Tag Archives: Korea

The Cicada Hums

The cicada hums and sweat drips from my brow. The hot days of Summer linger on, long days stretched into cool dark nights.

Rain comes and goes in peels of thunder, roaring past the old wooden eaves of my weathered garden hut.

Tea inside, pulled from a woven basket and laid out onto chipped and splintery plywood.

One pot.

One 숙우 sookwoo.

One cup.

Tea enough for one and then some.

A butterfly trapped against the window of my hut is released and left to fly skyward.

Crickets chime and beat their sonorous tune in the cracks between the shingles of the roof. Moss forms mountains and forests for them and other minuscule creatures to explore.

Locked deep within the darkened world of my garden hut, tea leaves curl and twist in the hot water from my thermos.

Round and round the twirl until they settle on the inside base of the ceramic pot.

From grey glazed pot…

… to grey glazed sookwoo

… to grey glazed cup.

Clear green-gold liqueur passes until it reaches my lips.

Caught within this liquid, the flavors of early Spring, the light of the sun, the taste of the earth.

토향. To Hyang.

Savory flavors and sweet.

Passionate emotions and soft, buttery gentleness.

A touch of bitter.

An absence of sour and spice.

Stone and mineral.

Soil and leafy bud.

A fragrance that fills the room and my heart.

This tea has been gifted to me by an old dear friend. A decade and some years has passed since we last sat together for tea.

Yet, without hesitation, she sends me tea again each Spring and Summer.

A gift that reminds me of the flavor of friendship.

Its long lingering taste.

In the heat of Summer, this slacks my thirst and makes the weather more bearable. Sweet reminisce of the past is what tea serves up best.

For when in Summer we wish for Spring again.

When a friend has not been seen in a long while, how one longs for their company.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

Stop Everything

The new year has arrived and with it comes the sensation of getting older. Winter’s snow comes and goes in fits and starts, blanketing everything in the evening, melting away by the mid-afternoon. All that seems to remain is the biting cold and a still, quiet hollowness. The previous year has left me burnt out. What energy is there left to pick up the pieces of a world that lies shattered? To bind a broken nation back together again? Time has told me that regardless of which way the winds of politics or the economy or a society as a whole may go, the old habits will die hard and the work to become a more enlightened person will never be done. Exhausted, like a well-spent bonfire, all I can do now is take pause. I need to re-collect myself. I need to stop everything.

Currently, my new home presents me with a conundrum. Too cold to be outside, the makeshift tea hut in my garden remains empty, unused. Still in the process of moving, my living space is still too disorganized to encourage me to make tea. For someone who finds comfort in order, the chaos depletes me, both body and soul.

Nestled between stacks of boxes, dusty floorboards, and buckets of paint and plaster, I eek out the faintest of foothold for tea and to find a moment’s peace. To stop everything means to put down my work, to, for a moment, ignore the emails and the incessant chiming and pinging of the digital world. It is to close the door behind me. To look out onto the world outside my window, and to look inward into the world within me. The snow-covered mountains, with their bare-branched trees. The low hiss that emanates from the warming kettle. The slate-grey sky with obscured sun. The Winter of early January is an empty space, enough to let the mind wander without chance of attachment.

I dust off the top of an old wooden desk and unearth a small 仿古 fǎng gǔ-shaped 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from a tattered cardboard box.

Other items are collected too. A white 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A bamboo tea scoop, an old coin to use as a lid rest, pinchers made of aromatic wood.

No ceremony. No ritual. No pretense guides me. Absent is specific form, aside from that which facilitates ease of movement, the maintenance of heat from kettle to pot to cup, and the subtle cues that guide me to make the best cup of tea possible.

The tea, the wares, the heat of the water; these will define the space and mindset of this moment.

Items now placed atop the wooden desk, I set forth to brew the selected tea, a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”. I breathe deeply and open the pressed-metal tin that has been holding the tea for the last eight years. I carefully place the thin, wiry leaves into the concave of the bamboo tea scoop.

Their color appears darker, their surface more lacquer-like since when I first procured them years ago when I traveled to the tea gardens of 潮州 Cháozhōu.

I warm the teapot and tea cup and discard the hot water into an old Japanese 建水 kensui. I return the kettle to boil and, as I do so, I remove the tiny tea pot’s lid. Its interior is slick with residual moisture.

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

I place the tea leaves gently within the empty vessel. A void now filled to the brim. Wild, wiry, unencumbered.

I pause. The faint aroma of the old tea wafts in the air, standing out against the scent of dry cardboard, of dust, of the layers of plaster and paint that surround me. A faint reminder of its former self when it was still fresh. A faint reminder of the tea processing room that was filled with the inescapable perfume of the harvest. A faint reminder of life when tea was freely shared between friends, having traveled great distances by airplane, over subway lines and through crowded streets to enjoy the warmth of tea and each other’s company. A faint reminder of life before it was boxed-up, shipped away, and stacked in corners.

I lift the kettle from the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the teapot, over the tea leaves. Bubbles and foam surface. Oils and fragrance re-emerge, long-locked within the curled tendrils of the coiled tea.

I place the lid atop the tiny vessel and let the tea begin to steep. No sound. No movement. Just stillness. Thoughts of work and life momentarily drop away. Worries, fears, anxieties that might normally arise come and go, but I pay them no heed. All there is now is a small pot brewing tea.

I breathe and hear the rise and fall, expansion and collapse of my chest. The rustling of the cloth of my shirt. The air passing through my lips and nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. I hear the creaking of freshly-laid floorboards. Of the furnace burning. Of my partner walking down the hallway in the distance.

Stopping everything does not mean everything stops. One just becomes more aware of their presence, their true nature. A quiet observer to one’s own experience and to the oft-overlooked actions of others. The habitual mind arises as it always does, trying to cling to sounds and movement, to thoughts and distractions.

Here, the act and action of making tea becomes my guidepost. If I am to make tea, I must remain in this moment, focused on this task. I stop. I breathe. I observe the heat of the pot and rely on intuition to know what is happening within its red clay walls. The collecting and evaporating of moisture off its surface, away from the bat and bamboo motif.

The pulling of the tiny droplet of water from the tip of its curved spout. The sigh it seems to release when the tea is ready to be poured.

I quickly grasp the teapot with the fingers of my right hand and tilt it above the white glazed Korean cup. Hot tea cascades downward at an even pace, a single, unbroken stream, into the cup. Once emptied, I place the teapot back down into the center of the Yíxìng 茶船 chá chuán, its lid removed to allow the leaves to cool and the steam to rise out from the interior.

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

I lift the cup to my lips and savor the aroma. It is bright, with notes of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit. I pause and sip from the cup. As a now-aged tea, I expect it to be calm, its flavors settled and muted. However, what I receive is far from this. The tea is beautiful. The flavor, arresting. It opens with a burst of fruit notes akin to guava and papaya, followed by sweet and lingering aromatics of blossoms and gardenia. More surprisingly is the presence of a refined, velvety vanilla pod note that awakens me. These favors, which may otherwise be in contrast to one another, blend, meld, and harmonize. It is at this moment that I am reminded of why the tea is poetically named “Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”.

The tea, grown on the slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in Cháozhōu, is comprised of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove. The two tea plants, kept in close proximity, develop flavors that are uniquely their own yet beautifully balance one another. They are two yet feel as one.

As I again pour hot water into my teapot, I further recall memories from my past, reminded of that first journey taken to Cháozhōu, alongside with my own tea brothers, Steve Odell and So Han Fan. There, digging through cities and climbing up mountains in search for direction, in search for tea, we worked at a breakneck speed, not wanting to squander our time and let the opportunity to learn from direct experience pass us by. I recall early mornings, long days, and late nights, tasting cup after cup, in pursuit of knowledge and beautiful tea.

Now, at this point in my life, almost ten years since that moment, these memories, too, seem fresh. Their fragrance and flavor still resounding and surprising.

All that is left now are these leaves. A fitting tribute to time well spent. Something so fragile as a memory, so fragile as a pile of leaves. Through steeping after steeping, their flavors are expelled and spent. All that remains is a sweet, honey-like water.

Even after the tea is gone, its scent still lingers in the empty cup. As I cleanse the wares once again and return to a day of work, I can feel the pull of daily duties, the tug of responsibility and of commitments. I sit and pause for a moment longer, using this time to ponder.

Action and inaction; at times the space between them feels defined and absolute. Here, the habitual mind is inclined to prefer one over the other: one becoming a welcome respite, the other, a dreaded chore. Yet, when you stop everything, inaction is the action. Even within inaction, thoughts, memories, and sensations will still arise. Worries and anxieties still exist. As nothing truly disappears, these, too, will continue.

In the more than two decades now of practicing tea, I’ve come to recognize this. In the inaction of making tea, there is action. Worries, thoughts, memories will still be there; they can help or hinder you, encourage you or deter you, focus your gaze or leave you distracted, expand your mind or cause you to fixate and become attached.

As I wipe the chá chuán and place the lid back upon the teapot at an angle to let the tiny vessel dry, I return to the notion of form and its absence as I’ve been brewing tea. The pot is tended to in a certain way. Warmed, cleansed, utilized as if it were a fine tool to prepare the perfect cup of tea. To do this, one must focus on what is needed for that very moment and let everything else drop away.

Extraneous objects and actions are not invited to the tea table. Neither are worries or distractions. Through practice, everything is honed-down to its most essential, until all that is left is just making tea. Memory serves to guide the body in its movements, the mind in its exploration. Worry is left by the wayside. Instead, care and attentiveness come to the forefront, in service to the moment, to the task at hand, to the invited guests. Habitual fixations and attachments burn away, as time burns away, a ticking clock reflected in the diminishing flavor of every steeping, of every cup consumed, of every last leaf used up until there is no more.

All that is left is the lingering heat of the kettle, the 回甘 huí gān of the tea caught in one’s throat, and perhaps feeling of lightness that carries on into the next task. A pot left to dry.

An overturned cup revealing the name of its maker. The emptiness of Winter in early January. The sensation of getting older. Disparate flavors that harmonize.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

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

Iris by the River’s Edge. Carp Leaping Up a Waterfall.

With the beginning of May, the heat of Summer seems to be growing day by day. As the glories of Spring have come and gone, blossoms are replaced by the deep greens of the forest and the occasional burst of color as flowers bloom by the river’s edge. The soft murmur of a creek or stream blends with the wind pushing through the trees, bringing a sense of coolness to the mind, even when temperatures are on the rise.

In Japan, early May is marked with the events of Golden Week (黄金週間 Ōgon Shūkan), reaching its climax on the fifth, with 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no sekku, Iris festival. Also known as 重五 Chōgo (“Double Five”), 端午の節句 Tango no sekku (“Beginning of the Horse Month”), and こどもの日 Kodomo no Hi (“Children’s Day”), May 5th is packed with meaning, both in the profane world and in the nebulous world of nature and the supernatural.

Just as Summer begins to appear, people in ancient times would take measures to fortify themselves agains the heat, which also brought about plague, famine and the premature death of young children. In ancient China, sweet-flag (Acorus calamus), as well as mugwort, was hung under the waves of homes to purge evil spirits and avert fires. Similarly, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month is marked with the observation of 端午節 Duānwǔ jié, where it was believed that an offering of rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves to the river dragon would avert dangers that came with the arrival of the rainy season.

In Japan, the water iris (Iris ensata var. ensata) bloom during this period, which spring up like violet-colored arrow points. Their likeness to this article of martial spirit joins the often warrior-infused ethos that surrounds the precursor of Children’s Day, Boy’s Day. Imagery of arrows, samurai armor, and the refined warrior, thus often are abundant in Japan during this time.

As one’s eyes go from the river’s edge to the sky, fluttering multicolored carp-shaped banners can be seen, representing family members in a household. These, too, trace their origin to the dragons of ancient China, as it was believed that dragons originated from carp that swam up waterfalls. The notion of this determined fish to overcome great difficulties and become something greater, more noble than itself, is analogous to a child growing, studying, and cultivating the skills to become an adult, to beat all odds, to awaken to their true self.

As I sit for tea on this May 5th, I cannot help but to engage with this swirl of energies around me. Summer’s heat is finally here and I’ve begun to use the 風炉 furo to heat my 茶釜 chagama. So, too, have I begun to use lighter, wider teabowls. For today’s sitting in observance of Shōbu no sekku, I use a modest 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, which has subtle hues of grey and purple.

For a tea container, I employ a small antique lacquered 小棗 konatsume, upon which is the playful design of 壺 tsubo in a warm gold.

As the kettle comes to a soft, roiling boil, I cleanse the small natsume. After running the 袱紗 fukusa over its glossy surface, I lift the lid, revealing a mound of bright green tea powder.

Placing this to the side, I begin to remove the other items, one by one, to cleanse and prepare for making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

The 茶杓 chashaku, as straight as an iris, is cleansed and placed atop the natsume. The skin of the bamboo conveys a murky landscape, akin the mists and clouds that surround a waterfall as it pours and torrents through a canyon.

The 茶筅 chasen is lifted and set beside the natsume.

The 柄杓 hishaku is lifted and held in the left hand.

From where it had rested, a 蓋置 futaoki made from a jade archer’s thumb ring, once a symbol of the military elite of 清 Qīng and, later, of scholars.

Water is drawn from the kettle and poured into the bowl. The chasen is dipped and whisked and returned to sit beside the natsume once again.

The bowl stands alone, slick with moisture, clean and fresh and refreshing to view. Small gusts of wind push through a space underneath the window of my tearoom and the coming heat of the day is assuaged for a moment.

I lift the chashaku from atop the natsume and bring it before me. I lift the natsume and remove its lid. I place the first of three scoops of 抹茶 matcha into the teabowl. The bright color contrasting against the soft greys and purples of the teabowl’s glaze.

Once all three have been placed in the center of the bowl, I mark the small heap with the sigil of my school and lightly tap the chashaku along the inner rim of the teabowl, removing any excess tea dust from the scoop. A soft ringing sound rises like a small bell.

I place the chashaku back atop the natsume, its tip coated in tea. Cool water is added from the 水指 mizusashi into the chagama and the sound of boiling ceases. The tiny world of my tearoom is silent and still. My mind focuses as I bring the ladle down towards the teabowl. A small gust of wind. A splash of water. The rhythmic motion and sounds of whisking tea.

I draw the chasen out from the bowl. A small peak of foam rises in the center of the chawan. A tiny mountain for the mind to climb. I lift the bowl before me. A solitary offering as I take a moment for myself to pause between work and life and the ongoing challenges of the world. The mind flutters like a flag in the wind. Like a carp leaping up a waterfall. Caught in these actions all day, we often don’t take moments like this to just return to simply sitting. Simply doing. Simply being.

As children, perhaps we unlearned this quality of life. For what? To become a warrior like mom and dad? A scholar, resting their head upon a stack of books? A poet, forced from their home into exile? The carp jumps out of the water. The iris springs from the river’s edge. Dragons are born and people awaken.

The bowl of tea vanishes as quickly as it was made. All that is left are the frothy dregs.

I turn the bowl in my hands and inspect its every imperfection. The bubbling glaze on its foot reminding me of who I am.

I cleanse the bowl, the chasen, and the chashaku once more.

I decide on a whim to enjoy a final 拝見 haiken by myself. The natsume is placed beside the chashaku on a tray of mulberry wood. Set against the swirling of the wooden grain, I lose myself in the little objects and the moment they helped to make possible.

A painting of tsubo playfully dance and roll across the lid of the tea container.

I open the lid to see the remnants of the tea inside. A concave carved-out represents this one meeting of myself with myself.

The chashaku, with its mountains and canyons, mists and waterfalls all made by some moisture that had once accumulated against the skin of a bamboo stalk now become the journey I have taken.

Leaping and fluttering, flapping and climbing.

My eyes glance over to the alcove. A scholar’s carp-shaped water-dropper sits in the 床間 tokonoma. This carp, too, will become a dragon.

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

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

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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In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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Tea on a Rainy Day

IMG_2257There’s something about a cold, rainy October day that inspires me to want to make tea. The crisp air, grey skies, the sound of rain hitting against the window of my tearoom. All of this seems to come together and quiet the mind. Brewing tea seems to naturally follow.

Rain is not always ideal for tea. I can remember when I made my first trip to a tea farm, I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was climbing Jirisan, one of Korea’s oldest tea-producing regions. As I clamored towards a tea master’s home, I was told that no tea was being harvested that day. “Good tea,” the tea master informed me, “was not picked on rainy days.” Rather than witness tea picking and processing, the master sat me down and prepared for me a delicious cup of tea. Rainy days were, as it turned out, perfect days for enjoying tea.

IMG_2334As I sit in my tearoom, enjoying my forced sequestering due to inclement weather outside, I’m reminded of this early tea memory. Inspired, I set my large iron kettle to boil and pull forth a small, tea-filled celadon 香合 kōgō, itself a reproduction ancient Korean 고려/高麗 Goryeo period (918-1392) inlay celadon container.

4C87D024-9041-46AF-83E1-CC78E4BA6344Setting this aside with a cut bamboo teascoop, I put together a traditional set of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea ceramics: three small teacups, a side-handle teapot, and a 숙우 sookwoo. Like the rain outside my window, the there is a certain rhythm to the preparation of Korean tea.

IMG_2335First, water is brought to the perfect “ripeness”, indicated by it coming from an audible rolling boil to a quiet, energetic simmer. Once achieved, a small amount is scooped out from the kettle with a lacquered gourd.

D53124A4-11EA-40F1-AC32-188374862F3FFrom the gourd, the water is poured into the sookwoo. I pause and let the water warm the open vessel.

7EA07296-CCFF-4ABA-BE67-AE9158C16694The lid of the teapot is removed and the hot water is transferred from the sookwoo into the teapot. As the teapot warms, I once again pour water into the sookwoo. I wait for a brief moment and then water is poured from teapot to teacups.

B9EDDEA1-F5AF-425E-8755-8EE3750012D1As the cups warm, I open the wide lid of the celadon kōgō and I carefully place the long, dark, wiry leaves of a semi-oxidized 발효차 balhyocha atop the concave side of the bamboo tea scoop.

A9B8082C-2E60-4E4B-BEA1-76B40CDF1609The leaves are then placed into the warmed teapot.

08BEC89B-3688-4F44-9A1D-DAC6BA0E8ECAWith every inward action, I breathe in. With every outward action, I exhale out. As I reach down to the sookwoo, I exhale. I inhale as I lift it towards my center. With a drawn out exhalation, I pour the water into the teapot. I pause and inhale. As I set the sookwoo down, I exhale. As I draw the lid of the teapot inward towards me, I inhale, enjoying the warm, fleeting aroma of the balhyocha.

FCF370D5-0155-4C04-90DF-A733BD9B8930As I exhale, I gently place the small grey ceramic lid atop the opening of teapot. I wait and, as I do so, I hear the sound of rain growing louder. As the rhythm of the rain quickens, I bring each teacup towards me and empty the warm water from them. This, in turn, echoes the sound of water outside, bright and refreshing.

IMG_2341Once emptied and placed back onto the wooden tea table, I reach back to grasp the teapot, pouring its contents into the now vacant teacups.

54D34264-ED92-43FB-8775-ED6F6DAE888DLifting the lid from the teapot, I let the tea leaves cool, enjoying, yet again, their aroma, this time transformed by the passing of time and the sustained heat of their brewing.

6FDDCE99-5A86-46BA-841F-E787FF039F3CWith the sound of the storm keeping steady outside my window, I sit and quietly admire the color of the first steeping and the quietness of the boiling water as it once again reaches its perfect ripeness.

IMG_2339One steeping turns to two, two into a third, and then countless more. The rich amber hue of the first brew deepens with the second and continues to darken with the third and fourth. The earthy and organic notes of boiled chestnut and baked apples evolve into bright, high tones of raw honey and the sweet pith of roasted pumpkin, eventually quieting into a subtler and more elusive flavor akin to aromatic pine resin.

IMG_2336All said, I exhaust myself before I exhaust the tea and as the storm lifts, I empty the teapot to view the leaves, still warm and steaming. What were once thin, twisted spindles have since unfurled into uniformly russet leaves.

IMG_2337Like the storm that passed and the rain that presided over much of my day, the tea may be done, though its sweet memory and complex flavors still linger. I am left only to wait for another rainy day.

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The Importance of Space

IMG_1928In daily life, actions, tasks, thoughts and emotions can come in rapid succession, one after the other, piling-up like subway trains caught in a tunnel. Over time, the effect of this can become overwhelming until the mind succumbs to stress. Taking a moment to pause, to breathe, can be just enough to break this cycle and reset the mind, transforming a stressful situation into one that is manageable, perhaps even pleasant.

In the practice of tea, the mere act of sitting for tea can become this moment. Even while one may be in the midst of the chaos and clamor of the daily world, to sit and make tea can have the effect of making space; emotionally, spatially, and even temporally. Space, and all the dimensions it can encompass, becomes a distinct feature of tea. The empty space of a teapot can define how much liquid it can hold and how much the tea leaves can expand within it. The space between objects can establish their relationship to each other and even infer their function. Objects and beings, when given their own space, can become both independent of each other, as well as interdependent to one another. It is this space that imbues them with both latent and infinite possibilities.

In Japanese, the term 間 “Ma” (“Jiān” In Chinese) is used to describe this notion. Roughly translating to “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”, Ma is found in all manner of ways, from a pause in action to the space between objects and the nature of a void. In the classic literati and Zen art of Japan, China and Korea, objects are often given their own space, surrounded by a significant amount of “empty” space. Whether mountains, trees, scholarly equipage or even six persimmons arranged together, Ma is allowed to exist both around the objects and, to an extent, within them. Compositions can juxtapose this interrelation of matter and space in dramatic ways, creating dynamism or, equally, a sense of harmonic serenity.

BE1F111E-8D1E-425B-82F9-553139E27009Setting up my teaware to enjoy a moment to taste tea, I try to strike this balance between forms, matter and emptiness. Placed on an expanse of gnarled wood, I arrange each object based on their function and flow. The carved bamboo teascoop sits next to the red Yixing clay 茶船 chá chuán (lit. “tea boat”), in the center of which sits a small 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot”).

D614A507-A844-4884-9229-E76947B16649Shadows fill the empty space within and between each object, turning each void into dark pools.

D9855589-503F-401E-AF94-252BAF32774BA grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) are set closely to one another, yet do not touch each other. Their concave hollows are empty, save for the shadows and light gathered within them.

7E55465B-9D1B-4526-BB21-8B5B0791CB7AThe bamboo scoop sits with its back facing upward, the dark, smooth skin set in contrast to the cursive characters carved upon its surface. Even here, space exists between the written words.

13EA25BD-6B3F-41C8-BA99-BEDEA0464BBCTurned over, thick, curled tea leaves are set upon the interior space of the scoop.

C1A3305B-1042-4FE5-94BD-A2FEB45E20C3Placed into the teapot, the leaves occupy the entirety of the empty space. A void becomes full. Filled with hot water from an iron kettle, the tea is left to steep. Seconds pass, allowing the tea leaves to unfurl and expand. In the space of my tearoom, silence fills the void. In my mind, thoughts sit side-by-side with quietude.

B31967BA-EFE7-4B27-BC21-277C989F3342Pouring the tea out completely, I set the lid ajar, allowing hot vapor to exit the teapot and cooling the tea leaves.

C367E4AC-B7BA-4E35-8B7F-1277A76570B3Turning my gaze from teapot to sookwoo, I view the amber-hued liqueur that came from from the coiled leaves of 紫紅袍 Zǐ Hóng Páo (“Purple Red Robe”) 武夷山岩茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá (Wuyishan “cliff tea”).

7C663A01-DED5-4FEE-9006-885252FA8457Then, from sookwoo to teacup, I pour the tea, and in the space between this teacup and my lips, I can sense the complex, spicy aroma of this brew.

One more pause and I am filled with anticipation. One sip and my mind is flooded with sensations, flavors, and lingering notes onto which instinctively and habitually I try to attach words and qualifying definitions. Even as the taste of tea becomes fleeting, the empty space of this moment after tea feels full with thoughts swirling and a mind still grasping. As this settles, time between steepings expands and silence, once again, returns. A time to pause. An empty space. A cup full of tea. A moment brimming with possibilities.

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