Tag Archives: Scholar

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

As I sit in my New York City apartment for my daily tea brewing session, I sit looking out upon the treetops, grey sky, and the faint rolling outline of Manhattan’s silhouette. The soft booming of thunder peels in the distance. A storm is coming. With the windows open, I can feel the change in the atmosphere. The air grows cooler, thicker with moisture. Latent with entropy.

For a moment I meditate, giving pause as I wait for the old 鉄瓶 tetsubin to boil water for tea. Spread out before me are implements that I’ve collected over the years, each one brought forth to serve a purpose. Despite their beauty as art objects, they are worth more to me as tools, items that serve a purpose. A wide-rimmed 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) teabowl from a kiln in Fujian which I shall use as a 茶船 cháchuán.

A mid-20th century replica of a 清 Qīng period (1644-1912) 思亭壺 Sī Tíng Hú.

A jade archer’s ring which I’ve repurposed as a lid rest.

Other wares include items foreign to the Chinese tea tradition. A Japanese porcelain tea container, decorated with orchid blossoms, an image borrowed from Chinese visual culture, referring to integrity and scholarly pursuits.

An antique carved bamboo 茶合 sagō used for 煎茶道 senchadō, inscribed with a poem. A thin branch from a willow tree.

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

Each item I’ve adopted and adapted over the almost twenty years I’ve been practicing the traditional Chinese method of tea brewing known as 功夫茶 gōng fū chá.

Over these many years, I’ve come to realize through the quiet efforts of brewing tea daily in a mindful manner the meaning of this approach to making a cup of tea. To simply pour water into the cavernous hollow of a small teapot.

To warm each teacup so that the radiant heat of the water can be felt on the outer surface.

To wait until the steam rising from each vessel subsides. These are things that are learned after years of practice and observation. A skill acquired by being challenged.

I remove the lid from the porcelain tea container and slowly roll out a healthy portion of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiěguānyīn wūlóngchá. Years of practice, of study under teachers, and travel to tea farms and tea markets has given me insight into this tea. Even before I know what this tea will taste like, I have a thought as to what to expect. With this knowledge, I can quickly pivot and adjust my actions once this tea is brewing in order to make the very best pot of tea I can with what I am given. The dark green side-by-side the rusty-red coloration upon each leaf hints at the level of oxidation this tea has incurred. The tightness of each curled leaf indicates the manner and method it was rolled.

A mindful tilt of the bamboo tea scoop and a gentle push by the thin willow branch aids in arranging each of the leaves into a small mound at the center of the teapot.

Leaning over to peer down into the vessel, I inhale to admire and analyze the aroma of the tea as it comes into contact with the wet interior surface of the teapot. This, too, is a sign, a means to guide my approach to brewing this tea.

Each time I take in an observation, I change my tack. These are not huge changes but subtle ones. Over time and accumulated experiences, this method has shaped not only my practice but also my mind. Rather than become more rigid in my ways and more resistant to change, I’ve become more fluid, more adaptable, more welcoming of taking chances, being challenged, open to surprises. It has brought about a real sense of joy to face these, both in tea and in life.

To say that these are challenging times we live in today would be quite an understatement. All around, people are justly fighting for their voices to be heard, for their civil rights to be recognized. The world is faced with a deadly pandemic. Our fragile earth continues to be threatened by greed, war, destruction. Faced with such dramatic changes, it is common to do what most do: avoid them, resist them, claim ignorance of these changes, shut them out and find solace in a life of ease and moments of joy. Perhaps, like the Summer storm that is now currently raging outside my window here in New York City, some may believe that these changes will subside. The turmoil will calm down. Things will go back to normal.

But as I lift my kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour hot water into the teapot, I am reminded that this does not need to be the way.

As I close the lid of the teapot and pour a drought of hot water upon it, waiting for the telltale signs that the tea is brewing, I reflect on what it takes to understand each moment.

We must be quiet to let others speak their mind and tell their story, as I must quiet my mind to truly take in the moment. I must observe the context of each time and place, as I do when I watch the heat rise from the teapot and the water dissipate from its surface, keeping in mind the temperature of the air around it, the time of day, the heat or chill of the season, and perhaps the guests and their preferences.

I have to be attentive to what might be going on from an internal level, and what external cues I can draw from, in the same way I watch the small meniscus rise.

In the same way I watch it fall down the interior of the teapot spout, indicating the movement and unfurling of the tea leaves within the teapot. And I must ask myself what I take for granted, what do I not have the ability to see, in the same way I must wonder what is going on inside the teapot.

All of this goes to further highlight certain truths. Change is a constant. Nothing remains the same forever. Each moment exists only in that moment and then it is gone, transformed into something else. Oftentimes, we have the choice to meet these changes and learn from them, or ignore them. To engage and adapt with change, or to resist it.

Tea has taught this. It has taught me patience. It has given me the ability to practice this and eventually trust in my practice. Whereas in the beginning of my life as a tea person I would have doubted and maybe even judged myself, with a litany of internal self-directed micro-aggressions telling me that I was “doing it wrong” or “I don’t know enough” or that I was “unable to do this” or “that properly”, I now have enough direct experience brewing tea to not judge myself and, instead, recognized when I feel this way and recognize that it’s okay. The tea will be fine. I will be fine.

I’ve made a lot of bitter tea in my day, even over-brewed tea. I actually enjoy this flavor now. It is the flavor of quality. In truth, an excellently-crafted tea will still taste excellent even if you over-brew it. This was something I only learned when I stopped being afraid to make mistakes and to be challenged.

As I pour out the tea from the teapot, moving from cup to cup to cup in a circular motion, I adjust my hand and the pitch of the teapot to increase or decrease the velocity of the tea liqueur coming out of it. As the liquid pours out faster, the tea has leaf time to brew, resulting in a slightly lighter steeping.

Conversely, if I slow the pour, the tea steeps a moment longer and the liqueur has a chance to become darker and more profound in flavor. This may depend on the style of tea, the manner it was finished by the tea master’s level roast or oxidation, or by the season the tea was harvested. Subtle changes to one’s practice can make all the difference.

As I shake out the final droplets of tea from the teapot and return the teapot back the center of the Sòng teabowl, I remove the lid of the pot to enable all remaining moisture and heat to escape the teapot. Experience has shown me that doing this helps to prevent unintended over-extraction of flavor through residual hot water sitting with the tea leaves.

I admire the color of the tea liqueur. It is a rich copper color, deepening at its center and becoming a light blush gold on the periphery. As I bring the first of three cups to my lips, I savor the multi-layered aromas the tea gives off. Florals like gardenias, marigolds and rose. Light incense. Toasted biscuit. As I take the first sip, I draw back it over the back of my mouth and into my cheeks, both cooling the tea and atomizing the liquid, enabling a greater sensory experience. I’ve made the tea strong. The flavors of dried apricots, marigold, rose water, and toasted walnut are pronounced. As my mouth empties, lingering flavors of cacao nibs, sweet caramel and baked apple remain.

I pause to let these flavors play out and fade before I move on to the second and third cup. Each time I sip I use the moment to meditate and observe. To open my mind rather than fixate on a particular aspect of the tea or of the time and space that I’ve found myself within. As I continue to brew the tea, steeping after steeping, I practice this mindset. I use the moment to explore the tea and it’s flavors, as I also use the moment to explore my mind and the many sensations that arise.

As I’ve said before, these are challenging times. We might find ourselves up against some very intense situations. Ourselves, as well as our friends and family may be affected by the many upheavals that have come. How to give space to each so that we can explore these moments together and individually is important to foster true learning and awakening. This is core to being compassionate. How we can practice this in our own practice of tea can be a beautiful first step.

Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition Thích Nhất Hạnh discusses this form of practice in his 2002 book “Anger”. What he describes as “knots of anger” are “blocks of pain, anger, and frustration“. Over time, these knots can tie us up and obstruct our freedom to learn, to be open-minded, and be able to communicate with others and ourselves. If we practice aggression towards others or ourselves, these becomes trained. Like brewing an excellent cup of tea, we can become excellent at being angry, at harming others, at denying their freedoms and our own.

However, one can practice the opposite. One can practice love, compassion and empathy. Much like how one brews tea, changing one’s habitual mind takes patience, presence, observation. It requires breathing and practicing a capacity of awareness that includes listening to both body and mind, material and environment. In the same way we can learn from the tea that we’ve over-steeped, we can learn from our anger, our sadness, and our frustration. We can still love a bitter brew in the same way we can still love ourselves and others despite how we fee about them or they about us. This needn’t become a block to our freedom. Rather, it can become the way forward.

As I finish the final cup of tea, I begin the processes of cleaning the equipage. The cups are cleansed once again and placed together.

So, too, are the wooden trivets they sat upon.

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

For a brief moment, I appreciate the teapot, the small Sī Tíng Hú. The shape, volume, clay, and firing, all honed and practiced by the craftsperson who created it to be a tool to best brew tea.

Next I turn my attention to examine the tea leaves. Each leaf tells a story. Every color of dark emerald green, russet and red speak to the journey that they’ve endured.

Now, in their unfurling, they sit as a knot untied. As a result of the water’s heat, of time elapsed, of attention given. They’ve become a grip loosened. A moment explored. A heart opened.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting

Iris by the River’s Edge. Carp Leaping Up a Waterfall.

With the beginning of May, the heat of Summer seems to be growing day by day. As the glories of Spring have come and gone, blossoms are replaced by the deep greens of the forest and the occasional burst of color as flowers bloom by the river’s edge. The soft murmur of a creek or stream blends with the wind pushing through the trees, bringing a sense of coolness to the mind, even when temperatures are on the rise.

In Japan, early May is marked with the events of Golden Week (黄金週間 Ōgon Shūkan), reaching its climax on the fifth, with 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no sekku, Iris festival. Also known as 重五 Chōgo (“Double Five”), 端午の節句 Tango no sekku (“Beginning of the Horse Month”), and こどもの日 Kodomo no Hi (“Children’s Day”), May 5th is packed with meaning, both in the profane world and in the nebulous world of nature and the supernatural.

Just as Summer begins to appear, people in ancient times would take measures to fortify themselves agains the heat, which also brought about plague, famine and the premature death of young children. In ancient China, sweet-flag (Acorus calamus), as well as mugwort, was hung under the waves of homes to purge evil spirits and avert fires. Similarly, in China, the fifth day of the fifth month is marked with the observation of 端午節 Duānwǔ jié, where it was believed that an offering of rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves to the river dragon would avert dangers that came with the arrival of the rainy season.

In Japan, the water iris (Iris ensata var. ensata) bloom during this period, which spring up like violet-colored arrow points. Their likeness to this article of martial spirit joins the often warrior-infused ethos that surrounds the precursor of Children’s Day, Boy’s Day. Imagery of arrows, samurai armor, and the refined warrior, thus often are abundant in Japan during this time.

As one’s eyes go from the river’s edge to the sky, fluttering multicolored carp-shaped banners can be seen, representing family members in a household. These, too, trace their origin to the dragons of ancient China, as it was believed that dragons originated from carp that swam up waterfalls. The notion of this determined fish to overcome great difficulties and become something greater, more noble than itself, is analogous to a child growing, studying, and cultivating the skills to become an adult, to beat all odds, to awaken to their true self.

As I sit for tea on this May 5th, I cannot help but to engage with this swirl of energies around me. Summer’s heat is finally here and I’ve begun to use the 風炉 furo to heat my 茶釜 chagama. So, too, have I begun to use lighter, wider teabowls. For today’s sitting in observance of Shōbu no sekku, I use a modest 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, which has subtle hues of grey and purple.

For a tea container, I employ a small antique lacquered 小棗 konatsume, upon which is the playful design of 壺 tsubo in a warm gold.

As the kettle comes to a soft, roiling boil, I cleanse the small natsume. After running the 袱紗 fukusa over its glossy surface, I lift the lid, revealing a mound of bright green tea powder.

Placing this to the side, I begin to remove the other items, one by one, to cleanse and prepare for making a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

The 茶杓 chashaku, as straight as an iris, is cleansed and placed atop the natsume. The skin of the bamboo conveys a murky landscape, akin the mists and clouds that surround a waterfall as it pours and torrents through a canyon.

The 茶筅 chasen is lifted and set beside the natsume.

The 柄杓 hishaku is lifted and held in the left hand.

From where it had rested, a 蓋置 futaoki made from a jade archer’s thumb ring, once a symbol of the military elite of 清 Qīng and, later, of scholars.

Water is drawn from the kettle and poured into the bowl. The chasen is dipped and whisked and returned to sit beside the natsume once again.

The bowl stands alone, slick with moisture, clean and fresh and refreshing to view. Small gusts of wind push through a space underneath the window of my tearoom and the coming heat of the day is assuaged for a moment.

I lift the chashaku from atop the natsume and bring it before me. I lift the natsume and remove its lid. I place the first of three scoops of 抹茶 matcha into the teabowl. The bright color contrasting against the soft greys and purples of the teabowl’s glaze.

Once all three have been placed in the center of the bowl, I mark the small heap with the sigil of my school and lightly tap the chashaku along the inner rim of the teabowl, removing any excess tea dust from the scoop. A soft ringing sound rises like a small bell.

I place the chashaku back atop the natsume, its tip coated in tea. Cool water is added from the 水指 mizusashi into the chagama and the sound of boiling ceases. The tiny world of my tearoom is silent and still. My mind focuses as I bring the ladle down towards the teabowl. A small gust of wind. A splash of water. The rhythmic motion and sounds of whisking tea.

I draw the chasen out from the bowl. A small peak of foam rises in the center of the chawan. A tiny mountain for the mind to climb. I lift the bowl before me. A solitary offering as I take a moment for myself to pause between work and life and the ongoing challenges of the world. The mind flutters like a flag in the wind. Like a carp leaping up a waterfall. Caught in these actions all day, we often don’t take moments like this to just return to simply sitting. Simply doing. Simply being.

As children, perhaps we unlearned this quality of life. For what? To become a warrior like mom and dad? A scholar, resting their head upon a stack of books? A poet, forced from their home into exile? The carp jumps out of the water. The iris springs from the river’s edge. Dragons are born and people awaken.

The bowl of tea vanishes as quickly as it was made. All that is left are the frothy dregs.

I turn the bowl in my hands and inspect its every imperfection. The bubbling glaze on its foot reminding me of who I am.

I cleanse the bowl, the chasen, and the chashaku once more.

I decide on a whim to enjoy a final 拝見 haiken by myself. The natsume is placed beside the chashaku on a tray of mulberry wood. Set against the swirling of the wooden grain, I lose myself in the little objects and the moment they helped to make possible.

A painting of tsubo playfully dance and roll across the lid of the tea container.

I open the lid to see the remnants of the tea inside. A concave carved-out represents this one meeting of myself with myself.

The chashaku, with its mountains and canyons, mists and waterfalls all made by some moisture that had once accumulated against the skin of a bamboo stalk now become the journey I have taken.

Leaping and fluttering, flapping and climbing.

My eyes glance over to the alcove. A scholar’s carp-shaped water-dropper sits in the 床間 tokonoma. This carp, too, will become a dragon.

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

Ryōkan-sa! Playful as a Child.

As April wanders onward at its casual pace, Spring’s glory continues to build into a bright, vibrant crescendo. Birdsong fills the air. Blossoms, big and small, cluster on tree tops and flowers push up through the rich soil. Rain clouds gather in bright blue skies, ready to quell any heat that might rise. Despite all that plagues the world today, I’ll find a moment’s joy in the brief and beautiful respite nature has to offer.

It is the second Sunday of the month and for much of the Western world, Easter is being celebrated; the resurrection mirrored in the resurgence of life at the apex of the season. I find my partner, a devout Catholic, listening to the Pope’s Easter mass as we walk through our quiet neighborhood.

As for me, a practitioner of tea, I find myself dipping into a book of poetry by 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) poet-priest 良寛大愚 Ryōkan Taigu (1758-1831), looking for inspiration as I ready for a bowl of tea in observance of his death, traditionally memorialized on the second Sunday of April. Page after page of the few books I have on the eccentric Zen monk offer endless ideas.

Rather than get lost in the infinite possibilities, however, I make the ultimate nod to the humble man and opt to keep things simple. A plain wooden 平棗 hiranatsume, an irregularity shaped 鬼萩茶碗Oni-Hagi chawan, and a 木魚 mokugyo in the 床間 tokonoma.

As I sit to make a bowl of tea, I let it become a meditation on the practice of Ryōkan and the traces of his life he left with his poetry. Throughout his early life, Ryōkan traveled, leaving his hometown and his inherited post as the village headman in search of a Zen teacher and a life beyond the weight of the worldly. He travelled from temple to temple, studying the dharma, as well as poetry, both Classical Chinese and 和歌 waka. After learning of his father’s suicide in 1795, he returned to his hometown and began living in an empty hermitage. There, he would live out the rest of his life, writing poetry, deeming his practice in meditation, forgetting his responsibilities whilst playing with local children, and producing loose and beautiful calligraphy the likes of which the world had never seen.

Like myself, he was inspired by the poets of the past. In one poem, me proclaimed “In my hermitage a volume of Cold Mountain Poems — It is better than any sutra. I copy his verses and post them all around, Savoring each one, over and over.”

As I sit with the etched-out memories Ryōkan, my iron kettle coming to a boil and a natsume full of 抹茶 matcha, I begin to make a bowl of tea. With the sun climbing down the Western sky, I enjoy the quiet peace of the afternoon, the soft hiss of the kettle, the gentle space created by the infusing of sunlight with the scent of incense.

I produce my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa and begin to cleanse the bare wooden lid of the low-slung hiranatsume.

I then turn my attention to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku.

I lay the tea scoop across the top of the tea container, appreciating the natural patterns upon the surface of its skin.

The tiny bamboo sprout pushing up from the center of its 節 fushi. It reminds me of the story how once Ryōkan, upon seeing a small bamboo shoot growing up through the floorboards of his hermitage, attempted to burn a hole in the ceiling with a candle for the bamboo shoot to grow up and out, only to end up accidentally burning his hut to the ground.

I then begin the process of warming the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl. The light of the day beaming through the windows of my tearoom, collecting under the water and reflecting against the white interior of the chawan.

With all utensils ready, I peer down into the center of the bowl, noting it’s form. Noting the small cracks in the glaze.

Small pits that have formed over use and time.

I lift my chashaku and open the natsume. I dip the tip of the scoop into the low mound of powdered tea and pull out a small measure of matcha. A fluid arc, a direct movement, and I place the tea into the center of the teabowl.

I repeat this two more times and finish by drawing the sigil of my school into the pile of tea dust. A sign of a double cross. Perhaps the sign of a hidden Christian (隠れキリシタン Kakure Kirishitan).

I tap the excess matcha powder from the tip of the tea scoop and return the chashaku back atop the lid of the hiranatsume. The dark bamboo peeking through a light dusting of tea.

I focus my mind and draw water from the iron kettle, pouring half of the 柄杓 hishaku’s cup into the bowl. I focus again and begin to whisk the tea. For a moment, the sunshine, the lingering scent of incense, the warmth of the 茶釜 chagama seems so lovely. For a moment, my focused mind forgets itself, getting lost in the action.

Ryōkan would forget his walking stick whilst drinking 酒 sake, his wooden begging bowl whilst playing with the village children, his daily duties while sitting with friends.

I forget myself in this bowl of tea. A vast and tiny world inside its earthen walls. A bamboo scoop my wanderer’s pole. A low-slung caddy all the nourishment I need. A whisk to whip-up a bowl of tea, to sweep away the dust of the world.

I call my partner in from her studies to savor the first bowl of tea I’ve made and set it down beside me for her to pick it up.

She sits with me and we meditate briefly together in the light that filters through the window. For a moment we savor each other’s company and the minute break we’ve taken from our daily responsibilities.

She offers thanks and then I set to making a bowl for myself.

I drink the tea I’ve made heartily and set the bowl down to appreciate the pattern of the remaining dregs. The mundane nature of it reminding myself that this is all we are. Do not take myself so seriously. Ryōkan, himself an honored Buddhist monk, was often called “Ryōkan-sa” by the local children, an informal shortening of the honorific “san” following his name. This, too, reminds me to not take myself so seriously.

I cleanse the bowl with the cool water from my 水指 mizusashi. Together we admire the eccentric and irregular shape of the white OniHagi teabowl. The large dark voids on its surface where the glaze was kept at bay. The curious 切十文字高台 kirijumonjikōdai (“cross-cut foot”) form favored by by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.

Such a foot was purportedly favored by Kakure Kirishitans who practiced tea. I let this bowl of tea stand in for a number of things today.

For the eccentric nature of Ryōkan. For the resurrection of my partner’s god. For the crossroads we all find ourselves at during this beautiful and terrifying time.

I cleanse the bowl once more and set the utensils back to rest. The sunlight pouring over the teaware, over the large wooden board that stretches across my tearoom’s floor.

It eddies and collects in corners. Offset by shadows. A mokugyo in the tokonoma. Dewdrops on a lotus leaf.

Ryōkan once wrote “Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. When you know that my poems are not poems, then we can speak of poetry!”

As I close this sitting set to a bowl of matcha, I quip, “Who says my tea is tea? My tea is not tea. When you know that my tea is not tea, then we can speak of tea!”

****

For more information on Ryōkan Taigu and a selection of translated poems by him, I recommend Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, translation by John Steven (Shambala Centaur Editions, 1996) and Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings, translated with essays by Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel (University of Hawaii Press, 1996).

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

EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II

Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

A little over a month ago I led the tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”. As part of an ongoing series of tea talks I’ve been leading for over a decade, and a sequel to a talk I gave several years ago, this time I dove even deeper into tea’s history to investigate tea and tea culture during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Now, as many of us find ourselves sequestered in our homes, under self-quarantine against COVID-19, I want to offer up the video from this tea talk, filmed live at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Only two hours long, consider this video a crash course in ancient tea history as we discuss how tea developed from ancient medicine to lofty beverage, enjoyed by scholars, monks and emperors alike. Using ancient Sòng, as well as antique and contemporary reproductions of Sòng teawares, we’ll go into great detail of how tea during the Song period was prepared.

All 抹茶 mǒchá, unless stated otherwise, was hand-produced and hand-ground in the manner detailed in Sòng period texts, to approximate as closely the look, feel and flavor from this time. For reference, I have provided a list of what we tasted.

• First Tea: Hand-ground semi-wild 白茶 báichá from Fuding, Fujian, China.

• Second “Tea”: Powdered mugwort leaves grown and produced in South Korea.

• Third Tea: Hand-ground 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn grown in the Dongting mountains near Lake Tai, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

• Fourth Tea: Whole leaf 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn (brewed for comparative purposes).

• Fifth Tea: Fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha from Uji, Kyōto prefecture, Japan.

For additional insights on this topic, I have linked previous blog posts that discuss tea during the Sòng period:

“Everything for the First Time”

“A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk”

“Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style”

“EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”


To view “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II”, follow the link above.

For the first talk I delivered on tea in the Song period, please follow this link provided below:

If you are interested in attending or scheduling this tea talk or tea talks like this, please email me at scottttea888@gmail.com.

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

The Fragility of Spring

With the first few true days of Spring upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, the world feels fresh, the air crisp and easy. While trees still appear barren from Winter’s icy grip, upon closer inspection, each branch is laden with tiny buds, waiting to burst into leaf or flower at any moment. The pines stand with their new needles clumped together in their bright electric green. The 梅 ume plum blossoms are deep sanguineous red. The magnolia flowers still remain wrapped in their thick and fuzzy sheaths. Below, the new shoots of bright green grass push up through the soil and a light Spring shower brings earthworms to the surface, frogs to the full creeks.

There exists a sense of newness everywhere. Yet, as with every moment we encounter, early Spring holds with it a sense of fragility. The season is not yet at its full apex. Its energy, while rising, presents itself through the most delicate of means. The ume plum blossoms can be pulled down by the slightest of breezes. The shoots of grass are thin and pliable. The pine needles are soft to the touch. On the warmer days, butterflies come out and dance on the early blooming flowers. Both blossoms’ petals and butterflies’ wings are translucent and transient, gone by season’s end.

In Japan, early March is marked with a number of observances that reflect the evanescence of life. On March 3rd, 雛祭り Hinamatsuri, “Dolls Festival” or “Girls’ Day” is celebrated. In ancient times, as is still done now, dolls made of fine paper and brocade depicting the ancient imperial court are arranged in celebration of childhood. Traditionally, dolls were also placed on small grass boats and sent down the river (流し雛 nagashibina) as a means to rid oneself of potentially dangerous impurities.

Older, still, was the practice of 曲水の宴 kyokusuinoen, where courtiers would float cups of wine down a winding river, sending them to other scholars downstream who, upon collecting and imbibing the contents, would compose an impromptu poem. Older than this, March 3rd was celebrated by the ancients as 桃の節句 Momo no Sekku, “Peach Festival”, marking the moment when the delicate peach blossoms would emerge.

With all this activity in early March, the days can feel full, a new page turning with every day that passes. For the tea practitioner, the emerging of Spring feels all the more palpable as each moment had with tea brings new opportunities to reflect upon the newest developments and those soon to come. For myself, I find this activity to drive me to wanting quietude and time in nature. While I have been planning a trip up the Hudson River, I find myself restless, still caught in New York City. With talk of a spreading international pandemic and the ever-swirling political environment of the United States churning, the sense of fragility seems all the more present in my mind.

Settling down in my tearoom, I find my 取り合わせ toriawase to be a mirror onto this moment. Rather than sit with my old bronze brazier, I bring forth my small ceramic 涼炉 ryōro, atop which I place a white clay ボーフラ bōfura kettle.

Equally informal, I pair this with a lacquered 盆 bon. For a teabowl, I use a blush-colored vintage 萩焼茶碗 Hagiyaki chawan.

For a tea container, I improvise with an antique Chinese enameled cloisonné box, decorated with a bright butterfly and flowers motif against a black background.

Removing teabowl and tea container from the bon, I go through the process of initially cleansing each item.

Wiping the surface of the tea caddy with the 袱紗 fukusa, I lift its lid to inspect the mound of 抹茶 matcha powder held within.

After cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku, I turn my attention to the 茶筅 chasen and teabowl, rinsing each with the warm water from the small clay kettle.

Once purified, I scoop matcha into the warm chawan. In the warm light of the day, the color of the Hagiyaki glaze glows, reminiscent of the pale hue of a peach blossom.

The color of the bright matcha beaming like a fresh leaf.

The remaining tea residue against the dark bamboo, bright like fine moss against a branch. Each ware, a celebration of this brief moment caught within the season.

Fully whisked, the tea looks inviting, as relaxing as a Spring day. Its aroma pungent and fresh. Its flavor full of vigor and vitality.

Lifting the bowl to my lips, I sip the tea down to its last dregs, enjoying the remnants of tea that still clings to the chawan’s interior.

Turning the bowl over, I enjoy its shape in my hand and the unctuous glaze that had collected along the edge of the exposed clay around the 高台 kōdai.

I sit and let this moment wash over me. The sound of a cardinal outside my window. The tinkling of the clay kettle chattering as it boils. The lingering warmth held within the walls of the teabowl’s clay. Each of these moments exist only for this one time and then vanish, never to return again as they are.

Seasons cycle and recycle themselves constantly. What you might expect to arise again upon Spring’s return comes later than supposed and emerges differently. What forms you once thought were unbreakable are in fact fragile. A teabowl. A butterfly’s wing. One’s childhood. One’s parents. All float down the river, we catch them if we can, compose thoughts that come to us, and send them on their way. Towards the river’s end. The ocean’s beginning. To the end of a moment. To its point of no return as we once knew it. Tea affords the practitioner a view into this dynamic, yet this, too, is fleeting.

I finish my time with tea by cleansing the wares once more. Wetting and whisking and wiping away the residue of the past until each object rests again pristine upon the round lacquered tray.

Uncharacteristically to this informal setting, I decide to arrange a small 拝見 haiken. Having just practiced 香道 kōdō earlier that morning, I pull out the old wooden 香盆 kōbon tray to double as a surface to present the wares upon. The improvised tea container is set beside the chashaku.

I open it to inspect the mound of matcha as I had when I first sat down to make a bowl of tea.

Its surface is marked now by the removal of three scoops. It is marked by the memory of a bowl of tea.

The chashaku, with the small node of a new bamboo shoot pressing out of its 節 fushi. A memory, too, of life, of time, of a moment of newness, of the fragility of Spring.

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

Like Spring, History Slowly Reveals Itself

img_5473The first days of February have come and gone and with it so too have the first vital days of Spring. While February 4th officially marked the beginning of Spring with 立春 Risshun (Lì Chūn in Mandarin), little evidence of Spring’s arrival exists. Even for what was a rather mild Winter in New York City, frost still collects in puddles and birds still hold on to their thick down. Yet, Spring has begun, slowly, creeping into the psyche of city dwellers and tea people alike.

Frigid rain has replaced the chance of snow and the red buds of 梅 ume blossoms plump in neat rows along the branches of once barren plum trees. In cold nights they burst open, revealing their bright, pale hue in the electric moonlight.

In accordance with this, I draw inspiration for a morning’s sitting with tea. Caught for weeks in my own research on the preparation of 抹茶 mǒchá (matcha in Japanese) during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), of which I will be presenting on later this week, I decide to take what I’ve learned and apply it to making a special bowl of tea.

What is known about the preparation of mǒchá is hazy. As a researcher and tea person, I rely upon an ever increasing variety of texts and images to work off of. Documents like 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng’s 茶錄 Chá Lù (“Record of Tea”, 1049) or Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng’s 大觀茶論 Dàguān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) may discuss the finer points of whisking-up a bowl of mǒcha in the 點茶 diǎn chá fashion, though these omit aspects such as the “between steps” that may dictate how a tea cloth is folded, the exact motion of the whisk, or the way the hand should lift something so mundane yet important as a tea scoop. Juxtaposing this research to my own tea practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, more often than not, I am left to “fill in the blanks” and make “educated guesses” as to how some of the more minute actions of Sòng tea preparation would have occurred.

With each year I study this approach to tea, however, the deeper my knowledge develops. Looking back at the previous year and the year before that when I first began to hone my skills in hand-grinding white tea to get an approximation of what would have been made during the Sòng period, I can see that I’ve made strides. Still, though, it has been a slow accumulation of knowledge, one akin to walking out in a heavy mist. Over time, one will become fully-saturated, drenched to the core. Yet something as boundless and as equally intangible as tea during the Sòng period (no known tea cakes from this time survive nor does the tea powder), what I feel that I’ve been chasing is a bit of a phantom. And yet, in practice, this specter of history begins to reveal itself.

As I sit down, kettle coming to a steady boil, I recognize that the water is ready for tea not by any modern technology but by the sound of bubbles breaking the surface. By the Sòng period, the allusion of “wind rushing through the pines” would have been a staple to any well-seasoned tea person’s practice.

img_5585-1From my shelf, I pull forth a collection of teawares, all of which are Japanese in origin, yet are explicitly crafted to replicate Sòng wares.

5ee310dc-e57c-4281-8bcc-11241795863bFor a tea caddy, I use a small 京焼茶入 Kyō-yaki chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver silk brocaded 仕服 shifuku.

32eaf6e3-63ee-49d3-8a50-270a33ea83dfRemoved from its pouch, it reveals a shape that would have been common to both tea practitioners and apothecaries of the Sòng period.

468cb4a2-31c4-4537-8a11-1bdf3b8814a1For a tea scoop, I opt for a more 真 shin (“formal”) 茶杓 chashaku. While crafted out of a single length of cedar, the slender, uninterrupted form with a curved tip harkens back to scoops of the Sòng period which were made out of gold, silver or ivory.

fd0f92ae-270d-4948-8351-917a817e9750The whisk is a modified Japanese 茶筅 chasen, one in which I have straightened the many thin bamboo tines to reproduce the style depicted in 審安老人 Shěn Ān Lǎorén’s 茶具圖贊 Chájù Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”, 1269).

1b7bc3ef-3693-4833-bf77-bac628240ce6Once emptied of its contents, the interior of the teabowl is exposed, revealing a dappled pattern with a scattered plum blossom motif. The style on display, called 黑釉剪紙貼花 hēi yòu jiǎnzhǐ tiē huā (“black glaze paper-cut appliqué”), was made famous by the 吉州窯 Jízhōu yáo kilns during the Sòng period.

img_5486This particular pattern is now considered to be quite formal in Japanese tea ceremony and, as it depicts ume blossoms, is only used at this time of year.

img_5489Warming the bowl and softening the whisk readies each of the implements to prepare a bowl of mǒchá. Practiced in chanoyu, these steps were originally noted during the Sòng period; the hot water softened the whisk, making it more flexible, and it purportedly allowed the tea powder to rise more easily off of the surface of the teabowl (to aid in the creation of a thick foam).

c8e8b905-a96c-4ba3-a0e8-284eae506b9bLifting the chashaku and chaire, I draw out six scoops of white tea I had hand-ground and sieved earlier that day.

img_5542-1Placed in the center of the teabowl, I pour a small amount of water along the inside edge of the ceramic vessel, allowing it to run down and under the mound of tea powder.

1425d03f-8fe2-491e-aff0-445ad3a8dd5fWhisk in hand, I begin to slowly knead the powdered tea and water into a thick paste.

img_5544Next, I gently pour water around the inside rim of the bowl, allowing it, again, to gently run down and mix into the thick concoction of tea and water. As this occurs, I begin to quicken the speed of whisking, loosening my wrist and allowing the whisk to move in broader strokes. Soon a soft, light foam begins to arise.

img_5547Again I issue water into the teabowl and, again, I whisk, further mixing the tea. The foam begins to mound.

img_5549A fourth pulse of water is issued, and again I whisk. The foam tightens, becoming finer, brighter in color and complexion.

img_5550A fifth round of water is poured into the teabowl and the foam rises higher, with an appearance akin to freshly fallen snow.

img_5552A sixth pouring of water and I begin to slow the pace of my whisking, causing the foam to become gentle and even.

img_5554Finally, a seventh gust of hot water is issued into the teabowl, and I finish whisking with a final circular motion around the circumference of the bowl’s interior, exited from the center of the foamy surface, resulting in a delicate peak.

21a45a98-3244-4223-9166-5135a905ee55For a brief moment I sit before the assembled collection of teaware. For a moment I ponder if what I’ve created is, indeed, what would have been enjoyed by literati, monks, emperors and skilled 鬥茶 dòuchá (“tea battle”) competitors of 建安 Jiàn’ān.

img_5556For a moment longer I wait to see if the foam holds, noting its edge against the dark glaze of the Jízhōu yáo-style teabowl. A minute passes and still it holds. A minute more and I cannot wait longer to drink the foamy concoction I’ve made.

img_5558Lifting the teabowl with the aid of a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I accept the bowl of tea in the formal manner I’ve learned from my tea teacher. Such formality is rather rare in modern tea practice, saved for when tea is served in ancient-styled wares, the origins of which are from Sòng period China.

This link is not lost on me as I realize that perhaps there remains within these motions the echoes of a practice not recorded by the essayists of the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These motions I had to learn. I had to turn teachings into muscle memory. Even the scribbled notes and scant recordings I have cannot inform me enough to know how to conduct myself at this moment. This cannot be recorded by any medium save for the mind. Once forgotten, these will be gone. Over years, and by way of my teacher and his teacher and teacher’s teacher, it has taken centuries to transmit this knowledge. History, like Spring, is slow to reveal itself; to be fully realized.

As I lift the bowl to my lips, I sip and savor the sweet, floral flavors of this creation. It is unlike any other kind of tea I’ve had. As I finish the bowl of tea, I am mindful not to drink the last dregs. As I have hand-ground the tea, the process is still rough, resulting in a small amount of tea grit to remain at the bottom of the bowl.

img_5569However, since I am using a Sòng-style 天目 tiānmù (tenmoku in Japanese) shaped bowl, there is a articulated indentation that runs along the inner rim of the teabowl. This indentation collects the final particles that remain, keeping them from being consumed. This simple form was the genius of the Sòng period potter, still practiced by ceramicists of this chawan style today.

img_5582As I finish cleansing the teabowl and wares, I finish today’s sitting with a final 拝見 haiken. Arranging the caddy, scoop and silk shifuku on a 香盆 kōban, I meditate on how history can sometimes, quite literally, shape the world we live in.

img_5573Objects for tea, beautiful and, at times mundane, contain within them volumes of stories, many of which still remain untold.

img_5574As my ability to read old texts continues to improve, will my appreciation of these forms deepen? Is it through the reading of ancient treatises that I will come to some greater realization? Or, perhaps, will it be through the actions they inspire?

img_5575Will this quest to recreate an ancient bowl of whisked tea become my practice? What will I learn by doing? What will be learned through this direct experience with the material world? An accumulation of knowledge? Of mist until I’m drenched? Of dust until I’m weighed down? A Spring slowly emerging. A history slowly revealing itself. A plum blossom bursting open to the light of the full moon.

 

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

A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk

It’s mid-January and it already feels like the year is wearing me down. Nations are tipping towards war. My partner’s family are being forced to evacuate their ancestral home in the Philippines due to a volcanic eruption. Climate change continues to cause worldwide calamity. In these dire circumstances, I cannot help but to sit and make tea.

I am reminded of the esoteric 真言律宗 Shingon-Risshū (Shingon-Vinaya sect) ritual held every January 15th at 西大寺 Saidaiji in the ancient capital city of Nara. Called 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki (lit. “big tea made in a grand style”), it involves the serving of a large bowl of tea to the local congregation of temple goers.

Originating during the 鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai (Kamakura period, 1185–1333) when a Buddhist monk by the name of 叡尊 Eison (1201-1290) offered a bowl of 抹茶 matcha to the deity Hachiman. In this, he also offered tea to the local people. Rather than serve the assembled crowd with a multitude of small bowls, he opted to serve the tea in one large bowl. Today, the practice is said to bring the tea-reciecing guests good fortune and health for the New Year.

Similarly, given that all of the objects for this ritual are equally large (the 茶碗 chawan, the 茶筅 chasen, the 水指 mizusashi, the 棗 natsume, and 茶釜 chagama), it requires great strength and collective assistance to make and drink a bowl of tea. Having seen pictures of this early on in my tea practice, I was amazed at the scale of this, notably the size of the tea whisk, which measured almost a meter in length.

Sitting in my tearoom today, making a single bowl of tea to usher a year of good fortune, I cannot help but to ponder the develop of this piece of tea technology we know as the tea whisk.

Prior to the “official” popularization of whole leaf steeped tea (brought about by the 1391 imperial edict by Ming Emperor 洪武 Hóngwǔ (1328-1398), which declared that 貢茶 gòng chá, tribute tea, would no longer be offered in cake form), tea had largely been enjoyed as a mixture of hot water and powdered tea leaves throughout much of China, Korea, and Japan.

During the Tang period (618-907), compressed tea leaves were crushed and simmered, often brewed along with additional additives such as salt, dried herbs, flowers, and roots. As such, this beverage was more akin to the many medicinal soups that were part of the broader variety of Chinese medicines of the time. It wasn’t until the mid-Tang period that we see recorded the consumption of “tea for tea’s sake”, in such treaties on tea as 陸羽 Lù Yǔ’s (733-804) 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762). However, tea wouldn’t be whisked until the later 宋 Song period (960-1279).

During this time, tea leaves were picked and processed and then ground down into powder. This powder tea would then be compressed into cake forms (團茶 tuánchá). Prior to brewing, the tea cakes would be broken, pulverized, sifted and powdered, finally being scooped into a tea bowl, where water was added and the tea was stirred from a thick slurry to a drinkable beverage.

Historical writings note that by the mid-Song period, tea was being whisked with a specialized tea scoop (茶匙 cháchí). In his 茶錄 Chá (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053), 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng wrote that this scoop should be heavy so it can be whisked with force and that it was optimally made with gold, though commonly with silver or iron. Bamboo was deemed to light to achieve the desired results.

By the 1100s, this process had further refined, and so too did the equipage. Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng described in his 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) the process and utensils for making a delicate bowl of 抹茶 mǒchá. In this, the stirring stick is replaced by a finely-crafted 茶筅 cháxiǎn (chasen in Japanese).

In the hands of a skilled tea practitioner, a bright, creamy foam would arise, “lustrous like mounding snow”. This refined process was poetically called 點茶 diǎn chá, to “mark the tea”, as more skilled practitioners were famed to have been able to create images in the foam they produced. To aid in this process and achieve the desired suspension of the tea powder, whisks fashioned out of finely splayed bamboo were crafted.

As one part of a wide array of necessary tea equipage, the whisk occasionally appeared in art depicting tea preparation.

A clearer image appears in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān lǎo rén (Old man Shenan). Here, the whisk is given the poetic name 竺副師 zhú shī (literally translated to “Vice Commander Bamboo”, reflecting twelve “officer” ranks in the Southern Song period, there being twelve objects in the “Pictorial of Tea”). This image seems to depict what Huīzōng noted in his treatise; that the whisk should be made of older bamboo, the tines carved down to fine points like a sword’s blade, to be flexible and strong yet able to remain quiet and manageable when whisking tea.

Concurrently, by the late Southern Song period, we see whisks beginning to take on a form that bears a close resemblance to modern matcha whisks. Evidence of this is found in the ink on silk handscroll painting by Southern Song literati painter 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng (active 1190–1230). In his《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”), Lǐ goes to great length to show the contents of a tradesperson’s cart.

In this, we see a variety of tea ephemera, from ewers and bowls, a small stove and cup holders.

Upon closer inspection, one can see what appears to be a tea whisk.

Though records such as 朱權 Zhū Quán’s 1440 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”) mention that tea continued to be whisked up through the early-to-mid Ming period (1368-1644), the Song-style whisks (and the preparation of whisking powdered tea) eventually disappeared from China as the less complicated approach to brewing whole leaf tea took hold. However, whisked tea and the tea whisk did not disappear completely. Instead, it had made its way to Korean and Japan.

Beginning in the Tang period, Buddhist monks from Korean and Japan travelled to China, returning with learnings, as well as tea seeds and tea wares. From the Song period onward, the whisk began to make its way into both Korea and Japan, eventually influencing their own tea cultures (which were already deeply influenced by earlier Chinese forms). While records and physical artifactual evidence of whisks from these geographic areas or cultures from this period are limited at best, the whisk that was most likely used at this time was most likely similar to that of Song China.

Today, we can find its “distant relative” in the unique tea whisks used in throughout the Japanese archipelago. In Toyama and Niigata prefectures they employ a special “double-whisk” for the whisking of バタバタ茶 batabatacha (a form of powdered post-fermented tea, often serves with salt).

In Okinawa (once the Ryūkū kingdom/琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku), a larger and more robust bamboo whisk used used for whisking ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha (often made of a mixture of toasted rice and tea, though other versions exist).

Superficially, both the batabatacha and bukubuku whisks bear a close resemblance to the tea whisks described in the Song period.

Both are long and flexible, and both forego the final splaying of the bamboo tines (as seen in the whisk depicted in Lǐ Sōng’s “Huòláng ”. In regards to the batabatacha whisk, this allows for the unique double-whisk form to flex and whip-up a fine foam.

As tea culture continued to evolve, tea and teaware forms evolved too. Japan continued to transform the shape and construction of the chasen until it took on a form that is recognizable today, with a set number of tines (usually ranging from 80 to 100 to 120), often finely carved to thin and flexible tips, splayed apart into two sections (an inner core and outer ring) through weaving thread between the individual tines. However, variations still exist.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) and 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”) call for different types of chasen.

Koicha, because it required the host to “knead” the tea into a thick slurry, calls for a more robust chasen. As a result, the tines of the chasen are fewer (typically often 80 tips, sometimes 60).

Usucha, since it usually requires a faster motion, requires the tines to be more flexible. As a result, the artisan will cut more of them (100-120 tines) and carve them thinner.

However, wider variations occur between different schools and levels of formality they observe, resulting in a wide variety of shapes, styles, lengths, tine count, types of bamboo employed, and ways they are carved and woven.

Smaller, more portable tea whisks are even made to be packed away for traveling tea sets, like this miniature chasen used for 野点 nodate.

So, what does this all mean as I sit to make my own bowl of tea? What does it mean to look upon a tea whisk? It is such a simple and mundane object to a tea practitioner. And yet, it, like everything in this world, has its story, it’s past. There was a person who must have been the first to imagine this. It surely did not invent itself. And yet it changed over time.

Someone must have believed they could refine the shape, the feel of the object in the hand, the way it might sit upwards atop its handle (as we now practice in chanoyu).

Someone must have decided that the whisk would work better if the tines were thinner, more flexible, more resilient to breaking. Someone must have understood that pre-warming the whisk in hot water would make it perform its task with greater ease and grace.

We cannot take this process for granted. Countless creative minds over thousands of years have left their mark on this most mundane of object to produce the transcendent experience we know as tea.

To be able to whisk a bowl of tea is in some way a culmination of this and a continuation of this evolution.

What new discoveries will we make?

What new hidden wonders will arise from our inspired minds. What great fortune will be bestowed upon the next generations from the thoughtfulness of those who currently live upon this tiny planet?

One bowl of tea after another. One more moment to recreate the world.

****

Links to resources and images (which are not my own):

Image of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://www.lmaga.jp/news/2018/01/33827/

Link to video of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=50DDa4RFpCg

Translation of 大觀茶論 Dà guān chá lùn (“Treatise on Tea”): https://www.globalteahut.org/resources/april16elec.pdf

Wikipedia article about 茶具圖贊 Chájù tú zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorial_of_Tea_Ware

Link to complete and detailed images from 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng’s 《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”): http://www.8mhh.com/2015/0107/20397.shtml#g20397=12

Translation of 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”): http://archive.globalteahut.org/docs/pdf_articles/2017-04/2017-04-a016.pdf

Images and great article about バタバタ茶 batabatacha tea whisk: https://www.google.com/amp/s/japaneseteasommelier.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/batabata-cha-from-toyama/amp/

Image of ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha tea whisk: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ブクブク茶

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

As Summer Wanes, No Autumn Leaves

Late Summer sees the loosening of heat’s grip over the day. Cool breezes flutter even as the asphalt of the streets outside simmers in the sun. Day after day is met with rain and thunder, and I am left to make tea indoors.

On such a day, I pull together a teaset to brew a sample of tea recently sent to me from a tea farmer in China’s Wuyishan tea growing region. The tea, a 老欉水仙 Lǎo Cóng Shuǐ Xiān (lit. “Old Bush/Grove Water Immortal”), is a long-leaf dark oolong, harvested from tea bushes over fifty years old.

To brew this, I select a teapot I rarely use, a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot). In the murky light of a rainy day of early Autumn, the teapot’s crisp form casts hazy shadows from the sharply-hewn lines.

The subtle dome of the lid rises gently off the conical body. The bridge-like handle atop the lid seems to be carved as if emerging out from a mist. The delicate pattern of grains in the clay give the piece an overall glow.

In contrast, the clean white surface of three contemporary 哥窯 Gē yáo cups beam brightly against the warm wooden top of my tea table. Thin lines of crazing, long-ago given the poetic name 鐵弦 tiě xián (lit. “iron wire/thread”), cover each cup and break their circular form into minute fractures for the mind to wander through.

In preparation for brewing, I issue-out a portion of the Shuǐ Xiān leaves into an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”, nickel silver) scoop, itself in the shape of a broad banana leaf that were commonly featured in the classic gardens of scholars and poets of China.

Once the water comes to a rolling boil, I open the teapot and pour hot water inside to warm the tiny vessel.

Emptied, I place the tea leaves into the pot’s warmed interior.

Filling the teapot once again, I close the lid and pour hot water over its exterior, further warming the tea within.

Moments pass and the sound of rain fades. I pour the tea out into each cup until the pot is completely empty. Lifting the lid and placing it against the ridge of the handle, the hot, moist air caught inside the teapot is allowed to escape, rising upward, cooling the tea leaves for subsequent steepings.

Peering upon the copper-colored liqueur of the brewed oolong, my mind is caught in the anticipation of Autumn’s arrival.

As I look out of my tearoom window, the leaves on the trees still shine a slick emerald green, not yet ready to transform into the lacquer-like reds and golds of Fall. As I quiet my mind, the sound of thunder rises in the distance, sounding against the cacophony of the cicada’s cries. As I sip from the first cup, I am reminded of the scent of fallen leaves, of cold weather’s warming spices, and the clean crisp air of Autumn.

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Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style

An ancient Chinese myth tells of two celestial lovers 織女 Zhīnǚ (the star Vega) and 牛郎 Niúlán (the star Altair) kept apart, only united on the seventh evening of the seventh month. It is believed at this time, these stars align and a bridge made of magpies stretches across the Milky Way, linking the two sky-bound lovers. While some within East Asia may observe this day on July 7th in accordance with the Western calendar, the true date of 七夕 Qīxī is variable, dependent on the lunar month and day.

On this 7th of August, I sit down to prepare a very special bowl of tea in observance of Qīxī, one in the style of the Song period (960-1279). To give as accurate of an approximation of this approach, I utilize methods described in such texts as Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng’s 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) and 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng’s 茶錄 Chá Lù (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053). Additionally, I use teaware that closely reflect those which are depicted in Song period paintings and in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù Tú Zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān Lǎo Rén (Old man Shenan).

Much of my time making tea in this manner is spent not with the boiling of water or the whisking of tea, but in the hours-long process of sorting, sifting, and grinding leaves of a wild white tea to make a fine powder.

Once ground-down to a fine enough powder, I place this Song style 抹茶 mǒchá (powdered tea) into a small gourd-shaped celadon container.

Boiling water and assembling teaware becomes its own meditation, set to the scent of incense wafting in the air of my tearoom. Once put together, I offer up what is as close of an approximation to tea during the Song period that I can muster.

A vintage Japanese-made 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan made in reproduction of a Song period 建窯 Jiàn yáo teabowl sitting atop a wooden cup stand.

A bright celadon tea container. A simple scoop fashioned from wood.

A bamboo whisk modified to approximate that which would have been used during the mid-to-late Song period. All items I place atop a tray carved from mulberry wood.

Each item is then cleansed and readied to prepare a bowl of Song style mǒchá.

With the teabowl warmed, I draw-forth six scoops of powdered tea from the small celadon tea container.

Placed in the center of the tenmoku chawan, the faint aroma of tea can already be detected.

Next, I pour a small measure of boiled water over the tea powder and begin to knead it into a thick, consistent paste with the tea whisk.

Once fully kneaded, I add a little more water, just enough to turn the tea paste into a thick liquid.

Whisking slightly faster, I begin to whip the tea into a light foam.

More water is added and I whisk faster.

More water is added and more foam is produced.

Seven times I add water before the tea is fully whisked into a proper bowl of mǒchá as described by Huīzōng during the 12th century.

The soft foam and minuscule patterns of collected tea upon the surface poetically resembling freshly-fallen snow.

Served atop the wooden cup stand, the tea is exceedingly fragrant, surpassing the light aroma of aloeswood that still lingers in the air.

In observance of two star-crossed lovers, as they make their way silently across the sky, I slack my thirst with tea prepared in accordance to an ancient style. The flavor of tea and the time of year melding together into a moment of meditation.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Matcha, Tea, White Tea

In the Mountains on a Summer Day

As the apex of Summer’s heat lingers on in late July, seeking solace from the sun is paramount. Since ancient times, hermit poets wrote of this, sometimes going to extremes measures to avoid the heat. As the temperature climbed higher, so too did these solitary eccentrics, disappearing into the mountains, where even in Summer, they could hide in the mist, enjoy the coolness of mountain streams, and relax to the sound of wind rushing through the pines. In their pursuit to escape the oppressive forces of society and overbearing governments, they also found a respite from the tyranny of Summer’s heat.

In his poem 《夏日山中》”Xià Rì Shān Zhōng” (“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”), Tang period poet 李白 Lǐ Bái (701-762) wrote of his attempts to evade the heat at Summer’s peak, sitting naked in the mountains, with barely enough energy to fan himself. His only relief coming from a light breeze that pushes through the pine trees.

As I find myself sequestered in my tree-top apartment in New York City, looking down on the forest outside my window, I can see the shimmering waves of heat rising from the concrete below. Rolling-down the shades to block-out the sun, the heat still enters the space of my tearoom.

To escape this, I set my clay kettle to boil and assemble a tea set together. A small antique Japanese blue-and-white porcelain teapot from the early 1900s set atop a 染付 sometsuke plate. I pair this with a contemporary Korean 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel). The overall effect is exceedingly casual, in keeping with the sense of relaxation I am hoping to achieve.

Epitomizing this intention, however, is my choice of tea: a fresh 鴨屎香鳳凰單烏龍茶 Yā shǐ xiāng fènghuáng dān wūlóngchá (lit. “duck shit fragrance phoenix single grove oolong tea”). Originally given a vulgar name by a tea farmer who sought not to share his most prized tea, quintessentially “Duck Shit” oolong is a balanced, full-flavored tea. Long, wiry leaves bear the evidence of mid-oxidation, with shades of dark red, earthy olive, and the blue-black color of a crow’s plumage.

Once saturated by the hot water from my kettle, the tea awakens and begins to release its flavor and golden liqueur.

Brewing this tea in the particular manner native to the region of Chaozhou, I let the time pass, allowing the high heat of the boiled water to access every layer of flavor found within the tea leaves.

Once fully decanted, the resting tea reveals a spectrum of colors that once were dormant.

Leafy tendrils edged in crimson, copper, emerald, and rust elude to the flavors developed by the partnership of nature’s forces and the skilled hand of the tea master.

Set against the matte grey of the sookwoo, the brilliant color of tea radiates like the golden sun outside my tearoom window.

I take a moment to pause and pour from sookwoo to small cup. Fleeting flavors escape into the air, hinting to the tea’s qualities.

Lifting the buncheong-jagi cup to my lips, I hesitate before sipping, appreciating the rich aromas akin to a field of flowers, of juicy tropical fruits, of a deep verdant forest in Summer’s heat. Finally, I savor the bright liqueur of this fine tea, awash in piquant floral notes, the flavor of ripe longan and sweet honey, followed by the bitterness of orange peel and the soft astringency of a pomelo. The warmth of sunshine, the abundant complexity of mountain air, and the lushness of a forest holding-back the sweltering heat of a Summer’s day caught in a cup.

Joining the poets of old in their pursuit to escape to the wooded peaks during the height of Summer, I slack my thirst alone, enjoying my solitude save for the company of tea.

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If you would like to read Lǐ Bái’s poem “In the Mountains on a Summer Day”, I’ve provided a copy below, along with translation by retired politician and scholar of poetry 黃宏發 Huáng Hóngfā (Andrew W. F. Wong).

《夏日山中》

懶搖白羽扇,裸袒青林中。

脫巾掛石壁,露頂灑松風。

“Xià rì shānzhōng”

Lǎn yáo bái yǔshàn, luǒ tǎn qīng lín zhōng.

Tuō jīn guà shíbì, lù dǐng sǎ sōngfēng.

“In the Mountains on a Summer Day”

The white feather fan too lazy to use,

In the green grove I simply go naked.

Off with the head scarf, hang on a stone wall,

Revelling in the pine breeze bare-headed.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, History, Japan, Korea, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting