Tag Archives: Buncheong-jagi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tea on a Rainy Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tea for a Sunset and Autumn Rain

IMG_2201A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.

E59E1F05-8A0E-4116-98E4-B6BE55A708FEAs the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.

IMG_2221As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.

61473BB2-4BA8-4910-A874-4418F6591314As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.

D9931783-6303-454E-B403-C090A8463DA9With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.

155B6781-714B-42B7-9854-316586FD4F66As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.

352E95D1-CD09-4F51-9DE5-4F91CE86FAA8Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.

459C9A0C-5554-4E03-9FB0-16F8CF25545CAs I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.

IMG_2222Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.

90EFEF11-4F4F-4BBF-8698-5BA2AA96A000I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.

6363EDA4-50D6-4285-9926-395E165CB778Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.

0063DBF8-7FE7-49A5-8A28-45DD41A28332A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.

 

****

As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).

IMG_2223

秋雨夜眠

涼冷三秋夜,
安閒一老翁。
臥遲燈滅後,
睡美雨聲中。
灰宿溫瓶火,
香添暖被籠。
曉晴寒未起,
霜葉滿階紅。

Qiūyǔ yè mián

Liáng lěng sānqiū yè,
ānxián yī lǎowēng.
Wò chí dēng miè hòu,
shuì měiyǔ shēng zhōng.
Huī sù wēn píng huǒ,
xiāng tiān nuǎn bèi lóng.
Xiǎo qíng hán wèi qǐ,
shuāng yèmǎnjiē hóng.

Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain

It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month,
Peacefully within, a lone old man.
He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.

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The Importance of Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bright Golden Leaves Collect in the Gutter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Ceramics, Hongcha, Meditation, Tea

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

****

If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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The Wisteria Vine Winds Up the Tree

It is Summer and balmy breezes carry the fragrant aroma of flowers and fresh leaves. As I walk around my neighborhood, I crisscross paths and can’t help but to take the long way home. Strolling over a tattered bridge under which train tracks run, I look along the causeway’s edge. A wisteria vine, in full bloom, winds up an old gnarled tree. Its bright purple flowers cascading and jostling in the wind like long silk sleeves. I breathe in the air around it in the hopes to glean some of its fleeting scent, a perfume that has probably passed and remains elusive.

Coming home, I am reminded of its beauty. The hue of its petals. The fresh verdant color of its leaves. Wanting to quell the heat that followed me inside, I opt to make a pot of tea.

Feeling inspired, I draw from my tea cabinet a small ceramic teapot, glazed in a flamboyant purple 鈞窯 Jūn yáo (Jun kiln) glaze. Next, I produce a small celadon 振出 furidashi, a ceramic sweets container which I have turned into a tea caddy. Along with this, I bring out an antique tea scoop, three Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teacups and sookwoo (decanting bowl).

Letting a kettle come to a roiling boil, I quietly prepare to brew tea, enjoying the array of colors and textures set before me.

The muted grey of the Korean ceramics next to the deep purple of the teapot.

The warm color of the wooden plank against the assembled teawares.

The soft, creamy green of the celadon tea container.

Issuing-out a small measure of tea, I admire the hand-twisted leaves of a Winter-harvested 高山烏龍茶 gāoshān wūlóngchá (high mountain oolong) from 阿里山 Ālǐshān in Taiwan.

Placing the leaves into the warmed teapot, this produces an initial release of fragrance. It is sweet and ephemeral.

Pouring hot water over the leaves, I briefly witness their unrolling before placing the lid atop the teapot.

I wait as the tea brews, and as I do, I enjoy the sound of a light breeze outside my window. As this pause lingers longer, I let the tea continue to brew. As a tea now out of its season, I hope to draw forth its flavor.

Upon decanting the tea, a golden liqueur emerges, along with the bright scent of oolong tea.

Poured into three cups, I sit and relax, letting time pass, letting the heat subside. Once sufficiently cooled, I bring the first cup to my lips. A soft aroma of sugarcane and guava. A gentle flavor of honey, rock sugar, fruit and flowers arises with every sip.

As it was brewed with a glazed vessel, the tea’s flavor is brighter and crisper than it would have been had I brewed it with a more porous, unglazed Yixing teapot. The result is satisfying, refreshing, like the tranquil Summer breezes that come from the south, cooling the air that lingers in my tearoom.

I am reminded of poetry written by the Song period writer, poet, painter, gastronome, and statesman 蘇軾 Sū Shì (1037-1101):

薰風自南來,殿閣生微涼。

“Xūn fēng zì nán lái, diàn gé shēng wēi liáng.”

“The balmy summer breezes come from the south. It becomes a bit cooler at the palace.”

As time passes, so too does the heat. The sun shifts in the sky. The fragrance of tea mixing with the swirling scents of Summer.

* Translation from Chado the Way of Tea: A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac by Sasaki Sanmi (Tuttle Publishing, 2011).

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A grey robe. A field of mugwort.

Years ago, I regularly traveled to Korea. While there, I sought out Korean tea, fell in love with Korean ceramics, and practiced Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Looking back at this triumvirate of forces I would regularly surround myself with, it was no surprise that they would eventually have their effect on my tea practice. I came back with a small collection of Korean teawares which I put into regular rotation, began drinking Korean teas, and began incorporating aspects of Seon monasticism into my own approach to meditation.

Similarly, my tea practice began to take on the “flavor” of the various styles I had observed when in Korean monasteries. Over time, I stripped-down my equipage, reducing it to the bare essentials.

Colors, too, became more muted, favoring tones of grey, white, celadon, and natural wood. These were the soft hues I had found in the light grey 가사 gasa monastic robes (袈裟 jiāshā in Chinese, kāṣāya in Sanskrit), the papered walls in tearooms, the wooden floorboards in Korean Seon temples. And whenever I incorporated these colors into my tea set up, part of me missed being in Korea.

A package arrived in the mail today. Wrapped carefully inside was a muted-grey teabowl. Quite distinct with its “open” shape, tall 高台 kōdai (“foot”), and unctuous glaze, what emerged from the packaging was a humble antique 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan.

While modest in its appearance, the history behind the Ido chawan reflects a long exchange (sometimes peaceable, sometimes not) between Korea and Japan. Beginning in the 15th century, Korean ceramics from the 조선 Joseon kingdom (1392-1897) were imported to Japan, favored as “daily ware”, especially the durable and highly-functional pieces of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi.

The forms of these wares were often simple yet pure, though not without imperfection, giving the vessels their own distinct character. Colors ranged from light grey to brushed white, ochre, persimmon, and even shades of blue and purple.

Eventually, these “everyday” bowls were brought into use for tea ceremony by the tea masters of the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai (“Period of Warring States”, 1467-1600), favored by practicitioners of 侘び茶 Wabi-cha (“rustic tea”). So popular were Ido chawan during this time that there was a famous saying that states “First Ido, second Raku (楽), third Karatsu (唐津)”. Ido ware was first. Subsequently, since the Sengoku period, Japanese potters began to create their own interpretations of the famous Korean bowls that inspired so many tea people.

Today as I sit to enjoy this Ido chawan for the first time, I can’t help but to want to make a nod to this interconnection between two tea cultures. As such, I choose to inaugurate this bowl in a very special way.

Rather than use a traditional lacquer tea container, I opt to use a Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container. Instead of using 抹茶 matcha, I fill the container with powdered 쑥 ssuk (mugwort), gifted to me by a dear tea friend in Paris. This choice is intentional as the powdered mugwort was commonly used as a traditional Korean medicine in monasteries, one to increase one’s calmness and even induce lucid dreams. Set together, the celadon container and Ido chawan are harmonious.

Peering into the teabowl with 茶筌 chasen (tea whisk), 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), I am once again reminded of the textures I once enjoyed while traveling through Korea.

Setting each utensil in place, moments of subtle contrast arise. Cut bamboo on crackled celadon.

Motifs of chrysanthemums paired with mugwort.

Three scoops of the powdered herb is placed into the center of the grey bowl.

Afterwards, water is poured into the teabowl and both mugwort and water is whisked into a brilliantly bright foam. The shape of the bowl instantly propels the aroma of this herbal tea up into the tearoom, leaving a soft, crisp scent to linger.

Momentarily I close my eyes and it feels as if I were walking in a field of mugwort. Lifting the bowl to my lips, I draw three sips and finish the bowl of mugwort tea.

Rinsing the bowl, I place it before me to inspect its many subtle features. Its wide, round opening. Its dappled surface. It’s gentle shade of grey and occasional running and pooling of opalescent glaze.

Looking deep into the center, the bowl has a trace mark of the potter’s hand caught in motion as the vessel once spun on a wheel.

Turning the bowl gently over, I inspect the foot of the teabowl. Like all great Ido chawan, this one has the distinct irregularities of where glaze and clay meet, producing unique globular collections of vitrified blue-grey glaze.

To begin an Ido chawan’s life in such a way indelibly marks it. A simple bowl with striking features. An uncommon herbal tea with a link to the herbal medicines of Korean monasteries.

Tea was, and still often is, a melange of influences, of stories, of people and their lives. Where a “common ware” can be exalted as the height of an aesthetic movement and practice. Where two cultures can sit peaceably and share a bowl of tea. And where memories of colors of one’s past can be caught in the briefest of moment; transient and fleeting.

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Spontaneous, Like Water Returning to the Mountain in Spring

As Spring arrives and the gentle warming of the season comes, even the mountains can not resist the change. Heavy snow from a wet Winter has left the mountain tops coated in a thick blanket of snow, yet on the slopes and in the forests that surround, water has returned, filling river beds and running through winding streams. The forests awakens to this, if almost suddenly, and the wildlife within become gregarious, filling the wooded environment with their motion and audible calls. What once felt like the depths of Winter has, as if spontaneously, transformed into Spring.

The abruptness of a season’s change can catch one off guard. Sometimes this is met with a sense of sadness, of having lost a time that was dear to oneself. The closeness of Winter has vanished, replaced by the expansiveness of a bright Spring day and the energy and speed it can bring to life.

Sudden shifts like this, however, can and do often occur in life. Relationships can come and go. A job we love may one day end. A person we cared deeply for may leave or die. We often ascribe moments that arrive to us quickly with a sense of unease or perhaps undesirable. But why? What is this that we push up against? Is it the feeling that comes? Is it fear of change? Is it a reckoning that something we had come to expect has forever been altered? Is it that we cannot face this change in our environment, or in ourself?

Spontaneous changes, however, are constantly happening around us. In the city of New York, this is unavoidable. One day there is a worksite, the next day there is a skyscraper. One year there is a neighborhood that is defined by a certain ethos and character. The next year it may completely change.

Tea can be this way too. When I first began to practice tea, every moment was new, every tea I made was eye-opening. Every action, whether picking up a teapot or bring water to a boil, seemed like it was for the first time. It was exciting and, at the time, it felt like every action carried the gravitas of a solemn ceremony.

Nowadays, however, I make tea everyday. I still select a tea, and I still decide which teapot to use. I boil water and I brew the tea. What one might now call a deep-seated ritual that I conduct daily, I consider incredibly ordinary. I simply “make tea”.

This morning, as I gathered to lead yet another Sunday morning tea meditation, I did so as I always had. I laid-out the tea setting, people came, tea was made, we meditated. Nothing special.

Yet to say that it is “nothing special” is not entirely true. The moment was not entirely the same. The people were different. The tea, an excellent 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan, was particularly memorable. And even the light of the early morning in Spring seemed unlike that I had seen all year.

A thought arose between teacups, and, all of a sudden, something that seemed quite routine became something entirely new and ponderous. Within the relative repetition of practicing tea and meditation, when a thought arrives it can come like a crash.

But if one is well-practiced, this sudden moment is met with equanimity. Realizations, whether pleasant or unwanted, are met on the same terms. Each are bowed to. Each are offered a cup of tea. Just like Winter abruptly changing to Spring, we will sit with that which is new. This is quite ordinary and quite special.

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