Tag Archives: Raku

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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Opening a Mystery

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In the middle of a thunderstorm my iron kettle begins to boil. In the dim light of the tearoom, I produce a wooden box from an antique tea cabinet. Tied-up in silk cord, the box contains a mystery.

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To the unknowing, it’s difficult to tell what this container holds. However, for a tea person like myself, the sight of a box like this produces a bubbling sense of joy and an eager sense of curiosity grows as I sit down for tea.

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Once opened, nothing is revealed, save for what appears to be a dark and endless void.

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From the folds of cloth emerge the form of a black 楽焼 Raku-yaki teabowl.

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With a thunderous boom, the sky alights with a bolt of lightning and the rain beats heavy on my window. Holding the bowl in my hands, it feels sturdy yet featherlight. It’s form is uneven, shaped by the hands of the master potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. As third generation of the Shōraku kiln, his hands have created a vessel whose history spans back centuries to the 1500s, in an era when the “tea ceremony” was in its formative years.

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It was during this period, one aptly named 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States”, the Japanese archipelago was undergoing tremendous upheaval and change. In this age marked by endless war, the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu (tea ceremony, literally “hot water for tea”) emerged as an art form and way to cultivate the self.

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By the late 1500s, the Way of tea (茶道; sadō or chadō) was being promulgated by a number of tea masters, the most notable being 千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522 – April 21, 1591). Influenced by Buddhist notions of humility and directness of action, Rikyū’s approach to tea stressed simplicity. From the use of a one-and-a-half mat tearoom to the employment of pared-down tea utensils, Rikyū’s tea was, itself, a practice in austerity.

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As one who often adopted (and adapted) objects for tea, Rikyū commissioned a tile-maker named 長次郎 Chōjirō (1516-?1592) to produce hand-moulded teabowls to fit the wabi aesthetic of the tea ceremony. From this, Chōjirō, who was himself a son of a Korean emigrant, would produce what would become his signature style of teaware: an adorned and lustrous black teabowl, the color of which was derived from the very rocks pulled from the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto.

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Recognized as a ceramics master in his own lifetime, in 1574 Chōjirō was presented a seal inscribed with the character “楽” raku (meaning “joy”) by the then leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣 秀吉. Since then, the Raku family and families affiliated with it have been producing beautiful and characteristically understated ceramics for use in tea.

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Pulled from the crucible of the kiln, this jet-black bowl now lights the way in the darkness of the Autumn storm. The scent of freshly-made matcha illuminating this moment, marking it forever in my mind.

As the downpour lingers on, so too does the flavor of tea, the first of many sips shared with this beautiful bowl.

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