How does one capture the fleeting essence of a moment? How can words sum-up the feeling of an Autumn’s breeze or the surprise of a falling leaf? How can one connect to a world that seems to grow ever more distant each day?
As a practitioner of tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, and others), I grapple with this regularly. In my practice, whether it is the mindful selecting of teawares, tending to my guests, or the silent contemplation of the seasons, my own inability to capture with words the qualities of a moment is both a challenge and a meditation. During this last weekend, I had the opportunity to engage with this as I organized an informal and solitary tea outing in observation of 芭蕉忌 Bashō-ki.
As a memorial day for the 17th century haiku poet 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), I was reminded of his terse and oftentimes frank poetry that sought to humble the reader through describing small vignettes of natural, unfettered everyday occurrences. Using poetry as a means to communicate this, Bashō never sought to elevate a moment through flowery words or diversion. His world, existing on the edge of society and often caught in a melancholic state, summed up, with seventeen syllables alone, the dirt and the dead, the evanescence of Spring’s bright flowers and Autumn’s falling leaves. Always there was change and, always, was the ego in the state of exposing itself.
As I set forth from my apartment to settle underneath a stone arch and maple tree on a brisk mid-October’s day, I brought with me as much and as little as I could hold in my small woven grass tea basket. Limited by the size of the basket, I chose to look upon this moment in the same way Bashō might have composed a haiku. Five-seven-five. The confines of a haiku. Within this can exist an entire universe. Thus, this small box, placed upon the broad expanse of a brocaded cloth, was itself a tiny and infinite universe.
Opened, I looked upon a world of opportunities. A fine 茶杓 chashaku, a deep purple 袱紗 fukusa, an antique ink brush washing pot that will double as a 振出 furidashi, a travel 茶筅 chasen contained in a bamboo tube.
Removing these reveals even more layers. As I unwrap each object, a scene unfolds.
A cloth emblazoned with red and white 紅葉 momiji conceals a hidden jewel.
An old lacquer 棗 natsume with a simple 壺 tsubo motif.
A small dark red 茶碗 chawan.
A monk’s old wooden eating bowl.
In the shifting breezes of the daytime, I began to arrange the objects in front of me. Tea container and tea whisk. Chasen and chawan. Each were purified before I began to make tea.
As I moved through these wordless motions, a passerby walked by and I invited them to join me. Curious, they asked about the unusual furidashi. Upon describing its use and origin, I removed its lid and tapped-out three red 枸杞 góuqǐ (goji berries) onto a curled maple leaf.
As they enjoyed the dried fruit, I began to make them a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Lifting three scoops of 抹茶 matcha powder from the natsume, I became highly aware of the shifting winds. Small flecks of matcha powder blew off each tiny mound I placed into the center of the bowl.
Resting the small bamboo chasen atop the small hill of tea, I then poured a thin stream of hot water from my thermos into the teabowl.
The soft scent of Fall leaves mingled with the bright aroma of tea. As I whisked the tea, leaves continued to blow around both me and my guest. Gusts of wind moved a collection of idle leaves around the brocaded tea cloth, floating and spinning as if caught in a dance.
As they settled I lifted the whisk from the teabowl and for a moment we enjoyed the silent vignette of a bowl of tea and fallen leaves. How these told us of the changing season. How this moment spoke volumes. How a tiny bowl of tea captured a wordless dialogue between host and guest.
In both the practice of tea and in the works of Bashō, one is offered the opportunity to merge with the natural world and to forget the self. The leaves. The trees. The sound of water collecting in the wooden 建水 kensui. The feeling of wind fluttering against one’s sleeves. With nothing elaborate present, the mind has nothing to cling to. Straight-forward words. A humble bowl of tea. We can read into each a freedom that is gained when we unhinge ourselves from our egoic mind, accepting things as they truly are. In Japanese, this may be called 無我 muga, an act of self-renunciation.
In this moment, on this brisk mid-October day, two minds connect, tea is shared, and something unspoken is understood. The less said, the better.