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 Rikyū–ki, 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 tenmoku–dai.
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 kuro–Raku 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 Raku–yaki 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.