Tag Archives: Rikyu

All That Heralds Winter

IMG_3461When does a season change? How does one know? One may reference a calendar, yet the demarcated days and months can only tell so much. Seasons, like all things in life, transform slowly, almost imperceptibly. Yet, as if by magic, they can also suddenly appear. A night of cold wind can pull down all of Autumn’s leaves, revealing in morning barren treetops. October’s crystal blue skies become dark and grey by early November. During a frigid rain shower, the first flecks of snow can appear.

Those more closely attune to nature’s cycle will perceive this. The last of Summer’s dragonflies now float dead along the stream’s edge. The bell cricket grows silent and buried itself in the cold earth. The songbirds begin to change into their drab Winter’s plumage. The geese continue their migration.

Practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, kept in constant vigil of the subtle seasonal shifts, feel this change too. For them, the coming of Winter heralds the beginning of the new tea year. 畳 tatami mats are resurfaced, 障子 shōji screens are refitted with fresh paper. The sunken 炉 ro hearth is opened. When this all happens is up to much debate and no exact date is given. 千利休 Sen no Rikyū famously said “seeing 柚子yuzu (citron) change their colors, one could open 囲炉裏 irori (the sunken hearth).” Indeed, such a subtle change as this was just enough to signal the beginning of Winter and a new year of tea.

For me, I closed October with the putting-away of the 風炉 furo. Alas, it wasn’t until today, when the wind felt particularly cold, that I decided to shift into the ro setting. Since I do not have a fully-outfitted 茶室 chashitsu, I opt to use a highly informal 火鉢 hibachi as my sunken hearth. Cut from a single burl of 桐 kiri (paulownia), with a copper-lined recess for ash, the hibachi is an unusual feature in my tearoom. Wishing to maintain a level of informality with my first use of my makeshift ro, I decide to prepare a bowl of tea on the bright, clean expanse of wood flooring in my New York City apartment.

F6A0D7D5-98BE-467A-8647-E38B542BE0D2For my teabowl, I select a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan. For a tea container, I bring out a multi-hued 若狭塗棗 Wakasa-nuri natsume, its colors echoing the last of the gold and crimson leaves of Autumn. In the minimal space of my tearoom, the light of the overcast day stretches shadows across the wooden floor.

871EA691-9083-4983-8CE8-F3F898A3465FArranging objects along an angle, the teaware is spread out within the space between the 指 mizusashi and the hibachi. This distance seems both more intimate and dynamic, setting teawares along invisible lines, drawing both host and guest closer to the warmth of the hearth. First, the natsume and 茶杓 chashaku are cleansed.

73449357-4DD5-435F-8A01-DD21FDA46385Next, the lid of the iron kettle is removed and hot water is drawn out to purify and warm the chawan.

88DB2902-4090-4F7C-973D-19D8B395EAB4Three scoops of 抹茶 matcha are issued out into the center of the teabowl, and water is ladled from the 茶釜 chagama to chawan in a series of fluid motions.

E282B5EC-C6AB-42E2-A377-1C2F61121F75I whisk the tea into a fine foam. In this moment, the space of my tearoom seems still and time feels strangely infinite. Setting the 茶筅 chasen down, a terrific silence arises and, for a brief period of time, I am caught in a quiet meditation. All action ceases. All thoughts drop by the wayside. What remains is the warmth of the hibachi and the faint aroma of tea.

9E47DBC4-2D24-4BB5-9B15-A145D17088A4Looking down, I peer upon the tea and tea objects as if I were miles above them. Lifting the teabowl to my lips, I offer a silent gesture of thanks to all of the factors that brought me to this moment, finite and infinite as they may be.

EE6A8429-E57A-495A-B10A-BC3056113320A few seconds pass and three sips of tea from the Hagi-yaki chawan empties it completely, save for some foamy dregs.

A4A5EC26-D363-42DB-A37A-10CC969AB3FEIn the last moments of my first use of the Winter’s hearth, I cleanse the chasen and chawan, and wipe the residual tea dust from the chashaku with the deep purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa. Following a final scoop of cold water which is drawn from the mizusashi and placed into the boiling water of the chagama, I slide the lid over the top of the kettle. The sound it produces is a sonorous, metallic ring which acts like a call to closure, marking the end of a moment with tea and heralding the beginning of Winter.

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Even If It Does Not Fall, Prepare for Rain

Today began with a quiet morning meditation to a still Summer’s dawn, and a moment spent to boil water and steep tea. By noon, the bright sun hung overhead and its golden rays flooded every room of my apartment. As the hours passed, I worked, I wrote, I paced, and I stretched. At the moment I chose to step outside, I looked out my window to see that the weather had suddenly turned. A dark grey veil of clouds had quickly appeared and covered the sky. A moment later and the air was heavy, ready to rain.

Rather than continue with my plans, I took this shift as a sign to settle down and wait for the coming storm to pass. I set the kettle which I had filled earlier in the morning to boil again and brought together a teabowl, a whisk, a scoop, and a lacquer tea container.

Inspired by the tumultuous weather that was soon to arrive, I chose a 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl), the surface of which mirrored the ruffled clouds and grey skies.

While I let the water come to a boil I sifted fine green 抹茶 matcha into a small black lacquer 棗 natsume (tea container). I couldn’t help but notice that its decoration, simple gold 壺 tsubo (round pot motif), seem to recall the round 太鼓 taiko drums that surround the mythic god of thunder, 雷神 Raijin.

Sitting with the teaware set before me, I purify each object, accompanied to the sound of rolling thunder in the distance. In the tearoom, the light dimmed and darkened, broken by sudden flashes of lightning. The bright white of brushed-on glaze cast against the deep well of the teabowl.

Shadows and fissures, bamboo an linen.

The smoky pattern of the chashaku against the gleam of black lacquer, reflecting what little light gathered at the window.

Finally emptied, the bowl sat ready.

In to it I measured-out three scoops of the electric-green matcha powder. Rain beat against the pavement and quickly collected in pools out on the streets.

A half-ladle’s-worth of water into the chawan and I whisked it vigorously until a bright foam rose, clinging to the tines of the bamboo whisk.

Rolling thunder and a roiling boiling kettle merged into one sonorous roar, hissing and rumbling and then halting, arresting for a moment that allowed me to pause.

The 16th century tea master 千利休 Sen no Rikyū, in his “Seven Rules” for the Way of Tea (利休七則 Rikyū shichi-soku), advised tea practitioners to “always prepare for rain” (降らずとも雨の用意 Fu-razutomo ame no yōi, lit. “Even if it does not fall, prepare for rain”). By this he meant many things. Always have a sedge hat and umbrella ready for the guest at the 待合 machi-ai (the waiting space, often an outer open-frame hut for guests to wait before entering a tearoom). Always have a kettle ready. Always ensure you have more than enough tea for your guests, just in case one more should arrive. Always be at the ready. This is the spirit that arises when one always prepares for rain. It is core to the spirit of tea.

Another boom of thunder broke the silence and I was left staring down at the bowl of tea. The foam, forming a subtle central peak, remained full. The rain outside my window softened and the air cooled.

* Image of 千利休 Sen no Rikyū’s “Seven Rules” for the Way of Tea (利休七則 Rikyū shichi-soku) sourced via Urasenke Japan.

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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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In the Hut of My Teacher

Fifteen years ago I stepped into a tearoom and never left. On what was a cold winter in Paris, I first met my 茶の湯 chanoyu teacher, a master of the 宗徧流 Sōhenryū school, over a thick bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”), served up in a somber 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan.

Over the last two decades, I’ve kept in touch with my teacher, though rarely have we met in person. Intensive trainings, regular Skype calls, and a long string of email messages have kept us connected over the years. And throughout, he’s always offered his guidance and reassurance that cultivating a spirit of tea is paramount to mastering form. When there is no spirit in form, there is no spirit in tea. It falls apart.

This past week I returned to Paris to once again study under my teacher. Since I met him, he’s built a beautiful tearoom (茶室 chashitsu) overlooking a serene courtyard garden in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. The room is aptly named 黙庵 Moku-an, a grass hut of quiet contemplation, a silent hermitage. To take tea here is truly a meditation, on space, on light, on texture, on time. It is a fully immersive experience.

On the final day we studied together, he welcomed me into his small, three-mat room. After the washing of hands and mouth at the 蹲 tsukubai (basin), I pause.

Before one enters into this quiet urban tea space, I must first step, momentarily, upon a large, flat stone that once sat on a river’s edge.

Sliding open the papered door that leads into the tearoom, I can’t help but to feel refreshed. The soft light. The fresh smell of new 畳 tatami. Pressing my knees down against the mats, I edge myself into the space, closing the door behind me and moving towards the 床の間 tokonoma (alcove).

My eyes scan upwards to see calligraphy written by a tea master of the 裏千家 Urasenke school.

Next, my eyes drift downward to an arrangement of flowers set in a bronze container. I take my place for a bowl of tea.

The light from the garden is soft, gentle.

The tearoom is perfectly silent, save for a distant songbird and sound of the boiling kettle set within the 炉 ro (“sunken hearth”).

My teacher enters, we bow to each other as old friends, and tea is made. I sit across from him, observing his every motion, his intention, his mindfulness. This is the real teaching. To taste his spirit within the bowl of matcha. To feel the movements of the heart upon the mind. To witness someone who has mastered their art over a lifetime.

And just as quickly as it had begun it is over. The light in the room shifts. The sound of the kettle changes. The lingering scent of the incense has faded. I sit alone again in the tearoom, pondering the meaning of a gourd-shaped incense container in the tokonoma.

That evening, we finish a week of study over a final bowl of koicha, cups of sake, and flickering candlelight.

Back home, all that remains now are the memories, the imprint on my mind, the feelings in my heart, and the practice that continues.

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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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Tea for the Last Day of a Year

With December coming to its final close, the preparations for the arrival of the new year are almost complete. Amidst the bustle and work, tea is pared down, made simpler, and more rustic. Mirrored by the ever-weathered look of the waning final days of December, the “chill” that is often celebrated in the 侘寂 wabi-sabi aesthetic of tea comes out more and more.

Favoring objects that are more roughly-hewn, I pair a Korean-inspired 萩焼 Hagi-yaki teabowl with a bamboo 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop), upon which the 節 fushi (natural bamboo joint) is lobed, uneven, and gnarled.

Juxtaposed to this is a modest lacquered 棗 natsume (tea caddy), crafted by an unknown monk of the 大徳寺 Daitoku-ji temple in Kyōto.

In the warmth of the last charcoal set before the new year, the last kettle of water comes to a boil. The soft scent of incense is barely detectable as each implement is cleaned.

Tea is scooped and a half-ladle of water is poured upon it.

Once whisked, a bright, almost electric-colored foam rises.

The scent of fresh 抹茶 matcha is a gentle wake-up call to celebrate the moment, and the taste of the last sip of the year’s last tea becomes a poignant closure to one of life’s many “gateless gates”.

In the final quiet that comes from making tea, an informal 拝見 haiken (viewing of tea objects) feels like a fitting farewell to the year.

A teabowl cleaned and then turned upside-down to view its 高台 kōdai (foot).

The lacquer tea container set aside to admire is simple charm.

Another year passes by and teaware once used is put away.

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