Today is the fifth of May. Ostensibly, it is the beginning of Summer on the traditional lunisolar calendar (立夏 Rikka). And, yet, all around me it still feels like Spring. Rain clouds gather overhead. New green leaves bristle on trees. Shoots rise from the earth. Peony bushes push upwards in the garden, yet their showy blooms have yet to burst. There is a feeling of anticipation, a longing for flowers to unfurl, for skies to clear, for the heat of the day to grow. Alas, the cool of the previous season still lingers and morning’s mist hangs long until noon.
In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, is marked by celebration, flavored heavily by its culture of origin. Double five, or 重五 Chōgo in Japanese, is one of the five seasonal festivals on the traditional calendar of Japan, and is associated with a myriad of observances.
Today is 端午の節句 Tango no Sekku, which demarcates the beginning of the month of the horse (the fifth month). At this point in the year, one should begin to feel the heat rise. Yet, here in Upstate New York, a chill remains.
子供の日 Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day (historically 男の節句 Otoko no Sekku, or Boy’s Day) also falls on this day. The birth of the new season, rites of passage, youthful vigor, 鯉幟 koinobori fluttering atop homes with children. All around boasts the promise of great things to come. Alas, here, Summer’s throb still feels faint.
It is also 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no Sekku, referring to the practice of hanging shōbu (sweet-flag, Acorus calamus, or Japanese iris, Iris ensata var. ensata) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort, Artemisia) from the eaves of one’s home (which were believed to ward-off evil spirits and fire).
Here in the Hudson Valley, the iris have yet to bloom, although I still manage to create a bundle of mugwort and iris leaves, which I hang-up against my makeshift tea hut.
With such a multifaceted day, it might feel overwhelming for a tea person to choose what they will do. So much expectation on just one day. For me, it offers a unique meditation, one which I infuse into today’s tea offering.
Setting off across my garden to the dark interior of my weathered shed, I’ve created within it a space to ponder time. Outside, purple-capped deadnettle and broad-leafed garlic mustard grow high. Remnants of Spring.
Inside my hut hangs the soft scent of 白檀 byakudan. The sound of water boiling within the bronze and iron kettle is faint but audible.
Summer in the world of tea is marked by many aspects. One major event is the closing of the 炉 ro and the beginning of the use of the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. 初風炉 shoburo (lit. “first furo”) marks the first use of the furo. Today, I will use my furo for the first time, in anticipation for Summer’s emergence.
As I look forward to the new season, I also look back time. The bronze and iron 風炉釜 furogama are of an ancient tripod form, akin to those used during the 唐 Táng (618-907) and 宋 Sòng (960-1279) periods.
Beside it sits a square-shaped 鬼萩水指 Oni-hagi mizusashi, and before this I’ve placed a small round 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver brocaded 仕服 shifuku, emblazoned with a design of peonies.
As I place a peach-hued 茶碗 chawan beside the tiny tea container, I recognize the significance of the choice in wares I’ve made.
In the practice of tea, we sit and hope to become connected to the moment. “Now”, as a distinct moment in time, is fleeting.
The instance we recognize it, it has passed. Rather, the moment we find ourselves in is often experienced tangentially.
The peonies on the brocaded pouch refer to a flower that has yet to bloom.
The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.
The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.
Angles shift in the tearoom as object are oriented and reoriented based on their action and function.
During the furo seasons, objects are typically set in line with the brazier.
Then, as each object is cleaned, they reset again against the line that runs parallel to the mizusashi.
The bowl remains between host and furo.
The lid of the kettle is removed.
The 柄杓 hishaku rests against the open mouth of the steaming 茶釜 chagama.
During Kodomo no hi, or, more specifically, Otoko no Sekku, references to ancient 武士 bushi (warrior) culture abound. As a rite of passage, it marked a moment in time where a child could take on the affects of a 侍 samurai. In the realm of tea, the hishaku becomes an arrow, the iris becomes a spear.
Here, too, future and past oscillate to triangulate the present. A child assumes the role of an adult, even if just for a day. The adult longs for the carefree nature of when they were a child. Objects used to mark the coming of a new season are imbued with ancient connotations. Between these vectors exists, somewhere, now.
The lid of the tea container is removed and tea is heaped into the center of the peach-glazed teabowl.
A small mountain to climb rises within.
Hot water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured atop the bright green 抹茶 matcha powder. The tiny mountain collapses, sinking slowly into the warm sea.
As the kettle murmurs and birds call, the tea is mixed in a slow, methodical manner. A slight breeze kicks up outside and I can hear the leaves of shōbu and yomogi beat against the exterior of my tea hut.
In the darkness of this tiny space, I make a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha. An offering for the season to come. A medicine of the past to fortify me as Summer arrives.
Drinking the tea down and concluding my lone tea session, I am yet again drawn to ponder time.
A shallow teabowl is employed as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the whisk. Perhaps I will use this piece for a future tea gathering.
I observe the angle at which I place the bowl down and arrange the cleansed objects upon it and within it.
These angles point towards the heat that will rise as Summer continues.
Cold water is added to the chagama and the bronze lid is placed back upon it.
The bamboo ladle is laid across the rim of the 建水 kensui.
A final 拝見 haiken is prepared to mark the first use of the furo.
Light from the small window beams and catches against the gold foil beneath the lid of the chaire.
Light catches against the curved surface of the tea container.
Against the carved tip of the 茶杓 chashaku.
Against the woven fibers of the shifuku pouch.
Future, past, present caught in light.
Exposed. Laid bare. There to be pondered.
As Spring shifts to Summer. As the portable brazier is used for the first time.
Late January and the depth of 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin) is here. I woke this morning to mounding snow drifts, falling flurries, pine trees capped in white. A storm had passed during the night and continued on through the dawn, bringing wind and cold and ice on windowpanes. Although, inside my home is comfortable and warm, I wish to experience Winter in its fullest and feel determined to make tea outside, within the confines of my makeshift hut.
Trekking through the garden, wares packed and wrapped-up in 風呂敷 furoshiki, I come upon a realization.
The world of snow is mysterious. Forms covered and obscured and made unknown by layers of ice and air. The steps of my path are softened.
Rocks and branches from sapling trees feel formless.
Wind makes hollows. Snow creates volume.
Undulations and caverns that once weren’t there.
The door to my tea hut is frozen shut.
Once I pry it open, I find that snow has entered before I have. Soft sprays of snow.
Fine white crystals scattered on the floor and below the crack between window and sill.
I set the kettle to boil and fill my 水指 mizusashi with cool water.
In the 床の間 tokonoma, I place incense to burn and a 蜜柑 mikan citrus as an object for meditation. As I sit and wait for the water to boil, I listen to the hollow howl of the wind against the small shack I have chosen to make into my space of practice. Thin walls of pressed wood abating the cold but not by much. My breath and the steam from the kettle conjoined in our efforts.
Objects for tea are unwrapped and unboxed and placed in accordance to their various usage.
The tall form of a slender 茶入 chaire before the mizusashi.
Much like the stones outside my tea hut, the true shape of the tea container is obscured by the striped and spangled silk of the 仕服 shifuku pouch.
Beside this, I place a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan, a teabowl used only during the coldest days of the year.
Chawan and chaire sit as I pause to listen to the sound of snow tapping against the single windowpane that lets light into my small tea hut.
Ice crystals forming slowly as the cold of the world around me deepens.
As I move objects from rest to motion and back to rest, I observe how shadows shift and move with them.
The chaire is shrouded in its shifuku pouch.
Once removed, the shifuku becomes an empty vessel.
The chaire, a full, voluminous form.
The teabowl, tall, slender, tube-like in shape, is cavernous, dark, full of shadow, dwelling at the bottom unseen.
I pour a dipper’s worth of hot water from the kettle into the open mouth of the tsutsuchawan. Everything that goes in, the water…
…the splayed tines of the 茶筅 chasen…
…the white linen 茶巾 chakin…
…and eventually, the tea…
…disappears into the deep void of the tube-shaped teabowl.
Only employed during this time of year, before the first hint of Spring arrives, tsutsuchawan convey the depths of what this ice-locked season represents.
In the low light of my makeshift tea hut, the bowl seems without end.
A tunnel rather than a vessel. An portal into something unknown, unseen. What lies at the other end?
Pouring hot water from the kettle into the bowl requires focus and practice. Concentration as liquid cascades from the sunlit cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the darkness of the narrow opening of the tsutsuchawan.
Pressing whisk into the tea-and-water concoction to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha presents another unique challenge. The bowl is deep and the walls close together, limiting one’s motion. Even knowing what is happening as one kneads the tea is difficult.
Unlike other bowls, one cannot easily see into a tsutsuchawan. Compounding this, the dark umber color of the Bizen-yaki fades to black in the low light of the tea space, in the dull glow of Winter during the last days of the period of Major Cold. In an unseen world, one must rely on practice alone to grope and clamor through the darkness.
In the time it’s taken me to whisk a bowl of thick tea, spindly needles of frost began to form and make intricate patterns against the outside of the windowpane.
As I move teabowl from the host’s position to guest’s, I observe the light from the window push through the steam rising from the boiling kettle. The soft hum of the water. The high-pitched whirl of wind between cracks in the door.
I look down at the bowl. Both empty and full. The bright green tea invisible in the dark hollow of the tsutsuchawan. Its presence only known by the heat contained in the ceramic, from the aroma of the koicha rising into the room. Deep and vegetal during the cold torpor of late January, of Daikan, of Major Cold.
I lift the bowl and drink the tea. For a moment I pause and let the flavor and the heat of the tea permeate throughout my mouth, my throat, my body. My cold, stiff fingers hold the narrow bowl tight, as if it were a warm being radiating heat to help me survive the harsh weather outside the walls of my tea hut. I sit and hold it longer, meditating for as long as the heat remains within the clay.
Several minutes pass and the heat fades. The hollow of the bowl cools. The dregs cling and thicken against the dark, blistered walls of the tsutsuchawan.
I return to clean the bowl, not with cool water from the mizusashi but with the hot water from the 茶釜 chagama. In the depth of Winter, I opt not to waste anything. The final dregs of koicha are no different.
Water warms the bowl again and I whisk the remnants of thick tea liquid into a bright foamy bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
Thousands of tiny bubbles look back up at me like thousands of bright lights peering from the end of a long dark tunnel.
The flavor of the tea is sweet, grassy, light. It comes and fades gently against the harsh cold of this day of practice I’ve made.
As I clean the bowl once more with cool water, I close the tea session. Objects for tea are laid back to rest.
The lid of the chagama is placed atop the steaming kettle, save for a small gap to let the heat rise freely.
The light of the day grows brighter through the windowpane yet the frost has grown thicker too.
As I prepare an informal 拝見 haiken for one, I recognize that the light that now reflects off each object will grow brighter more and more each day.
With the end of Daikan comes 立春 Risshun (Lìchūn in Mandarin), the start of Spring in the lunisolar calendar.
During this liminal time, the new year will begin.
What will come in this fast approaching Spring, this Water Tiger year?
What we’ve seen so far is an unseen world.
Dark, cold, foreboding, with new rules and new expectations.
A deep tunnel devoid of light, of murky dimensions. A space cold, save for the heat trapped within our bodies, within the clay body of a Bizen-yakitsutsuchawan.
Even as steam climbs skyward from the hot kettle, that which lies within it is a mystery.
How do we exist in an unseen world, one that has never existed before, a world with an unseen future? Do we seek the comforts of warmth, of home?
Or do we trek out into the cold, with only a few objects wrapped-up and packed upon our backs?
And what do we do when the terrain changes, landmarks shift, the path becomes obscured? What if there is no way back home? Just towards a future unknown? Footsteps fade as snow falls.
Wind blows over once sure stones that pointed the to the Way. An unseen world lies ahead, with only one’s practice to perhaps fortify you.
The new year has come and quickly it feels as if it has grown old. The depth of Winter is upon us now in the Northern Hemisphere and I remain locked within my studio, left to look out upon the snow that covers my garden. In the waning days of 小寒 Shōkan, Minor Cold, a period extending from approximately January 6-20, I’ve grown anxious to return to my tea practice and to offer up a first kettle for the new year.
初釜 hatsugama, “first kettle”, is typically conducted during the first weeks following the new year. For me, work, busyness, and the myriad of other excuses I use to put-off doing the important things in life have kept me from just simply sitting and giving into the deeper practice of preparing 濃茶 koicha. The itch I feel when I haven’t made a bowl of tea climbs inside me until it feels a bit unbearable and I find myself early one morning pouring fresh water into my old iron 茶釜 chagama…
…into the white-glazed interior of my tall, four-cornered 水指 mizusashi.
For many schools of tea, hatsugama is one of a multitude of cardinal points on the tea calendar. It is the moment of relative pomp amidst the otherwise withered and cold atmosphere of Winter. Fine objects and offerings may find their way into the 床の間 tokonoma. The dual silver and gold-glazed teabowls poetically known as 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth, are often employed when making tea for invited guests. And finer foods and 屠蘇 toso (spiced 酒 sake) are often served during 茶懐石 chakaiseki, the meal served before tea is prepared.
For me, I’ve made it my practice to abstain from these ostentations and, rather, attempt to situate the first kettle within the simpler, more pared-back nature of Winter. As I look out onto my garden, I have enough seasonal references and focal points of vitality against the cold weather to fill a thousand alcoves. Plum and pine. Small birds with their ruffled feathers. Snow-capped hillsides and silvery skies.
I situate my tea table beside the large window that looks out onto my garden and make it a space to prepare a bowl of tea. Beside it I set my kettle. Atop it, my mizusashi. Before the cool water vessel, I place a small 茶入 chaire, wrapped-up in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku, tied together with a brown silk cord.
From where I’ve been readying the objects for making tea, I return with a bowl set atop a wooden cup stand. It is an old 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan and accompanying 天目台 tenmoku-dai. Its colors are dark and austere with flashes of blue and copper-like hues.
Atop the bowl, I’ve placed a carved 茶杓 chashaku made of striped cypress. Beside it, a 茶筅 chasen made of black bamboo, set atop a folded 茶巾 chakin.
The items and their arrangement, the way the chakin is folded, the shape of the tea scoop, the bowl and its wooden stand, are formal, harkening back to forms that have their origin in China during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), back to when tea was both beverage and medicine. In my school, these objects and the actions used when employing them are specific to making a bowl of koicha and presenting it to an esteemed guest. With no guest available, I sit down to make a bowl of tea for myself. My guest, perhaps, is myself of this very moment, as I welcome my new year of tea practice with the water drawn from this “first kettle”.
Objects are first cleansed and then placed into their position for making tea.
First, the chaire is removed from its silken shifuku pouch. I loosen the cord and gathered cloth that once held the small ceramic container and its bone lid safely together.
Next, I place the wrapped object in my left hand and peel the two sides of the brocaded fabric away from the rounded surface of the chaire, revealing the smooth silk interior of the shifuku.
The chaire is lifted from its protective pouch and placed before the teabowl.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
I unfold my 袱紗 fukusa made of purple-dyed silk and inspect it before I refold it and use it to cleanse the surface and lid of the tiny 文淋 bunrin-shaped chaire.
Next, I refold the fukusa again and use it to cleanse the chashaku made of 檜 hinoki cypress.
I place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire and fold the fukusa, returning it to the side pocket of my woven Winter coat.
The chasen is removed from the chawan and placed beside the chaire momentarily. I lift the bamboo 柄杓 hishaku ladle off of the 蓋置 futaoki and, as I do so, I admire the images of auspicious objects rendered in blue colbalt upon the white porcelain.
I pinch and lift the chakin out from the center of the chawan and use it to remove the lid of the bubbling kettle beside me. The lid is placed atop the porcelain lid rest.
Water is drawn from the steaming kettle and poured into the teabowl.
The whisk is placed into the hot water to warm, wet, and soften as it soaks.
As it does so, the wooden tenmoku-dai is cleansed. The fukusa is folded and used to first purify the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup). Next, the flat surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).
With bowl and its wooden stand cleansed, all that is left to do is make a bowl of koicha.
As I lift the chashaku and chaire from their resting position and place the white bone lid beside the bowl and stand, a thought enters my mind.
The bowl I’ve chosen for this year’s hatsugama, for this first kettle, was one of my first teabowls. Ever since I’d begun my practice in tea, I’ve been drawn to tenmoku chawan. Their form, their history, their austerity. Yet, to use one properly, one must first learn how.
In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, a tenmoku chawan is reserved for the most formal of tea settings, often to serve tea to an important guest. To make tea for one’s self with one is odd. Yet, during this time of separateness, during a pandemic, it feels like a form of meditation to offer one’s self a bowl of tea. A recognition that even as we cannot yet connect with others, we can use this as an opportunity to connect with ourselves.
I pause and breathe and place three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder into the center of the teabowl.
I follow this by setting the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmoku-dai.
The scoop’s rounded tip, made of carved hinoki covered in a light dusting of matcha.
Its smooth handle pointed towards the white bone lid of the chaire.
I tilt the small bunrin chaire over and let the fine tea powder cascade downward into the center of the tenmoku chawan. It piles into a low mound, the shape of which creates a small chaotic impact of tea dust against the dark interior of the glazed teabowl.
I place the lid back onto the chaire and return it to rest beside the chasen. I mark the mound of matcha with the rounded edge of the tea scoop, making the sigil of my school into the tea dust.
I place the chashaku atop the chaire.
A measure of hot water is drawn from the kettle with the hishaku and a small amount is carefully poured into the teabowl to mix with the matcha.
As the green tea powder saturates, it darkens to a deep emerald hue, almost black within the low light that enters the concave of the tenmoku bowl.
I lift the whisk and press it downward into the tea and water concoction. I gently hold the teabowl with the outstretched thumb and index finger of my left hand. The tea is worked and kneaded into a thick paste and an additional draught of hot water is drawn from the kettle and mixed with the tea. This is blended further until the right consistency is met.
As I lift the chasen from the now fully blended koicha, I pull it vertically out of the tenmoku chawan, allowing any residual tea liquid to drip back down into the teabowl.
I then turn the whisk so the tines point upwards, each lacquered in a thin coat of the thick tea.
Setting the whisk beside the chaire, I turn my attention to the teabowl.
A deep pool of jade looks up at me from the dark, iron-spotted interior of the tenmoku bowl. From its center, I can make out the reflection of my shoulder.
Peering closer, I see the volume of the tea, the waves upon its surface. Thick, rumpled at the edges where the flat expanse of tea meets the downward sloping walls of the teabowl. A slick, viscous veneer of tea still clinging to the sides, marking the extent to which the whisk traveled from side to side, back and forth in a figure eight motion as the tea was blended.
I lift the bowl by the wide wooden flange of the cup stand and bring the both closer to me. I turn the bowl a quarter turn, so that the 正面 shōmen, the front of the bowl marked by an opalescent cascade of glaze, does not touch my lips as I drink the tea.
I breathe in as I sip the thick tea. Its heat and aroma radiates and surrounds me, filling my senses, banishing any lingering sleep of the morning. As I pause and tilt the bowl back down, I peer over its metallic rim, out onto the garden. Bright white light filtering through the trees, reflected upon the snow. As I tilt the bowl again for another sip, I am met by the dark interior, the deep green of the tea, the slow movement of the liquid down the ceramic sides of the tenmoku chawan.
With the final sip of koicha, I place the bowl back down with the wooden tenmoku-dai. From my pocket, I produce a piece of white 懐紙 kaishi paper, which I fold and use to wipe excess tea liquid from the rim of the tenmoku chawan.
Looking down at the bowl of koicha, my eye is caught by the trail of thick tea pulling from the once deep reflective pool. This trace, this record of a moment. Tea blended with the water from the first of many boiling kettles that will hopefully come throughout this year. How, even as this moment feels still alive, still present, it, too, has just passed.
I set the tenmoku chawan atop the wooden cup stand aside and bring forth a separate 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the chasen. The bright white splash of spiraling brushed glaze of the 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan sits in stark contrast to the more formal bowl that came before it.
I pull water from the mizusashi and pour it into the new teabowl. I dip and whisk the tines of the tea-covered chasen into the cool water. Clouds of green residual matcha billow and churn in the clean, clear water. The thin carved blades of the tea whisk glisten in the light of the morning.
I pour the liquid from the bowl and place chakin and chasen into the bowl.
I cleanse the chashaku once more, removing the tea dust that had coated its rounded tip.
Items are placed back at rest. Bowl beside chaire. Lid atop kettle. Ladle beside me.
In the quiet that comes once the kettle has been closed, I sit and look out upon the small stand of trees outside my garden. Pine trees. Plum. Hardy friends of Winter who, along with bamboo, weather the coldest of days yet to appear.
Shōkan is followed by 大寒 Daikan, “Major Cold” (approximately January 20-February 1), and then comes the new year of the lunisolar calendar.
I ponder this as I prepare each of the objects for 拝見 haiken.
Hatsugama marks a moment in time. Each bowl of tea does. Each time I sit down before the brazier, beside the sunken hearth, to offer tea to either guest or alone to myself. These moments accumulate. Yet as time moves forward on the calendar, do these moments do so as well?
I pause as I lay each object beside one another.
The round bunrin chaire beside the scoop.
The scoop beside the shifuku pouch.
When we offer tea for hatsugama, the emphasis is on freshness, cleanliness. You offer tea at the beginning of the new tea year and, with it, you say goodbye to the year that has passed.
In this way, 清 sei, or “purity” of the four fundamental principles of tea, 和敬清寂 wa kei sei jaku, takes on a dual meaning.
Sei can mean to purify one’s space, to offer up items and objects and tea in a clean manner.
However, it can also mean to offer one’s practice, one’s self, in a pure, unadorned, unattached way.
This can be the purity from that which came before it, a moment cleaned of a past that might end up influencing and causing distraction from the present.
It can also mean that, with a heart and mind unattached to goals or objectives, ambitions or desires, as one offers a bowl of tea to someone else, they do so without a motive or gaining thought.
As I sit and look upon these objects, their shadows cast against the swirling grain of an old 香盆 kōbon, I think of the difference between shadow and trace. Of tea and practice.
Which leaves a lasting impression? Which affects which?
What do I hope for this year to come, this year of the Tiger? What to learn from hatsugama, the first kettle?
Winter is here and the days grow colder, the shadows that are cast from the bare trees grow longer, daylight’s passage shorter. The festivities of the Western calendar seem to run headlong against the chaotic times we all seem to find ourselves in. The pandemic. The global climate crisis. War. Indifference. As the year draws closer to its close, to pause and sit and meditate on what we’ve just been through seems like a heavy task. And, yet, in these most difficult of times, it is when meditation seems most fitting.
It is December 21st, 2021. Today is the Winter Solstice. 冬至 Tōji in the old lunisolar calendar of Japan (Dōngzhì in Mandarin). On this day, I prepare the last kettle for the year that has now grown older and colder over these last few months. Since Autumn, I’ve transitioned from using the portable brazier to my improvised 置き炉 okiro made of an old New York apple crate. Its pine wooden walls are about the shape and size of the real thing, close enough for this tea practitioner to adopt it into his little world of tea in an act of 見立て mitate, whereas items not normally used in 茶の湯 chanoyu are incorporated and adapted for this purpose.
In the cold dark world of my tiny makeshift tea hut, I light a candle in the 床の間 tokonoma.
I carry the old iron kettle from my studio across the still frozen pathway that weaves from my home through the garden. I set the dark iron and patina’ed vessel down into the old wooden crate and within ten or so minutes small threads of steam begin to rise from the gap left open in the lid. Soon after comes the faint sound of the water boiling. 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama. Kettle for the year-end.
I wander back out into the cold world of the garden and then back into the warmth of my studio to gather more items for the 点前 temae. Since my makeshift tea hut has yet no 水屋 mizuya attached to it, I venture back and forth server al times before all tea objects are brought into the tea space. A tall, white glazed 水指 mizusashi made by a former tea teacher. A small eggplant-shaped 茶入 chaire enrobed in a 仕服 shifuku emblazoned with motif of pine sprig and chrysanthemum.
Other items come in last. A blush-colored 赤志野茶碗 akashino chawan, a 茶筅 chasen by 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango, a 茶杓 chashaku made of carved cedar. These, I place beside the tiny tea container. Finally, I trek once more from hut to studio and back, bringing with me an old 建水 kensui, a 蓋置 futaoki made of a piece of mottled bamboo, and 柄杓 hishaku.
In the dim light that illuminates the speckled and patterned plywood floor of my makeshift tea hut, items are arranged by their use. I place the futaoki beside the old apple crate. Atop this, I set the cup of the hishaku. The kensui is moved upward towards the edge of my left knee.
The chawan and its accompanying wares upon and within it are set at an angle beside the mitate okiro. The chaire in its pine sprig and chrysanthemum brocaded coat are set before this.
In a 炉点前 ro temae, during the season of the sunken hearth, objects are placed at forty five degree angles against the right angle positions of the open 炉口 roguchi or okiro and accompanying mizusashi. This all in accordance with the angle in which the host sits, which, during the dark and cold days of Winter, is made more informal and adjusted to feel as if closer to the guests. Even in my solitary practice, I take this stance, angling myself so that the small space between the upper left corner of the okiro and the uppermost border of my knees becomes the area in which tea will be made. While it may initially feel more limited, the movements of the host become more open as the Winter position allows for the arc of the right hand to move from one’s far left to draw water from the mizusashi to its far right to offer a bowl of tea to the invited guest. In this, there remains a naturalness to it all, with a heightened sense of down-to-earth informality that embodies the markedly more rustic and 詫び wabi aesthetic found in Winter.
The meditation of the tea practice continues well before its beginning and well after its end. The pause that comes before one sets forth to make tea is preceded by a myriad of actions to enable this moment to happen. Steps in the path between this moment and the many moments that led to it. I feel this most of all during the silence that exists once I place the chaire before the chawan and before I reach down with both hands to untie the cord that binds it within its shifuku pouch.
The motion is simple and direct. Both palms remain flattened, fingers pointed downward as they gather first around the base of the brocaded bag and then upward towards the purple braided cord. One finger holds onto one loop of the tie, the other loosens the other and pulls.
The 緒 o is drawn towards the body and the knot opens.
The tiny tea container and pouch are turned a quarter turn and each side of the gathered fabric is pulled flat. The tiny object and its covering are then placed in the left palm and each side of the cloth is peeled away with the heal of the right hand.
The chaire is then lifted out of the pouch and placed before the chawan.
The shifuku is placed beside the mizusashi.
In preparing a bowl of tea, each step flows into the next. In a similar fashion, Winter emerges each day. At no time does one day seem more different than the next. The change over time is gradual until one suddenly realizes the truth of what it means to be cold, to see ice, to know what snow feels like and how it sounds as is falls. In the tearoom, the stillness is broke too by action, silence broken by the sound of the kettle coming to a boil, of the gentle setting down of wares, of the gliding of cloth over objects as they are cleansed.
The folding of the 袱紗 fukusa comes first with an inhalation and the sensation of cold air filling my chest. The left hand grips the silken cloth and pulls it from the side pocket of my Winter jacket. Pinched with the thumb and index finger of my right hand, I open it along one of its folded corners as if lifting a page from a book. I lift it upward and the cloth unfurls. with my left hand, I fold the cloth in midair into a series of triangular corrugations and then over onto itself. It is folded and then folded once again, moving from the right hand to the left and then back again.
With the left hand, the chaire is brought upward and cloth and tea container meet. The chaire is turned against the smooth silk fabric of the fukusa, first cleansing the sides. The fukusa is then pinched and the corners are used to lightly cleanse the lid of the tea container. The lid is then lifted momentarily to inspect that the chaire contains tea, and the chaire is closed once again.
Once the tea container is placed down, now between mizusashi and okiro, my gaze shifts to the teabowl with its collected wares. First the fukusa is refolded and the chashaku is cleansed. The silk cloth runs over the thin handle and carved top of the cedar scoop several times. It is then placed atop the white bone cover of the chaire, beside the nodule that is unique to the 瓶子づくの牙蓋 heishi-zuku no gebuta style lid, the shape of which is reminiscent of ancient jars used to hold offertory 酒 sake in 神道 Shintō shrines. The angle in which it is set points away from me towards the crack in the door that I entered, towards a small shaft of light that tells me that morning’s time continues to pass.
I breathe again and lift the chasen out from the deep-set teabowl and place it beside the resting chaire and chashaku. The line that the whisk and tea container creates connects the space between the place of the cold water container and the position of the okiro, the heat of the hearth, and the element of water boiling within the void of the iron kettle. Between this small space is contained all that is needed to make a bowl of tea. Heat and cold. Fire and water. Metal and wood. Leaf and clay. Space and the air between.
The bowl is moved forward, the 茶巾 chakin is pulled from its interior, refolded, and placed momentarily atop the lid of the mizusashi.
I breathe and, upon the exhalation, I reach for the long thin handle of the hishaku that has been resting parallel to my right thigh. I shift the water scoop from right hand to left. With my right hand, I return to lift the chakin, pinched between thumb and the first two fingers. The angle of my arms opens up as keep the hishaku stationary, pointed cup facing upward, in line with my left thigh, while I move my right arm to reach to uncover the boiling kettle. I use the chakin, pinched between my forefingers and thumb, to grasp the hollow copper knob of the kettle’s lid. The thin, folded linen cloth protects my hand as I tilt and lift the circular metal top from the boiling 茶釜 chagama.
Steam rises wildly from the kettle as I remove the lid and place it atop the cut bamboo futaoki. I let go of the hollow bronze finial of the lid and rest the chakin beside it. The shadows these resting objects cast are dark and muted in the low light that filters through the sole window of my makeshift tea hut.
I transfer hishaku from left to right hand and dip its bamboo cup into the hot and boiling water of the kama. The stippled and curved shape of the ladle disappears in the dark world of the kettle’s interior, reappearing filled with bright clear water.
For a moment I naturally pause, the cup of the hishaku hovering above the open mouth of the chawan.
A moment more and, with the turn of my arm, the water cascades into the empty teabowl.
I set hishaku down upon the open kettle, its cup turned downward, the flat side of the bamboo handle rests against both the rim of the kettle’s mouth and the pine wooden edge of the okiro.
I return my gaze to the teabowl. Clear, clean, steaming water glistening within its concave interior. What little light of the morning enters and curves against the edge of the water that meets the inside surface of the bowl. Colors and cracks and crazed glazes come forth from what were once dull features. The heat and the liveliness of the boiled water reanimates the body of this small, handheld tea vessel that hasn’t yet been used since last when Winter’s words were spoken, during the final moments of the cold months, before Spring’s arrival, as the days grew incrementally lighter. Today, on the shortest day of the year, the darkest of days, seeing this bowl again is like being visited by an old friend. The passage of time, of the almost twenty years now since I first made tea with this bowl. The decades seem as if they are momentarily forgotten as I peer down at the bowl, the sparkling light through the water, remembering when we were both much younger than we are now.
I lift and dip the bamboo chasen into the warm water held within the chawan. The carved and sharpened tines fade into the shadows and the steam.
Pressing and whisking and placing the chasen back beside the chaire. Lifting and turning and warming the round teabowl in my hands before I pour its contents out into the until now empty kensui. I catch the last drop of hot water with the folded chakin and begin to use this simple moistened cloth to cleans both rim and interior of bowl.
Surfaces where lips will touch, where tea will be made. These are wiped and made clean, both for the eyes and for the mind. As I cleanse the bowl, it remains firm in my hands. Whereas other schools may tilt the bowl, my school holds it level, steady, keeping it upright as a gesture of respect and reverence to the object. The bowl is set down in a similar manner, leaving the chakin pressed against its inner edge.
The moistened cloth is then plucked up by the right hand, placed into the left, and then refolded to be set down again atop the kettle’s lid.
For a brief moment, everything in the tearoom is still, save for the rolling water of the boiling kettle. The shadows of the morning light rest on each object, collecting in dark pools.
The deep, narrow concave of the round 鉄鉢形茶碗 tetsubachi-nari chawan (iron basin-shaped teabowl) seems especially dark in the low light of the Winter solstice. A faint layer of steam still rising off of its red and umber glazed skin.
Minute amounts of still warm water collected in the tiny fissures that mark where heat caused expansion in the kiln sparkle like snow and ice.
I set forth to begin to make tea, a hearty bowl of koicha to fortify my spirit and body on a cold day. I grip the thin handle of the chashaku between my thumb and fingers of my right hand and bring it towards my body within the span of one exhalation and inhalation. One out breath and I reach for the chaire with my left hand. One in breath and I bring the tiny ceramic jar towards me.
The lid is removed with the right hand and is placed beside the teabowl.
The chaire is brought down to the level of the chawan’s rim and the chashaku is dipped into the dark open void of the tea container, the carved cedar scoop disappears in the shadows cast by the low light of the early morning.
Three heaps of powdered tea are placed into the center of the bowl and the chashaku is placed at an angle along the edge of the iron basin-shaped chawan.
The chaire is held in both hands and is tilted and turned slowly over the teabowl, sending a thin, bright green cascade of 抹茶 matcha downward, piling into an ever-growing mound of tea at the center of the chawan. Once fully emptied, the chaire is turned upward again, the lid placed back upon it, and the small ceramic tea jar is set back beside the chasen.
I lift the chashaku once more, and with its rounded tip, carve the sigil of my school into the small hill of powdered tea.
With chaire, scoop, and bowl at rest, I draw a scoop of hot water from the boiling kettle. Carefully, I pour a small measure of the water down upon the mound of green tea, focusing my awareness on how much water I am adding and what initial effect it will have on the matcha. I pour the remaining water in the hishaku’s cup to the kettle.
I return the bamboo ladle back to the kettle and lift the chasen with my right hand. With my left hand forming a half moon shape, I grip the side of the teabowl to steady it against the wooden floor of my makeshift tea hut. With my right hand, I bring the chasen downward into the hollow of the chawan, pressing down into the wetted mound of matcha and begin to slowly and methodically whisk the concoction into a thick, even paste.
As I stare down into the dark world that exists within the teabowl, I feel as if it is a mirror to the world which I currently occupy. Dark yet warm and full of activity, creation, transformation. To successfully produce a bowl of 濃茶 koicha requires a keen understanding of uncertainty and meeting a multitude of challenges. In the cold of Winter, the kettle requires a higher heat. In the dark of the year’s shortest day, one cannot see clearly into the depths of the teabowl and, therefore, must feel one’s way through the action, as water and tea combine into one fluid matter.
At this point, all one has is the senses. The feeling of the resistance of the tea as it slowly melds and blends. The intense aroma of matcha as it lifts upwards into the cold air of the tea space. The sound of the whisk as it slowly pushes through the thick tea liquid.
I move the handle of the chasen from right hand to left, keeping the tines inside of the teabowl. With right hand, I lift and dip the ladle into the hot boiling water of the kettle, drawing from it another draught. Carefully, calmly, I inhale as I bring the hishaku’s cup down towards the bowl. I exhale and let a minute amount of hot water pass from ladle’s bamboo cup through the tea-covered tines of the chasen whisk to the dark interior of the teabowl.
指湯 sashi-yu. Adding more hot water so one can adjust the thickness of the tea. If this is done correctly, it means that the koicha’s consistency will be perfect. Too much water and it becomes too thin. Not enough and the reason won’t flow down the tall, narrow walls of this particular teabowl. In this practice, experience leads to balance.
I return the remaining water in the ladle’s cup back to the kettle and set the hishaku back upon the kama and okiro. Breathing inward, I return my focus to whisking tea. Breathing outward, I press the whisk back and forth, slowly, attentively, until the mixture is even, the surface of the liquid flat, glossy, mirror-like akin to that of lacquer.
I lift the whisk upward above the bowl and turn it right-side-up in mid-air. A thick coating of koicha still clings to the cut bamboo tines of the chasen.
I set the whisk back down beside the chaire, beside the carved cedar scoop.
For a moment I sit once more, pausing to hear the sound of the kettle, to the breeze pushing through the pine trees that tower over this simple garden shed, to the large iron bell that hangs beneath the eaves of my home on the other side of the curving stone path.
The bustling world outside the quiet of the tea hut. The chaos and clammed as people rush from this place and that in preparations for the holidays and for the year’s end. The craziness of the current state of the world and the death that hangs heavy in the air. The fear, the sadness, the longing and grief.
To think this is kept at bay by these thin walls of mine, to fool one’s self into thinking that the crack in the door that lets in the light of the early morning won’t also let these energies pour forth into here as well. To resist the crashing waves only leads to one’s collapse. To dive deep into the swirling and turbulent times may prove to be a wiser choice.
In the dim light of my garden shed, the koicha I’ve made looks especially dark. As I lift the bowl to turn it and place it in the guest position, I notice how the light wraps around its round, globe-like shape. How the shadows it casts stretch and crawl across the chaotic patterns upon the plywood floor. How the edges of these shadows fade into light so that the boundary between light and darkness is not defined but permeable, nebulous.
As I stand up and reposition myself to accept the bowl of tea as a guest, I’m given a new perspective of the space I’ve been sitting in. From this vantage point the light is brighter, catching in the wisps and plumes of steam that rise from the kettle’s open mouth. I see the shaded outlines of bare tree branches, of roof tops in the distance, of ice crystals that form at the edges around the sole window pane. I see the dark lustrous emerald green of the warm, flat, lacquer-like surface of tea that I’ve produced for myself as host enjoy by myself as guest.
The small world of the empty tea room feels both constrained and expansive. The space between where I once sat and where I sit now seems a world away, yet barely an arm’s length.
The alcove in the corner, with its lone burning candle light shimmers and glows, flickering with the wind that creeps between the boards, between the joined edges of walls.
I lift the bowl of tea and drink from it whole heartedly. The liquid is thick, warm, awakening. The bitter and bittersweet of koicha is arresting. A shock to the system. All previously drowsiness abated. The instantaneous quality of the moment made incredibly clear.
I tilt the chawan back again and drink twice more from it, the remainder of the tea is reduced to a thick coating upon the inside of the bowl. I set it down once more before me to appreciate its shape, its dried persimmon-like color, the upward path of the residual koicha along its inner walls.
I return the bowl back to the host’s position and return myself to the position of the host. Before I opt to cleanse the bowl, to close-up my day’s tea practice, and to close-up the small tea hut to retreat once more into the warm interior of my studio space, I decide to use the remaining tea left in the chawan to make a bowl of 薄茶 usucha.
To do this, I draw cool water first from the mizusashi and blend it with the hot water of the kama. Next, I draw water from the now cooler kettle and pour half-a-ladle’s-worth into the bowl.
I whisk the tea in a vigorous manner, pulling it from the inner walls of the teabowl and whipping it into a bright, light foam.
I pause for a moment more as I enjoy the sight of this impromptu bowl of tea. Observing how the light of the day dances on the surface made of tiny bubbles. It serves as a reminder that even in these dark days there is still light, however minute they may be. It is found clinging to the imperfect, rough surfaces of everyday life, of practice, of the choices we make, as we take time to sit and be silent with ourselves away from the clamoring masses and social requirements. The light of meditation found in the dark corner of an old, run-down garden shed at the edge of a small forest.
I lift and turn the bowl and silently thank the madness of the world that pushed me to take time to be alone. I tilt and drink up the last bowl of tea made from the waters of the last kettle of the year’s end. It is sweet, bright, sparkling with a gentle flavor that lingers.
As I place the bow in my hands to inspect it, I gaze upon the small collection of foam against its dimpled surface. The depth of darkness of this deep-set bowl. Light and the residue of tea just eking-out a foothold.
With cool water I cleanse the bowl finally. I place the chakin back within its hollow form.
I set the chasen against the fold of the linen cloth, the thin bamboo tines silhouetted against its pale white woven surface.
I cleanse the chashaku once more with the folded silk of the fukusa and place it down upon the rounded rim of the teabowl.
I return chawan and chaire before the mizusashi. Cool water is placed once more into the steaming center of the boiling pot. The lid placed once again on top. The hiss and tumble of water settles momentarily to a quiet stop.
In the stillness that exists as the water cools and the light shifts, I put objects at rest.
The hishaku is placed atop the kensui and the bamboo lid rest placed below it.
Items once used to prepare tea are then arranged once more to be viewed and appreciated in a simple 拝見 haiken.
An old 香盆 kōban incense tray becomes an open field upon which objects are placed upon. First the carved lid of the chaire is set on its side, waiting as its corresponding other half is cleansed.
When they finally meet again and are placed upon the tray they appear jewel-like in the low glow of the morning light.
Next, the shifuku is lifted from its resting place beside the mizusashi and is formed in the hand to appear full, voluminous. It is placed down beside the chaire it had first enrobed, now both empty of their hallowed contents.
Finally, the carved chashaku scoop is set between both brocaded pouch and small tea jar.
These, the tools that came into contact with the tea.
Offered up to the guest to enjoy once more before they are, like a memory, packed away.
Warm light cast against cooling objects. Dark pools of shadows collecting in corners. Set within the alcove there is a single candle light. No flower for this gathering. Just the flicker of a flame and the cold iron rings of the kettle’s 鐶 kan set on old weathered Beacon brick. Dark days for this moment in time, followed by the deepening of Winter’s cold. This, the last kettle for the old year. What potential to come from its boiling and bubbling core? What will come from the chaos with its dark interior? Perhaps it will engender this practice of mine as I sit in these shadows now.
The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.
The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.
The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.
These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.
The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.
Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.
Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.
The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.
Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.
The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.
Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?
I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.
Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.
I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.
I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.
For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.
I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.
In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.
The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.
I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.
The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.
Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.
I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.
I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.
I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.
I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.
I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.
I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.
The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.
Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.
All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.
I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.
The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.
The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.
The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.
I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.
Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.
I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.
The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.
I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.
Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.
I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.
I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.
I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.
As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.
The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.
I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.
I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.
In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.
As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.
The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.
I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.
Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.
The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.
Space exists between them both.
Room enough to breathe.
Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.
Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.
The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.
The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.
I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.
When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?
“Once in a lifetime”.
“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? ￼
The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.
The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.
The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.
The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.
Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.
Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.
Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).
To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.
Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.
A void. A dark mystery still.
The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.
I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.
The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.
I return the bowl to its upright position.
The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.
Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?
Is the surface an indicator of the void?
Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.
An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.
November began and now seems as if it is almost over. What began as a last stand for Autumn’s glory now seems torn and tattered like the many leaves that still cling to the trees around my tea house. Save for the few maple trees that still hold onto their leaves, the small forest that abuts my wooden hut is bare, wind whips through the branches, whistling sweetly. Mornings are cold. The rain of October is replaced with lighter occasional showers, intermittently broken by bright blue skies of daybreak.
Frost forms. A thin surface of ice covers small pools of rainwater left on the edges of my garden. Bright red rose hips alight the otherwise colorless world. Autumn’s last hydrangeas are dry and brittle. What welcomes Winter are these minute indicators. Not one but all at the same time seem to arrive like a royal retinue, heralding the new season, forcing all beings to bow to Winter’s undeniable influence.
The tea world is not immune to these effects. Everything about the practice shifts at this time. Gone are the regular outings to the river’s edge for an impromptu 野点 nodate. The matchstick partitions and 簾 sudare blinds that once welcomed cool breezes have been folded up and stored away, not to return until Summer’s heat rises. The last of Autumn’s wild grasses are featured in the 床間 tokonoma, but hazel and Winter chrysanthemum seem more appropriate. The tea jar is cut open and the 風炉 furo is finally put away in favor for the 炉 ro. The tiny world of the tearoom becomes all the more intimate as people gather closer to the sunken hearth.
In these times of pandemic, I have only one guest, my partner, and I do not invite friends to share tea. We huddle together in the biting cold on the first day of the tenth lunar month to mark the shift in season. 立冬 Ritto. The first day of Winter on the old lunar calendar. In lieu of having a sunken hearth, I use an old 火鉢 hibachi made from a single burl of paulownia wood. In the makeshift tearoom, it, and the iron kettle set within it, are the only source of heat.
Typically, the opening of the ro (炉開 robiraki or 開炉 kairo) comes sometime between late October to early November, when the presence of Winter is first felt. The 16th century teapractitioner千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took a rather poetic approach, shifting to the 囲炉裏 irori only once the 柚子 yuzu turned color. Others, still, wait for the first day of the tenth lunar month. It was believed that on the tenth (double) hour of the first day of the tenth month (the hour of the boar on the first day of the month of the boar) that it would be safe to transition to a sunken hearth, as this hour was linked to the element water, ensuring a safe use of fire in the house (and tea space). I have chosen to make tea in accordance with this tradition, however, given how cold the day was, I opted to set the time earlier.
Regardless, as we enter the small tea hut, the light remains dim. Steam rises from the kettle, its lid resting at an angle. The sound of the boiling water within it produces a steady hiss, akin to the sound of wind pressing through the small forest.
With the door closed behind us, we spend a brief moment to appreciate a lone dried-out sprig of hydrangea flowers, worn and weathered yet still brilliant and sparkling like silver in the limited light of the tearoom.
As I set down in the position of host and my partner in the position of guest, I offer a bow and tea sweets made of fragrant jelly and sweet chestnut, set atop a large leaf plucked from a nearby maple tree.
Before me sits the 水指 mizusashi and 茶入 chaire enrobed in a silk 私服 shifuku pouch.
Stitched upon the green and gold brocade are the patterns of chrysanthemum and pine. One, the last echoes of Autumn. The other, the fresh arrival of new Winter’s growth. A time of transition.
I move the chaire over to the right and place the tea bowl, 茶筅 chasen and 茶杓 chashaku beside it.
Next, I bring out the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki, setting these on either side of me.
Preparing tea in the ro season calls for a more intimate arrangement. The 茶碗 chawan and chaire are placed at an angle, set closer to the guest and to the heat of the sunken hearth.
As each object is cleansed, they are set between the mizusashi and kettle, bridging the gap between the source of hot fire and cool water.
￼The chaire is removed from the shifuku.
The chashaku is placed atop the lid of the tea container.
The chasen is placed beside this.
The chawan is brought closer to the host. Hot water is drawn from the kettle for the first time and poured into the black void of the 黒瀬戸茶碗 kuro Seto chawan. Steam rises and swirls in thin plumes as the water enters and settles into the tea bowl.
I set the flat tines of the chasen into the bowl and for a moment they catch the light that filters through the one window cut into the tearoom. The whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmed. The chasen is returned beside the chaire.
The water is poured from tea bowl to kensui. I pause and wait for the final drop of water to roll out of the chawan before wiping the vessel dry with the 茶巾 chakin.
I return the bowl before me and reach for the chashaku. I bow and motion to my partner to enjoy the sweet as I begin to prepare a bowl of tea. I bring the chaire to my center and remove the lid, placing it beside the tea bowl. I press the curved tip of the chashaku into the opening of the chaire and pull out three scoops of bright 抹茶 matcha powder.
I place the teascoop atop the rim of the chawan. As I tilt the chaire over and pour powdered tea into the tea bowl, I notice how light and shadow play off of one another. The bright green cascade of tea falling into the black bowl. The angled darkness forming from the edges of the chawan and lid of the chaire. The dark skin of the smoky-colored bamboo and the thin layer of tea clinging to it.
I lift the tea container and place the lid back atop it. I pick up the chashaku and mark the mound of tea.
I remove the lid of the iron 茶釜 chagama and pull water from it, pouring a some of the water into the chawan and over the tea and returning the rest to the kettle.
The tea is kneaded slowly with the thick, flat tines of the chasen. Slowly the concoction becomes a thick green paste. Slowly the scent of tea overtakes the aroma of incense, of the decaying leaves outside, of the fresh pine needle buds that brush against the moss-covered roof of the tea hut.
More water is added to the mixture and the tea is, again, slowly whisked until it achieves a mirror-like appearance. Light once again enters the tea bowl, illuminating now the emerald pool of thick tea.
I lift the bowl and place it in front of my partner. A bowl to share, unconventionally, between guest and host. As they lift the bowl and enjoy the first sip, I wait in silence.
As second and third sip are enjoyed, I pick up the last lone tea sweet and eat it before the tea is passed to me.
A single trail of 濃茶 koicha runs up one side of the inner wall of the tea bowl. As I lift and turn the bowl to drink from it, I make sure that I drink beside this track of tea. Slowly, as I tilt the bowl to drink from it, the koicha climbs down from the center. Light from the window bounces off the rounded well of the chawan, off the unctuous layer of tea that lines the vessel, off the minuscule pocks and pores of the black glaze. The tea slowly makes its way to my mouth and soon is gone. All that remains is a thin layer that now coats the bottom of the tea bowl.
With bowl placed once again before me, I opt to make an informal gesture and whisk the remaining tea into a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Hot water is scooped once again from the chagama and poured into the chawan.
In the swirling steam that emanates from the tea bow, I quickly whisk a bowl of tea for my partner, offering another moment to enjoy the shift from Autumn to Winter, from something somber to something light, unexpected, relaxed. In this transition from furo to ro, the sentiment in the tea space becomes less formal and less constrained.
The ro, itself, was not part of the formal tea room arrangement, only making its way into the emerging practice of tea as the rustic aesthetic of 侘茶 wabicha became more widely adopted. Appropriating, adopting and adapting forms from kitchens, travelers’ inns and hermit huts, the sunken hearth calls host and guest to gather closer, to share the heat, to offer everything that one can muster as what is available becomes more meager in the cold Winter months. To transform the “waste” and dregs of tea as an offering to one’s guest is, itself, a gift during this time. Unconventional but welcomed. Like the ro itself, or, in the case of my makeshift tea hut, an old hibachi.
With the final bowl of tea drunk, I cleanse the bowl one last time. Water is added first from the chagama to the bowl and then poured into the kensui. Next, cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chawan. The bowl and chasen are cleansed and placed one inside the other. The chashaku is wiped again with the 服紗 fukusa, removing the residual tea dust from the tip of the tea scoop.
The chaire is moved back to rest in front of the mizusashi. The chawan and collected wares resting within it are placed beside the chaire. A drought of cool water is added to the chagama and the lid is placed atop it.
The mizusashi is closed. The black lacquer lid appears like a dark void, caught in the angular light that beams through the small tearoom.
In the waning moments of the tea gathering, I offer 拝見 haiken to my partner, giving them a final opportunity to appreciate the tea ware and the quiet of the tea space. Each item is purified before presented.
The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.
The shifuku is plucked from its resting position beside the mizusashi and rearranged to sit beside the chaire it once covered and protected.
Finally, the chashaku is cleaned one last time and placed between the shifuku pouch and tea container.
In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.
The glaze of the small chaire holds an iridescent golden shine.
The shifuku pouch, emblazoned in a tessellated pattern of pine and chrysanthemum, sparkles.
The hazy pattern upon the bamboo skin of chashaku appears like a moon peering through a thick clouds of night. Despite the chill in the air, the light in the tearoom is warm, echoed by the heat that radiates from the simmering kettle.
Objects are returned to the host and the chawan is offered for one last viewing. A kuro Seto tea bowl.
Coated mostly in a black glaze, the texture of which is reminiscent of the dimples surface of citrus skin (柚子黒 yuzu-guro), save for the exposed clay of the foot.
The cut calligraphic mark of the potter, 杉浦芳樹 Sugiura Yoshiki (1915-1982) catches shadow and light.
The imprint of the artist’s life left within the clay, felt by the palm of those who’ve since held his work. The imprint of this moment left in the minds of guest and host, two partners as we endeavor to make a life together amidst the chaos of the world. All set against the ever-changing constant swirl of the seasons, one transitioning into another.
What welcomes Winter is what we see and what we feel. Demarcations on a calendar, one the freezing of the earth, on the chafing colors of the leaves on the trees and on the surface of a citrus’ skin. A hole cut out in the center of a tea space. A void where once the furo sat in Summer. The exchange of one thing for another. Of time. Of things that may no longer return come the next year. Of death and decay. What welcomes Winter now may, indeed, never be seen again, save for the impressions they’ve left on our mind.
The bridge that extends between July and August marks the hottest days of Summer. Known in the traditional lunar calendar of Japan as 大暑 Taisho, this brief period marks the final knell of the season’s heat, before the eventual ease into the cool of Autumn. All around, the air grows heavy and damp, and the earth swells with moisture. In this climate, earth and air conjoin in an exchange, often met with occasional Summer showers and outbursts of rain and thunder.
After a night of intense heat, I wake to find the world quiet and cool. During the early morning, rain broke the heat of the arriving day, running down the broad leaves of trees and refreshing the earth. Inspired, I take to my tearoom and prepare water to bring to a boil.
Once set, I sift bright green 抹茶 matcha into a tall ceramic 茶入 chaire. I pull from my tea cabinet a wide 桐箱 kiribako.
Wrapped in a cloth decorated with twisting vines, I pull forth an old Vietnamese celadon teabowl from the Lý-Trần period (13th-14th centuries), worn and weathered by time. I wet the bowl to bring it to life. Liquid fills its pores. Color returns to the clay.
I submerge a 茶巾 chakin in cool water and squeeze the linen cloth in my hands, pushing out the water it had absorbed. I fold the chakin and place it in the center of the old moss green 安南焼茶碗 Anam-yaki chawan. Atop this, I place a wetted 茶筅 chasen made of dark bamboo.
Wares are brought into the tearoom in waves. First the chaire, which is placed before the 水指 mizusashi. Next the teabowl and accompanying équipage. Finally, the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki.
The door is shut. The fading scent of incense lingers in the air. The light in the room is muted. The sound of the rain outside the window blends with the low boiling hum of the kettle. I sit and breathe. I arrange the wares and ready each in preparation for a bowl of tea.
The chawan is placed before the kettle. The chaire, in its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch, is placed before the chawan.
Set together, the soft colors of shifuku and the old celadon harmonize.
I reach down with both hands and undo the cord that ties the silk cloth together.
Methodically, I loosen and remove the chaire from the shifuku.
I place the pouch between the mizusashi and the edge of the wooden 小板 ko-ita, atop which the 風炉 furo stands.
I cleanse the chaire with the folded 袱紗 fukusa and place it back a before the mizusashi.
I slowly inhale as I refold the fukusa. Holding it in my left hand, I exhale as I then reach out with my right hand to pick up the 茶杓 chashaku.
I press the carved and smoothed tip of the tea scoop into the folds of the purple silk of the fukusa, running the cloth from center to rounded end, back to center and back to tip.
I repeat this motion once more and place the scoop atop the lid of the chaire in one fluid action.
I remove the chasen and place it beside the chaire. I remove the chakin, lightly twist it between my left and right hands over the kensui, and refold it, momentarily placing it atop the black lacquer lid of the mizusashi.
I lift the hishaku, hold it between thumb and index finger of my left hand, and with my right hand, remove the lid from the boiling 茶釜 chagama, setting it upon the ceramic futaoki. The sound of the kettle grows once the lid is removed. A thin, wispy column of steam rises from the open mouth of the chagama. Beads of moisture condense and cling to the edge of the opening. I transfer the bamboo ladle from left to right hand and dip the carved cup into the boiling water. Air caught in the wooden scoop exhales audibly as it fills with water. With a steady hand, I breathe inward, drawing forth a ladle’s worth of hot water.
Exhalation, and I pour the water into the center of the teabowl. The color of the glaze deepens around the edges where the water meets the bowl, as liquid saturates the centuries-old vessel. I dip the flat tines of the chasen into the warm water. Their color darkens too as they drink up the water, absorbing it, becoming more pliable.
Once cleansed, I place the chasen back next to the chaire. I pour the water from the teabowl to the kensui and wipe the edges and inner surface of the chawan with the chakin. I look down at the teabowl. It looks back up at me, refreshed like a stone in a garden path after a Summer’s rain. Beaming and glistening. It is an ancient color caused by the creative energies of an artisan, affected by the countless years.
Along the rim, glaze once pooled and held to the clay body, caught forever in suspension by the heat of the kiln.
Along its outer edges, a craftsperson’s knife lightly pressed into the still-soft clay to create a subtle foliate design, an impression of lotus petals unfurling as Summer’s heat gently coaxes each fragrant bud to emerge, first from the baked mud of the wetland, to later bloom after a refreshing rain. Even after the centuries, even after the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, and even after the myriads of awakenings, the pattern still remains clear.
I turn back to the chashaku and chaire. I open the ceramic tea container, setting the lid beside the chawan.
I dip the teascoop into the soft green tea powder and lift out the first of three scoops of matcha.
Once a small heap has formed in the center of the bowl, I place the carved chashaku atop the edge of the chawan.
I tilt the chaire and let all remaining tea cascade down into the bowl. A fine cloud of tea dust rises from the bowl, followed by the fragrant scent of fresh green tea. The lid is placed back onto the chaire and the container is placed back beside the chasen.
Plucking the teascoop again as if I were lifting a calligraphy brush, I inscribe a simple sigil into the mound of tea dust, breaking its gentle organic form. Adding an impression upon perfect chaos.
I return the teascoop to the lid of the chaire. I remove the lacquered lid of the mizusashi and place it upright against the side of the fresh water vessel. I notch my hand along the long handle of the hishaku and press the bamboo cup deep into the hot water of the chagama.
A minute amount of water is poured into the chawan, slowly surrounding and seeping into the tea powder. I return the remaining liquid back to the water boiling inside the iron chagama.
I lift the chasen and slowly press the tines into the tea. With a series of repeated back and forth motions, I methodically fold and knead the tea and water together into a thick, lacquer-like paste. Small peaks form and curl and fall as the blades of the chasen cut and comb into the tea and water concoction.
In the quiet stillness of the tearoom, the aroma of matcha replaces the scent of aloeswood. With my left hand, I lift and tilt the chasen to the side, momentarily enjoying the sight of tea paste clinging to the curled tips of each bamboo tine. With my other hand, I lightly balance the hishaku and scoop water out of the chagama, letting it run through the blades of the tea whisk as I pour into the teabowl.
The hishaku is returned to rest upon the opening mouth of the kettle and the chasen is put to work to further knead the tea and water into a consistent brew. In this process, I focus my mind. Time begins to slow down. All that is around me falls away. The rain outside. The kettle before me. The glimmer of fresh water in the mizusashi. The shadows that pool around the edges of each object. The swirling grains within the wide wooden plank atop which I’ve set the wares. The patterns cut into the tea.
The repetition of motion. Whisking. Scooping. Lifting up and setting down of objects. One mind observing these. One mind caught in each moment. Is this the same mind that was once a baby? Once a child? Once a teenager? Now an adult, realizing this moment? Each past mind seems so different, so distant. Each with its own sense of self. Its own sense of truth. What was the mind before it was born? A lotus pushes up from the mud.
I lift the whisk straight up from the thick pool of 濃茶 koicha. I place it back down next to the chaire. The objects sit together in the dim light of the morning. Together with the gentle sound of the rain and the tea kettle.
I peer down into the antique chawan. The soft color of aged celadon and the striking emerald of the tea. As I bring the bowl towards me, I see my reflection caught in the mirror-like surface of the koicha. It bends and changes as the thick liquid draws down the inner edge of the teabowl, slowly pooling and pouring and pressing against my lips as I take my first sip from the bowl. The feeling of the first taste instantly awakes me. It courses through me. Enlivens my mind. Quickens my pulse. Two more sips and the tea is fully consumed, save for the dregs that cling to the side of the bowl.
I produce from my inner chest pocket a 古袱紗 kobukusa, a square of woven silk of with patterns of water plants stitched in 金蘭 kinran gold brocade. I unfold this and press it flat against the wooden plank.
Upon this I place the antique teabowl and for a moment I enjoy the single track of bright green tea against the old celadon. I admire how it catches the light. Iridescent like rain running off a roof tile. Slick like a lotus leaf floating on a pool.
I reposition the antique chawan to my side and place a grey 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan before me. Out of respect for the ancient Vietnamese vessel, I use this humble grey bowl as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan, a spare teabowl used to clean the chasen.
I draw cool water from the mizusashi and pour it into the Ido chawan. I press the chasen into the bowl and whisk-off the residual tea that clings to the flat bamboo tines. I pour the cool water from the teabowl into the kensui and place the folded chakin into its center.
I rest the chasen pointed upright against the chakin. With the fukusa, I cleanse the chashaku before it, too, is set atop the kae-chawan. The bowl is shifted to the left. The chaire is placed beside it.
As I close my sitting for tea, I pour cool water into the chagama, halting the rolling boil of the hot water for tea. The lid is placed back upon it. The lacquered lid is returned atop the mizusashi. The hishaku and futaoki are placed together with the kensui.
I arrange a final 拝見 haiken of the chaire, the shifuku and the chashaku. I cleanse the chaire and place it upon a 香盤 kōban.
I pick up the shifuku from between the mizusashi and furo and carefully place it atop the kōban.
Finally, I place the chashaku between the two objects.
For a moment, I sit and admire each. The way their different spirits harmonize with one another. How their textures play off of one another. How their colors differ yet are at ease.
The striped pattern of the shifuku and the grain of the teascoop.
The flecks of black and copper-blue hues within the glaze of the chaire in contrast with the warm tones of the chashaku.
For a brief moment the rain pours heavy outside my window. I spend this time in meditation, cleansing the remnants of koicha from the antique teabowl. As the Summer storm lifts, I place the cleansed bowl before me.
As light returns to the morning sky, pushing through the dark clouds that had collected, I inspect the chawan, turning it in my hand. The carved 高台 kōdai catches the light coming through the windows. The soft indentations upon the clay carved by the artisan’s knife.
The deep brown glaze brushed within the center of the 高台内 kōdai-uchi. The bowl reveals small features with each viewing. The first time is not like the last. Nuances emerge.
Cracks and crazing on the surface. Depth from pale color. Detail found in simple patterns. The clay retains the coolness of the water it once held. It feels refreshing in the hand. The last of the rainwater is heard dripping from the eaves over the window. The heat of the day rises once more.
What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.
In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one.
But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.
Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture.
But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large.
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable.
As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.
While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?
While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.
When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture.
As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.
This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.
This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm.
In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?
Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.
Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?
In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice.
“Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.
If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.”
Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.
I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253):
“To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.
To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy.
What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.
New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.
In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.
In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.
In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.
As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamonotemae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.
Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles.
The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).
The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.
Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.
While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?
Additional Readings & Resources
As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.
1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.
2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.
3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.
4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.
5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.
6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.
7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.
8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.
9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.
10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.
Writers & Authors
Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson
Bright cloudless skies hang over head. Grass pushes up through earth in the fields. The first heat of early Summer hangs in the air. Over the weekend, I escaped to the countryside to see all of this unfold before my eyes. Nature in full transition. The constant force. Coming home, I carried this feeling with me. A souvenir. An お土産 omiyage. Something brought back, special to a particular place.
As I walked the streets of my urban neighborhood, however, early Summer was still there. Lush green leaves on the maple trees. Mugwort growing tall in the shadows cast by fences. A burst of color as the tree peony blossoms (牡丹 botan) in the city gardens. All telltale signs that Summer has arrived.
For me, all this subtle change produced an upwelling of desire to make a bowl of tea. As is the custom for practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the “tea year” begins with the beginning of early Summer. Akin to a flower beginning to bloom, the energy of this time is on the rise, not yet cresting with the oppressive heat of the season, nor waning with the slow retreat and cool of Autumn.
Reflecting this, 茶人 chajin shift from using the sunken hearth (炉 ro) of the colder months and begin to use the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. To observe this major shift, both in the technology used in the tearoom, as well as with the arrangement of the tearoom itself (as the hearth is closed (炉塞ぎ ro–fusagi) and the 畳 tatami are shifted), a special gathering to mark first use of the furo is held, 初風炉 sho-buro.
In keeping with this change, I adjust my 取り合わせ toriawase, bringing wares into the tearoom that reflect the fresh feeling of early Summer. In my 床間 tokonoma, I hang a scroll with light cursive calligraphy reflecting upon the coming of Summer. Below this, I place a small wooden incense container (香合 kōgō), inside of which is kept small cut pieces of 沈香 jinkō, the fragrance I am featuring in my sitting.
Below my tearoom window I have set my antique bronze furo, atop which sits its paired iron 茶釜 chagama, wisps of steam rising from the small gap between the mouth and lid.
Beside this is the 水指 mizusashi. Sitting before this, a small 文淋茶入 bunrinchaire. Before I prepare tea, I meditate for a moment, to listen to the sound of the kettle and to appreciate the dim light that filters through the rough hempen shades of my tearoom window. The heat of the kettle is soft, mingling with the heat of the day.
I leave the tearoom and return with my additional tea equipage.
I set the teabowl down and the chaire before it.
Slowly I untie the braided silk cord from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku, spangled in a motif of shimmering tree peonies against a sky blue field. I remove the chaire from the silk pouch and cleanse its glazed exterior with my 袱紗 fukusa.
Next I turn to the assembled implements with the teabowl.
I purify the 茶杓 chashaku, pinching it between the folds of the fukusa, cleansing the handle and curved scoop, placing it atop the lid of the chaire once cleansed.
I then lift the 茶筅 chasen out of the bowl, placing it next to the chaire.
I bring the teabowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin twisting it above the open mouth of the 建水 kensui that rests beside my left knee. I unfold it and refold it, placing it momentarily on the lid of the mizusashi.
I lift the 柄杓 hishaku off from the tiny porcelain plinth of the 蓋置 futaoki. With hishaku in my left hand and chakin in right, I lift the lid from the chagama. Steam rises steadily from the mouth of the kettle. The sound of the bubbling water breaking the silence of the tearoom. I place the bronze lid atop the futaoki and folded chakin atop the lid.
Passing hishaku from left hand to right, I draw a ladle’s worth of water from the kettle and pour it mindfully into teabowl. I press the chasen into the hot water. The tines slowly expand outward. Once cleansed, I return the whisk back next to the chaire, and pour the hot water out into the kensui. I wait for the water to drain completely from the teabowl, save for a final drop, which I catch with the chakin.
Now clean, I sit for a moment to appreciate the teabowl. Brushstrokes of glaze against the uneven, crackled surface of a white 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakemeKaratsuchawan. Refreshing now, knowing that Summer’s heat will come in the weeks and months ahead.
From the chaire, I remove three scoops of 抹茶 matcha, placing each in the center of the bowl.
I place the chashaku along the rim of the chawan.
With both hands, I lift the tiny tea container and empty it of the remaining tea, allowing it to cascade and fall into the chawan, creating a loose mound of bright tea powder.
In order to make the first bowl of 濃茶 koicha of the new year in tea, I pull forth a ladle of hot water from the kettle, pouring only a small measure of this into the chawan, returning the remainder back to the chagama.
The hot water pools around the edges of the tea, producing a small island of matcha amidst a emerald sea.
I bring the chasen down into the teabowl and slowly begin to work the tea into a thick paste. As the tea powder begins to bind with the water, the intense aroma of freshly ground green tea begins to rise, filling the tearoom, overcoming the lingering scent of aloeswood. I add an additional measure of hot water and continue to slowly, methodically whisk the tea. Back and forth, in a rhythmic manner. My hand slowly whisking. My breath keeping pace. Slowly the tea transforms into a slick opaque liquid. It is ready to consume.
I sit for a moment, having placed the chasen back beside the chaire, its tines coated in a thick layer of tea.
I stare down at the bowl of koicha. The dark green of the matcha looking back up at me.
In this pause, I hear the wind outside my window. Birds singing. Trees swaying. Even though I do not see the indicators of Summer, I can sense them.
I stare down into the bowl. The koicha appears like a void, like a mirror reflecting back at me. Does this reflect the future? The season that is due to come? The moment that is near to end? How to sum up a period of time so brief as a bowl of tea. Thousands of moments have I now had like this. The breath before I sip. The sensation of the tea changing my heart and mind. A feeling of being part of some sort of indescribable transformation. How a peony blooms. How we drink from a wider bowl as Summer nears. How the ro is closed and the furo is welcomed into the tearoom.
In this moment I quiet the mind and raise the bowl. I turn it ninety degrees so as not to drink from its 正面 shōmen and take the first sip. The flavor instantly washes over me. I pause and sip again. The flavor deepens. One more sip and I watch the tea pull from the center of the chawan down to the rim and into my mouth.
As I place the bowl before me once more, I see how time, gravity, my own production have played out over the crazed and crackled surface of the teabowl.
White brushstrokes of glaze. Grey streaks of clay beneath it. Tea. Steam. Sunlight filtering through the woven blinds. This moment caught in the empty space of the teabowl.
I cleanse the bowl, the whisk, the chashaku. I set each object to the side. Hishaku atop the kensui. Futaoki set below.
I produce an antique 香盆 kōbon upon which I set the chaire, chashaku and shifuku for 拝見 haiken. Light extends across into the tokonoma. I observe how light plays across the ceramic surface of the chaire. How colors and tones emerge as the day’s light grows.
How the grain of the chashaku feels warm.
How the silk of the shifuku is refreshing. A peony blooms across its brocaded expanse.
Leaves and blossoms, twisting and curling, billowing over the empty volume and undulating into the gathered folds. The kettle hums and the scent of aloeswood returns. Early Summer has arrived and the furo is welcomed back into the tearoom.
For the past few months, as I’ve been forced by the current pandemic to remain inside, more and more I’ve found myself practicing 茶の湯 chanoyu. Whereas prior to the “shelter in place” ordinance I was seriously practicing maybe once or twice weekly, I now find myself practicing once or twice daily. Where mornings were once languid awakenings, they are now purposeful and full of activity, in preparation for setting the kettle and arranging the 茶道具 chadōgu. My afternoons used to be a long and arduous push to the end of the day. They’ve since been transformed into a glorious close as I sit by my tearoom window, accompanied by the mellow hiss of my iron 茶釜 chagama and the setting sun.
Not only has this change in my practice’s frequency shifted my daily routine, it has also had a palpable impact on my body and mind. Recently, I sat with my tea teacher, who, over our more regular virtual tea teachings, noted that I had begun to exude 無心 mushin (wúxīn in Mandarin). When I asked what he had meant by this, he said “no mind”, stating that my actions seemed less hesitant, more continuous, more focused. Actions seemed more fluid and the space between actions more expansive.
Being a practitioner of 弓道 kyūdō as well as tea, he made the analogy of how when an archer releases the arrow, they remain in stance, expanding their gaze across the range, following their action with an equally mindful non-action. In short, as they prepare to shoot the arrow, they empty their mind of attachment. As they release the arrow, they maintain this state of non-attachment. In that moment of focus and release, there are no more rules, no more structure, just action. When they let go of the arrow, the let go of any expectations. As they release the arrow and watch it fly towards the target, they release their mind of the desire, of the mental grasping that wants it to hit the target. They just release. The arrow just flies.
As I continued my practice throughout the week, I meditated on this notion. In a sense, I did not know what my teacher meant, but I could feel it. My practice had become stronger, more sure. Without questioning my practice, I could finally trust it. I had practiced the forms, I knew the forms, and now, fully knowing, I could forget the forms.
I found myself preparing for a morning’s practice with what my teacher said still on my mind. Funny enough, it struck me just as I was in the process of filling a small 文琳茶入 “bunrin” chaire with tea.
“No mind”. What did this really mean? I knew the definition. I could read this in a book or hear this from an expert. However, in practice, meaning often evades logical description, instead, it appears in the practice itself. Elusive and fleeting, yet spontaneous and ever-present. As I peered into the empty ceramic tea container, I continued to think about this.
Next, I pulled out a wooden box, the contents of which was a 黒楽茶碗 kuro–Rakuchawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.
This I would be using for my morning practice.
As I began to untie the 桐箱 kiribako, loosening its cord and lifting the lid to reveal the wrapped bowl within, I kept thinking about this notion.
Unveiled, the bowl looked up at me. Empty. Receptive.
What makes a teabowl a teabowl? Is it the clay? The glaze?
Or is it the emptiness that it contains? The space? The opportunity for tea?
I set the chaire and bowl together.
The space between them became the space of action and inaction. As I breathed between motions, an outward breath for my outward motion, my inward breath to bring objects towards me, I found my body and mind joining into one constant action.
As I pull open the silken cord of the chaire, I loosen the knot and peel the 仕服 shifuku off of its clay body. I fold the 袱紗 fukusa and lightly touch the rounded shoulders of the chaire. I lift the lid and look inside.
From chaire to 茶杓 chashaku, from whisk to bowl.
Each motion arises, exists, fades and ends, but never stops. Instead, there is a constant motion.
Waves rising and crashing and returning out to sea, to churn back upon the shore again. The body follows this. The mind follows this. The division between the two fades.
As I scoop tea from the chaire and place it into the center of the black chawan, I am reminded that just moments before I was placing this tea into the container which I am now drawing it from. As I place the chashaku down upon the rim of the teabowl and tilt the chaire to pour the remaining tea powder into the bowl, I let the tea fall out freely. I am not worried that it will not fall out or that it will. I just let it do what I know it will do.
As I bring the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku over the gaping mouth of the teabowl, I tilt it slightly, letting free only a small measure of hot water, which mixes with the heap of 抹茶 matcha, producing a vibrant gasp of green tea aroma. For a moment, I watch the water mix with the tea, the mound of bright powder slowly sinking. Whereas before I may have worried whether I had added too much or too little hot water, after so many years of practice I no longer worry. I know it will be just enough.
I lift the 茶筅 chasen and begin the methodical act of kneading the tea and water into a thick paste in order to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. In the process, I cannot go too fast nor too slow. The motion, now, feels fluid; unencumbered. The tea and water shifts from two distinct states to one united form. The new concoction clings to the thin tines of the chasen. A forest of uniformly-spaced trees with moss of deep green climbing up their trunks. I add more hot water to this, letting it pour through the whisk’s blades of cut bamboo, thinning the liquid out just enough so that it can be consumed.
Once complete, I allow for a brief moment to pass, to appreciate the bowl, the tea, the cavernous space it creates and the shadows that obscure the line between black glaze and the dark green of the tea.
I pull back and appreciate the objects as they are arranged.
Years of practice inform their placement. No thinking is required at this point.
No judgement or questioning of whether they are correct or not. No mind.
I turn to the window of my tearoom and place the bowl before me. Dim light of morning is growing increasingly bright. The sun illuminated the bright green and yellow buds atop the branches of trees. Leaves unfurl like small sails on a ship’s mast. The sky begins to shift from dawn’s deep purple to the warm blue of morning.
I lift the bowl to my lips and breathe in the overwhelming fragrance of the tea. No space is left for me to exist outside of this. With three sips I drink all that I can.
The remaining dregs cling to the inside of the bowl. Evidence of action. No hesitation. No mind.
I cleanse the objects as I always do and arrange them for a final solitary 拝見 haiken. The lid of the chaire is lifted and left on the center side of the wooden tray before it is returned atop the little tea container.
The chashaku is placed next to the chaire, picked up and set down over the course of one inhalation and one exhalation. The shifuku, emblazoned in peony brocade of silver and blue, is lifted from between the 水指 mizusashi and 風炉 furo, shaped with the hands in a manner to emphasize its inner volume, and placed beside the chashaku. It is empty. It is full. It is the container and the void it contains.
I look down upon each object, enjoying them for what they are. Each crafted by masters of their art. Each reflecting different paths walked upon. Full strides. Confident. Assured.
How can one judge a tea container? It is neither good nor bad.
How can one assess a shifuku? It could be made of the finest silk and still, over time, it will fade and tatter.
How can one determine the value of a chashaku? It was once a branch of a cherry tree. What use is it now? A twig in the path. A scoop to measure tea. A staff to quell fighting tigers. To be used without hesitation.
An empty bowl will hold all the tea in the world and none at all.
When we practice the forms and involve these objects, we recognize how essential they are. Yet the more we practice, this, too shifts. The mind becomes lighter. The gaze opens, widens, expands. When we release our arrows, they speeds down range. When we pour the last of the tea powder out, we return the container from back where it once had sat, empty. We see how necessary they are. We see how unnecessary they are.
Even when these object are fully removed, you’ll find that they are still there. In between breathes. In pauses during the day. As light shifts. As one’s hand moves. As one’s mind grapples. Object and mind object. Pause and practice. Action and inaction. Constant. Fleeting. Form and no form. No tea. No mind.