Tag Archives: Shifuku

Everything for the First Time

With the beginning of the year, there is a sense of renewal and potential for firsts. The first rays of sunlight cascading over the horizon on New Year’s morning. The first flecks of snow dancing in the grey skies of January’s Winter. The first moment we enjoy time with close friends. The first opportunity we have to truly sit in silence.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the first gathering for tea is often heralded as a celebratory occasion, as everything from a bowl of tea, a flower in the 床間 tokonoma, the scent of incense wafting in the air is greeted with a renewed sense of freshness, as if the year itself was unfolding before one’s eyes.

For the first gathering, known in chanoyu as 初釜 hatsugama, literally “first kettle”, an atmosphere of freshness is emphasized. Sprigs of new pine often greet the guests as they wait. In the tearoom, long arching branches of green willow rise from a single tube of freshly cut bamboo, tied into a single circular knot, representing the commitment to togetherness and camaraderie in the year to come. For teabowls, often two are offered, one of gold and one of silver, together poetically called 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth.

For my own hatsugama, I chose not to be so ostentatious. For me, a single black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan would do. Serving this atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I would offer up a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha to my partner, a formal 感謝 kansha, an offering of deep gratitude.

Echoing yet another first, this would be the first time that I would prepare tea in such a manner after a series of focused trainings that I had conducted with my tea teacher. During these sessions, he had meticulously drilled into me the precision of form required to prepare tea with a tenmoku chawan and tenmokudai.

From the way the teabowl is carried into the tearoom to the way that the hand glides over the wide rim of the wooden flange of the three-section tenmokudai when setting it beside the 茶入 chaire, to the cadence adopted between each motion; each have been subtly changed and adjusted, following the instruction of my teacher. As these movements slowly become muscle memory, they open my mind again, as if for the first time, to the great expanse that is the creativity and endless meditation of tea practice.

Uncovering the 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) tea container from its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch felt like opening the New Year’s potential.

Once the silken cord was loosened, a weight seemed to have been lifted, a burden unbound.

What emerged was a humble jewel made of mottled ceramic containing just enough tea to share.

Once purified, I set about to cleanse the other tea implements. The 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned out of a piece of 檜 hinoki cypress, was cleansed with my 袱紗 fukusa and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Hot water was pulled forth from my antique iron kettle and poured into the chawan. The 茶筅 chasen was placed into this and allowed to warm.

The tenmokudai was then purified, running the folded edge of my purple silk fukusa first along the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup), and then upon the top surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

The bowl, itself, was as black as a starless night, save for an oily splash of glaze on its outer surface and for a rim framed in metal. Once clean, it stared up at me like a mirror, like a void.

Into its center, like a crucible, I issued the first scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder.

Next, setting the chashaku upon the flange of the wooden tenmokudai, I emptied the remaining tea into the teabowl.

Tilting the chaire, the matcha cascades downward, collecting into a free-form mound.

Closing the emptied chaire, I place it beside the chasen and set the chashaku once again atop its lid.

Pouring a small amount of hot water atop the tea, I begin to slowly and meticulously knead the concoction of water and powdered tea into a thick paste. Adding an additional measure of water into the bowl, I hold the chasen at an angle with my left hand so as not to let it touch the rim of the teabowl.

This, like many of the silent motions performed in this 点前 temae are a show of deep respect to both the honored guest and to the teaware itself.

Once fully mixed, the tea becomes a flat, opaque material; it, too, mirror-like in its appearance.

Pausing for a brief moment, I allow myself to breathe before I offer the bowl of tea to my partner. For a moment, we both peer upon the collected wares. Together, we wait for one another to respond. I break this pause as my hands meet to lightly grip the right and left edges of the hane of the tenmokudai. Lifting it up and setting it down closer between myself and my guest, I then turn my body to face my partner. Lifting the bowl atop the tenmokudai once more, I set it before my partner and we exchange bows. In this instance, I offer this bowl of koicha completely for her.

Offered in the formal manner using the tenmoku and tenmokudai, it harkens back to an earlier form once practiced during the 宗 Song period (969-1279), when tea was served to scholars, nobles and individuals of high honor atop lacquered stands. In this approach, the bowl is elevated above the dust and clutter of the world and was presented as an offering to one’s longevity, as tea was considered as a healthy elixir. As I offered this bowl of koicha to my partner, the first of the new year, I did so as an offering to her good health and continued vitality.

Finishing the tea, the residue of remaining koicha in the black expanse of the tenmoku chawan’s center appeared as a mere imprint of the passing moment.

As we finished our final pause before closing the early morning gathering, and before we both would part to begin our day of work, I arranged a simple 拝見 haiken of the 茶道具 chadōgu. A tea container in the shape of a small, round eggplant. A tea scoop fashioned from a portion of red-grained hinoki wood. A brocaded silk pouch decorated with chrysanthemums and pine needles. All arranged along the center of an old wooden tray for incense.

And in the alcove, a celadon 香合 kōgō made in the image of a glimmering moon, a reminder of the lunar eclipse, another first for the year.

In a singular moment such as this, we are offered the opportunity to enjoy something as if it were bestowed upon us for the very first time. The heat rising from the kettle. The soft, gentle sound of boiling water contrasting with the gusts of wind pressing through the trees. The bittersweet taste of tea still lingering in one’s senses.

As these moments come and fade, we are reminded that all time is like this. Constantly arising and constantly dying, one moment after the next. What we perceive to be future and past are merely shadows and echoes of what we know as now. One continuous moment. This first kettle for the year. The last dregs of tea. The beginner’s mind found when learning a new and ancient form. Everything for the first time, all the time.

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

In the Longest Night, Tea by Candlelight

The arrival of the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the middle of the cold season and a foreshadowing of the year’s close. In the ancient twenty four term lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the Winter Solstice is the twenty second term, 冬至 Dōngzhì (Tōji in Japanese, 동지 Dongji in Korea), literally meaning “Winter’s Extreme”. While this may not represent the coldest moment of Winter (that usually arrives in the middle of January), it does define the extreme point in which the Sun’s rays recede, producing the shortest day and longest of the year.

In celebration of this, my partner and I have decided to hold a small gathering of friends. As the darkness of night begins to roll across the evening sky, we finish our gathering and friend part ways. My partner and I remain and decide to finish the evening with a bowl of 抹茶 matcha which we will share.

Arranging a small setting for tea in our tearoom, we keep things simple: a single 黒瀬戸茶碗 Kuro-Seto chawan, a small 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container) wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, a 茶杓 chashaku and 茶筅 chasen carved by the Nara-based master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Gathering in our small tearoom, we are accompanied by the light of one burning candle, set between host and guest. The light it casts creates curious shadows across the serpentine grain of my wooden tea table, producing dynamic bands of light and darkness.

In the shadows, the figures of Silk Road travelers rendered in vibrant golds and purples upon the brocaded shifuku are obscured.

So, too, are the thin tines of the chasen as they descend into the dark abyss of the deep chawan.

Warm wooden tones sit side-by-side the slick surfaces of ceramic glaze. The sudden flicker of the candle sends shadows shifting and scattering, settling once again. Inside the tearoom, silence and sound vacillate as I move through the methodical actions for making tea. The low hiss of the old iron kettle coming to a boil. The movement of water from 柄杓 hishaku to teabowl to 建水 kensui. The cleansing of the chawan to prepare a boil of 濃茶 koicha.

I pause and offer my partner a tea sweet made of tart citrus rind wrapped in 餅mochi, atop which ice-like flecks of crystalline sugar glisten in the candle’s light.

Next, I set about preparing a bowl of koicha. I first draw three scoops of powdered tea from the chaire, followed by pouring the remaining contents out into the teabowl.

A small measure of hot water is issued into the teabowl and I slowly begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. More water is added and I continue to mix water and tea until it reaches just the right consistency.

In the low light of the candle-lit tearoom, one can barely make out the deep emerald green of the koicha against the black of the Kuro-Seto teabowl. I pass the bowl to my partner for her to enjoy the first few sips. She then passes the bowl back to me and I finish the remaining tea.

I take a moment to cleanse the bowl once more so we can admire its form, its dark glaze and its carved 高台 kōdai. Peering into its interior, the pebbled and pocked surface of the teabowl catches every stray beam of light, illuminating the center 茶溜まり chadamari where once a small mound of matcha had once been set.

Turned over, the carved name of the artist appears outlined in shadows.

My partner and I pause once more, enjoying the view of the ink-black sky outside our window, before I begin preparing a final 拝見 haiken.

Set beneath the flickering candlelight, we enjoy what may be the last moment of the year these objects will be seen. In the week in which the Winter Solstice comes and goes, we, too, enter a period of darkness. The days feel short yet each day is filled with activity. We cannot wait for moments when we can find ourselves around those we love, whether they be distant or near.

As with every closing of a tea gathering, we bid farewell to the honored teaware. All that remains is the solitary candle, the light of which too dims with morning’s arrival.

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A Solitary Maple Tree: A Burst of Color in Winter

November is a month of surprises. As Winter takes hold of the northern hemisphere, plants and animals begin to retire into hibernation, save for those who will brave the cold. The colors of Autumn fade into drab greys and browns. In the ever-increasing rush towards the holiday season and the year’s end, it can sometimes be difficult to stop and appreciate the few colorful standouts of early Winter.

As I went walking through my neighborhood in preparation for a small tea gathering, I came across a glorious Japanese maple tree, still bearing bright crimson and gold leaves. Delighted, I quickened my pace homeward, inspired to bring an element of this moment back into my tearoom.

As I prepared for my guest’s arrival, I put together the elements for the 茶事 chaji. The first of two teas I planned to offer was a freshly ground 濃茶 koicha from Uji. To serve this, I decided to let inspiration take hold, selecting a brightly colored 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan, which I would serve atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. For the tea container, I selected a small 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a pine and chrysanthemum motif 仕服 shifuku.

With tea sifted and placed into the ceramic container, and kettle at a rising boil, I was ready to accept my guest into the tearoom. Upon arrival, they were greeted by the light scent of incense paired with a cup of hot water to offer respite from the cold. As they waited in the tearoom, they were given the opportunity to pause and inspect the hanging scroll.

Rather than serve a formal meal, I offered a simple bowl of お茶漬 ochazuke, rice with tea poured onto it. Afterwards, warm barley tea was offered in lieu of sake.

Once finished, I gave my guest the chance to relax in my sitting room, enjoying the view of the forest outside my window. In this short period of time, I set up the tearoom to serve koicha, replacing the scroll with a flower and bringing in the 水指 mizusashi and setting the chaire before it. The effect of this transformed the small space of my tearoom, ready and refreshed for the guest’s return, purposefully arranged for the preparation of a single bowl of thick tea.

Closing the door behind me, both host and guest sit alone in the intimate space of the tearoom. The light of the day has grown dim, covered by a gauzy blanket of clouds. As I set the chawan down, balanced atop the wooden teabowl stand, I steady my breath and focus my mind.

Placing the chaire in front of the teabowl, I proceed to remove it from its silken shifuku pouch, pulling the twisted purple cord and peeling it out from the cloth.

Once removed, the little ceramic tea container glows like a small, mysterious jewel, inside which exists a treasure.

Turning my focus to the teabowl and tea implements, I begin to cleanse each, rearranging them into new positions. The 茶杓 chashaku to rest atop the lid of the chaire.

The 茶筅 chasen to sit beside the chaire.

Taking the chashaku with my right hand, I bow and invite my guest to enjoy a sweet. Taking the chaire with my left hand, I remove the lid and pull three scoops of tea from it. Setting the chashaku down across the rim of the chawan, I begin to pour out the remaining tea from the chaire.

The fine bright green powder begins to cascade in a thin stream out of the ceramic container, producing small plumes of tea dust as it falls into the chawan.

Once settled, the tea rests in brilliant contrast against the iridescent red and gold interior of the tenmoku chawan.

Adding a small amount of boiling water into the teabowl instantly awakens the intense aroma of the 抹茶 matcha powder.

From this, I begin the process of methodically kneading the tea powder into a thick, lacquer-like paste, enjoying the small vignette of dark green tea collecting on the thin tines of the bamboo chasen.

Adding an additional portion of hot water to the concoction, I finish preparing the bowl of koicha.

For a moment, both host and guest enjoy the silence of the tearoom and the vista within the teabowl.

Lifting the teabowl with the wooden tenmokudai, I set it in front of my guest. We bow and my guest enjoys the bowl of koicha at their own pace.

Returning the bowl back to me, all that remains is the thick residue of koicha, an echo of an action, a record written in tea.

I finish the offering of tea by cleansing the teabowl and setting the implements within its concave hollow.

I set the chaire beside it.

Curious to learn more about the arrangement, I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for my guest.

Silently we inspect the teaware together.

They ask about the maker, the origin, the reasoning why I might select one object over another.

Why would an eggplant-shaped chaire be fit for November?

Why a teascoop carved from a section of cedar be appropriate?

Why invoke a pine tree and chrysanthemum, stitched within the fine brocade of a silk shifuku pouch? In tea these are all 公案 kōan. Questions without any logical answer.

When asked what the name of the teabowl was, I answer “暈け Boke”. When then they ask for what reason I have named it thus, all I can reply is “It reminded a photographer of the blurring and obscuring of fine details in a photograph. Today it is the many leaves of the 紅葉 momiji. Tomorrow, who knows.”

We bow again and I set the objects aside. In the quiet of the tearoom, the kettle begins to boil again, the clouds begin to lift, and the day wanes towards mid-afternoon. Perhaps it is time to enjoy looking upon the forest outside my window again, to return for a final bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

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Tonight We All Enjoy the Same Moon

0A5529B4-8922-4BFE-B437-2E03668B22B2Since ancient times, the presence of the full moon has represented an important moment. Especially true in Autumn, the mid-Autumn full moon bears great significance, heralding the harvest and the slow but inevitable shift towards Winter. Still warm during this time, enjoying the glow of the full moon during the night is refreshing, something to be celebrated.

In East Asia, many cultures observe this moment. In Japan, 月見 Tsukimi (lit. “Moon viewing”) is a big occasion, with festivities focused on enjoying the sight of the moonrise. In 茶の湯 chanoyu, tea takes on the “flavor” of the moon, with tea practitioners skillfully incorporating lunar elements into their tea gatherings. 月の茶 tsuki no cha (“tea for the moon”) is a popular event, with tea gatherings being held to the light of the moon, on moon-viewing platforms, open pavilions, and even on moon-viewing boats (月見船 tsukimi-bune). Some tea people go so far as to have a special “moon-viewing” window cut into the roof of their 茶室 chashitsu (“tea house”), special-built for such an occasion. Needless to say, the moon, with its ever-changing face and importance in marking the passing of the seasons, holds a special place in tea people’s hearts.

06B1DA20-F7D9-449E-963D-A2DF2777EC33On this evening, as the moon begins to rise in the night sky, I sit with my partner for a bowl of tea. To open the intimate gathering, a large 月見団子 tsukimi-dango is offered, placed atop a shallow celadon bowl.

31FE84E8-D84D-4503-880D-FA0438A46CE7Next, as the soft rolling boil of the kettle rises in the still of the night, tea implements are brought out and cleansed. A white 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan (brushed slip Karatsu teabowl) and small, perfectly round 文琳茶入 “bunrin” chaire (“bunrin” ceramic tea container) are brought together, along with a 茶杓 chashaku (tea scoop) with a mark upon its dark bamboo skin that resembles a bright glowing moon behind a veil of clouds.

58D209DC-ADBC-4CCE-B3AB-615CDAC34DB3Pulled from it’s brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch,

98202163-10A7-4B23-9571-982327F6E5FBthe little ceramic tea container sits in the dim light of the tearoom,

B25B6100-D2FC-4A26-AD01-306CAEDB430Citself looking like a small moon.

15E97BE0-6C93-4119-B6FD-09A6D9E44C34The teabowl, cleansed with the water from my boiling 茶釜 chagama (“tea kettle”) sits looking fresh, sparkling in the moonlit evening.

165AD248-6351-469E-BEE0-BD9F1C35FEFAAs I scoop the initial three scoops of 抹茶 matcha into the teabowl, my partner begins to eat the tea sweet, and we both enjoy the quietude of the night.

62E1370E-7697-4794-B9F4-573B8D29170EAfter three scoops are issued into the teabowl, I tilt the chaire sideways, letting the remaining matcha powder cascade down into the chawan. In this instance, I am reminded that the tea, too, contains a reference to the moon as it was given the poetic name Tsuki” (“moon”) by its purveyor, Setsugekka, a local tea shop that ground it for me.

917437A1-478A-4BCE-B504-FC956E56BE9CPouring a small amount of hot water into the teabowl, I begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. Immediately, the scent of tea fills the small tea space, filling us both with joyful anticipation.

C637709B-6B58-43ED-8A8E-FDC52C881B20More water is added and I finish making the bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). As I pass the bowl to my partner, we enjoy how dark and lustrous the tea looks against the white, cloudy background of the hakeme chawan.

010F04A8-15C4-41C7-978F-D4861492E6B9.jpegShe takes a sip and wipes the rim. She then passes it back to me and I finish the bowl with a smile. As we enjoy the same moon together, we also enjoy the same bowl of tea. Terms like “host” and “guest” fall by the wayside and we sit together as dear friends.

C597B77D-5AB1-49F0-94FC-7F7B69C2481C.jpegWith so much tea still left in the teabowl, I opt to finish the night’s celebration with a final informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”), whisking the remaining dregs with more hot water. The soft, bright foam glows in the pale light of the night. Its flavor is sweet and relaxing.

08CF035D-9725-445F-BFC4-E4A85826DBEEFinally, before we settle in, a simple 拝見 haiken is held, offering us both a final instance to enjoy the tea objects before they are put away.

D580A311-4C17-4532-8074-A512E821C30FThe round little bunrin chaire.

154F6CFD-AFA5-49B4-9698-3BD4A3593193Its silvery blue shifuku. The moon-like glow upon the bamboo skin of the chashaku.

AD4F1F7A-E9A7-4395-8EB3-8C8DE7D897C2The moon, itself, making its journey across the Autumn night’s sky. When we look upon the moon tonight, we all enjoy the same moon.

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Over the Vast Sea of Time

On June 5th, 栄西忌 Eisai-ki is observed by tea people throughout Japan. Often performed with offerings of incense, sutra recitation, and tea, the event commemorates the death 明菴栄西 Myōan Eisai (whose actual death was on July 2, 1215), most known for bringing both the 臨済宗 Rinzai-shū (Línjì zōng in Chinese) sect of Zen Buddhism and green tea to Japan.

It was upon Eisai’s final return from China in 1191 that he brought with him, tucked within a small ceramic jar, tea seeds, which he would plant on the hills around Uji. Having witnessed tea culture and the practice of taking tea firsthand while visiting Buddhist monasteries in Song China, Eisai was an early proponent for tea consumption in Japan. In his 喫茶養生記, Kissa Yōjōki (“Drinking Tea for Health”), Eisai wrote about tea’s ability to bring balance to the body and ward-off disease.

Today, as I sit down for tea, I bring with it the intention to remember the history of tea and the memory of Eisai. For this, I select an antique 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan, made to resemble the famed 建窯 Jiàn yáo (Jiàn kiln) teabowl of the Song period (960-1279). I set this atop a simple, wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai (tenmoku stand). For a 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop), I select a more formal scoop which has been carved from a single piece of cedar. For a tea container, I select a 大海茶入 daikai chaire (“great sea” tea container), within which is held finely-sifted 抹茶 matcha tea powder for 濃茶 koicha (thick tea).

This chaire, the form of which resembles that which contained the tea seeds Eisai brought back from China, is enrobed in a silk brocaded pouch (仕服 shifuku). The cord is tied in a way that resembles a fluttering insect, perfect for Summer.

As I untie the pouch, I pull the silk cord to its full length (which is referred to in the shifuku‘s poetic name 長緒 nagao, “long cord”).

As I loosen the cord I peer down into the pouch, revealing the dappled glaze and bone-white lid of the chaire.

Once removed from the shifuku, I begin the process of purifying the tea container and other assembled teawares.

Once cleansed, I lift the chashaku from atop the lid of the chaire and begin to scoop tea into the tenmoku chawan.

After issuing three scoops into the teabowl, I set the chashaku upon the rim of the chawan and then proceed in emptying the remainder of the tea from the chaire into the bowl.

Adding only enough water to wet the mound of tea, I proceed in kneading the matcha powder into a thick paste with the 茶筅 chasen. Crafted by the famed tea whisk carver 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, the chasen’s tines are intentionally cut thicker to provide the needed strength to knead koicha.

Once the tea is kneaded into a consistent paste, additional boiling water is added. Rather than whisking the tea into a foamy concoction (as is done with 薄茶 usucha, “thin tea”), koicha is left flat, shiny, lacquer-like. What is produced is a mirror-like finish. A mirror into the mind.

As I finish whisking the bowl of tea, I take a moment to reflect. To reflect upon the history of tea. Upon the vastness of time between now and the age of Eisai. Upon the blink of an eye life can seem to be. How many single moments like this can comprise a lifetime?

As I lift the bowl to my lips, I am overcome with the fragrance of tea, more pungent. As I sip from the bowl, the thick texture and rich flavor of koicha fills my body and mind and I become engulfed by its strength. While it is more common to share a bowl of koicha, I enjoy this alone, almost instantly becoming intoxicated by the powerful brew.

Setting the bowl down, I enjoy the slick pattern created by the residual dregs upon the iridescent surface of the tenmoku chawan.

Opting not to waste the remaining tea, I joyfully whip this into a final bowl of usucha. On a solemn day to remember Eisai, I meditate for one final moment. The scent of incense lingering in the air, mixing with the fleeting aroma of tea.

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

When the Old Sits with the New

Spring is a time when the world renews itself, when the green grass pushes through the soft soil, when the buds swell on the trees, caught at the moment right before they bloom. The air is fresh and a sober sense of life and exuberance begins to rouse the the once Winter-locked spirit. We cannot quite name this feeling, but can ascribe to it the many attributes that surround us at this time, evinced by the subtle changes in the natural world.

In tea, this return to Spring is evident, though not overplayed. Instead, tea in early Spring becomes simpler, cleaner, paired down. It is as if tea is just beginning to wake up for the year ahead and, as such, nothing is overwhelming. The 炉 ro (sunken hearth) is still in use, though the iron kettle begins to move higher off of the charcoal (sometimes through the employment of a hanging kettle/雲龍釜/unryūgama, literally “cloud dragon kettle”). As the world begins to warm, the tearoom begins to cool.

This balance is also found when introducing a new piece of teaware into my collection. Recently, I was offered a beautiful 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop) by two dear fellow tea friends in New York City. Unable to turn them down, I eagerly brought the piece home. The teascoop, a work by famed Nara-based tea crafts person 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, is made of smoked bamboo, with a small but notable bud emerging from the chashaku’s 節 fushi (center node). This gives the chashaku a playful, informal (草, ) quality to it.

Excited to introduce this piece into rotation within my tea practice, I meditated for several days on how I might incorporate the teascoop into a 点前 temae (procedure for tea ceremony). After considering the season, an agreeable approach arose.

On a quiet morning I woke and set a kettle to boil. With the light of the day beginning to filter through the window of my tearoom, I sat to enjoy a bowl of tea. For a tea container, I opted for a small 文琳茶入 “Bunrin” chaire (“Bunrin” ceramic tea container). But rather than have the small ceramic caddy enrobed in its accompanying 仕服 shifuku (brocade silk pouch), I decided to leave the chaire exposed, partly as the color of its glaze resembled that of the chashaku, and partly as I had decided to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha (thin tea). This practice of allowing for the use of a chaire without its shifuku is particular to the 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū school of tea, something that I have come to appreciate.

For the teabowl, I felt that there was no better way to welcome something new than with something old. For this reason, I chose a 12th-14th century Vietnamese celadon 茶碗 chawan. It’s soft, olive green glaze sat in perfect harmonic contrast to the lustrous brown of the chashaku.

Cleansing each item and setting them together for the very first time, each seemed to compliment one another.

The antique chawan shone like a silvery mirror, slick with warm water that had purified it.

After the bowl had been dried with the 茶巾 chakin (white cloth for wiping wet tea objects) three scoops of freshly-ground 抹茶 matcha powder were placed gently into the center of the wide bowl, appearing luminous against the matte surface of the old celadon. A light tap of the chashaku against the inside of the bowl produced a soft ringing (in Sōhen-ryū, if using an antique chawan, we always gently tap the inside, rather than on the rim, as a sign of respect and to safeguard against potentially damaging the teabowl).

Half a ladle’s-worth of hot water was then poured into the chawan and whisked into a fine foam. The resulting bowl of tea seemed to glow in the morning light.

Set next to the other wares, everything felt refreshed, renewed by the act of making tea.

A moment passed as I sat and enjoyed the tea alone. Sitting with the warm bowl in hand, my gaze fell upon the new scoop, residual tea powder still clinging to its hand-hewn tip. What will this object see in its lifetime? Whose hands will it touch? How many countless bowls of tea will it enjoy, long after I am dead?

After I cleaned each object and returned them to their respective cupboards, I kept the chashaku out and prepared a solitary 拝見 haiken (viewing of teaware). Placed on a folded 古帛紗 kobukusa (silk cloth for holding tea objects), I welcomed the chashaku into this world. Heralded not by pomp or grandeur but by the simple act of making a humble bowl of tea, the scoop felt at ease with its new life.

Just as early Spring is not marked by the splendor of flowers but the appearance of minute buds, this teascoop carries with it a potential energy that has yet to unfurl. For this moment, the 名 mei (name given to a tea object) “木の芽” Ko no me (“leaf bud”, as well as a poetic name for tea) came to mind. A something new that sits with something old.

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