For the past months, the world has seemed to grow increasingly more tense. In January, we saw the US and Iran lock horns in an episode that briefly saw both nations mobilize and perform acts of violent retaliation. Years of civil war in Yemen continues to spiral into a bloody quagmire. Protests in Hong Kong, France, Chile, Palestine, India, and Northern Syria are just a sampling of the ongoing and ever-worsening environment of instability. Even on a biological level, with the outbreak and worldwide spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19 (2019-nCoV), the fragility of our little world seems to be evermore at the whims and caprice of unforeseen and uncontrollable forces.
In such a situation, how can one even think of tea? Yet, perhaps it is at this very moment that tea is most needed. For the bulk of two decades now I have practiced 茶の湯 chanoyu, an art that has its origins in meditative self-cultivation of 禪 Zen Buddhism and collaborative arts like 連歌 renga and 香道 kōdō.
Yet, especially during times like we see today, I remain ever-aware that chanoyu was also an art appropriated and practiced by the warrior class of medieval Japan. Developed during an age of chaotic extremes, what today we call chanoyu emerged during the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States” (c. 1467 – c. 1615). In a period which saw endless military, political and social strife wreak havoc in all corners of the Japanese archipelago, the Way of Tea (茶道 chadō) was not merely a means to escape into a world of quietude, it was also a way to reclaim space and time, defiantly, if need be, against the pale of constant violence and upheaval.
While the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 virus may not be as violent, it is quite jarring. People are suffering and many have died. The word I knew a month ago is not the world I live in today. Governments at large seem to offer little guidance in this moment and, instead, the response has been largely grassroots. For the while, all we can do is remain in self isolation, hoping for the worst to pass and that our mere presence does not adversely affect those around us.
During this last week, as mandatory social distancing and quarantine swiftly became the new norm, I found myself far from my little tea room in New York City, instead lodged-up alone in a friend’s vacated and empty home in rural upstate New York. As I knew I would be here for a while, I managed to bring with me a small collection of teaware, just enough to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha during my sequestering, made portable through the means of packing the tea objects away in an old vintage metal tool box.
As I sat in the sparsely furnished attic of my friend’s house, spent a morning I arranging a small setting for tea. In lieu of 畳 tatami, I used a broad stretch of woven indigo cloth to define the impromptu tea space. Setting the tool box at the upper end of this cloth, I undid its mechanical latch, opening its machine-hewn lid, and pulling forth a simple 黒瀬戸茶碗 Kuro–Seto chawan, 茶筅 chasen, and 茶杓 chashaku. For a tea caddy, I opted to keep the matcha in the metal tin it came in, it seemingly harmonizing well with the old tool box.
Lacking any proper brazier or traditional iron kettle, I made due with a small mass-produced kettle. Wanting to keep everything together and self contained, I placed the kettle atop the old tool box, itself becoming something like an improvised shelf for a modified 点前 temae I hoped to perform.
Setting the teaware before me, I began to make a solitary bowl of tea. As I began, I could sense my mind shift from the din of world events to the silence of the tea space. The wares before set before me, having travelled in the small metal tool box, seemed smaller than before, as if they were all that remained of a life I left back in the bustling, chaotic city.
The black lacquered tea tin is cleansed with my folded 袱紗 fukusa and then is placed atop the old tool box.
Next, I turned my gaze to the chawan and assorted wares collected within it. I purified the chashaku.
I warmed the whisk. I waited and watched it sigh heavily, observing its submerged tines expand outward in the in the warm water collected within the teabowl.
I arrange each object, shifting from their place of rest into action and back to rest again. Where they had once begun, they since moved, ready to perform.
The bowl, now a vacant void, is ready to receive the matcha.
Scooping out three small portions of tea powder, I place each into the center of the chawan, creating a small heap in the vessel’s center.
Placing the chasen over the tiny mound, I then pour water over the thin bamboo blades, producing a delicate cascade and evenly distributing the liquid over the tea. As with every time before, the result of the hot water mixing with the freshly-ground green tea produced an effluence of bright, intense aroma. However, for some unknown reason, my response to this feels different. A sense of distance, of detachment from the world outside my window fills me, a feeling of longing for home yet not quite being able to locate where that is.
As I whisk the tea into a thick foam, my mind lingers on this thought, it floating buoyant amidst my otherwise focused mind which keeps in step with my task at hand. I sit back to appreciate the bowl of tea, first as it is set before me and then, again, as I place it against the wide expanse of woven indigo cloth.
The bowl and my mind seem to be adrift, caught upon an endless sea. I pause and take the first sip.
My eyes gaze upwards to exposed wooden beams that cut laterally across the apex of the attic’s ceiling.
I take another sip and my eyes settle upon a wound-up ball of hempen rope, its appearance reminiscent of the rope-bound 止め石 tome–ishi that mark a closed path within the 露地 roji.
I finish the final dregs matcha and set the bowl back before me, appreciating the remnants of foam that cling to the inner walls of the black-glazed chawan. In this moment of meditation, I am reminded of the stories of the early warrior tea practitioners.
During the height of the “tea craze” that swept through Japan’s elite classes during the 16th century, it was not uncommon for high-ranking samurai to accept a bowl of tea before heading out to face battle. Often was the case that this would be their last. The notions of ephemerality and impermanence that permeates chanoyu was, in many ways, the very essence of these individuals whose lives were marked by endless martial conflict.
Words we now may casually admire upon a scroll such as 一期一会 ichi–go ichi–e, were brutally realized by many in their own, often short lifetimes. Now facing these uncertain times, will I, too, or those near and dear to me come to realize this with the passing of their own lives? To avoid such realities is itself a delusion.
In tea, we practice recognizing the evanescence of all things that come and go. A season. A flower. A moment. A life. There is an uneasiness when we try to hold on to something that must, in truth, pass. We all feel this. To ignore it is a delusion as well. To sit with it, however, to meditate upon what it means and how it feels, perhaps this is the way.
As I cleanse the teabowl once again, I wipe away the remaining residue of tea from the ceramic vessel. Traces of green collect in the woven fabric of the white linen 茶巾 chakin. I brush off the remaining tea dust that clings to the chashaku, and shake this off into the 建水 kensui.
I place the objects back to rest, their purpose being met. I sit back once more and admire the wares.
The small kettle. The old tool box. The array of teawares of ceramic, bamboo, tin and cloth. All to be packed up again, collected into a box. Ready to make a move. Ready for action. Ready to create a space for tea and for time at any moment.
I remember looking up to the window peeking out the gabled roof. What world resides out on the other side? What world will that be tomorrow?
Now back in New York City, days since this bowl of tea, the moment long since faded, these questions still have no resolution. The tomorrow I had envisioned in the past never came. Something else, entirely unknown and unexpected, has come in its place. Yet the broad expanse of sky that I peered out upon back then is the same that I see today. What change will come?