It’s been a while since I last sat down to commit my thoughts to writing. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. Soon enough, late Autumn turned to early Winter, and now it’s the midpoint through 小寒 Shōkan, “Minor Cold” in the old lunisolar calendar. 2023 has begun, but the new year has yet to come and the first murmurs of Spring won’t arrive until a month from now.
In this pause, much has happened. To call it a pause is perhaps to diminish the past months in a way that could allow for it to be easily forgotten. Perhaps, when reading this entry, the gap may allude to a time period of no importance. Alas, even in the silence of a meditation or the quiet before daybreak, there is much activity in the mind and in the world around us. A world of preparation, preparation for a new year and for a new life.
For these past months, my partner and I have been preparing for our first born child to enter the world. As her partner, this has placed me in the support role, tending to her comfort and needs. As parents to be, this has also meant preparing our house for the arrival of our baby, making sure that our daughter-to-be will feel safe, supported, and empowered within her new environment. The creation of “home” feels palpable as it comes into realization.
As a tea person, I can’t help but to draw parallels between this preparation and the measures taken to ensure that a good 茶事 chaji (tea gathering) will occur. The inviting of the guests, the preparation of the 茶道具 chadōgu (wares, lit. “implements for the Way of tea”), the cleaning and setting of the tearoom, and sweeping and arranging of the 露地 roji (the tea garden, lit. “dewy path”). A myriad of tasks must occur before one brings one’s guest into their inner tea space, a setting where both host and guest will have the opportunity to commune and make a lasting and profound connection to one another and to the moment they both share through the making of a bowl of tea.
Similarly, as the new year soon arrives on the traditional lunisolar calendar, preparations must occur as well. In the coming weeks, I hope to host an informal 初釜 hatsugama at my home with a small number of close friends as my guests. Much as I do with the constant thoughts of my not-yet-born daughter and the current needs of my partner, I find myself wondering about what my invited guests may need, how can I ensure their comfort, and what must I do to make sure that they have a meaningful experience.
While all of this is a lot to take in, the garden outside remains in total hibernation. The leaves of my poor tea plants either shine like sparkling emerald-hued lacquer or have shrunk in the bitter cold of the season. Their current state is a reminder for me to remain focused on the present moment. Spring will come, but one must remain aware that we are still living through Winter. It is time to conserve one’s energy.
Noting the cold in my tea studio space, I draw my linen curtains closed. The light of the room changes and warms as the low sunlight of the morning filters through the soft undulations of fabric. I pour cool water into my 鉄瓶 tetsubin and wait until it warms and boils.
A low hiss rises and turns into a single note. To this pleasant tune, I begin to collect teawares and pile fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha into a carved lacquer tea container. While I’ve been better these days with practicing more formal tea preparation, I retreat to a more casual form and opt to make tea in the more relaxed 盆点前 bontemae style.
With items placed upon a circular tray and set down onto the large plank of wood I use as my tea table, I begin to feel more grounded. What I’ve found over the years of practice is that tea affords me a moment to let my mind focus on the task at hand. To set aside my phone, my computer, my digital fetters. To acknowledge my worries and whatever they’ll do as I just sit and make a bowl of tea, either for a friend or loved one or, as I am doing at this instance, for myself.
The movements are simple, straightforward. Objects are set down, at first one next to the other, …
…and then one in front of the next.
The 棗 natsume is cleansed with the folded 袱紗 fukusa, …
…then the 茶杓 chashaku.
The bowl and whisk are wetted and warmed, made pliable by the heat of the water, and readied for their role in making matcha.
In these motions, there is no ceremony, as there is no ceremony in life. There’s just movement, intention, mindful action interspersed with thoughtful pauses. The more one does this over time, perhaps the more fluid and direct the cadence will become. Perhaps not. Regardless, what may look like ritual, rite, ceremony or service is just a means of doing. Preparing a bowl of tea is like this. Preparing for life is like this too.
With bowl warmed and implements cleansed, I lift the chashaku and set the lid of the carved lacquer natsume beside the empty 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan.
The first scoop of matcha is placed into the center of the teabowl, followed by a second and then a third.
As I inscribe a mark into the mound of green tea powder, I note the aroma of fresh tea lifting upwards and wafting towards me.
In breath is followed by out breath, and I tap the residual matcha off the tip of the chashaku against the inner side of the chawan.
As I place the natsume back down upon the tray and the chashaku atop it, I pause for a moment to appreciate the way light and remaining tea dust collects on the rounded edge of tea scoop tip. Like an echo of action or trace of a moment, the matcha powder clings, outlining the form of the 露 tsuyu of the chashaku. A gilded edge to this page in time.
The 茶筅 chasen is placed inside the chawan atop the mound of tea. Water is poured from the tetsubin through the thin tines of the whisk, mixing with the matcha powder, and hanging from the bamboo blades like dew does on grass.
As I center myself and whisk the tea, I remind myself that the tines of this chasen are growing older and weaker with each use. Some of the tips have lost their shape, others have broken over time. Too aggressively whisking the tea might result in more broken tips. Lifting the whisk further out of the bowl and avoiding scratching the well of the chawan can ensure the chasen’s longevity. A lighter touch. A softer grasp. Smoother breathing. Focus.
Finally, whisked and whipped into a foam, I lift the chasen upward and out of the teabowl. Before me sits a single bowl of tea, prepared for myself.
Dim light accentuates the softly rising mound of 薄茶 usucha bubbles that drift atop the surface of the liquid. I catch myself holding my breath, in anticipation for what’s to come. A hatsugama. A new year. My partner’s pregnancy. The birth of our daughter. A new life.
As I bring the bowl to me, lifting it in thanks for this moment of solitude and silence, I’m reminded of Rikyū’s solitary 正月 shōgatsu tea gathering.
It was on the New Year’s morning of 1582 that he made himself a single bowl of “大フク/ofuku” (which can be understood as either 大福茶 obukucha, lit. “great fortune tea”, or 御仏供茶 ōbukucha, lit. “tea offered to the Buddha”). Finding myself on the precipice of so much, anticipating so much, I begin to recognize why Rikyū chose to enjoy a bowl of tea before embarking on a new year in life.
Much like whisking a bowl of tea, you can’t grip life too firmly, nor can you work yourself too hard. Much like the whisk itself, the body and mind breaks under pressure and that which you set out to make will come out rushed and sloppy. What is called for is a lighter grip, a softer touch, smoother breath. A relaxed approach to an otherwise rigorous practice. Solitude. Silence.
The silence I’ve kept these past few months has for a while now hung over me. Sometimes I worry if I am incapable of writing again, or afraid that, by writing, I am just doing so in a performative way. Is a blog entry a product of something more ominous, a dire symptom to a world that measures our existence with social media posts, likes, impressions, and clicks on a page?
In my silence, I sometimes check to see who has been reading my blog. Years ago, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would read an article a day. Now, maybe one or two. Recently, some days would pass and no one would read my blog. I must admit, I feel a sense of accomplishment knowing this.
But action and inaction, silence and speech, are both two sides of the same coin. Both are a form of doing. Increasingly, my silence has begun to feel like this: something that I have become busy doing.
As I sit and finish drinking my tea, staring down at the foamy dregs that cling to the inside concave of the grey chawan, I realize that it’s my practice to make tea as a means to mark moments in my life. Whether this is a conscious decision or not, the subtle changes in seasons or the more tremendous changes in my life have all been accompanied by an offering of tea.
Perhaps I make tea to stop what I’m doing, to sit and still the mind. But it is foolish to think that this act can stop time or stop the myriad of sensations my mind and body feels. They keep going. Coming as they do and passing onward. With no beginning and no end.
Where is my mind and my heart at this moment as I prepare for the new year?
Footsteps in the snow might mark where we’ve been.
Past writings and old photographs.
Tea clinging to a scoop, moisture caught in a cloth, heat still captured in the ceramic walls of a chawan, in the iron skin of the tetsubin.
But the mind sometimes also imagines a path out ahead. A direction where the next step goes, where the hand is set to grasp the next object, a space to place one thing into or onto the next.
Even when we are silent, there comes a moment before our silence is broken, when our mind forms words, when we anticipate action, when we commit to speech.
It is hard not to get caught in anticipation for what lies ahead of me this year. Trepidation and excitement. Ponderous moments of wondering. My heart and mind at times overflowing with joy, with a complex array of emotions.
Soft light filtering through fabric, through faceted glass, through windows, through treetops, through clouds. Each day growing lighter as Spring approaches. New life promises to push through the cold earth. Even now, before Winter’s coldest days have yet to come, as the last of the springwater still holds its warmth, but for how much longer?
For those who would like to learn more about Rikyū‘s 1582 solitary shōgatsu, I recommend the 2019 translation and article by Adam Sōmu Wojciński, linked here.
Early August and Summer’s heat peaks. Out in the garden, daylight glows radiant orange, beaming off of the flat broad maple leaves, through skin of squash flowers, through vines that crawl over the wire trellis down onto sunburst tomatoes.
In the high heat of late Summer, 大署 Taisho (Dàshǔ in Mandarin, lit. “Major Heat”), the intense warmth of the day is inescapable. Tea practice, if in the environs of my makeshift tea hut, is limited to the very early mornings or late evenings when the air is cooler and the light is low. Otherwise, I sit by the glass doors of my studio, looking out on the garden, waiting for the inevitable rainstorm to grace me with a momentary respite from the heat.
Summer rain in the Hudson Valley is frequent, so much so that I’ve begun to sense it. Bright sunlight gives way to dark clouds and warm breezes kick up, pushing the canopies of trees in great green tumbles and swirls. Within minutes, a storm can swell and, for a moment, abate the heat of the day.
As I walk and wander through the garden, enjoying vignettes of flowers and foliage, daylight dims and the first drops of rain begin to scatter.
Quickly, I pluck small, ripe fruit from beneath jagged leaves and bring them with me back into my studio space before the downpour begins to swiftly overtake me.
In my studio, the air is sweet with lingering incense. The temperature cool. The smooth surface of the wooden floorboards invite me to sit upon them and set before me an arrangement of objects for tea.
It is an informal affair. The sound of water boiling echoes the sound of rain. The shuffle of my bare feet across the floor and the quiet landing of a lacquer tray upon a flat plank of wood. Tea and teabowl. A clean cloth and utensils of bamboo. A deep breath and I let thoughts and feelings fall away.
The neatly rounded edges of a small 平棗 hira-natsume feel slick in the hand. If left to wander, the plain curving pattern of time-polished wood grain would have me imagine the cool climes of an 縁側 engawa, the kind of enclosed porch I wish my own home had on days like today.
The cream color of the old bowl is welcomed and relaxed.
The soft crazing of the antique glaze feels at ease alongside Summer’s heat and the sudden showers.
I cleanse each object.
I cleanse the bowl.
Hot water from the kettle feels refreshing and cool as it sparkles translucent, catching sunlight as it filters through the rain clouds, through the glass doors of my studio,
…through the thin cut bamboo tines of the wetted 茶筅 chasen.
Even when wiped clean does the old bowl exude freshness. Even as it sits within the wide expanse of the shallow vessel does the white linen 茶巾 chakin feel inviting like a crisp breeze.
Tea is drawn from the wooden caddy and placed down in the center of the bowl where a circle of glaze sits, surrounded by exposed clay where once the bowl had been stacked with others upon it in the kilns of Vietnam perhaps as long ago as the 14th or 15th century.
The bright green mound of freshly sifted tea glows against the soft earthen colors of the old bowl. Three scoops. A sigil is carved.
The 茶杓 chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner edge of the bowl.
Shadows collect in the cool concave.
On the hottest of Summer’s days, I relish when I am given the chance to make a bowl of tea, when I can softly set the whisk’s tines upon the heap of powdered matcha, and delight as I pour water from my kettle down through their spindling structure.
Small beads of water cling to these thin cut tines, resembling drops of dew, glittering jewels. So refreshed I feel upon seeing these that I, perhaps just for a moment, forget the heat of the day and the worries of life. I sometimes struggle not to daydream, caught in the vision of being contained with such a dewdrop.
Hand to chasen, I center myself and whisk the tea. Soon, 抹茶 matcha powder, water, bowl, motion, and breath combine, giving rise to a fine light foam. The shallow bowl cools the tea and, as I lift the whisk, a slight dome rises upwards from the center of the 茶碗 chawan.
Light dims as thunder peals and the sound of rain surrounds me. I pluck a fruit that I’d picked from my garden and remove it from its lantern skin. Tart and sweet akin to the pressed sugar sweets I once savored in tea gatherings long ago.
I pause for a moment and let the flavor of the fruit fade. I observe the time it takes for the sensation to pass. For the light to shift.
For bubbles to burst within the foam that floats upon the tea. I note time in the space it occupied, in the shape of the tea bowl, the cracks in its glaze, the unevenness of its edges.
I breathe and lift the chawan, holding it wide in the palms of my hands. The heat of the tea radiates through the clay and glaze and out onto my skin, and, although warm, the effect it has on my mind is cooling.
I watch as the matcha’s foam crawls down the inner walls of the shallow bowl. Down the cream colored slope of the surface. Down until the ring of exposed clay emerges. Down until the tea reaches my lips.
Three sips is all it takes and then it’s gone, save for a bit of residue that has collected against bubbles and bursts in the glaze.
As the storm outside settles, I cleanse the bowl and objects once more. The bowl is wiped clean and the chasen is set upright as one does in my school during the hottest days of Summer. The scoop is set beside it.
The natsume is moved once more.
Bowl and objects are placed once again atop the lacquered tray. At rest.
Summer rain and a bowl of tea. Shadows collect in concave shallows. Cool comfort and moistened surfaces. The lingering flavor of tea, of fruit from the garden, of fragrance of long faded incense. As Summer’s heat peaks, rain clouds come and cause reason for pause. As they part and the heat rises again, what did we glean from this momentary respite? Was it enough to cool the mind? Is this the first sign of Autumn?
Today is the fifth of May. Ostensibly, it is the beginning of Summer on the traditional lunisolar calendar (立夏 Rikka). And, yet, all around me it still feels like Spring. Rain clouds gather overhead. New green leaves bristle on trees. Shoots rise from the earth. Peony bushes push upwards in the garden, yet their showy blooms have yet to burst. There is a feeling of anticipation, a longing for flowers to unfurl, for skies to clear, for the heat of the day to grow. Alas, the cool of the previous season still lingers and morning’s mist hangs long until noon.
In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, is marked by celebration, flavored heavily by its culture of origin. Double five, or 重五 Chōgo in Japanese, is one of the five seasonal festivals on the traditional calendar of Japan, and is associated with a myriad of observances.
Today is 端午の節句 Tango no Sekku, which demarcates the beginning of the month of the horse (the fifth month). At this point in the year, one should begin to feel the heat rise. Yet, here in Upstate New York, a chill remains.
子供の日 Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day (historically 男の節句 Otoko no Sekku, or Boy’s Day) also falls on this day. The birth of the new season, rites of passage, youthful vigor, 鯉幟 koinobori fluttering atop homes with children. All around boasts the promise of great things to come. Alas, here, Summer’s throb still feels faint.
It is also 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no Sekku, referring to the practice of hanging shōbu (sweet-flag, Acorus calamus, or Japanese iris, Iris ensata var. ensata) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort, Artemisia) from the eaves of one’s home (which were believed to ward-off evil spirits and fire).
Here in the Hudson Valley, the iris have yet to bloom, although I still manage to create a bundle of mugwort and iris leaves, which I hang-up against my makeshift tea hut.
With such a multifaceted day, it might feel overwhelming for a tea person to choose what they will do. So much expectation on just one day. For me, it offers a unique meditation, one which I infuse into today’s tea offering.
Setting off across my garden to the dark interior of my weathered shed, I’ve created within it a space to ponder time. Outside, purple-capped deadnettle and broad-leafed garlic mustard grow high. Remnants of Spring.
Inside my hut hangs the soft scent of 白檀 byakudan. The sound of water boiling within the bronze and iron kettle is faint but audible.
Summer in the world of tea is marked by many aspects. One major event is the closing of the 炉 ro and the beginning of the use of the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. 初風炉 shoburo (lit. “first furo”) marks the first use of the furo. Today, I will use my furo for the first time, in anticipation for Summer’s emergence.
As I look forward to the new season, I also look back time. The bronze and iron 風炉釜 furogama are of an ancient tripod form, akin to those used during the 唐 Táng (618-907) and 宋 Sòng (960-1279) periods.
Beside it sits a square-shaped 鬼萩水指 Oni-hagi mizusashi, and before this I’ve placed a small round 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver brocaded 仕服 shifuku, emblazoned with a design of peonies.
As I place a peach-hued 茶碗 chawan beside the tiny tea container, I recognize the significance of the choice in wares I’ve made.
In the practice of tea, we sit and hope to become connected to the moment. “Now”, as a distinct moment in time, is fleeting.
The instance we recognize it, it has passed. Rather, the moment we find ourselves in is often experienced tangentially.
The peonies on the brocaded pouch refer to a flower that has yet to bloom.
The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.
The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.
Angles shift in the tearoom as object are oriented and reoriented based on their action and function.
During the furo seasons, objects are typically set in line with the brazier.
Then, as each object is cleaned, they reset again against the line that runs parallel to the mizusashi.
The bowl remains between host and furo.
The lid of the kettle is removed.
The 柄杓 hishaku rests against the open mouth of the steaming 茶釜 chagama.
During Kodomo no hi, or, more specifically, Otoko no Sekku, references to ancient 武士 bushi (warrior) culture abound. As a rite of passage, it marked a moment in time where a child could take on the affects of a 侍 samurai. In the realm of tea, the hishaku becomes an arrow, the iris becomes a spear.
Here, too, future and past oscillate to triangulate the present. A child assumes the role of an adult, even if just for a day. The adult longs for the carefree nature of when they were a child. Objects used to mark the coming of a new season are imbued with ancient connotations. Between these vectors exists, somewhere, now.
The lid of the tea container is removed and tea is heaped into the center of the peach-glazed teabowl.
A small mountain to climb rises within.
Hot water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured atop the bright green 抹茶 matcha powder. The tiny mountain collapses, sinking slowly into the warm sea.
As the kettle murmurs and birds call, the tea is mixed in a slow, methodical manner. A slight breeze kicks up outside and I can hear the leaves of shōbu and yomogi beat against the exterior of my tea hut.
In the darkness of this tiny space, I make a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha. An offering for the season to come. A medicine of the past to fortify me as Summer arrives.
Drinking the tea down and concluding my lone tea session, I am yet again drawn to ponder time.
A shallow teabowl is employed as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the whisk. Perhaps I will use this piece for a future tea gathering.
I observe the angle at which I place the bowl down and arrange the cleansed objects upon it and within it.
These angles point towards the heat that will rise as Summer continues.
Cold water is added to the chagama and the bronze lid is placed back upon it.
The bamboo ladle is laid across the rim of the 建水 kensui.
A final 拝見 haiken is prepared to mark the first use of the furo.
Light from the small window beams and catches against the gold foil beneath the lid of the chaire.
Light catches against the curved surface of the tea container.
Against the carved tip of the 茶杓 chashaku.
Against the woven fibers of the shifuku pouch.
Future, past, present caught in light.
Exposed. Laid bare. There to be pondered.
As Spring shifts to Summer. As the portable brazier is used for the first time.
Finally, Winter’s cold seems like a memory as Spring’s first warm day is here. Birds call and breezes push through the trees whose branches now brim with red and green buds of the new season. April’s air is fragrant and fresh. So, too, is the soil, waking from its hibernation.
Shoots and seedlings push up from the wet earth, soaked and saturated by the weekend’s rain.
Stepping across the garden to huddle in my makeshift hut, I dust-off the floorboards and bring with me a bowl to make tea.
A 棗 natsume.
A wooden scoop of speckled bamboo that looks like dew, that looks like intermittent showers.
An old thermos filled with hot water.
A 建水 kensui to collect the dregs.
Sitting in my hut, I meditate. Wisps of incense smoke fade and the sound of a bird scratching at the moss upon the roof wakes me, rousing me to make tea.
I arrange the wares to make an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
The silk of my 袱紗 fukusa is folded and pressed against the lid of the tea caddy and then again against the spotted surface of the tea scoop.
Bowl and whisk are warmed and in the sunlight that pours through the one window of my hut, steam is seen rising from wetted objects as they wait to be used to make tea.
Unlike Winter, the world of Spring throbs with life, pulsates with energy, and booms with noise and sound from all directions. The ring of the 茶杓 chashaku against the inner edge of the grey-glazed clay of my 井戸茶碗 Idochawan pairs with the sound of a robin digging for worms outside my garden hut. The rush of water from the thermos into the bowl harmonizes with the song that the wind and the trees sing above me.
The back and forth of the whisk as bright green foam rises creates a rhythmic tune that syncopates against the hum of the warbler’s whistle, the crow’s caw, the horn of the train along the river’s edge, and the din of the town in the distance.
I am reminded that what we often call peace is just another word for chaos. What we often label as silence is just a cacophony of sounds that blend and meld together.
Spring in full vigor is activity emerging from below the soil, from the wooded husks of once dormant trees, from the silvery swirl of clouds against a bright blue sky.
Tea alone at this moment is just that. A moment borrowed from an otherwise busy world, on an otherwise ordinary Monday.
Time taken to reinvigorate the heart and remind the soul that the seasons are changing constantly.
Momentarily replacing the glowing screen and clicking keyboard for the dim light of a tearoom and the sparkling foam of 抹茶 matcha radiating from within a matte grey teabowl.
For this moment, the only thing I have to examine are the last drops of tea that remain.
The unctuous glaze that has collected and congealed along the 高台 kōdai of an antique chawan.
The rippling lacquer that shimmers atop a natsume.
The speckled pattern of black dots that nature has arranged upon the skin of my bamboo tea scoop.
As the incense burns down, the light of the day shifts, the call of songbirds collect and crescendo, I take my cue to gather-up my items again.
Dregs in a teabowl are wetted and wiped clean. Water evaporates off of the thin tines of an old and broken 茶筅 chasen as it’s set upon a folded 茶巾 chakin. The tea scoop is dusted-off and laid across the chawan’s ceramic rim.
Tea caddy and chawan set side by side before they are put away.
I screw the cap back onto my old metal thermos and open the door of my garden shed to walk back across the stone path that leads to my studio.
Birds call. Wind blows. Branches shift. The soil softens and the first leaves of a radish pushes up to greet the sun. All of these moments combine and culminate together, contributing to April’s air. Fragrant and fresh. Sweet and fleeting.
As I write this, it’s late February and the air is still cold and wet. A week ago, the ground was still covered with snow, but with the recent rains and the passing of 立春 Risshun and the arrival of 雨水 Usui (February 19-March 4), the earth has begun to thaw, the ice has all but melted, and the flowers of early Spring have begun to push up in small clusters beneath the trees around my garden. But in this liminal period, even as Winter feels long passed, reminders of the season that once was still abound.
A cold and windy morning brings rain that turns to snow. Its transition happens over a course of an hour, marked first by the tapping of raindrops against my studio window, then a sudden drop in temperature, followed by an occasional snowflake passing by, carried upon a strong breeze. Light showers transform into flurries of white against the grey sky. Pools of water that have collected on the concrete flat outside my studio door freeze and are slowly covered by thin layers of mounding snowflakes.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, none of these events come as a surprise. Tea people of Japan have noted such atmospheric anomalies for centuries, giving them poetic names such as 余寒 yokan, a “lingering cold” that suddenly returns just as Spring begins to warm, 春雪 Shun-setsu, the snow that comes in Spring and quickly melts, or 淡雪 awa-yuki, light snowflakes that fall, producing a pleasant sound that harmonizes with the wind blowing through the pines (松風 matsukaze).
Sitting at the threshold of the sliding glass door of my studio that overlooks the garden, I see all of these before me. Rather than wander out into my garden hut, I decide to sit beside my boiling kettle and enjoy the dance of snow, as it turns the waking garden of Spring back into a Winter scene for perhaps the last time for a long while.
I gather objects from their hiding places. An old carved circular lacquer tray.
A bamboo teascoop with emerging sprout on its 節 fushi. A 茶筅 chasen whisk made by a master based in Nara. A cream-white teabowl, the shape of which is perfect for this sudden cold.
A 棗 natsume tea container, the surface of which is made up of layers of interchanging red and black lacquer.
I set the objects upon the tray and bring them to the large plank of wood that has sat beside the window door of my studio all Winter and into early Spring. The feeling is markedly informal, quick to assemble, sudden like the snap of cold that has come and may soon fade. Unlike the more formal and structured temae, 盆点前 bon temae for the 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an school is remarkable for its simplicity and directness. There is little flourish, just enough action to allow for one to sit and make a bowl of tea. The motions, while not abbreviated, are contained to the space of the tray and to the area in front of the kettle and brazier. When moments immediate such as a chance snow flurry come by, I favor this temae most of all.
The pace of making tea is like the snow outside. Intervals of fast and slow. Of space and closeness. As snowflakes tumble slowly, with a measured grace, I try and let my movements mirror this. The objects and tray are come to rest in a smooth downward motion, hovering momentarily above the wooden surface of the table and then placed just to the right of the 鉄瓶 tetsubin. Body and tray move down in one motion, with one out breath.
The 茶碗 chawan and its accoutrements are lifted and moved, from left to right hand and then down on the table before the kettle. The natsume follows and is set before the bowl. Items are lined up along a central axis before they are cleansed, one-by-one, and placed to rest before being called into action.
The natsume is first. The grooves of the 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer prove difficult for the soft folds of my purple 袱紗 fukusa cloth to fall into. Their many layers of red and black echo the layers of ice and snow that have been accumulating outside the doorway to my garden.
Cut at curvaceous angles, alluding to cloud mushrooms, bats, and foliate forms, the feel is balanced, organic and mechanic, archaic and modern, flamboyant and austere.
Next comes the 茶杓 chashaku.
Bright bamboo set against the white glaze of the teabowl, the low light of my studio during Winter’s last gasp, against the swirling grain of the tea table that I’ve laid across the wooden floorboards.
Three passes within the folds of the fukusa and I set it upright atop the natsume. For the first time, its fushi visible, appearing like a bud that is about to emerge from a dormant tree.
Finally, the whisk and 茶巾 chakin are removed and set upon the tray.
For a moment, the bowl sits empty, cold to the touch.
Both whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmth returns to the chawan, not used since last year. The tines of the chasen spread from the heat of the water.
The center whirl of the tea bowl becomes more apparent as the water glistens off its rounded edges.
I lift the tea scoop and remove the lid of the natsume and as I place tea into the warm, white interior of the chawan, snow begins to fall more steadily.
The dance of snowflake produces a silent symphony, one in which the mind can easily lose itself.
A quiet quality of peace that hold, if only for the space in time when the eye first catches sight of snow falling to until it lands upon the ground, lost in the mound of a forming snow drift.
As I write now, recalling this moment, the world in which I live in still seems at peace. How tenuous a last snow feels, how fleeting.
A bowl of tea comes and goes and the sensation of it quickly disappears, dissipating like Winter into Spring, Risshun to Usui, and swiftly soon to 啓蟄 Keichitsu (lit. “Awakening of Insects”, the period from March 5-19).
Peace, as defined by snowfall, might feel like a long time, but when one recognizes that this moment is the last day of snow, that peace feels fragile and forlorn.
February 19th, I sit down for tea. Come the next day, the world is changed, a palpable heat returns to the Northern Hemisphere, a thawing of something that laid cold and dormant has re-emerged, and the anxiety of what’s to come arises.
As I sit, now, at this time when whisk meets tea, whips it into a fine foam, releases sweet aromas of 抹茶 matcha into the air, and stare out into the white abyss of this last snow day, my breath does, for the while, seems smooth.
The pit in my stomach, the pang and fear that will come the next morning is not here.
Instead, I let my heart become full with the last layers of snow. 雪見 yukimi.
Layers of snow. Layers of time. Soft snow followed by hard ice rain and back to soft. Layers of lacquer, of growth on a bamboo stalk.
Layers of glaze that cover the foot of an old chawan.
From these layers, newness emerges and ultimately becomes the harbinger of things to come.
While the last snow may seem sad, while the passing of peace may bring fear, the heart carries both as if they weighed the same, not knowing how long one will last, not knowing when one will return, just hopeful that life continues on until the next day.
In this, there exists a knowing that this last snow may not indeed be the last. That peace as we know it now, may return in the future, although different, and at what time.
Late January and the depth of 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin) is here. I woke this morning to mounding snow drifts, falling flurries, pine trees capped in white. A storm had passed during the night and continued on through the dawn, bringing wind and cold and ice on windowpanes. Although, inside my home is comfortable and warm, I wish to experience Winter in its fullest and feel determined to make tea outside, within the confines of my makeshift hut.
Trekking through the garden, wares packed and wrapped-up in 風呂敷 furoshiki, I come upon a realization.
The world of snow is mysterious. Forms covered and obscured and made unknown by layers of ice and air. The steps of my path are softened.
Rocks and branches from sapling trees feel formless.
Wind makes hollows. Snow creates volume.
Undulations and caverns that once weren’t there.
The door to my tea hut is frozen shut.
Once I pry it open, I find that snow has entered before I have. Soft sprays of snow.
Fine white crystals scattered on the floor and below the crack between window and sill.
I set the kettle to boil and fill my 水指 mizusashi with cool water.
In the 床の間 tokonoma, I place incense to burn and a 蜜柑 mikan citrus as an object for meditation. As I sit and wait for the water to boil, I listen to the hollow howl of the wind against the small shack I have chosen to make into my space of practice. Thin walls of pressed wood abating the cold but not by much. My breath and the steam from the kettle conjoined in our efforts.
Objects for tea are unwrapped and unboxed and placed in accordance to their various usage.
The tall form of a slender 茶入 chaire before the mizusashi.
Much like the stones outside my tea hut, the true shape of the tea container is obscured by the striped and spangled silk of the 仕服 shifuku pouch.
Beside this, I place a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan, a teabowl used only during the coldest days of the year.
Chawan and chaire sit as I pause to listen to the sound of snow tapping against the single windowpane that lets light into my small tea hut.
Ice crystals forming slowly as the cold of the world around me deepens.
As I move objects from rest to motion and back to rest, I observe how shadows shift and move with them.
The chaire is shrouded in its shifuku pouch.
Once removed, the shifuku becomes an empty vessel.
The chaire, a full, voluminous form.
The teabowl, tall, slender, tube-like in shape, is cavernous, dark, full of shadow, dwelling at the bottom unseen.
I pour a dipper’s worth of hot water from the kettle into the open mouth of the tsutsuchawan. Everything that goes in, the water…
…the splayed tines of the 茶筅 chasen…
…the white linen 茶巾 chakin…
…and eventually, the tea…
…disappears into the deep void of the tube-shaped teabowl.
Only employed during this time of year, before the first hint of Spring arrives, tsutsuchawan convey the depths of what this ice-locked season represents.
In the low light of my makeshift tea hut, the bowl seems without end.
A tunnel rather than a vessel. An portal into something unknown, unseen. What lies at the other end?
Pouring hot water from the kettle into the bowl requires focus and practice. Concentration as liquid cascades from the sunlit cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the darkness of the narrow opening of the tsutsuchawan.
Pressing whisk into the tea-and-water concoction to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha presents another unique challenge. The bowl is deep and the walls close together, limiting one’s motion. Even knowing what is happening as one kneads the tea is difficult.
Unlike other bowls, one cannot easily see into a tsutsuchawan. Compounding this, the dark umber color of the Bizen-yaki fades to black in the low light of the tea space, in the dull glow of Winter during the last days of the period of Major Cold. In an unseen world, one must rely on practice alone to grope and clamor through the darkness.
In the time it’s taken me to whisk a bowl of thick tea, spindly needles of frost began to form and make intricate patterns against the outside of the windowpane.
As I move teabowl from the host’s position to guest’s, I observe the light from the window push through the steam rising from the boiling kettle. The soft hum of the water. The high-pitched whirl of wind between cracks in the door.
I look down at the bowl. Both empty and full. The bright green tea invisible in the dark hollow of the tsutsuchawan. Its presence only known by the heat contained in the ceramic, from the aroma of the koicha rising into the room. Deep and vegetal during the cold torpor of late January, of Daikan, of Major Cold.
I lift the bowl and drink the tea. For a moment I pause and let the flavor and the heat of the tea permeate throughout my mouth, my throat, my body. My cold, stiff fingers hold the narrow bowl tight, as if it were a warm being radiating heat to help me survive the harsh weather outside the walls of my tea hut. I sit and hold it longer, meditating for as long as the heat remains within the clay.
Several minutes pass and the heat fades. The hollow of the bowl cools. The dregs cling and thicken against the dark, blistered walls of the tsutsuchawan.
I return to clean the bowl, not with cool water from the mizusashi but with the hot water from the 茶釜 chagama. In the depth of Winter, I opt not to waste anything. The final dregs of koicha are no different.
Water warms the bowl again and I whisk the remnants of thick tea liquid into a bright foamy bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
Thousands of tiny bubbles look back up at me like thousands of bright lights peering from the end of a long dark tunnel.
The flavor of the tea is sweet, grassy, light. It comes and fades gently against the harsh cold of this day of practice I’ve made.
As I clean the bowl once more with cool water, I close the tea session. Objects for tea are laid back to rest.
The lid of the chagama is placed atop the steaming kettle, save for a small gap to let the heat rise freely.
The light of the day grows brighter through the windowpane yet the frost has grown thicker too.
As I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for one, I recognize that the light that now reflects off each object will grow brighter more and more each day.
With the end of Daikan comes 立春 Risshun (Lìchūn in Mandarin), the start of Spring in the lunisolar calendar.
During this liminal time, the new year will begin.
What will come in this fast approaching Spring, this Water Tiger year?
What we’ve seen so far is an unseen world.
Dark, cold, foreboding, with new rules and new expectations.
A deep tunnel devoid of light, of murky dimensions. A space cold, save for the heat trapped within our bodies, within the clay body of a Bizen-yakitsutsuchawan.
Even as steam climbs skyward from the hot kettle, that which lies within it is a mystery.
How do we exist in an unseen world, one that has never existed before, a world with an unseen future? Do we seek the comforts of warmth, of home?
Or do we trek out into the cold, with only a few objects wrapped-up and packed upon our backs?
And what do we do when the terrain changes, landmarks shift, the path becomes obscured? What if there is no way back home? Just towards a future unknown? Footsteps fade as snow falls.
Wind blows over once sure stones that pointed the to the Way. An unseen world lies ahead, with only one’s practice to perhaps fortify you.
The new year has come and quickly it feels as if it has grown old. The depth of Winter is upon us now in the Northern Hemisphere and I remain locked within my studio, left to look out upon the snow that covers my garden. In the waning days of 小寒 Shōkan, Minor Cold, a period extending from approximately January 6-20, I’ve grown anxious to return to my tea practice and to offer up a first kettle for the new year.
初釜 hatsugama, “first kettle”, is typically conducted during the first weeks following the new year. For me, work, busyness, and the myriad of other excuses I use to put-off doing the important things in life have kept me from just simply sitting and giving into the deeper practice of preparing 濃茶 koicha. The itch I feel when I haven’t made a bowl of tea climbs inside me until it feels a bit unbearable and I find myself early one morning pouring fresh water into my old iron 茶釜 chagama…
…into the white-glazed interior of my tall, four-cornered 水指 mizusashi.
For many schools of tea, hatsugama is one of a multitude of cardinal points on the tea calendar. It is the moment of relative pomp amidst the otherwise withered and cold atmosphere of Winter. Fine objects and offerings may find their way into the 床の間 tokonoma. The dual silver and gold-glazed teabowls poetically known as 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth, are often employed when making tea for invited guests. And finer foods and 屠蘇 toso (spiced 酒 sake) are often served during 茶懐石 chakaiseki, the meal served before tea is prepared.
For me, I’ve made it my practice to abstain from these ostentations and, rather, attempt to situate the first kettle within the simpler, more pared-back nature of Winter. As I look out onto my garden, I have enough seasonal references and focal points of vitality against the cold weather to fill a thousand alcoves. Plum and pine. Small birds with their ruffled feathers. Snow-capped hillsides and silvery skies.
I situate my tea table beside the large window that looks out onto my garden and make it a space to prepare a bowl of tea. Beside it I set my kettle. Atop it, my mizusashi. Before the cool water vessel, I place a small 茶入 chaire, wrapped-up in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku, tied together with a brown silk cord.
From where I’ve been readying the objects for making tea, I return with a bowl set atop a wooden cup stand. It is an old 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan and accompanying 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Its colors are dark and austere with flashes of blue and copper-like hues.
Atop the bowl, I’ve placed a carved 茶杓 chashaku made of striped cypress. Beside it, a 茶筅 chasen made of black bamboo, set atop a folded 茶巾 chakin.
The items and their arrangement, the way the chakin is folded, the shape of the tea scoop, the bowl and its wooden stand, are formal, harkening back to forms that have their origin in China during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), back to when tea was both beverage and medicine. In my school, these objects and the actions used when employing them are specific to making a bowl of koicha and presenting it to an esteemed guest. With no guest available, I sit down to make a bowl of tea for myself. My guest, perhaps, is myself of this very moment, as I welcome my new year of tea practice with the water drawn from this “first kettle”.
Objects are first cleansed and then placed into their position for making tea.
First, the chaire is removed from its silken shifuku pouch. I loosen the cord and gathered cloth that once held the small ceramic container and its bone lid safely together.
Next, I place the wrapped object in my left hand and peel the two sides of the brocaded fabric away from the rounded surface of the chaire, revealing the smooth silk interior of the shifuku.
The chaire is lifted from its protective pouch and placed before the teabowl.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
I unfold my 袱紗 fukusa made of purple-dyed silk and inspect it before I refold it and use it to cleanse the surface and lid of the tiny 文淋 bunrin-shaped chaire.
Next, I refold the fukusa again and use it to cleanse the chashaku made of 檜 hinoki cypress.
I place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire and fold the fukusa, returning it to the side pocket of my woven Winter coat.
The chasen is removed from the chawan and placed beside the chaire momentarily. I lift the bamboo 柄杓 hishaku ladle off of the 蓋置 futaoki and, as I do so, I admire the images of auspicious objects rendered in blue colbalt upon the white porcelain.
I pinch and lift the chakin out from the center of the chawan and use it to remove the lid of the bubbling kettle beside me. The lid is placed atop the porcelain lid rest.
Water is drawn from the steaming kettle and poured into the teabowl.
The whisk is placed into the hot water to warm, wet, and soften as it soaks.
As it does so, the wooden tenmoku-dai is cleansed. The fukusa is folded and used to first purify the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup). Next, the flat surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).
With bowl and its wooden stand cleansed, all that is left to do is make a bowl of koicha.
As I lift the chashaku and chaire from their resting position and place the white bone lid beside the bowl and stand, a thought enters my mind.
The bowl I’ve chosen for this year’s hatsugama, for this first kettle, was one of my first teabowls. Ever since I’d begun my practice in tea, I’ve been drawn to tenmoku chawan. Their form, their history, their austerity. Yet, to use one properly, one must first learn how.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, a tenmoku chawan is reserved for the most formal of tea settings, often to serve tea to an important guest. To make tea for one’s self with one is odd. Yet, during this time of separateness, during a pandemic, it feels like a form of meditation to offer one’s self a bowl of tea. A recognition that even as we cannot yet connect with others, we can use this as an opportunity to connect with ourselves.
I pause and breathe and place three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder into the center of the teabowl.
I follow this by setting the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmoku-dai.
The scoop’s rounded tip, made of carved hinoki covered in a light dusting of matcha.
Its smooth handle pointed towards the white bone lid of the chaire.
I tilt the small bunrin chaire over and let the fine tea powder cascade downward into the center of the tenmoku chawan. It piles into a low mound, the shape of which creates a small chaotic impact of tea dust against the dark interior of the glazed teabowl.
I place the lid back onto the chaire and return it to rest beside the chasen. I mark the mound of matcha with the rounded edge of the tea scoop, making the sigil of my school into the tea dust.
I place the chashaku atop the chaire.
A measure of hot water is drawn from the kettle with the hishaku and a small amount is carefully poured into the teabowl to mix with the matcha.
As the green tea powder saturates, it darkens to a deep emerald hue, almost black within the low light that enters the concave of the tenmoku bowl.
I lift the whisk and press it downward into the tea and water concoction. I gently hold the teabowl with the outstretched thumb and index finger of my left hand. The tea is worked and kneaded into a thick paste and an additional draught of hot water is drawn from the kettle and mixed with the tea. This is blended further until the right consistency is met.
As I lift the chasen from the now fully blended koicha, I pull it vertically out of the tenmoku chawan, allowing any residual tea liquid to drip back down into the teabowl.
I then turn the whisk so the tines point upwards, each lacquered in a thin coat of the thick tea.
Setting the whisk beside the chaire, I turn my attention to the teabowl.
A deep pool of jade looks up at me from the dark, iron-spotted interior of the tenmoku bowl. From its center, I can make out the reflection of my shoulder.
Peering closer, I see the volume of the tea, the waves upon its surface. Thick, rumpled at the edges where the flat expanse of tea meets the downward sloping walls of the teabowl. A slick, viscous veneer of tea still clinging to the sides, marking the extent to which the whisk traveled from side to side, back and forth in a figure eight motion as the tea was blended.
I lift the bowl by the wide wooden flange of the cup stand and bring the both closer to me. I turn the bowl a quarter turn, so that the 正面 shōmen, the front of the bowl marked by an opalescent cascade of glaze, does not touch my lips as I drink the tea.
I breathe in as I sip the thick tea. Its heat and aroma radiates and surrounds me, filling my senses, banishing any lingering sleep of the morning. As I pause and tilt the bowl back down, I peer over its metallic rim, out onto the garden. Bright white light filtering through the trees, reflected upon the snow. As I tilt the bowl again for another sip, I am met by the dark interior, the deep green of the tea, the slow movement of the liquid down the ceramic sides of the tenmoku chawan.
With the final sip of koicha, I place the bowl back down with the wooden tenmoku-dai. From my pocket, I produce a piece of white 懐紙 kaishi paper, which I fold and use to wipe excess tea liquid from the rim of the tenmoku chawan.
Looking down at the bowl of koicha, my eye is caught by the trail of thick tea pulling from the once deep reflective pool. This trace, this record of a moment. Tea blended with the water from the first of many boiling kettles that will hopefully come throughout this year. How, even as this moment feels still alive, still present, it, too, has just passed.
I set the tenmoku chawan atop the wooden cup stand aside and bring forth a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The bright white splash of spiraling brushed glaze of the 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan sits in stark contrast to the more formal bowl that came before it.
I pull water from the mizusashi and pour it into the new teabowl. I dip and whisk the tines of the tea-covered chasen into the cool water. Clouds of green residual matcha billow and churn in the clean, clear water. The thin carved blades of the tea whisk glisten in the light of the morning.
I pour the liquid from the bowl and place chakin and chasen into the bowl.
I cleanse the chashaku once more, removing the tea dust that had coated its rounded tip.
Items are placed back at rest. Bowl beside chaire. Lid atop kettle. Ladle beside me.
In the quiet that comes once the kettle has been closed, I sit and look out upon the small stand of trees outside my garden. Pine trees. Plum. Hardy friends of Winter who, along with bamboo, weather the coldest of days yet to appear.
Shōkan is followed by 大寒 Daikan, “Major Cold” (approximately January 20-February 1), and then comes the new year of the lunisolar calendar.
I ponder this as I prepare each of the objects for 拝見 haiken.
Hatsugama marks a moment in time. Each bowl of tea does. Each time I sit down before the brazier, beside the sunken hearth, to offer tea to either guest or alone to myself. These moments accumulate. Yet as time moves forward on the calendar, do these moments do so as well?
I pause as I lay each object beside one another.
The round bunrin chaire beside the scoop.
The scoop beside the shifuku pouch.
When we offer tea for hatsugama, the emphasis is on freshness, cleanliness. You offer tea at the beginning of the new tea year and, with it, you say goodbye to the year that has passed.
In this way, 清 sei, or “purity” of the four fundamental principles of tea, 和敬清寂 wa kei sei jaku, takes on a dual meaning.
Sei can mean to purify one’s space, to offer up items and objects and tea in a clean manner.
However, it can also mean to offer one’s practice, one’s self, in a pure, unadorned, unattached way.
This can be the purity from that which came before it, a moment cleaned of a past that might end up influencing and causing distraction from the present.
It can also mean that, with a heart and mind unattached to goals or objectives, ambitions or desires, as one offers a bowl of tea to someone else, they do so without a motive or gaining thought.
As I sit and look upon these objects, their shadows cast against the swirling grain of an old 香盆 kōbon, I think of the difference between shadow and trace. Of tea and practice.
Which leaves a lasting impression? Which affects which?
What do I hope for this year to come, this year of the Tiger? What to learn from hatsugama, the first kettle?
Winter is here and the days grow colder, the shadows that are cast from the bare trees grow longer, daylight’s passage shorter. The festivities of the Western calendar seem to run headlong against the chaotic times we all seem to find ourselves in. The pandemic. The global climate crisis. War. Indifference. As the year draws closer to its close, to pause and sit and meditate on what we’ve just been through seems like a heavy task. And, yet, in these most difficult of times, it is when meditation seems most fitting.
It is December 21st, 2021. Today is the Winter Solstice. 冬至 Tōji in the old lunisolar calendar of Japan (Dōngzhì in Mandarin). On this day, I prepare the last kettle for the year that has now grown older and colder over these last few months. Since Autumn, I’ve transitioned from using the portable brazier to my improvised 置き炉 okiro made of an old New York apple crate. Its pine wooden walls are about the shape and size of the real thing, close enough for this tea practitioner to adopt it into his little world of tea in an act of 見立て mitate, whereas items not normally used in 茶の湯 chanoyu are incorporated and adapted for this purpose.
In the cold dark world of my tiny makeshift tea hut, I light a candle in the 床の間 tokonoma.
I carry the old iron kettle from my studio across the still frozen pathway that weaves from my home through the garden. I set the dark iron and patina’ed vessel down into the old wooden crate and within ten or so minutes small threads of steam begin to rise from the gap left open in the lid. Soon after comes the faint sound of the water boiling. 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama. Kettle for the year-end.
I wander back out into the cold world of the garden and then back into the warmth of my studio to gather more items for the 点前 temae. Since my makeshift tea hut has yet no 水屋 mizuya attached to it, I venture back and forth server al times before all tea objects are brought into the tea space. A tall, white glazed 水指 mizusashi made by a former tea teacher. A small eggplant-shaped 茶入 chaire enrobed in a 仕服 shifuku emblazoned with motif of pine sprig and chrysanthemum.
Other items come in last. A blush-colored 赤志野茶碗 akashino chawan, a 茶筅 chasen by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, a 茶杓 chashaku made of carved cedar. These, I place beside the tiny tea container. Finally, I trek once more from hut to studio and back, bringing with me an old 建水 kensui, a 蓋置 futaoki made of a piece of mottled bamboo, and 柄杓 hishaku.
In the dim light that illuminates the speckled and patterned plywood floor of my makeshift tea hut, items are arranged by their use. I place the futaoki beside the old apple crate. Atop this, I set the cup of the hishaku. The kensui is moved upward towards the edge of my left knee.
The chawan and its accompanying wares upon and within it are set at an angle beside the mitate okiro. The chaire in its pine sprig and chrysanthemum brocaded coat are set before this.
In a 炉点前 ro temae, during the season of the sunken hearth, objects are placed at forty five degree angles against the right angle positions of the open 炉口 roguchi or okiro and accompanying mizusashi. This all in accordance with the angle in which the host sits, which, during the dark and cold days of Winter, is made more informal and adjusted to feel as if closer to the guests. Even in my solitary practice, I take this stance, angling myself so that the small space between the upper left corner of the okiro and the uppermost border of my knees becomes the area in which tea will be made. While it may initially feel more limited, the movements of the host become more open as the Winter position allows for the arc of the right hand to move from one’s far left to draw water from the mizusashi to its far right to offer a bowl of tea to the invited guest. In this, there remains a naturalness to it all, with a heightened sense of down-to-earth informality that embodies the markedly more rustic and 詫び wabi aesthetic found in Winter.
The meditation of the tea practice continues well before its beginning and well after its end. The pause that comes before one sets forth to make tea is preceded by a myriad of actions to enable this moment to happen. Steps in the path between this moment and the many moments that led to it. I feel this most of all during the silence that exists once I place the chaire before the chawan and before I reach down with both hands to untie the cord that binds it within its shifuku pouch.
The motion is simple and direct. Both palms remain flattened, fingers pointed downward as they gather first around the base of the brocaded bag and then upward towards the purple braided cord. One finger holds onto one loop of the tie, the other loosens the other and pulls.
The 緒 o is drawn towards the body and the knot opens.
The tiny tea container and pouch are turned a quarter turn and each side of the gathered fabric is pulled flat. The tiny object and its covering are then placed in the left palm and each side of the cloth is peeled away with the heal of the right hand.
The chaire is then lifted out of the pouch and placed before the chawan.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
In preparing a bowl of tea, each step flows into the next. In a similar fashion, Winter emerges each day. At no time does one day seem more different than the next. The change over time is gradual until one suddenly realizes the truth of what it means to be cold, to see ice, to know what snow feels like and how it sounds as is falls. In the tearoom, the stillness is broke too by action, silence broken by the sound of the kettle coming to a boil, of the gentle setting down of wares, of the gliding of cloth over objects as they are cleansed.
The folding of the 袱紗 fukusa comes first with an inhalation and the sensation of cold air filling my chest. The left hand grips the silken cloth and pulls it from the side pocket of my Winter jacket. Pinched with the thumb and index finger of my right hand, I open it along one of its folded corners as if lifting a page from a book. I lift it upward and the cloth unfurls. with my left hand, I fold the cloth in midair into a series of triangular corrugations and then over onto itself. It is folded and then folded once again, moving from the right hand to the left and then back again.
With the left hand, the chaire is brought upward and cloth and tea container meet. The chaire is turned against the smooth silk fabric of the fukusa, first cleansing the sides. The fukusa is then pinched and the corners are used to lightly cleanse the lid of the tea container. The lid is then lifted momentarily to inspect that the chaire contains tea, and the chaire is closed once again.
Once the tea container is placed down, now between mizusashi and okiro, my gaze shifts to the teabowl with its collected wares. First the fukusa is refolded and the chashaku is cleansed. The silk cloth runs over the thin handle and carved top of the cedar scoop several times. It is then placed atop the white bone cover of the chaire, beside the nodule that is unique to the 瓶子づくの牙蓋 heishi-zuku no gebuta style lid, the shape of which is reminiscent of ancient jars used to hold offertory 酒 sake in 神道 Shintō shrines. The angle in which it is set points away from me towards the crack in the door that I entered, towards a small shaft of light that tells me that morning’s time continues to pass.
I breathe again and lift the chasen out from the deep-set teabowl and place it beside the resting chaire and chashaku. The line that the whisk and tea container creates connects the space between the place of the cold water container and the position of the okiro, the heat of the hearth, and the element of water boiling within the void of the iron kettle. Between this small space is contained all that is needed to make a bowl of tea. Heat and cold. Fire and water. Metal and wood. Leaf and clay. Space and the air between.
The bowl is moved forward, the 茶巾 chakin is pulled from its interior, refolded, and placed momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi.
I breathe and, upon the exhalation, I reach for the long thin handle of the hishaku that has been resting parallel to my right thigh. I shift the water scoop from right hand to left. With my right hand, I return to lift the chakin, pinched between thumb and the first two fingers. The angle of my arms opens up as keep the hishaku stationary, pointed cup facing upward, in line with my left thigh, while I move my right arm to reach to uncover the boiling kettle. I use the chakin, pinched between my forefingers and thumb, to grasp the hollow copper knob of the kettle’s lid. The thin, folded linen cloth protects my hand as I tilt and lift the circular metal top from the boiling 茶釜 chagama.
Steam rises wildly from the kettle as I remove the lid and place it atop the cut bamboo futaoki. I let go of the hollow bronze finial of the lid and rest the chakin beside it. The shadows these resting objects cast are dark and muted in the low light that filters through the sole window of my makeshift tea hut.
I transfer hishaku from left to right hand and dip its bamboo cup into the hot and boiling water of the kama. The stippled and curved shape of the ladle disappears in the dark world of the kettle’s interior, reappearing filled with bright clear water.
For a moment I naturally pause, the cup of the hishaku hovering above the open mouth of the chawan.
A moment more and, with the turn of my arm, the water cascades into the empty teabowl.
I set hishaku down upon the open kettle, its cup turned downward, the flat side of the bamboo handle rests against both the rim of the kettle’s mouth and the pine wooden edge of the okiro.
I return my gaze to the teabowl. Clear, clean, steaming water glistening within its concave interior. What little light of the morning enters and curves against the edge of the water that meets the inside surface of the bowl. Colors and cracks and crazed glazes come forth from what were once dull features. The heat and the liveliness of the boiled water reanimates the body of this small, handheld tea vessel that hasn’t yet been used since last when Winter’s words were spoken, during the final moments of the cold months, before Spring’s arrival, as the days grew incrementally lighter. Today, on the shortest day of the year, the darkest of days, seeing this bowl again is like being visited by an old friend. The passage of time, of the almost twenty years now since I first made tea with this bowl. The decades seem as if they are momentarily forgotten as I peer down at the bowl, the sparkling light through the water, remembering when we were both much younger than we are now.
I lift and dip the bamboo chasen into the warm water held within the chawan. The carved and sharpened tines fade into the shadows and the steam.
Pressing and whisking and placing the chasen back beside the chaire. Lifting and turning and warming the round teabowl in my hands before I pour its contents out into the until now empty kensui. I catch the last drop of hot water with the folded chakin and begin to use this simple moistened cloth to cleans both rim and interior of bowl.
Surfaces where lips will touch, where tea will be made. These are wiped and made clean, both for the eyes and for the mind. As I cleanse the bowl, it remains firm in my hands. Whereas other schools may tilt the bowl, my school holds it level, steady, keeping it upright as a gesture of respect and reverence to the object. The bowl is set down in a similar manner, leaving the chakin pressed against its inner edge.
The moistened cloth is then plucked up by the right hand, placed into the left, and then refolded to be set down again atop the kettle’s lid.
For a brief moment, everything in the tearoom is still, save for the rolling water of the boiling kettle. The shadows of the morning light rest on each object, collecting in dark pools.
The deep, narrow concave of the round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shaped teabowl) seems especially dark in the low light of the Winter solstice. A faint layer of steam still rising off of its red and umber glazed skin.
Minute amounts of still warm water collected in the tiny fissures that mark where heat caused expansion in the kiln sparkle like snow and ice.
I set forth to begin to make tea, a hearty bowl of koicha to fortify my spirit and body on a cold day. I grip the thin handle of the chashaku between my thumb and fingers of my right hand and bring it towards my body within the span of one exhalation and inhalation. One out breath and I reach for the chaire with my left hand. One in breath and I bring the tiny ceramic jar towards me.
The lid is removed with the right hand and is placed beside the teabowl.
The chaire is brought down to the level of the chawan’s rim and the chashaku is dipped into the dark open void of the tea container, the carved cedar scoop disappears in the shadows cast by the low light of the early morning.
Three heaps of powdered tea are placed into the center of the bowl and the chashaku is placed at an angle along the edge of the iron basin-shaped chawan.
The chaire is held in both hands and is tilted and turned slowly over the teabowl, sending a thin, bright green cascade of 抹茶 matcha downward, piling into an ever-growing mound of tea at the center of the chawan. Once fully emptied, the chaire is turned upward again, the lid placed back upon it, and the small ceramic tea jar is set back beside the chasen.
I lift the chashaku once more, and with its rounded tip, carve the sigil of my school into the small hill of powdered tea.
With chaire, scoop, and bowl at rest, I draw a scoop of hot water from the boiling kettle. Carefully, I pour a small measure of the water down upon the mound of green tea, focusing my awareness on how much water I am adding and what initial effect it will have on the matcha. I pour the remaining water in the hishaku’s cup to the kettle.
I return the bamboo ladle back to the kettle and lift the chasen with my right hand. With my left hand forming a half moon shape, I grip the side of the teabowl to steady it against the wooden floor of my makeshift tea hut. With my right hand, I bring the chasen downward into the hollow of the chawan, pressing down into the wetted mound of matcha and begin to slowly and methodically whisk the concoction into a thick, even paste.
As I stare down into the dark world that exists within the teabowl, I feel as if it is a mirror to the world which I currently occupy. Dark yet warm and full of activity, creation, transformation. To successfully produce a bowl of 濃茶 koicha requires a keen understanding of uncertainty and meeting a multitude of challenges. In the cold of Winter, the kettle requires a higher heat. In the dark of the year’s shortest day, one cannot see clearly into the depths of the teabowl and, therefore, must feel one’s way through the action, as water and tea combine into one fluid matter.
At this point, all one has is the senses. The feeling of the resistance of the tea as it slowly melds and blends. The intense aroma of matcha as it lifts upwards into the cold air of the tea space. The sound of the whisk as it slowly pushes through the thick tea liquid.
I move the handle of the chasen from right hand to left, keeping the tines inside of the teabowl. With right hand, I lift and dip the ladle into the hot boiling water of the kettle, drawing from it another draught. Carefully, calmly, I inhale as I bring the hishaku’s cup down towards the bowl. I exhale and let a minute amount of hot water pass from ladle’s bamboo cup through the tea-covered tines of the chasen whisk to the dark interior of the teabowl.
指湯 sashi-yu. Adding more hot water so one can adjust the thickness of the tea. If this is done correctly, it means that the koicha’s consistency will be perfect. Too much water and it becomes too thin. Not enough and the reason won’t flow down the tall, narrow walls of this particular teabowl. In this practice, experience leads to balance.
I return the remaining water in the ladle’s cup back to the kettle and set the hishaku back upon the kama and okiro. Breathing inward, I return my focus to whisking tea. Breathing outward, I press the whisk back and forth, slowly, attentively, until the mixture is even, the surface of the liquid flat, glossy, mirror-like akin to that of lacquer.
I lift the whisk upward above the bowl and turn it right-side-up in mid-air. A thick coating of koicha still clings to the cut bamboo tines of the chasen.
I set the whisk back down beside the chaire, beside the carved cedar scoop.
For a moment I sit once more, pausing to hear the sound of the kettle, to the breeze pushing through the pine trees that tower over this simple garden shed, to the large iron bell that hangs beneath the eaves of my home on the other side of the curving stone path.
The bustling world outside the quiet of the tea hut. The chaos and clammed as people rush from this place and that in preparations for the holidays and for the year’s end. The craziness of the current state of the world and the death that hangs heavy in the air. The fear, the sadness, the longing and grief.
To think this is kept at bay by these thin walls of mine, to fool one’s self into thinking that the crack in the door that lets in the light of the early morning won’t also let these energies pour forth into here as well. To resist the crashing waves only leads to one’s collapse. To dive deep into the swirling and turbulent times may prove to be a wiser choice.
In the dim light of my garden shed, the koicha I’ve made looks especially dark. As I lift the bowl to turn it and place it in the guest position, I notice how the light wraps around its round, globe-like shape. How the shadows it casts stretch and crawl across the chaotic patterns upon the plywood floor. How the edges of these shadows fade into light so that the boundary between light and darkness is not defined but permeable, nebulous.
As I stand up and reposition myself to accept the bowl of tea as a guest, I’m given a new perspective of the space I’ve been sitting in. From this vantage point the light is brighter, catching in the wisps and plumes of steam that rise from the kettle’s open mouth. I see the shaded outlines of bare tree branches, of roof tops in the distance, of ice crystals that form at the edges around the sole window pane. I see the dark lustrous emerald green of the warm, flat, lacquer-like surface of tea that I’ve produced for myself as host enjoy by myself as guest.
The small world of the empty tea room feels both constrained and expansive. The space between where I once sat and where I sit now seems a world away, yet barely an arm’s length.
The alcove in the corner, with its lone burning candle light shimmers and glows, flickering with the wind that creeps between the boards, between the joined edges of walls.
I lift the bowl of tea and drink from it whole heartedly. The liquid is thick, warm, awakening. The bitter and bittersweet of koicha is arresting. A shock to the system. All previously drowsiness abated. The instantaneous quality of the moment made incredibly clear.
I tilt the chawan back again and drink twice more from it, the remainder of the tea is reduced to a thick coating upon the inside of the bowl. I set it down once more before me to appreciate its shape, its dried persimmon-like color, the upward path of the residual koicha along its inner walls.
I return the bowl back to the host’s position and return myself to the position of the host. Before I opt to cleanse the bowl, to close-up my day’s tea practice, and to close-up the small tea hut to retreat once more into the warm interior of my studio space, I decide to use the remaining tea left in the chawan to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
To do this, I draw cool water first from the mizusashi and blend it with the hot water of the kama. Next, I draw water from the now cooler kettle and pour half-a-ladle’s-worth into the bowl.
I whisk the tea in a vigorous manner, pulling it from the inner walls of the teabowl and whipping it into a bright, light foam.
I pause for a moment more as I enjoy the sight of this impromptu bowl of tea. Observing how the light of the day dances on the surface made of tiny bubbles. It serves as a reminder that even in these dark days there is still light, however minute they may be. It is found clinging to the imperfect, rough surfaces of everyday life, of practice, of the choices we make, as we take time to sit and be silent with ourselves away from the clamoring masses and social requirements. The light of meditation found in the dark corner of an old, run-down garden shed at the edge of a small forest.
I lift and turn the bowl and silently thank the madness of the world that pushed me to take time to be alone. I tilt and drink up the last bowl of tea made from the waters of the last kettle of the year’s end. It is sweet, bright, sparkling with a gentle flavor that lingers.
As I place the bow in my hands to inspect it, I gaze upon the small collection of foam against its dimpled surface. The depth of darkness of this deep-set bowl. Light and the residue of tea just eking-out a foothold.
With cool water I cleanse the bowl finally. I place the chakin back within its hollow form.
I set the chasen against the fold of the linen cloth, the thin bamboo tines silhouetted against its pale white woven surface.
I cleanse the chashaku once more with the folded silk of the fukusa and place it down upon the rounded rim of the teabowl.
I return chawan and chaire before the mizusashi. Cool water is placed once more into the steaming center of the boiling pot. The lid placed once again on top. The hiss and tumble of water settles momentarily to a quiet stop.
In the stillness that exists as the water cools and the light shifts, I put objects at rest.
The hishaku is placed atop the kensui and the bamboo lid rest placed below it.
Items once used to prepare tea are then arranged once more to be viewed and appreciated in a simple 拝見 haiken.
An old 香盆 kōban incense tray becomes an open field upon which objects are placed upon. First the carved lid of the chaire is set on its side, waiting as its corresponding other half is cleansed.
When they finally meet again and are placed upon the tray they appear jewel-like in the low glow of the morning light.
Next, the shifuku is lifted from its resting place beside the mizusashi and is formed in the hand to appear full, voluminous. It is placed down beside the chaire it had first enrobed, now both empty of their hallowed contents.
Finally, the carved chashaku scoop is set between both brocaded pouch and small tea jar.
These, the tools that came into contact with the tea.
Offered up to the guest to enjoy once more before they are, like a memory, packed away.
Warm light cast against cooling objects. Dark pools of shadows collecting in corners. Set within the alcove there is a single candle light. No flower for this gathering. Just the flicker of a flame and the cold iron rings of the kettle’s 鐶 kan set on old weathered Beacon brick. Dark days for this moment in time, followed by the deepening of Winter’s cold. This, the last kettle for the old year. What potential to come from its boiling and bubbling core? What will come from the chaos with its dark interior? Perhaps it will engender this practice of mine as I sit in these shadows now.
It’s the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month. In the old lunisolar calendar, this is Chrysanthemum Festival. Sitting in my studio, looking out across the garden, vines wrapped around the trellis, flowers of the bitter melon bursting against a dark green canvas, I think about the months that have passed since I’ve given myself time to write, to put thoughts down on page.
The cicada’s hum seems to now be giving way to the sound of field crickets, to the call of crows, to the geese and katydid. Gone is the heat that, as a tea person, I sought to abate with references to water, to coolness, to impossible ice. Soon, the decay of Autumn will be all around me. Winter’s withered repose soon there after.
To sit and ask “what happened?” or “how did I get here?” will not do. Questions of the past rarely help to give a clear picture of the present. Instead, as I sit, I find myself using the stillness as an opportunity to examine my current practice and reflect on this Summer as a great moment of change.
It began amidst a flurry of activity. I had become engaged to my partner earlier in the end of Winter-beginning of Spring, and found myself planning for a wedding in the time of an unpredictable pandemic. For what “free time” I was sporadically given, I used most of it to piece together the logistics and physical material that would eventually make up the wedding celebration. Like a massive 茶事 chaji, I threw myself into the act, ideating with my partner, collectively envisioning what a day built on intention and mindfulness would look like. In those brief in-between moments, I would make tea.
As the heat of Summer climbed, I sought momentary solace in my garden shed. With resources and time stretched thin, my hopes of transforming the meager structure into a full-fledged 茶室 chashitsu was put on hold. The result was a meditation on what life gave me. A weather-worn hut. Barely walls enough to keep the rain out, barely doors firm enough to keep a mouse or squirrel from wandering in. Spiders clinging to the rafters. A butterfly caught against the window pane, let free to soar skyward.
The hut became a refuge against the world outside. The path became grown-over. Slick with dew in the morning, the high humidity of the day left the stones wet until dusk.
Inside the shack, I made impromptu 点前 temae. 葉蓋点前 Habuta-temae became my regular favorite, using leaves from the local maple trees found around my property.
Hydrangea from my garden glistened in my makeshift 床の間 tokonoma.
Mulberries from the woods made for a readily available 和菓子 wagashi, their uneven leaves providing for a perfect surface to set them upon.
Old wares kept me company.
A shallow tea bowl from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) became my Summer bowl.
A 茶杓 chashaku fashioned from speckled bamboo became my wish for rain.
The light that gathered on the plywood floor of my teahouse was the first to fill the cup of my 柄杓 hishaku, well before hot or cool water did.
It was a world of light and a world of shadow. A realm to calm the mind, to cool the soul.
The practice that evolved over the Summer, from one tea session to the next, came in fits as starts. All the while, I felt my hands becoming steadier, my form more fluid. Subtle adjustments that had come from regular practice joined now with accepted muscle memory.
Water from kettle to 茶碗 chawan. Light flooding into water, illuminating the interior of the small, shallow bowl.
Tines of the 茶筅 chasen opened up. The practice expanded into regions of my life I had not anticipated.
The mere act of setting down the tea scoop lost its gravitas. In exchange came the ordinary.
Wiping of the tea bowl from when it was first wetted felt like polishing a mirror, in that I could see my reflection on the action.
Cool light against a warm ceramic surface. Woven textures. Rumpled edges. Old fabric, as old as my practice.
The steam that rose from the 茶釜 chagama and the freedom of being able to make tea outside of the home gave me a new sense of levity against the deadlines and time stamps that came with planning a wedding and building a life. Work felt like it was somewhere else, somewhere outside the four thin plywood walls of my tearoom. The regular roar of a far-off road a reminder of how busy everyone and everything can be. The hum and hiss of the kettle became a quiet reminder of the need to stop everything. To sit and practice.
Scooping tea from the wooden interior of an old 平棗 hira-natsume felt like Summer. Deep, soft, luscious tea powder placed into a crisp blue-green celadon bowl. The mark of my school’s sigil upon the bright green mound.
The delicate tap and bell-like sound that rang from the small shallow bowl.
The shadows that collected in the concave, in the pits and scratches, the ripples and edges fashioned and formed a thousand years ago.
The kiln of life shaping me now as I practiced tea in the heat of a Summer morning, in the scant spare time I gave myself, in the brief interludes between work and work after work.
The lifting of the large maple leaf off of the glass 水指 mizusashi.
Folding it and placing it into the dark void of the 建水 kensui.
Dipping the ladle into the depths of the cool water so as to bring it forth and let it mix and coalesce with the bubbling boiling water of the 釜 kama. Fierce forces merging with the gentle. Quiet and still with moving and churning. Sitting amongst these forces, the mind isn’t given the chance to discern which is “right” or “wrong”. No value to these elements as they conjoin. Instead, just a reverence for their place within a practice. Their importance to the moment. As important as the tea. As important as the wares. As important as the space they all occupy. As important as the persons who brought them into being.
Tea and water are brought together, first in a great wave, one upon the other.
Whisked and whipped into a single concoction, both combine, suspended one alongside the other.
The bowl is lifted and passed.
I, practicing alone, move to the space of the guest and delight in the flavor of wild fruit before enjoying the soft, bittersweet flavor of tea.
Light gathers upon the foamed 薄茶 usucha.
Sipped and savored and gone, the empty interior of the tea bowl feels vacant.
Warmth still radiated from its clay and glazed body. The scent of tea still lingered in the air. The afterglow of a moment still present.
Cleaned and objects put away, the practice in the shed did not end when it was over. The steady pace of work and life kept on and pushed me forward.
Tomatoes grow green on the vine, slowly turning red as they ripened.
Okra flowers blossomed and bloomed and bore their bright green and red pods.
Ground cherries formed little lanterns upon their hairy stems.
My partner and I wed, first over a bowl of tea, then before our friends and family. Like a beautiful storm, it came and passed, and scattered all who came to witness the moment back across the earth, back to their homes and back into memories. Now, savoring the flavor of the tea that was served in silver and shared between my love and I, it’s impossible to encapsulate the experience of this Summer in words alone.
There were sounds, sensations, scents. A great fragrance made of a myriad of qualities wafted through the terrible and terrific world and kept me buoyant throughout it all. Stress and pressure would sometimes rise and crescendo, but in moments like this, I’d walk across the garden and find time with myself alone.
Now as Summer is gone and Autumn is here, the clinging to desires, to goals, to wants and needs, seems to have mellowed. Where once I had wracked my mind to write and to perform the very best I could, to turn each moment with tea into poetry, each allotted time at work into productivity, I’ve now since let this give way to a settled practice.
I am reminded of sitting by a rushing stream; its movements fluid and sure. Water passes over the rocks and around the rocks. Rocks and trees and mountains get in the way of the water and yet a river forms between them. Letting life get in the way of practice does not hinder it but shapes it. Let life get in the way. Assuredly, your practice will form around it, with it, conjoining into one form, one concoction of the surrounding elements.
As Summer turns to Autumn, the earth cools again. The skies, once a bright azure, turn a buff grey. The pumpkin blossoms bloom.
The wild grape leaves grow weathered more and more each day.
Old carrot flowers dry beside fresh morning glories.
The path and the first fallen leaves.
As a final note: Thanks to Sam Bufalo LLC, @sambufalo for the photo of the outdoor tea gathering!
The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.
The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.
The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.
These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.
The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.
Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.
Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.
The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.
Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.
The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.
Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?
I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.
Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.
I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.
I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.
For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.
I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.
In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.
The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.
I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.
The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.
Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.
I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.
I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.
I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.
I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.
I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.
I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.
The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.
Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.
All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.
I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.
The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.
The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.
The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.
I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.
Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.
I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.
The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.
I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.
Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.
I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.
I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.
I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.
As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.
The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.
I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.
I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.
In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.
As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.
The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.
I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.
Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.
The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.
Space exists between them both.
Room enough to breathe.
Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.
Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.
The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.
The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.
I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.
When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?
“Once in a lifetime”.
“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? ￼
The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.
The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.
The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.
The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.
Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.
Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.
Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).
To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.
Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.
A void. A dark mystery still.
The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.
I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.
The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.
I return the bowl to its upright position.
The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.
Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?
Is the surface an indicator of the void?
Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.
An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.