Tag Archives: Natsume

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

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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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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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

Waterfall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowl and natsume are placed side-by-side.

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

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

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

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

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

 

****

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

Waterkeeper Alliance

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

Native American Rights Fund – Protect Tribal Natural Resources

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

No More Deaths

https://nomoredeaths.org/en/

People’s Water Board Coalition

https://www.peopleswaterboard.org

Hydrate Detroit

https://www.hydratedetroit.org

The Human Utility – Detroit Water Project

https://detroitwaterproject.org

Navajo Water Project

https://www.navajowaterproject.org

Flint Rising

https://flintrising.com

Clean Water Advocacy Center

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

Publications on Race and Water Justice

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

https://hwise-rcn.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In One Month’s Time: Everything’s Changed. Everything Remains the Same.

With a blink of the eye, the month of May has come to a close. At its beginning, Spring was in its last days of full glory. Blossoms blooming and bending every bough. Fresh shoots of grass pushing up through rich dark soil. The mornings keeping cool. Fresh breezes blowing.

In four weeks’ time, Summer has come. The myriad of flowers that once hung on trees now blow about as dried-out bodies on the streets, collecting in corners, dedicated and rotting. In their place flap large, billowing leaves of deep green, waving in the wind like huge unfurled sails atop masts of sailing ships.

During this month, the occasional rain storm has come and gone, leaving this new verdant world bedecked in a crystalline veneer of shimmering droplets. In this new world that emerges, the silence of morning pervades and lingers throughout the remainder of the day. The booming voices of birds echo through the neighborhoods. The soft patting of leaves fluttering produces a mellow, rhythmic murmur.

In this new world that has arrived, inspiration is tempered by loss. Creativity presses up against destruction. A new world arrives as the old world dies all around it.

In the quiet of my tea room, I cannot escape this. The silence of this early Summer, the lack of cars on the street, the hush that comes over passers by, the bated breath. The cause of sickness that has gripped the world where one loses their ability to breathe. The sickness that grips this nation where one is choked to death. This, too, creeps into the space of my tea room.

A wide bowl and low-slung tea caddy greets me.

A green 水指 mizusashi with a lacquer lid stands side-by-side the summery bronze brazier. Etched in its clay, green-glaze pooling within the carved and combed pattern, is the motif of 縄簾 nawasudare, a twisted rope curtain rustling in the breeze. What would refresh me and my guest on a hot, windless day, seems to do little to placate a sense of burning restlessness in me.

As I sit for tea, I do not do so to pacify the mind. I do so merely to observe its motions.

I cleanse the wooden grain surface of the small 平棗 hira-natsume.

I check its interior to see that the low mound of tea remains undisturbed. With care, I place the container down in front of the mizusashi.

I purify the 茶杓 chashaku and place it upon the lid of the natsume. The skin of the bamboo marked by hundreds of black spots. 緑雨 ryokuu.

I lift the 茶筅 chasen and place it beside the natsume and chashaku. I lift a ladle’s worth of hot water from the 茶釜 chagama and pour it into the wide-rimmed Summer 茶碗 chawan. The sound of water splashing inside rings like a hollow bell.

The chasen is returned to the bowl. The bamboo tines open slowly. When the mind is focused, the heart opens. When one does something in service for another, the heart softens. I lightly whisk the chasen in the warm water and return it beside the natsume. Small beads of water still cling to the upright blades, slowly running down like held-back tears.

The teabowl is emptied and dried. The uneven glaze ripples across the circumference of its interior. It appears as a mighty mountain range surrounding the center, save for where one will eventually drink from, where the tea will climb up the side. An interrupted chain, breaking, building, abating to the crashing of the now like a wave upon the shore.

Nine rough spur-marks appear from the center where once another bowl had been stacked upon this one, each packed within the belly of a kiln, burned and born from the fire. How many countless beings had been destroyed in the passage? How many more have been broken in the service to others? By uncaring hands?

I lift the first of three scoops of green tea from the open natsume and place it in the bowl’s open center. Two more follow it.

A small mound is made and broken by the sigil of my school.

The remaining dust is tapped off and whatever still clings to the tip of the chashaku is carried over to sit upon the lid of the tea container.

Cool water is drawn from the deep green interior of the mizusashi and poured into the steaming mouth of the chagama. The hiss of the boiling kettle quiets as warm water is drawn forth and placed into the chawan. Bright green tea powder lifts upwards, floating on the surface, slowly becoming saturated by the water, and sinks.

I lift the chasen and slowly press it into the center of the pool of tea. With one hand I stabilize the bowl and begin to whisk, at first slowly, speeding up until it is a quick back and forth movement. My eyes focus on the chawan, on the water lapping against the inner edges of the bowl, on the mixing of the tea and hot water, on the size of the bubbles forming as the concoction turns into foam.

The mind focuses. The hand motions slow. The breath becomes more even and calm. One long out-breath. One long weight pressing down upon the chest. Exhale. Inhale. The joy of breath. The sadness that comes when one realizes how vital this is to life. How often individuals are robbed of this breath. Of this very moment they were given.

I offer up the bowl of tea to my partner. A simple gesture. A bowl for peace. A bowl for change. As a wordless lament.

Bubbles rise again from the iron chagama as the last of the tea is had. Small pools of foam still clinging to the interior of the chawan. The warmth of the tea still present. The heat still radiating from the clay of the teabowl until it slowly leaves the body. The flavor lingers. The scent wafting sweet like the blossom on a honeysuckle vine.

I draw forth a ladle of cool water from the mizusashi and pour it down into the center of the bowl. The last of the tea swirling around. Small granules of 抹茶 matcha sinking and rolling down to the lowest part of the concave form. Light shimmers and bends in the water.

Memories of a moment pass and bend with time. Distortion and a great forgetting can occur if we don’t steal moments away like this. If we don’t actively take back the time that is so eagerly pulled away from us by work, by leaders, by taxes, by expectations. Each moment, priceless and fleeting. As mundane as today. As special as Spring turning into Summer. A kind of magic. Inexplicable.

I use the whisk and cleanse the bowl once more. I and my partner inspect the rough-hewn 高台 kōdai hoping to learn something profound.

I wipe the remnants of tea powder of the chashaku. I arrange the wares inside the bowl once again, though their exact placement differs now.

The wooden natsume is placed beside the teabowl, side-by-side like two old friends. They may only meet once this year. This early Summer.

I decide for a small 拝見 haiken. Words don’t pass my lips. The objects assembled are just that, objects. This practice called 茶の湯 chanoyu. This Way called “tea”.

This dust we whisk into a bright, light foam. Will this change the world? Will this moment do anything to change the tide?

A wave crashes against the shore. A tiny rivulet presses through the mountain’s rock.

A tree expands in size throughout the course of a year. Dried-up blossoms rotting in the gutter. Large leaves billowing in the wind.

A subtle change. A mighty force to be reckoned with.

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Saying Goodbye to the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cleanse the natsume. It sparkles like a jewel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All that remains are the dregs.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ryōkan-sa! Playful as a Child.

As April wanders onward at its casual pace, Spring’s glory continues to build into a bright, vibrant crescendo. Birdsong fills the air. Blossoms, big and small, cluster on tree tops and flowers push up through the rich soil. Rain clouds gather in bright blue skies, ready to quell any heat that might rise. Despite all that plagues the world today, I’ll find a moment’s joy in the brief and beautiful respite nature has to offer.

It is the second Sunday of the month and for much of the Western world, Easter is being celebrated; the resurrection mirrored in the resurgence of life at the apex of the season. I find my partner, a devout Catholic, listening to the Pope’s Easter mass as we walk through our quiet neighborhood.

As for me, a practitioner of tea, I find myself dipping into a book of poetry by 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) poet-priest 良寛大愚 Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831), looking for inspiration as I ready for a bowl of tea in observance of his death, traditionally memorialized on the second Sunday of April. Page after page of the few books I have on the eccentric Zen monk offer endless ideas.

Rather than get lost in the infinite possibilities, however, I make the ultimate nod to the humble man and opt to keep things simple. A plain wooden 平棗 hiranatsume, an irregularity shaped 鬼萩茶碗Oni-Hagi chawan, and a 木魚 mokugyo in the 床間 tokonoma.

As I sit to make a bowl of tea, I let it become a meditation on the practice of Ryōkan and the traces of his life he left with his poetry. Throughout his early life, Ryōkan traveled, leaving his hometown and his inherited post as the village headman in search of a Zen teacher and a life beyond the weight of the worldly. He travelled from temple to temple, studying the dharma, as well as poetry, both Classical Chinese and 和歌 waka. After learning of his father’s suicide in 1795, he returned to his hometown and began living in an empty hermitage. There, he would live out the rest of his life, writing poetry, deeming his practice in meditation, forgetting his responsibilities whilst playing with local children, and producing loose and beautiful calligraphy the likes of which the world had never seen.

Like myself, he was inspired by the poets of the past. In one poem, me proclaimed “In my hermitage a volume of Cold Mountain Poems — It is better than any sutra. I copy his verses and post them all around, Savoring each one, over and over.”

As I sit with the etched-out memories Ryōkan, my iron kettle coming to a boil and a natsume full of 抹茶 matcha, I begin to make a bowl of tea. With the sun climbing down the Western sky, I enjoy the quiet peace of the afternoon, the soft hiss of the kettle, the gentle space created by the infusing of sunlight with the scent of incense.

I produce my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa and begin to cleanse the bare wooden lid of the low-slung hiranatsume.

I then turn my attention to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku.

I lay the tea scoop across the top of the tea container, appreciating the natural patterns upon the surface of its skin.

The tiny bamboo sprout pushing up from the center of its 節 fushi. It reminds me of the story how once Ryōkan, upon seeing a small bamboo shoot growing up through the floorboards of his hermitage, attempted to burn a hole in the ceiling with a candle for the bamboo shoot to grow up and out, only to end up accidentally burning his hut to the ground.

I then begin the process of warming the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl. The light of the day beaming through the windows of my tearoom, collecting under the water and reflecting against the white interior of the chawan.

With all utensils ready, I peer down into the center of the bowl, noting it’s form. Noting the small cracks in the glaze.

Small pits that have formed over use and time.

I lift my chashaku and open the natsume. I dip the tip of the scoop into the low mound of powdered tea and pull out a small measure of matcha. A fluid arc, a direct movement, and I place the tea into the center of the teabowl.

I repeat this two more times and finish by drawing the sigil of my school into the pile of tea dust. A sign of a double cross. Perhaps the sign of a hidden Christian (隠れキリシタン Kakure Kirishitan).

I tap the excess matcha powder from the tip of the tea scoop and return the chashaku back atop the lid of the hiranatsume. The dark bamboo peeking through a light dusting of tea.

I focus my mind and draw water from the iron kettle, pouring half of the 柄杓 hishaku’s cup into the bowl. I focus again and begin to whisk the tea. For a moment, the sunshine, the lingering scent of incense, the warmth of the 茶釜 chagama seems so lovely. For a moment, my focused mind forgets itself, getting lost in the action.

Ryōkan would forget his walking stick whilst drinking 酒 sake, his wooden begging bowl whilst playing with the village children, his daily duties while sitting with friends.

I forget myself in this bowl of tea. A vast and tiny world inside its earthen walls. A bamboo scoop my wanderer’s pole. A low-slung caddy all the nourishment I need. A whisk to whip-up a bowl of tea, to sweep away the dust of the world.

I call my partner in from her studies to savor the first bowl of tea I’ve made and set it down beside me for her to pick it up.

She sits with me and we meditate briefly together in the light that filters through the window. For a moment we savor each other’s company and the minute break we’ve taken from our daily responsibilities.

She offers thanks and then I set to making a bowl for myself.

I drink the tea I’ve made heartily and set the bowl down to appreciate the pattern of the remaining dregs. The mundane nature of it reminding myself that this is all we are. Do not take myself so seriously. Ryōkan, himself an honored Buddhist monk, was often called “Ryōkan-sa” by the local children, an informal shortening of the honorific “san” following his name. This, too, reminds me to not take myself so seriously.

I cleanse the bowl with the cool water from my 水指 mizusashi. Together we admire the eccentric and irregular shape of the white OniHagi teabowl. The large dark voids on its surface where the glaze was kept at bay. The curious 切十文字高台 kirijumonjikōdai (“cross-cut foot”) form favored by by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.

Such a foot was purportedly favored by Kakure Kirishitans who practiced tea. I let this bowl of tea stand in for a number of things today.

For the eccentric nature of Ryōkan. For the resurrection of my partner’s god. For the crossroads we all find ourselves at during this beautiful and terrifying time.

I cleanse the bowl once more and set the utensils back to rest. The sunlight pouring over the teaware, over the large wooden board that stretches across my tearoom’s floor.

It eddies and collects in corners. Offset by shadows. A mokugyo in the tokonoma. Dewdrops on a lotus leaf.

Ryōkan once wrote “Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. When you know that my poems are not poems, then we can speak of poetry!”

As I close this sitting set to a bowl of matcha, I quip, “Who says my tea is tea? My tea is not tea. When you know that my tea is not tea, then we can speak of tea!”

****

For more information on Ryōkan Taigu and a selection of translated poems by him, I recommend Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, translation by John Steven (Shambala Centaur Editions, 1996) and Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, translated with essays by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel (University of Hawaii Press, 1996).

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Tea for the Dead. Tea for the Living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I warm the whisk and wipe the bowl.

It’s surface sparkles back, dark, black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crossing the Divide of Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wooden 木魚 mokugyo.

A copper bell and book of Zen chants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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