I place a wetted 茶筅 chasen made of dark bamboo.

Wares are brought into the tearoom in waves. First the chaire, which is placed before the 水指 mizusashi. Next the teabowl and accompanying équipage. Finally, the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki.

The door is shut. The fading scent of incense lingers in the air. The light in the room is muted. The sound of the rain outside the window blends with the low boiling hum of the kettle. I sit and breathe. I arrange the wares and ready each in preparation for a bowl of tea.

The chawan is placed before the kettle. The chaire, in its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch, is placed before the chawan.

Set together, the soft colors of shifuku and the old celadon harmonize.

I reach down with both hands and undo the cord that ties the silk cloth together.

Methodically, I loosen and remove the chaire from the shifuku.

I place the pouch between the mizusashi and the edge of the wooden 小板 ko-ita, atop which the 風炉 furo stands.

I cleanse the chaire with the folded 袱紗 fukusa and place it back a before the mizusashi.

I slowly inhale as I refold the fukusa. Holding it in my left hand, I exhale as I then reach out with my right hand to pick up the 茶杓 chashaku.

I press the carved and smoothed tip of the tea scoop into the folds of the purple silk of the fukusa, running the cloth from center to rounded end, back to center and back to tip.

I repeat this motion once more and place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire in one fluid action.

I remove the chasen and place it beside the chaire. I remove the chakin, lightly twist it between my left and right hands over the kensui, and refold it, momentarily placing it atop the black lacquer lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the hishaku, hold it between thumb and index finger of my left hand, and with my right hand, remove the lid from the boiling 茶釜 chagama, setting it upon the ceramic futaoki. The sound of the kettle grows once the lid is removed. A thin, wispy column of steam rises from the open mouth of the chagama. Beads of moisture condense and cling to the edge of the opening. I transfer the bamboo ladle from left to right hand and dip the carved cup into the boiling water. Air caught in the wooden scoop exhales audibly as it fills with water. With a steady hand, I breathe inward, drawing forth a ladle’s worth of hot water.

Exhalation, and I pour the water into the center of the teabowl. The color of the glaze deepens around the edges where the water meets the bowl, as liquid saturates the centuries-old vessel. I dip the flat tines of the chasen into the warm water. Their color darkens too as they drink up the water, absorbing it, becoming more pliable.

Once cleansed, I place the chasen back next to the chaire. I pour the water from the teabowl to the kensui and wipe the edges and inner surface of the chawan with the chakin. I look down at the teabowl. It looks back up at me, refreshed like a stone in a garden path after a Summer’s rain. Beaming and glistening. It is an ancient color caused by the creative energies of an artisan, affected by the countless years.

Along the rim, glaze once pooled and held to the clay body, caught forever in suspension by the heat of the kiln.

Along its outer edges, a craftsperson’s knife lightly pressed into the still-soft clay to create a subtle foliate design, an impression of lotus petals unfurling as Summer’s heat gently coaxes each fragrant bud to emerge, first from the baked mud of the wetland, to later bloom after a refreshing rain. Even after the centuries, even after the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, and even after the myriads of awakenings, the pattern still remains clear.

I turn back to the chashaku and chaire. I open the ceramic tea container, setting the lid beside the chawan.

I dip the teascoop into the soft green tea powder and lift out the first of three scoops of matcha.

Once a small heap has formed in the center of the bowl, I place the carved chashaku atop the edge of the chawan.

I tilt the chaire and let all remaining tea cascade down into the bowl. A fine cloud of tea dust rises from the bowl, followed by the fragrant scent of fresh green tea. The lid is placed back onto the chaire and the container is placed back beside the chasen.

Plucking the teascoop again as if I were lifting a calligraphy brush, I inscribe a simple sigil into the mound of tea dust, breaking its gentle organic form. Adding an impression upon perfect chaos.

I return the teascoop to the lid of the chaire. I remove the lacquered lid of the mizusashi and place it upright against the side of the fresh water vessel. I notch my hand along the long handle of the hishaku and press the bamboo cup deep into the hot water of the chagama.

A minute amount of water is poured into the chawan, slowly surrounding and seeping into the tea powder. I return the remaining liquid back to the water boiling inside the iron chagama.

I lift the chasen and slowly press the tines into the tea. With a series of repeated back and forth motions, I methodically fold and knead the tea and water together into a thick, lacquer-like paste. Small peaks form and curl and fall as the blades of the chasen cut and comb into the tea and water concoction.

In the quiet stillness of the tearoom, the aroma of matcha replaces the scent of aloeswood. With my left hand, I lift and tilt the chasen to the side, momentarily enjoying the sight of tea paste clinging to the curled tips of each bamboo tine. With my other hand, I lightly balance the hishaku and scoop water out of the chagama, letting it run through the blades of the tea whisk as I pour into the teabowl.

The hishaku is returned to rest upon the opening mouth of the kettle and the chasen is put to work to further knead the tea and water into a consistent brew. In this process, I focus my mind. Time begins to slow down. All that is around me falls away. The rain outside. The kettle before me. The glimmer of fresh water in the mizusashi. The shadows that pool around the edges of each object. The swirling grains within the wide wooden plank atop which I’ve set the wares. The patterns cut into the tea.

The repetition of motion. Whisking. Scooping. Lifting up and setting down of objects. One mind observing these. One mind caught in each moment. Is this the same mind that was once a baby? Once a child? Once a teenager? Now an adult, realizing this moment? Each past mind seems so different, so distant. Each with its own sense of self. Its own sense of truth. What was the mind before it was born? A lotus pushes up from the mud.

I lift the whisk straight up from the thick pool of 濃茶 koicha. I place it back down next to the chaire. The objects sit together in the dim light of the morning. Together with the gentle sound of the rain and the tea kettle.

I peer down into the antique chawan. The soft color of aged celadon and the striking emerald of the tea. As I bring the bowl towards me, I see my reflection caught in the mirror-like surface of the koicha. It bends and changes as the thick liquid draws down the inner edge of the teabowl, slowly pooling and pouring and pressing against my lips as I take my first sip from the bowl. The feeling of the first taste instantly awakes me. It courses through me. Enlivens my mind. Quickens my pulse. Two more sips and the tea is fully consumed, save for the dregs that cling to the side of the bowl.

I produce from my inner chest pocket a 古袱紗 kobukusa, a square of woven silk of with patterns of water plants stitched in 金蘭 kinran gold brocade. I unfold this and press it flat against the wooden plank.

Upon this I place the antique teabowl and for a moment I enjoy the single track of bright green tea against the old celadon. I admire how it catches the light. Iridescent like rain running off a roof tile. Slick like a lotus leaf floating on a pool.

I reposition the antique chawan to my side and place a grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan before me. Out of respect for the ancient Vietnamese vessel, I use this humble grey bowl as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan, a spare teabowl used to clean the chasen.

I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour it into the Ido chawan. I press the chasen into the bowl and whisk-off the residual tea that clings to the flat bamboo tines. I pour the cool water from the teabowl into the kensui and place the folded chakin into its center.

I rest the chasen pointed upright against the chakin. With the fukusa, I cleanse the chashaku before it, too, is set atop the kae-chawan. The bowl is shifted to the left. The chaire is placed beside it.

As I close my sitting for tea, I pour cool water into the chagama, halting the rolling boil of the hot water for tea. The lid is placed back upon it. The lacquered lid is returned atop the mizusashi. The hishaku and futaoki are placed together with the kensui.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken of the chaire, the shifuku and the chashaku. I cleanse the chaire and place it upon a 香盤 kōban.

I pick up the shifuku from between the mizusashi and furo and carefully place it atop the kōban.

Finally, I place the chashaku between the two objects.

For a moment, I sit and admire each. The way their different spirits harmonize with one another. How their textures play off of one another. How their colors differ yet are at ease.

The striped pattern of the shifuku and the grain of the teascoop.

The flecks of black and copper-blue hues within the glaze of the chaire in contrast with the warm tones of the chashaku.

For a brief moment the rain pours heavy outside my window. I spend this time in meditation, cleansing the remnants of koicha from the antique teabowl. As the Summer storm lifts, I place the cleansed bowl before me.

As light returns to the morning sky, pushing through the dark clouds that had collected, I inspect the chawan, turning it in my hand. The carved 高台 kōdai catches the light coming through the windows. The soft indentations upon the clay carved by the artisan’s knife.

The deep brown glaze brushed within the center of the 高台内 kōdai-uchi. The bowl reveals small features with each viewing. The first time is not like the last. Nuances emerge.

Cracks and crazing on the surface. Depth from pale color. Detail found in simple patterns. The clay retains the coolness of the water it once held. It feels refreshing in the hand. The last of the rainwater is heard dripping from the eaves over the window. The heat of the day rises once more.

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

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

Waterfall

With the coming of July, Summer’s heat becomes a constant feature, one that practitioners of tea have to devise inventive ways to overcome. In the traditional lunar calendar, July 7th heralds 小暑 shōsho, “minor heat”, the moment when the first hot winds begin to blow and the experience of heat becomes unavoidable. The only respite from this seems to be water.

Water plays an important role in tea. The term 茶の湯 chanoyu refers less to tea and more to the water for tea. “Chanoyu” literally means “hot water for tea”. In his 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762), the 唐 Táng period (618-907) tea practitioner 陸羽 Lù Yǔ (733-803) wrote about the flavor qualities, grading, procurement and manipulation of water more than he did about tea.

Water, too, plays a key role in the world of the tea gathering. Water is ideally to be drawn at the hour of the Tiger (3:00-5:00 am), as it is believed to have the most vitality at this time. Likewise, water is sprinkled on the 露地 roji path to enliven and refresh the surroundings before the guests’ arrival. Water, too, is used to purify the hands and mouth before entering the 茶室 chashitsu, drawn from the 蹲踞 tsukubai. Water is used to create harmony, evinced by the 水指 mizusashi which moves closer to the guests the hotter the seasons become, shielding them from the heat of the 風炉 furo and acting as a refreshing visual cue to the mind. Water is able to convey this feeling. Water conveys more than this.

Water conveys history, it conveys memory. Much of the water we drink contains trace materials that are billions of years old. If water could speak, it would tell tales of the many life forms that sprang from it, the many civilizations that were nourished by it, of ships packed with the souls of the enslaved riding upon it, of the poisons poured into it, and of the tears of millions who are constantly denied it. It is our past and determines our future. You can chose to ignore this yet water is, literally, part of you. It is part of all of us.

The seventh day of the seventh month carries an additional meaning. In Japan, 七夕 Tanabata is observed, celebrating the meeting of lovers, the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively), as they cross the Milky Way, a celestial waterway. Wishes are written on strips of paper (短冊 tanzaku) and tied to boughs of bamboo. The sound of these rustling in the wind create a fluttering akin to a babbling brook.

In the tearoom, a dew-covered leaf (often that of a mulberry) is used as a lid for the mizusashi. The site of this seems to invite the freshness of nature into the tea space, assuaging the heat of the day.

In the morning, just as the sun creeps over the horizon, I prepare my own 葉蓋点前 habuta-temae. I fill my old iron kettle with cool water and set it to slowly come to a boil. I fill a tall, slender glass mizusashi. Atop this I place a broad mulberry leaf that I had picked from a large mulberry tree near my New York City apartment, its surface slick with fresh water.

Bright green 抹茶 matcha is sifted into a black lacquer 棗 natsume. A shallow teabowl is cleansed. So too are the 茶筅 chasen and 茶巾 chakin. A 茶杓 chashaku is selected. Just before the water in the 茶釜 chagama boils, I light incense and take a moment to meditate. The scent of sandalwood rises and fades. The sound of boiling water fills the space of the tearoom.

The teabowl, a 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), is set between the furo and the glass mizusashi.

The natsume is placed before it. Each ware is then cleansed. The lacquer is purified by the silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. So too is the speckled bamboo of the chashaku, the 胡麻竹 goma-dake pattern resembling minute raindrops.

I lift the 柄杓 hishaku from a hammered silver 蓋置 futaoki and dip it into the water for the chagama.

I draw forth a dipper’s worth of hot water, pouring it into the shallow teabowl.

Thin networks of steam rises from the chawan as I press the thin tines of the chasen into the pool. Once cleansed, the chasen is returned beside the black lacquer natsume, beads of water still clinging to the blades of bamboo.

Tea is scooped and placed into the center of the pale blue-green teabowl. The curved scoop of the chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner rim, producing a clear, bell-like sound.

With my right hand, I take hold of the stem of the mulberry leaf, lifting it off the glass mizusashi. From right hand to left, I fold the leaf gently and place it into the large 建水 kensui beside me.

Cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chagama, arresting the rolling boil, silencing the kettle and the tea space. A full ladle is pulled from the steaming mouth of the cauldron and brought above the chawan.

Only half is poured into the teabowl. The other half is returned to the kama. This action calls to mind 曹洞 Sōtō Zen teacher 鈴木 俊隆 Suzuki Shunryū’s (1904-1971) discussion of the order’s founder, 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), and 半杓橋 Hanshaku-kyō at 永平寺 Eiheiji. In the story, Dōgen would cross the bridge leading to the temple of Eiheiji and draw forth a dipper-full of water to cleanse himself, returning half of the dipper’s worth of water back to the river.

To understand why Dōgen did this is quite difficult. As a means of economy or of efficiency it makes no sense. However, as Dōgen understood the river and felt at one with the river, his action, to use half a ladle of water and pour back the other half (半杓 hanshaku, “half-ladle”), was a sign of respect for the water. In Zen, this is a reflection of one’s “essence of mind” or “big mind”. An understanding of one’s self intrinsically linked to everything in the universe.

In the realm of tea, the half-ladle of water is a form of modulation. On a hot day, I use slightly more water. The result is a thinner tea. The swift motion of the chasen and the shallow draft of the teabowl will eventually cool the water down. The end result is a refreshing bowl of tea. If I take care to understand the moment at hand and the guests in the tearoom, I will understand what each moment needs. With time and practice and attention, this motion becomes second nature. I convey this. Water conveys this.

Within seconds of whisking, the matcha is whisked into a light foam. The bright green of the tea stands against the light celadon color of the antique qīngbái bowl. The bowl sits atop the wave-like pattern embedded in the wooden floorboards of my apartment. The expansive surface is cool and relaxed.

Sunlight filters through window shades. It pools in the center of the chawan. It collects in the prism of the glass mizusashi. Caught in the bubble that rise and churn in the chagama. Caught in the bubbles that cling to the side of the fresh water bucket’s translucent walls.

I stare downward into the foamy surface of the tea, mounding inside the concave of the shallow teabowl. The clean scent of 宇治 Uji tea. The scent born from earth, from sunlight, from the water that is found in the mountains. The water that I’ve used, sourced from the mountains of New York state, revive these flavors. One water meets another, converge and harmonize.

As I lift the bowl, the heat of the day creeps into the tearoom. Hot, heavy air laden with moisture, synonymous with Summer in New York City. I sip the tea and, despite the warmth of the liquid, my body feels revived. For a moment I enjoy looking upon the final dregs which cling to the bowl’s interior.

I rinse the bowl with water pulled from the chagama and turn the bowl over to inspect the 高台 kōdai. Patches of exposed rough clay show through the thin, green-blue glaze. Much of this teabowl’s life was spent sitting at the bottom of a river. For many hundreds of years it was protected by the water, kept away from the destructive forces of humanity. As wars tore civilizations apart, it remained below the surface, re-emerging once again to live out its current life as a teabowl once more.

I pour cool water in the bowl and cleanse the whisk. I remove the remaining matcha powder from the chashaku.

Bowl and natsume are placed side-by-side.

Each item appears slick with water. Before return to my busy day, I arrange a small solitary 拝見 haiken.

The natsume is cleansed once again and placed upon an old 香盤 kōban.

The chashaku is placed beside it. Swirling wood grains create a whirlpool around each item.

Like water pushing off rocks below a mighty waterfall. Each wave appears separate. Each an individual surge. A single body and mind. An event and action. Yet each motion is part of a single vast expanse. A river that runs to an ocean. An accumulation of memories, of pain, of trauma. Of joys, of celebrations, of boundless lovers finding one another, of beings awakening.

All of this is conveyed by water, held by it, harmonized by it. To assuage the heat of Summer. To return us to our most essential self. This, too, is refreshing.

 

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Given how essential water is to tea, and how precious it is for life, below are links to resources that offer ways to become active in your own community. Each link gives an opportunity to learn more about water rights, clean water protection, the link between access to clean water and human rights, and ways you can become more actively engaged in ensuring that clean water won’t become a thing of the past.

Waterkeeper Alliance

https://waterkeeper.org/news/issues/covid-19/

Native American Rights Fund – Protect Tribal Natural Resources

https://www.narf.org/our-work/protection-tribal-natural-resources/

No More Deaths

https://nomoredeaths.org/en/

People’s Water Board Coalition

https://www.peopleswaterboard.org

Hydrate Detroit

https://www.hydratedetroit.org

The Human Utility – Detroit Water Project

https://detroitwaterproject.org

Navajo Water Project

https://www.navajowaterproject.org

Flint Rising

https://flintrising.com

Clean Water Advocacy Center

https://www.cwacenter.org/home-1

Publications on Race and Water Justice

(From Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) – Research Coordination Network (RCN))

https://hwise-rcn.org

Balazs, C. L., & Ray, I. (2014). The Drinking Water Disparities Framework: On the Origins and Persistence of Inequities in Exposure. American Journal of Public Health, 104(4), 603–611. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301664  

Ahmad, K., Erqou, S., Shah, N., Nazir, U., Morrison, A., Choudhary, G., & Wu, W.-C. (2020). Association of Poor Housing Conditions with COVID-19 Incidence and Mortality Across US Counties. MedRxiv, 2020.05.28.20116087. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.28.20116087 

Butts, R., & Gasteyer, S. (2011). ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEWS & CASE STUDIES: More Cost per Drop: Water Rates, Structural Inequality, and Race in the United States—The Case of Michigan. Environmental Practice, 13(4), 386–395. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1466046611000391 

Clonch, A. (2019). Annexation and Water Utility Extensions in Wake County, NC: The Role of Race, Income, and Other Demographic Characteristics. https://doi.org/10.17615/2qb3-5f55  

Deitz, S., & Meehan, K. (2019). Plumbing Poverty: Mapping Hot Spots of Racial and Geographic Inequality in U.S. Household Water Insecurity. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(4), 1092–1109. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2018.1530587  

Dyer, O. (2020). Covid-19: Black people and other minorities are hardest hit in US. BMJ, 369. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1483 

Gasteyer, S. P., Lai, J., Tucker, B., Carrera, J., & Moss, J. (2016). BASICS INEQUALITY: Race and Access to Complete Plumbing Facilities in the United States. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(2), 305–325. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X16000242  

Hyde, K. (2020a). Residential Water Quality and the Spread of COVID-19 in the United States (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3572341). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3572341 

Hyde, K. (2020b). Residential Water Quality and the Spread of COVID-19 in the United States (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3572341). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3572341 

Muhammad, M., De Loney, E. H., Brooks, C. L., Assari, S., Robinson, D., & Caldwell, C. H. (n.d.). “I think that’s all a lie…I think It’s genocide”: Applying a Critical Race Praxis to Youth Perceptions of Flint Water Contamination. Ethnicity & Disease, 28(Suppl 1), 241–246. https://doi.org/10.18865/ed.28.S1.241 

Pulido, L. (1996). Environmentalism and economic justice: Two Chicano struggles in the Southwest. University of Arizona Press.

Pulido, L. (2000). Rethinking environmental racism: White privilege and urban development in Southern California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(1), 12–40.

Pulido, L. (2015). Geographies of race and ethnicity 1: White supremacy vs white privilege in environmental racism research. Progress in Human Geography, 39(6), 809–817.

Pulido, L. (2016). Flint, environmental racism, and racial capitalism. Taylor & Francis.

Pulido, L. (2017). Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence. Progress in Human Geography, 41(4), 524–533.

Ranganathan, M. (2016). Thinking with Flint: Racial liberalism and the roots of an American water tragedy. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(3), 17–33.

Ranganathan, M. (2019). Empire’s infrastructures: Racial finance capitalism and liberal necropolitics. Urban Geography, 1–5.

Ranganathan, M., & Balazs, C. (2015). Water marginalization at the urban fringe: Environmental justice and urban political ecology across the North–South divide. Urban Geography, 36(3), 403–423.

Rodriguez-Lonebear, D., Barceló, N. E., Akee, R., & Carroll, S. R. (2020). American Indian Reservations and COVID-19: Correlates of Early Infection Rates in the Pandemic. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 26(4), 371–377. https://doi.org/10.1097/PHH.0000000000001206 

Rosinger, A. Y., & Young, S. L. (2020). In-home tap water consumption trends changed among US children, but not adults, between 2007 and 2016. Water Resources Research, n/a(n/a), e2020WR027657. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020WR027657

Stillo, F., & MacDonald Gibson, J. (2016). Exposure to Contaminated Drinking Water and Health Disparities in North Carolina. American Journal of Public Health, 107(1), 180–185. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303482 

Stillo, F., M.S.P.H., & Gibson, J. M., PhD. (2018). Racial disparities in access to municipal water supplies in the american south: Impacts on children’s health. International Public Health Journal, 10(3), 309-323

Switzer, D., & Teodoro, M. P. (2018). Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Justice in Safe Drinking Water Compliance*. Social Science Quarterly, 99(2), 524–535. https://doi.org/10.1111/ssqu.12397  

Takahashi, B., Adams, E. A., & Nissen, J. (2020). The Flint water crisis: Local reporting, community attachment, and environmental justice. Local Environment, 25(5), 365–380. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2020.1747415

Troesken, W. (2001). RACE, DISEASE, AND THE PROVISION OF WATER IN AMERICAN CITIES, 1889–1921. The Journal of Economic History, 61(3), 750–776. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050701030066  

Troesken, W. (2002). THE LIMITS OF JIM CROW: RACE AND THE PROVISION OF WATER AND SEWERAGE SERVICES IN AMERICAN CITIES, 1880–1925. The Journal of Economic History, 62(3), 734–772. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050702001067  

Troesken, W. (2004). Water, Race, and Disease. MIT Press.

VanDerslice, J. (2011). Drinking Water Infrastructure and Environmental Disparities: Evidence and Methodological Considerations. American Journal of Public Health, 101(S1), S109–S114. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300189 

Whitford, A. B., Smith, H., & Mandawat, A. (2010). Disparities in access to clean water and sanitation: Institutional causes. Water Policy, 12(S1), 155–176. https://doi.org/10.2166/wp.2010.019 

Wilson, S. M., Heaney, C. D., & Wilson, O. (2010). Governance Structures and the Lack of Basic Amenities: Can Community Engagement Be Effectively Used to Address Environmental Injustice in Underserved Black Communities? Environmental Justice, 3(4), 125–133. https://doi.org/10.1089/env.2010.0014 

Wutich, A., Budds, J., Eichelberger, L., Geere, J., M. Harris, L., A. Horney, J., Jepson, W., Norman, E., O’Reilly, K., Pearson, A. L., H. Shah, S., Shinn, J., Simpson, K., Staddon, C., Stoler, J., Teodoro, M. P., & L. Young, S. (2017). Advancing methods for research on household water insecurity: Studying entitlements and capabilities, socio-cultural dynamics, and political processes, institutions and governance. Water Security, 2, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasec.2017.09.001 

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