Tag Archives: Koicha

What Welcomes Winter

November began and now seems as if it is almost over. What began as a last stand for Autumn’s glory now seems torn and tattered like the many leaves that still cling to the trees around my tea house. Save for the few maple trees that still hold onto their leaves, the small forest that abuts my wooden hut is bare, wind whips through the branches, whistling sweetly. Mornings are cold. The rain of October is replaced with lighter occasional showers, intermittently broken by bright blue skies of daybreak.

Frost forms. A thin surface of ice covers small pools of rainwater left on the edges of my garden. Bright red rose hips alight the otherwise colorless world. Autumn’s last hydrangeas are dry and brittle. What welcomes Winter are these minute indicators. Not one but all at the same time seem to arrive like a royal retinue, heralding the new season, forcing all beings to bow to Winter’s undeniable influence.

The tea world is not immune to these effects. Everything about the practice shifts at this time. Gone are the regular outings to the river’s edge for an impromptu 野点 nodate. The matchstick partitions and 簾 sudare blinds that once welcomed cool breezes have been folded up and stored away, not to return until Summer’s heat rises. The last of Autumn’s wild grasses are featured in the 床間 tokonoma, but hazel and Winter chrysanthemum seem more appropriate. The tea jar is cut open and the 風炉 furo is finally put away in favor for the 炉 ro. The tiny world of the tearoom becomes all the more intimate as people gather closer to the sunken hearth.

In these times of pandemic, I have only one guest, my partner, and I do not invite friends to share tea. We huddle together in the biting cold on the first day of the tenth lunar month to mark the shift in season. 立冬 Ritto. The first day of Winter on the old lunar calendar. In lieu of having a sunken hearth, I use an old 火鉢 hibachi made from a single burl of paulownia wood. In the makeshift tearoom, it, and the iron kettle set within it, are the only source of heat.

Typically, the opening of the ro (炉開 robiraki or 開炉 kairo) comes sometime between late October to early November, when the presence of Winter is first felt. The 16th century teapractitioner千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took a rather poetic approach, shifting to the 囲炉裏 irori only once the 柚子 yuzu turned color. Others, still, wait for the first day of the tenth lunar month. It was believed that on the tenth (double) hour of the first day of the tenth month (the hour of the boar on the first day of the month of the boar) that it would be safe to transition to a sunken hearth, as this hour was linked to the element water, ensuring a safe use of fire in the house (and tea space). I have chosen to make tea in accordance with this tradition, however, given how cold the day was, I opted to set the time earlier.

Regardless, as we enter the small tea hut, the light remains dim. Steam rises from the kettle, its lid resting at an angle. The sound of the boiling water within it produces a steady hiss, akin to the sound of wind pressing through the small forest.

With the door closed behind us, we spend a brief moment to appreciate a lone dried-out sprig of hydrangea flowers, worn and weathered yet still brilliant and sparkling like silver in the limited light of the tearoom.

As I set down in the position of host and my partner in the position of guest, I offer a bow and tea sweets made of fragrant jelly and sweet chestnut, set atop a large leaf plucked from a nearby maple tree.

Before me sits the 水指 mizusashi and 茶入 chaire enrobed in a silk 私服 shifuku pouch.

Stitched upon the green and gold brocade are the patterns of chrysanthemum and pine. One, the last echoes of Autumn. The other, the fresh arrival of new Winter’s growth. A time of transition.

I move the chaire over to the right and place the tea bowl, 茶筅 chasen and 茶杓 chashaku beside it.

Next, I bring out the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki, setting these on either side of me.

Preparing tea in the ro season calls for a more intimate arrangement. The 茶碗 chawan and chaire are placed at an angle, set closer to the guest and to the heat of the sunken hearth.

As each object is cleansed, they are set between the mizusashi and kettle, bridging the gap between the source of hot fire and cool water.

The chaire is removed from the shifuku.

The chashaku is placed atop the lid of the tea container.

The chasen is placed beside this.

The chawan is brought closer to the host. Hot water is drawn from the kettle for the first time and poured into the black void of the 黒瀬戸茶碗 kuro Seto chawan. Steam rises and swirls in thin plumes as the water enters and settles into the tea bowl.

I set the flat tines of the chasen into the bowl and for a moment they catch the light that filters through the one window cut into the tearoom. The whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmed. The chasen is returned beside the chaire.

The water is poured from tea bowl to kensui. I pause and wait for the final drop of water to roll out of the chawan before wiping the vessel dry with the 茶巾 chakin.

I return the bowl before me and reach for the chashaku. I bow and motion to my partner to enjoy the sweet as I begin to prepare a bowl of tea. I bring the chaire to my center and remove the lid, placing it beside the tea bowl. I press the curved tip of the chashaku into the opening of the chaire and pull out three scoops of bright 抹茶 matcha powder.

I place the teascoop atop the rim of the chawan. As I tilt the chaire over and pour powdered tea into the tea bowl, I notice how light and shadow play off of one another. The bright green cascade of tea falling into the black bowl. The angled darkness forming from the edges of the chawan and lid of the chaire. The dark skin of the smoky-colored bamboo and the thin layer of tea clinging to it.

I lift the tea container and place the lid back atop it. I pick up the chashaku and mark the mound of tea.

I remove the lid of the iron 茶釜 chagama and pull water from it, pouring a some of the water into the chawan and over the tea and returning the rest to the kettle.

The tea is kneaded slowly with the thick, flat tines of the chasen. Slowly the concoction becomes a thick green paste. Slowly the scent of tea overtakes the aroma of incense, of the decaying leaves outside, of the fresh pine needle buds that brush against the moss-covered roof of the tea hut.

More water is added to the mixture and the tea is, again, slowly whisked until it achieves a mirror-like appearance. Light once again enters the tea bowl, illuminating now the emerald pool of thick tea.

I lift the bowl and place it in front of my partner. A bowl to share, unconventionally, between guest and host. As they lift the bowl and enjoy the first sip, I wait in silence.

As second and third sip are enjoyed, I pick up the last lone tea sweet and eat it before the tea is passed to me.

A single trail of 濃茶 koicha runs up one side of the inner wall of the tea bowl. As I lift and turn the bowl to drink from it, I make sure that I drink beside this track of tea. Slowly, as I tilt the bowl to drink from it, the koicha climbs down from the center. Light from the window bounces off the rounded well of the chawan, off the unctuous layer of tea that lines the vessel, off the minuscule pocks and pores of the black glaze. The tea slowly makes its way to my mouth and soon is gone. All that remains is a thin layer that now coats the bottom of the tea bowl.

With bowl placed once again before me, I opt to make an informal gesture and whisk the remaining tea into a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Hot water is scooped once again from the chagama and poured into the chawan.

In the swirling steam that emanates from the tea bow, I quickly whisk a bowl of tea for my partner, offering another moment to enjoy the shift from Autumn to Winter, from something somber to something light, unexpected, relaxed. In this transition from furo to ro, the sentiment in the tea space becomes less formal and less constrained.

The ro, itself, was not part of the formal tea room arrangement, only making its way into the emerging practice of tea as the rustic aesthetic of 侘茶 wabicha became more widely adopted. Appropriating, adopting and adapting forms from kitchens, travelers’ inns and hermit huts, the sunken hearth calls host and guest to gather closer, to share the heat, to offer everything that one can muster as what is available becomes more meager in the cold Winter months. To transform the “waste” and dregs of tea as an offering to one’s guest is, itself, a gift during this time. Unconventional but welcomed. Like the ro itself, or, in the case of my makeshift tea hut, an old hibachi.

With the final bowl of tea drunk, I cleanse the bowl one last time. Water is added first from the chagama to the bowl and then poured into the kensui. Next, cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chawan. The bowl and chasen are cleansed and placed one inside the other. The chashaku is wiped again with the 服紗 fukusa, removing the residual tea dust from the tip of the tea scoop.

The chaire is moved back to rest in front of the mizusashi. The chawan and collected wares resting within it are placed beside the chaire. A drought of cool water is added to the chagama and the lid is placed atop it.

The mizusashi is closed. The black lacquer lid appears like a dark void, caught in the angular light that beams through the small tearoom.

In the waning moments of the tea gathering, I offer 拝見 haiken to my partner, giving them a final opportunity to appreciate the tea ware and the quiet of the tea space. Each item is purified before presented.

The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.

The shifuku is plucked from its resting position beside the mizusashi and rearranged to sit beside the chaire it once covered and protected.

Finally, the chashaku is cleaned one last time and placed between the shifuku pouch and tea container.

In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.

The glaze of the small chaire holds an iridescent golden shine.

The shifuku pouch, emblazoned in a tessellated pattern of pine and chrysanthemum, sparkles.

The hazy pattern upon the bamboo skin of chashaku appears like a moon peering through a thick clouds of night. Despite the chill in the air, the light in the tearoom is warm, echoed by the heat that radiates from the simmering kettle.

Objects are returned to the host and the chawan is offered for one last viewing. A kuro Seto tea bowl.

Coated mostly in a black glaze, the texture of which is reminiscent of the dimples surface of citrus skin (柚子黒 yuzu-guro), save for the exposed clay of the foot.

The cut calligraphic mark of the potter, 杉浦芳樹 Sugiura Yoshiki (1915-1982) catches shadow and light.

The imprint of the artist’s life left within the clay, felt by the palm of those who’ve since held his work. The imprint of this moment left in the minds of guest and host, two partners as we endeavor to make a life together amidst the chaos of the world. All set against the ever-changing constant swirl of the seasons, one transitioning into another.

What welcomes Winter is what we see and what we feel. Demarcations on a calendar, one the freezing of the earth, on the chafing colors of the leaves on the trees and on the surface of a citrus’ skin. A hole cut out in the center of a tea space. A void where once the furo sat in Summer. The exchange of one thing for another. Of time. Of things that may no longer return come the next year. Of death and decay. What welcomes Winter now may, indeed, never be seen again, save for the impressions they’ve left on our mind.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Upon Which the Winds Will Carry

In the hurried moments between months, time and opportunities for tea can slip by as quickly as an early Autumn’s breeze that pushes through the tops of trees. As August passes into September, the winds increase their vigor. In some parts of the world, this brings cool air, calming the residual heat of lingering late Summer. In other parts, winds whip and whirl and wind-up cinders and smoke, causing great conflagrations that climb up mountains and rip through forests.

Within my new abode in the mountains of upstate New York, I escape the clamor of the city. On cooler days, I find myself wandering through my garden or walking by the river’s edge. At dawn, morning glories climb and uncurl in bursts of purple and pink.

Tall grasses bow slightly to the weight of morning’s accumulated dew. Sparrows and crickets chirp and sing.

As the sun climbs upward, the haze across the broad river’s expanse rises, revealing the opposite shore like a phantom ship. Darting here and there, the last of the dragonflies lollop and land on the smooth rocks and on cattail shoots.

Tucked in my traveling tea chest, I’ve brought a container for tea, a teabowl, a wooden rest, whisk and scoop. In my new home, I set up a temporary space for tea, marked out by an old plank of wood and assorted wares. In time, this will transform into something more formal. For now, the limited assemblage of teaware, a portable 風炉釜 furo-gama and 水指 mizusashi is all that is needed to practice 点前 temae.

With water boiling in the iron kettle, I enter the temporary space with a small, wide-bodied 大海茶入 daikai chaire. As I set it before the mizusashi, I glance at the knot tied in the long cord of the 仕服 shifuku, the 長緒 nagao. For this brief moment of early Autumn, the cord is tied in the shape of a dragonfly. The knot twists and curls, letting the imagination play with the implied shape. Making the mind think of a river’s edge.

Stepping out again, I return with a formal 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Setting down the teabowl and accompanying equipage, I let my eyes wander through the iridescent undulations of thick glaze that are the hallmark of a 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako-yū tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl).

With 建水 kensui, 蓋置 futaoki and 柄杓 hishaku brought into the tea space, I close the door and ready myself for tea. The morning sounds of the mountains differ from the city I’ve left. The cacophony of cars and busses, trains and trucks are gone. In their place is the prolonged hum of Autumn’s insects. Crickets, katydids, cicadas, bees and wasps buzz and blare a low, collective chorus. Like me, they wake with early morning’s light.

I set the teabowl between the 茶釜 chagama and mizusashi. Before this, I place the chaire.

With both hands, I reach down and begin to untie the long cord. A gentle pull and a hooked finger and the dragonfly is gone.

I place the enrobed tea container in my left hand and loop the excess cord onto my left little finger. With the outer edge of right hand, I peel back the sleeves of the brocaded shifuku that encase the chaire. I remove the broad-bodied tea container and arrange the shifuku and cord in the manner befitting this distinctive form.

With the chaire now freed from its pouch, I purify it with the silk 袱紗 fukusa. The wide, flat lid is cleansed, then the outer edges before the daikai chaire is placed back before the mizusashi. The vast ocean of the daikai chaire’s lid in contrast to the dark brown and blue of the 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki ceramic body becomes a brief point of contemplation.

The ocean, the source of much of Autumn’s wind, is warming as this world has been in these past decades. What will be borne upon its churning waves? What future does this great expanse contain?

I continue and refold the fukusa to next cleanse the carved wood 茶杓 chashaku. Pressed deep into the purple silken folds, the teascoop is then placed atop the lid of the chaire.

I remove the 茶筅 chasen and 茶巾 chakin from inside the teabowl. Water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured into the center of the chawan. I lift the chasen and press its thinly cut tines into the hot water. They bend and flex and expand.

As I lift the whisk from the bowl, tiny droplets cling to the bamboo blades, reminiscent of dew upon tall grass.

The tenmoku-dai is cleansed with the fukusa. The water is poured from the teabowl into the kensui. The teabowl is placed back atop the wooden stand.

The objects sit together for a moment, waiting in their cleansed state. The void of the empty teabowl. The unseen mass of tea sitting inside the chaire. The open kettle with steam rising from the boiling water it holds. The mizusashi with its lacquered lid covering the cool liquid within its ceramic wall.

The interplay of volumes and voids, motion and stillness. The sound of the hissing kettle and the humming insects. The quiet of incense and objects at rest. In a moment, all this will be disturbed to make a bowl of tea. To make the seasons change. To have the wind rise. Disturbed by a breath. By a desire. By the turning of the earth on its axis.

I lift the chashaku with my right hand and with my left I bring the chaire before me. I remove its lid and scoop three mounds of 抹茶 matcha from the ceramic tea container.

I place the chashaku along the flange of the wooden tenmoku-dai. The handle of the teascoop peers out from one end below the tenmoku chawan.

Its carved tip emerges from another end.

I tilt the chaire and roll it in my hand, letting tea powder incrementally drop out from its wide mouth into the center of the teabowl.

The cascade of tea piles irregularly, making small impact craters and clouds of fine tea dust. I return the lid to the chaire and place it back beside the chasen. I lift the teascoop and carve a sigil in the center of the bright green mound of matcha before placing it back atop the lid of the daikai chaire.

I remove the lid from the mizusashi and pull boiling water from the chagama, pouring a small portion of it into the tenmoku chawan. The water and tea powder bleed and mix together, congealing into a thick, liquid mass.

I press the tines of the chasen into this concoction and begin to knead it into a consistent form. Back and forth I slowly pull and mix the tea.

It clings like lacquer against the blades of the bamboo whisk. Additional water is added and the tea becomes thinner, more pliable, flattening into a dark mirror, against which the reflections of the makeshift tearoom can be seen.

I slowly lift the chasen vertically from the center of the teabowl, encouraging any remaining drops of 濃茶 koicha to run down back into the deep chawan.

I return the whisk back, upright, next to the chaire, the tip of each tine covered in a thin coat of tea.

The bowl of matcha now sits, full, still.

The light of the day grows as the scent of incense fades and the rich aroma of koicha rises. The breeze of the morning wafts through the crack in the window. The sound of bees, of crickets, of cicadas billowing and crescendoing.

The bowl is lifted, not directly but indirectly through the aid of the tenmoku-dai. I shift myself and teabowl and set the bowl before the longer edge of the wooden board. The uneven surface of the thick tea shimmers like old glass in the low light. The traces of where the dark green liquid crawled against the inner edges of the teabowl become more apparent.

The rim of the teabowl, edged in silver, appears as one continuous halo along a tide pool. Where once my mind was at a river’s edge, it now drifts to a coastal shore. Where once my heart was nestled in the mountains and rivers of my new and current home, I am momentarily returned to the craggy ocean cliffs and coastlines of my childhood home. A wind has carried me there. Not cool breezes but the hot torrents that make fires swift and that now engulf the forests of my youth. What these wooded spaces taught me as a child now speak to me again as an adult.

Nothing is permanent. A wind will blow and dissipate. A forest will grow and burn and disappear. Childhood, too, will wax and wane and from it an adult life is born. What moments come and go over a lifetime. What a treasure it is to hold this in your hands as one bowl of tea.

I lift the bowl, turn it a quarter turn, and sip from the silvered edge. The slightly sweet metallic taste mixing with the bitterness of thick tea. The slow movement of the liquid up and down the inner edge of the teabowl. Down the depression that runs along the inner rim. Tea collects and languidly returns back to the center.

I set the bowl back down and ponder on this momentum. The slow movement and quick movement of time. My eyes shift to look out onto the garden. A dragonfly settles on a blade of tall grass and darts away.

My eyes move back to the tea space. The shifuku pouch. The chashaku tip covered in tea dust. The thick coat of koicha clinging to the upright chasen. The sound of boiling water. The residual tea collected inside the chawan.

I move the teabowl aside and prepare a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The shallow brightness of the antique 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) teabowl acts as a contrast to the deep darkness of the namako-yū tenmoku chawan.

I pour a measure of cool water into the chawan and then place the chasen into this.

I cleanse the whisk, transforming the clear water inside of the kae-chawan into a dark green pool.

With the whisk cleaned, I pour the refuse liquid into the kensui place the chakin and chasen into chawan. Next, I cleanse the chashaku and rest it against the rim of the teabowl. 

Finally, I move the teabowl slightly to the left and place the chaire next to the teabowl.

Today, I opt not to perform a 拝見 haiken. While the setting is formal, I prefer to sit alone in my new makeshift tea space. The sound of the breeze, once again, pressing through the open window and through the leaves of the maple, the pine and the oak trees that surround my new home.

This moment in Autumn, when the mountain air cools in this part of the world. This moment in Autumn when the warm coastal winds on the other side of the continent stoke the flames of forest fires. This violent imbalance met with natural ease. The sadness of things lost met with the pang of insecurity that comes from living in a precarious time.

What does the future hold? What cinder will be set aloft by an errant breeze? What revolution will be set in motion from the flapping of a dragonfly’s wing? A subtle change and dramatic movement, upon which the winds will carry.

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

Breaking the Heat: Lotus Viewing and Morning Rain

The bridge that extends between July and August marks the hottest days of Summer. Known in the traditional lunar calendar of Japan as 大暑 Taisho, this brief period marks the final knell of the season’s heat, before the eventual ease into the cool of Autumn. All around, the air grows heavy and damp, and the earth swells with moisture. In this climate, earth and air conjoin in an exchange, often met with occasional Summer showers and outbursts of rain and thunder.

After a night of intense heat, I wake to find the world quiet and cool. During the early morning, rain broke the heat of the arriving day, running down the broad leaves of trees and refreshing the earth. Inspired, I take to my tearoom and prepare water to bring to a boil.

Once set, I sift bright green 抹茶 matcha into a tall ceramic 茶入 chaire. I pull from my tea cabinet a wide 桐箱 kiribako.

Wrapped in a cloth decorated with twisting vines, I pull forth an old Vietnamese celadon teabowl from the Lý-Trần period (13th-14th centuries), worn and weathered by time. I wet the bowl to bring it to life. Liquid fills its pores. Color returns to the clay.

I submerge a 茶巾 chakin in cool water and squeeze the linen cloth in my hands, pushing out the water it had absorbed. I fold the chakin and place it in the center of the old moss green 安南焼茶碗 Anam-yaki chawan. Atop this, I place a wetted 茶筅 chasen made of dark bamboo.

Wares are brought into the tearoom in waves. First the chaire, which is placed before the 水指 mizusashi. Next the teabowl and accompanying équipage. Finally, the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki.

The door is shut. The fading scent of incense lingers in the air. The light in the room is muted. The sound of the rain outside the window blends with the low boiling hum of the kettle. I sit and breathe. I arrange the wares and ready each in preparation for a bowl of tea.

The chawan is placed before the kettle. The chaire, in its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch, is placed before the chawan.

Set together, the soft colors of shifuku and the old celadon harmonize.

I reach down with both hands and undo the cord that ties the silk cloth together.

Methodically, I loosen and remove the chaire from the shifuku.

I place the pouch between the mizusashi and the edge of the wooden 小板 ko-ita, atop which the 風炉 furo stands.

I cleanse the chaire with the folded 袱紗 fukusa and place it back a before the mizusashi.

I slowly inhale as I refold the fukusa. Holding it in my left hand, I exhale as I then reach out with my right hand to pick up the 茶杓 chashaku.

I press the carved and smoothed tip of the tea scoop into the folds of the purple silk of the fukusa, running the cloth from center to rounded end, back to center and back to tip.

I repeat this motion once more and place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire in one fluid action.

I remove the chasen and place it beside the chaire. I remove the chakin, lightly twist it between my left and right hands over the kensui, and refold it, momentarily placing it atop the black lacquer lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the hishaku, hold it between thumb and index finger of my left hand, and with my right hand, remove the lid from the boiling 茶釜 chagama, setting it upon the ceramic futaoki. The sound of the kettle grows once the lid is removed. A thin, wispy column of steam rises from the open mouth of the chagama. Beads of moisture condense and cling to the edge of the opening. I transfer the bamboo ladle from left to right hand and dip the carved cup into the boiling water. Air caught in the wooden scoop exhales audibly as it fills with water. With a steady hand, I breathe inward, drawing forth a ladle’s worth of hot water.

Exhalation, and I pour the water into the center of the teabowl. The color of the glaze deepens around the edges where the water meets the bowl, as liquid saturates the centuries-old vessel. I dip the flat tines of the chasen into the warm water. Their color darkens too as they drink up the water, absorbing it, becoming more pliable.

Once cleansed, I place the chasen back next to the chaire. I pour the water from the teabowl to the kensui and wipe the edges and inner surface of the chawan with the chakin. I look down at the teabowl. It looks back up at me, refreshed like a stone in a garden path after a Summer’s rain. Beaming and glistening. It is an ancient color caused by the creative energies of an artisan, affected by the countless years.

Along the rim, glaze once pooled and held to the clay body, caught forever in suspension by the heat of the kiln.

Along its outer edges, a craftsperson’s knife lightly pressed into the still-soft clay to create a subtle foliate design, an impression of lotus petals unfurling as Summer’s heat gently coaxes each fragrant bud to emerge, first from the baked mud of the wetland, to later bloom after a refreshing rain. Even after the centuries, even after the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, and even after the myriads of awakenings, the pattern still remains clear.

I turn back to the chashaku and chaire. I open the ceramic tea container, setting the lid beside the chawan.

I dip the teascoop into the soft green tea powder and lift out the first of three scoops of matcha.

Once a small heap has formed in the center of the bowl, I place the carved chashaku atop the edge of the chawan.

I tilt the chaire and let all remaining tea cascade down into the bowl. A fine cloud of tea dust rises from the bowl, followed by the fragrant scent of fresh green tea. The lid is placed back onto the chaire and the container is placed back beside the chasen.

Plucking the teascoop again as if I were lifting a calligraphy brush, I inscribe a simple sigil into the mound of tea dust, breaking its gentle organic form. Adding an impression upon perfect chaos.

I return the teascoop to the lid of the chaire. I remove the lacquered lid of the mizusashi and place it upright against the side of the fresh water vessel. I notch my hand along the long handle of the hishaku and press the bamboo cup deep into the hot water of the chagama.

A minute amount of water is poured into the chawan, slowly surrounding and seeping into the tea powder. I return the remaining liquid back to the water boiling inside the iron chagama.

I lift the chasen and slowly press the tines into the tea. With a series of repeated back and forth motions, I methodically fold and knead the tea and water together into a thick, lacquer-like paste. Small peaks form and curl and fall as the blades of the chasen cut and comb into the tea and water concoction.

In the quiet stillness of the tearoom, the aroma of matcha replaces the scent of aloeswood. With my left hand, I lift and tilt the chasen to the side, momentarily enjoying the sight of tea paste clinging to the curled tips of each bamboo tine. With my other hand, I lightly balance the hishaku and scoop water out of the chagama, letting it run through the blades of the tea whisk as I pour into the teabowl.

The hishaku is returned to rest upon the opening mouth of the kettle and the chasen is put to work to further knead the tea and water into a consistent brew. In this process, I focus my mind. Time begins to slow down. All that is around me falls away. The rain outside. The kettle before me. The glimmer of fresh water in the mizusashi. The shadows that pool around the edges of each object. The swirling grains within the wide wooden plank atop which I’ve set the wares. The patterns cut into the tea.

The repetition of motion. Whisking. Scooping. Lifting up and setting down of objects. One mind observing these. One mind caught in each moment. Is this the same mind that was once a baby? Once a child? Once a teenager? Now an adult, realizing this moment? Each past mind seems so different, so distant. Each with its own sense of self. Its own sense of truth. What was the mind before it was born? A lotus pushes up from the mud.

I lift the whisk straight up from the thick pool of 濃茶 koicha. I place it back down next to the chaire. The objects sit together in the dim light of the morning. Together with the gentle sound of the rain and the tea kettle.

I peer down into the antique chawan. The soft color of aged celadon and the striking emerald of the tea. As I bring the bowl towards me, I see my reflection caught in the mirror-like surface of the koicha. It bends and changes as the thick liquid draws down the inner edge of the teabowl, slowly pooling and pouring and pressing against my lips as I take my first sip from the bowl. The feeling of the first taste instantly awakes me. It courses through me. Enlivens my mind. Quickens my pulse. Two more sips and the tea is fully consumed, save for the dregs that cling to the side of the bowl.

I produce from my inner chest pocket a 古袱紗 kobukusa, a square of woven silk of with patterns of water plants stitched in 金蘭 kinran gold brocade. I unfold this and press it flat against the wooden plank.

Upon this I place the antique teabowl and for a moment I enjoy the single track of bright green tea against the old celadon. I admire how it catches the light. Iridescent like rain running off a roof tile. Slick like a lotus leaf floating on a pool.

I reposition the antique chawan to my side and place a grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan before me. Out of respect for the ancient Vietnamese vessel, I use this humble grey bowl as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan, a spare teabowl used to clean the chasen.

I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour it into the Ido chawan. I press the chasen into the bowl and whisk-off the residual tea that clings to the flat bamboo tines. I pour the cool water from the teabowl into the kensui and place the folded chakin into its center.

I rest the chasen pointed upright against the chakin. With the fukusa, I cleanse the chashaku before it, too, is set atop the kae-chawan. The bowl is shifted to the left. The chaire is placed beside it.

As I close my sitting for tea, I pour cool water into the chagama, halting the rolling boil of the hot water for tea. The lid is placed back upon it. The lacquered lid is returned atop the mizusashi. The hishaku and futaoki are placed together with the kensui.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken of the chaire, the shifuku and the chashaku. I cleanse the chaire and place it upon a 香盤 kōban.

I pick up the shifuku from between the mizusashi and furo and carefully place it atop the kōban.

Finally, I place the chashaku between the two objects.

For a moment, I sit and admire each. The way their different spirits harmonize with one another. How their textures play off of one another. How their colors differ yet are at ease.

The striped pattern of the shifuku and the grain of the teascoop.

The flecks of black and copper-blue hues within the glaze of the chaire in contrast with the warm tones of the chashaku.

For a brief moment the rain pours heavy outside my window. I spend this time in meditation, cleansing the remnants of koicha from the antique teabowl. As the Summer storm lifts, I place the cleansed bowl before me.

As light returns to the morning sky, pushing through the dark clouds that had collected, I inspect the chawan, turning it in my hand. The carved 高台 kōdai catches the light coming through the windows. The soft indentations upon the clay carved by the artisan’s knife.

The deep brown glaze brushed within the center of the 高台内 kōdai-uchi. The bowl reveals small features with each viewing. The first time is not like the last. Nuances emerge.

Cracks and crazing on the surface. Depth from pale color. Detail found in simple patterns. The clay retains the coolness of the water it once held. It feels refreshing in the hand. The last of the rainwater is heard dripping from the eaves over the window. The heat of the day rises once more.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Vietnam

Sitting with Discomfort

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.

In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one. 

But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.

Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture. 

But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large. 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable. 

As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.

While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?

While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.

When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture. 

As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.

This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.

This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm. 

In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?

Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.

Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?

In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice. 

She states:

Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.

If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.

Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.

I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253): 

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.

To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy. 

What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.

New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.

In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.

In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.

In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.

As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamono temae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.

Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles. 

The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).

The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.

Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.

While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?

 

****

 

Additional Readings & Resources

As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.

 

1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.

2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.

3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.

4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.

5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.

6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.

7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.

8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.

9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.

10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.

 

Writers & Authors

Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson

 

Articles & Online Resources

Anti-Racism Resource Collection

http://www.resourcesharingproject.org/anti-racism-resource-collection

 

White People 4 Black Lives

https://www.awarela.org/white-people-4-black-lives

 

“A Toolkit for White People” – Black Lives Matter

https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Toolkit-WhitePpl-Trayvon.pdf

 

“Anti-racism Resources to Become a Better Ally” – JDSUPRA

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/anti-racism-resources-to-become-a-36289/

 

Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/antiracist_resources_from_greater_good

 

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

The Peony Blooms, The Bowl Widens, The Furo is First Used

Bright cloudless skies hang over head. Grass pushes up through earth in the fields. The first heat of early Summer hangs in the air. Over the weekend, I escaped to the countryside to see all of this unfold before my eyes. Nature in full transition. The constant force. Coming home, I carried this feeling with me. A souvenir. An お土産 omiyage. Something brought back, special to a particular place.

As I walked the streets of my urban neighborhood, however, early Summer was still there. Lush green leaves on the maple trees. Mugwort growing tall in the shadows cast by fences. A burst of color as the tree peony blossoms (牡丹 botan) in the city gardens. All telltale signs that Summer has arrived.

For me, all this subtle change produced an upwelling of desire to make a bowl of tea. As is the custom for practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the “tea year” begins with the beginning of early Summer. Akin to a flower beginning to bloom, the energy of this time is on the rise, not yet cresting with the oppressive heat of the season, nor waning with the slow retreat and cool of Autumn.

Reflecting this, 茶人 chajin shift from using the sunken hearth (炉 ro) of the colder months and begin to use the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. To observe this major shift, both in the technology used in the tearoom, as well as with the arrangement of the tearoom itself (as the hearth is closed (炉塞ぎ rofusagi) and the 畳 tatami are shifted), a special gathering to mark first use of the furo is held, 初風炉 sho-buro.

In keeping with this change, I adjust my 取り合わせ toriawase, bringing wares into the tearoom that reflect the fresh feeling of early Summer. In my 床間 tokonoma, I hang a scroll with light cursive calligraphy reflecting upon the coming of Summer. Below this, I place a small wooden incense container (香合 kōgō), inside of which is kept small cut pieces of 沈香 jinkō, the fragrance I am featuring in my sitting.

Below my tearoom window I have set my antique bronze furo, atop which sits its paired iron 茶釜 chagama, wisps of steam rising from the small gap between the mouth and lid.

Beside this is the 水指 mizusashi. Sitting before this, a small 文淋茶入 bunrin chaire. Before I prepare tea, I meditate for a moment, to listen to the sound of the kettle and to appreciate the dim light that filters through the rough hempen shades of my tearoom window. The heat of the kettle is soft, mingling with the heat of the day.

I leave the tearoom and return with my additional tea equipage.

I set the teabowl down and the chaire before it.

Slowly I untie the braided silk cord from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku, spangled in a motif of shimmering tree peonies against a sky blue field. I remove the chaire from the silk pouch and cleanse its glazed exterior with my 袱紗 fukusa.

Next I turn to the assembled implements with the teabowl.

I purify the 茶杓 chashaku, pinching it between the folds of the fukusa, cleansing the handle and curved scoop, placing it atop the lid of the chaire once cleansed.

I then lift the 茶筅 chasen out of the bowl, placing it next to the chaire.

I bring the teabowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin twisting it above the open mouth of the 建水 kensui that rests beside my left knee. I unfold it and refold it, placing it momentarily on the lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the 柄杓 hishaku off from the tiny porcelain plinth of the 蓋置 futaoki. With hishaku in my left hand and chakin in right, I lift the lid from the chagama. Steam rises steadily from the mouth of the kettle. The sound of the bubbling water breaking the silence of the tearoom. I place the bronze lid atop the futaoki and folded chakin atop the lid.

Passing hishaku from left hand to right, I draw a ladle’s worth of water from the kettle and pour it mindfully into teabowl. I press the chasen into the hot water. The tines slowly expand outward. Once cleansed, I return the whisk back next to the chaire, and pour the hot water out into the kensui. I wait for the water to drain completely from the teabowl, save for a final drop, which I catch with the chakin.

Now clean, I sit for a moment to appreciate the teabowl. Brushstrokes of glaze against the uneven, crackled surface of a white 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan. Refreshing now, knowing that Summer’s heat will come in the weeks and months ahead.

From the chaire, I remove three scoops of 抹茶 matcha, placing each in the center of the bowl.

I place the chashaku along the rim of the chawan.

With both hands, I lift the tiny tea container and empty it of the remaining tea, allowing it to cascade and fall into the chawan, creating a loose mound of bright tea powder.

In order to make the first bowl of 濃茶 koicha of the new year in tea, I pull forth a ladle of hot water from the kettle, pouring only a small measure of this into the chawan, returning the remainder back to the chagama.

The hot water pools around the edges of the tea, producing a small island of matcha amidst a emerald sea.

I bring the chasen down into the teabowl and slowly begin to work the tea into a thick paste. As the tea powder begins to bind with the water, the intense aroma of freshly ground green tea begins to rise, filling the tearoom, overcoming the lingering scent of aloeswood. I add an additional measure of hot water and continue to slowly, methodically whisk the tea. Back and forth, in a rhythmic manner. My hand slowly whisking. My breath keeping pace. Slowly the tea transforms into a slick opaque liquid. It is ready to consume.

I sit for a moment, having placed the chasen back beside the chaire, its tines coated in a thick layer of tea.

I stare down at the bowl of koicha. The dark green of the matcha looking back up at me.

In this pause, I hear the wind outside my window. Birds singing. Trees swaying. Even though I do not see the indicators of Summer, I can sense them.

I stare down into the bowl. The koicha appears like a void, like a mirror reflecting back at me. Does this reflect the future? The season that is due to come? The moment that is near to end? How to sum up a period of time so brief as a bowl of tea. Thousands of moments have I now had like this. The breath before I sip. The sensation of the tea changing my heart and mind. A feeling of being part of some sort of indescribable transformation. How a peony blooms. How we drink from a wider bowl as Summer nears. How the ro is closed and the furo is welcomed into the tearoom.

In this moment I quiet the mind and raise the bowl. I turn it ninety degrees so as not to drink from its 正面 shōmen and take the first sip. The flavor instantly washes over me. I pause and sip again. The flavor deepens. One more sip and I watch the tea pull from the center of the chawan down to the rim and into my mouth.

As I place the bowl before me once more, I see how time, gravity, my own production have played out over the crazed and crackled surface of the teabowl.

White brushstrokes of glaze. Grey streaks of clay beneath it. Tea. Steam. Sunlight filtering through the woven blinds. This moment caught in the empty space of the teabowl.

I cleanse the bowl, the whisk, the chashaku. I set each object to the side. Hishaku atop the kensui. Futaoki set below.

I produce an antique 香盆 kōbon upon which I set the chaire, chashaku and shifuku for 拝見 haiken. Light extends across into the tokonoma. I observe how light plays across the ceramic surface of the chaire. How colors and tones emerge as the day’s light grows.

How the grain of the chashaku feels warm.

How the silk of the shifuku is refreshing. A peony blooms across its brocaded expanse.

Leaves and blossoms, twisting and curling, billowing over the empty volume and undulating into the gathered folds. The kettle hums and the scent of aloeswood returns. Early Summer has arrived and the furo is welcomed back into the tearoom.

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

No Mind. No Tea.

For the past few months, as I’ve been forced by the current pandemic to remain inside, more and more I’ve found myself practicing 茶の湯 chanoyu. Whereas prior to the “shelter in place” ordinance I was seriously practicing maybe once or twice weekly, I now find myself practicing once or twice daily. Where mornings were once languid awakenings, they are now purposeful and full of activity, in preparation for setting the kettle and arranging the 茶道具 chadōgu. My afternoons used to be a long and arduous push to the end of the day. They’ve since been transformed into a glorious close as I sit by my tearoom window, accompanied by the mellow hiss of my iron 茶釜 chagama and the setting sun.

Not only has this change in my practice’s frequency shifted my daily routine, it has also had a palpable impact on my body and mind. Recently, I sat with my tea teacher, who, over our more regular virtual tea teachings, noted that I had begun to exude 無心 mushin (wúxīn in Mandarin). When I asked what he had meant by this, he said “no mind”, stating that my actions seemed less hesitant, more continuous, more focused. Actions seemed more fluid and the space between actions more expansive.

Being a practitioner of 弓道 kyūdō as well as tea, he made the analogy of how when an archer releases the arrow, they remain in stance, expanding their gaze across the range, following their action with an equally mindful non-action. In short, as they prepare to shoot the arrow, they empty their mind of attachment. As they release the arrow, they maintain this state of non-attachment. In that moment of focus and release, there are no more rules, no more structure, just action. When they let go of the arrow, the let go of any expectations. As they release the arrow and watch it fly towards the target, they release their mind of the desire, of the mental grasping that wants it to hit the target. They just release. The arrow just flies.

As I continued my practice throughout the week, I meditated on this notion. In a sense, I did not know what my teacher meant, but I could feel it. My practice had become stronger, more sure. Without questioning my practice, I could finally trust it. I had practiced the forms, I knew the forms, and now, fully knowing, I could forget the forms.

I found myself preparing for a morning’s practice with what my teacher said still on my mind. Funny enough, it struck me just as I was in the process of filling a small 文琳茶入 “bunrinchaire with tea.

“No mind”. What did this really mean? I knew the definition. I could read this in a book or hear this from an expert. However, in practice, meaning often evades logical description, instead, it appears in the practice itself. Elusive and fleeting, yet spontaneous and ever-present. As I peered into the empty ceramic tea container, I continued to think about this.

Next, I pulled out a wooden box, the contents of which was a 黒楽茶碗 kuroRaku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

This I would be using for my morning practice.

As I began to untie the 桐箱 kiribako, loosening its cord and lifting the lid to reveal the wrapped bowl within, I kept thinking about this notion.

“No mind”.

Unveiled, the bowl looked up at me. Empty. Receptive.

What makes a teabowl a teabowl? Is it the clay? The glaze?

The foot?

The form?

Or is it the emptiness that it contains? The space? The opportunity for tea?

I set the chaire and bowl together.

The space between them became the space of action and inaction. As I breathed between motions, an outward breath for my outward motion, my inward breath to bring objects towards me, I found my body and mind joining into one constant action.

As I pull open the silken cord of the chaire, I loosen the knot and peel the 仕服 shifuku off of its clay body. I fold the 袱紗 fukusa and lightly touch the rounded shoulders of the chaire. I lift the lid and look inside.

From chaire to 茶杓 chashaku, from whisk to bowl.

Each motion arises, exists, fades and ends, but never stops. Instead, there is a constant motion.

Waves rising and crashing and returning out to sea, to churn back upon the shore again. The body follows this. The mind follows this. The division between the two fades.

As I scoop tea from the chaire and place it into the center of the black chawan, I am reminded that just moments before I was placing this tea into the container which I am now drawing it from. As I place the chashaku down upon the rim of the teabowl and tilt the chaire to pour the remaining tea powder into the bowl, I let the tea fall out freely. I am not worried that it will not fall out or that it will. I just let it do what I know it will do.

As I bring the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku over the gaping mouth of the teabowl, I tilt it slightly, letting free only a small measure of hot water, which mixes with the heap of 抹茶 matcha, producing a vibrant gasp of green tea aroma. For a moment, I watch the water mix with the tea, the mound of bright powder slowly sinking. Whereas before I may have worried whether I had added too much or too little hot water, after so many years of practice I no longer worry. I know it will be just enough.

I lift the 茶筅 chasen and begin the methodical act of kneading the tea and water into a thick paste in order to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. In the process, I cannot go too fast nor too slow. The motion, now, feels fluid; unencumbered. The tea and water shifts from two distinct states to one united form. The new concoction clings to the thin tines of the chasen. A forest of uniformly-spaced trees with moss of deep green climbing up their trunks. I add more hot water to this, letting it pour through the whisk’s blades of cut bamboo, thinning the liquid out just enough so that it can be consumed.

Once complete, I allow for a brief moment to pass, to appreciate the bowl, the tea, the cavernous space it creates and the shadows that obscure the line between black glaze and the dark green of the tea.

I pull back and appreciate the objects as they are arranged.

Years of practice inform their placement. No thinking is required at this point.

No judgement or questioning of whether they are correct or not. No mind.

I turn to the window of my tearoom and place the bowl before me. Dim light of morning is growing increasingly bright. The sun illuminated the bright green and yellow buds atop the branches of trees. Leaves unfurl like small sails on a ship’s mast. The sky begins to shift from dawn’s deep purple to the warm blue of morning.

I lift the bowl to my lips and breathe in the overwhelming fragrance of the tea. No space is left for me to exist outside of this. With three sips I drink all that I can.

The remaining dregs cling to the inside of the bowl. Evidence of action. No hesitation. No mind.

I cleanse the objects as I always do and arrange them for a final solitary 拝見 haiken. The lid of the chaire is lifted and left on the center side of the wooden tray before it is returned atop the little tea container.

The chashaku is placed next to the chaire, picked up and set down over the course of one inhalation and one exhalation. The shifuku, emblazoned in peony brocade of silver and blue, is lifted from between the 水指 mizusashi and 風炉 furo, shaped with the hands in a manner to emphasize its inner volume, and placed beside the chashaku. It is empty. It is full. It is the container and the void it contains.

I look down upon each object, enjoying them for what they are. Each crafted by masters of their art. Each reflecting different paths walked upon. Full strides. Confident. Assured.

How can one judge a tea container? It is neither good nor bad.

How can one assess a shifuku? It could be made of the finest silk and still, over time, it will fade and tatter.

How can one determine the value of a chashaku? It was once a branch of a cherry tree. What use is it now? A twig in the path. A scoop to measure tea. A staff to quell fighting tigers. To be used without hesitation.

An empty bowl will hold all the tea in the world and none at all.

When we practice the forms and involve these objects, we recognize how essential they are. Yet the more we practice, this, too shifts. The mind becomes lighter. The gaze opens, widens, expands. When we release our arrows, they speeds down range. When we pour the last of the tea powder out, we return the container from back where it once had sat, empty. We see how necessary they are. We see how unnecessary they are.

Even when these object are fully removed, you’ll find that they are still there. In between breathes. In pauses during the day. As light shifts. As one’s hand moves. As one’s mind grapples. Object and mind object. Pause and practice. Action and inaction. Constant. Fleeting. Form and no form. No tea. No mind.

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Cherry Blossoms. Buddha is Born.

The morning came after a light rain. The sun rose from a full moon night. As I made my morning walk, face covered in a mask, I made my way through my neighborhood. As it has been in the past, my walks have felt more and more like a meditation, on the current situation, on the emergence of Spring its full glory. Below me, a ground covered in moss, bright green sprigs of grass, lush carpets of flowers, interrupted by dandelions of electric yellow.

Above me are canopies of blossoms. 梅 ume of March. Magnolias of purple, white and pale green. The 桜 sakura of all kinds. Those which explode like a firework. Those which bloom gently like a rose. Those that cascade from willow-like branches, pouring downward like peach-hued waterfalls.

Amidst this beauty, yes, there is great sadness, death, despair. A screaming ambulance flying by on the streets of Queens, New York City is the ever-present reminder of this. So, too, are the men, women and children huddled either underneath overpasses, by the doors of government buildings asking for handouts, or together in the long lines to enter markets.

A walk down my neighborhood street reveals this, the bare reality. How the many once grinning streets of commerce now bear gaps, hollow holes in the mouth of a once smiling community. How will we repair that which is gone, perhaps forever. The realization that nothing will be the same.

Yet, on this walk, I am reminded that this is April 8th. In my Zen practice, one that hails from the Japanese 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū tradition, today we observe 仏生会 Busshōé, the birth of the historical Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (c480 B.C.E – 400 B.C.E). During this day, it is common to create a small altar, situated in the center of which is a small statue of the Buddha as a newborn child. Surrounded in garlands of flowers, the statue is bathed in sweet tea (甘茶 amacha) and we are reminded that all great things come from small, humble beginnings and that all forms, too, shall be born and die and transform. As I walk home, back through the deaths of flowers and calamity, I formulate how I shall prepare tea to observe this day.

Entering my home I set my iron kettle to boil. As the water heats in this cauldron, I pull together teaware. Having recently acquired a tall 茶入 chaire, I opt to use this in my Busshōe tea gathering. I pull it forth from its wooden 桐箱 kiribako, its 緒 o tied in such a manner to indicate that it is empty of tea.

For a moment I inspect it, still enrobed in its silken 仕服 shifuku, one made not from the sacred 袈裟 kesa robes of a Buddhist priest but from the profane cloth of a kimono. The rippled texture and alternating colors of pink and blue, yellow and red remind me of the blossoms from this morning’s walk.

I remove the cloth and begin to scoop 抹茶 matcha powder into the chaire until there is just enough to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and myself to share. I then place this in front of the 水指 mizusashi which I’ve set beside my 風炉 furo.

Once the kettle has come to a boil I call my partner into the tearoom to join me for a bowl of tea. Before her, I place a small sweet to enjoy. After this I re-enter into the tearoom with teabowl in hand. It is a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan by 清和釜 Seiwa gama kiln master potter 祥雲 Shōun, the color of which harmonizes with the colors of the shifuku. Finally, I return with 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki made of split bamboo.

Together my partner and I sit to prepare a bowl of koicha. I set the teabowl and assembled equipage within it before me. Breathing out, I reach for the chaire, and place it before the chawan, creating a center line between myself, the wares, and the space between 茶釜 chagama and mizusashi.

I reach both hands down and lift them up the length of the chaire until my fingers reach the lightly-tied knot that ties the shifuku together. Carefully I unbind the silken cord and draw it open.

With well-practiced movements, I pull the chaire from the shifuku, placing the latter between the mizusashi and furo where it will sit for the remainder of the gathering as an empty shell.

Next, I cleanse the chaire, touching the lid with my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa, then the shoulders, and then the sides, until all surfaces which will come in contact with my hands have been purified.

Next I turn to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku which, rather than being fashioned from the more typical bamboo, is made of cherry wood. As I run the fine silk of the fukusa over its surface, I admire the iridescent sheen of tree bark which still remains, an echo of a Spring long since passed.

The 茶筅 chasen is warmed and set upright next to the chaire, its thick tines expanding slowly.

I bow to my partner and invite her to enjoy the tea sweet prior to receiving a bowl of thick tea which I will prepare for her. She bows back and we both set into action. I lift the chashaku from the chaire and bring it towards my center. Next, I bring forth the chaire and remove its lid, placing it next to the chawan.

I lift the first of three scoops of tea from the tiny ceramic tea container, slowing my cadence for a moment to appreciate the movement of matcha powder from caddy to teabowl.

Two more times do I dip the chashaku back into the chaire, removing glowing green tea powder each time from its dark interior.

Finally, I tilt the chaire over, pouring out the remaining powdered tea into the chawan. In the brief moment of random pattering of tea to teabowl I am reminded of how the amacha would fall onto the small metal statue of the child Buddha. How it made me feel like a child. A little sense of chaos and joy that comes from letting gravity take over.

I enjoy the scene that has been made inside the teabowl. A split second vignette of colors and textures, of volumes and voids, of actions and inactions playing out and recorded in this art of being.

I return the object back to their resting positions and draw a ladle of hot water from the steaming chagama. A minute fraction of the water is placed along the inner edge of the teabowl, slipping under the heaped mound of tea dust. The matcha lifts and slowly sinks, changing from bright green to a dark emerald.

I slowly press the chasen into this pool of thick tea and proceed to knead the tea into a firm paste. As I do this the scent of tea is overwhelming. Its lively, grassy and bittersweet notes merging with the warm and gentle fragrance of incense lingering in the tearoom, one which was commonly burned at my temple back in California.

Memories of the past merging with moments of the present. How eagerly the mind brings up such images, especially in times of sadness and despair. “Remember this?” my mind seems to call. “Remember what joy you had back then?” it abruptly interrupts the silence with.

It calls me to think of those times as if they were spotless, as if they were without their own trials and tribulations. How this mind clings and grapples with the past. Tosses and turns and trips over itself like a child at play, hurting itself in the process.

Another draught of hot water is added to the tea and I continue to whisk it slowly, methodically, using every motion of my practice to focus the mind.

Though the Buddha was born a child, it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he awoke to his own Buddha mind. It was said that he was met with thoughts of temptation, desire, fear and anger, but chose to simply sit, to bow to these notions, and to claim the earth on which he sat as his sole witness to this knowing.

In a similar way, I set down the chasen and offer up a bowl of tea to my partner, with no expectations, just to accept it and myself as we are. Perfectly imperfect.

For a moment she looks down into the bowl, a brief flash of trepidation before she accepts the tea. She then lifts the bowl, turns it slightly, and drinks from it. A thick trail of koicha pulls from the center pool across the inner wall of the teabowl. She returns the bowl to me with just enough left so I may have a hearty sip. I turn the bowl again and drink the remaining koicha. A second trail of tea runs along the inner wall of the teabowl. We take a moment to pause, to breathe, to meditate. The flavor of tea still present on both our palates.

Before I set into cleansing the wares, I admire the traces of tea upon them. The light dusting of tea coating the carved tip of chashaku.

The thick residue of lacquer-like koicha still clinging to the tines of the chasen.

The dregs of tea running back down into the center of the chawan.

I bow to my partner and prepare to close the tea sitting, cleansing the teawares once more. As I usually do, I offer up a simple 拝見 haiken as a chance to recall the moment had with tea. Each item, the chaire, the chashaku, the shifuku, like tracks of an unseen bull. We know the presence of tea. We can taste it in our mouths. Yet it no longer exists as it once did. It has been transformed into memory. We recall the actions as if it were in the past now.

We lift the lid of the chaire to look inside. We see only emptiness.

We lift the chashaku and imagine the weight of tea hanging on its hand-hewn tip, yet it feels as light as a feather.

We inspect the shifuku, made from a scrap of kimono fabric.

We imagine the body that it must have once been held close against. Perhaps this person is no longer alive.

The chaire, now emptied and cleansed, is wrapped up again. The knot of the o retied in the manner to show that tea no longer sits inside. It is left to be inspected once more atop the 香盆 kōban made of mulberry wood and then, it, too, is put back into storage.

The tea gathering closes as it began, with a silent bow. An exchange between two friends. A moment born, expired, transformed.

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A Pure Crystalline Sky. A Bowl of Tea for the Founder.

It’s early April. New York City seems like a ghost town. A surreal space, emptied of its occupants. Yet, while the streets are vacant, the flowers are in bloom. The 梅 ume blossoms of March cling to their branches. 桜 sakura burst and the scent of magnolia hangs sweet in the breeze. All above me, a pure crystalline sky. Clouds stretch onward in all directions. An effluence of life emerging in full vigor as Spring continues. Without the world bustling in its typical chaotic way, nature fills the void beautifully.

For me, life goes on within the confines of my New York City apartment, my partner and I adjusting to our new rhythms and daily patterns. Wake and meditate. Tea before a day’s work.

On April 2nd, I prepare for 宗徧忌 Sōhen-ki, the observance of the death of 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) 茶の湯 chanoyu master and founder of 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū, 山田宗徧 Yamada Sōhen (1627-1708). The process of setting up tea for this becomes a bit of a meditation. While I am a student of Sōhen-ryū, I feel as if I know very little of the founder of my school of tea, save for the anecdotes shared by my teacher; a sort of oral history.

While it is known that he was originally a pupil of 小堀遠州 Kobori Enshū (1579-1647), then (more famously) of 千宗旦 Sen Sōtan (1578–1658), my knowledge of the man remains foggy. Even in his own words, collected in his writings such as the 茶道便蒙抄 Chadō Benmōshō and 利休茶道具図絵 Rikyū Chadōgu Zue, I am left with little more than details. As such, to truly understand who Yamada Sōhen was, I must rely on my own tea practice: forms and philosophy passed down to me, from my teacher, a link to the lineage.

For the observance of Sōhen-ki, I decide to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and I to share. For this, I select a 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl), which I set atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. The attitude which I want to preserve is a sense of somber formality.

Paired with this, I select a 文琳茶入 “bunrinchaire, enrobed in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku. The color selection is intentional, in the hopes to harmonize the teaware with the bright blue sky outside my window.

In my 床間 tokonoma, a small flower plucked from a walk in my neighborhood, arranged in a bamboo 花入 hanaire. Yamada Sōhen was known for crafting bamboo flower containers.

As I sit down to prepare a bowl of tea, I carry in the tenmoku chawan, placing it next to the chaire, which I had placed into the tearoom prior to my partner entering. Next, I carry in the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and bamboo 蓋置 futaoki. I bow to my partner and I begin to arrange the teaware to prepare for cleansing. The chawan on its wooden stand is moved between the 茶釜 chagama and 水指 mizusashi.

The chaire is placed in front of the teabowl. I remove the silken shifuku from the chaire in a slow, methodical process.

The silk cord (緒 o) is untied and pulled.

The gathered silk cloth is loosened, and the two sides of the shifuku are pulled down, revealing the chaire inside.

Once removed, the shifuku is placed between the chagama and mizusashi. The chaire, still sitting before the chawan, is moved to sit in front of the mizusashi. Removed from the brocaded fabric, its modest earthen colors accentuate the quality of 侘び wabi, balancing an otherwise formal and refined arrangement.

The 茶杓 chashaku, formal (真 shin), is made of a single cut of cedar.

Once cleansed, it is placed atop the lid of the chaire.

The 茶筅 chasen, made specifically for whisking koicha, is wetted and warmed.

The tenmokudai is cleansed.

The tenmoku chawan is emptied with both hands into the kensui and is dried.

Peering deep into the center of the teabowl, I momentarily let my mind explore its inner surface. The uneven undulations of the unctuous glaze. The bright pools of blue and silver against a field of dark brown. In the center, a mirror-like image looking back at me.

I lift the chashaku and bow, offering my partner to have a sweet. From here, I begin to scoop tea from the chaire.

Once three scoops are placed into the center of the teabowl, I set the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmokudai.

The tip of the tea scoop covered in a fine dusting of green tea.

I finish by pouring the remaining 抹茶 matcha powder out of the chaire, offering the rest of the tea to be enjoyed.

The neat, tiny heap of tea now appears like a chaotic action captured on the canvas of the once empty vessel.

A small amount of hot water is drawn from the chagama and poured over the matcha powder. With the chasen, I slowly begin to knead the tea and water into a thick green paste. More water is added, pouring over the thick tines of the koicha chasen.

A minute later, I have slowly turned the concoction into something resembling a thick pool of lacquer.

Lifting the teabowl by the tenmokudai, I turn towards my partner and offer her the bowl of tea. We bow and she accepts the tea, taking the first sip of koicha. Afterwards, she returns the bowl to me and I finish the thick tea within it. Two trails of tea dregs radiating from the center of the bowl.

I cleanse the chasen with a separate teabowl and remove the remaining tea dust from the chashaku. The chagama is closed and so, too, is the mizusashi.

Finally, I prepare 拝見 haiken.

Without exchanging words, we examine the chaire. Its round shape and uneven brown glaze make it look like a small sparrow huddled against in a tree.

The chashaku, with its curved tip and red wood grain, appears pure, like a 如意 nyoi scepter of a Buddhist priest.

The shifuku, shimmering in the low light of the tearoom, appears like a treasure bag, voluminous in the manner preferred by Sōhen-ryū.

It dawns on me as I sit there peering down upon the assembled 茶道具 chadōgu. These “things”, these little objects. They represent something more than just what they are. They are all vessels of a particular Way. These actions, from the way the hand holds the tea scoop to the method of closing the chagama so to let the lid ring against the mouth of the kettle, producing a sound like a large temple bell, these, too, are part of a particular Way. They all have their origin. They all have a progenitor.

While time may have transformed these into what we see and experience today, there is a source. And yet this, too, is an empty vessel, a conduit through which something more has been transmitted. Is it a teaching through a teacher? Creativity through a person’s mind? Spirit through intention? When the earth slows down. When a pure crystalline sky appears. Clouds stretch onward in all directions. An effluence of life emerging in full vigor as Spring continues.

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EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II

Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

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.

• Fourth Tea: Whole leaf 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn (brewed for comparative purposes).

• Fifth Tea: Fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha from Uji, Kyōto prefecture, Japan.

For additional insights on this topic, I have linked previous blog posts that discuss tea during the Sòng period:

“Everything for the First Time”

“A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk”

“Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style”

“EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”


To view “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II”, follow the link above.

For the first talk I delivered on tea in the Song period, please follow this link provided below:

If you are interested in attending or scheduling this tea talk or tea talks like this, please email me at scottttea888@gmail.com.

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A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk

It’s mid-January and it already feels like the year is wearing me down. Nations are tipping towards war. My partner’s family are being forced to evacuate their ancestral home in the Philippines due to a volcanic eruption. Climate change continues to cause worldwide calamity. In these dire circumstances, I cannot help but to sit and make tea.

I am reminded of the esoteric 真言律宗 Shingon-Risshū (Shingon-Vinaya sect) ritual held every January 15th at 西大寺 Saidaiji in the ancient capital city of Nara. Called 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki (lit. “big tea made in a grand style”), it involves the serving of a large bowl of tea to the local congregation of temple goers.

Originating during the 鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai (Kamakura period, 1185–1333) when a Buddhist monk by the name of 叡尊 Eison (1201-1290) offered a bowl of 抹茶 matcha to the deity Hachiman. In this, he also offered tea to the local people. Rather than serve the assembled crowd with a multitude of small bowls, he opted to serve the tea in one large bowl. Today, the practice is said to bring the tea-reciecing guests good fortune and health for the New Year.

Similarly, given that all of the objects for this ritual are equally large (the 茶碗 chawan, the 茶筅 chasen, the 水指 mizusashi, the 棗 natsume, and 茶釜 chagama), it requires great strength and collective assistance to make and drink a bowl of tea. Having seen pictures of this early on in my tea practice, I was amazed at the scale of this, notably the size of the tea whisk, which measured almost a meter in length.

Sitting in my tearoom today, making a single bowl of tea to usher a year of good fortune, I cannot help but to ponder the develop of this piece of tea technology we know as the tea whisk.

Prior to the “official” popularization of whole leaf steeped tea (brought about by the 1391 imperial edict by Ming Emperor 洪武 Hóngwǔ (1328-1398), which declared that 貢茶 gòng chá, tribute tea, would no longer be offered in cake form), tea had largely been enjoyed as a mixture of hot water and powdered tea leaves throughout much of China, Korea, and Japan.

During the Tang period (618-907), compressed tea leaves were crushed and simmered, often brewed along with additional additives such as salt, dried herbs, flowers, and roots. As such, this beverage was more akin to the many medicinal soups that were part of the broader variety of Chinese medicines of the time. It wasn’t until the mid-Tang period that we see recorded the consumption of “tea for tea’s sake”, in such treaties on tea as 陸羽 Lù Yǔ’s (733-804) 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762). However, tea wouldn’t be whisked until the later 宋 Song period (960-1279).

During this time, tea leaves were picked and processed and then ground down into powder. This powder tea would then be compressed into cake forms (團茶 tuánchá). Prior to brewing, the tea cakes would be broken, pulverized, sifted and powdered, finally being scooped into a tea bowl, where water was added and the tea was stirred from a thick slurry to a drinkable beverage.

Historical writings note that by the mid-Song period, tea was being whisked with a specialized tea scoop (茶匙 cháchí). In his 茶錄 Chá (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053), 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng wrote that this scoop should be heavy so it can be whisked with force and that it was optimally made with gold, though commonly with silver or iron. Bamboo was deemed to light to achieve the desired results.

By the 1100s, this process had further refined, and so too did the equipage. Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng described in his 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) the process and utensils for making a delicate bowl of 抹茶 mǒchá. In this, the stirring stick is replaced by a finely-crafted 茶筅 cháxiǎn (chasen in Japanese).

In the hands of a skilled tea practitioner, a bright, creamy foam would arise, “lustrous like mounding snow”. This refined process was poetically called 點茶 diǎn chá, to “mark the tea”, as more skilled practitioners were famed to have been able to create images in the foam they produced. To aid in this process and achieve the desired suspension of the tea powder, whisks fashioned out of finely splayed bamboo were crafted.

As one part of a wide array of necessary tea equipage, the whisk occasionally appeared in art depicting tea preparation.

A clearer image appears in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān lǎo rén (Old man Shenan). Here, the whisk is given the poetic name 竺副師 zhú shī (literally translated to “Vice Commander Bamboo”, reflecting twelve “officer” ranks in the Southern Song period, there being twelve objects in the “Pictorial of Tea”). This image seems to depict what Huīzōng noted in his treatise; that the whisk should be made of older bamboo, the tines carved down to fine points like a sword’s blade, to be flexible and strong yet able to remain quiet and manageable when whisking tea.

Concurrently, by the late Southern Song period, we see whisks beginning to take on a form that bears a close resemblance to modern matcha whisks. Evidence of this is found in the ink on silk handscroll painting by Southern Song literati painter 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng (active 1190–1230). In his《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”), Lǐ goes to great length to show the contents of a tradesperson’s cart.

In this, we see a variety of tea ephemera, from ewers and bowls, a small stove and cup holders.

Upon closer inspection, one can see what appears to be a tea whisk.

Though records such as 朱權 Zhū Quán’s 1440 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”) mention that tea continued to be whisked up through the early-to-mid Ming period (1368-1644), the Song-style whisks (and the preparation of whisking powdered tea) eventually disappeared from China as the less complicated approach to brewing whole leaf tea took hold. However, whisked tea and the tea whisk did not disappear completely. Instead, it had made its way to Korean and Japan.

Beginning in the Tang period, Buddhist monks from Korean and Japan travelled to China, returning with learnings, as well as tea seeds and tea wares. From the Song period onward, the whisk began to make its way into both Korea and Japan, eventually influencing their own tea cultures (which were already deeply influenced by earlier Chinese forms). While records and physical artifactual evidence of whisks from these geographic areas or cultures from this period are limited at best, the whisk that was most likely used at this time was most likely similar to that of Song China.

Today, we can find its “distant relative” in the unique tea whisks used in throughout the Japanese archipelago. In Toyama and Niigata prefectures they employ a special “double-whisk” for the whisking of バタバタ茶 batabatacha (a form of powdered post-fermented tea, often serves with salt).

In Okinawa (once the Ryūkū kingdom/琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku), a larger and more robust bamboo whisk used used for whisking ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha (often made of a mixture of toasted rice and tea, though other versions exist).

Superficially, both the batabatacha and bukubuku whisks bear a close resemblance to the tea whisks described in the Song period.

Both are long and flexible, and both forego the final splaying of the bamboo tines (as seen in the whisk depicted in Lǐ Sōng’s “Huòláng ”. In regards to the batabatacha whisk, this allows for the unique double-whisk form to flex and whip-up a fine foam.

As tea culture continued to evolve, tea and teaware forms evolved too. Japan continued to transform the shape and construction of the chasen until it took on a form that is recognizable today, with a set number of tines (usually ranging from 80 to 100 to 120), often finely carved to thin and flexible tips, splayed apart into two sections (an inner core and outer ring) through weaving thread between the individual tines. However, variations still exist.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) and 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”) call for different types of chasen.

Koicha, because it required the host to “knead” the tea into a thick slurry, calls for a more robust chasen. As a result, the tines of the chasen are fewer (typically often 80 tips, sometimes 60).

Usucha, since it usually requires a faster motion, requires the tines to be more flexible. As a result, the artisan will cut more of them (100-120 tines) and carve them thinner.

However, wider variations occur between different schools and levels of formality they observe, resulting in a wide variety of shapes, styles, lengths, tine count, types of bamboo employed, and ways they are carved and woven.

Smaller, more portable tea whisks are even made to be packed away for traveling tea sets, like this miniature chasen used for 野点 nodate.

So, what does this all mean as I sit to make my own bowl of tea? What does it mean to look upon a tea whisk? It is such a simple and mundane object to a tea practitioner. And yet, it, like everything in this world, has its story, it’s past. There was a person who must have been the first to imagine this. It surely did not invent itself. And yet it changed over time.

Someone must have believed they could refine the shape, the feel of the object in the hand, the way it might sit upwards atop its handle (as we now practice in chanoyu).

Someone must have decided that the whisk would work better if the tines were thinner, more flexible, more resilient to breaking. Someone must have understood that pre-warming the whisk in hot water would make it perform its task with greater ease and grace.

We cannot take this process for granted. Countless creative minds over thousands of years have left their mark on this most mundane of object to produce the transcendent experience we know as tea.

To be able to whisk a bowl of tea is in some way a culmination of this and a continuation of this evolution.

What new discoveries will we make?

What new hidden wonders will arise from our inspired minds. What great fortune will be bestowed upon the next generations from the thoughtfulness of those who currently live upon this tiny planet?

One bowl of tea after another. One more moment to recreate the world.

****

Links to resources and images (which are not my own):

Image of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://www.lmaga.jp/news/2018/01/33827/

Link to video of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=50DDa4RFpCg

Translation of 大觀茶論 Dà guān chá lùn (“Treatise on Tea”): https://www.globalteahut.org/resources/april16elec.pdf

Wikipedia article about 茶具圖贊 Chájù tú zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorial_of_Tea_Ware

Link to complete and detailed images from 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng’s 《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”): http://www.8mhh.com/2015/0107/20397.shtml#g20397=12

Translation of 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”): http://archive.globalteahut.org/docs/pdf_articles/2017-04/2017-04-a016.pdf

Images and great article about バタバタ茶 batabatacha tea whisk: https://www.google.com/amp/s/japaneseteasommelier.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/batabata-cha-from-toyama/amp/

Image of ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha tea whisk: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ブクブク茶

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