Tag Archives: Meditation

Respite in the Heat of Summer: Images from a Morning Tea Meditation

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The heat of a Summer’s morning sparked creativity, leading to improvisation. As has been my practice for the past few months, I’ve set out every Sunday morning into the island of Manhattan to offer a meditation paired with tea. Seeking to put into practice the notion of 一期一会 (In Japanese it’s ichi-go ichi-e, literally “one moment, one meeting”), I try to employ a variety of sensory cues to differentiate each gathering. From the scroll or flower in the alcove of the tearoom, to different tea, teaware, cups, or even waste water bowl, each will change in keeping with the subtle shifts that the seasons present. Beyond just the selection and using of a combination of utensils to set the tone and perhaps “tell a story” (known as 取り合わせ/とりあわせ toriawase in Japanese), this also helps to keep the setting fresh and, in the context of Buddhist mediation, encourage the cultivation of a “beginner’s mind” (初心, chūxīn in Chinese, shoshin in Japanese).

In moments like this, fresh-picked mulberry leaves become an accompaniment to the enjoyment of tea, inviting their refreshing verdant quality into the tearoom. Drops of dew, still present on their emerald surface, gleam in the soft light of the tearoom and cool the mind as cups of tea are sipped. Atypical to the usual wooden or metal cup stands often employed in a tea gathering, these humble leaves act to wake the mind and stir the curiosity of the guests. What a treat it is to enjoy something so ephemeral as this!

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With the chiming of the meditation bell the preparation of the tea begins. The participants sit in silence as the motions to make tea take place. The teapot is placed within a shallow bowl and warm water is poured from the kettle into its empty interior. The pot is lifted and held in the hands, rolled in a circular motion to warm its ceramic walls. After, the contents are distributed into the empty and waiting cups, warming them and adding to a sense of refreshing cleansing.

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The long, wiry leaves of a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) are pulled from an antique Korean Goryeo-style incised celadon incense container and placed upon the concave hollow of a bamboo tea scoop. With a single motion, the leaves are then poured into the wide opening of the teapot. The residual heat from the water used to initially heat the teapot now works to activate the fragrance of the tea, a fresh 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”), releasing an incredibly subtle scent of orchids and magnolia into the air.

At this moment, I could not resist but to pick up the pot one more time and pass it to the guests to appreciate the beautiful aroma of this tea. This brief interlude within the beginning of the meditation became a means to further focus the sitters’ minds on the moment at hand.

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As the kettle comes to its first boil, the water is poured into the pot and over the leaves. In a matter of seconds, the tea is brewed and the teapot makes its way from cup to cup, filling each over a series of successive passes. This procedure helps to distribute the flavor of the tea evenly, so each cup tastes the same. As such, one does not need to use an additional serving vessel, or 公道杯 gōngdào bēi (“fairness cup”), as is typical in many modern tea settings.

As with the practice of mediation, tea, too, is a reductive process. Through modulating one’s practice to reduce and remove objects from the tea gathering, one further refines and clears the tea space and the mind of “things” to attach one’s self to. Simple practices like this not only reinforce being resourceful, but also stress a mindset of “doing more with less”, a mentality core to both Buddhism and gong fu cha.

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As the participants of this morning’s meditation take a moment to sip from their cups, their eyes naturally begin to move around the tearoom. Sparsely furnished and containing objects meant only for the making of tea, the presence of a flower and a work of calligraphy in the tea space act as focal points to aid in the deepening of one’s meditative practice.

For this morning, a fan decorated with a piece of calligraphy referring to the season helps to bring the sitter closer to the moment. Much like the mulberry leaves, the presence of a paper and bamboo fan on a warm Summer’s morning helps to further infer a sense of coolness into the room. It is as if the fan, while motionless in the alcove, is still able to produce a relaxing breeze, if only in the imagination of the guests.

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As time passes and each cup gradually empties, the gentle sound of the kettle coming to a boil heralds the beginning of a second and third steeping of the floral oolong in the small Yixing clay teapot. The clamor of the street outside subsides briefly and a beautiful sense of quietude is welcomed to sit with us in the room as we meditate. A light breeze mingles in the air and brings the scent of aloeswood incense to the guests.

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Steeping after steeping occurs, one after another. In this process, one finds a practice.

It is often said that in tea, one has to make a hundred bowls of tea before they can make a bowl of tea. Read literally, this statement makes no sense, but taken as a koan to aid in one’s meditation, the reality of this saying becomes clear.

After performing an action over and over again, one becomes more comfortable in it. After one sits cross-legged or in the lotus position for the first time, it may hurt one’s legs. However, if one makes a practice of it, the posture becomes more routine and more second nature. Similarly, the first time to meditate might seem difficult, and one’s mind might become preoccupied with questions of “Am I doing this right?”,  “Am I doing this wrong?”, or “Why can’t I focus”. However, as one’s body and mind adjust to the action, it, too, becomes more natural.

Tea, too, is like this. A tea not brewed before may present itself as a challenge. Naturally, questions of “Will I over-steep it?” or “Will I make it too bitter?” may arise. Yet, here, the focus is not the tea, but is the “I”. This fear or preoccupation with how one will perceive (or be perceived) is additional and ultimately distracting from the action of making tea. In truth, tea can over-steep and tea is naturally bitter. With practice, one will get more natural with bringing out tea’s flavors. In time, one will just steep tea. In this repetition of action, the “I” falls away and all that is left is the tea.

In steeping 大烏葉 Dà wū yè (“Big Black Leaf”) this morning, the actions of brewing the tea may seem repetitive, and, to some extent, this is true. Boiling the water, pouring the water, brewing the tea, and pouring the tea. Repeat.

However, as the challenge of brewing this tea results in the better understanding of the tea and how to access its myriad of flavors, a new sense of freedom develops. It is at this point that one no longer is attached to the notion of making the tea too bitter. Instead, one just makes the tea. With this mindset, aspects such as the teapot, the heat of the kettle, or even something as subtle as the temperature in the room can further inform each steeping. In this moment, the mind is fully open, ready to mindfully respond to everything it can perceive.

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With the tea fully brewed-out, its final flavors become just a sweet remembrance of its initial strength. After the last steeping, I conclude by pulling every leaf from the tiny Yixing clay teapot. This, too, helps those gathered to admire the tea and to focus on the moment. A minute later, as the mind settles, a final chime of the bell marks the end of this morning’s meditation.

At times like this, I cannot bring myself to speak. Instead, I let the moment convey its countless volumes. A poem in every sensation. A stanza comprised of sunshine written across the grass mat, collected in a teacup. Verses made of steam rising from a teapot and the smile of anticipation that forms on my face.

When tea accompanies meditation, it, too, becomes the meditation. With each rising of the kettle’s boil comes the potential for infinite possibilities. Each moment different from the last. Flavors from one steeping to the next change and transform, and the mind is left to explore itself. A fresh-picked mulberry leaf can become a tea cup stand and become a point of introspection upon one’s self in space and time. A paper fan can typify the moment and cool the mind. The simple act of brewing tea can awaken one during a warm Summer’s morning and become the means to cultivating a lifelong practice.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Happy Interdependence Day

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When I was beginning my “training” in zen practice (sesshin, 接心, or also 摂心/攝心 literally “touching the heart-mind”) on a warm 4th of July years ago, a Buddhist friend of mine wished me a happy “Interdependence Day”. Slightly perplexed, he responded by noting that rather than celebrate our independence, our isolation from the world, it would make more sense to remind ourselves that we are never alone, nor completely dependent. Everything is connected and does, in part, rely upon one another to exist.

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Whether it’s a thought that arises or a great nation; something came before that allowed it to exist, and when it passes, it will transform into something else. In this vein, we are constantly shaped by our environment, not for better or for worse, but just naturally, without judgement (the judgement is extra).

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As I sit and ponder on this concept, I bring my thoughts towards tea. Paying homage to the concept of interdependence, I have chosen to make tea, a fine matcha, using a late 15th century Vietnamese teabowl decorated in the fashion made popular by the Ming court in China. The chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) and chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) are both Japanese in origin, and the tea caddy, a cloisonné incense container, is 20th century Chinese.

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Motifs of flowers and butterflies are abundant, a fine reminder of cultures’ ability to constantly cross-pollinate, making the garden of the world more beautiful and giving it life.

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The teabowl, pulled from the famed 15th century Hội An wreck in the 1990s, revealed to the world a diversity of design and eclecticism of a past culture that rivals any contemporary civilization. The design, a with loose arabesque scroll and foliate motif culminates in a beautiful peony flow, blossoming in the center of the bowl.

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Painted in a cursory style, the flower is reminiscent of those favored in Ming China, the then-superpower of East Asia during the 15th century. However, the local touch shines through, shown in the distinctive grey-blue cobalt commonly used in Vietnam during this time. Pools of ferrous-colored purple bleed through, giving the image of the flower a depth and texture that is quintessentially of this period. The light circle around the image not only frames it but imparts a halo-like glow.

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The history of this teabowl does not end with its connection between Vietnam and Ming China of the 15th century. As tea, namely through the practice of tea ceremony (茶の湯, chanoyu), grew in popularity in Japan during the 16th century, this style of teaware became immensely popular with tea people.

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Favored for its elegant simplicity, Anam-yaki (安南焼, literally “Southern Peace ceramics” or “Vietnamese-ceramics”) was highly-collected by tea people of the late Muromachi and Edo periods, and highly-reproduced by Japanese artisans during the popularization of the tea ceremony. Unlike Chinese, Korean, or the native-produced chawan of Japan, Anam-yaki teabowls were a perfect balance of lightness, refinement, and rusticity that the masters of wabi-cha favored.

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The bright, electric-green foam of the fresh matcha contrasts against the clean, white interior of the Vietnamese teabowl, in a luminescent glow that seems to radiate outward. The deep concave of the bowl, too, adds to this, creating a striking shadow against the soft, dappled foam that rests within the chawan.

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After all the matcha has been enjoyed, the bowl empty and cleaned, one can turn it over to appreciate the dark “chocolate”-colored foot of the chawan. Yet another distinctive feature of Vietnamese teabowls, it showcases the nature of interdependence, that one culture can be influenced by another yet still celebrate that which makes their own culture unique.

In the mélange of an international history, the mixture of cultures creates a beautiful gumbo that produces inspiration, that produces art. In tea, there are no politics, just moments to appreciate one’s inter-connectedness. On this day, a happy Interdependence Day, let’s all celebrate in that.

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To all my readers of Scotttea, a blog begun by a son of immigrants, for a world of a thousand cultures, I offer this post in celebration of our interdependence. May we continue to remain strong in our diversity and love of inclusion, whether it be the simple inclusion of the occasional “matcha post” on an otherwise gong fu cha blog, or the inclusion of others into this global family. Let us not be defined by the borders on a map but by the boundlessness of our hearts.

My deepest thanks and continued gratitude to share with you.

 

 

 

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

The Heat of Summer. The Quietude of Tea. The Sound of Wind and Approaching Rain.

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As Summer deepens its presence tea, too, transforms. The 風炉 (furo, literally “wind brazier”) has long since replaced the sunken hearth in the tearoom and the hope of the host is to induce a sense of coolness in the guest. In this effort, the inventive nature of the tea person comes alive, from replacing the stoneware 水指 (mizusashi, “fresh water vessel”) with a plain well-bucket (木地釣瓶水指, kiji-tsurube) which has been soaked in water over night, to employing items made of clear glass or pieces that contain visual allusions to water (famous being the kettle lid rests (蓋置, futa-oki) in the shape of a crab in a river stream or that of water wheels).

The teabowl, too, changes its shape during Summer, becoming more shallow, allowing for the otherwise hot water pulled from the kettle to cool down, making the experience of holding the bowl and drinking the tea more enjoyable for the guest.

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As I make tea today, I use one such bowl, an antique Shigaraki-yaki (信楽焼) chawan. Light, informal, and perfectly imperfect with its pockmarked and vitrified surface, it offers-up a subtle reminder to enjoy the moment (and the heat) of a Summer’s day.

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I pair the chawan with an exposed-wood hira-natsume (平棗, a jujube fruit-shaped tea container in which its width is twice its height) and a chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) hewn from a piece of smokey-hued bamboo. The wood of the natsume and chashaku seem to shine in a way that seems to add to the refreshment of the moment, reminiscent of the washed and weathered boards of an engawa (縁側, the open-air “veranda” that often surrounds old Japanese homes and temples).

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On closer inspection of the chashaku, it reveals a hidden landscape of mountains enveloped in mist. Caused by the natural pigmentation and aging of the bamboo, this chance shān shuǐ (山水, literally “mountain and water/mountain and river”) painting, contained within the slender frame of the chashaku (in a way akin to a tanzaku (短冊, a thin, vertical strip of paper often showcasing calligraphy or painting, often hung in the tokonoma alcolve)) offers an additional layer to the tea gathering. It is a landscape so minute that only the host and guest can observe it within the intimate confines of the tearoom. As such, it is an inferred space for both to travel through as they join together to enjoy tea.

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The faint hiss of the boiling water in the chagama, a sound poetically referred to as the sound of “wind in the pines” (松風, matsukaze), accompanies every action during the tea gathering. Not only the element with which the tea is brewed, water is also employed to “purify” the tea implements, from the chawan to the chasen (茶筅, tea whisk). In this process, the chasen is placed gently into the teabowl, itself filled with one hishaku(柄杓, bamboo ladle)’s-worth of boiled water. The tines are then lightly pressed against the center of the bowl, flexing them and testing their strength. In this patient act, the host is both checking for damages (that may result in particles of the whisk adulterating the guest’s tea) and cleansing the tea object in a manner that displays attentiveness and hospitality. Once complete, the chasen is left to sit upright, its thin bamboo tines, like blades of grass at dawn, are left moistened and refreshed.

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The Shigaraki-yaki chawan, once washed and wetted by the water from the chagama, sits ready to accept the powdered tea. Here, too, the act of cleansing has brought out a new sense of life and vitality from the tea object, revealing bright colors and a deep range of textures that once remained dormant. Born out of the laborious process of hand-feeding a wood-fueled anagama-kiln (窖窯, literally “cave kiln”), the Shigaraki-yaki chawan bears the distinctive marks and patterns that are the result of extreme heat.

As with the chashaku, the chawan, too, contains an inferred “landscape” (景色, keshiki in Japanese, literally “scenery”). Through the hand of the potter, a light and loosely-applied glaze was poured over the rim of the teabowl. The result gives the appearance of an undulating mountain range, articulated through the uneven dissipation and pooling of the yellow and blue-green-hued glass-like glaze (ビードロ, bidoro, from the Portuguese word vidoro meaning “vitrified”). This visual feature becomes yet another “vista” for the guest and host to admire during the tea gathering, offering a moment to pause and imagine the refreshing breezes that often blow through the mountains on a Summer’s day.

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Three scoops of bright, fragrant matcha are pulled out of the natsume (as is the practice within the Sōhen-ryū (宗偏流) school of chanoyu) and placed into the chawan. The presence of the powdered green tea against the rough, earthen-toned well of the teabowl is striking and seems other-worldly.

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Whisked and whipped with the chasen, the matcha is transformed into a bright and airy foam. Instantly, the aroma of the fresh green tea fills the space of the tearoom. One merely needs to breathe to take in its flavor.

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Picked-up and turned in the hands of the host so that the teabowl’s “face” (正面, shōmen in Japanese) greets the guest, the bowl of matcha is then left to sit between the two individuals. After a friendly bow of gratitude (offered simultaneously by both host and guest), the guest accepts the bowl of tea. Turning the bowl’s face away from their own out of respect to the chawan, the guest lifts the vessel to their lips. Within three slow sips, the bowl is savored, the freshly-prepared tea enjoyed to its last frothy dregs.

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The Shigaraki-yaki bowl is held quietly in the hands of the guest, the warmth of the tea it once contained still lingers within its earthenware body. The roughness of the clay, the unevenness of the glaze, and the words of a poem painted on its sides are all appreciated by the guest before the bowl is returned to the host for its final cleaning.

In the silence that follows, there remains a stillness that is the quintessence of a moment with tea. Although no physical distance has been crossed, both host and guest have traveled together. While no mountains have been climbed nor landscapes entered, they have both viewed vast vistas and wandered a path together. At journey’s end, no words need to be exchanged. No need for a thoughts nor response. Just to be quiet is enough.

In the heat of Summer, a moment to take tea offers a chance to to quiet the mind and to hear the faint sound of the wind and approaching rain.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

Curling Leaves and Unfurling Flavors

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Sitting down to brew a fabulous 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 Fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá (Phoenix single bush oolong tea) gifted to me by a visiting artist and tea collector. The tea and the moment it creates is the perfect complement to a Summer’s morning, just minutes after a light rain and illuminated by the warm light of the dawn.

As I have done countless times before, I choose to brew tea with a well-loved 肉扁 Ròu biǎn (literally “flattened portion of meat”-shaped) Yixing teapot. Acquired in San Francisco at the city’s famed Imperial Tea Court (founded by the Bay Area-based tea master Roy K. Fong), the little teapot has been brewing Phoenix oolongs for over a decade. Well-loved and well-seasoned, the little russet-colored 朱泥 zhū ní teapot now bears the patina of years of continued use, transforming its surface from a dull terra cotta to soft and almost luminescent cinnabar.

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For this morning’s tea I employ an antique Japanese tea scoop (茶合, sagō) cut from the stalk of an old bamboo and fashioned in the manner of a wooden wrist rest, an object once commonplace within a scholar’s studio of classical China. Written upon the surface of the scoop is a poem, a fourteen-character 山水詩 (shānshuǐ shī, literally “mountains and rivers poem” or “landscape poem”), within which are allusions to life amidst mountains and clouds.

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The old piece of bamboo is perfectly suited for the large leaves of the Phoenix oolong, allowing them to sit loosely upon the expansive, concave hollow of the scoop. Like the Ròu biǎn teapot, this tea scoop, too, has enjoyed its fair share of tea, acquiring the luster that comes only from years of tea oil accumulating upon its surface. It, too, seems to glow and hold a presence that time has imbued it with.

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The shape and construction of this teapot is perfect for the long, twisted leaves of the Phoenix oolong. The wide opening of the teapot helps to allow the wiry leaves that are typical of this style of tea to enter the vessel naturally. The tea slides smoothly from the scoop into the pot with a single, effortless motion.

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While it may appear to be small in size and volume, every leaf seems to sit with ease, gently inside the teapot.

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Its low, flat profile lets the leaves of the Phoenix oolong expand outward, allowing them to unfurl and offer-up their abundant flavor and spectacular fragrance.

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The egg shell-thin walls of the Ròu biǎn teapot retain just enough heat for a short, hot steeping. Only moments after water is poured into and then over the pot it evaporates, indicating that the tea is close to being suitably brewed.

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The result is a series of beautifully-hued and complex-flavored cups of tea, revealing endless layers and notes of fresh flowers, incense, citrus peel, and tropical fruits.

In a finely-crafted piece of teaware such as this Ròu biǎn teapot, the mindful decisions of the artisan can inform the subtle practice of the tea brewer. When form and function are perfectly balanced, intent and action can meet in unison. When a teapot’s construction both alludes to the tea it prefers to make and offers insight into how it should be brewed, then the teapot can become the teacher.

 

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting

The Taste of Meditation

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There is an old saying that “Tea and Zen are of one taste” (茶禅一味). A bit of a kōan (公案; Chinese: 公案, gōng’àn; Korean: 공안 kong’an; Vietnamese: công án), the phrase is meant to both give rise to “great doubt” and spark the onset of a meditative mind. At the core of this mindset is the realization of one’s inability to grasp that which is logical, therefore forcing one to inquire withing and rely upon intuition, direct experience and wisdom.

The phrase also alludes to the close link that tea and meditation have had over the centuries. Beginning in the Tang and continuing through the end of the Song (from 500-1300), the rise of both tea culture alongside Buddhist meditation (chán 禪, Chinese for the Sanskrit word dhyāna ध्यान , meaning “meditation”, the Japanese word being zen, seon 선 in Korean) had a profound effect on one another. Commonly produced in monasteries for its medicinal properties, tea was also consumed as a means to wake the mind (through tea’s energizing properties). Paired as an aid to meditation, the physical act of making tea was similarly viewed as meditative, as it requires a certain level of mindfulness to achieve the desired results.

As tea continued to evolve in tandem with Buddhist schools of meditation, it was shaped by the people and cultures it came into contact with. Subsequent practitioners, from the Japanese Zen Buddhists and lay people of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1603) who developed chanoyu  (茶の湯, the Japanese tea ceremony), to the Korean Seon Buddhist monks like Cho’ui (writer of the Dashinjeon 다신전(茶神傳, literally “Tea Spirit Record”), 1830) who linked meditation more directly to tea preparation, would continue this trend, pointing the way for modern tea people to follow.

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To the tea practitioner, the mere act of making tea can bring about a meditative state of mind, as each tea, vessel, teapot, kettle, cup, and scoop can bring about a myriad of possibilities. From the way a certain clay cools to when or where a tea was harvested, to how one pours water over the tea leaves, or even the temperature of the air, attentiveness to all of these factors and more is the essence of “now-mindedness”.

32207696_10103510293954638_2219173296484646912_nIt is in this moment, the moment of sitting down to make tea, that one must rely upon what they know and how it ultimately bears against what they do not know. It is from this interaction with and inquiry into these dual aspects that great tea can be made.

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This morning, as I make a meditation out of preparing tea, I ponder this. Brewing a jakseol (작설, literally “sparrow’s tongue” green tea from Jirisan in Hadong, South Korea), the movements it requires to slowly and mindfully express the tea’s flavor are apparent. Any thoughts of the world around me, of deadlines, of things to do become nothing more than thoughts, things at the moment outside of my control.

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The water rises to a quiet boil, the buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teapot, sookwoo (water server), and tea cups (each a gift from a dear friend) are warmed. As I warm the vessels, I roll each slowly within my hand, feeling the radiant heat of the water within them climb up the inside of their earthenware walls, permeating through their dull-colored glazed exteriors.

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I carefully place the leaves of the tea within the open mouth of the teapot. The lingering heat trapped within the vessel’s clay walls begins to wake the tea and a slight hint to its flavor rises sweetly into the air.

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The water that was momentarily set to cool within the sookwoo is poured into the teapot and the lid is placed upon its top. The tea is left to brew. All visible clues as to the tea’s progress are kept at bay as the teapot sits. All information that one is left to rely upon must come from one’s own intuition and direct experience.

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The elegant yet roughly-hewn buncheong-jagi cups sit awaiting the tea. Even at this moment of stillness, of emptiness, there is a sense of meaning as the tea continues to brew.

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In a matter of mere seconds, the tea is poured and its light, bright color is exhibited against the soft, mottled grey surface of the teacup’s interior. All of the moment spent sitting in a still and mindful quietude is summed up here. All of colors of a gentle Korean Spring in the mountains of Jirisan are apparent in this cup.

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The tea is brewed and the leaves unfurled. The aroma is released and the flavor of the tea becomes, as I become, fully present.

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

When a Carp Turns Into a Dragon

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In Japan, May 5th marks Boys’ Day (端午の節句, Tango no sekku, or, in recent years, こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi, literally “Children’s Day”). A key feature of this celebration is the motif of the carp.

The significance behind this imagery is recognized throughout much of East Asia, as the carp, with its bright, scaly complexion, was believed to possess the ability to transform into a dragon. In ancient China (and subsequently in other East Asian cultures that adopted similar forms of governance), this transformative quality of the lowly carp into a noble dragon was a metaphor for succeeding in the civil service examination and a wish for a child to excel and grow.

Additionally, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually late-May to mid-June) marks the celebration of  Duānwǔ jié 端午节 (Dragon Boat Festival). Many scholars now believe that this was originally a day of making offerings to the dragon king, who was said to dwell in rivers and lakes. This practice continues today with the offering of zòngzi (粽子, glutenous rice wrapped in leaves) to appease voracious river carp. Oddly enough, the bamboo leaf-wrapped chimaki mochi (ちまき餅), which are often eaten during Boys’ Day in Japan, bear a cursory resemblance to these ancient offerings.

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Today, as I sit for tea, I employ a small antique carp-shaped Korean celadon water dropper (an object that would have been commonplace in a scholar’s studio) as a improvised flower vase.

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Paired with this are Korean buncheong-jagi 분청사기 teacups, a purple-hued Jūn yáo 鈞窯 teapot, and an antique bamboo teascoop inscribed with a poem about life in the mountains. The tea which I chose to brew is a Dà Hóng Páo 大紅袍 gifted by a friend. This, too, is a subtle allusion to succeeding in one’s studies as the origin story of this famous tea tells of a young scholar who was able to pass his civil service exam with the aide of the tea’s fortifying properties.

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As is often the case with tea, each element is draw together to create an overall feeling. For today, in the lingering heat of the last day of Spring (May 6th is recognized as the first day of Summer by practitioners in Japanese tea ceremony), I try to infer a sense of coolness that one feels when walking through a dew-laden path (露地, roji in Japanese). Indeed, the flower I feature, which I collected from those growing wild in my garden, helps to make reference to this. As is practiced in chanoyu, I used a wetted chasen (茶筅, tea whisk) to flick cool water upon the arrangement to further enhance this sensation of being in a cooler, more relaxing environment.

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With the tea brewing, the buncheong-jagi cups wait, their plain color offering a foil to the lustrous quality of the Jūn yáo teapot. Both the cups and teapot are gifts from artist friends. While in life these two friends have never met, they come together in a sense through the mediation of tea.

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The tea poured lets the aroma of the dark oolong to fill the tea studio. Hints of incense, toasted caramel, and dark chocolate waft like a light breeze. As a slightly lower-oxidized and lower-roasted Dà Hóng Páo, the flavor once tasted is brighter, softer, and more complex. The verdant qualities that are often roasted or oxidized out of most contemporary variations on this tea are lovingly left within these leaves by its crafters, enabling a highly-developed layering and preservation of well-balanced flavors, from notes of crisp minerals, walnut skins, and egg whites.

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Much like the objects surrounding it, the tea, too, is a myriad of reference points for the mind to explore and expound upon. This is one of the many subtle pleasures of taking a moment to enjoy tea.

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Layers of images, references, and flavors, each with their own significance and meaning, are just part of the brocaded fabric that can be brought into the tearoom and offer points of further contemplation, a moment of pause, and meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Uncategorized

When Spring Feels Like Summer

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When Spring feels like Summer, the shallow teabowl is favored.
 
In Japanese tea ceremony, the coming of Summer is heralded by a series of subtle changes. The ro (炉, sunken hearth), which was so lovingly appreciated during the cold of Winter, is covered and the furo (風炉, literally “wind furnace”, portable brazier for tea) is brought into the tearoom. Whereas in Winter, thicker, deeper chawan were preferred, more shallow and delicate teabowls are favored in the warmer months of Summer.
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As Spring draws to a close and the first heat of Summer approaches (in chanoyu, May 6th is observed as the beginning of Summer), I cannot help but preemptively begin to alter my practice to meet the new season. Opting to make tea outside on the cool, shaded concrete, I pair this setting with an antique Japanese hakame chawan (刷毛目茶碗, literally “brush-marked eye” teabowl), the light grey and white patterns of which both reference the texture of the brushed concrete and the dappled light of the warm mid-day. Hot water is carried in a hand-blown glass vessel, a contemporary piece by current students of the Bauhaus school in Dessau. Its open mouth allowing the water to slightly cool and its translucent walls offering an ice-like appearance. 
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The matcha is from Uji, freshly-ground at Setsugekka in Manhattan. Contained in a gold-flecked tea container, the hope is to strike a balance between the informality of the act of making tea on the rough-hewn concrete with the refinement and luxury of an object lacquered in gold (save for the fact that, in this case, the tea caddy is a mass-produced matcha tin). As is often the case when a tea person prepares tea for others in an outdoor setting, such as a nodate (野点, open-air tea ceremony) gathering, it is the challenge of the host to create a harmonious juxtaposition between the rustic and wild aspects of nature and the artistic cultivation of beautiful teaware as produced by master craftspeople. For this reason, in the same way when gathering a chashitsu (茶室, tea room) one employs aspects of nature to balance the otherwise man-made interior, the host may use elegant works of lacquer or finer silk to provide a subtle contrast to the exterior setting.
IMG_6568 Here, the chashaku (茶杓, tea scoop) aides in creating balance, its natural form with preserved bamboo node and naturally-occurring grooves establishing an almost rhythmic quality between the imperfection of the concrete surface and the crispness of the tea container.
IMG_6569 The hakame chawan, a form and style originating in 15th-16th century Korea, pairs easily with the concrete surface, lending to a more casual feeling for the tea gathering.
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The bright, electric green of the powdered matcha creates a striking contrast against a vignette that is otherwise rather mono-chromatic.
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As Summer approaches and temperatures rise, the chasen (茶筅, bamboo tea whisk) is placed over the small mound of matcha. As water is subsequently poured in to the chawan, it trickles delicately through the thin tines, wetting the chasen and producing a faint sound of water gurgling as if it were through reeds at a river’s edge. This, too, helps to lend a sense of refreshing coolness to the tea gathering.
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When whipped into a silky froth, the lingering foam is bright, almost snow-like within the wide circumference of the low-sitting chawan.
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Even the light cracking of the hakame chawan, which appears almost ice-like, aides in inferring coolness during the warmth of the day.
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With the tea served and enjoyed, one is left only to appreciate the time that has passed, the lingering flavor of the tea, and the joy of the changing seasons.
When Spring feels like Summer, the shallow teabowl is favored.
IG: @cutechajin

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Green Tea, Japan, Korea, Tea, Uncategorized