Tag Archives: Buncheong-jagi

Up the Hill I Go

Up the hill I go,

What mysteries will I find?

Through forest path and bend in road,

The world I’ll leave behind.

A shimmering brook and water’s ebb,

Flow as I take each stride.

The creek’s force stills and causes pause,

To watch sunlight caught inside.

It glows golden like tea I brew,

By thinning waterfall’s catch.

The water roars less and less each year,

Reduced by late Summer’s dry patch.

What will we do when the water’s gone?

Where will the forest go?

In my mind will it reside?

Where will the trees,

the moss,

the lichen grow?

And what of the mysteries that I once found there,

With forest floors dry and bare?

No owls, no raven, no millipede, no salamander’s lair.

Just the hill set against a vast blue sky,

Amidst the hot, dry air.

It makes me sad to sit and think,

Brewing tea just to drink,

What of these memories will I share?

Of the fondness and despair.

Both occur in the wretches of my mind,

Some thoughts familiar,

Some unkind.

When footsteps on paths crossed are covered over,

By dry leaves, by old soil, by new clover.

Then what there will be found?

Nothing, nothing, nothing will abound.

Yet from nothing always arises something new.

Not in my lifetime but perhaps for you.

The next after me who will come,

A hill, a forest, a waterfall, and then some.

A whole world to explore and all their own,

Where the owls, the raven, the millipede, the salamander call their home.

Not in my lifetime but maybe in yours,

Up the hill you’ll go,

Through the forest floors.

And what mysteries you’ll find,

In the forests, those hills, your mind?

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

Rain Breaks the Heat of Early Summer

Today thunder peals through the Hudson Valley and the heat of the day hangs overhead like a thick, heavy cloud. In early Summer, the garden blooms and bursts in bright colors of iris’ feathery flowers from every corner and nook. Spikes in heat are a reminder that the depths of Summer have yet to come, while the occasional rain shower refreshes the body and mind like a welcome gift to abate the swelter of an early Summer’s day.

Earlier this week I had received a gift of from my dear friend in Seoul, South Korea, and as the heat lingers, I choose to enjoy these by the open door of my garden studio. Packages of tea and a piece of ceramic ware come as a delightful respite and reminder of friendship’s power to assuage feelings of loneliness amidst a period of separation and isolation.

From paper of pink and white emerges a marbled and splashed surface of glazed ceramic. What is revealed is a fine piece of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi made by Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

While I have come to amass a small collection of this ceramicist’s work, I’ve not yet seen anything like this. Its form is similar to that of a teapot, save for the absence of a lid. Rather, it is a ewer, or, more specifically, a 숙우 sookwoo, a vessel to cool water before it is poured to brew tea.

Unlike the austere white wares I’ve come to associate with the artist, the glaze of the tiny vessel is brushed onto the ceramic body in exuberant splashes and scrapes of white and blush pink, revealing the grey, iron-rich clay beneath their undulating veneer in a style known as 귀얄 guiyal.

Turning it in my hand,

inspecting its foot,

its handle,

its spout,

I imagine my friend’s presence, her keen love for buncheong pottery, and her ability to affect my aesthetic with hers. I am reminded of when we first met and how she explained the qualities of Korean tea. The emphasis of naturalness and ease, both in the appearance of objects, but also in the manner one makes tea. Over the many years since then, I’ve come to realize that these qualities arise only with practice and sitting with life as it reveals itself through time.

The sound of the kettle boiling breaks my focused gaze and ceramic daydreaming. I set the tiny sookwoo down upon the broad expanse of wood beside my open studio door and begin to assemble wares to brew tea.

A pot.

A joint of bamboo cut and cleaved to form a scoop for tea. A thin branch from a fruit tree to help push the tea leaves from scoop to pot.

A cup and wooden cup stand.

A flat black rock found in my garden to act as a lid rest.

Objects are wetted and warmed and the heat of the morning grows.

First the small sookwoo,

then pot,

then cup.

Tiny curled leaves of tea are pulled from a neatly sealed pouch and placed onto the upturned curve of the bamboo scoop.

Dark, blue-green buds of the year’s first harvested 우전차 woojeoncha (lit. “pre-rain tea”) picked in April before 곡우 Gogu (“Grain Rain”, April 20-21) shine like lacquer and curl like old, soft leather. Their scent when dry is sweet like guava or ripening loquat.

I lift and tilt the scoop downward towards the open mouth of the empty teapot, using the thin branch as a guide to move the tiny leaves along.

Resting within the dark hollow of the warmed vessel, the aroma of the tea rises and reveals notes both sweet and savory.

Water resting in the sookwoo is warm enough now to pour onto the delicate leaves.

As they submerge and saturate, they tumble and twirl in spirals and swirls until they float upon the bubbly surface, then sink.

The lid is placed atop the pot and, for a minute or two, I wait for the tea to steep. I wait and a thunder cloud covers the sun.

From sookwoo to pot and now from pot to sookwoo, I pour the tea. New fragrances emerge from the flared opening of the serving vessel. Sweet still, yet with hints of young grass and flowers.

Poured into the cup, the color of the tea is revealed against the matte grey and white background of the buncheong glaze. Vibrant golden green. A hue I’ve come to recognize from fresh Korean teas.

I lift and enjoy the aroma. Sweet. Delicate. Complex but not overpowering. I sip from the cup. Beautiful. Satisfying. Layered. Flavors from the air, from the rain, from the soil and stone that I’ve only found within the rocky and wooded slopes of 지리산 Jirisan decades ago when I visited the farms where these teas are grown and hand-processed. A sweet reminder of my life’s wanderings and the friends I’ve made along the way.

So small is the pot that only three cups are produced and easily savored. I return the kettle to a gentle boil and pour more water into the sookwoo to wait until it has cooled enough to brew the delicate tea buds. Once ready, I pour from sookwoo to pot again.

Leaves tumble and settle and begin to look as if they were alive again with varying colors of emerald and mossy green.

I place the lid back slowly upon the open teapot, admiring the leaves as they continue to unfurl.

Again, I pause and wait for the tea to steep. A cardinal booms his high-pitched call from atop a pine tree in the garden, its scarlet coat contrasting against the deep green of the conifer needles. Wind pushes through the pines. The sky grows darker and the heat rises more.

I lift and pour the tea from the pot into the empty sookwoo.

A second round of tea fills the small cup. The color is brighter, deeper. The aroma is thicker, more pronounced. The flavor is more pointed, greater clarity and bold. The finish lingers longer. Hints of limestone, mallow, clean river rock, the sweet taste of a forest right before a rain.

I stop and admire the leaves at this stage. The crackles and patterns and brushstrokes on the cup. The absence of glaze where potter’s finger gripped the clay. Spots where iron burst and pushed through the white and blue and grey of the fired slip.

Wind begins to grow outside my studio’s door. Whispering through flowering catnip.

Tossing umbels of tightly-grouped Spiraea blossoms against their bright green bases.

Inside, action and inaction meld. Practice is made of pauses, of stops and starts.

Water warms and is poured again from sookwoo to pot.

Leaves rise with the tide of liquid. Foam of oils and air collect and gather around exposed edges and against the round of the teapot’s mouth.

Light enters into this tiny vignetted world, eliminating leaves, sparkling against convex bubbles and the rough edges of exposed clay.

Lid placed back atop this shining world and the tea is left to steep once again.

Rain begins to patter outside upon the concrete flat, upon the leaves of bushes, between rocks in the garden as I wait for the tea to brew.

Moisture caught underneath teapot lid slowly evaporates in the growing humidity of the approaching storm. The heat of the day throbs less intensely now as rain drops’ cadence quickens, pushing cool air into my studio space, wafting fragrances of flowers, wet earth, moss on rocks, brewing tea.

The iron bell hanging in the garden gongs a low sonorous tone and I pour the steeped tea out from pot to sookwoo once more.

From sookwoo to cup.

The heat of early Summer fades and refreshing air wafts as water pools and rain crashes and thunder softly booms. I am reminded that today is 단오 Dano (lit. “the first fifth”, 端午 Duānwǔ in Mandarin), a day filled with 양/陽 yang/yáng energy, a day of ancestor worship, a day when members of the 조선/朝鮮 Joseon royal court would present the king with a book of Dano poetry (단오첩, 端午帖 Danocheop). In turn, the king would present his courtiers with special Dano fans made by artisans, which were in turn tributes from the provinces.

A fan given by a king to his courtiers as the yang energy rises. A sookwoo to cool water as a gift from a dear friend. Rain showers to allay the warmth of early Summer. Fresh tea to occupy my mind. As the rain breaks the heat of the day, a reminder of friendship breaks the feelings of loneliness.

****

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

If you are interested in learning more about buncheong-jagi, I’ve included a link to a fantastic book Korean Buncheong Ceramics from Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art by Soyoung Lee and Jeon Seung-chang, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2012).

Similarly, if you’d like to learn more about the history and traditions surrounding Dano, I’ve linked an insightful article from Korea.net.

Enjoy!

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

Meeting of Two Masters

Today, the cold of Winter remains, pressed up against the warming weather of early Spring. Entering 立春 Lìchūn means that the snow will eventually begin to thaw, although the ice that still remains in the mountains won’t melt until later in the month. The result is scattered snow flurries combined with rain. The birds in my garden, as much as I, are left darting for cover, for warmth, for a hollow to call home for the while as the weather decides what to do.

I, in my studio, have set up a small tea session. Kettle boiling. The sound of the falling snowflakes melding with the soft hum of boiling water. The faint scent of incense I burned earlier this morning is still present.

As the heat of the water rises and crests, I pour a small draught from the kettle into a small 四方壺 sìfāng hú (square-shaped teapot) by 施小馬 Shī Xiǎomǎ (1954-present) that I’ve set within the center of a 宜興朱泥茶船 Yíxìng zhū ní chá chuán.

Next, the water from the pot is poured out into a small 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup made by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A small portion of an aged 餅茶 bǐngchá made from the compressed leaves of a 渥堆 wòduī processed 南糯山 Nánnuòshān 熟普洱茶 shú pǔ’ěr chá is placed into the angular interior of the small dark clay teapot.

These angles are the mark of years of craft and study that reflect the skill of Shī Xiǎomǎ. These same angles will test my own skill as a tea brewer, as I will need to account for how they will affect the expansion of the tea leaves as they saturate, open, and offer their flavor.

Pouring hot water onto the leaves and closing the pot, I am left with very little information to work with.

Not pouring water over the teapot will mean I cannot rely upon the evaporation of the hot liquid from the surface of the vessel to tell me when the tea has fully steeped.

Neither can I observe the small meniscus bubble traveling down the teapot’s spout (which I often do with 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá, as the expansion and unfurling of these leaves leads to the absorption of some of the water, resulting in a slight reduction in the water’s overall volume in the pot).

Instead, I have to rely on intuition and on my experience using this teapot.

With any luck, noting the darkness of the tea cake, the compression of the leaves, and even how the portion of tea broke from the compressed bǐng, I’ll be able to have some control on the final outcome.

I wait and then pour-out the warm water from the waiting buncheong-jagi cup. Once emptied, it is filled with tea.

The steeped liquid set against the cream-colored canvas of the cup reveals the true color of the shú pǔ’ěr. It is rich in tone, a dark sanguineous umber, almost a deep red. The aroma is equally complex. Notes of tilled earth, old desiccating wood, of warm, wetted leaves.

Sipping the tea and setting the cup back down, I taste sweeter flavors akin to apple’s skin, dark berries, dried raisin, and black fig.

Remaining still with these flavors, I lift the lid from the four-sided teapot and pour into it more water from the boiling kettle.

Rather than fully empty the teapot, I allow for the first steeping to meld with the next. Doing this allows the tea’s flavor to gradually change, concentrating between each cup poured, building and ebbing like a great, slow-moving wave that eventually grows and crests and presses up against the shore of a lake, peeling back and retreating to the calm center.

Upon finishing the first cup, letting the flavors linger and play-out on my palette, I pour a second. This time, the color of the liqueur is dark, almost black.

Only at the very edge of the pool can I make out the true color of the tea. I am reminded of the unique hue of old red lacquer that is covered by a thin, almost translucent layer of black lacquer. The effect is a muted tone. Neither red nor black. A color in between. What is achieved by this process gives depth and a sense of wonderment to the object. Creating something that is both dark and glowing.

The tea is very much like this. Its flavor is the same. What I am most struck by is the intense change that two steepings have produced. The first was light and its flavors still emerging. The second, conversely, is fully developed, balanced, with brighter fruit tones followed closely by those more similar to an aged port wine, tobacco, and thick molasses. The sweet and savory registering on the same level.

As I sip this tea my concentration remains on deciphering the myriad of sensations it gives rise to. All around me continues the sound of snow and rain, the kettle bubbling away, the faint scent of incense still hanging in the air of my studio. I breathe in and this cold, fragrant air blends with the warm flavors of the tea that hold strong within the back of my mouth and top of throat, inside my nostrils and behind my teeth. I close my eyes and, even here, the taste of tea seems to reside, as I grow more awake from the first and second cup.

I pour another stream of hot water from the kettle into the tiny pot and close the lid again.

Between steeps, I smell the interior of the cream-colored buncheong-jagi cup. Inside, soft floral notes are captured and expressed against the crackled surface. Tea-soaked spots where once one cup sat atop another while they were fired in the kiln now collect and offer-up aromas unlike those when the cup was full. Even empty, a trace remains, markedly different from moments before.

Another cup and another are poured. Countless more after that.

The small squared pot is a stalwart support against the cold of early Spring. Its thick walls of carved and cut 紫砂 zǐshā maintain the heat of the water from the kettle, allowing for the compressed leaves of the bǐngchá to slowly and evenly open over several hours.

The tea changes from opaque to increasingly translucent. Eventually, I can begin to see to the bottom of the cup. This transformation of the liqueur, like the leaves, is gradual, exhibiting the qualities of both the tea and the fine Korean ceramic over time. The two, tea and cup, feel balanced. The relaxed and organic form of buncheong ware feels like a natural vessel for the dark shú pǔ’ěr to reside.

I am reminded of how when I first travelled to Korea, during a cold Winter, I learned that pǔ’ěr was a popular tea of artists and aficionados alike. Much like the buncheong ceramic, pǔ’ěr was brewed in a way that felt natural, relaxed, heartfelt and austere. I remember being huddled, much like I am now, beside a brazier and a wooden table, listening to the sound of wind and snow pressing up against the windowpanes, feeling warm and centered around the enjoyment of tea with new friends.

It was here that I first began to learn about buncheong-jagi, and was introduced to the wares made by Shin Yong-Gyun. Since then, I’ve kept several of his cups into regular rotation. Over this time, they’ve become more worn, more crackles have emerged, their color has become softer. Where once they were snow-white, they now feel like soft linen that has been broken-in by regular use, washed and tended to, loved.

As I look to the small teapot again, peering into its open top before filling it once more, I am reminded of its past too. I was in my early 20s, just out of college. I’d begun working for a small, family-owned business in San Francisco’s Chinatown selling tea and traditional medicinal herbs. Quite poor at the time, any tea or teapot I acquired seemed like an achievement of my own ability to work and save and rationalize my burgeoning tea practice over other luxuries such as food or rent.

The small four-sided pot has remained on the shelves of the tea shop for several years before I’d purchased it, a hold-over from the previous decade. Loving its pure form and clean lines, I had aspired to bring it into my, then, small collection and learn how to brew tea with it. Unable to read seal script at the time, it wasn’t until recently that I was able to decipher the artist’s seal imprinted onto its clay body. When I did, I learned the pot was made Shī Xiǎomǎ, a contemporary master of Yíxìng wares, active since the 1970s.

Set in the center of the circular chá chuán, the four-sided pot and tea boat remind me of the ancient forms of 琮 cóng and 璧 , ritualistic objects that came to represent earth (believed to be square) and the universe (believed to be round). As I finish brewing the final cup, knowing that there are still many more to come, I let the objects become a meditation.

In tea we are given the rare opportunity to bring the art of two masters together. Pot and cup alone are forms that feel complementary. One is self-contained, closed. The other, open to the elements. One conceals a mystery. The other offers a mirror upon which flavor, color, heat, and textures are reflected. Each operates in its own manner yet enhances the output of the other. In this way, two masters can enjoy tea together, albeit separated by time and space. Neither artist may know of this moment, save for if they were to stumble across this recounting.

Sitting and savoring the flavors of this instance, I let the sound of the kettle boiling rise again. I note the din of light rain against retreating snow drifts play, the boom of the large metal bell in my garden gong on breeze that seems softer now that early Spring is here. The light of the day grows longer. The cold of the morning seems to fade more each afternoon. Grass, too, begins to push up out from the ice, as do the thin green blades of the narcissus, long before they bloom.

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

Between Winter and Spring

As I begin writing, I await the coming of the new season. One more day, a few more hours, and we pass from 大寒 Dàhán (lit. “Big Cold”) to 立春 Lìchūn (the beginning of Spring). In the mountains and rivers of New York, cold rain comes, just warm enough to melt snow. The process, the thin winnowing-away of Winter into Spring, is slow. It doesn’t happen all at once (not yet, at least). Nature reminding us, always, to pause, appreciate each moment, savor the length of time things take to emerge, grow, mature, ebb, flow, and then wane and fade into nothing.

Looking out onto my garden, the snow becomes soft until it gives way to thick frosty puddles, where grass that survived the cold Winter pushes upwards through. Leaves that fell last Autumn emerge preserved from their chrysalis of ice. Colors still vibrant, but only for today.

Looking out onto this world, a mirror of what transformative forces nature brings, I sit and set a kettle to boil beside me. While the air grows warmer, the space of my studio remains cold, its walls cut into the side of the hill atop which my house is built. Warmth comes from the brazier, the kettle, the sunbeams that stretch across the wooden floor and wooden board I use to make tea upon.

As water warms, I ready objects to steep. A cloth. A scoop made of carved bamboo. A pick fashioned from a twig of a fruit tree.

A small purple-glazed pot gifted to me years ago by an artist acquaintance.

A cup gifted to me by a tea friend from South Korea, its maker a famed ceramicist from the same country.

An archer’s ring for a lid rest.

Soft light stretches across the tea table. Warmer in tone than days before.

This same warm light flickers against warm water which I use to heat the pot and cup. This same warm light settles and creates soft shadows on the twisted leaves of old white tea.

野大白 Yě Dàbái, a wild large leaf white tea from Fújiàn province, was once a fresh tea. Bright, green, silvery in its complexion. Now, more than seven years old, the leaves have darkened. What was once emerald and lacquer-like in appearance now looks leathery and worn. Spring-picked leaves for the last day of Winter.

Lifting the lid from the pot and placing it down atop the jade archer’s thumb rest, I place the leaves inside the tiny vessel.

Warm water is poured atop the tea and the leaves tumble and twirl within the teapot before they come to rest.

The lid is lifted and placed over the opening of the pot and the tea begins to steep.

Waiting for the tea to steep. Waiting for Winter to fade into Spring. Waiting for this world to change. Each season seems to bring something new to us all. Anticipation building each time the weather warms. An unarticulated promise that things will get better and we, somehow, collectively, will be able to step out from our own self-enforced solitary confinement.

As each season arrives, this promise, however, invariably falls flat. Steep expectations eventually evolve into deep resentment. Underlying aggravation arises from the denial of simple freedoms. Reluctant realization sets in as we recognize that the big problems of life don’t just melt away.

The tea, once poured, gives me some hope for what waiting may bring. Patience for a pot to brew brings deep colors and warm amber hues. While outside my window Winter wanes, the flavors inside this now aged tea still remain strong. Subtle notes of caramel, of cardamom, of honey, and sweet dew. They linger and last, as successive cups are poured, each deepening in color and flavor, until no more liquid is left in the pot.

Lifting the lid off the teapot again, more water is added and a second steeping begins.

The sound of rain is gentle and silvery pools of water begin to collect between the shrinking mounds of snow that have covered the concrete platform that leads out to the garden. Concentric circles of ripples from raindrops bend and break.

I pour out the next round of tea into the same small cup from South Korea. The color darker than before. The flavors more open and complex.

One cup turns to two, then three, and then more water is poured onto the leaves again for another steeping, and another steeping after that.

Light from the day continues to shift and, too, wanes like Winter, and I set the lid back atop the teapot once more, this time, empty of liquid. I opt to stop brewing tea for now and to wait until morning comes the next day to return for one final steeping. The cold of my studio space enough to preserve the leaves in the pot and let me enjoy the tea for one more day.

The next morning, I wake to the sound of ice rain against my window. Bright, crystalline, like unearthly chimes in their resonance against the quiet that only exists before the sunrises. Lìchūn is here and yet the cold seems stronger. Where once there were pools and puddles that harkened to an early Spring, today there is sleet and carpets of piling ice that blanket the concrete platform and pathway stones of my garden.

Trees, too, are coated in a frozen sheath. Plum are covered. So, too, are the pine.

The preserved Autumn leaf that inspired my tea time the day before is covered again in a layer of ice, returning to its hibernation for a few more hours or a few more days.

I sit down again beside my kettle like I had done before a day ago. Today is Spring and still there is snow. Ice rain seems to be a fitting harbinger for the new season. A light chiming knell for the end of Winter. A bright shining sparkling tree covered in ice.

The day-old tea, when brewed for one last time, the color that comes is light.

The flavor has faded. The last notes from a Spring seven years passed are finally gone.

A new Spring is here, and yet it’s colder now. For how long will it remain?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, White Tea

The Cicada Hums

The cicada hums and sweat drips from my brow. The hot days of Summer linger on, long days stretched into cool dark nights.

Rain comes and goes in peels of thunder, roaring past the old wooden eaves of my weathered garden hut.

Tea inside, pulled from a woven basket and laid out onto chipped and splintery plywood.

One pot.

One 숙우 sookwoo.

One cup.

Tea enough for one and then some.

A butterfly trapped against the window of my hut is released and left to fly skyward.

Crickets chime and beat their sonorous tune in the cracks between the shingles of the roof. Moss forms mountains and forests for them and other minuscule creatures to explore.

Locked deep within the darkened world of my garden hut, tea leaves curl and twist in the hot water from my thermos.

Round and round the twirl until they settle on the inside base of the ceramic pot.

From grey glazed pot…

… to grey glazed sookwoo

… to grey glazed cup.

Clear green-gold liqueur passes until it reaches my lips.

Caught within this liquid, the flavors of early Spring, the light of the sun, the taste of the earth.

토향. To Hyang.

Savory flavors and sweet.

Passionate emotions and soft, buttery gentleness.

A touch of bitter.

An absence of sour and spice.

Stone and mineral.

Soil and leafy bud.

A fragrance that fills the room and my heart.

This tea has been gifted to me by an old dear friend. A decade and some years has passed since we last sat together for tea.

Yet, without hesitation, she sends me tea again each Spring and Summer.

A gift that reminds me of the flavor of friendship.

Its long lingering taste.

In the heat of Summer, this slacks my thirst and makes the weather more bearable. Sweet reminisce of the past is what tea serves up best.

For when in Summer we wish for Spring again.

When a friend has not been seen in a long while, how one longs for their company.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

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

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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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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