Tag Archives: Rikyu

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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Major Cold: Looking Down the Long, Dark Tunnel of Winter

It is late January and, by now, many of us begin to anticipate the warmth of Spring. However, as nature would have it, the coldest days of Winter are finally upon us. In the interim, between the New Year of the Gregorian calendar and before the New Year of the traditional lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the period of what is called 大寒 Daikan in Japanese (Dàhán in Mandarin), “Major Cold”, begins.

Extending from January 20th to February 3rd (changing slightly depending on the given year), this time sees the most extreme point of Winter’s chill, with winds that are wild and biting, the earth frozen and solid, and the ice ever-present. In the world of tea, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu take heart and double-down on their commitment to live according to Rikyū’s old adage, “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. So dedicated to this latter notion are tea people that all manner of accommodations are made to ensure that the guests’ needs for warmth are met.

Warm water with ginger is often served to the guests as they wait to enter the tearoom. More charcoal may be added to the 炉 ro to boil the water and heat the tea space. Even the type of teaware used is adjusted to increase the warmth of the tea. It is during this time of year that the host will bring out the 筒茶碗 tsutsuchawan.

Named for its distinctive “tube-like” shape, the tsutsuchawan casts a visually different form in the tearoom when compared to the typical shape of the teabowl. Comprising of a vessel that is taller than it is wide, the height of the tsutsuchawan ensures that the hot tea made within it remains hot by the moment the guest receives it. Given that traditionally 茶室 chashitsu are constructed out of nothing more than wood, paper, grass, and mud, any means taken to retain heat is vital. Tea was (and still is) a medicine at its core.

As I sit in my own modern (and, frankly, modest) tearoom today, I find myself feeling far from the historical essence of chanoyu. In my New York City apartment, I sit in the artificial warmth of 20th century steam heat. The sound of the radiator seems a constant feature of my Winter-locked life here in the city. In stark contrast, I look out of my window to a world blanketed in a fresh coat of snow. Ice hangs on the eaves and dark grey clouds filter sunlight into a dull glow.

As I bring the water in my antique bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama to a boil, I arrange my teaware. A vintage 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

A small wooden 平棗 hiranatsume lacquered with persimmon juice.

An antique 茶杓 chashaku.

A 茶筅 chasen made of speckled bamboo. Peering out of the darkness of the deep chawan is the white linen 茶巾 chakin, folded in a manner favored in the 裏千家 Urasenke school (a subtle and mindful nod of appreciation to their form as I am a student of 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an).

As I cleanse each item, touching them with the smooth silk cloth of my 袱紗 fukusa or bathing them in the heat of the boiling water, I ready them for their action of making tea. The chashaku is rested atop the natsume. The chakin is removed from the teabowl. The whisk is wetted and warmed. The teabowl is empty and is radiating heat from the water it once held. These actions all have their intention and are supported by the purpose-built wares.

As I scoop tea from the small wooden natsume and place it gently into the center of the teabowl, I feel the heat still held in the clay. Its presence subtly activating the aroma of the fresh 抹茶 matcha powder. The shape of the bowl sends this flavor upwards to me as I pour half a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the chawan. As I whisk the tea, I am mindful to adjust my action to the unique shape of the tsutsuchawan. My movements are tighter, slightly faster, whipping the tea into a light foam.

Pulling the chasen from the teabowl with an upward motion, I see the results of my action: a soft, gentle foam, lustrous like mounding snow. It glows like a wondrous light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

As I sit in the makeshift tearoom of my urban apartment, listening to the wild wind whipping at my window, the sight of trees bending and heaving to the force of nature, I cannot help but to recognize the luxury and, indeed, the privilege I live in. Tea is a luxury. Heat is a luxury. The walls around me and the food in my belly are all a luxury, brought to me, in large part, by a privilege that I alone did not make for myself.

As I set the bowl before me and lift it in thanks for this moment it and my practice has brought me, I let my thoughts on this situation linger. I pause before I lift the bowl to my lips, its heat radiating, the fresh, fragrant liquid within it unavoidable and pleasant. How can I share this solitary bowl of tea with the world around me? How do I share this warmth that I have now during the coldest time of year?

As I sip and empty the tall vessel, watching the final dregs pool and collect within its flat base, no immediate answer comes to me.

As I turn the bowl over to appreciate the rough textures of its 高台 kōdai and to see the carved mark of the potter’s name, I find no reply from the great and boundless universe. To “just make tea” seems to be enough and yet so little. Today, the peace I often find myself having at the end of making a bowl of tea does not seem to arise. Instead, the problems of the world, the problems of privilege, still seem to remain.

As with other forms of meditation, the act of making a bowl of tea is said to be a kind of enlightenment. Alas, it is a misconception that enlightenment brings an air of settled peace or a sense of harmony. In truth, the enlightenment that arises is, instead, no different from the pain and suffering or the joy and exuberance of everyday.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of life, sometimes all we see is the darkness. Sometimes when we look down the long, dark tunnel of a tsutsuchawan, all we see are the final dregs and residue of the tea we’ve finished. It is our practice to see this. It is also our practice to do all we can to make the guest warm, especially when we are living through the coldest days of Winter.

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

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

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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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Japan, Korea, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

A Gathering for Thick Tea

After filling a 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container) with 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”), one can sit to make tea. Clearing the mind, one can give with their heart. Purifying the utensils encourages this and clarifies intention.

First the chaire is removed from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch and is purified with the folded 袱紗 fukusa. Next, the 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) is cleansed.

Finally, the 茶筅 chasen (tea whisk) is cleansed along with the teabowl itself.

Preparing koicha is a process, one that involves giving everything to the gathered guests. In this, tea is first scooped from the chaire and, then, the remaining tea left inside the tiny ceramic caddy is poured into the teabowl.

Everything is offered up. Nothing is left over.

Unlike 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”), koicha is not whisked.

Instead, it is “kneeded” into a thick, glossy liquid. The flavor is intoxicating, inescapable, memorable.

A single bowl is shared between the guests. A single moment is enjoyed. A single spirit emerges.

Even when the guests have left and gone their separate ways, they are forever joined in this memory. A gathering for thick tea.

As we gather around together, whether it be over a feast or over nothing at all, let our spirits join together. In the receiving of a bowl of tea, we first bow to host who made it so careful. Then, next, we raise the bowl as if offering thanks to the universe, to the myriad of forces that united together to enable a moment to occur. Tea is always a thanksgiving. It is always a feast, for the eyes, for the heart.

Today, fill your heart, your mind, and open your spirit to the moment at hand.

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