Tag Archives: Buncheong-jagi

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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Filed under Ceramics, History, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

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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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

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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When Sunlight Joins for Tea

Often is the case that when I am making tea in my meditation room, time passes and the light of the day naturally shifts. Facing West, the morning light is soft, with a distinctive bluish tone. However, as morning fades and the light of the afternoon grows, warmer hues emerge, and the golden rays of sunlight pour through the window of this tiny room, joining me for tea.

As I was quietly brewing tea this morning, I let time meander. The water in my antique Japanese 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) quietly came to a boil, leading to an hour of brewing various teas.

Shifting from a roasted 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá (“Iron Goddess of Mercy” oolong tea) from China’s Anxi county to an aged 水仙 Shuǐxiān (“Water Immortal”) from Wuyishan in Fujian, I finished my tea brewing session with a green Taiwanese 高山茶 gāo shān chá (“high mountain tea”).

As one hour turned into two, the kettle was refreshed with cool water and the sun climbed higher in the sky. Just at the moment I began to let go of time, warm rays of light came flooding through my window and settled down onto my setting for tea.

It set alight the steam that rose from the water, beamed across the stippled iron face of the old chagama, and cast shadows across the assembled teapots which I had set to dry.

The sunlight encouraged me to make another cup of tea and so I did. Scooping water with the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) and carefully pouring it into the small tea vessel.

Sunlight lingered over ever facet of the moment, warming the teapot before I decanted its fragrant liqueur.

And, like the sunshine that joined me for tea on this day, the tea shone bright, first in a Korean sookwoo, then in an antique Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white cup.

And, as the sun often does, it passed along, leaving the room out from the window it arrived through. Much like the small crawl-through-door (躙り口 nijiriguchi) that leads into the tea hut (茶室 chashitsu), it had come in, bowed, sat for tea, and left, leaving no trace save for a moment shared and a memory.

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Filed under Ceramics, Japan, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

Cups and Poems Along a Winding Stream

For enthusiasts of ancient customs, this past week offered a multitude of moments to enjoy. In particular, the third day of the third month is a time that is packed with significance.

One event observed on this day is the ancient custom of 曲水の宴 kyokusui-no-en, or “the winding stream party”. Purportedly dating back to Japan’s 古墳時代 Kofun jidai (Kofun period, 300-538 AD), the event involved courtiers and scholarly officials sitting at the bank of a meandering stream, where cups of sake were sent floating down to them to casually imbibe. Upon plucking a sake-filled cup from the water, the guest drank it whole-heartedly, after which they composed a poem that reflected on the moment, perhaps the palpable shift from Winter to Spring. Evidence shows that this celebration may have its origins in China, with the 流觞曲水 liúshāng qū shuǐ recorded in 353 AD.

Feeling inspired, I opt to brew tea instead of drink sake. In lieu of a babbling brook, I choose to set my wares along a twisting plank of wood. For a teapot, I select a piece by the 19th century poet, ceramicist, and Buddhist nun Ōtagaki Rengetsu (太田垣 蓮月). For a tea scoop, I use an antique 茶合 sagō, inscribed with a poem.

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki incense container made and recently gifted to me by a dear tea friend in Paris.

The tea, named 白姫 Shiro Hime (“White Princess”), is an unusual “white tea” from Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture.

The tea and teapot, both feminine in nature, when used together are a subtle nod to another significant event on March 3rd. It is on this day that 雛祭り Hinamatsuri (“Girls Day”) is celebrated in Japan.

The teapot, warmed and ready to brew tea, sits upon the swirling grains of my wooden tea table. The teapot’s form, that of a curled lotus leaf, complements the relaxed feeling of sitting by a river’s edge.

When opened, steam rises out from its unctuous interior.

Once placed inside the tiny vessel, the tea leaves glow a vibrant green.

Left for a moment, the tea steeps.

Three cream-colored Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups are placed side-by-side. Collectively, they sit like three radiant jewels.

Once filled, I set the cups at uneven angles for my guests to enjoy. Together we drink them, one-by-one, as if at a opposite ends of a wandering stream. A poetry of flavors drifts throughout our minds.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Korea, Meditation, Poetry, Sencha, Tea

Blue Sky Meditation

I once had a teacher instruct me, “When mediating, think of a big blue sky. Imagine this. A deep, clear, spotless blue sky. Soften your focus and widen your gaze so as to be expansive in all directions. In this sky, clouds may come and clouds may pass in front of you. Observe them without focusing on them. Let them drift naturally.”

Today, when I lead guided meditations, I often call upon this teaching. Paired with tea, I find this helps to settle the restless mind and inspire a mind of wonder. Set against an azure-colored 茶布 chá bù (tea cloth), the assembled tea and teaware for this morning’s meditation become the drifting clouds.

While making tea, we may need to momentarily put these items into use, it’s important not to focus on them.

The Yixing teapot, which has over the years been dedicated to brewing countless steepings of 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá (oolong tea) may feature in the process of brewing tea, but it, itself, is merely a vessel. Empty until filled with tea (and intention).

The other wares, too, have their role, but are not the primary purpose of tea nor a meditation with tea.

A teascoop is whatever you may find that conveys tea leaves into a teapot. Your hands will do just fine.

The wooden coasters upon which one places a teacup can be anything, from a leaf to a rock to nothing at all.

The cups, too, are not necessary. Even I have been known to drink directly from my teapot.

And the tea, yes, even the tea, is just that, perhaps nothing more. Don’t invest too much value into this lest it becomes yet another distraction.

All that is left, really, is nothing. No tea. No buddha. Just the blue sky. Expansive in all directions.

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Returning to a Beginner’s Mind

In the practice of tea, one is nourished on the many simple and everyday pleasures that come from brewing tea. To boil water, to assemble tea objects, and to taste the resulting brew is enough. In observing what arises through the passing of time, one can learn everything that they need in this life and, in this meditation, one can truly find all that their mind requires.

In these past months, my mind has felt restless, if not uneasy, as I mark the more than fifteen years of practicing tea. For almost two decades, the daily practice of 功夫茶 gōng fū chá and 茶の湯 chanoyu have played a critical role in the shaping of my consciousness, from the enjoyment of the mundane to the exploration of the vastness of time and space. In my recent restlessness, I have attempted to break out of these daily practices to investigate other arts, namely that of 香道 kōdō (the Way of incense), only to feel the edges of my own knowledge. Similarly, while my practice is mature, I feel only at the very beginning stages of my comprehending chanoyu. I still make mistakes and I continue to stumble along the long and twisting path.

Today, feeling this way, I sit and work-out this unease with something more familiar to me: a Winter-harvested 台灣高山烏龍茶 Táiwān gāoshān wūlóngchá (Taiwanese high mountain oolong) from 杉林溪 Shān Lín Xī brewed with a large 黑泥《西施壺》 hēi ní “Xīshī hú” (black clay “Lady of the West pot”) Yixing teapot. The teapot, which I named 座蒲, zuò pú/zafu, “meditation cushion”, is the perfect tool to realign my way of thinking and my approach to an art and practice.

Pulling forth an antique bamboo teascoop, I issue a healthy amount of tea leaves, just enough to break through the barrier that seems to be blocking my mind.

Each step in this process feels reductive. Adding tea leaves into the pot feels like a weight lifted.

Each second the leaves steep they expel their complex flavor and vibrant color.

Sealed within the black walls of the teapot, all seems to disappear into a boundless void.

Poured out into a Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi sookwoo (water cooling vessel), the tea liqueur is pure.

The exposed and opening leaves left to cool within the pot seem as if they have just begun to give that which they eventually will offer.

The three cups merely hint at that which has yet to come.

What I felt was an apex in my practice has revealed itself as just the beginning of a longer path. To climb a mountain and to see another, loftier summit in the distance. How terrifying. How refreshing. A world without limits. Never to see the end of the horizon. Returning to a beginner’s mind.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Incense, Japan, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Echoes of the New Year’s Bell

In Seoul’s 종로 Jongno district, as the clock strikes midnight to herald New Year’s day, crowds cheer, friends embrace, and (in modern times) fireworks explode in the sky above. Years ago, during my first visit to Korea, I witnessed this first-hand. Today, years later, and days after the bells rang in the 보신각 Bosingak bell pavilion (the bell of which gives Jongno it’s name, which literally means “bell street”), I woke with the faint echoes of it ringing in my ears.

The biting cold of a Korean winter drives all into the warmth of their homes and, for some, into the comfortable climes of a teahouse. My first journey to Korea was marked by much of this, darting through the tight alleyways of Insadong, discovering Korean tea, in all its depth and diversity, for what seemed to be the first time.

Recalling this today, I sit down to brew cup after cup of one of Korea’s more unusual teas: 발효차 balhyocha.

Grown amongst the shaded groves of bamboo in 지리산 Jirisan, the tea is semi-wild. Its leaves, when viewed, appear as a tangled assemblage, dark and curling.

Having been left to dry and then rehydrate with the morning dew, the leaves were left to partially ferment during the final processing stages, resulting in the tea’s uniquely chocolate-like aroma and flavor.

It has been almost a decade since I last had this tea.

Left to sit in the warm interior of my grey-colored 분청사기 buncheong-jagi teapot, this distinctive scent fills the air of my tearoom.

Instantly, memories begin to flood my mind.

Set to brew for only a moment, I pour-out the amber-hued liqueur into the waiting sookwoo (of which I atypically use as a serving vessel). From there, each cup is served.

Three small vessels. Three precious jewels. With each sip, the echoes of 108 strikes of the bell. Savoring the new year.

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The Ease of Morning Light

In the muted light of early morning, I find myself setting a kettle within the warmth of an old 火鉢 hibachi in my meditation room. Finished with practicing the movements of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), I end my morning tea with an informal preparation of Korean 작설 jakseol (“sparrow’s tongue”), harvested last year in the mountains of Jirisan. With just a teapot and bowl, I use the last of the water from my morning practice to brew tea in the most casual of manner.

All I need is set before me.

Tea kept fresh in a small white ceramic 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea container.

Upon opening it, a tiny world within is revealed.

A teascoop fashioned from a halved hollow of bamboo is used to measure out a portion of tea…

…and is tilted gently downward move the tea leaves into the teapot.

A moment is give. for the soft, sweet aroma of tea to be revealed as the small, curled tea leaves sit in the warmed ceramic pot.

Water is poured, giving just enough time to let the tea cool.

And, finally, tea is offered out into the empty teabowl.

Nothing is ever needed when there is just enough. The mind does not want nor does the heart desire. Just to sit, like the ease of morning light, can be all one requires.

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A Full Moon and the Longest Night

As the year comes to a close, the days have grown longer and the nights feel all the more still. Each morning I rise and make tea and, still, the night’s sky lingers. As the sun begins to slowly emerge in the East, stars still sparkle in the dull blue haze of dawn. This day marks the depth of this moment, when the night is at its longest in the Northern Hemisphere, met by a full moon.

On this morning, I rise with the dawn to make a pot of tea with leaves gifted to me by a fellow tea friend.

白水仙 Bái shǔi xiān (“White Narcissus”), the poetic name of this tea, is a fitting name, a flower that emerges from the cold of Winter, bright like moon’s glowing light on fresh, crystalline snow.

Opting to brew the downy leaves in a rather large, thin-walled 芝麻鍛泥 zhīma duàn ní (“sesame seed-colored fortified clay”) Yixing teapot, the tea is able to achieve a richer, deeper flavor than had it been infused in a glass or porcelain vessel.

Selecting three small Korean 분청사기 Buncheongjagi cups and sookwoo (water cooling vessel), I warm each object with freshly-boiled water.

Kept in a small Korean Goryeo-style celadon incense container, I select each tea leaf and place them gently in the teapot.

The heat of the wetted pot begins to activate the sweet aroma of the white tea leaves as they sit in the large Yixing clay vessel.

Pouring water over the tea and closing the pot, the pause that comes from waiting for the tea to infuse produces a moment to meditate. Minutes pass and the sound of the kettle softly boiling is like a murmur between friends. The sounds of the world waking up from a long night’s slumber rise. The light in the tearoom begins to glow warmer.

The tea decants and its bright liqueur is like that of moonlight against the muted grey glaze of the humble ceramic wares.

Tea to mark the shortest day and the longest night. To enjoy the depths of Winter with a gift from a friend. To find warmth near the kettle and a small teapot. Waiting for a full moon.

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