Tag Archives: Porcelain

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

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

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

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

4 Comments

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

Clear and Bright

Looking out my tearoom window, the sky is clear and bright. Peering down upon my wooden tea table, the light casts long shadows. All around me, the world faces sickness and death. All around me, Spring is in full bloom.

On April 4th this year is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié, a day when families in China traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors and the day when green tea picking begins in earnest. While the world has been forced to adjust to the impact of a broad-sweeping pandemic, the traditional, as well as natural cycles still continue.

I offer incense in respect to the dead. I pour cool fresh water into my kettle and set it to boil. I bring together a vintage white porcelain 潮州茶盤 Cháozhōu chápán, 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, and four 品茗杯 pǐn mìng bēi.

The white porcelain is intended to enable the tea drinker to enjoy the unaltered color of the tea liqueur. Alas, in East Asia, white is often seen as the color of death and mourning. The four cups, too, infer this as the number four (四 ) in the Chinese language is a homonym for the word “death” (死 ).

This set up is not typical for me. Rarely do I use four cups. Rarely do I invite the notion of death to my tea table. Yet, it seems fitting. The world is in the grip of death, now seemingly more than ever. However, today is clear and bright. Both forces happening at the same time, not in opposition.

For tea, I bring forth a small handful of 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn. Made up of uniformly curled small leaf buds, this tea was harvested in March of 2019, a week prior to that year’s Qīngmíng festival. Picked this early means that the weather in the mountains surrounding 太湖 Tài Hú in southern 江蘇 Jiāngsū will still be cold.

The young tea buds will still be covered in a coating of silvery hairs (白毫 bái háo). If picked and processed correctly, the resulting flavor of this 清明前 Qīngmíng qián (pre-Qīngmíng) tea will be sweet, complex, and brighter than teas picked later in the year.

Now over a year old, I expect this tea to be a shadow of itself. However, in light of the current state of the world, it will be a taste of life before all of this happened. What will it taste like?

With the water boiled, I rinse the wares, warming them in preparation for making tea. Leaving the lid of the kettle open to allow it to cool down in order to properly brew this delicate tea, I wait and let the heat dissipate. As I wait, I open the window to my tearoom. The sound of birds. Breeze pushing the steam from the mouth of the kettle.

As the water cools, I begin to place the tiny tea leaves into the center of the warmed gàiwǎn, using a thin twig from a willow tree to arrange them evenly along the bottom of the porcelain vessel.

Slowly I pour water along the inner edge of gàiwǎn so as not to directly touch the heap of tea, ensuring that it is able to cool slightly before coming in contact with the tea leaves. The tiny curls of Bì Luó Chūn lift upwards, buoyant for a moment as the water rises in the gàiwǎn.

As I finish pouring water from my kettle, the leaves slowly begin to cascade downwards, spinning and setting at the bottom of the porcelain vessel, occasionally rising and falling again. I leave the lid of the gàiwǎn off and watch this dance play out, admiring how the tiny buds writhe and open, releasing their pale green pigment into the warm water.

A few seconds later and I carefully place the lid atop the gàiwǎn and tilt the cup, pouring its contents from one cup to the next until all are full. I give the gàiwǎn a quick shake and return it back down upon the ceramic surface of the Cháozhōu chápán.

I lift the lid and let the leaves cool. As I place the lid down atop a jade archer’s thumb ring, I marvel in two tiny sprouts that have affixed themselves to the bottom of the lid. Two tiny artifacts from the previous year. Remnants of an early Spring. How much the world has changed since then. How much still remains the same.

I call for my partner to break from her weekend work and join me for cups of tea. The flavor is still vibrant, grassy, intoxicating. Having been stored away for a year, time has not had a dramatic effect on the tiny leaves.

The color of the tea liqueur is bright and clear. A pale green gold against the clean white porcelain. The aroma is sweet like the flowering fruit trees of Spring.

As we finish the first steeping, I continue to brew a second and third.

The leaves open further, unfurling and expanding, offering up a golden hue and lasting flavor.

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

All that is left by the last brew are spent leaves and a fond memory.

As late morning turns to midday, the sun climbs high in the sky, the shadows shorten, the sky becomes clear and bright.

Birdsong beams through canyons of brick and concrete. Breezes bush through blossoms and trees. The scent of tea mingles with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers. Another stick of incense is lit in memory of the dead.

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Incense, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

****

If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

2 Comments

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

In Morning When the Lotus Bloom

With mid-July comes 小暑 shōsho (“minor heat”), the week’s that precede the hottest part of Summer. Even so, the heat of the day is hard to bear, leaving tea people to want to gather in the early morning.

In the dim light of dawn, a sense of coolness pervades, the muted colors and dark pools of shadow paring down the environment to its essentials. In the tearoom, this continues, with only the bare minimum used. A teabowl, a bamboo 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk), a well bucket containing cool water.

On this morning, as a light rain aids in keeping down the heat, I bring into the tearoom a small porcelain tea container from the 景德鎮 Jǐngdézhèn kiln, upon which blossoming lotus flowers have been painted in a deep cobalt blue. For my guest, this becomes a subtle nod that in July lotus viewing tea gatherings (蓮見の茶 hasu-mi no cha) are held in the early morning, right at the moment the floating aquatic flowers begin to bloom.

Holding it in my hand, I purify the porcelain container, the soft silk of the 仕服 shifuku gliding off its smooth surface.

Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku.

I take pause, to let myself and the guest appreciate the bamboo of the teascoop, its skin dappled with tiny spots which resemble light rain.

Finally, I cleanse the teabowl, an antique 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan, the color of which is similar to the light blush pink of a lotus bud.

Placing the first scoop of tea into the teabowl feels like entering into a dark cavern; the dawn producing voluminous swaths of glowing light and soft shadows.

Whisking the tea into a foam, I can’t help but to peer down into the teabowl, appreciating the low peaks and minute textures that give rise.

Finished and ready for my guest, we sit to enjoy the glowing presence of the 抹茶 matcha, itself, like a blossoming lotus, fragrant and electric.

Quietly enjoyed, the teabowl is returned to be cleansed once again, a thin residue of tea foam still clinging to its interior.

Concluding the tea gathering becomes its own meditation. The sound of the 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle), the light patter of rain, the shifting of silk over the chashaku once more.

A final appreciation of the teaware and the light of the day begins to creep through the screen of 簾 sudare (woven blinds made of reeds).

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Two Magpies

This week saw the coming and going of the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. Throughout East Asia, this day is celebrated, each culture with its own observation. In China, 7/7 marks 七夕 Qīxī (“Evening of Sevens”, Tanabata in Japanese, Chilseok in Korean).

In the ancient mythology that describes this day, lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) were not allowed to love one another. Banished to the opposite sides of the 天河 Tiānhé (“Heavenly River”, the Milky Way), they were only allowed to join on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is said that on this day a bridge made from a flock of magpies would span across the Heavenly River, allowing the two lovers to meet.

In Chinese symbolism, the magpie is believed to be the bringer of joy. The word of magpie, 喜鵲 xǐquè, contains the word “joy” (喜 ). In Chinese art, when two magpies are seen together, they are supposed to represent “double happiness”, a wish for eternal happiness between lovers.

On 7/7, while I spent the morning preparing a bowl of 抹茶 matcha in observance of Tanabata, I spent the remainder of the day enjoying steeped tea in observation of Qīxī. As this day is sometimes called “Chinese Valentines Day”, I opted to use a pair of antique celadon 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (lidded tea cups), each of which were decorated with images of two magpies.

Made during the late 清 Qīng to early Republican (中華民國 Zhōnghuá mínguó) period (1880s-1920s), the two gàiwǎn, like the magpies painted upon them, had been kept together. Originally the two tea vessels would have probably have been given to a married couple, the image of the two magpies acting as a visual wish for perpetual happiness. Used on Qīxī, the two gàiwǎn reunited again, across space and time, to make tea together.

Recently arrived from China, I place the thin, wiry leaves of a 杏仁香鳳凰單欉 Xìngrén xiāng fènghuáng dān cóng (“almond fragrance phoenix single grove”) carefully into the two tea vessels.

Entering into the empty and warmed gàiwǎn, this lets off a subtle hint of the flavor the oolong tea has to offer.

Finally, with the water used from the morning’s tea gathering, I begin the quiet process of brewing tea. The pale color of tea liqueur begins to steep-out from the unfurling tea leaves. The soft green-blue color of celadon darkening as the tea continues to brew.

Placing the painted lid atop each cup, I let the tea sit and strengthen. Time passes, the silence of the interim pause offering a moment to reflect on the meaning of love. Who had enjoyed these cups together before? How long was their happiness shared? A lifetime of love one can only wish for. Perpetual happiness.

I tilt back the lid of one of the gàiwǎn to reveal the deepening color of tea. Slowly I sip from my cup, and offer the other to my partner.

Once emptied of their liquid, the tea sits ready again, all that remains is the fleeting, quiet flavor of crisp, bitter almonds, soft on the palate.

As it often does, one cup becomes two, two becomes three, and countless cups come from this wedded pair. Cups that bring joy. Two magpies joining each other over time and space. On this, the seventh day of the seventh month.

****

To note (for all you who know your traditional Chinese lunar calendar), the date which 七夕 Qīxī falls on changes every year. In 2019, it falls on August 7th. That said, stay tuned for when tea is made on this day… More to come!

Leave a comment

Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Meditation, Oolong, Tea

Facets of the same spirit. Interdependence.

In the tradition of my California-based Japanese Sōtō Zen lineage, July 4th is celebrated as “Interdependence Day”. As a coy musing on the American national holiday, Interdependence Day takes into account the inter-connectedness of all beings, of time and space. It honors the interplay of individuals, the connections we forge and have yet to forge. It recognizes that no one person is an island, and that we are all part of a larger whole. As 洞山良价 Dòngshān Liángjiè (807–869), a famous Zen master, said,

“The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain.”

There is a source and a product of the source. Each depend on each other, without being dependent on each other.

As a practitioner of tea, I see this natural tendency everywhere. Tea, the plant (Camellia sinensis), has its origins somewhere along the edges of modern-day Yunnan, Myanmar, Laos and Nepal. Chinese tea culture has its origins in these otherwise “foreign” cultures. Similarly, Korean and Japanese tea culture borrows heavily from Chinese tea culture(s) from various points in time. What you see (and taste) today is the result of centuries of cultural interplay. Each depend on one another without being wholly dependent on one another.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), the act of making tea calls upon a multi-faceted history. Chinese methods of preparing tea from the 唐 Táng, 宋 Sòng, 元 Yuán, and 明 Míng periods (618-1644) all have had their influence on the development of Japanese tea ceremony from the 15th to 17th century. From the teaware to the manner of use and even the psychology of the tea ceremony have been marked by a “foreign” culture (as well as many other “foreign” cultures).

Similarly, too, chanoyu has been influenced by other arts. 香道 kōdō (xiāngdào in Mandarin; lit. “Way of incense”), an art that originally has its roots in ancient Buddhist and pre-Buddhist incense ceremonies of India, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan, has had an immense influence on tea. From the way incense and incense utensils are used, held, cleansed, and shared, each were eventually echoed in the tea ceremony. Even the mentality of kōdō, which attunes the host and guests’ mind to the singularity of a moment, is present in tea. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the two arts, one will find how influential early incense practitioners such as 志野宗信 Shino Sōshin (1444–1523) were to the bourgeoning art and practiced chanoyu.

On this Interdependence Day, I can’t help but to bring together these arts. Normally I burn incense prior to sitting for tea. This is commonly done before the guests come for tea as the aroma of incense should typically not compete with the flavor of tea. However, today I opt to enjoy both together. Setting a piece of glowing charcoal into a small 楽 Raku family 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), I place a thin leaf of mica and fine sliver of 沈香 jinkō (aloeswood) atop the shaped mound of warm ash. Placed within an antique wooden タバコ盆 tabako-bon (“tobacco tray”), I take a moment to pause and appreciate the quiet aroma of the rare incense wood.

Next, I set out my tea equipage: a modern 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) made by Nara-based artisan 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango. These I set within a Song period 青白 qīngbái “green-white” porcelain 茶碗 chawan (teabowl).

For a tea container, I use a 備前焼 Bizen-yaki 香合 kōgō made by my dear tea friend Nessim. Purifying each, I am reminded of how similar the action is to cleansing the incense wares. A 袱紗 fukusa (silk cloth for purifying objects) is used for both incense and tea. The chashaku is cleansed as if it were a silver incense implement.

The bowl is warmed and set before me as if it were a cleansed incense cup.

Three scoops of tea are placed into the center of the teabowl, as if I were issuing-out a small heap of 抹香 makkō (“powdered incense”) into an incense burner.

The tea is whisked and the aroma is instantly evident, growing stronger as it lifts upward from the small, shallow Summer bowl.

Set side-by-side, I appreciate the delicate scent of aloeswood with the bright fragrance of tea. Lifting the bowl to my lips, both tea and incense are enjoyed. The silky foam of 抹茶 matcha (“powdered tea”) and the warm resin of rare wood.

With the tea finished, I take a moment to view the final dregs clinging to the jade-like ancient porcelain.

Cleansing the implements one last time, I savor the lingering flavors and intermingling of spirits. Of cultures. Of flavors. Of host and guests.

When we share in a bowl of tea, we also celebrate this. With this bowl of tea I give to you, I humble myself. By accepting the bowl of tea, you reflect and respect the effort and attention that I put into preparing the bowl of tea. The feeling is different yet mutual, and ultimately in unison. When I look across the table, I see a buddha.

Happy Interdependence Day.

Leave a comment

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

A Mirror Onto Tea

I recently received a package from a farmer in Fujian, China. Filled with individually-wrapped samples of various 岩茶 yánchá (“cliff tea”) from the ancient tea producing region of Wuyishan. Wanting to test each tea and assess their flavors without distraction, I set about creating a minimal tea space in the center of my brightly-lit apartment in New York City.

In the clear, bright light of the mid-Summer’s day, I could easily discern the various qualities of each teas’ leaves. Opting to do a “focused tasting”, where I would methodically work through teas based on variety, I decided to first test several 肉桂 Ròuguì (lit. “cinnamon”, referring to the characteristic flavor of the tea).

Opening up the first package of tea, I carefully set the long, twisted leaves atop an old 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) tea scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. In the bright light of the day, I could instantly note aspects of the tea’s overall health, care taken during production, oxidation level, and degree of subsequent final roasting done by the tea master in Wuyishan. Pockets of red intermixed with darker shades hinted at mid-level roasting, one meant to preserve complexity of the tea’s original flavor, supported by layers of roasted flavors.

Placed within a warm and wetted white porcelain 蓋碗 gàiwǎn (“lidded bowl”), the rich aroma of the tea began to lift upward, foreshadowing flavors to come.

As the mid-afternoon began, I sat before my tools for tasting: the white gàiwǎn, a matching white porcelain 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán (lit. “Chaozhou tea boat”) and white porcelain tasting cup. These, plus a kettle of boiling water, were all I needed to assess the qualities this tea had to offer.

Pouring the first round of hot water over the leaves, a light foam arose from the coiled bundle of tea that sat submerged in the tiny porcelain vessel. From this, I could determine how oily the tea would be (something I often look for in a high quality yánchá).

Placing the lid atop the gàiwǎn, I waited for the tea to steep, using the small space between the lid and the bowl to see the color of the tea liqueur darken with time.

Once ready, I fully decanted the tea, letting the now unfurled leaves rest in the gàiwǎn for the next brew, an opportunity for me to further investigate their physical attributes.

Finally, tea in cup, I admired its color; a deep reddish brown, akin to a burnt umber. Next, lifting the cup to my nose, I assessed it fragrance. Sweet aromas of chestnut and spices intermingled with notes of peppercorn, roasted barley, and the haunting scent of incense.

Lastly, I sipped the tea, slurping as I aerated the tea liqueur across my soft palete to enhance my ability to taste the tea’s flavor. Layers upon layers of spice notes, cacao, wet limestone, bittersweet chocolate, caramelized sugar, and cinnamon bark flooded my senses. Even after the tea had been fully consumed, the flavor lingered on.

Breathing out again produced a residual sensation, a cool, slick finish and the characteristic 岩韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”). This, classically, is defined through five distinctive points found in all great yánchá of Wuyishan: 活 huó (liveliness), 甘 gān (sweetness), 清 qīng (clarity, pertaining to the liqueur and taste), 香 xiāng (fragrance), and 岩骨 yángǔ (lit. “rock bones”, as if the tea has substance or the heartiness of eating meat).

Not content with drinking just the first steeping, I continued long through the remainder of the afternoon brewing cup after cup of this tea. Even as the day wore on and my partner returned home from work, I invited her to join in on the appreciation of this fine tea. Brewed in a simple white porcelain gàiwǎn, enjoyed with small white porcelain cups, each acted as a mirror upon tea, reflecting back to us the complex and shifting flavors of this superb Ròuguì yánchá in the bright light of the mid-Summer’s day.

****

If you would like to learn more about Wuyishan’s many varieties of classically-crafted yánchá by experiences them directly, I hope to soon offer some of my favorites through connections I’ve collected throughout my years in tea. If you are interested to learn more, and perhaps would like to purchase some of these select teas, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Additionally, I cannot help but to give credit where credit is due to Austin Hodge of Seven Cups Tea. His eloquent definition of 岩韻 yányùn, as well as his detailed information about yánchá was a great help to my developing of this article. You can find his full write up on yánchá here on his website.

Leave a comment

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

The Sun Hangs Highest in the Sky

As the year progresses, the subtle changes of the seasons mark the many “gateless gates” we pass through. While often too minute to notice from day-to-day, nature offers us clues. In Fall, the world becomes radiant in the final brilliant colors of trees and grasses. In Winter, colors mute, the soil hardens, the air becomes crisp, the plum blossom blooms. Spring marks the slow reemergence of life from its frozen dormancy. And in Summer, the world is fully awake, bursting with life.

As the sun hangs highest overhead today, marking the Summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, I find myself sitting in my tearoom, enjoying the vibrancy of the day outside. This activity is also felt internally, as I feel full of energy and excitement, having just received a collection of tea samples from a tea farmer based in Wuyishan, China. The small, individually-wrapped packets, each contain a different tea, a veritable treasure trove of flavors, each expressing the slight effects the shifting of one season to the next has on the tea plant.

Today, celebrating the solstice, I opt for a coppery 肉桂 Ròuguì, the name of which literally translates to “cinnamon”. While I will be brewing the tea hot, the effects of drinking it at the peak of Summer will be slightly cooling.

This desire to evoke a sense of “coolness” is revealed in my choice of teaware. An antique porcelain 宝瓶 hōhin (handless teapot) with a touch of 金継ぎ kintsugi (gold lacquer repair). To measure-out the tea leaves, I select an antique 白铜 báitóng (“white copper”) scoop in the shape of a banana leaf. To serve, I select a set of four blue-and-white cups from 景德镇 Jǐngdézhèn, each of which containing a vista reflective of a season. Spring and Summer.

Fall and Winter.

Warming each ceramic vessel, the water brings out their clean, porcelain sheen.

Placing the tea leaves atop the báitóng leaf, I admire their uniformity and the rich color they contain.

Placed into the warm hōhin, the twisted leaves release a soft, complex flavor. Notes of spices and cacao fill the air.

Pouring hot water over the leaves only intensifies the aroma.

Once fully steeped, I slowly issue-out the amber liqueur into each cup. Enjoying the deep color, matched with the swirling, nuanced fragrance of tea brings pause to my busy day and a cool calm to the heat of Summer.

Silently sipping in my tearoom, I enjoy the unfurling flavors of cinnamon, cloves, wet limestone and black walnut. Subtle, gentle, like the shifting of the seasons. On this, the longest day of the year.

Leave a comment

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

Spears of iris flowers. A ladle for an arrow. A teabowl as a jewel.

In the traditional Japanese calendar, 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”). On this day, items are on display to encourage the strength and success of children (traditionally boys): warrior helmets and suits of armor, swords, spears and arrows, and other, more playful items like paper balls and colorful spinning tops. Brightly colored fabric windsocks in the shape of carp (鯉のぼり koinobori) are unfurled and lifted high above the homes whose families have children, and leaves of 菖蒲 shōbu (sweet-flag) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort) are hung under the eves. A strong mixture of the martial and of the more shamanistic, folk medicine cultures of Japan (and, more broadly speaking, East Asia) are put on prominent display as it was believed that to show such items would help young boys become great warriors and help them persevere during the hotter months when plague and ailments might take them.

On this day, these elements pervade Japanese tea culture as well. In the tearoom, allusions (both direct and indirect) are made to masculine aspects of Japan’s warrior culture, as too are elements of childhood.

Given that 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony) was deeply influenced by the warrior class of feudal Japan, these elements should come as no surprise. While I don’t consider myself to be so 武士 bushi (warrior), I can’t help but to appreciate the elegant and mindful forms such warrior-tea people developed and incorporated into their own tea practice as they sought peaceful respite from a life of violence.

On this day, I decide to inaugurate a new 茶碗 chawan (teabowl), a small contemporary piece by Sapporo-born, Chiba prefecture-based ceramicist 二階堂 明弘 Nikaido Akihiro.

For a tea container, I use a simple, unadorned wooden 平棗 hira-natsume (“flat” tea caddy).

Set with the teabowl is a new 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) and an antique 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop).

As I sit to greet my guest, I set the 柄杓 hishaku (bamboo ladle) atop an antique 染め付け sometsuke (blue-and-white porcelain) 蓋置き futaoki (lid rest),.

It is adorned with precious symbols to encourage wealth, wisdom and strength.

Purifying each item, I eventually wet the new chawan, warming it and letting the water run out from it. Setting it before me, I notice how water both absorbs into and evaporated from its surface, a byproduct of the artist’s unique process of lacquering and firing his ceramics. The result is a deep, shimmering purple, akin the the color of iris buds used during Boys’ Day celebrations, their sharp points representing spears.

As I lift the chashaku, I admire the natural pattern upon its surface. Pausing for a moment, I can’t help but to imagine the image of a high mountain pass, with a long, wispy waterfall cutting through it. Here, too, is an allusion to the myth of a carp pushing up a waterfall in search of a magical pearl only to become a mighty dragon in the process, a story often told to children as they push forward in life to attain success.

Offering my guests fresh 柏餅 kashiwa-mochi (sweet rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves), I begin to prepare a bowl of 抹茶matcha.

Three scoops of bright green tea powder sit in the center of the new teabowl, ready for its first taste of tea. Lifting the hishaku as if I were notching an arrow to a bow, I draw water from my iron 茶釜 chagama (spoutless tea kettle) and pour half a ladle’s-worth of water within the bowl.

Whisking the tea lightly, a fine foam is produced. Returning the chashaku to sit atop the lid of the hira-natsume, I pause before I offer-up a bowl of tea.

As this is the first time to use this new tea bowl, I place a silk brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (a cloth square used to handle and protect teaware) below the chawan. Against this field of richly-colored silk, the new bowl and matcha seem to glow, jewel-like.

Whole-heartedly enjoyed, I cleanse the bowl and allow a final moment to enjoy the unique qualities of this chawan. In one’s hands, the bowl feels feather-light. Peering into its open void, the interior appears both dark and boundless, iridescent even in low light.

Set down, the exterior, with evidence of the artist’s hand, layers of lacquer, and marks of the kiln’s high heat, tells the story of its creation.

At this moment, I cannot help but to meditate on tea’s tumultuous past. An art marked by a meditative mindfulness, yet often born from the minds of those who were forced by their birthright to fight in bloody combat. How they sought refuge in this art. How they made it a counterpoint to a life of violence. The martial elements that permeates Boys’ Day perhaps hint at this, but, as one sits to prepare a bowl of tea, to live a life of tea, one exchanges a spear for an iris, an arrow for a ladle, and material gain for a simple teabowl.

2 Comments

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

Remembering the Blossoms of Spring

Time has a funny way of playing tricks on you. A year can come and go in a blink of an eye. A lifetime can pass and yet we are reminded constantly of our youthful days. And even when you have taken years to master a craft, in an instant you can be brought back to the mind of a novice.

Tea can be this way too. Constantly changing, all the while one’s expectations somehow remaining fixed. As the great equalizer, tea and time has the ability to humble even the most rigorous of practitioner. This is a recollection of such a moment I recently had.

Last month I met with respected Taiwan-based tea blogger and practitioner of gong fu cha, Stéphane Erler. Having begun his blog “Tea Masters” in the early 2000s, his writing and practice has always been inspiring to me. Finally having the opportunity to meet with him, I was excited to sit and learn directly from him.

Meeting at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, we decided to sit beside the window and enjoy several pots of tea. Upon sitting down, Stéphane produced a collection of porcelain cups and a gold-plated silver teapot. Stéphane then unrolled a handmade 茶布 chábù (tea cloth) and began to arrange his equipage atop it. He explained that the cloth and selection of tea and teapots was part of a philosophical approach to brewing tea harmoniously.

Where 功夫茶 gōng fū chá may be primarily utilitarian in its approach, 茶席 cháxí (roughly translates as “tea performance”) suffuses this functional approach with an overall attention to harmony. The result is practice that is both elegant and melodic, with tea and teaware fitting into an overall cadence and rhythm attune to season, breath, and the emotional interplay of host and guest.

Opting to first brew one of Floating Mountain’s teas, we selected a 2018 信陽毛尖 Xìnyáng Máojiān (Xinyang “hairy tip”). Produced in late Spring in China’s colder Henan province, the tea leaves are thin, dark and wiry, having the appearance of pine needles. Set against the bright green and pink field of Stéphane’s chábù, tea and teaware were already bringing to life the harmony Stéphane was hoping to achieve.

Additionally, Stéphane began to further adapt his presentation to the location, employing one of Floating Mountain’s signature stone slab 茶盤 chápán (“tea tray”) into his setup.

For a brief moment we sat and enjoyed the silence before tea.

Once the water came to a boil, Stéphane began the process of warming teapot and cups.

Mindfully, he transferred the hot water from the silver teapot to the porcelain teacups.

Next, using the boiling water, Stéphane began to brew the Máojiān. Initially surprised by his choice, I was delighted to learn that both Stéphane and I shared this approach, utilizing high heat to unlock flavors of even the most delicate of teas, modulating only tea amount and brew time.

In the span of only a few breaths, the tea was steeped and decanted, producing a bright golden hue.

Set atop the wide field of pink and embroidered flowers, the feeling was fresh and serene. The result of this dramatic approach was a sweet, clean flavor that awoke a tea now a year old.

As the first of many teas we had this day, we enjoyed this opening overture together, recalling our first introduction to tea and how we have practiced this art over the decades. For this moment I felt humbled. A new friend. A new approach. Years peeling off of me as my mind returned to those early days of reading Stéphane’s blog, reminded of my “beginner’s mind”.

The tea, too, now a year old, seemed like part of a memory. A year gone by and flavor remaining despite the time that had passed. And now, reflecting on this moment almost a month since it had occurred, how the memory sweetens, softens at its edges, until it, too, will fade. A flavor wafting from a cup. An impression on the mind. A field of flowers remembered in a woven fabric.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Green Tea, Tea, Tea Tasting