Spring has faded and the first warm days of Summer of the old lunisolar calendar have arrived in the Hudson Valley. Birdsongs peal against the bright blue sky. Rhubarb flowers climb and explode in the garden and I don’t have it in me to cut them down.
Heat rises. So, too, does a wisp of smoke from my incense burner, filling my studio with the soft scent of 伽羅 kyara. The plastered walls and wooden floors remain cold to the touch. How long before these will warm as well and no cool solace will exist until Autumn arrives?
I pour fresh water into my kettle and sit myself down upon the floor before a sliding glass door that looks out onto my garden. Sounds and fresh breezes blow in, mixing with the incense in the air.
As the heat from the kettle grows, I produce a small ceramic container: a celadon jar originally intended for sweets turned tea caddy with a lid made of dried leaves, cork, and thread.
Inside are the tightly rolled leaves of a 大禹嶺高山茶 Dàyǔlǐng gāoshān chá that a friend gifted to me last Winter. Will their flavors be as tightly kept as their leaves are bundled? Or will they open as Summer has here in the river valley I’ve called home for these past few years?
I loosely arrange objects across the wooden plank I use for a tea table. Cloth. 茶船 chá chuán. A vintage 綠泥西施壺 lǜní Xīshī hú. A shallow 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Objects are kept informal, alluding to the feeling of the day.
I measure out a portion of tea and place it into the hollow of my warmed teapot.
I wait for a moment and watch the sunlight filter through the pines and maples that tower over the garden outside the open door.
Birds cackle and dogs in the distance bark but do not wake mine who sleeps beside my work desk. A relaxed state seems to settle all about me as I wait for the tea to brew.
Pot in hand, I draw it to the wide opening of the shallow teabowl.
With a simple downward tilt of my wrist and the pot and the tea pours effortlessly into the empty vessel. The color of tea is initially bright and clear against the pale blue-green of the qīngbái cháwǎn.
As the liqueur continues to pour, the color deepens and darkens, until jade turns to gold.
The light of the day is caught against the flat surface of the warm liquid. Blue sky against the crystalline tea liqueur.
As I set the teapot back down into the chá chuán and lift the lid off and angle it upon the open top, the distinctive scent of Dàyǔlǐng becomes present. Big, clean, a mixture of fresh vegetation and fragrant magnolia. Even before I let the liquid cross by lips, I feel as if I’ve already slacked my thirst.
As I take the first sip, I am met with minerality. Next, sweetness. Cascades of flavors followed by a pronounced lingering mouthfeel. Dàyǔlǐng is a unique tea.
Often harvested in Winter, the leaves produce a markedly sweet, if not cane sugar-like, flavor, which recede and evolve into notes of fresh greens and flowers that bloom on trees. The feeling left over is soft, buttery, almost chewy. The qualities of this tea meld into the environment of the cool climes of my garden-level studio.
I relax more and, as I do, so too does my brewing style. I let the tea steep longer.
The color, accordingly, darkens.
The liqueur seems to glow as the sunlight does against the trees and the mountains in the distance.
As the day fades, so too does the tea. Countless steepings have pushed this tea to evolve into a calm, crisp elixir. Still holding on to its Wintery sweetness, although, gone is the intense complexity that the first infusions produced.
Early Summer, too, feels this way. Gone are the radical shifts that marked the previous seasons. Gone is the ice and the garden locked with snow. Gone is the hardened soil, the bare trees, the dark clouds.
What has come is sweet, mellow, easy. The birds relax, as do the leaves in the breeze. The sound of a frog is heard nearby as creeks throb and gurgle beside willows and rocks in gullies and between homes and hillocks of the Hudson Valley.
The sun has woken this world around me and now it stands tall and shimmers in shades of green. The tea leaves, too, evoke this change, this quality, this coming to life from Winter’s hold.
Cool shadows cast darker and darker shade across the stretch of wood and floorboards of my studio. The ease of early Summer spreads and collects in the cooling vessels of my assembled tea set.
Warm winds and a shallow bowl. Winter’s tea and Summer’s flavor.
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.
A little over a month ago I led the tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”. As part of an ongoing series of tea talks I’ve been leading for over a decade, and a sequel to a talk I gave several years ago, this time I dove even deeper into tea’s history to investigate tea and tea culture during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Now, as many of us find ourselves sequestered in our homes, under self-quarantine against COVID-19, I want to offer up the video from this tea talk, filmed live at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Only two hours long, consider this video a crash course in ancient tea history as we discuss how tea developed from ancient medicine to lofty beverage, enjoyed by scholars, monks and emperors alike. Using ancient Sòng, as well as antique and contemporary reproductions of Sòng teawares, we’ll go into great detail of how tea during the Song period was prepared.
All 抹茶 mǒchá, unless stated otherwise, was hand-produced and hand-ground in the manner detailed in Sòng period texts, to approximate as closely the look, feel and flavor from this time. For reference, I have provided a list of what we tasted.
• First Tea: Hand-ground semi-wild 白茶 báichá from Fuding, Fujian, China.
• Second “Tea”: Powdered mugwort leaves grown and produced in South Korea.
• Third Tea: Hand-ground 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn grown in the Dongting mountains near Lake Tai, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.
In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), a strong emphasis is placed on realizing things as they come and existing in the “now” moment. For this reason, we use tea objects in accordance with the seasons. For Winter, a high-walled teabowl is employed, whereas in the heat of Summer, shallow 茶碗 chawan (teabowl) are used. To use a bowl out of season is quite peculiar, if not all together incorrect. However, sometimes we may use a teabowl for other reasons.
In chanoyu, there is a concept of 取り合わせ toriawase, roughly meaning the intentional bringing together of objects in a time and space that reflect a sentiment or feeling. Expressing oneself through toriawase can be quite specific and is often meant to bring the host and guest closer through the host’s acknowledgment of the guest’s own perspective (whether it is their life’s story, grasp of history, etc). This interplay of tea object, host and guest can be heightened if the they share a common reference point. In this way, sharing a bowl of tea can be akin to conversing in a shared or common language only known between friends.
Several weeks ago, a dear friend and fellow tea person died from a brief but intense battle with cancer. For my small cohort of friends who knew him, he was quite the bright light in our lives. A student and teacher of the Urasenke school, an artist, poet, and Zen practitioner, he often offered up his sprawling home-come-art installation to us as a practice space, a shared hermitage, and respite from our regularly busied lives. He lived in poverty but he lived richly.
Since his passing, I’ve felt a bit hollow. The small corner of my heart that his spirit once occupied had emptied. The gentle guidance he once offered seemed distant. I kept opening up the sliding door of my antique tea cabinet and would look upon the wooden box that held a teabowl he gave me when we first met. I wanted to use it but couldn’t bring myself to opening it up. The knot of silk seemed unable to come untied.
I talked with friends and lit incense. Recited sutras and meditated. I wrapped my mind around my thoughts but as much as I could, nothing seemed to come undone.
In the midst of this, I thought of offering my dead friend some tea; to memorialize his life and offer solace to his memory and to those who knew him. I opened the tea cabinet door. Pulled out the box. Undid the silk cord that held the lid on tight. Unearthed the shrouded bowl from the shallow box and unwrapped it from its crumpled cloth.
The bowl was a gift from Simon, my now-deceased friend. As a 沓形茶碗 kutsu-gata chawan (lit. “clog-shaped” teabowl), it is usually only used during the hottest days of Summer. Its low-slung walls and wide body help to dissipate the heat of the tea, allowing it to evoke a sense of coolness to the guest. Its nebulous shape and equally informal stylings as a kuro-Oribe (黒織部), “black Oribe”) teabowl are both arresting and relaxed. To use this bowl now would be intentionally unseasonable. However, as a memorial object, something to invoke the spirit of a friend, I feel it is only right.
Bringing the 風炉釜 furo-gama (“wind furnace” kettle) to a boil, I set my tea space for a somber session. A white flower in the alcove. The scent of temple incense. The dull glow of morning’s light.
As I sit down to prepare a bowl of tea, I purify each object. A white-glazed Korean porcelain tea jar.
A dark bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop). A 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk).
I set the chashaku atop the tea jar. The dark ebony color of the bamboo in stark juxtaposition to the funerary white of the icy glaze.
These, set together, are tools for tea, implements for remembrance.
I pour a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the teabowl and wet the chasen, its thin tines relaxing and expanding as they warm.
Cleansing the irregularly-shapes teabowl, it appears to shine as if it were an imperfect ceramic roof tile that had been polished into a jewel.
Scooping-out bright 抹茶 matcha powder and placing it into the center “pool” of the chawan, the fragrant scent of fresh tea rises into the air. A sense of life returns to the melancholy space.
I draw water from the 水差 mizusashi (cold water jar) and mix it with the boiling water of the kettle. I draw water from the kettle and pour it into the chawan. As I lift the whisk and set it into the bowl, I relax my wrist and exhale, easing my shoulders and finding my center. As if settling-down to meditate, I focus my mind and whisk tea. What rises is a fine foam, lustrous and radiant.
As I sit alone to enjoy this moment with tea, I can’t help but to offer the bowl to others. As I will never again be able to enjoy tea with Simon, I offer this bowl of tea to those who knew him. To my friend Mikey who introduced me to Simon years ago and who, himself, learned about the Way of tea through him. To my friend Djefsky, whose world travels would at times cross through Simon’s hermitage in Healdsburg, California, and they would sit and laugh like two eccentrics. To others who may never know Simon, may this humble bowl reveal his sensibilities to them. May this object teach them his simple dharma.
As I sit with this bowl in hand, its dissipating warmth creeps into my palms. As I sip from its warped edge, the flavor of tea fills my body. As I finish the last of the dregs, no residual foam clings to its walls. A clean slate. A bonfire fully burned. Nothing remains.
I cleanse the bowl again and sit for a while before putting it away. Would I use it again this year? Would Summer come and I feel the need to hold it in my hands again?
I wrap it up once again and place it back into its wooden container. It stares up at me. From a funeral shroud, a hidden treasure.
I tie the silken cords across the wooden top. The artist’s mark among the shadows cast from my tearoom window.
Spring is a time when the world renews itself, when the green grass pushes through the soft soil, when the buds swell on the trees, caught at the moment right before they bloom. The air is fresh and a sober sense of life and exuberance begins to rouse the the once Winter-locked spirit. We cannot quite name this feeling, but can ascribe to it the many attributes that surround us at this time, evinced by the subtle changes in the natural world.
In tea, this return to Spring is evident, though not overplayed. Instead, tea in early Spring becomes simpler, cleaner, paired down. It is as if tea is just beginning to wake up for the year ahead and, as such, nothing is overwhelming. The 炉 ro (sunken hearth) is still in use, though the iron kettle begins to move higher off of the charcoal (sometimes through the employment of a hanging kettle/雲龍釜/unryūgama, literally “cloud dragon kettle”). As the world begins to warm, the tearoom begins to cool.
This balance is also found when introducing a new piece of teaware into my collection. Recently, I was offered a beautiful 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop) by two dear fellow tea friends in New York City. Unable to turn them down, I eagerly brought the piece home. The teascoop, a work by famed Nara-based tea crafts person 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, is made of smoked bamboo, with a small but notable bud emerging from the chashaku’s 節 fushi (center node). This gives the chashaku a playful, informal (草, sō) quality to it.
Excited to introduce this piece into rotation within my tea practice, I meditated for several days on how I might incorporate the teascoop into a 点前 temae (procedure for tea ceremony). After considering the season, an agreeable approach arose.
On a quiet morning I woke and set a kettle to boil. With the light of the day beginning to filter through the window of my tearoom, I sat to enjoy a bowl of tea. For a tea container, I opted for a small 文琳茶入 “Bunrin” chaire (“Bunrin” ceramic tea container). But rather than have the small ceramic caddy enrobed in its accompanying 仕服 shifuku (brocade silk pouch), I decided to leave the chaire exposed, partly as the color of its glaze resembled that of the chashaku, and partly as I had decided to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha (thin tea). This practice of allowing for the use of a chaire without its shifuku is particular to the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of tea, something that I have come to appreciate.
For the teabowl, I felt that there was no better way to welcome something new than with something old. For this reason, I chose a 12th-14th century Vietnamese celadon 茶碗 chawan. It’s soft, olive green glaze sat in perfect harmonic contrast to the lustrous brown of the chashaku.
Cleansing each item and setting them together for the very first time, each seemed to compliment one another.
The antique chawan shone like a silvery mirror, slick with warm water that had purified it.
After the bowl had been dried with the 茶巾 chakin (white cloth for wiping wet tea objects) three scoops of freshly-ground 抹茶 matcha powder were placed gently into the center of the wide bowl, appearing luminous against the matte surface of the old celadon. A light tap of the chashaku against the inside of the bowlproduced a soft ringing (in Sōhen-ryū, if using an antique chawan, we always gently tap the inside, rather than on the rim, as a sign of respect and to safeguard against potentially damaging the teabowl).
Half a ladle’s-worth of hot water was then poured into the chawan and whisked into a fine foam. The resulting bowl of tea seemed to glow in the morning light.
Set next to the other wares, everything felt refreshed, renewed by the act of making tea.
A moment passed as I sat and enjoyed the tea alone. Sitting with the warm bowl in hand, my gaze fell upon the new scoop, residual tea powder still clinging to its hand-hewn tip. What will this object see in its lifetime? Whose hands will it touch? How many countless bowls of tea will it enjoy, long after I am dead?
After I cleaned each object and returned them to their respective cupboards, I kept the chashaku out and prepared a solitary 拝見 haiken (viewing of teaware). Placed on a folded 古帛紗 kobukusa (silk cloth for holding tea objects), I welcomed the chashaku into this world. Heralded not by pomp or grandeur but by the simple act of making a humble bowl of tea, the scoop felt at ease with its new life.
Just as early Spring is not marked by the splendor of flowers but the appearance of minute buds, this teascoop carries with it a potential energy that has yet to unfurl. For this moment, the 名 mei (name given to a tea object) “木の芽” Ko no me (“leaf bud”, as well as a poetic name for tea) came to mind. A something new that sits with something old.
In the depth of Winter, the swirl of preparation for the New Year can pull one’s mind away from the moment. Planning for the near future is always fraught with expectations. How we can situate ourselves amidst all of this can be a challenge. As I’ve been practicing tea for almost two decades, remaining mindful in every moment is a constant test.
The act of making tea forces one to slow their pace. Nothing can be done too quickly. Water cannot come to a boil faster than the charcoal can make it do so. Even the act of preparing tea is a measured process.
Having stored-away a collection of vintage and antique 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea containers), I bring them out to decide which will be used for 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). This process of unwrapping and unboxing is, itself, part of the meditation that arises from tea.
Does the shape reflect the season? Might the 仕服 shifuku (silk brocaded pouch that holds the chaire) contain an image that relates to an attending guest? Will the glaze of the ceramic tea caddy harmonize well with the 茶碗 chawan (tea bowl)? In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), this is called 取り合わせ toriawase, a collection of items for tea, selected mindfully with intention.
As we bring friends and family together to celebrate the end of this year, observe how you sit in this moment. What do you bring to this moment? How do you let it unfold?
(IMAGE: Rather than distract from work, tea can be used to fortify one’s focus. How to do that is the challenge.)
Dear beloved blog readers,
I will admit, making tea isn’t always convenient. Sometimes bringing out the yixing teapot or gaiwan or ceramic chawan (茶碗, “tea bowl”) just isn’t practical when I’m in work “crunch mode”.
Lately I’ve been working on a variety of projects and , well, sometimes tea can get pushed to the bottom of my “to do” list. However, like anything in life, there is a gong fu to approaching tea in the time of work. In this entry, I’m going to share some of my insights into this, and, as always, I hope to hear some of yours as well.
Become part of the 99%
Tea people love their tea and love their teaware. Speaking from personal experience, when given the chance I will almost always use a teapot. The act of making tea in this manner is centering and can change my mental attitude. Studies have even shown that meditative acts like this can even alter one’s neurological state. That said, setting up the tea equipage can take time and has the potential of shifting focus away from a particular priority.
The “work around” for this tea in time for work is to make tea like most of the world (certainly most of Asia) makes their tea: the jar.
Taking just a handful of tea leaves and placing them into a jar and pouring hot-warm water over them can do wonders. The glass walls of a jar will quickly dissipate any excess heat, and the added transparency offers a view into the “progress” of the steep. Filtering the tea leaves is simple: your teeth and gravity is all that’s needed. For this point, I generally brew larger leaf teas for jar tea like Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁, Taiwanese high mountain oolongs 高山烏龍茶, and da ye (大葉, “big leaf”) puer.
(IMAGE: Making semi-wild Tai Ping Hou Kui 太平猴魁 green tea using the jar tea method produces a gorgeous liqueur and balanced flavor.)
When the tea becomes too strong, I add more water. From what I’ve observed, more robust and balanced steeping a come from this method rather than drinking all of the tea and then refilling the empty jar. Likewise, I find that as the tea cools after a long steeping the flavors become more pronounced and complex. Maybe this is why jar tea is so popular!
Mizuya cha: “kitchen matcha”
Another quick tea alternative is to go the matcha route sans the ceremony. In Japan this is called mizuya cha (水屋茶, みずやちゃ), or “water room tea”, referring to the small preparation room that is often attached to a Japanese tearoom/teahouse (茶室, chashitsu). In traditional tea ceremonies where there are often large numbers of guest, only one (or sometimes just a few) tea bowls of matcha are ceremoniously prepared. The remainder are prepared “off stage” and are offered to guests pre-made.
In modern day practice, mizuya cha typically translates to “kitchen tea”, or tea simply made in the comfort of one’s own kitchen, devoid of the “ceremony”. Making tea this way, with a bowl (either traditional chawan or even a basic rice bowl), a whisk, and hot water can be done within a matter of minutes and can offer a quick respite from work without breaking “the flow”.
(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan used for today’s mizuya cha has its historical origins in Korean rice bowls, which were treasured by the likes of 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu for their functionality and informal nature.)
What’s great here too is that making tea in this manner is still very much part of the “tea mind” cultivated in Chanoyu (茶の湯, lit. “hot water for tea”, the practice of Japanese tea ceremony), stressing lack of formality and a humble manner of “just making tea”. So long as your mind and heart are still in it, this way of making tea can still be a meditative act.
(IMAGE: An antique Japanese Hagi chawan is paired with a contemporary negoro-nuri black-and-red lacquer chashaku teascoop balance the informality of making tea in the kitchen.)
Drinking from the teapot
My last “pro tip” for today is maybe my favorite guilty pleasure.
Again, I love teaware (especially yixing teapots), and when there is any excuse to use a finely-crafted piece I will. That said, having the whole “gong fu cha kit” at my desk or work table (or park bench) can quickly clutter the work space and mind. To avoid this, I pare everything down to their most elemental: just the teapot.
With just a teapot, one is left with really just one option: to drink directly from the teapot. While this might seem a bit ungainly (and for those opposed to public breastfeeding, a bit reminiscent and disturbing… for the record, I’m all for public breastfeeding, it’s natural, let people be free damn it!), it is very effective and has historical precedent.
While I am currently unable to cite historical documentation to back this up, I have had countless tea farmers, merchants, and masters tell me that they do this and that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have done this. Some have even gone so far as to say that this was the particular habit of the young, well-heeled scholarly/playboy brats of the late Qing/early Republic era. I, too, have done this on numerous occasions, sauntering down streets in San Francisco sipping from my small teapot and wandering into local establishments to get a “top-off” of warm water. (I have yet to do this in New York City, but hope to soon)
The results of brewing this way is quite remarkable, offering a level of control and intimacy with the tea not available through more “orthodox” means. Like brewing with a jar, one should use warm water, obviously so as not to scald one’s hand while holding the teapot, but also to achieve a smooth and balanced brew.
(IMAGE: For drinking directly from the teapot, I favor my 1980s duan ni Xi Shi hu （鍛泥西施壺). The shape of the pot feels good in the hand and the spout is easy to drink from.)
Also, by cradling the teapot in your hand and using your thumb to press and release the top hole of the teapot lid as a carburetor, you can adjust the flow of the tea from teapot to mouth. Speaking again from experience, I typically find more success drinking directly from the spout, rather than pouring the liquid into my mouth (however, this is completely up to you, though the aforementioned approach can get messy).
What works for you while working?
For sure this is a very basic “list” of approaches to making tea in time of work. As always, the environment is going to dictate what works best for you (and for the tea). This is where we as tea people can be creative.
So, what works for you? How do you make tea while working…and how do you strike that balance between quality of work and brew? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!