Tag Archives: Lacquer

Waterfall

With the coming of July, Summer’s heat becomes a constant feature, one that practitioners of tea have to devise inventive ways to overcome. In the traditional lunar calendar, July 7th heralds 小暑 shōsho, “minor heat”, the moment when the first hot winds begin to blow and the experience of heat becomes unavoidable. The only respite from this seems to be water.

Water plays an important role in tea. The term 茶の湯 chanoyu refers less to tea and more to the water for tea. “Chanoyu” literally means “hot water for tea”. In his 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762), the 唐 Táng period (618-907) tea practitioner 陸羽 Lù Yǔ (733-803) wrote about the flavor qualities, grading, procurement and manipulation of water more than he did about tea.

Water, too, plays a key role in the world of the tea gathering. Water is ideally to be drawn at the hour of the Tiger (3:00-5:00 am), as it is believed to have the most vitality at this time. Likewise, water is sprinkled on the 露地 roji path to enliven and refresh the surroundings before the guests’ arrival. Water, too, is used to purify the hands and mouth before entering the 茶室 chashitsu, drawn from the 蹲踞 tsukubai. Water is used to create harmony, evinced by the 水指 mizusashi which moves closer to the guests the hotter the seasons become, shielding them from the heat of the 風炉 furo and acting as a refreshing visual cue to the mind. Water is able to convey this feeling. Water conveys more than this.

Water conveys history, it conveys memory. Much of the water we drink contains trace materials that are billions of years old. If water could speak, it would tell tales of the many life forms that sprang from it, the many civilizations that were nourished by it, of ships packed with the souls of the enslaved riding upon it, of the poisons poured into it, and of the tears of millions who are constantly denied it. It is our past and determines our future. You can chose to ignore this yet water is, literally, part of you. It is part of all of us.

The seventh day of the seventh month carries an additional meaning. In Japan, 七夕 Tanabata is observed, celebrating the meeting of lovers, the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively), as they cross the Milky Way, a celestial waterway. Wishes are written on strips of paper (短冊 tanzaku) and tied to boughs of bamboo. The sound of these rustling in the wind create a fluttering akin to a babbling brook.

In the tearoom, a dew-covered leaf (often that of a mulberry) is used as a lid for the mizusashi. The site of this seems to invite the freshness of nature into the tea space, assuaging the heat of the day.

In the morning, just as the sun creeps over the horizon, I prepare my own 葉蓋点前 habuta-temae. I fill my old iron kettle with cool water and set it to slowly come to a boil. I fill a tall, slender glass mizusashi. Atop this I place a broad mulberry leaf that I had picked from a large mulberry tree near my New York City apartment, its surface slick with fresh water.

Bright green 抹茶 matcha is sifted into a black lacquer 棗 natsume. A shallow teabowl is cleansed. So too are the 茶筅 chasen and 茶巾 chakin. A 茶杓 chashaku is selected. Just before the water in the 茶釜 chagama boils, I light incense and take a moment to meditate. The scent of sandalwood rises and fades. The sound of boiling water fills the space of the tearoom.

The teabowl, a 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), is set between the furo and the glass mizusashi.

The natsume is placed before it. Each ware is then cleansed. The lacquer is purified by the silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. So too is the speckled bamboo of the chashaku, the 胡麻竹 goma-dake pattern resembling minute raindrops.

I lift the 柄杓 hishaku from a hammered silver 蓋置 futaoki and dip it into the water for the chagama.

I draw forth a dipper’s worth of hot water, pouring it into the shallow teabowl.

Thin networks of steam rises from the chawan as I press the thin tines of the chasen into the pool. Once cleansed, the chasen is returned beside the black lacquer natsume, beads of water still clinging to the blades of bamboo.

Tea is scooped and placed into the center of the pale blue-green teabowl. The curved scoop of the chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner rim, producing a clear, bell-like sound.

With my right hand, I take hold of the stem of the mulberry leaf, lifting it off the glass mizusashi. From right hand to left, I fold the leaf gently and place it into the large 建水 kensui beside me.

Cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chagama, arresting the rolling boil, silencing the kettle and the tea space. A full ladle is pulled from the steaming mouth of the cauldron and brought above the chawan.

Only half is poured into the teabowl. The other half is returned to the kama. This action calls to mind 曹洞 Sōtō Zen teacher 鈴木 俊隆 Suzuki Shunryū’s (1904-1971) discussion of the order’s founder, 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253), and 半杓橋 Hanshaku-kyō at 永平寺 Eiheiji. In the story, Dōgen would cross the bridge leading to the temple of Eiheiji and draw forth a dipper-full of water to cleanse himself, returning half of the dipper’s worth of water back to the river.

To understand why Dōgen did this is quite difficult. As a means of economy or of efficiency it makes no sense. However, as Dōgen understood the river and felt at one with the river, his action, to use half a ladle of water and pour back the other half (半杓 hanshaku, “half-ladle”), was a sign of respect for the water. In Zen, this is a reflection of one’s “essence of mind” or “big mind”. An understanding of one’s self intrinsically linked to everything in the universe.

In the realm of tea, the half-ladle of water is a form of modulation. On a hot day, I use slightly more water. The result is a thinner tea. The swift motion of the chasen and the shallow draft of the teabowl will eventually cool the water down. The end result is a refreshing bowl of tea. If I take care to understand the moment at hand and the guests in the tearoom, I will understand what each moment needs. With time and practice and attention, this motion becomes second nature. I convey this. Water conveys this.

Within seconds of whisking, the matcha is whisked into a light foam. The bright green of the tea stands against the light celadon color of the antique qīngbái bowl. The bowl sits atop the wave-like pattern embedded in the wooden floorboards of my apartment. The expansive surface is cool and relaxed.

Sunlight filters through window shades. It pools in the center of the chawan. It collects in the prism of the glass mizusashi. Caught in the bubble that rise and churn in the chagama. Caught in the bubbles that cling to the side of the fresh water bucket’s translucent walls.

I stare downward into the foamy surface of the tea, mounding inside the concave of the shallow teabowl. The clean scent of 宇治 Uji tea. The scent born from earth, from sunlight, from the water that is found in the mountains. The water that I’ve used, sourced from the mountains of New York state, revive these flavors. One water meets another, converge and harmonize.

As I lift the bowl, the heat of the day creeps into the tearoom. Hot, heavy air laden with moisture, synonymous with Summer in New York City. I sip the tea and, despite the warmth of the liquid, my body feels revived. For a moment I enjoy looking upon the final dregs which cling to the bowl’s interior.

I rinse the bowl with water pulled from the chagama and turn the bowl over to inspect the 高台 kōdai. Patches of exposed rough clay show through the thin, green-blue glaze. Much of this teabowl’s life was spent sitting at the bottom of a river. For many hundreds of years it was protected by the water, kept away from the destructive forces of humanity. As wars tore civilizations apart, it remained below the surface, re-emerging once again to live out its current life as a teabowl once more.

I pour cool water in the bowl and cleanse the whisk. I remove the remaining matcha powder from the chashaku.

Bowl and natsume are placed side-by-side.

Each item appears slick with water. Before return to my busy day, I arrange a small solitary 拝見 haiken.

The natsume is cleansed once again and placed upon an old 香盤 kōban.

The chashaku is placed beside it. Swirling wood grains create a whirlpool around each item.

Like water pushing off rocks below a mighty waterfall. Each wave appears separate. Each an individual surge. A single body and mind. An event and action. Yet each motion is part of a single vast expanse. A river that runs to an ocean. An accumulation of memories, of pain, of trauma. Of joys, of celebrations, of boundless lovers finding one another, of beings awakening.

All of this is conveyed by water, held by it, harmonized by it. To assuage the heat of Summer. To return us to our most essential self. This, too, is refreshing.

 

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Given how essential water is to tea, and how precious it is for life, below are links to resources that offer ways to become active in your own community. Each link gives an opportunity to learn more about water rights, clean water protection, the link between access to clean water and human rights, and ways you can become more actively engaged in ensuring that clean water won’t become a thing of the past.

Waterkeeper Alliance

https://waterkeeper.org/news/issues/covid-19/

Native American Rights Fund – Protect Tribal Natural Resources

https://www.narf.org/our-work/protection-tribal-natural-resources/

No More Deaths

https://nomoredeaths.org/en/

People’s Water Board Coalition

https://www.peopleswaterboard.org

Hydrate Detroit

https://www.hydratedetroit.org

The Human Utility – Detroit Water Project

https://detroitwaterproject.org

Navajo Water Project

https://www.navajowaterproject.org

Flint Rising

https://flintrising.com

Clean Water Advocacy Center

https://www.cwacenter.org/home-1

Publications on Race and Water Justice

(From Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) – Research Coordination Network (RCN))

https://hwise-rcn.org

Balazs, C. L., & Ray, I. (2014). The Drinking Water Disparities Framework: On the Origins and Persistence of Inequities in Exposure. American Journal of Public Health, 104(4), 603–611. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2013.301664  

Ahmad, K., Erqou, S., Shah, N., Nazir, U., Morrison, A., Choudhary, G., & Wu, W.-C. (2020). Association of Poor Housing Conditions with COVID-19 Incidence and Mortality Across US Counties. MedRxiv, 2020.05.28.20116087. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.28.20116087 

Butts, R., & Gasteyer, S. (2011). ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEWS & CASE STUDIES: More Cost per Drop: Water Rates, Structural Inequality, and Race in the United States—The Case of Michigan. Environmental Practice, 13(4), 386–395. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1466046611000391 

Clonch, A. (2019). Annexation and Water Utility Extensions in Wake County, NC: The Role of Race, Income, and Other Demographic Characteristics. https://doi.org/10.17615/2qb3-5f55  

Deitz, S., & Meehan, K. (2019). Plumbing Poverty: Mapping Hot Spots of Racial and Geographic Inequality in U.S. Household Water Insecurity. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 109(4), 1092–1109. https://doi.org/10.1080/24694452.2018.1530587  

Dyer, O. (2020). Covid-19: Black people and other minorities are hardest hit in US. BMJ, 369. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1483 

Gasteyer, S. P., Lai, J., Tucker, B., Carrera, J., & Moss, J. (2016). BASICS INEQUALITY: Race and Access to Complete Plumbing Facilities in the United States. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(2), 305–325. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X16000242  

Hyde, K. (2020a). Residential Water Quality and the Spread of COVID-19 in the United States (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3572341). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3572341 

Hyde, K. (2020b). Residential Water Quality and the Spread of COVID-19 in the United States (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3572341). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3572341 

Muhammad, M., De Loney, E. H., Brooks, C. L., Assari, S., Robinson, D., & Caldwell, C. H. (n.d.). “I think that’s all a lie…I think It’s genocide”: Applying a Critical Race Praxis to Youth Perceptions of Flint Water Contamination. Ethnicity & Disease, 28(Suppl 1), 241–246. https://doi.org/10.18865/ed.28.S1.241 

Pulido, L. (1996). Environmentalism and economic justice: Two Chicano struggles in the Southwest. University of Arizona Press.

Pulido, L. (2000). Rethinking environmental racism: White privilege and urban development in Southern California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90(1), 12–40.

Pulido, L. (2015). Geographies of race and ethnicity 1: White supremacy vs white privilege in environmental racism research. Progress in Human Geography, 39(6), 809–817.

Pulido, L. (2016). Flint, environmental racism, and racial capitalism. Taylor & Francis.

Pulido, L. (2017). Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence. Progress in Human Geography, 41(4), 524–533.

Ranganathan, M. (2016). Thinking with Flint: Racial liberalism and the roots of an American water tragedy. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(3), 17–33.

Ranganathan, M. (2019). Empire’s infrastructures: Racial finance capitalism and liberal necropolitics. Urban Geography, 1–5.

Ranganathan, M., & Balazs, C. (2015). Water marginalization at the urban fringe: Environmental justice and urban political ecology across the North–South divide. Urban Geography, 36(3), 403–423.

Rodriguez-Lonebear, D., Barceló, N. E., Akee, R., & Carroll, S. R. (2020). American Indian Reservations and COVID-19: Correlates of Early Infection Rates in the Pandemic. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 26(4), 371–377. https://doi.org/10.1097/PHH.0000000000001206 

Rosinger, A. Y., & Young, S. L. (2020). In-home tap water consumption trends changed among US children, but not adults, between 2007 and 2016. Water Resources Research, n/a(n/a), e2020WR027657. https://doi.org/10.1029/2020WR027657

Stillo, F., & MacDonald Gibson, J. (2016). Exposure to Contaminated Drinking Water and Health Disparities in North Carolina. American Journal of Public Health, 107(1), 180–185. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2016.303482 

Stillo, F., M.S.P.H., & Gibson, J. M., PhD. (2018). Racial disparities in access to municipal water supplies in the american south: Impacts on children’s health. International Public Health Journal, 10(3), 309-323

Switzer, D., & Teodoro, M. P. (2018). Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Justice in Safe Drinking Water Compliance*. Social Science Quarterly, 99(2), 524–535. https://doi.org/10.1111/ssqu.12397  

Takahashi, B., Adams, E. A., & Nissen, J. (2020). The Flint water crisis: Local reporting, community attachment, and environmental justice. Local Environment, 25(5), 365–380. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2020.1747415

Troesken, W. (2001). RACE, DISEASE, AND THE PROVISION OF WATER IN AMERICAN CITIES, 1889–1921. The Journal of Economic History, 61(3), 750–776. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050701030066  

Troesken, W. (2002). THE LIMITS OF JIM CROW: RACE AND THE PROVISION OF WATER AND SEWERAGE SERVICES IN AMERICAN CITIES, 1880–1925. The Journal of Economic History, 62(3), 734–772. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050702001067  

Troesken, W. (2004). Water, Race, and Disease. MIT Press.

VanDerslice, J. (2011). Drinking Water Infrastructure and Environmental Disparities: Evidence and Methodological Considerations. American Journal of Public Health, 101(S1), S109–S114. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2011.300189 

Whitford, A. B., Smith, H., & Mandawat, A. (2010). Disparities in access to clean water and sanitation: Institutional causes. Water Policy, 12(S1), 155–176. https://doi.org/10.2166/wp.2010.019 

Wilson, S. M., Heaney, C. D., & Wilson, O. (2010). Governance Structures and the Lack of Basic Amenities: Can Community Engagement Be Effectively Used to Address Environmental Injustice in Underserved Black Communities? Environmental Justice, 3(4), 125–133. https://doi.org/10.1089/env.2010.0014 

Wutich, A., Budds, J., Eichelberger, L., Geere, J., M. Harris, L., A. Horney, J., Jepson, W., Norman, E., O’Reilly, K., Pearson, A. L., H. Shah, S., Shinn, J., Simpson, K., Staddon, C., Stoler, J., Teodoro, M. P., & L. Young, S. (2017). Advancing methods for research on household water insecurity: Studying entitlements and capabilities, socio-cultural dynamics, and political processes, institutions and governance. Water Security, 2, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasec.2017.09.001 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, History, Japan, 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

Saying Goodbye to the Past

April has come and now wanes. The days seem to get gradually longer. The cold of Winter is now just a distant memory. The cherry blossoms hang heavy from their branches. The early blooms of dogwood explode against the deep blue sky. The buds wisteria and peonies swell. Spring has climbed to apex and, now, begins to close. The gradual shift to Summer comes slowly, yet, all around, it is palpable.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the tea practitioner marks this with the closure of the 炉 ro. For the tea person, this moment, 炉塞 rofusagi, marks the end of the cold months, when heat needed to be conserved, and guests gathered closely to the sunken hearth. As with the shift of the seasons, this transformation is gradual, first with the hanging kettle (釣り釜 tsurigama) being suspended with a chain, later succeeded by kettles that may have a wide flange (透木釜 tsukigigama), held up by small wooden supports.

As the shape and style of each kettle changes, so too, do their relation to heat, becoming cooler as Winter’s chill fades. So loved is the ro, with its cozy, informal attitude, that poet and tea person 三味 Sanmi stated 「塞ぐ炉に五徳の痩もなつかしき」, “Even the naked trivet is missed when we close the ro”.

Now, in the final days of Spring, as the heat increases, one must decide when to close the ro all together, to begin the other half of the tea year. In saying goodbye to the ro, one says goodbye to the past.

While I do not have a ro, I bear all of this in mind. My attitude towards tea during the ro season is to keep things more 侘び wabi, more rustic, more understated. Rather than use my 風炉 furo, I opt for using an antique 火鉢 hibachi, one made of a single burl of 桐 kiri. Like the ro, the hibachi brings about a more relaxed feeling, one which favors simple austerity over refinery.

Early this morning I set up the hibachi under the window of my tearoom. Next to the charcoal, I place a small hand-shaped ball of 練香 nerikō into the ash, and set the iron kettle over the heat of the brazier for it to boil.

As the water warms, I begin to prepare for tea, sifting bright green 抹茶 matcha into a multi-color 若狭塗棗 Wakasanuri natsume. In my New York City kitchen, I wash a teabowl and wet a white linen 茶巾 chakin and 茶筅 chasen made of spotted bamboo. I bring these into my tearoom, right as the water begins to come to a boil.

As I prepare the wares for tea, I set them before me. A small teabowl made by contemporary potter 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro accompanies the Wakasanuri natsume, its deep purple interior and rough exterior, swathed in brushstrokes of carbonized lacquer, harmonize with the irregular patterns of polished lacquer of the tea container.

I cleanse the natsume. It sparkles like a jewel.

I shift my attention to the simple wooden wares set into the teabowl.

The 茶杓 chashaku of dark bamboo, which I set atop the lid of the natsume.

The chasen, which I warm and cleanse in the water drawn from my kettle.

The bowl dries unevenly. Tiny facets of sand shine, embedded in the clay.

I place three scoops of matcha into the center of the teabowl. With a light tap against the interior, I remove any excess tea dust from the tip of the chashaku.

I draw water from the kettle and pour half a ladle’s worth into the bowl. With this last ladle of water drawn from the kettle, what will I make? The last water warmed by the hearth of Winter. Half a year has come and gone. What has happened during this time? What will be left in the past?

I breathe deeply and bring the whisk into the water, mixing the tea as I begin to whip it into a fine foam. The scent of tea and the aroma from the nerikō meld together into a sweet, spicy, warm fragrance. The world around me feels quiet as my mind and body concentrate.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a low peak of tea is formed. As I sit and turn to the informal hibachi, I join it, the stillness, and the sound of the water climbing back to a boil.

The teabowl is warm in my hands. The rough surface of its outer walls feel like bark on an old cypress tree. The uneven patination of its interior of deep purple contrasts against the bright green of tea. I take a sip, letting the warmth of the tea sink into my body. I sip again, filling my heart. I take one final sip, pulling up the last of the foam in one inhalation.

All that remains are the dregs.

I close the sitting by cleansing the wares once again. The chasen is wetted. The bowl is rinsed. The dust that clings to the chashaku is wiped away and brushed off into the 建水 kensui. Cool water is drawn from the 水指 mizusashi and mixed with the warm water of the 茶釜 chagama.

The tearoom becomes still again and in this silence I sit and meditate.

From the 床間 tokonoma, I bring out a small 織部焼き Oribeyaki 香合 kōgō by 松本鉄山 Matsumoto Tetsuzan.

Its rough shape and uneven application of glaze feels relaxed yet warm, comforting. Memories of the past Winter and early Spring, when new sprigs were bright green on the pine, when drifts of snow first came and last melted away. A sense of nowness melding with the bittersweet quality of the past. This is how memory works. It is joy tinged with sadness. What is gone shall never come back. When we see it again, what reappears shall be different, transformed.

I open the little kōgō to find two remaining hand-formed balls of nerikō. Their fragrance is soft, warm, spicy and relaxed. In time, this too will fade. Everything subtly, constantly, instance-over-instance, transforming, waxing and waning, until Winter turns to Spring, then Spring to Summer. In this, we are always saying goodbye. Saying goodbye to the past.

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Tea for the Dead. Tea for the Living.

On the March 28th, schools of 茶の湯 chanoyu observe the death of 16th century tea master 千利休Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591). Recognized as one of the primary figures to shape chanoyu, notably the aesthetic of 侘び茶 wabi-cha, Rikyū’s tea contained a strong emphasis on rusticity and austerity, framing tea as an expression of a moment’s evanescence. This philosophy lives on in the schools that continued Rikyū’s approach, passed down from teacher to student, tea master to countless generations.

On this day, 利休忌 Rikyūki, I am observing the tradition of formally offering tea, 供茶 kucha, to the memory of Rikyū. In light of the current events that have swept through our world, it seems only fitting to prepare a bowl of tea for the dead.

Entering my tearoom, the the light that filters through the windows is dull and grey. The sound of light rain melds with the low bubbling of the boiling water inside my iron 茶釜 chagama. The soft scent of incense rises from a ceramic incense burner set in the 床間 tokonoma. I carry with me a bowl and black lacquer 棗 natsume in the form favored by Rikyū. The teabowl is meant just for cleansing the 茶筅 chasen.

With my 袱紗 fukusa, I purify the natsume and 茶杓 chashaku.

With hot water, I wet the tea whisk and set the teabowl aside.

Next I bring forth a black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan set atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai.

Cleansing the bowl in hot water from my iron chagama, I place the teabowl back upon the wooden stand.

Rather than place tea into the chawan, I first ladle hot water into the bowl.

Next, I draw 抹茶 matcha from the black lacquer natsume and place this upon the surface of the hot water.

For a moment, I watch the tea powder float upon the still water. Steam and small wave-like patterns of tea powder swirl until, slowly, the tea beings to sink below the water’s surface. Not a commonly performed 点前 temae, the strange sight of tea floating and then falling sparks something inside me.

A pang of sadness washes over me as I stand up with teabowl in hand to place it in the tokonoma, set beside an offering of a sweet, flowers found along a path in my neighborhood, a candle and incense. I bow and realize that this bowl is not just meant as an offering for a dead tea master but for all those who have been cut down prematurely by the current pandemic.

I return to sit before the chagama and produce a single 黒楽茶碗 kuroRaku chawan; again, a form favored by Rikyū. As I cleanse this bowl, one which I will serve to my partner, I cannot help but to feel the futility in this act. Certainly, tea was seen as a medicine for so many centuries, yet will this bowl of tea be enough to save ourselves?

I warm the whisk and wipe the bowl.

It’s surface sparkles back, dark, black.

Into the deep void of the bowl I cast scoops of tea, creating a deeper indentation into the mound of matcha inside the black lacquer natsume.

I return the tea container back and set the chashaku atop its mirror-like lid. Pockmarked with tiny black 胡麻 goma speckles, the pattern resembles the light shower of raindrops outside my tearoom window.

I add water to the teabowl and whisk the tea into a fine foam.

I lift the bowl and set it beside me for my partner to accept.

We smile to one another. We feel alive. She lifts the bowl and turns it so as not to drink from its 正面 shōmen. She smiles and sips the tea.

In the tokonoma, the candlelight flickers against the grey light and casts shadows against the wall. A soft scent of incense wanes. The sound of the kettle humming. The final slurp of tea is audible.

The black Raku bowl is returned to me with a bright remaining mound of foam sitting in its center. Fleeting residual evidence of a peaceful moment, of a time shared with someone I love. A bowl of tea for the living shared with a bowl of tea for the dead.

I cleanse the bowl and pass it back to my partner and we take a moment to examine its 高台 kōdai.

A carved curl in the clay made by 楽焼 Rakuyaki master 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. His stamp set beside the foot ring of the bowl. His lasting legacy imprinted in clay and glaze. Fragile. Light in the hands.

Afterwards, I put together a final informal 拝見 haiken. The plain black lacquer natsume is set beside the chashaku.

We lift the lid to examine the tea inside its glossy interior.

We look upon the chashaku. A rounded scoop. Its speckled skin. The countless marks upon its surface. What was its life before it came to us? What did your face look like before your parents were born? What will life bring? Where will so many deaths take us?

My partner and I sit in the tearoom, thinking about the flavor of tea, the sound of the rain, the lingering scent of incense. We talk about life. We talk about death. We grieve for those who have been lost. About those we don’t even know. About the inevitability of death. About the chance happening of love. There’s a bowl of tea in the alcove for a dead tea master. There’s an empty bowl of tea shared by two friends.

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Crossing the Divide of Spring

As the weather warms and Spring continues to emerge in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re given a moment to pause briefly and appreciate the transition that is brought about by the vernal equinox. Even as the world finds itself in the grip of a terrible pandemic, the view from my window echoes the many ancient and timeless shifts that the equinox heralds.

The crocus have pushed up through the dark earth. The 梅 ume plum blossoms have opened and are now being scattered in the wind. The first magnolias of the year are beginning to peek from their velvetine jackets, in vibrant bursts of white, pink and pale yellow. The 連翹 rengyō (liánqiáo in Mandarin, Forsythia in English) look like thousands of tiny golden bells ringing in the breeze. Even on a morning after the rain, the world seems bright, alive and full of energy.

The vernal equinox holds with it another meaning too. As the natural world comes to life, in Japan, practitioners of Buddhism in and 茶の湯 chanoyu alike observe 彼岸 Higan. Similar to the 盆 Bon, which is celebrated during the Autumn equinox, Higan is a moment to reflect upon the transitory nature of life, the passing of the dead, and the movement from a world of delusion to one of awakening and enlightenment.

Higan literally means “the other shore”, referring to crossing from a shore of suffering to the other shore of nirvana. 彼岸会 Higan-e are the series of rituals that are conducted in Japanese Buddhist temples during this time, done to aid in the removal of suffering and delusion for all sentient beings and those who have passed. Graves are cleansed. Altars are tidied. Flowers are offered. Sweets of pounded rice covered in red bean jelly are enjoyed (牡丹餅 botamochi). Tea is offered as well.

In my tearoom, I sit and listen to the gentle bubbling heating water inside my antique 茶釜 chagama.

As I wait for the water to boil, I set out a 黒楽茶碗 kuro Raku chawan by ceramics master 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

I pair with it a 若狭塗棗 Wakasanuri natsume, the multitude of colors upon its surface nodding to the five colors in Buddhism (panchavarna in Sanskrit), each of which refers to five buddhas and the transformation of delusions into awakenings.

With the kettle at a full boil, I begin to cleanse the tea objects to prepare a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. The sun shining through the grey clouds outside my window casts long shadows against the wooden floor beams. The natsume with the 茶杓 chashaku made of mottled bamboo set atop its lid sitting side-by-side the 茶筅 chasen.

A wooden 木魚 mokugyo.

A copper bell and book of Zen chants.

A ladle’s-worth of hot water from my iron kettle is poured into the chawan and I cleanse the chasen, warming the bowl as I do this.

I pause briefly after drying the bowl, only to move to distribute 抹茶 matcha into it. Three scoops and a gentle tap of the chashaku against the teabowl interior, shaking off the remaining tea dust.

Cool water from my 水指 mizusashi is drawn and mixed with the hot water inside the chagama; balance before creation. A half-ladle’s-worth of water is poured into the chawan, the remainders returned to the kettle; just enough to make a bowl of tea. With chasen lightly held in my right hand, I whisk the tea into a fine foam.

For a moment I sit to enjoy the colors. The blush-hued central node upon the bamboo stalk that makes the handle to my 柄杓 hishaku.

The bright electric green of the matcha radiating from a jet-black bowl. The shimmering gold, green, black, red and silver lacquer of the natsume. The swirling and smoky pattern upon the surface of the chashaku.

So easy it can be to get lost in this material world. In the refinement of objects. In the sensations that keep us bound to our bodies and the pleasures of the mundane. Yet what do pleasures and desires create? A veil? A mighty weight? From the same source of joy too brings suffering. To cross from one mind to the next. Is there a river to ford? One shore leading to another?

I look deep into the center of the chawan, a perfect plane of foam, a vast ocean of tea. My life submerged in this. Fragrant. Delicious. Satiated.

And yet as I drink this down to its final dregs, my mind still wanders. A bowl of tea made to mark the vernal equinox, to quell the cold in hope for warm months ahead. To abate delusion and awaken the mind. To build a bridge from suffering. To ebb desire that laps against the other shore.

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The Fragility of Spring

With the first few true days of Spring upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, the world feels fresh, the air crisp and easy. While trees still appear barren from Winter’s icy grip, upon closer inspection, each branch is laden with tiny buds, waiting to burst into leaf or flower at any moment. The pines stand with their new needles clumped together in their bright electric green. The 梅 ume plum blossoms are deep sanguineous red. The magnolia flowers still remain wrapped in their thick and fuzzy sheaths. Below, the new shoots of bright green grass push up through the soil and a light Spring shower brings earthworms to the surface, frogs to the full creeks.

There exists a sense of newness everywhere. Yet, as with every moment we encounter, early Spring holds with it a sense of fragility. The season is not yet at its full apex. Its energy, while rising, presents itself through the most delicate of means. The ume plum blossoms can be pulled down by the slightest of breezes. The shoots of grass are thin and pliable. The pine needles are soft to the touch. On the warmer days, butterflies come out and dance on the early blooming flowers. Both blossoms’ petals and butterflies’ wings are translucent and transient, gone by season’s end.

In Japan, early March is marked with a number of observances that reflect the evanescence of life. On March 3rd, 雛祭り Hinamatsuri, “Dolls Festival” or “Girls’ Day” is celebrated. In ancient times, as is still done now, dolls made of fine paper and brocade depicting the ancient imperial court are arranged in celebration of childhood. Traditionally, dolls were also placed on small grass boats and sent down the river (流し雛 nagashibina) as a means to rid oneself of potentially dangerous impurities.

Older, still, was the practice of 曲水の宴 kyokusuinoen, where courtiers would float cups of wine down a winding river, sending them to other scholars downstream who, upon collecting and imbibing the contents, would compose an impromptu poem. Older than this, March 3rd was celebrated by the ancients as 桃の節句 Momo no Sekku, “Peach Festival”, marking the moment when the delicate peach blossoms would emerge.

With all this activity in early March, the days can feel full, a new page turning with every day that passes. For the tea practitioner, the emerging of Spring feels all the more palpable as each moment had with tea brings new opportunities to reflect upon the newest developments and those soon to come. For myself, I find this activity to drive me to wanting quietude and time in nature. While I have been planning a trip up the Hudson River, I find myself restless, still caught in New York City. With talk of a spreading international pandemic and the ever-swirling political environment of the United States churning, the sense of fragility seems all the more present in my mind.

Settling down in my tearoom, I find my 取り合わせ toriawase to be a mirror onto this moment. Rather than sit with my old bronze brazier, I bring forth my small ceramic 涼炉 ryōro, atop which I place a white clay ボーフラ bōfura kettle.

Equally informal, I pair this with a lacquered 盆 bon. For a teabowl, I use a blush-colored vintage 萩焼茶碗 Hagiyaki chawan.

For a tea container, I improvise with an antique Chinese enameled cloisonné box, decorated with a bright butterfly and flowers motif against a black background.

Removing teabowl and tea container from the bon, I go through the process of initially cleansing each item.

Wiping the surface of the tea caddy with the 袱紗 fukusa, I lift its lid to inspect the mound of 抹茶 matcha powder held within.

After cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku, I turn my attention to the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl, rinsing each with the warm water from the small clay kettle.

Once purified, I scoop matcha into the warm chawan. In the warm light of the day, the color of the Hagiyaki glaze glows, reminiscent of the pale hue of a peach blossom.

The color of the bright matcha beaming like a fresh leaf.

The remaining tea residue against the dark bamboo, bright like fine moss against a branch. Each ware, a celebration of this brief moment caught within the season.

Fully whisked, the tea looks inviting, as relaxing as a Spring day. Its aroma pungent and fresh. Its flavor full of vigor and vitality.

Lifting the bowl to my lips, I sip the tea down to its last dregs, enjoying the remnants of tea that still clings to the chawan’s interior.

Turning the bowl over, I enjoy its shape in my hand and the unctuous glaze that had collected along the edge of the exposed clay around the 高台 kōdai.

I sit and let this moment wash over me. The sound of a cardinal outside my window. The tinkling of the clay kettle chattering as it boils. The lingering warmth held within the walls of the teabowl’s clay. Each of these moments exist only for this one time and then vanish, never to return again as they are.

Seasons cycle and recycle themselves constantly. What you might expect to arise again upon Spring’s return comes later than supposed and emerges differently. What forms you once thought were unbreakable are in fact fragile. A teabowl. A butterfly’s wing. One’s childhood. One’s parents. All float down the river, we catch them if we can, compose thoughts that come to us, and send them on their way. Towards the river’s end. The ocean’s beginning. To the end of a moment. To its point of no return as we once knew it. Tea affords the practitioner a view into this dynamic, yet this, too, is fleeting.

I finish my time with tea by cleansing the wares once more. Wetting and whisking and wiping away the residue of the past until each object rests again pristine upon the round lacquered tray.

Uncharacteristically to this informal setting, I decide to arrange a small 拝見 haiken. Having just practiced 香道 kōdō earlier that morning, I pull out the old wooden 香盆 kōbon tray to double as a surface to present the wares upon. The improvised tea container is set beside the chashaku.

I open it to inspect the mound of matcha as I had when I first sat down to make a bowl of tea.

Its surface is marked now by the removal of three scoops. It is marked by the memory of a bowl of tea.

The chashaku, with the small node of a new bamboo shoot pressing out of its 節 fushi. A memory, too, of life, of time, of a moment of newness, of the fragility of Spring.

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Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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Major Cold: Looking Down the Long, Dark Tunnel of Winter

It is late January and, by now, many of us begin to anticipate the warmth of Spring. However, as nature would have it, the coldest days of Winter are finally upon us. In the interim, between the New Year of the Gregorian calendar and before the New Year of the traditional lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the period of what is called 大寒 Daikan in Japanese (Dàhán in Mandarin), “Major Cold”, begins.

Extending from January 20th to February 3rd (changing slightly depending on the given year), this time sees the most extreme point of Winter’s chill, with winds that are wild and biting, the earth frozen and solid, and the ice ever-present. In the world of tea, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu take heart and double-down on their commitment to live according to Rikyū’s old adage, “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. So dedicated to this latter notion are tea people that all manner of accommodations are made to ensure that the guests’ needs for warmth are met.

Warm water with ginger is often served to the guests as they wait to enter the tearoom. More charcoal may be added to the 炉 ro to boil the water and heat the tea space. Even the type of teaware used is adjusted to increase the warmth of the tea. It is during this time of year that the host will bring out the 筒茶碗 tsutsuchawan.

Named for its distinctive “tube-like” shape, the tsutsuchawan casts a visually different form in the tearoom when compared to the typical shape of the teabowl. Comprising of a vessel that is taller than it is wide, the height of the tsutsuchawan ensures that the hot tea made within it remains hot by the moment the guest receives it. Given that traditionally 茶室 chashitsu are constructed out of nothing more than wood, paper, grass, and mud, any means taken to retain heat is vital. Tea was (and still is) a medicine at its core.

As I sit in my own modern (and, frankly, modest) tearoom today, I find myself feeling far from the historical essence of chanoyu. In my New York City apartment, I sit in the artificial warmth of 20th century steam heat. The sound of the radiator seems a constant feature of my Winter-locked life here in the city. In stark contrast, I look out of my window to a world blanketed in a fresh coat of snow. Ice hangs on the eaves and dark grey clouds filter sunlight into a dull glow.

As I bring the water in my antique bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama to a boil, I arrange my teaware. A vintage 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

A small wooden 平棗 hiranatsume lacquered with persimmon juice.

An antique 茶杓 chashaku.

A 茶筅 chasen made of speckled bamboo. Peering out of the darkness of the deep chawan is the white linen 茶巾 chakin, folded in a manner favored in the 裏千家 Urasenke school (a subtle and mindful nod of appreciation to their form as I am a student of 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an).

As I cleanse each item, touching them with the smooth silk cloth of my 袱紗 fukusa or bathing them in the heat of the boiling water, I ready them for their action of making tea. The chashaku is rested atop the natsume. The chakin is removed from the teabowl. The whisk is wetted and warmed. The teabowl is empty and is radiating heat from the water it once held. These actions all have their intention and are supported by the purpose-built wares.

As I scoop tea from the small wooden natsume and place it gently into the center of the teabowl, I feel the heat still held in the clay. Its presence subtly activating the aroma of the fresh 抹茶 matcha powder. The shape of the bowl sends this flavor upwards to me as I pour half a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the chawan. As I whisk the tea, I am mindful to adjust my action to the unique shape of the tsutsuchawan. My movements are tighter, slightly faster, whipping the tea into a light foam.

Pulling the chasen from the teabowl with an upward motion, I see the results of my action: a soft, gentle foam, lustrous like mounding snow. It glows like a wondrous light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

As I sit in the makeshift tearoom of my urban apartment, listening to the wild wind whipping at my window, the sight of trees bending and heaving to the force of nature, I cannot help but to recognize the luxury and, indeed, the privilege I live in. Tea is a luxury. Heat is a luxury. The walls around me and the food in my belly are all a luxury, brought to me, in large part, by a privilege that I alone did not make for myself.

As I set the bowl before me and lift it in thanks for this moment it and my practice has brought me, I let my thoughts on this situation linger. I pause before I lift the bowl to my lips, its heat radiating, the fresh, fragrant liquid within it unavoidable and pleasant. How can I share this solitary bowl of tea with the world around me? How do I share this warmth that I have now during the coldest time of year?

As I sip and empty the tall vessel, watching the final dregs pool and collect within its flat base, no immediate answer comes to me.

As I turn the bowl over to appreciate the rough textures of its 高台 kōdai and to see the carved mark of the potter’s name, I find no reply from the great and boundless universe. To “just make tea” seems to be enough and yet so little. Today, the peace I often find myself having at the end of making a bowl of tea does not seem to arise. Instead, the problems of the world, the problems of privilege, still seem to remain.

As with other forms of meditation, the act of making a bowl of tea is said to be a kind of enlightenment. Alas, it is a misconception that enlightenment brings an air of settled peace or a sense of harmony. In truth, the enlightenment that arises is, instead, no different from the pain and suffering or the joy and exuberance of everyday.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of life, sometimes all we see is the darkness. Sometimes when we look down the long, dark tunnel of a tsutsuchawan, all we see are the final dregs and residue of the tea we’ve finished. It is our practice to see this. It is also our practice to do all we can to make the guest warm, especially when we are living through the coldest days of Winter.

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Forgetting Time

On the final day of the final year of the decade, I find myself not wanting to celebrate in a bombastic manner. In stark contrast to previous years where New Year’s Eve was cause for loud, raucous festivities, my partner and I decided to make the journey from the clamor of New York City to the quietude of rural Delaware and the comfort of a close relative’s home on the banks of the Mispillion River. The attitude here is laid back, calm, pensive. The only thing that seems to shift is the wind that pushes through the pines.

Rather than stress about celebrations, I opt to make a simple bowl of tea for my partner and her aunt to mark the passing of the decade. Wishing to enjoy the waning light of the day, we decide to hold a small tea gathering in the chilly December air.

Upon a small table which has been built out of the scraps of an old wooden fence, I place a simple 盆 bon made of carved burl wood. Atop this are arranged the implements for tea: a vintage 益子焼茶碗 Mashiko-yaki chawan, an old bamboo 茶杓 chashaku, a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume.

Angular shadows of the late afternoon and Winter’s sunlight create a shifting landscape across the uneven surface of the old wooden table.

The kōaka natsume, which I tend to only use on days of celebration, looks like a large bright red sun against a pale blue sky.

Once opened, it reveals a low hill of bright green 抹茶 matcha.

As I move from cleansing the lacquered natsume to the implements within the teabowl, I move tea objects around the horizontal plane of the table, from table’s surface to bon.

For my partner’s aunt, who is new to the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, these actions seem as if they are part of some mysterious ritual. However, after the many years I’ve been practicing tea, they are nothing special. My movements are straightforward and direct, without flourish. Nothing fancy. Just enough. Everything I have prepared before, natsume, chashaku, tea whisk and tray are all I need.

The teabowl, the vessel which will convey the tea to my guests, is just that, a vessel. Nothing special.

I draw forth three scoops of matcha from the kōaka natsume, tapping the chashaku along the inside of the teabowl to remove the residual tea powder from its curved tip.

Pouring a measure of hot water from an antique cast iron kettle into the chawan, I whisk the tea into a thick foam.

Passing the bowl to my partner, I pause, listening to the wind pressing through the trees. The soft hum of pine needles shifting in the wind and the sound of an iron bell striking in the distance.

In the last days of the year, we can often feel as if we are working towards some sort of momentous climax. Even more so, we see the end of a decade as some final chapter closing. However, time rarely seems to work this way.

When we make tea, we begin not with the whisking of the tea or the heating of the kettle. It doesn’t even begin when we set up a tea space. Instead, it begins years before this, when we first learn how to make a bowl of tea. Perhaps it begins even earlier, when we first awaken to the mere idea of having tea.

Similarly, the tea gathering does not end when the guest finishes their bowl of matcha nor when the final bow is given between host and guest. It doesn’t seem to ever end. Instead, the tea further seems to meld seamlessly into one’s own tea practice and one’s own life.

Like layers of sand being pushed up, one on top of each other, by the continuous forces of the ocean. There’s no distinguishing between one layer or another. They just create this thing we call a beach, and this is only something that we can immediately perceive. There is much more sand on the bottom of the ocean. Time is rather like this.

We believe we see change and abruptness, and yet, when viewed in its totality, the change is regular, nothing special. We revel and rave at the shifting from one year to another, one decade to another, and yet, this, too, is nothing special.

In the practice of tea, my teacher has told me to learn the forms and then forget the forms. In learning the forms, we forget the self. When we forget the forms, we find that the once perceived barrier between form and self was merely something we had constructed, something we pushed up against. Much like how New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, this too is 無門関 mumonkan, a “gateless gate”.

When I cleanse the teabowl one last time and we take our last bows, the tea gathering doesn’t end, it merely transforms. When we forget time (年忘れtoshi-wasare, lit. “forgetting time/forgetting the year”), perhaps we can see what we get so worked up about. A year’s end. A decade’s beginning. Nothing special.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

Kettle for the End of the Year

The holidays have arrived and the frenetic running around that has characterized much of December is beginning to show signs of slowing. The weeks of preparation and fretting over the finer details of the festivities and tending to guests have given way to more relaxed improvisation. In this brief lull, we realize that the accumulated burden of seasonal responsibilities and expectations will never be sustainable. As this breaks, it feels like the spirit of enjoyment arrives and we steal short-lived respites amidst our currently busy lives.

In these moments, I find myself longing to be closer to friends and family. My 取り合わせ toriawase reflects this, as I pull together wares that remind me of close connections, new and old. In the final days before the New Year, I hold an intimate 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama (lit. “kettle for the end of the year”). The feeling is relaxed and simple, like the weight of all that has led to this moment has somehow lifted.

With my large antique 茶釜 chagama coming to a boil and the scent of kneaded 練香 nerikō still lingering in the air, I bring into my tiny tearoom the implements for making tea. The teabowl that I select is a smaller contemporary 茶碗 chawan created by 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, whom I had the chance to meet earlier this year.

Holding a healthy helping of freshly-ground matcha is a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container which I’ve now owned for over a decade. As I cleanse this piece with the dark purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa, I am given the opportunity to closely inspect the layers upon layers of lacquer which have been applied one on top of the other in contrasting intervals of black and red, revealed in the deep cuts carved by the artisan.

Each layer of lacquer can take days, even weeks to stabilize, as it is applied to the object’s surface. As such, the tea container feels like a record of time itself. An abstract calendar marking time. A tree, growing outward, increasing in size layer by layer. Had it not been for the artisan’s elegant carving of the surface, we would only see the bright red surface. Instead, we see its depth, each layer representing the passing of time.

Even the teabowl, with the 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin, and 茶杓 chashaku, feels like a tiny universe; complex and self contained. Alone, it sits tightly arranged until through the action of preparing a bowl of tea does it explode into a myriad of pieces.

The chashaku, made from a piece of dark bamboo, comes to reside atop the carved surface of the 棗 natsume. The chasen is warmed and cleansed, alongside with the teabowl.

Tea is issued into the chawan and for a brief moment both guest and I ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

I, marking a secret sigil of my school into the small heap of matcha that sits in the center of the teabowl.

My guest, enjoying slivers of candied 柚子 yuzu which I’ve served atop a small 16th century Korean lacquer dish that had been gifted to me long ago by an antiques collector I’d met in Seoul.

In this dance of objects, people, senses and motions, each have a place. Host and guest sit together, brought in union by their intention to share brief moment and perhaps nothing more. The objects, whether austere or exquisite, serve a purpose as well, with each piece collectively contributing to create a greater whole. If one were absent, the moment may not happen. As water is added to the matcha powder and whisked into a fine foam, the aroma of tea lifts upwards.

Now, too, the eye is drawn to the flecks of residual powdered green tea that still clings to the curled tip of the chashaku that rests again atop the carved lid of the natsume. We marvel in this vignette, something that is utterly spontaneous and happenstance.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a tiny peak floats in the center of the matcha foam.

From this central point, the eye wanders outwards to incorporate other objects in its field of vision. The teabowl. The tea container. The bamboo scoop. The delicate tines of the chasen. Some who sit to enjoy a bowl of tea will become lost in these objects. They will see only the material of the world. The gifts, the glitter, the gloss. The layers of lacquer that have accumulated upon the surface of their life. The weight it places upon them. They may feel this and not even know that it is there.

In this daily practice of making tea, I have learned to offer up a bowl whole-heartedly and let it go. I give myself up to that action, offering everything I can. Practiced over the almost two decades that I’ve been wandering in this path, I cannot recall how many bowls of tea I’ve made. Today I make it for my partner. Tomorrow I may make it for you. Later, I may make a bowl of tea for myself. How many bowls of tea will I have to make until I will, as the late Ram Dass said, “awaken from the illusion of separateness”? When will I as your host and you as my guest make us both a bowl of tea? When will that bowl of tea satisfy us all together?

The last kettle of the year can mean so many things. It is sometimes translated as the 年の暮れ toshi no kure, or a “year’s end”. Conversely, it can also be understood as 行く年 yuku toshi, or the “passing of the year”. In this passing, we see the year die. Yet, in this death, we somehow understand that time continues. One layer of lacquer ends and another is there. The object we perceive has not disappeared. It has, instead, merely grown. We are not sad to see this happen. We do not judge time as harshly as we judge ourselves.

In this last kettle of the year, there is a serenity that arises with time, as responsibilities we once held close now seem to ease. I now look at my guest with a greater sense of ease now that I’ve made them a bowl of tea, and they look upon me in a similar fashion. Any pretension has faded.

After the final dregs of tea have been sipped, we take one last moment to enjoy the sight of the small teabowl. It, too, was lacquered once, though the layers of 漆 urushi it had applied to its surface were burned off in the intense heat of the potter’s kiln. What remains is a rough beauty. A stark contrast to the clean cut lines of the natsume. And, yet, the story it tells is similar in a sense. The journey it has seen is reflected upon its skin. Wrinkled lines collecting on the contours of my cheeks and around the corners of my eyes. A split that runs down the length of my bamboo flower vase grows with time until it, too, will begin to leak water.

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