Tag Archives: Raku

Sitting with Discomfort

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.

In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one. 

But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.

Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture. 

But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large. 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable. 

As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.

While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?

While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.

When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture. 

As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.

This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.

This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm. 

In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?

Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.

Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?

In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice. 

She states:

Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.

If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.

Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.

I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253): 

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.

To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy. 

What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.

New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.

In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.

In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.

In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.

As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamono temae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.

Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles. 

The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).

The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.

Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.

While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?

 

****

 

Additional Readings & Resources

As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.

 

1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.

2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.

3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.

4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.

5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.

6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.

7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.

8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.

9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.

10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.

 

Writers & Authors

Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson

 

Articles & Online Resources

Anti-Racism Resource Collection

http://www.resourcesharingproject.org/anti-racism-resource-collection

 

White People 4 Black Lives

https://www.awarela.org/white-people-4-black-lives

 

“A Toolkit for White People” – Black Lives Matter

https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Toolkit-WhitePpl-Trayvon.pdf

 

“Anti-racism Resources to Become a Better Ally” – JDSUPRA

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/anti-racism-resources-to-become-a-36289/

 

Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/antiracist_resources_from_greater_good

 

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

No Mind. No Tea.

For the past few months, as I’ve been forced by the current pandemic to remain inside, more and more I’ve found myself practicing 茶の湯 chanoyu. Whereas prior to the “shelter in place” ordinance I was seriously practicing maybe once or twice weekly, I now find myself practicing once or twice daily. Where mornings were once languid awakenings, they are now purposeful and full of activity, in preparation for setting the kettle and arranging the 茶道具 chadōgu. My afternoons used to be a long and arduous push to the end of the day. They’ve since been transformed into a glorious close as I sit by my tearoom window, accompanied by the mellow hiss of my iron 茶釜 chagama and the setting sun.

Not only has this change in my practice’s frequency shifted my daily routine, it has also had a palpable impact on my body and mind. Recently, I sat with my tea teacher, who, over our more regular virtual tea teachings, noted that I had begun to exude 無心 mushin (wúxīn in Mandarin). When I asked what he had meant by this, he said “no mind”, stating that my actions seemed less hesitant, more continuous, more focused. Actions seemed more fluid and the space between actions more expansive.

Being a practitioner of 弓道 kyūdō as well as tea, he made the analogy of how when an archer releases the arrow, they remain in stance, expanding their gaze across the range, following their action with an equally mindful non-action. In short, as they prepare to shoot the arrow, they empty their mind of attachment. As they release the arrow, they maintain this state of non-attachment. In that moment of focus and release, there are no more rules, no more structure, just action. When they let go of the arrow, the let go of any expectations. As they release the arrow and watch it fly towards the target, they release their mind of the desire, of the mental grasping that wants it to hit the target. They just release. The arrow just flies.

As I continued my practice throughout the week, I meditated on this notion. In a sense, I did not know what my teacher meant, but I could feel it. My practice had become stronger, more sure. Without questioning my practice, I could finally trust it. I had practiced the forms, I knew the forms, and now, fully knowing, I could forget the forms.

I found myself preparing for a morning’s practice with what my teacher said still on my mind. Funny enough, it struck me just as I was in the process of filling a small 文琳茶入 “bunrinchaire with tea.

“No mind”. What did this really mean? I knew the definition. I could read this in a book or hear this from an expert. However, in practice, meaning often evades logical description, instead, it appears in the practice itself. Elusive and fleeting, yet spontaneous and ever-present. As I peered into the empty ceramic tea container, I continued to think about this.

Next, I pulled out a wooden box, the contents of which was a 黒楽茶碗 kuroRaku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

This I would be using for my morning practice.

As I began to untie the 桐箱 kiribako, loosening its cord and lifting the lid to reveal the wrapped bowl within, I kept thinking about this notion.

“No mind”.

Unveiled, the bowl looked up at me. Empty. Receptive.

What makes a teabowl a teabowl? Is it the clay? The glaze?

The foot?

The form?

Or is it the emptiness that it contains? The space? The opportunity for tea?

I set the chaire and bowl together.

The space between them became the space of action and inaction. As I breathed between motions, an outward breath for my outward motion, my inward breath to bring objects towards me, I found my body and mind joining into one constant action.

As I pull open the silken cord of the chaire, I loosen the knot and peel the 仕服 shifuku off of its clay body. I fold the 袱紗 fukusa and lightly touch the rounded shoulders of the chaire. I lift the lid and look inside.

From chaire to 茶杓 chashaku, from whisk to bowl.

Each motion arises, exists, fades and ends, but never stops. Instead, there is a constant motion.

Waves rising and crashing and returning out to sea, to churn back upon the shore again. The body follows this. The mind follows this. The division between the two fades.

As I scoop tea from the chaire and place it into the center of the black chawan, I am reminded that just moments before I was placing this tea into the container which I am now drawing it from. As I place the chashaku down upon the rim of the teabowl and tilt the chaire to pour the remaining tea powder into the bowl, I let the tea fall out freely. I am not worried that it will not fall out or that it will. I just let it do what I know it will do.

As I bring the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku over the gaping mouth of the teabowl, I tilt it slightly, letting free only a small measure of hot water, which mixes with the heap of 抹茶 matcha, producing a vibrant gasp of green tea aroma. For a moment, I watch the water mix with the tea, the mound of bright powder slowly sinking. Whereas before I may have worried whether I had added too much or too little hot water, after so many years of practice I no longer worry. I know it will be just enough.

I lift the 茶筅 chasen and begin the methodical act of kneading the tea and water into a thick paste in order to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. In the process, I cannot go too fast nor too slow. The motion, now, feels fluid; unencumbered. The tea and water shifts from two distinct states to one united form. The new concoction clings to the thin tines of the chasen. A forest of uniformly-spaced trees with moss of deep green climbing up their trunks. I add more hot water to this, letting it pour through the whisk’s blades of cut bamboo, thinning the liquid out just enough so that it can be consumed.

Once complete, I allow for a brief moment to pass, to appreciate the bowl, the tea, the cavernous space it creates and the shadows that obscure the line between black glaze and the dark green of the tea.

I pull back and appreciate the objects as they are arranged.

Years of practice inform their placement. No thinking is required at this point.

No judgement or questioning of whether they are correct or not. No mind.

I turn to the window of my tearoom and place the bowl before me. Dim light of morning is growing increasingly bright. The sun illuminated the bright green and yellow buds atop the branches of trees. Leaves unfurl like small sails on a ship’s mast. The sky begins to shift from dawn’s deep purple to the warm blue of morning.

I lift the bowl to my lips and breathe in the overwhelming fragrance of the tea. No space is left for me to exist outside of this. With three sips I drink all that I can.

The remaining dregs cling to the inside of the bowl. Evidence of action. No hesitation. No mind.

I cleanse the objects as I always do and arrange them for a final solitary 拝見 haiken. The lid of the chaire is lifted and left on the center side of the wooden tray before it is returned atop the little tea container.

The chashaku is placed next to the chaire, picked up and set down over the course of one inhalation and one exhalation. The shifuku, emblazoned in peony brocade of silver and blue, is lifted from between the 水指 mizusashi and 風炉 furo, shaped with the hands in a manner to emphasize its inner volume, and placed beside the chashaku. It is empty. It is full. It is the container and the void it contains.

I look down upon each object, enjoying them for what they are. Each crafted by masters of their art. Each reflecting different paths walked upon. Full strides. Confident. Assured.

How can one judge a tea container? It is neither good nor bad.

How can one assess a shifuku? It could be made of the finest silk and still, over time, it will fade and tatter.

How can one determine the value of a chashaku? It was once a branch of a cherry tree. What use is it now? A twig in the path. A scoop to measure tea. A staff to quell fighting tigers. To be used without hesitation.

An empty bowl will hold all the tea in the world and none at all.

When we practice the forms and involve these objects, we recognize how essential they are. Yet the more we practice, this, too shifts. The mind becomes lighter. The gaze opens, widens, expands. When we release our arrows, they speeds down range. When we pour the last of the tea powder out, we return the container from back where it once had sat, empty. We see how necessary they are. We see how unnecessary they are.

Even when these object are fully removed, you’ll find that they are still there. In between breathes. In pauses during the day. As light shifts. As one’s hand moves. As one’s mind grapples. Object and mind object. Pause and practice. Action and inaction. Constant. Fleeting. Form and no form. No tea. No mind.

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

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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Opening of the Tea Jar

IMG_3566With the beginning of November comes the opening of a new year in tea. In the ancient lunar calendar of twenty-four seasons, this period is known as 立冬 Rittō, the beginning of Winter. In the tearoom, this is greeted with the shifting to the 炉 ro. Just as important, this change sees the grinding of new 碾茶 tencha.

IMG_3565Harvested in Spring, the tea leaves remain stored in a large earthenware tea jar (茶壺 cha-tsubo), which has been sealed to avoid oxidation and spoilage. During a special 茶事 chaji called 口切 kuchi-kiri (lit. “mouth-cutting”), the paper seal which covers the opening of the cha-tsubo is cut open and a portion of the “fresh tea” is ground to produce the first 抹茶 matcha of the year.

IMG_3563For practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, this “first” bowl of tea will be the freshest they will have for the next 365 days and is, not surprisingly, viewed as something quite special.

IMG_3562On this cold November day, I eagerly bring my iron kettle to a boil and arrange my tearoom to prepare a bowl of tea. Placed alone in front of my 水指 mizusashi is a small 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container). Wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, upon which are woven images of Tang-period Silk Road traders on horseback, the small ceramic container holds a measured portion of freshly-ground matcha to prepare a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha.

IMG_3558Entering the tearoom, I bring with me a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan from the kiln of modern master potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

FC791911-0F63-4D40-8FDD-697AAC3DDF5FAs I ready the wares to prepare a bowl of tea, I begin the process of unwrapping the chaire, drawing its silk cord and peeling it out from the shifuku.

8C3AB5D5-3E32-4AF0-B316-89F8341AC479Next I cleanse the 茶杓 chashaku and place it across the lid of the chaire. After, I cleanse the teabowl, warming it with the hot water ladled from the iron kettle, rolling it slowly in my hands to feel the heat of the water penetrate the ceramic.

196D0A98-4E19-4751-9E0B-3DB4DEF20AF6I pause as I pick up the chashaku once again, and offer to my guest a seasonal tea sweet, 勝栗 kachi-guri (dried chestnut), served upon a small Taiwanese celadon tea leaf-viewing vessel.

77F7296D-DA9D-4AD5-BEC7-3170AF75A807To prepare the bowl of koicha, I first dig-out three scoops of tea from the chaire.

IMG_3561Finally, setting the chashaku atop the edge of the chawan, I tilt the tea container and let the remaining tea cascade out into the teabowl, emptying entirely it in a gesture of giving one’s self fully to their guest.

D26DF3AA-DDCB-4A78-8E19-F008412A24A9Pouring only a small portion of hot water into the teabowl, I begin to slowly knead the tea powder into a thick, aromatic paste. Adding a bit more water into the bowl, I continue to methodically press the 茶筅 chasen back and forth through the thick tea until it produces an even, lacquer-like concoction.

A5E13B47-C9FB-4F0E-9865-9E0FEC739F63Lifting the tea whisk from the finished bowl of koicha, thick tea liquid still clings to its cut bamboo tines.

396CCDD0-5E9D-44AF-AD4C-3034E07B847DPeering down into the teabowl, the koicha reflects back up at me like a shiny bronze mirror. Passing the chawan to my guest, we exchange a deep bowl, both caught in anticipation. As they take a sip, I eat one of the chestnuts. A moment passes and they pass the bowl back to me with just enough tea remaining in it for me to share a sip. Wiping the rim of the bowl with a thick folded piece of paper, I set the chawan back down before me. Before I cleanse it, I offer to produce an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha with the residual matcha.

IMG_3559Finally whisked, I pass the chawan back to my guest and with three hearty sips they finish the bowl of tea.

15EAE73B-EC25-4927-8343-949394F685F0For a moment, we enjoy inspecting the hand-shaped Raku teabowl. In its deep, black glaze and uneven surface we are left to imagine the boundless possibilities this next year will hold for us. What changes will come with each progressing season? How will we give ourselves fully to this moment?

IMG_3560Cleansing the teaware one final time, I set the chaire beside the teabowl. I add cool water from the mizusashi to the boiling iron kettle and close it with its bronze lid.

B2DA84F2-C9B6-44C4-98EB-8D16D7A28B4CIn a parting 拝見 haiken, I set the chaire, chashaku, and shifuku atop a wooden tray. The textures of the swirling grains of the mulberry wood frame the objects like the edges of some intricately-rendered image of an esoteric Buddhist mandala.

IMG_3567Implements for understanding time and space. Cutting through each moment fearlessly.

IMG_3568Opening up a treasure and grinding its contents to dust. Savoring its creation as an offering. Observing this creation as a fading memory never to be replicated again.

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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.

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A black bowl. A depth for an eternity.

In East Asia, it is customary to celebrate the anniversary of the death of an individual. While not marked by bombastic festivities, such an occasion is met with somber reflection on a life well led. In the tradition of Japanese tea ceremony (茶の湯 chanoyu), the life (and death) of 千利休 Sen no Rikyū (who many consider the “founder” of the art) is considered to be one of the most important dates in a year of tea. For the “Sen” schools (schools of tea that directly trace their lineage back to Sen no Rikyū), this day is marked by a observance of their founder and his exit of the world upon which he had left an indelible mark upon.

A layman, a merchant, a student of Zen, an advisor to the state, an artist, a tea person: Sen no Rikyū was all of these. As a multi-faceted individual who lived over four centuries ago, we were left countless treasures shaped by his hand and a practice that was undoubtedly shaped by his spirit and keen mind. However, he still remains an enigma.

One of his most notable contributions to tea was uniting and refining of the 侘び wabi aesthetic and spirit with the elegance of tea practiced in both temples and amongst the well-healed and everyday tea people of 16th century Japan. Illustrative of this was his commissioning and favoring of the simple 黒楽茶碗 kuro Raku chawan (black Raku teabowl) made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō (himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent). The form he created was both rustic yet subdued, suitable for both the most formal and informal tea setting.

On the morning of this day, I, too, favor a kuro Raku chawan. For my own 利休忌 Rikyū-ki (anniversary of Rikyū), I bring out a teabowl by famed Raku potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.

As this is a solemn occasion, I decide to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). For this, I set out a 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki (“shouldered”) 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container).

While making tea this morning I find myself pausing throughout the formal yet informal 点前 temae (procedure of making tea). Little nuances that I might otherwise overlook seem to stand out in the pale light of the dawn. The soft textures upon the back of the 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop), the stippling of the slick black glaze of the Raku teabowl, the contrasting bright white fabric of the 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth). This small vignette, itself, a tiny universe, an eternity of decisions made by a long line of those who practiced the Way of tea.

Removing the chaire from its 仕服 shifuku (silk brocade pouch), I go about the process of cleansing and purifying each item.

Every piece I call into action, waking them before setting them down again in a new arrangement.

As I touch each object I begin to realize how Rikyū has touched each object. How the chashaku is set down onto the lid of the chaire.

How the tea is scooped and then poured out into the chawan.

Even how the thick tea is kneaded from powder into a viscous liquid. Although subsequent schools and masters developed their own styles and forms (even my school, 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū), each still was (and still is) influenced and informed by the decisions of Rikyū.

Much like all schools of Zen look to Bodhidharma, tea, too, has its dharma lineage. Each has their own embodiment of “Buddha mind”. In this way, there would be no Sōhen-ryū without Rikyū. No Rikyū without 紹鴎 Jōō. No Jōō without 珠光 Shukō. No Shukō without 一休 Ikkyū. A line extending far into the past and into the future.

Working the koicha into its final form is akin to polishing a roof tile until it becomes a mirror. The end result is reflective and lacquer-like. Sitting at the bottom of the black teabowl, it feels like staring into a bottomless well or out into eternity. With a deep and resolute breath I raise the bowl to my lips. With three hearty sips I drink the thick tea, its aroma and intense character instantly waking me from a morning haze.

Returning the bowl in front of me, I cleanse it and turn it over to appreciate its shape. A single spiral set within its 高台 kōdai (foot of teabowl) seems to indicate a descent into something deeper, or a turbulent force within something inanimate.

This, perhaps, is the other meaning of Rikyū-ki. It is not just the celebration of his life and his achievements as a master of the Way; it is a observance of his suicide, which came as an order from his lord and then ruler of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

In this, there remains something of a grim warning. Perhaps it is to never seek to own Rikyū, to never seek to appropriate him. While each school vies to weave the story of Rikyū into their own tapestry of tradition, we must call into question whether this was something he would have wanted.

Much like the art of Rikyū, the life of Rikyū was one of further reduction. His forms became more minimal. His teaware became less ornate. Even his tea rooms shrank over time, eventually reduced to a one-and-one-half mats. This reductive quality even appears in his death poem (here, using the translation done by the Meiji period scholar 岡倉覚三 Okakura Kakuzō):

Welcome to thee,

O sword of eternity!

Through Buddha

And through Daruma alike

Thou hast cleft thy way.

With the sword he used to end his live, he cut through his achievements, his legacy, his ego, until there was nothing left, not even a Buddha. In this, the wares and the memories he imprinted upon his followers become just the worldly flesh and bones; material like a finger pointing to the moon, or the sound of windblown pines in a painting. What remains of Rikyū are figments, fragments, sentiments. Nothing to own but to think and ultimately act upon.

I finished the morning with an informal 拝見 haiken (moment to view teaware). Tea container. Tea scoop. A silk brocaded pouch. All now sitting empty. Hollow.

What did they contain before that they do not contain now? Is there still life after it has all been poured out? Fully consumed? Where does it go and what happens afterwards? How do memories of a person’s life still hold sway over us still? Is this the means by which a Way is constructed?

In the growing light of the day I sat and meditated upon this. On a life. A black bowl. A depth for an eternity.

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A Cold Day and the Shape of a Bowl of Tea

In the depth of Winter, we can’t help but want to be inside, enjoying the silence, a moment with friends, and nestled-up with a warm bowl of tea. In the tradition of Japanese tea ceremony (茶の湯 chanoyu), 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu said that “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. Beyond the heat of the beverage, this can mean many things. From the positioning of the fire in the tearoom, the transition from the 風炉 furo (lit. “wind brazier”) to 炉 ro (sunken hearth), to even the shape of the teabowl.

In the depths of Winter, one increasingly employs taller, more narrow teabowls, their construction meant to retain the heat of the 抹茶 matcha in what would be a very cold time of year. On the coldest day of the year (usually in January or February), one might employ a 筒茶碗 tsutsu chawan (lit. “tube-shaped teabowl”) or, in my case, a 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shapes teabowl). This bowl, with its rounded walls and mottled orange and white complexion I’ve named 柿 “Kaki”, as it resembles a big, round persimmon (a fruit which is dried in Winter and enjoyed dried as a sweet, leathery snack for tea).

As the year transitions from its deep freeze to Spring, Summer and Fall, the shape of the bowl changes. I’ve likened this to the opening of a flower, as teabowls become more and more open, from the 桃型茶碗 momo-gata (“peach shape” teabowl) I might use in Spring, to the wider 平形 hira-gata (flat) or 馬盥 badarai (“horse trough”) teabowls of Summer.

And on the hottest days, even I can’t resist to drink from a rough and misshapen 沓形 kutsu-gata (lit. “clog-shaped”) teabowl (pictured above).

In the Fall, as the world explodes in color and the signs of decay begin to come with the Autumn wind, teabowls once again gold inward, to hold-in the warmth. The sober 楽茶碗 Raku chawan seem to fit this time, as does a repaired 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan (“Ido” Korean-style teabowl) seems to fit this time.

As we enjoy the changes of the year, we can enjoy this in tea as well. Today, on this cold Winter’s day, I offer up this warm bowl of tea.

If you want to learn more about the many shapes of teabowls, the illustration above offers just a glimpse into the diversity of shapes and styles seen throughout the year.

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Before the First Light of the New Year

Weeks of preparation has led to this moment. December has ended and a whole year has passed by. In the darkness of the early morning, during the hour of the tiger (4am), water is drawn and brought into the tearoom. Huddled by the soft glow of charcoal nestled in a low mound of ash, a kettle is brought to a boil; the first of the new year.

Despite the humble surroundings, a celebratory air is about as I sit with my partner before a small assemblage of objects for making tea. A 黒楽 kuro-Raku (black Raku) teabowl is brought out of storage. A 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop) made from a cut piece of bamboo is placed upon it.

Tea is mindfully measured-out and placed into a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume (“kōaka” tea caddy), forming a small hill of powdered 抹茶 matcha within its glossy interior.

Set together before my partner and I, it is a simple affair. A night of revelry and meditation for the new year has us both excited and relaxed, ready to enjoy tea. Set to the light of a covered candle, everything in the tearoom seems muted.

The red lacquer appears like deep crimson. The black of the Raku teabowl feels like a dark, bottomless void.

The bright, electric green matcha appears hidden within the cavernous hollow of the ceramic tea vessel, only coming to life when it is briskly whisked into a foam froth.

Passed to my partner, she accepts the first bowl of tea for the year. Set upon a brocade 古帛紗 kobukusa (silk cloth for holding precious teaware), the warmth of the tea can still be felt, radiating through the thick fabric, the pattern upon which is 紹紦利休こぼれ梅文様 shōha Rikyū kobore ume mon’yō (“spilling ume/plum blossoms”, the favored symbol (文様) of Rikyū).

Savoring the bowl of tea brings a moment to pause before the new year ahead, remembering the year that has passed. The final dregs of tea are sipped, leaving a soft residue in the teabowl to admire.

In the first light of the first new year’s day, light finally crawls into the tearoom. Together we enjoy the quiet and the inspection of a small red and blue 染め付け sometsuke (Japanese blue-and-white porcelain) 香合 kōgo (incense container).

Within it, a painted vista. A boat on a horizon. Friends coming home.

To all the world, I offer up a bowl of tea. For peace. For compassion. For the deepening of all our practice. For a happy new year.

Thank you for reading. May you be inspired to share a moment of tea with those you love.

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Listening to Incense

For many, December is a time marked by an intense flurry of work in anticipation for upcoming holidays and the beginning of the New Year. During this time, there is not much celebration nor moments to pause.

Aching to “just sit” I opted to do something a bit different today, a bit outside (though not entirely outside) the realm of tea.

Taking the briefest of moment prior to beginning my busy work day, I rose and began to heat charcoal. From a small wooden 桐箱 kiribako (wooden storage box), I produced a ceramic 聞香炉 kiki-gōro (incense cup), filled it with white ash, and set it atop a lacquer tray. To the side of this, I arranged the utensils needed for 聞香 monkō (“listening to incense”).

Retrieving the now smoldering charcoal, I pressed it into the center of the ash within the ceramic incense cup.

Shaping the ash into a mound that fully enrobed the charcoal, I then began the meticulous act of shaping the ash into a refined, low apex.

With one metal chopstick, I inscribe the ash with a pattern of lines resembling an antique millstone, finishing-up by gently wiping away any excess dust from the ceramic incense cup with a feather.

Once fully shaped, a single hole is pierced into the ash, allowing the buried charcoal to “breathe”. Peering down this, the live charcoal visibly glows within the mound of white ash.

Finally, a thin mica plate is placed atop the ash peak.

From a wooden 香合 kōgo (“incense container”), I draw out a single, tiny hand-cut fleck of 沈香 jinkō (agarwood).

This is then delicately set onto the thin mica plate.

In a matter of minutes, the subtle fragrance of the incense wood is detected.

Lifting the kiki-gōro to my nose, holding with both hands, I bring it close to my face. Rather than smell the incense, I allow the scent to envelop me. The fragrance is deep, complex, warming.

For a moment I enjoy the presence of this beautiful aroma. For a moment I pause in the bustle of the closing year.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, History, Incense, Japan, Meditation, Tea