Tag Archives: Kōdō

Facets of the same spirit. Interdependence.

In the tradition of my California-based Japanese Sōtō Zen lineage, July 4th is celebrated as “Interdependence Day”. As a coy musing on the American national holiday, Interdependence Day takes into account the inter-connectedness of all beings, of time and space. It honors the interplay of individuals, the connections we forge and have yet to forge. It recognizes that no one person is an island, and that we are all part of a larger whole. As 洞山良价 Dòngshān Liángjiè (807–869), a famous Zen master, said,

“The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

There is a source and a product of the source. Each depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.

As a practitioner of tea, I see this natural tendency everywhere. Tea, the plant (Camellia sinensis), has its origins somewhere along the edges of modern-day Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal. Chinese tea culture has its origins in these otherwise “foreign” cultures. Similarly, Korean and Japanese tea culture borrows heavily from Chinese tea culture(s) from various points in time. What you see (and taste) today is the result of centuries of cultural interplay. Each depend on one another without being wholly dependent on one another.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), the act of making tea calls upon a multi-faceted history. Chinese methods of preparing tea from the 唐 Táng, 宋 Sòng, 元 Yuán, and 明 Míng periods (618-1644) all have had their influence on the development of Japanese tea ceremony from the 15th to 17th century. From the teaware to the manner of use and even the psychology of the tea ceremony have been marked by a “foreign” culture (as well as many other “foreign” cultures).

Similarly, too, chanoyu has been influenced by other arts. 香道 kōdō (xiāngdào in Mandarin; lit. “Way of incense”), an art that originally has its roots in ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist incense ceremonies of India, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan, has had an immense influence on tea. From the way incense and incense utensils are used, held, cleansed, and shared, each were eventually echoed in the tea ceremony. Even the mentality of kōdō, which attunes the host and guests’ mind to the singularity of a moment, is present in tea. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the two arts, one will find how influential early incense practitioners such as 志野宗信 Shino Sōshin (1444–1523) were to the bourgeoning art and practiced chanoyu.

On this Interdependence Day, I can’t help but to bring together these arts. Normally I burn incense prior to sitting for tea. This is commonly done before the guests come for tea as the aroma of incense should typically not compete with the flavor of tea. However, today I opt to enjoy both together. Setting a piece of glowing charcoal into a small 楽 Raku family 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), I place a thin leaf of mica and fine sliver of 沈香 jinkō (aloeswood) atop the shaped mound of warm ash. Placed within an antique wooden タバコ盆 tabako-bon (“tobacco tray”), I take a moment to pause and appreciate the quiet aroma of the rare incense wood.

Next, I set out my tea equipage: a modern 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made by Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango. These I set within a Song period 青白 qīngbái “green-white” porcelain 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki 香合 kōgō made by my dear tea friend Nessim. Purifying each, I am reminded of how similar the action is to cleansing the incense wares. A 袱紗 fukusa (silk cloth for purifying objects) is used for both incense and tea. The chashaku is cleansed as if it were a silver incense implement.

The bowl is warmed and set before me as if it were a cleansed incense cup.

Three scoops of tea are placed into the center of the teabowl, as if I were issuing-out a small heap of 抹香 makkō (“powdered incense”) into an incense burner.

The tea is whisked and the aroma is instantly evident, growing stronger as it lifts upward from the small, shallow Summer bowl.

Set side-by-side, I appreciate the delicate scent of aloeswood with the bright fragrance of tea. Lifting the bowl to my lips, both tea and incense are enjoyed. The silky foam of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) and the warm resin of rare wood.

With the tea finished, I take a moment to view the final dregs clinging to the jade-like ancient porcelain.

Cleansing the implements one last time, I savor the lingering flavors and intermingling of spirits. Of cultures. Of flavors. Of host and guests.

When we share in a bowl of tea, we also celebrate this. With this bowl of tea I give to you, I humble myself. By accepting the bowl of tea, you reflect and respect the effort and attention that I put into preparing the bowl of tea. The feeling is different yet mutual, and ultimately in unison. When I look across the table, I see a buddha.

Happy Interdependence Day.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Poetry, Tea

Returning to a Beginner’s Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

All Labor Has Dignity

A day after friends gathered for incense and tea, I hesitate to put away the assembled wares. With the golden light of a cold January day streaming through the windows of my apartment, each object seems to glow against the blonde wood and white plaster. Hearing the gusts of swirling wind outside, I want to stay indoors, and in the still of the day I sit to meditate. It is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the United States, and a meditation seems fitting to reflect upon a man who promoted nonviolence. As the warm light cascades across the table where I sit and read excerpts from a speech Dr. King gave in 1962 to an assembly of the Wholesale and Department Store Union in Monticello, New York, sunlight touches a Japanese 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi (“Demon Hagi”) teapot, a gold lacquer-repaired porcelain 宝瓶 hōhin (handleless teapot), an American-made 茶碗 chawan (teabowl), and folded paper envelopes of incense.

“There are three major evils…” King spoke… “the evil of war, the evil of economic injustice, and the evil of racial injustice.”

As light shifts and moves along the beetle-green ceramic edges of an ash-filled incense cup, my mind focuses on these words.

Not much has changed. Such evils continue to grip this nation, keeping people of all genders, races, occupations, classes, and creeds locked in mindless competition and conflict.

In tea and in incense, there is no competition. In the meditative mind, we only sit with ourselves.

Comparisons, desires, and greed can be observed and fall by the wayside. Our daily work, when done full-heartedly, brings its own sense of dignity.

In the tearoom, we leave our worldly trappings and our markers of status at the door.

One sheds a layer of red dust and enters a pure space.

Sitting amidst the quiet, on this day, a bittersweet contemplation rises. In the cold of a bright and shining Winter’s midday light, sadness sits peacefully side-by-side with joy.

To be part of a practice that honors peace such as tea, to be part of a method such as nonviolence, and to walk in this world in such a way, brings questions to the meditative mind. How to use each moment as if it were your last to further such causes? How to touch the heart so as to redirect one’s spirit towards love? Where will our future be when our present is currently such?

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Green Tea, History, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Sencha, Tea, Tea Tasting

Preparing for an Incense Gathering

While much of what we think in terms of tea occurs during the tea gathering, one mustn’t overlook the hours of preparation that happen prior to the event. The mindset this creates is as much part of the “action” of tea, and certainly is equally (if not more so) meditative.

As I collect items for an incense gathering that is due to happen later this weekend, I begin the “first steps” in putting together the affects for the “listening of incense” (聞香 mon kō). Pulled from their respective 桐箱 kiribako (wooden storage boxes), I produce a ceramic 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup) and complementary three-tiered 香箱 kōbako (“incense box”). Their shapes, when set together, reflect an ancient conception of heaven and earth, represented by a square and circle.

Once opened, the kōbako reveals a tiny world within, comprised of a thin mica plate, finely-cut chips of 沈香 jinkō (aloeswood), and wrapped-up slivers of precious 伽羅 kyara (highest grade of aloeswood).

As I continue to pull from my collection of items for incense, I find an antique fish-shaped 香合 kōgo (incense container).

Once opened, tightly-rolled balls of hand-produced 練香 nerikō (kneeded incense) are revealed, their scent to remain a mystery until pressed into the hot ash of the 炉 ro (sunken hearth) set for tea.

As I ready for the event, fine ash and charcoal are pulled together.

Each void of missing charcoal is a reminder of past gatherings.

Larger pieces of antique jinkō are found, as is a Korean celadon incense container.

Additional incense woods are pulled together (sandalwood, aloeswood, and kyara), all neatly wrapped in folded washi paper.

A final moment is spent mindfully setting-out and purifying the utensils to be used for the weekend’s gathering.

Once cleansed, I delicately set each into a small container made of sandalwood.

As I go through these motions, both physical and psychological, the sense of intention becomes profound, palpable. Motions meet mindfulness, breath meets the natural cadence of unfolding thoughts, and distractions fall by the wayside. Clarity arrives.

In taking time to prepare, a meditation occurs before a meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Listening to Incense

For many, December is a time marked by an intense flurry of work in anticipation for upcoming holidays and the beginning of the New Year. During this time, there is not much celebration nor moments to pause.

Aching to “just sit” I opted to do something a bit different today, a bit outside (though not entirely outside) the realm of tea.

Taking the briefest of moment prior to beginning my busy work day, I rose and began to heat charcoal. From a small wooden 桐箱 kiribako (wooden storage box), I produced a ceramic 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), filled it with white ash, and set it atop a lacquer tray. To the side of this, I arranged the utensils needed for 聞香 monkō (“listening to incense”).

Retrieving the now smoldering charcoal, I pressed it into the center of the ash within the ceramic incense cup.

Shaping the ash into a mound that fully enrobed the charcoal, I then began the meticulous act of shaping the ash into a refined, low apex.

With one metal chopstick, I inscribe the ash with a pattern of lines resembling an antique millstone, finishing-up by gently wiping away any excess dust from the ceramic incense cup with a feather.

Once fully shaped, a single hole is pierced into the ash, allowing the buried charcoal to “breathe”. Peering down this, the live charcoal visibly glows within the mound of white ash.

Finally, a thin mica plate is placed atop the ash peak.

From a wooden 香合 kōgo (“incense container”), I draw out a single, tiny hand-cut fleck of 沈香 jinkō (agarwood).

This is then delicately set onto the thin mica plate.

In a matter of minutes, the subtle fragrance of the incense wood is detected.

Lifting the kiki-gōro to my nose, holding with both hands, I bring it close to my face. Rather than smell the incense, I allow the scent to envelop me. The fragrance is deep, complex, warming.

For a moment I enjoy the presence of this beautiful aroma. For a moment I pause in the bustle of the closing year.


Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Incense, Japan, Meditation, Tea