Tag Archives: Meditation

What Welcomes Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chaire is removed from the shifuku.

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

The chasen is placed beside this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.

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

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

In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Autumn’s Decay

Autumn wanes and all around the world seems to be settling into a state of slow, eventual decay. The fire-hued leaves on trees have mostly fallen, tumbling and collecting in copper-colored patches along the edges and corners of the garden and earthen forest floor.

Flowers have all but succumb to the chill in the air, save for the few that remain, twisted and torn. Bushes once verdant and full now appear as a threadbare patchwork of twigs and thorns and tattered pages that tell the story of a hard year gone by.

Even the stones contain a sense of cold melancholy, coated in moss and lichen and the cold dew of the morning. All that remains of Autumn is the thin offering laid before the altar of Winter to come.

A hollow hornets’ nest, a fitting home now for the whipping winds and all that is now dead. Its grey paper walls greet me this morning as I set out along the garden path to huddle in my tearoom in the biting cold.

Gone are the crickets sounding their high-pitched melodies. A lone crow caws across a silver sky.

Before I open the wooden door to my tea hut, I pluck one of the last flowers from a bristling thicket. In the dark interior of my tearoom, I place the bright yellow flower in my 床間 tokonoma. It stands stalwart, despite its damage, rising from a cut-out channel in a old red brick.

With the door now closed behind me, I sit down to prepare a solitary bowl of tea. The soft glow of morning illuminates the small space of the tearoom.

Shadows collect in the teabowl, behind the thin tines of the 茶筅 chasen, and along the woven contours of the white linen 茶巾 chakin.

The uniform grains that envelop the wooden 平棗 hira-natsume disappear into the darkness that lingers around its smoothed edges.

Scant rays of light stretch and bend around the surface of the antique metal thermos flask. In the early morning, I prepared just enough to make tea. No kettle. No brazier. Just a handful of objects, put into motion to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Tea paired down to its simplest form. Just enough.

Objects are cleansed, one after the other. The natsume. The 茶杓 chashaku. The tea whisk made of mottled bamboo. The pressed-metal cap of the thermos flask is removed and steam rises upwards, catching the morning light.

The teabowl, a simple grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, mirrors the colorless sky over the roof and trees and mountains that surround the tiny tea space. Flecks of vitrified sand and muted purples and blues hide in the clay, awoken as the heat of the water touches them.

I rest the thin tines of the bamboo whisk into the hot water, allowing them to open and expand outwards.

The bowl is cleansed and the refuse water is poured into the adjoining 建水 kensui.

The chakin wipes up the residual moisture inside of the bowl, refolded, and placed into the upturned cap of the thermos flask.

I breathe and for a moment am able to taste the sweet aroma of decomposing leaves mixed with morning dew. In the stillness of my tearoom, once inaudible sounds stand out. The flapping of a sparrow’s wings. The falling of a single leaf. The last drops of the previous night’s rain.

I reach out for the teascoop and wooden natsume. I measure three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the grey teabowl.

I lightly tap the edge of the teascoop against the inside rim of the chawan, knocking off the remaining tea dust that clings to the curved tip of the chashaku.

I return the natsume and scoop back to rest, one on top of the other.

I lift the chasen and place the blades of the whisk over the small mound of matcha. I breathe and lean forward to lift the thermos flask, untwisting the stopper from its metal mouth, and pouring a steady stream of hot water from it. The water runs through the thin tines of the bamboo whisk, dispersing over the tea powder. A plume of steam gusts high from the teabowl, from the thermos flask, from the space between the blades of the chasen. So thick is the steam on this cold morning that one can barely see the tea rising within the chawan.

As the steam settles, so too does the matcha, resting on the bottom of a moss-green pool of hot water. With my left hand in a half-moon shape I grip the side of the teabowl. With my right hand, I grasp the handle of the chasen. One hand steady, the other in motion.

The tea is whisked into a light foam. I lift the chasen from the surface of the freshly whisked tea and set it down beside the natsume.

In the dull glow of the early morning I sit for a moment, resting to appreciate the tea, the teaware, the way shadows amass around the edges of objects and then blur and fade into the floor, into light and into shadows.

I lift and turn the bowl and place it before where a guest would sit. I rise and reposition myself. I sit as a guest. A host becomes the guest.

I admire the teabowl and tea I’ve presented to myself. An offering of time, of effort, of a pause to practice. I lift the bowl and bring it closer to me, across the boundary that is normally demarcated by the brocaded boarders of 畳 tatami.

I bow and thank myself for this gift and, as I do, I peer into the depths of the teabowl.

Minuscule bubbles cling to one another. Huddled like leaves collected against the edge of a pond. Light collects here too, like a thin crescent moon, like a fine silver ring. I lift the bowl to my center, turn it a quarter turn twice and drink from the reverse face of the faceless chawan.

The teabowl emptied, I rest it in the palms of my hands to inspect it in the low light.

Rough clay emerges underneath unctuous glaze. The form of a potter’s knife cut edge beneath undulations of a grey coat.

Up close, the shape of the bowl is not perceived. Instead, light and shadow, articulated form and unarticulated improvisation.

Intention and chance. The form wears-away. Fine lines obscured by the randomness of coincidence.

I turn the bowl over once again and look into the center void. A stark line between light and dark.

I return it to the place of the host. Repositioned, I prepare to cleanse the bowl once more. The whisk is wetted and washed and placed with the chakin together into the open well of the teabowl. The chashaku is wiped of the last remaining particles of tea that remain on its curved carved tip.

The natsume is placed beside the teabowl. Outside my tearoom the wind whips and scatters leaves. Inside, I prepare a solitary 拝見 haiken. For this I bring forth an old 香盤 kōban. Regularly used in my previous tea space in New York City, it seems like a new object in the roughly-hewn environment of my makeshift hut.

I lift the natsume from beside the chawan and cleanse both the lid and inner rim with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once cleansed, I place the tiny wooden object upon the swirling grain of the kōban.

I refold the fukusa and purify the chashaku, placing the carved scoop next to the natsume.

In the new setting of the makeshift teahouse, light and shadows enrobe each of the objects in unexpected and unfamiliar ways.

A once unobserved depth emerges from the grain of the wooden tray. Volume and form appear more pronounced in the soft morning light.

The warmth of the lathe-hewn wood.

The mysterious world captured in the smoky patterns upon the bamboo scoop.

The abruptness between surfaces, finished and unfinished.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the boundaries between worlds is emphasized and celebrated. One often enters the tearoom through a crawl-through door, the 躙口 nijiriguchi. A refined piece of smooth lacquer if often contrasted with a piece of rustic bamboo.

The sacred space of the tokonoma often contains the most mundane of item: a single flower or a word or phrase to meditate on.

Yet, with time and through practice, these once well-defined borders begin to fray. The threshold between spaces and surfaces begin to erode. The clean lines give way to tattered edges. In the almost twenty years of practicing tea, even my fukusa has begun to look threadbare. In these almost twenty years, the once impermeable partitions between the world and the world of tea have all but been torn apart. All things, with time, decay. In the cold, late Autumn air, this truth is unavoidable.

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Early Snow

Before Autumn’s end, snow falls. I wake to the sound of sleet gently tapping against my bedroom window. Light filters through trees, silhouetted against a matte grey sky. In my kitchen, I boil water and prepare for tea.

Stepping out with teawares and thermos in hand, smooth rocks and Autumn leaves sparkle, slick with snow.

With early snow, the boundary between seasons commingles and fades. Where the fiery colors of Fall reside, now are blurred along the edges of freshly mounding snow.

Grass pushes up through the crystalline veil, as do the rocks and stones that sit along the borders of the garden path.

Crunching and cracking are the sounds of every footfall as I traverse this transformed world to the stone step that sits before the door of my makeshift hut.

Two river rocks greet me, performing their task of holding the wooden doors closed from the gusts of wind.

I remove my boots and close the door behind me. A sliver of light breaks through a gap between the doors.

A soft cascade of light pours through a single window, illuminating the space where I will sit and prepare a bowl of tea. No brazier, no 炉 ro in my makeshift teahouse. Only bare floors made of roughly-hewn plywood. Each flattened particle sparkles and beams against the diffused light. I set the old metal thermos before me.

Next, a 茶碗 chawan and a wooden 平棗 hira natsume.

Beside me, I place a crackle-glazed 建水 kensui.

I rearrange the teaware so they align to a central axis.

I cleanse the natsume and place it beside the thermos.

Next, the 茶杓 chashaku, placing it atop the natsume. As I perform each motion, I breathe. As I breathe, thin clouds of condensed air appear with each exhalation.

I remove the 茶筅 chasen from the chawan and place it upright beside the natsume.

I bring the bowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin. I slowly uncap the old thermos. Weathered steel and green metallic lacquer against the cold air. A gust of heat and steam rise from its open mouth as a stream of water enters the teabowl. I tighten the cap back atop the thermos bottle and place it again behind the chawan.

I lift the chasen and press its tines into the hot water, down against the inner void of the teabowl. Steam lifts upward as I cleanse the bamboo tea whisk. The sound of the wind outside my tearoom walls. The warmth of the water beginning to radiate out from the ceramic bowl.

I return the whisk back beside the wooden tea container and hold the teabowl in my hands. I slowly roll the vessel and the water within it until I can feel the clay become warm. I pour the excess water from the bowl into the kensui and dry it with the chakin before I place it, now empty, before me.

For a moment, I inspect the humble piece of teaware. Two swathes of dark green glaze against a cream-colored body, typical of 織部焼き Oribe-yaki ware. Two cursory images of plum blossoms painted in iron-rich pigment, today look more like snowflakes that fall and collect atop the maple trees and the wooden roof of my makeshift hut.

One blue-green drip of glaze caught mid-movement stopped as it did glide down the inner edge of the teabowl’s empty pool. Captured in suspension by the heat of the kiln, preserved now as an object of inspection for the host and guest to enjoy and ponder.

I lift the chashaku. I lift the natsume. I remove the carved wooden lid off the tea container and place it before the teabowl. I scoop three mounds of 抹茶 matcha from the natsume and place them one on top of the other in the center of the chawan, marking the pile with the sigil of my school. I tap the teascoop against the inner edge of the teabowl’s rim and return it atop the natsume.

A measure of hot water is poured over the low hillock of tea and the chasen is placed atop this. Layers of actions, one on top of the other, leave their mark. Even a snowflake makes a hole in the snowdrift as it falls from the sky. Only over time do these actions make something of substance. Something that the mind can eventually perceive.

As I whisk the tea, I focus on the sound of the hot water and the chasen, of the thickening foam and glazed ceramic. The light that comes through the one window and down upon the floor also enters the void of the teabowl as I lift the whisk and uncover the soft, flat field of prepared tea.

Minuscule bubbles collect and create low-lying drifts upon the surface of the thickened liquid.

Steam rises from the teabowl in the cold air of the tearoom. Upon the instruction of my teacher, I serve myself as if I were a guest, turning first my body and then the bowl of tea and placing it beside me. Next, I stand up and move to where the 正客 shōkyaku would sit. Here, I observe a different vantage point. The light of the room changes. The borrowed scenery from the one window of the tearoom is visible. The contents of the 床間 tokonoma can be seen. Even the teabowl looks different, as light and shadows play off of its form.

I bring the bowl towards me and set it down. I pause for just a moment and lift the bowl to my center, turning it so the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I lift the bowl to my lips and take the first of three sips. Instantly I am caught by a realization: to take tea outside, as snow falls, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The bitter cold. The chill of the air. The silence of the space, save for the sound of snowflakes falling upon the roof of the wooden hut. All this met with the gentle warmth that the teabowl contains. The heat that radiates outward from its ceramic skin. The same heat that enters oneself as each sip is taken.

I enjoy the remaining draughts of tea and place the bowl back before me. The dregs cling to the inside of the chawan. I lift the bowl once more and inspect it, looking first at its interior and then its exterior.

The snowflakes upon the shōmen. Persimmons on the reverse side. Early snow before Autumn’s end. Like many subtleties in life, a surprise.

I return the bowl to where the host would sit and return to cleanse the bowl and collected wares. Water is once again poured from the thermos into the chawan and then from chawan to kensui. The chakin is placed into the teabowl and the chasen on top of this. The chashaku is cleansed again, removing the residual tea dust that clings to its bamboo skin, and is placed atop the teabowl. The natsume is placed beside this. The metal cap of the thermos is secured atop the shaped steel flask and the solitary preparation of tea concludes.

The sound of snow falling upon the wooden roof of my hut increases. The scent of incense fades. A bright Autumn leaf clings to the stone step outside my makeshift hut.

Snow accumulates upon the wireframe of a garden trellis and the twisting thread of a long bean vine. Early snow before Autumn’s end.

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A Makeshift Hut

In the clamor and chaos of this year, I’ve chosen to retreat. Escaping a city which I have grown to love, I’ve moved my life back closer to nature. Closer to the mountains and the rivers. Closer to the trees, the rocks, the rich soil, the wildlife. While not isolated by any means from civilization, the small town up the Hudson that I’ve relocated to seems far enough (even if only in the mind) from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.

The view from my front door is a mountain, currently in the throes of Autumnal transformation. Part of the reason why I wanted to move from the city was this: to replace the brick and steel and concrete facades with the mountains, the trees, the creeping vines within which I could create a space to deepen my tea practice. Part of this, still, was the hope that I could build a dedicated tea space.

Upon the land which I live now, tucked along the edge of a vegetable garden, an overgrown patch or raspberries, a cluster of rocks, and a grove of trees is a small, ten feet by ten feet wooden garden shed. It is here that I shall make a tea space; a makeshift hut.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, there is the tradition of 見立て mitate. Simply stated, this is the act of selecting something that was not intended for tea and incorporating it into the context of tea. Often this is seen with such things as rice bowls being transformed into 茶碗 chawan, well buckets into 水指 mizusashi, and cooking pots into 茶釜 chagama. Rarely does an entire structure, such as a wooden shed, become a 茶室 chashitsu. Alas, this is what I have done.

In truth, the chashitsu, too, has always been, at least conceptually, something repurposed, originally modeled after the huts of lone hermits, meditators and herb pickers. As I clear out the contents of my makeshift hut left over by the previous owners and two field mice, I am reminded of the poet and essayist of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), 鴨 長明 Kamo no Chōmei (1153 or 1155–1216). In his 1212 work 方丈記 Hōjōki (literally “square- record”, variously translated as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut), Chōmei wrote of his own retreat from the chaos of the imperial capital of Kyōto, from the fires and the famine, from the destruction and the infighting, to a small hut. There he dedicated his life to the devotion of Amida Buddha and the pursuit of tranquility.

Of my ten-foot square hut, I’ve made a tea room. All around its exterior is nature. Vines climb up its wooden walls. Moss grows on its shingles.

The paint is worn and weathered.

Two river rocks hold the door close.

Flat flagstones set the boundary between the outer garden and inner space. Inside, two broad planks of plywood supported on stacks of bricks become my floor.

A corner and some spare beams for a 床間 tokonoma.

In the alcove, I hang a sprig of wild grape. For a kettle, I use an old metal thermos. When I open the two double doors, light floods into the space and gives views of the garden for the seated guests. When I close them, a single window is just enough to illuminate the space in front of the host.

In the meager light of a still Autumn morning, I wake with the crickets and walk to my makeshift hut with thermos and teabowl, tea and whisk. I employ a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III for my first bowl of tea to be prepared in this new tea space. Its uneven shape and the empty void it creates feels fitting, for it, like the hut, is a dark crucible of creation and possibility.

I measure out three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the teabowl. What little light creeps in through the solitary window beside me catches on the scattered flecks of tea powder and on the dimpled surface of the chawan.

I pour water from my thermos into the teabowl and place the tines of the 茶筅 chasen into the warm concoction.

The wetted bamboo disappears in the shadows caught in the kuro-Raku chawan.

Once fully whisked, the scent of tea and incense and worn wood combine.

As dawn breaks, the interior space of the tearoom begins to glow, sending long shadows stretching across the floor, causing the chaotic mosaic of compressed wood to sparkle and iridesce. The deep black of the Raku chawan accentuates the bright green of the matcha foam.

I lift the bowl and set it before the space reserved for future guests. As instructed by my teacher, as I meditate on the developing state of this makeshift hut, I will need to try different arrangements. To sit in the host’s position can only give one a single point of perspective. To create a space for the practice of both host and guest, must also know what it is like to be a guest. In this instance, as morning’s light grows, I stand up and sit back down at the 正客 shōkyaku position.

There, the bowl seems darker, more of a mystery. The shadows collect inside the bowl, creating a small vignette of the glowing tea within it.

I lift and turn the bowl a half turn. I pause, giving a moment to look out from the window. Maple and pine and the shape of a low hill. Fog and morning’s dew. The sound of a solitary songbird breaking the chorus of crickets.

I lift the bowl to my lips and imbibe the first sip of tea. A second and third soon follow. Soon all that is left are the final dregs. An empty bowl. Faint remnants of past creation. New possibilities to come. A makeshift hut on the edge of a small forest. Twisting vines curling up its sides. Light of the morning to illuminate both host and guest. A space to seek what is still unknown.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Poetry, Tea

Tea Without Tea

October came and now closes. Early Autumn, with its cool breeze, cricket songs, and spangled leaves fades into the chill and rain an approaching Winter. In these days, I, along with the local songbirds and squirrels, wait for the first frost. I wonder when the portable brazier will be exchanged for the sunken 炉 ro.

In this time I’ve not been making tea. Instead, my life has been in the grip of a constant state of movement. Moving from my apartment in New York City to a home tucked along the Hudson and folded into the mountains of upstate. Moving into boxes and out of boxes. Moving old objects into new spaces. Moving one life along another twist in the thread.

This movement, while exciting, has kept me away from the much needed moments of stillness. Far from the quiet I have known when I was sitting in my now old tearoom. Quiet replaced with the hammering and drilling, the sawing and stomping that comes with building a new space to live and practice in.

Kept from my regular practice of tea, the “tea mind” finds itself engaging with different processes and different objects. Even with no tea to steep in a pot or whisk in a bowl, the tea mind still continues to address the world in accordance to the context of tea. Instead of sitting down for tea, I find myself retreating up to the mountains. Here, the forms are different but the meditation remains the same.

Twisted tea leaves which I place within a pot are replaced by the golden leaves of Fall which are scattered upon the forest floor.

The appreciation of a thick, unctuous glaze that wraps around a 茶碗 chawan is exchanged with a pause to enjoy a moss-covered rock along a path’s edge.

The sound of the kettle familiar to me in my tearoom is echoed in the soft sound produced by a waterfall that cuts its way down the mountainside.

I breathe deep, measured breaths as I climb throughout the yet explored terrain of my new environment. I recall the countless wanderings of my youth, when weekends were spent hiking the hills and mountains of California. The mind remembers this, the muscle memory, the cadence of actions and inactions.

Deeper still, the mind recalls the flavors of the forest in Fall, yet, now, these too are different. The trees and shrubs, rocks and soil have subtly changed. The practiced tea mind, the one that has focused itself for many years on the flavors of tea, is now attuned to appreciate these new tastes too.

The concepts familiar with the tea mind are transformed and repurposed as well. The “one moment, one meeting” of 一期一会 ichi-go ichi-e returns, not now for a guest coming to my tearoom or a piece of teaware to be shared, but for a brightly-colored maple tree, which today bursts with golden leaves, tomorrow to change to orange and later brown.

The notion of 侘び寂び wabi-sabi, which is normally epitomized by the rustic beauty found in a weather-worn object or a piece of ceramic transformed by the furnace, is pushed closer to its source, to nature itself. It is found at the ebb of a river’s bank, where a thin line of leaves swept up upon the rocks, to where one recognizes the impermanence of every mind-formed state.

It is found in the silver-grey clouds that glide over the mountains, dark and mysterious as is encompassed in the concept of 幽玄 yūgen.

While these concepts come to mind, in a tea practice without tea, do they still maintain their significance? Can the tea mind exist without tea? Is there tea without tea? As I find my current life packed-away in piles of boxes, in the dust that clings to me here and there, I ponder this.

As I look out the window of my new tea hut in the making, I wonder if this has always been for naught. Is this practice defined by the objects it contains or is it defined by nothing at all? Is the boundary that separates form and formlessness firm or permeable?

Is the cloud, the sky, the lake, the earth separate or intertwined? As I continue my current life without tea, is this, too, a life with tea?

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Filed under Ceramics, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel

Upon Which the Winds Will Carry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Its carved tip emerges from another end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bowl of matcha now sits, full, still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Sit Where You Are, Now

As the year presses onward, the dramas of life, of the world at large, still bow to the subtle shifts of the season. While one may not perceive it, by the second week of August, around the seventh or eighth day, Autumn quietly arrives. Still present is the heat of Summer. Still not seen are the red and ocher colors of Fall. The change does not come in a bold or showy way, rather, it appears on the edges of existence. In the dim glow of the morning or the waning light of dusk. In the cool breezes that push through the trees. In the fresh coat of dew on the new tall grasses that grow wildly on the entrance to forests and against the banks of rivers.

立秋 Risshū, the beginning of Autumn, is a liminal time and space. A moment of transition and transformation. In the tearoom, this is no different. Remaining is the overarching emphasis on coolness, as the first days of Autumn still remain hot. Still, too, is the preference to gather for tea during the morning, just as the sun begins to peer over the horizon.

In the 床間 tokonoma, wildflowers spill-over from the fields, bursting into the alcove, set into rustic baskets. Summer’s lightness and refinement slowly shifts to the more 侘び wabi aesthetic as the year begins to cool down and decay with time.

Even with the choice of teabowls, the lingering influences of Summer on the nascent Autumn is felt. Shallow vessels are preferred. Delicate, wide-rimmed 平茶碗 hira-chawan are still a mainstay. 馬盥茶碗 badarai chawan, with their flat bottom and low-profile walls, are still favored, although this is the final moment they are used. As I prepare for my own solitary early Autumn tea gathering, I bring forth my own answer to assuage the remaining heat.

Kept in its wooden 桐箱 kiribako for much of Summer, it is now during Risshū that this unusual teabowl will finally make its appearance.

Opening the lid to the shallow box, the shape of the vessel can be made out through the soft folds of a 風呂敷 furoshiki, emblazoned with the refreshing pattern of 麻の葉 asanoha.

Unwrapped, what emerges is a low-slung and irregularly-shaped 黒織部 沓形茶碗 kuro-Oribe kutsu-gata chawan. Neither fully round nor angular, like the first days of Autumn, the kutsu-gata chawan seems like a fitting match to this “in between” period. I pair this with a small wooden 平棗 hira-natsume, a 茶筅 chasen made of dappled dark bamboo, and a 茶杓 chashaku with a light cloudy pattern.

Before I bring these into my tearoom, I heat the water in my bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama, and set beside it cool water, kept in a green 丹波立杭焼縄簾水指 Tanba-Tachikui-yaki nawasudare mizusashi. The gentle cascading comb pattern upon the mizusashi is a subtle visual nod to the woven rope curtains used during Summer. A reminder of the heat and the coming breezes.

As I set the mizusashi down, I gaze for a moment at the soft, reflective surface of the black lacquer lid that sits atop its open mouth. This, too, feels refreshing. A perfect shape placed atop an imperfect object. A black void set alongside the organic colors of a verdant season. The stillness of lacquer. The dynamism of ceramic.

Once brought into the tearoom, teabowl and natsume are placed before the mizusashi. The 柄杓 hishaku and 建水 kensui are places beside me. With the door now shut, the only sounds heard in the tearoom is the quiet hiss of the kettle boiling and the growing din of the cicadas outside my window.

The chawan is set before the 風炉 furo. The natsume is set before the chawan. Each item sits, for a moment, as they are. Each space between each item measured and remembered through practice.

How the chashaku lays nestled in the undulations of the chawan’s rough-hewn rim. How the chasen lightly rests against the pinched folds of the 茶巾 chakin.

The wooden natsume appears smooth, polished like a well-worn floorboard of an 縁側 engawa. How this, too, feels refreshing in the growing heat of the morning.

I remove the 袱紗 fukusa from my belt and cleanse the lid of the wooden natsume. As I set it down, I appreciate the weight of the tiny container filled with powdered tea. Next, I refold the fukusa and press the tip of the chashaku into it, running the purple cloth back and forth over it several times before placing the teascoop atop the lid of the natsume. I remove the chasen from the teabowl and place it beside the natsume and chashaku.

I remove the chakin and refold it, placing it momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi. Next remove the lid of the chagama and draw forth a ladle of hot water, which I pour slowly into the teabowl.

I lift the chasen and set it into the irregular folded edge of the kutsu-geta chawan. It fits perfectly into the imperfect shape. I grip the whisk and press the thin tines against the bottom of the bowl. I lift the chasen and turn it a third of the way around and press the tines back into the hot water, back against the bottom of the bowl. I repeat this two more times until each thin blade of bamboo has been flexed and inspected, wetted and warmed.

I return the whisk back beside the natsume and chashaku.

I lift the bowl and roll the warm water around its interior, watching how the liquid climbs up and runs down the hand-formed inner edges. How light gathers in the odd corners and spins around the curves and knife cuts.

The bowl is emptied and dried. It sits against the swirling grain of the wooden slab, a board I use in lieu of having 畳 tatami in my city apartment. Myself. The bowl. The board. We find ourselves in this moment, together.

The bowl, a gift from a now-deceased friend, reminds me of his guidance. Upon its outer surface, the design of interlocked squares. To me, they appear as the wooden or stone slabs used to line the opening of a well.

To stare down into this dark cavern. To feel the rush of cool air that billows out from the depths. I am refreshed.

I lift the tiny natsume and remove its carved lid. I remove three scoops of 抹茶 matcha from it and press each into the center of the clog-shaped bowl.

I place the lid back atop the tea container and set the chashaku atop this. I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour this into the chagama.

Next, I pull hot water from the kettle and pour a measured amount into the center of the teabowl. The remaining water is returned to the chagama. The chasen is placed down into the concoction of water and tea. I breathe and taste the flavor of fresh green tea that rises from the teabowl.

With one hand placed along the edge of the chawan and the other gripping the chasen, I begin to whisk the tea into a light foam. The tea moves vigorously around the interior of the bowl, matching the motions of my hand. A rhythm is maintained until the foam begins to form and rise and collect.

I slow the chasen and gently lift it from the center of the bowl.

A small low-lying peak forms where the whisk left it last. In the low light of the morning, the tea glows from the interior of the chawan.

From my vantage point, each angle appears different, dynamic. The round edge of the teabowl is like a vast sea.

The angled edge, like a dark valley. The shape is serious and somber, playful and irreverent.

I lift the bowl and turn it so that the angled edge now points towards me. From this I will drink the tea. I lift the bowl again and take the first sip. The liquid is warm, the texture soft. The sound of the matcha bubbles rolling and bursting, shifting and pulling as they run down the inner edges of the teabowl are audible, amplified by the shape of the bowl. I take two more sips, each feeling expansive in the short period of time it takes for each draught to pull down the interior of the vessel. All that remains are the the dregs.

Even once empty, I enjoy the patterns that remain inside the bowl. How the residual foam pools into the curl of clay and glaze. I cleanse the bowl, first with hot water, so I may for a moment inspect the bowl.

I hold the emptied vessel in my hand, turning it over to appreciate the carved 高台 kōdai.

The bare clay appears like wind-cut sandstone, much like those found around the hills and mountains of my boyhood home.

The dark black-brown glaze against this looks translucent, pooling and revealing the clay edges beneath it, reminiscent of the shell that covers a stag beetles’ wing.

Beside this, in contrast, is the crisp white glaze, common to most kuro-Oribe ceramics.

Setting the bowl upright once again, I appreciate the various motifs painted in glaze. The mouth of the well as the 正面 shōmen.

The abbreviated stripes, perhaps representing the grasses of Autumn, on the reverse side.

I cleanse the bowl once more, this time with the cool water drawn from the mizusashi. The chakin is refolded and placed into the teabowl. The chasen is placed with its tines pointed upward.

The chashaku, still covered in tea dust, is cleansed once again with the fukusa. Once purified, it is placed back atop the edge of the chawan. The natsume is brought beside the teabowl.

Between each object is a space. Room to breathe. Room to think.

Before I remove the wares from the tearoom, I prepare a solitary 拝見 haiken. With the sound of cicadas now booming from the trees, the natsume and the chashaku are placed atop an old 香盤 kōban.

Between each item, again, space is made. Between Summer and Autumn, too, there is a space. It is not marked by a specific moment or one particular attribute. Instead, signifiers abound in incalculable ways.

Carried on the arrival of a breeze. On the sudden realization of a subtle shift. Caught in a liminal place, where fields turn to forests, rivers to river’s edge. A band of mud. A stripe of grass. A patch of flowers pushing up past their leaves. To sit where you are, now. This, too, is like this very moment. A moment caught between moments.

Unannounced, it arrives. At first, not so perceptible. Not so special. But, this, too, is worth noting. When Summer fades to Autumn. Before the leaves turn color. Before the world decays. Before the heat subsides entirely. Like the warmth caught in the clay of a teabowl, or the condensation that collects on the side of the mizusashi.

This world, even now, is enough to awaken the mind, refresh the soul, remind oneself of the importance of this moment. This, too, shall pass. This now will, soon, turn to past.

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

Breaking the Heat: Lotus Viewing and Morning Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, I place the chashaku between the two objects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Salt in the Sea: Catharsis and the Way of Tea

In late July, Summer drags and the heat of the day is felt most severely. From July 22 to August 6, 大暑 Taisho, “Major Heat”, marks the final apex of Summer’s heat. For the practitioner of tea, any measure to mitigate the effects of this heat are taken.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu, tea gatherings are held in the early morning, before the sun is able to warm the earth, affording a fleeting moment of coolness. Everything about the tearoom at this time is lighter, and airier. Glass containers and teabowls are often employed. 簾 sudare hang from the eaves and 葦簀 yoshizu screens replace the 障子 shōji.

With these changes, the world of the tearoom seems evermore fragile, made-up of grasses, reeds, light woods and translucent glass. In this tenuous existence, however, there is life, vitality, and an ever-present awareness of how precious our existence is and how unique our chance to ever meet again must be.

With months of the pandemic still raging strong, I sit in my New York City apartment and wonder whether I will ever gather for tea the same way I had prior to this time. The feeling is bittersweet. A sense of longing for something from my past, yet a recognition that things will never be the same. A deep and gentle sadness for friends and family who have been separated, and from the time lost. A great feeling of my own mortality now rarely escapes me, a realization of how transient life is. 物の哀れ mono no aware.

Finding myself caught in the brief moment of the morning between the cool of the night and before the pervasive heat of the day, I decide to make a bowl of tea. Unable to shake the sadness that I’ve been feeling, I decide to meditate with this emotion and involve it in my daily practice of tea.

From my antique tea cabinet I remove a small 桐箱 kiribako, tied-up with a woven silk cord. Written across it is the signature and seal of 茶平一斎 Chahira Issai, a famous 蒔絵 maki-e artist from 輪島 Wajima, 石川 Ishikawa prefecture.

The words 汐汲 shio-kumi, “salt-scooper”, are written is a light calligraphic script.

Untying the cord and removing the lid, I pull from the box a dark maroon lacquer tea container in the shape of a 金輪寺棗 “Kinrinjinatsume. A shape that purportedly has its origins in lacquer containers from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), the “Kinrinjinatsume was apparently popularized by 後醍醐天皇 Go-Daigo-tennō (Emperor Go-daigo) (1288-1339). Originally, the natsume would have been used to contain 濃茶 koicha and would have been used in more formal tea settings. However, by the 1600s, the practice of using it as a container for 薄茶 usucha seems to have emerged.

Atop this particular version, the words 松風 matsukaze are written on the lid. Wrapping around the exterior of the cylindrical body of the lacquered natsume are images of curling and churning waves, with salt and foam rendered in cut flecks and dust of gold. This is the 汐汲棗 “shio-kuminatsume, favored by 圓能斎 Ennosai (1872 to 1924), the 13th generation head of the 裏千家Urasenke school of chanoyu.

I take a moment to fill the tea container with fresh 抹茶 matcha, producing a softly pointed mound of tea powder. As I do this, the kettle in my tea space comes to a low boil. Cool fresh water is drawn and poured into a green 縄簾 nawasudare 水指 mizusashi. A bamboo 茶筅 chasen and white linen 茶巾 chakin are wetted and placed in the center of a shallow antique Sòng period 平茶碗 hira-chawan. A 茶杓 chashaku made of cut bamboo is placed atop the teabowl.

In the low light of the morning, the chawan and shio-kumi natsume are brought into the tea space. As I sit down, the light of the day begins to grow.

Soft shadows collect under the edges of objects placed first in front of the mizusashi and then arranged between the warm 風炉 furo and myself.

The shio-kumi natsume is lifted and its lid is cleansed in the manner similar to a 茶入 chaire before being set down in front of the mizusashi.

The chashaku is purified next with the refolded 袱紗 fukusa and then placed atop the lid of the natsume. The thin carved shape of the tea scoop running along the center of the silver lacquered 漢字 kanji. The natural pattern of the bamboo resembling waves.

I fold the fukusa again and return it back to my side. With my right hand, I reach for the chasen, lifting it from the teabowl and placing it beside the natsume.

I remove the lid of the lid of the 茶釜 chagama and a ladle’s worth of hot water is pulled from it. While I pour water from the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the shallow of the teabowl, I watch as a fine mist of steam spins along the water’s surface. Small whirlpools form and dissipate, dissolving as fast as they appeared.

I dip the thin tines of the chasen into the warm water, pressing them and flexing them, appreciating the tiny beads of water that collect upon them like clear dew that collects on grass after a night’s rain or a morning’s mist.

I pour the water from the teabowl into the 建水 kensui and dry its surface of the shallow chawan gently with the linen chakin.

I take care to ensure the woven fibers do not tear upon a small rock that has broken through the teabowl during its firing a thousand years ago.

The shio-kumi natsume is brought forth again and the lid is placed before the teabowl.

Three scoops of bright green matcha are issued from the tea container and placed into the center of the chawan.

The chashaku is tapped lightly against the inner edge of the tea vessel and the natsume is placed back beside the chasen. I transfer a ladle’s worth of cool water from the dark green mizusashi to the bubbling chagama. Warm water is pulled from the iron kettle and half a ladle is poured into the teabowl.

The sound of water, the mixing of water, the foaming of both water and tea. The whisk frothing-up foam as if it were waves upon the seashore. In this Summer, I have not yet seen the sea. I have not yet seen friends or family. Some of those friends and family I may never see again in my lifetime.

As I prepare the bowl of tea to serve to myself, in this moment of quiet solitude accompanied by the sound of water, I am reminded of the sadness that surrounds shio-kumi.

Shio-kumi is not just a poetic name given to a tea caddy. Shio-kumi refers to a tale of love lost. Of a woman, named Matsukaze, herself a person who works hauling brine to make salt on the shores of 須磨 Suma (near modern-day 神戸 Kobe). The story was retold in the 1811 歌舞伎 kabuki play titled “七枚続花の姿絵” “Shichimai-tsuzuki Hana no Sugata-e” (“A Dance of Seven Changes”), itself, originating from a 能 play titled “Matsukaze”.

In the play, the lovelorn character of Matsukaze pines for her poet lover 在原 行平 Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893), who was momentarily exiled to the shores of Suma, where the two met. As she scoops saltwater from the sea, she recalls her love and the feelings she had for him, now a distant and bittersweet memory.

As the foam of the tea rises, I peer into the center of the teabowl.

A low mound of whisked matcha floats, tiny bubbles suspended in liquid.

I sit back and my gaze widens as I set the chasen back beside the natsume.

The quiet hiss of the boiling water in the chagama. The sound of a gentle breeze outside my tea space. Silence. Solitude. The missing of friends and family. The longing for their company. The recognition that the apex of Summer is here. Half a year has come and gone. A year of death and disease. Of change and revolution. Of awakening. Of letting go.

I lift the chawan and drink the tea. As I tilt the teabowl, I watch as the fine foam of the matcha catches against the rough surface of the small rock embedded in the ceramic. Small, bright green waves pressing against the trapped object. Moving over and around it. The tide pulling outward, leaving the shore exposed, uncovered.

Dregs of tea dry quickly, like salt on the edge of briny pools. I pour warm water into cleanse the bowl and then finally cool water to cleanse the chasen.

The bowl is overturned and I inspect the carved 高台kōdai. The cracks that have formed over time. The small entrapped rock visible from both sides. The warmth still held in the clay.

I turn the bowl back over. The chakin is folded and placed into the chawan’s center. The whisk is placed with its tines pointing upward. Small beads of fresh water cling to the thin bamboo blades.

The chashaku is purified once again and placed back down onto the rim of the shallow teabowl.

The shio-kumi natsume is placed beside the bowl.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken to admire the wares one-by-one. The natsume is cleansed once again. The chashaku is placed beside it.

I admire the broad, rounded end of the teascoop.

Images of waves come to mind.

The silver calligraphic characters atop the lid of the shio-kumi natsume bring a sense of coolness and ease.

I lift the lid and turn it over. Five 千鳥 chidori are rendered in gold. I recall the sensation of sea breezes. The sadness that comes as you hear their shorebird cries. The shape of the tea caddy is akin to the salt-scoop buckets on the sea’s edge of Suma. The motif of waves the same that once decorated the hem of Matsukaze’s 着物 kimono. The reminder that the feelings of loss are both sad and sweet. To have once loved and lost. To have known that feeling of closeness with those you love. To remember that now, now that they are not here, now that they are gone, perhaps gone forever.

The heat of Summer grows as the day continues until it is unavoidable. Even in the shade of my tea space, it still creeps in. Through the reeds that cover the windows. Through the gaps between fragile woven grass. The feeling is transient and vital, precious and unique.

****

Additional Notes & Resources

As this particular post contained quite a bit of research, I wanted to make sure that I included additional notes and resources to follow.

Above, I’ve included an image of 初代 坂東 しうか Shodai Bandō Shūka (1813-1855) performing Shio-kumi, staged in the 7th lunar month of 1847, image created by 三代 歌川 豊国 Sandai Utagawa Toyokuni (1786-1865). In this, you can see how the salt-scoop buckets were rendered in the same way that the natsume wave motif was decorated, including chidori (which appear flying above the waves on the blue sky). It is my belief that this motif (which was common and popular during the 井戸 Edo period, 1603-1867) probably came to reside upon the natsume through way of this prop from this much-loved kabuki dance.

As always in tea, pull one thread and you reveal a tapestry. In this case, a simple natsume reveals a story that spans centuries, interwoven with various arts!

If you’d like to learn more about this particular piece of teaware and the play that inspired it, I’ve linked several resources below:

“Shiokumi” – Kabuki 21

https://www.kabuki21.com/shiokumi.php

“Kinrinji natsume” – Chanoyu.World

https://chanoyu.world/natsume-kinrinji/

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

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

As I sit in my New York City apartment for my daily tea brewing session, I sit looking out upon the treetops, grey sky, and the faint rolling outline of Manhattan’s silhouette. The soft booming of thunder peels in the distance. A storm is coming. With the windows open, I can feel the change in the atmosphere. The air grows cooler, thicker with moisture. Latent with entropy.

For a moment I meditate, giving pause as I wait for the old 鉄瓶 tetsubin to boil water for tea. Spread out before me are implements that I’ve collected over the years, each one brought forth to serve a purpose. Despite their beauty as art objects, they are worth more to me as tools, items that serve a purpose. A wide-rimmed 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) teabowl from a kiln in Fujian which I shall use as a 茶船 cháchuán.

A mid-20th century replica of a 清 Qīng period (1644-1912) 思亭壺 Sī Tíng Hú.

A jade archer’s ring which I’ve repurposed as a lid rest.

Other wares include items foreign to the Chinese tea tradition. A Japanese porcelain tea container, decorated with orchid blossoms, an image borrowed from Chinese visual culture, referring to integrity and scholarly pursuits.

An antique carved bamboo 茶合 sagō used for 煎茶道 senchadō, inscribed with a poem. A thin branch from a willow tree.

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

Each item I’ve adopted and adapted over the almost twenty years I’ve been practicing the traditional Chinese method of tea brewing known as 功夫茶 gōng fū chá.

Over these many years, I’ve come to realize through the quiet efforts of brewing tea daily in a mindful manner the meaning of this approach to making a cup of tea. To simply pour water into the cavernous hollow of a small teapot.

To warm each teacup so that the radiant heat of the water can be felt on the outer surface.

To wait until the steam rising from each vessel subsides. These are things that are learned after years of practice and observation. A skill acquired by being challenged.

I remove the lid from the porcelain tea container and slowly roll out a healthy portion of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá. Years of practice, of study under teachers, and travel to tea farms and tea markets has given me insight into this tea. Even before I know what this tea will taste like, I have a thought as to what to expect. With this knowledge, I can quickly pivot and adjust my actions once this tea is brewing in order to make the very best pot of tea I can with what I am given. The dark green side-by-side the rusty-red coloration upon each leaf hints at the level of oxidation this tea has incurred. The tightness of each curled leaf indicates the manner and method it was rolled.

A mindful tilt of the bamboo tea scoop and a gentle push by the thin willow branch aids in arranging each of the leaves into a small mound at the center of the teapot.

Leaning over to peer down into the vessel, I inhale to admire and analyze the aroma of the tea as it comes into contact with the wet interior surface of the teapot. This, too, is a sign, a means to guide my approach to brewing this tea.

Each time I take in an observation, I change my tack. These are not huge changes but subtle ones. Over time and accumulated experiences, this method has shaped not only my practice but also my mind. Rather than become more rigid in my ways and more resistant to change, I’ve become more fluid, more adaptable, more welcoming of taking chances, being challenged, open to surprises. It has brought about a real sense of joy to face these, both in tea and in life.

To say that these are challenging times we live in today would be quite an understatement. All around, people are justly fighting for their voices to be heard, for their civil rights to be recognized. The world is faced with a deadly pandemic. Our fragile earth continues to be threatened by greed, war, destruction. Faced with such dramatic changes, it is common to do what most do: avoid them, resist them, claim ignorance of these changes, shut them out and find solace in a life of ease and moments of joy. Perhaps, like the Summer storm that is now currently raging outside my window here in New York City, some may believe that these changes will subside. The turmoil will calm down. Things will go back to normal.

But as I lift my kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour hot water into the teapot, I am reminded that this does not need to be the way.

As I close the lid of the teapot and pour a drought of hot water upon it, waiting for the telltale signs that the tea is brewing, I reflect on what it takes to understand each moment.

We must be quiet to let others speak their mind and tell their story, as I must quiet my mind to truly take in the moment. I must observe the context of each time and place, as I do when I watch the heat rise from the teapot and the water dissipate from its surface, keeping in mind the temperature of the air around it, the time of day, the heat or chill of the season, and perhaps the guests and their preferences.

I have to be attentive to what might be going on from an internal level, and what external cues I can draw from, in the same way I watch the small meniscus rise.

In the same way I watch it fall down the interior of the teapot spout, indicating the movement and unfurling of the tea leaves within the teapot. And I must ask myself what I take for granted, what do I not have the ability to see, in the same way I must wonder what is going on inside the teapot.

All of this goes to further highlight certain truths. Change is a constant. Nothing remains the same forever. Each moment exists only in that moment and then it is gone, transformed into something else. Oftentimes, we have the choice to meet these changes and learn from them, or ignore them. To engage and adapt with change, or to resist it.

Tea has taught this. It has taught me patience. It has given me the ability to practice this and eventually trust in my practice. Whereas in the beginning of my life as a tea person I would have doubted and maybe even judged myself, with a litany of internal self-directed micro-aggressions telling me that I was “doing it wrong” or “I don’t know enough” or that I was “unable to do this” or “that properly”, I now have enough direct experience brewing tea to not judge myself and, instead, recognized when I feel this way and recognize that it’s okay. The tea will be fine. I will be fine.

I’ve made a lot of bitter tea in my day, even over-brewed tea. I actually enjoy this flavor now. It is the flavor of quality. In truth, an excellently-crafted tea will still taste excellent even if you over-brew it. This was something I only learned when I stopped being afraid to make mistakes and to be challenged.

As I pour out the tea from the teapot, moving from cup to cup to cup in a circular motion, I adjust my hand and the pitch of the teapot to increase or decrease the velocity of the tea liqueur coming out of it. As the liquid pours out faster, the tea has leaf time to brew, resulting in a slightly lighter steeping.

Conversely, if I slow the pour, the tea steeps a moment longer and the liqueur has a chance to become darker and more profound in flavor. This may depend on the style of tea, the manner it was finished by the tea master’s level roast or oxidation, or by the season the tea was harvested. Subtle changes to one’s practice can make all the difference.

As I shake out the final droplets of tea from the teapot and return the teapot back the center of the Sòng teabowl, I remove the lid of the pot to enable all remaining moisture and heat to escape the teapot. Experience has shown me that doing this helps to prevent unintended over-extraction of flavor through residual hot water sitting with the tea leaves.

I admire the color of the tea liqueur. It is a rich copper color, deepening at its center and becoming a light blush gold on the periphery. As I bring the first of three cups to my lips, I savor the multi-layered aromas the tea gives off. Florals like gardenias, marigolds and rose. Light incense. Toasted biscuit. As I take the first sip, I draw back it over the back of my mouth and into my cheeks, both cooling the tea and atomizing the liquid, enabling a greater sensory experience. I’ve made the tea strong. The flavors of dried apricots, marigold, rose water, and toasted walnut are pronounced. As my mouth empties, lingering flavors of cacao nibs, sweet caramel and baked apple remain.

I pause to let these flavors play out and fade before I move on to the second and third cup. Each time I sip I use the moment to meditate and observe. To open my mind rather than fixate on a particular aspect of the tea or of the time and space that I’ve found myself within. As I continue to brew the tea, steeping after steeping, I practice this mindset. I use the moment to explore the tea and it’s flavors, as I also use the moment to explore my mind and the many sensations that arise.

As I’ve said before, these are challenging times. We might find ourselves up against some very intense situations. Ourselves, as well as our friends and family may be affected by the many upheavals that have come. How to give space to each so that we can explore these moments together and individually is important to foster true learning and awakening. This is core to being compassionate. How we can practice this in our own practice of tea can be a beautiful first step.

Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition Thích Nhất Hạnh discusses this form of practice in his 2002 book “Anger”. What he describes as “knots of anger” are “blocks of pain, anger, and frustration“. Over time, these knots can tie us up and obstruct our freedom to learn, to be open-minded, and be able to communicate with others and ourselves. If we practice aggression towards others or ourselves, these becomes trained. Like brewing an excellent cup of tea, we can become excellent at being angry, at harming others, at denying their freedoms and our own.

However, one can practice the opposite. One can practice love, compassion and empathy. Much like how one brews tea, changing one’s habitual mind takes patience, presence, observation. It requires breathing and practicing a capacity of awareness that includes listening to both body and mind, material and environment. In the same way we can learn from the tea that we’ve over-steeped, we can learn from our anger, our sadness, and our frustration. We can still love a bitter brew in the same way we can still love ourselves and others despite how we fee about them or they about us. This needn’t become a block to our freedom. Rather, it can become the way forward.

As I finish the final cup of tea, I begin the processes of cleaning the equipage. The cups are cleansed once again and placed together.

So, too, are the wooden trivets they sat upon.

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

For a brief moment, I appreciate the teapot, the small Sī Tíng Hú. The shape, volume, clay, and firing, all honed and practiced by the craftsperson who created it to be a tool to best brew tea.

Next I turn my attention to examine the tea leaves. Each leaf tells a story. Every color of dark emerald green, russet and red speak to the journey that they’ve endured.

Now, in their unfurling, they sit as a knot untied. As a result of the water’s heat, of time elapsed, of attention given. They’ve become a grip loosened. A moment explored. A heart opened.

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