Tag Archives: Simplicity

Ryōkan-sa! Playful as a Child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I then turn my attention to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku.

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

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

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

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

Small pits that have formed over use and time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

Cherry Blossoms. Buddha is Born.

The morning came after a light rain. The sun rose from a full moon night. As I made my morning walk, face covered in a mask, I made my way through my neighborhood. As it has been in the past, my walks have felt more and more like a meditation, on the current situation, on the emergence of Spring its full glory. Below me, a ground covered in moss, bright green sprigs of grass, lush carpets of flowers, interrupted by dandelions of electric yellow.

Above me are canopies of blossoms. 梅 ume of March. Magnolias of purple, white and pale green. The 桜 sakura of all kinds. Those which explode like a firework. Those which bloom gently like a rose. Those that cascade from willow-like branches, pouring downward like peach-hued waterfalls.

Amidst this beauty, yes, there is great sadness, death, despair. A screaming ambulance flying by on the streets of Queens, New York City is the ever-present reminder of this. So, too, are the men, women and children huddled either underneath overpasses, by the doors of government buildings asking for handouts, or together in the long lines to enter markets.

A walk down my neighborhood street reveals this, the bare reality. How the many once grinning streets of commerce now bear gaps, hollow holes in the mouth of a once smiling community. How will we repair that which is gone, perhaps forever. The realization that nothing will be the same.

Yet, on this walk, I am reminded that this is April 8th. In my Zen practice, one that hails from the Japanese 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū tradition, today we observe 仏生会 Busshōé, the birth of the historical Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama (c480 B.C.E – 400 B.C.E). During this day, it is common to create a small altar, situated in the center of which is a small statue of the Buddha as a newborn child. Surrounded in garlands of flowers, the statue is bathed in sweet tea (甘茶 amacha) and we are reminded that all great things come from small, humble beginnings and that all forms, too, shall be born and die and transform. As I walk home, back through the deaths of flowers and calamity, I formulate how I shall prepare tea to observe this day.

Entering my home I set my iron kettle to boil. As the water heats in this cauldron, I pull together teaware. Having recently acquired a tall 茶入 chaire, I opt to use this in my Busshōe tea gathering. I pull it forth from its wooden 桐箱 kiribako, its 緒 o tied in such a manner to indicate that it is empty of tea.

For a moment I inspect it, still enrobed in its silken 仕服 shifuku, one made not from the sacred 袈裟 kesa robes of a Buddhist priest but from the profane cloth of a kimono. The rippled texture and alternating colors of pink and blue, yellow and red remind me of the blossoms from this morning’s walk.

I remove the cloth and begin to scoop 抹茶 matcha powder into the chaire until there is just enough to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and myself to share. I then place this in front of the 水指 mizusashi which I’ve set beside my 風炉 furo.

Once the kettle has come to a boil I call my partner into the tearoom to join me for a bowl of tea. Before her, I place a small sweet to enjoy. After this I re-enter into the tearoom with teabowl in hand. It is a blush-colored 萩焼茶碗 Hagi-yaki chawan by 清和釜 Seiwa gama kiln master potter 祥雲 Shōun, the color of which harmonizes with the colors of the shifuku. Finally, I return with 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki made of split bamboo.

Together my partner and I sit to prepare a bowl of koicha. I set the teabowl and assembled equipage within it before me. Breathing out, I reach for the chaire, and place it before the chawan, creating a center line between myself, the wares, and the space between 茶釜 chagama and mizusashi.

I reach both hands down and lift them up the length of the chaire until my fingers reach the lightly-tied knot that ties the shifuku together. Carefully I unbind the silken cord and draw it open.

With well-practiced movements, I pull the chaire from the shifuku, placing the latter between the mizusashi and furo where it will sit for the remainder of the gathering as an empty shell.

Next, I cleanse the chaire, touching the lid with my purple silk 袱紗 fukusa, then the shoulders, and then the sides, until all surfaces which will come in contact with my hands have been purified.

Next I turn to cleansing the 茶杓 chashaku which, rather than being fashioned from the more typical bamboo, is made of cherry wood. As I run the fine silk of the fukusa over its surface, I admire the iridescent sheen of tree bark which still remains, an echo of a Spring long since passed.

The 茶筅 chasen is warmed and set upright next to the chaire, its thick tines expanding slowly.

I bow to my partner and invite her to enjoy the tea sweet prior to receiving a bowl of thick tea which I will prepare for her. She bows back and we both set into action. I lift the chashaku from the chaire and bring it towards my center. Next, I bring forth the chaire and remove its lid, placing it next to the chawan.

I lift the first of three scoops of tea from the tiny ceramic tea container, slowing my cadence for a moment to appreciate the movement of matcha powder from caddy to teabowl.

Two more times do I dip the chashaku back into the chaire, removing glowing green tea powder each time from its dark interior.

Finally, I tilt the chaire over, pouring out the remaining powdered tea into the chawan. In the brief moment of random pattering of tea to teabowl I am reminded of how the amacha would fall onto the small metal statue of the child Buddha. How it made me feel like a child. A little sense of chaos and joy that comes from letting gravity take over.

I enjoy the scene that has been made inside the teabowl. A split second vignette of colors and textures, of volumes and voids, of actions and inactions playing out and recorded in this art of being.

I return the object back to their resting positions and draw a ladle of hot water from the steaming chagama. A minute fraction of the water is placed along the inner edge of the teabowl, slipping under the heaped mound of tea dust. The matcha lifts and slowly sinks, changing from bright green to a dark emerald.

I slowly press the chasen into this pool of thick tea and proceed to knead the tea into a firm paste. As I do this the scent of tea is overwhelming. Its lively, grassy and bittersweet notes merging with the warm and gentle fragrance of incense lingering in the tearoom, one which was commonly burned at my temple back in California.

Memories of the past merging with moments of the present. How eagerly the mind brings up such images, especially in times of sadness and despair. “Remember this?” my mind seems to call. “Remember what joy you had back then?” it abruptly interrupts the silence with.

It calls me to think of those times as if they were spotless, as if they were without their own trials and tribulations. How this mind clings and grapples with the past. Tosses and turns and trips over itself like a child at play, hurting itself in the process.

Another draught of hot water is added to the tea and I continue to whisk it slowly, methodically, using every motion of my practice to focus the mind.

Though the Buddha was born a child, it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he awoke to his own Buddha mind. It was said that he was met with thoughts of temptation, desire, fear and anger, but chose to simply sit, to bow to these notions, and to claim the earth on which he sat as his sole witness to this knowing.

In a similar way, I set down the chasen and offer up a bowl of tea to my partner, with no expectations, just to accept it and myself as we are. Perfectly imperfect.

For a moment she looks down into the bowl, a brief flash of trepidation before she accepts the tea. She then lifts the bowl, turns it slightly, and drinks from it. A thick trail of koicha pulls from the center pool across the inner wall of the teabowl. She returns the bowl to me with just enough left so I may have a hearty sip. I turn the bowl again and drink the remaining koicha. A second trail of tea runs along the inner wall of the teabowl. We take a moment to pause, to breathe, to meditate. The flavor of tea still present on both our palates.

Before I set into cleansing the wares, I admire the traces of tea upon them. The light dusting of tea coating the carved tip of chashaku.

The thick residue of lacquer-like koicha still clinging to the tines of the chasen.

The dregs of tea running back down into the center of the chawan.

I bow to my partner and prepare to close the tea sitting, cleansing the teawares once more. As I usually do, I offer up a simple 拝見 haiken as a chance to recall the moment had with tea. Each item, the chaire, the chashaku, the shifuku, like tracks of an unseen bull. We know the presence of tea. We can taste it in our mouths. Yet it no longer exists as it once did. It has been transformed into memory. We recall the actions as if it were in the past now.

We lift the lid of the chaire to look inside. We see only emptiness.

We lift the chashaku and imagine the weight of tea hanging on its hand-hewn tip, yet it feels as light as a feather.

We inspect the shifuku, made from a scrap of kimono fabric.

We imagine the body that it must have once been held close against. Perhaps this person is no longer alive.

The chaire, now emptied and cleansed, is wrapped up again. The knot of the o retied in the manner to show that tea no longer sits inside. It is left to be inspected once more atop the 香盆 kōban made of mulberry wood and then, it, too, is put back into storage.

The tea gathering closes as it began, with a silent bow. An exchange between two friends. A moment born, expired, transformed.

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Clear and Bright

Looking out my tearoom window, the sky is clear and bright. Peering down upon my wooden tea table, the light casts long shadows. All around me, the world faces sickness and death. All around me, Spring is in full bloom.

On April 4th this year is 清明節 Qīngmíng jié, a day when families in China traditionally sweep the tombs of their ancestors and the day when green tea picking begins in earnest. While the world has been forced to adjust to the impact of a broad-sweeping pandemic, the traditional, as well as natural cycles still continue.

I offer incense in respect to the dead. I pour cool fresh water into my kettle and set it to boil. I bring together a vintage white porcelain 潮州茶盤 Cháozhōu chápán, 蓋碗 gàiwǎn, and four 品茗杯 pǐn mìng bēi.

The white porcelain is intended to enable the tea drinker to enjoy the unaltered color of the tea liqueur. Alas, in East Asia, white is often seen as the color of death and mourning. The four cups, too, infer this as the number four (四 ) in the Chinese language is a homonym for the word “death” (死 ).

This set up is not typical for me. Rarely do I use four cups. Rarely do I invite the notion of death to my tea table. Yet, it seems fitting. The world is in the grip of death, now seemingly more than ever. However, today is clear and bright. Both forces happening at the same time, not in opposition.

For tea, I bring forth a small handful of 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn. Made up of uniformly curled small leaf buds, this tea was harvested in March of 2019, a week prior to that year’s Qīngmíng festival. Picked this early means that the weather in the mountains surrounding 太湖 Tài Hú in southern 江蘇 Jiāngsū will still be cold.

The young tea buds will still be covered in a coating of silvery hairs (白毫 bái háo). If picked and processed correctly, the resulting flavor of this 清明前 Qīngmíng qián (pre-Qīngmíng) tea will be sweet, complex, and brighter than teas picked later in the year.

Now over a year old, I expect this tea to be a shadow of itself. However, in light of the current state of the world, it will be a taste of life before all of this happened. What will it taste like?

With the water boiled, I rinse the wares, warming them in preparation for making tea. Leaving the lid of the kettle open to allow it to cool down in order to properly brew this delicate tea, I wait and let the heat dissipate. As I wait, I open the window to my tearoom. The sound of birds. Breeze pushing the steam from the mouth of the kettle.

As the water cools, I begin to place the tiny tea leaves into the center of the warmed gàiwǎn, using a thin twig from a willow tree to arrange them evenly along the bottom of the porcelain vessel.

Slowly I pour water along the inner edge of gàiwǎn so as not to directly touch the heap of tea, ensuring that it is able to cool slightly before coming in contact with the tea leaves. The tiny curls of Bì Luó Chūn lift upwards, buoyant for a moment as the water rises in the gàiwǎn.

As I finish pouring water from my kettle, the leaves slowly begin to cascade downwards, spinning and setting at the bottom of the porcelain vessel, occasionally rising and falling again. I leave the lid of the gàiwǎn off and watch this dance play out, admiring how the tiny buds writhe and open, releasing their pale green pigment into the warm water.

A few seconds later and I carefully place the lid atop the gàiwǎn and tilt the cup, pouring its contents from one cup to the next until all are full. I give the gàiwǎn a quick shake and return it back down upon the ceramic surface of the Cháozhōu chápán.

I lift the lid and let the leaves cool. As I place the lid down atop a jade archer’s thumb ring, I marvel in two tiny sprouts that have affixed themselves to the bottom of the lid. Two tiny artifacts from the previous year. Remnants of an early Spring. How much the world has changed since then. How much still remains the same.

I call for my partner to break from her weekend work and join me for cups of tea. The flavor is still vibrant, grassy, intoxicating. Having been stored away for a year, time has not had a dramatic effect on the tiny leaves.

The color of the tea liqueur is bright and clear. A pale green gold against the clean white porcelain. The aroma is sweet like the flowering fruit trees of Spring.

As we finish the first steeping, I continue to brew a second and third.

The leaves open further, unfurling and expanding, offering up a golden hue and lasting flavor.

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

All that is left by the last brew are spent leaves and a fond memory.

As late morning turns to midday, the sun climbs high in the sky, the shadows shorten, the sky becomes clear and bright.

Birdsong beams through canyons of brick and concrete. Breezes bush through blossoms and trees. The scent of tea mingles with the sweet aroma of blooming flowers. Another stick of incense is lit in memory of the dead.

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A Pure Crystalline Sky. A Bowl of Tea for the Founder.

It’s early April. New York City seems like a ghost town. A surreal space, emptied of its occupants. Yet, while the streets are vacant, the flowers are in bloom. The 梅 ume blossoms of March cling to their branches. 桜 sakura burst and the scent of magnolia hangs sweet in the breeze. All above me, a pure crystalline sky. Clouds stretch onward in all directions. An effluence of life emerging in full vigor as Spring continues. Without the world bustling in its typical chaotic way, nature fills the void beautifully.

For me, life goes on within the confines of my New York City apartment, my partner and I adjusting to our new rhythms and daily patterns. Wake and meditate. Tea before a day’s work.

On April 2nd, I prepare for 宗徧忌 Sōhen-ki, the observance of the death of 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) 茶の湯 chanoyu master and founder of 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū, 山田宗徧 Yamada Sōhen (1627-1708). The process of setting up tea for this becomes a bit of a meditation. While I am a student of Sōhen-ryū, I feel as if I know very little of the founder of my school of tea, save for the anecdotes shared by my teacher; a sort of oral history.

While it is known that he was originally a pupil of 小堀遠州 Kobori Enshū (1579-1647), then (more famously) of 千宗旦 Sen Sōtan (1578–1658), my knowledge of the man remains foggy. Even in his own words, collected in his writings such as the 茶道便蒙抄 Chadō Benmōshō and 利休茶道具図絵 Rikyū Chadōgu Zue, I am left with little more than details. As such, to truly understand who Yamada Sōhen was, I must rely on my own tea practice: forms and philosophy passed down to me, from my teacher, a link to the lineage.

For the observance of Sōhen-ki, I decide to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and I to share. For this, I select a 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl), which I set atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. The attitude which I want to preserve is a sense of somber formality.

Paired with this, I select a 文琳茶入 “bunrinchaire, enrobed in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku. The color selection is intentional, in the hopes to harmonize the teaware with the bright blue sky outside my window.

In my 床間 tokonoma, a small flower plucked from a walk in my neighborhood, arranged in a bamboo 花入 hanaire. Yamada Sōhen was known for crafting bamboo flower containers.

As I sit down to prepare a bowl of tea, I carry in the tenmoku chawan, placing it next to the chaire, which I had placed into the tearoom prior to my partner entering. Next, I carry in the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and bamboo 蓋置 futaoki. I bow to my partner and I begin to arrange the teaware to prepare for cleansing. The chawan on its wooden stand is moved between the 茶釜 chagama and 水指 mizusashi.

The chaire is placed in front of the teabowl. I remove the silken shifuku from the chaire in a slow, methodical process.

The silk cord (緒 o) is untied and pulled.

The gathered silk cloth is loosened, and the two sides of the shifuku are pulled down, revealing the chaire inside.

Once removed, the shifuku is placed between the chagama and mizusashi. The chaire, still sitting before the chawan, is moved to sit in front of the mizusashi. Removed from the brocaded fabric, its modest earthen colors accentuate the quality of 侘び wabi, balancing an otherwise formal and refined arrangement.

The 茶杓 chashaku, formal (真 shin), is made of a single cut of cedar.

Once cleansed, it is placed atop the lid of the chaire.

The 茶筅 chasen, made specifically for whisking koicha, is wetted and warmed.

The tenmokudai is cleansed.

The tenmoku chawan is emptied with both hands into the kensui and is dried.

Peering deep into the center of the teabowl, I momentarily let my mind explore its inner surface. The uneven undulations of the unctuous glaze. The bright pools of blue and silver against a field of dark brown. In the center, a mirror-like image looking back at me.

I lift the chashaku and bow, offering my partner to have a sweet. From here, I begin to scoop tea from the chaire.

Once three scoops are placed into the center of the teabowl, I set the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmokudai.

The tip of the tea scoop covered in a fine dusting of green tea.

I finish by pouring the remaining 抹茶 matcha powder out of the chaire, offering the rest of the tea to be enjoyed.

The neat, tiny heap of tea now appears like a chaotic action captured on the canvas of the once empty vessel.

A small amount of hot water is drawn from the chagama and poured over the matcha powder. With the chasen, I slowly begin to knead the tea and water into a thick green paste. More water is added, pouring over the thick tines of the koicha chasen.

A minute later, I have slowly turned the concoction into something resembling a thick pool of lacquer.

Lifting the teabowl by the tenmokudai, I turn towards my partner and offer her the bowl of tea. We bow and she accepts the tea, taking the first sip of koicha. Afterwards, she returns the bowl to me and I finish the thick tea within it. Two trails of tea dregs radiating from the center of the bowl.

I cleanse the chasen with a separate teabowl and remove the remaining tea dust from the chashaku. The chagama is closed and so, too, is the mizusashi.

Finally, I prepare 拝見 haiken.

Without exchanging words, we examine the chaire. Its round shape and uneven brown glaze make it look like a small sparrow huddled against in a tree.

The chashaku, with its curved tip and red wood grain, appears pure, like a 如意 nyoi scepter of a Buddhist priest.

The shifuku, shimmering in the low light of the tearoom, appears like a treasure bag, voluminous in the manner preferred by Sōhen-ryū.

It dawns on me as I sit there peering down upon the assembled 茶道具 chadōgu. These “things”, these little objects. They represent something more than just what they are. They are all vessels of a particular Way. These actions, from the way the hand holds the tea scoop to the method of closing the chagama so to let the lid ring against the mouth of the kettle, producing a sound like a large temple bell, these, too, are part of a particular Way. They all have their origin. They all have a progenitor.

While time may have transformed these into what we see and experience today, there is a source. And yet this, too, is an empty vessel, a conduit through which something more has been transmitted. Is it a teaching through a teacher? Creativity through a person’s mind? Spirit through intention? When the earth slows down. When a pure crystalline sky appears. Clouds stretch onward in all directions. An effluence of life emerging in full vigor as Spring continues.

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Tea for the Dead. Tea for the Living.

On the March 28th, schools of 茶の湯 chanoyu observe the death of 16th century tea master 千利休Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591). Recognized as one of the primary figures to shape chanoyu, notably the aesthetic of 侘び茶 wabi-cha, Rikyū’s tea contained a strong emphasis on rusticity and austerity, framing tea as an expression of a moment’s evanescence. This philosophy lives on in the schools that continued Rikyū’s approach, passed down from teacher to student, tea master to countless generations.

On this day, 利休忌 Rikyūki, I am observing the tradition of formally offering tea, 供茶 kucha, to the memory of Rikyū. In light of the current events that have swept through our world, it seems only fitting to prepare a bowl of tea for the dead.

Entering my tearoom, the the light that filters through the windows is dull and grey. The sound of light rain melds with the low bubbling of the boiling water inside my iron 茶釜 chagama. The soft scent of incense rises from a ceramic incense burner set in the 床間 tokonoma. I carry with me a bowl and black lacquer 棗 natsume in the form favored by Rikyū. The teabowl is meant just for cleansing the 茶筅 chasen.

With my 袱紗 fukusa, I purify the natsume and 茶杓 chashaku.

With hot water, I wet the tea whisk and set the teabowl aside.

Next I bring forth a black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan set atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai.

Cleansing the bowl in hot water from my iron chagama, I place the teabowl back upon the wooden stand.

Rather than place tea into the chawan, I first ladle hot water into the bowl.

Next, I draw 抹茶 matcha from the black lacquer natsume and place this upon the surface of the hot water.

For a moment, I watch the tea powder float upon the still water. Steam and small wave-like patterns of tea powder swirl until, slowly, the tea beings to sink below the water’s surface. Not a commonly performed 点前 temae, the strange sight of tea floating and then falling sparks something inside me.

A pang of sadness washes over me as I stand up with teabowl in hand to place it in the tokonoma, set beside an offering of a sweet, flowers found along a path in my neighborhood, a candle and incense. I bow and realize that this bowl is not just meant as an offering for a dead tea master but for all those who have been cut down prematurely by the current pandemic.

I return to sit before the chagama and produce a single 黒楽茶碗 kuroRaku chawan; again, a form favored by Rikyū. As I cleanse this bowl, one which I will serve to my partner, I cannot help but to feel the futility in this act. Certainly, tea was seen as a medicine for so many centuries, yet will this bowl of tea be enough to save ourselves?

I warm the whisk and wipe the bowl.

It’s surface sparkles back, dark, black.

Into the deep void of the bowl I cast scoops of tea, creating a deeper indentation into the mound of matcha inside the black lacquer natsume.

I return the tea container back and set the chashaku atop its mirror-like lid. Pockmarked with tiny black 胡麻 goma speckles, the pattern resembles the light shower of raindrops outside my tearoom window.

I add water to the teabowl and whisk the tea into a fine foam.

I lift the bowl and set it beside me for my partner to accept.

We smile to one another. We feel alive. She lifts the bowl and turns it so as not to drink from its 正面 shōmen. She smiles and sips the tea.

In the tokonoma, the candlelight flickers against the grey light and casts shadows against the wall. A soft scent of incense wanes. The sound of the kettle humming. The final slurp of tea is audible.

The black Raku bowl is returned to me with a bright remaining mound of foam sitting in its center. Fleeting residual evidence of a peaceful moment, of a time shared with someone I love. A bowl of tea for the living shared with a bowl of tea for the dead.

I cleanse the bowl and pass it back to my partner and we take a moment to examine its 高台 kōdai.

A carved curl in the clay made by 楽焼 Rakuyaki master 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. His stamp set beside the foot ring of the bowl. His lasting legacy imprinted in clay and glaze. Fragile. Light in the hands.

Afterwards, I put together a final informal 拝見 haiken. The plain black lacquer natsume is set beside the chashaku.

We lift the lid to examine the tea inside its glossy interior.

We look upon the chashaku. A rounded scoop. Its speckled skin. The countless marks upon its surface. What was its life before it came to us? What did your face look like before your parents were born? What will life bring? Where will so many deaths take us?

My partner and I sit in the tearoom, thinking about the flavor of tea, the sound of the rain, the lingering scent of incense. We talk about life. We talk about death. We grieve for those who have been lost. About those we don’t even know. About the inevitability of death. About the chance happening of love. There’s a bowl of tea in the alcove for a dead tea master. There’s an empty bowl of tea shared by two friends.

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

Tea in Time of Turmoil

For the past months, the world has seemed to grow increasingly more tense. In January, we saw the US and Iran lock horns in an episode that briefly saw both nations mobilize and perform acts of violent retaliation. Years of civil war in Yemen continues to spiral into a bloody quagmire. Protests in Hong Kong, France, Chile, Palestine, India, and Northern Syria are just a sampling of the ongoing and ever-worsening environment of instability. Even on a biological level, with the outbreak and worldwide spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19 (2019-nCoV), the fragility of our little world seems to be evermore at the whims and caprice of unforeseen and uncontrollable forces.

In such a situation, how can one even think of tea? Yet, perhaps it is at this very moment that tea is most needed. For the bulk of two decades now I have practiced 茶の湯 chanoyu, an art that has its origins in meditative self-cultivation of 禪 Zen Buddhism and collaborative arts like 連歌 renga and 香道 kōdō.

Yet, especially during times like we see today, I remain ever-aware that chanoyu was also an art appropriated and practiced by the warrior class of medieval Japan. Developed during an age of chaotic extremes, what today we call chanoyu emerged during the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States” (c. 1467 – c. 1615). In a period which saw endless military, political and social strife wreak havoc in all corners of the Japanese archipelago, the Way of Tea (茶道 chadō) was not merely a means to escape into a world of quietude, it was also a way to reclaim space and time, defiantly, if need be, against the pale of constant violence and upheaval.

While the current situation surrounding the COVID-19 virus may not be as violent, it is quite jarring. People are suffering and many have died. The word I knew a month ago is not the world I live in today. Governments at large seem to offer little guidance in this moment and, instead, the response has been largely grassroots. For the while, all we can do is remain in self isolation, hoping for the worst to pass and that our mere presence does not adversely affect those around us.

During this last week, as mandatory social distancing and quarantine swiftly became the new norm, I found myself far from my little tea room in New York City, instead lodged-up alone in a friend’s vacated and empty home in rural upstate New York. As I knew I would be here for a while, I managed to bring with me a small collection of teaware, just enough to make a bowl of 抹茶 matcha during my sequestering, made portable through the means of packing the tea objects away in an old vintage metal tool box.

As I sat in the sparsely furnished attic of my friend’s house, spent a morning I arranging a small setting for tea. In lieu of 畳 tatami, I used a broad stretch of woven indigo cloth to define the impromptu tea space. Setting the tool box at the upper end of this cloth, I undid its mechanical latch, opening its machine-hewn lid, and pulling forth a simple 黒瀬戸茶碗 KuroSeto chawan, 茶筅 chasen, and 茶杓 chashaku. For a tea caddy, I opted to keep the matcha in the metal tin it came in, it seemingly harmonizing well with the old tool box.

Lacking any proper brazier or traditional iron kettle, I made due with a small mass-produced kettle. Wanting to keep everything together and self contained, I placed the kettle atop the old tool box, itself becoming something like an improvised shelf for a modified 点前 temae I hoped to perform.

Setting the teaware before me, I began to make a solitary bowl of tea. As I began, I could sense my mind shift from the din of world events to the silence of the tea space. The wares before set before me, having travelled in the small metal tool box, seemed smaller than before, as if they were all that remained of a life I left back in the bustling, chaotic city.

The black lacquered tea tin is cleansed with my folded 袱紗 fukusa and then is placed atop the old tool box.

Next, I turned my gaze to the chawan and assorted wares collected within it. I purified the chashaku.

I warmed the whisk. I waited and watched it sigh heavily, observing its submerged tines expand outward in the in the warm water collected within the teabowl.

I arrange each object, shifting from their place of rest into action and back to rest again. Where they had once begun, they since moved, ready to perform.

The bowl, now a vacant void, is ready to receive the matcha.

Scooping out three small portions of tea powder, I place each into the center of the chawan, creating a small heap in the vessel’s center.

Placing the chasen over the tiny mound, I then pour water over the thin bamboo blades, producing a delicate cascade and evenly distributing the liquid over the tea. As with every time before, the result of the hot water mixing with the freshly-ground green tea produced an effluence of bright, intense aroma. However, for some unknown reason, my response to this feels different. A sense of distance, of detachment from the world outside my window fills me, a feeling of longing for home yet not quite being able to locate where that is.

As I whisk the tea into a thick foam, my mind lingers on this thought, it floating buoyant amidst my otherwise focused mind which keeps in step with my task at hand. I sit back to appreciate the bowl of tea, first as it is set before me and then, again, as I place it against the wide expanse of woven indigo cloth.

The bowl and my mind seem to be adrift, caught upon an endless sea. I pause and take the first sip.

My eyes gaze upwards to exposed wooden beams that cut laterally across the apex of the attic’s ceiling.

I take another sip and my eyes settle upon a wound-up ball of hempen rope, its appearance reminiscent of the rope-bound 止め石 tomeishi that mark a closed path within the 露地 roji.

I finish the final dregs matcha and set the bowl back before me, appreciating the remnants of foam that cling to the inner walls of the black-glazed chawan. In this moment of meditation, I am reminded of the stories of the early warrior tea practitioners.

During the height of the “tea craze” that swept through Japan’s elite classes during the 16th century, it was not uncommon for high-ranking samurai to accept a bowl of tea before heading out to face battle. Often was the case that this would be their last. The notions of ephemerality and impermanence that permeates chanoyu was, in many ways, the very essence of these individuals whose lives were marked by endless martial conflict.

Words we now may casually admire upon a scroll such as 一期一会 ichigo ichie, were brutally realized by many in their own, often short lifetimes. Now facing these uncertain times, will I, too, or those near and dear to me come to realize this with the passing of their own lives? To avoid such realities is itself a delusion.

In tea, we practice recognizing the evanescence of all things that come and go. A season. A flower. A moment. A life. There is an uneasiness when we try to hold on to something that must, in truth, pass. We all feel this. To ignore it is a delusion as well. To sit with it, however, to meditate upon what it means and how it feels, perhaps this is the way.

As I cleanse the teabowl once again, I wipe away the remaining residue of tea from the ceramic vessel. Traces of green collect in the woven fabric of the white linen 茶巾 chakin. I brush off the remaining tea dust that clings to the chashaku, and shake this off into the 建水 kensui.

I place the objects back to rest, their purpose being met. I sit back once more and admire the wares.

The small kettle. The old tool box. The array of teawares of ceramic, bamboo, tin and cloth. All to be packed up again, collected into a box. Ready to make a move. Ready for action. Ready to create a space for tea and for time at any moment.

I remember looking up to the window peeking out the gabled roof. What world resides out on the other side? What world will that be tomorrow?

Now back in New York City, days since this bowl of tea, the moment long since faded, these questions still have no resolution. The tomorrow I had envisioned in the past never came. Something else, entirely unknown and unexpected, has come in its place. Yet the broad expanse of sky that I peered out upon back then is the same that I see today. What change will come?

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The Fragility of Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Mist of the Morning

In the mist of the morning, I walk out onto the streets. A heavy gauze-like veil of fog softens shapes, dims light, electrifies colors from umber brick facades to wetted moss pushing through the grey concrete. Walking under leaf-bare trees of early Spring, I listen to the soft tapping of condensation falling from their archway branches. Over the bridge and viaduct that span across railway tracks, thin ribbons of iron stretch beneath me and disappear into the surrounding haze. Looking outward into the distance, there is no horizon line, no great city expanse to be seen. There is only a vast opaque atmosphere, thick and wet and enveloping.

Walking further down neighborhood pathways, sounds arise with greater clarity as the clutter of the visual world remains obscured. Birds’ songs echo and boom in empty alleyways and between tree-lined boulevards. The rolling of wheels of automobiles slide saturated along the wet pavement, crinkling and slipping away. The murmuring of men talking in the distance bends and carries across corners of buildings. A dog barks. A bell rings.

As I walk the long way home from my morning excursion, my mind clicks and conceives ideas for my next tea session. For a month I’ve felt the sluggish stupor of writer’s block drag on. One week burned into two, and soon enough the month of February had almost passed. Festivities and observations, from 宗有忌 Sōyū-ki to the opening of the 大炉 dai-ro have come and gone with a silent stillness. In the midst of all of this, my heart has not been moved. Yet there is something about a misty Spring morning that creates cause for inspiration to arise. The play of light, the muddled forms in the distance, the opacity of the air. As objects emerge from this murky realm, so too do ideas.

Huddled back in my abode, I set a kettle to boil. The dark red bronze of the antique 茶釜 chagama looks like one of the many wetted stones along the pathway I saw during my morning walk.

As I set out teaware to prepare a bowl of 抹茶 matcha, I include an 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan, the color and texture of which is reminiscent of the soft grey haze that hangs heavy outside my window.

For a tea container, a simple wooden 平棗 hira-natsume.

For a 茶筅 chasen, one made of speckled dark bamboo.

Linen and wood, ceramic and stone.

The sound of the kettle coming to a gentle boil prompts me to warm and cleanse the bowl and whisk. Like a great inhalation, the thin tines of the chasen breathe and expand in the warmth of the water.

Emptying the bowl, it still remains hot in my hands, moments before I set it down again.

I pause and breathe once more before picking up the 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned from a piece of carved 胡麻竹 gomadake speckled bamboo.

Lifting three scoops of bright green matcha from the small tea caddy, I place each carefully into the center of the grey teabowl. The soft, irregular form and the bright green color of the tea dust mound reminds me of the scattered clumps of lichen that climb skyward the many towering trees in my neighborhood.

I pour half a ladle of hot water from my kettle into the teabowl and instantly the scent of tea rises throughout my tearoom. Breathing again, I begin to whisk the tea. As I whisk, the world around me seems to quiet. Even the sound of the whisk falls away. All that remains is the motion of my right hand moving the chasen through the tea, of my left hand holding the teabowl. Both working in unison focused on producing a fine and even foam. No sense of time of place seems to bind me. Instead, the world around me seems as if it were diffuse, hazy, opaque.

Sitting in the quietude of my tearoom, I finish whisking a bowl of tea. In the mist of the morning, the world does not readily reveal itself. Instead, objects remain hidden and obscured, perceptible but without clear detail. A bowl of tea, as clear as day, sits before me. A bright green pool of foam rises from its center. Amidst the earthen tones of the other wares assembled within the tea space, the tea beams like a glowing jewel. A light piercing through the fog.

I lift the bowl to my lips and thank this moment for arriving. A morning walk. The sound of water dripping from dew-laden trees. Soft figures in the mist. All of these appeared and caused ripples on my mind. Enough to motivate me to prepare a bowl of tea. Enough to inspire creativity. As I sip the tea, I am reminded of how readily available all of this is and, in all truth, that this quality had never disappeared.

As I finish the tea and savor its final dregs, I pause to inspect the chawan and its distinctive 高台 kōdai.

My eyes wander over the traces of the potter’s hand, over the imprints of the firing process and of the kiln’s heat. Details giving view into a landscape of sorts, into a world of possibilities.

As I turn the bowl back over and begin to cleanse the 茶道具 chadōgu to finish my session with tea, something in my mind has noticeably changed. Where once I had struggled to write and commit ideas to page I now feel boundless with creativity. Where once I held back thoughts, judging them before they could be shared, I now let them flow forth effortlessly.

As I set objects back into place, to rest before the next time I call upon them again, I feel as if the fog has lifted. A mist has dissipated in my mind. Clarity restored over a bowl of tea.

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Like Spring, History Slowly Reveals Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Passing Through the Gate of the New Year: Drinking Tea as Old as Me

It begins again, every twelve years. The cycle of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac have made their full rotation, beginning from Rat and returning to Rat. Each time around, the five elements have cycled. So too have the energies, oscillating from 陰 yīn to 陽 yáng. With each year, the world changes and we change with it, passing through countless gates, perceptible and imperceptible.

This year, 2020 (year 4718 in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar), the year of the 陽金庚子 Yáng Jīn Gēng (“Yáng Metal Seventh-Rank Rat”), I find myself staring-down a threshold. I was born in the year of the Rat (specifically 陽木甲子 Yáng Mù Jiǎ Zǐ, “Yáng Wood First-Rank Rat”), 1984. As such, this year means that I will be passing through a “heavenly gate”, signifying major changes that will and have come about in the past twelve years and cumulatively in the past 36 years. For me and fellow Rats, this may mean hardship, but it also means growth. To pass through one of these gates is to look inward to oneself and see where one’s been and where one’s going.

On the eve of the New Year, I cannot help but to look upon this moment with both a sense of anticipation and reservation. Rarely do I find myself in this state. To ease my mind and, perhaps to keep myself a bit humble, I decide to brew a very special tea: a 1984 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá. As a tea that is as old as myself, I am interested to see how it has changed over the many decades it has seen, stored away within my tea chest and passed through the hands of previous tea collectors.

To brew it, I select a a small stone weight-shaped 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot).

Paired with this a contemporary celadon 茶船 chá chuán and three matching teacups, all made by the Taiwanese ceramicist Xu De Jia. With wares assembled, I begin to make the last pot of tea for the old year.

Kept within a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container, I set out a measure of the dark, twisted tea leaves atop an antique 白銅 báitóng (lit. “white copper”) scoop.

Looking closely at the leaves, colors emerge from their seemingly flat, black surface. Dark amber and the blue-black color of a crow’s feather hide among the undulations and curls.

Placing them into the warmed interior of the Yixing teapot, the first hint of their flavor emerges. A slight aroma of almond kernel and herbal medicine.

As I pour hot water from my iron kettle into the teapot, the leaves tumble and turn. A fine foam of tea oils rises and so, too, does the scent of the aged oolong.

Closing the pot, I pour water over its lid and around the structured shoulders of its clay body. The heat from the vessel’s interior radiates outward and evaporates the slick veneer of liquid I had just poured upon it. For a few minutes I wait and breathe, visualizing what is occurring within the unknown of the teapot’s interior. What has 36 years, three cycles around the zodiac, done to these leaves? Will they open readily or will they hold their form?

As I lift the teapot and decant its contents into the three small celadon cups, I look upon the crackled and aged surface of my unusual chá chuán. A circular form encompassed in a square. The ancient form of the universe.

Placing the teapot back upon the chá chuán, I lift its lid, releasing the heat kept within it, resetting the leaves for their next steeping.

Shifting my gaze to the three small celadon cups, I appreciate the rich russet color of the tea’s liqueur.

Selecting one, I lift it to my nose, breathing in its intoxicating, complex and medicinal aroma. As I take in the first sip, notes of dark fruit, bittersweet cacao, and the tannic qualities of walnut skin are all present. As I let the flavor linger across the back and sides of my mouth, a pronounced flavor of smoked plums arises, bringing back vivid and distant memories of my time when I worked in San Francisco’s Chinatown, remembering the distinctive smells one would encounter when entering its many traditional apothecaries.

Almost twelve years ago to the day did I first enter that world, working as a tea merchant for a friend’s family-run business. Twelve years ago, the flavor of this tea was more pronounced, with wild notes of sharp charcoal and fragrant 龍眼lóngyǎn wood. When I had first purchased this tea then I had been told that the leaves had been roasted and subsequently re-roasted across the span of its then-twenty-four years of storage, a practice traditionally done by tea people to help preserve the complexity of a tea’s flavor. Now, twelve years later, the charcoal has become subdued, the juicy aromatic lóngyǎn more apparent yet balanced.

As I continue to sip, cup after cup, I wonder how kind the years have been to this 老茶 lǎo chá. It has seen as many years as I have. It has been through the turning of the twelve signs three times, the changing of the five elements and the oscillating of the forces of yīn and yáng. In these years it has been tasted and tested and honed; picked and processed, roasted and left to breathe.

Age has made it sweeter and more quiet. Patiently applied heat over long intervals has attempted to preserve its finer qualities, yet this, too, will only go so far. Only mindfulness and a gentle hand can help it now to achieve its full potential. I can not force this tea to do anything. I can only sit and wait and let it slowly unfold. Steeping after resteeping lets this tea come into its own, and I, over the course of the afternoon and late into the night, patiently lets it open and wane.

As I wait for this next year to arrive, I share this moment with the aged tea, one as old as myself. Together we offer up that which is in us, curious to see what we will become.

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