Tag Archives: Tea Boat

Stop Everything

The new year has arrived and with it comes the sensation of getting older. Winter’s snow comes and goes in fits and starts, blanketing everything in the evening, melting away by the mid-afternoon. All that seems to remain is the biting cold and a still, quiet hollowness. The previous year has left me burnt out. What energy is there left to pick up the pieces of a world that lies shattered? To bind a broken nation back together again? Time has told me that regardless of which way the winds of politics or the economy or a society as a whole may go, the old habits will die hard and the work to become a more enlightened person will never be done. Exhausted, like a well-spent bonfire, all I can do now is take pause. I need to re-collect myself. I need to stop everything.

Currently, my new home presents me with a conundrum. Too cold to be outside, the makeshift tea hut in my garden remains empty, unused. Still in the process of moving, my living space is still too disorganized to encourage me to make tea. For someone who finds comfort in order, the chaos depletes me, both body and soul.

Nestled between stacks of boxes, dusty floorboards, and buckets of paint and plaster, I eek out the faintest of foothold for tea and to find a moment’s peace. To stop everything means to put down my work, to, for a moment, ignore the emails and the incessant chiming and pinging of the digital world. It is to close the door behind me. To look out onto the world outside my window, and to look inward into the world within me. The snow-covered mountains, with their bare-branched trees. The low hiss that emanates from the warming kettle. The slate-grey sky with obscured sun. The Winter of early January is an empty space, enough to let the mind wander without chance of attachment.

I dust off the top of an old wooden desk and unearth a small 仿古 fǎng gǔ-shaped 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from a tattered cardboard box.

Other items are collected too. A white 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup by famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.

A bamboo tea scoop, an old coin to use as a lid rest, pinchers made of aromatic wood.

No ceremony. No ritual. No pretense guides me. Absent is specific form, aside from that which facilitates ease of movement, the maintenance of heat from kettle to pot to cup, and the subtle cues that guide me to make the best cup of tea possible.

The tea, the wares, the heat of the water; these will define the space and mindset of this moment.

Items now placed atop the wooden desk, I set forth to brew the selected tea, a 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá poetically named 《兄弟》“Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”. I breathe deeply and open the pressed-metal tin that has been holding the tea for the last eight years. I carefully place the thin, wiry leaves into the concave of the bamboo tea scoop.

Their color appears darker, their surface more lacquer-like since when I first procured them years ago when I traveled to the tea gardens of 潮州 Cháozhōu.

I warm the teapot and tea cup and discard the hot water into an old Japanese 建水 kensui. I return the kettle to boil and, as I do so, I remove the tiny tea pot’s lid. Its interior is slick with residual moisture.

Heat rises from within its open mouth.

I place the tea leaves gently within the empty vessel. A void now filled to the brim. Wild, wiry, unencumbered.

I pause. The faint aroma of the old tea wafts in the air, standing out against the scent of dry cardboard, of dust, of the layers of plaster and paint that surround me. A faint reminder of its former self when it was still fresh. A faint reminder of the tea processing room that was filled with the inescapable perfume of the harvest. A faint reminder of life when tea was freely shared between friends, having traveled great distances by airplane, over subway lines and through crowded streets to enjoy the warmth of tea and each other’s company. A faint reminder of life before it was boxed-up, shipped away, and stacked in corners.

I lift the kettle from the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the teapot, over the tea leaves. Bubbles and foam surface. Oils and fragrance re-emerge, long-locked within the curled tendrils of the coiled tea.

I place the lid atop the tiny vessel and let the tea begin to steep. No sound. No movement. Just stillness. Thoughts of work and life momentarily drop away. Worries, fears, anxieties that might normally arise come and go, but I pay them no heed. All there is now is a small pot brewing tea.

I breathe and hear the rise and fall, expansion and collapse of my chest. The rustling of the cloth of my shirt. The air passing through my lips and nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. I hear the creaking of freshly-laid floorboards. Of the furnace burning. Of my partner walking down the hallway in the distance.

Stopping everything does not mean everything stops. One just becomes more aware of their presence, their true nature. A quiet observer to one’s own experience and to the oft-overlooked actions of others. The habitual mind arises as it always does, trying to cling to sounds and movement, to thoughts and distractions.

Here, the act and action of making tea becomes my guidepost. If I am to make tea, I must remain in this moment, focused on this task. I stop. I breathe. I observe the heat of the pot and rely on intuition to know what is happening within its red clay walls. The collecting and evaporating of moisture off its surface, away from the bat and bamboo motif.

The pulling of the tiny droplet of water from the tip of its curved spout. The sigh it seems to release when the tea is ready to be poured.

I quickly grasp the teapot with the fingers of my right hand and tilt it above the white glazed Korean cup. Hot tea cascades downward at an even pace, a single, unbroken stream, into the cup. Once emptied, I place the teapot back down into the center of the Yíxìng 茶船 chá chuán, its lid removed to allow the leaves to cool and the steam to rise out from the interior.

The color of the tea liqueur is lustrous and golden.

I lift the cup to my lips and savor the aroma. It is bright, with notes of citrus blossoms and tropical fruit. I pause and sip from the cup. As a now-aged tea, I expect it to be calm, its flavors settled and muted. However, what I receive is far from this. The tea is beautiful. The flavor, arresting. It opens with a burst of fruit notes akin to guava and papaya, followed by sweet and lingering aromatics of blossoms and gardenia. More surprisingly is the presence of a refined, velvety vanilla pod note that awakens me. These favors, which may otherwise be in contrast to one another, blend, meld, and harmonize. It is at this moment that I am reminded of why the tea is poetically named “Xiōngdì”, “Brothers”.

The tea, grown on the slopes of 烏崬山 Wūdōngshān in Cháozhōu, is comprised of two distinct cultivars that are grown in a single grove. The two tea plants, kept in close proximity, develop flavors that are uniquely their own yet beautifully balance one another. They are two yet feel as one.

As I again pour hot water into my teapot, I further recall memories from my past, reminded of that first journey taken to Cháozhōu, alongside with my own tea brothers, Steve Odell and So Han Fan. There, digging through cities and climbing up mountains in search for direction, in search for tea, we worked at a breakneck speed, not wanting to squander our time and let the opportunity to learn from direct experience pass us by. I recall early mornings, long days, and late nights, tasting cup after cup, in pursuit of knowledge and beautiful tea.

Now, at this point in my life, almost ten years since that moment, these memories, too, seem fresh. Their fragrance and flavor still resounding and surprising.

All that is left now are these leaves. A fitting tribute to time well spent. Something so fragile as a memory, so fragile as a pile of leaves. Through steeping after steeping, their flavors are expelled and spent. All that remains is a sweet, honey-like water.

Even after the tea is gone, its scent still lingers in the empty cup. As I cleanse the wares once again and return to a day of work, I can feel the pull of daily duties, the tug of responsibility and of commitments. I sit and pause for a moment longer, using this time to ponder.

Action and inaction; at times the space between them feels defined and absolute. Here, the habitual mind is inclined to prefer one over the other: one becoming a welcome respite, the other, a dreaded chore. Yet, when you stop everything, inaction is the action. Even within inaction, thoughts, memories, and sensations will still arise. Worries and anxieties still exist. As nothing truly disappears, these, too, will continue.

In the more than two decades now of practicing tea, I’ve come to recognize this. In the inaction of making tea, there is action. Worries, thoughts, memories will still be there; they can help or hinder you, encourage you or deter you, focus your gaze or leave you distracted, expand your mind or cause you to fixate and become attached.

As I wipe the chá chuán and place the lid back upon the teapot at an angle to let the tiny vessel dry, I return to the notion of form and its absence as I’ve been brewing tea. The pot is tended to in a certain way. Warmed, cleansed, utilized as if it were a fine tool to prepare the perfect cup of tea. To do this, one must focus on what is needed for that very moment and let everything else drop away.

Extraneous objects and actions are not invited to the tea table. Neither are worries or distractions. Through practice, everything is honed-down to its most essential, until all that is left is just making tea. Memory serves to guide the body in its movements, the mind in its exploration. Worry is left by the wayside. Instead, care and attentiveness come to the forefront, in service to the moment, to the task at hand, to the invited guests. Habitual fixations and attachments burn away, as time burns away, a ticking clock reflected in the diminishing flavor of every steeping, of every cup consumed, of every last leaf used up until there is no more.

All that is left is the lingering heat of the kettle, the 回甘 huí gān of the tea caught in one’s throat, and perhaps feeling of lightness that carries on into the next task. A pot left to dry.

An overturned cup revealing the name of its maker. The emptiness of Winter in early January. The sensation of getting older. Disparate flavors that harmonize.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Korea, Meditation, Oolong, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Has Its Cycle

IMG_3630Winter is here. As I look out my tearoom window, all evidence points towards this. The tops of trees grow more barren by the day. The sky glows a dull matte grey in all directions. Birds huddle on bare branches and against brick buildings, trying to eek out the last vestiges of warmth. Only a few weeks before, Fall stood resplendent in all its colors. Months before that, sweat collected on my brow. And what now seems like a distant memory, I can recall the first fragrant breezes of Spring. Everything has its cycle.

Sitting in my tearoom, I collect myself around the warmth of my wooden and copper 火鉢 hibachi and the radiant heat given off by my old iron 鉄瓶 tetsubin. As the water inside its metal husk begins to boil I set before me a thin, clay-bodied Yixing teapot. Poetically referred to as a 水平壺 shuǐpíng hú, the shape of the pot is round, balanced, sturdy. It exudes strength and delicacy all in one simple and structured form.

B863EB7C-4430-45D1-B5B8-2EF8A70AAB23As the sound of boiling water climbs to an audible chatter, I open the teapot, set its lid down on top of the crest of its handle’s arc, and pour a measure of hot water into its vacant interior. I warm the teapot and pour the water out, again, to rest the lid atop the teapot’s handle.

23F61326-677C-46AC-A89E-53017AD518ABInto the space now I place a bamboo scoop’s worth of tea leaves. With a tilt of the scoop, they fall into place.

2E3C65E0-BB0B-4571-82DF-004F7B9C7D8FA jumbled mess of wiry fronds. Blades like grass of green and gold.

B41F19E0-1ED0-4350-8F4B-4F91B6540BBBAs it often does, the residual heat of the water begins to wake up the flavor of the tea, sending aromatic wafts of delicate floral notes into the air. This tea, a hand-picked and processed 鳳凰單樅烏龍茶 fènghuáng dān cōng wūlóngchá, was harvested in Spring, yet now is joining me to aid in staving off Winter’s chill.

I sit for a while, listening to the water in my iron pot, waiting for the moment it begins to quiet. Steam rises from its spout, coiling like threads, at first just one and two, then more, and then as a steady stream as if it were a column piercing the air. Bubbles break the surface of the water and roil like a babbling source, until it, too, becomes a constant effluence. It is only now that the water has ripened and is finally ready for tea.

551ECADC-FE47-41C8-9815-7322B53E8736I pour the water over the twisted network of tea leaves, being mindful to move in a circular action so as to evenly cover them.

3DBAD72B-9E16-41FE-9E6C-091A7BA14915I place the lid back over the leaves and wait. In this pause I breathe. In this moment, the tea breathes. In and out my chest rises. In and out the tea leaves tumble and unfurl inside the walls of the red clay vessel. Inside my body is an entire system of organs working together to ensure me life. Inside the teapot is a dance of forces, of heat and of unfolding leaves, offering up their flavor. I wait for the moment they settle and absorb their last draught, causing a minute amount of liquid to draw down, back inside the spout of the teapot. I wait a moment more, breathe, and observe the color of the Yixing clay deepen and glow as if it held within it an otherworldly light.

9855E1BF-B4A6-49A0-8827-F4EFF60D3EF8I wait and breathe a last breath and draw the teapot up and out from the clay bowl it is set within. For a moment, as I pour the tea liqueur out, I contemplate on a void. A vast nothingness that exists within the clay bowl where once the teapot sat. The empty space between the branches of the trees where once bright verdant leaves sprung forth. The great hollow expanse of sky that stretches in all directions outside my tearoom window. The emptied vessel of my teapot as I set it back down to play host to another steeping.

FF4F5623-63FD-47C6-8CA0-DCD8801BCBA3And yet in this void there is abundance. In the open cavity of the teapot springs forth a bounty of tea leaves, and held within their once dried skin now exists a sense of life. In the once empty cup that sat beside me is a volume of brightly-colored liquid, and from this rises a complex array of flavors hearkening back to a time and place once thought to be distant and unreachable. As I sit upon the threshold of Winter I am reminded of the blossoming of Spring. On the flat grey of a November day I see the tawny reds and olive greens of Autumn in my teapot. Against the bright white porcelain of my teacup, I see the golden beams of Summer’s sun.

D9E95988-45E4-44BD-90AC-C16FA8928EF1In a world where we get caught within a single moment, how refreshing it is to know that everything has its cycle. When once we feel that we might know all there is to be known, how wondrous it is to be brought back to a place of boundless curiosity. How when we find ourselves in the grip of some unbreakable mental quandary, to scratch and claw against some unknown source of resistance, only to find that the solution was simple and naturally arising. Answers to all we seek are found within us and all around us. In the chill of a Winter’s day. In the scent lifting from a tea leaf. In the hollow of an empty vessel. In the silence that arrives when the water comes to a boil. In the cycles we can observe and in those we cannot.

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Tea for a Sunset and Autumn Rain

IMG_2201A week has passed and gone now are the even-measured days of Autumn’s equinox. In its place are nights that creep in sooner, more gently, rolling over the waning daylight like a soft purple quilt, warm and pleasant. On a day met by a light Autumn rain, I keep myself indoors, holed-up beside my iron brazier and bubbling kettle, their tune harmonizing with the gusts of wind and the sound of raindrops on my windowsill.

E59E1F05-8A0E-4116-98E4-B6BE55A708FEAs the light of dusk fades, I produce a simple collection of wares: a half-broken tea boat, a sandy-colored teapot, a jade archer’s ring for a lid rest, and two plain Korean vessels, one for pouring, another for drinking. In this warm light of sundown, the tiny space of my tearoom glows with shifting hues of amber, copper, and the smoldering red tip of an incense stick.

IMG_2221As I wait for the incense to burn down, I watch the light of day fade and quiet across the soft pages from a book of verses I read until I can no longer make out the words.

61473BB2-4BA8-4910-A874-4418F6591314As steam rises from the kettle’s spout and its iron lid begins to chatter, I pull forth a cake of tea, resting it atop the wooden plank that is my tea table. A myriad of colors, a mess of twisted leaves all pressed into on another.

D9931783-6303-454E-B403-C090A8463DA9With a dull knife I break some free and set them into the empty void of the open teapot.

155B6781-714B-42B7-9854-316586FD4F66As I tilt my kettle, water gushes out, boiling-over and onto the compressed tea. The leafy fragment tumbles and bobs, settles and breathes to the sound of the rain.

352E95D1-CD09-4F51-9DE5-4F91CE86FAA8Closing the lid of the teapot, I wait and the light of the day shifts deeper into darkness. I sit and focus my gaze onto the tiny pot, waiting for its color to change, waiting for the liquid to pull down into its hand-carved spout.

459C9A0C-5554-4E03-9FB0-16F8CF25545CAs I wait, I see the cracks upon the surface of the ceramic teaboat. Cracks that were born through the kiln’s fire and through daily use, through five hundred years of age. Broken and pitted like Autumn’s leaves.

IMG_2222Broken and uneven like a cake of tea. Loved and cared for despite its imperfections. Exalted and used for its function.

90EFEF11-4F4F-4BBF-8698-5BA2AA96A000I end my pause and pour out the tea from pot to serving vessel. A rich tawny bronze liqueur and a complex aroma of tangled vegetation.

6363EDA4-50D6-4285-9926-395E165CB778Tea and teapot sits and cools as daylight finally fade.

0063DBF8-7FE7-49A5-8A28-45DD41A28332A single teacup to be enjoyed alone as I light a candle and greet the night.

 

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As I finished this piece, I continued to brew tea long into the night. Upon waking, I thought if there might happen to have been a poet from long ago who may have enjoyed a similar moment (with tea or not). To my joy, there was a poem by Tang period (618-907) poet 白居易 Bái Jūyì (772–846). I leave you the original version and translation (provided by Chinese Poems, linked here).

IMG_2223

秋雨夜眠

涼冷三秋夜,
安閒一老翁。
臥遲燈滅後,
睡美雨聲中。
灰宿溫瓶火,
香添暖被籠。
曉晴寒未起,
霜葉滿階紅。

Qiūyǔ yè mián

Liáng lěng sānqiū yè,
ānxián yī lǎowēng.
Wò chí dēng miè hòu,
shuì měiyǔ shēng zhōng.
Huī sù wēn píng huǒ,
xiāng tiān nuǎn bèi lóng.
Xiǎo qíng hán wèi qǐ,
shuāng yèmǎnjiē hóng.

Sleeping on a Night of Autumn Rain

It’s cold this night in autumn’s third month,
Peacefully within, a lone old man.
He lies down late, the lamp already gone out,
And beautifully sleeps amid the sound of rain.
The ash inside the vessel still warm from the fire,
Its fragrance increases the warmth of quilt and covers.
When dawn comes, clear and cold, he does not rise,
The red frosted leaves cover the steps.

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The Importance of Space

IMG_1928In daily life, actions, tasks, thoughts and emotions can come in rapid succession, one after the other, piling-up like subway trains caught in a tunnel. Over time, the effect of this can become overwhelming until the mind succumbs to stress. Taking a moment to pause, to breathe, can be just enough to break this cycle and reset the mind, transforming a stressful situation into one that is manageable, perhaps even pleasant.

In the practice of tea, the mere act of sitting for tea can become this moment. Even while one may be in the midst of the chaos and clamor of the daily world, to sit and make tea can have the effect of making space; emotionally, spatially, and even temporally. Space, and all the dimensions it can encompass, becomes a distinct feature of tea. The empty space of a teapot can define how much liquid it can hold and how much the tea leaves can expand within it. The space between objects can establish their relationship to each other and even infer their function. Objects and beings, when given their own space, can become both independent of each other, as well as interdependent to one another. It is this space that imbues them with both latent and infinite possibilities.

In Japanese, the term 間 “Ma” (“Jiān” In Chinese) is used to describe this notion. Roughly translating to “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”, Ma is found in all manner of ways, from a pause in action to the space between objects and the nature of a void. In the classic literati and Zen art of Japan, China and Korea, objects are often given their own space, surrounded by a significant amount of “empty” space. Whether mountains, trees, scholarly equipage or even six persimmons arranged together, Ma is allowed to exist both around the objects and, to an extent, within them. Compositions can juxtapose this interrelation of matter and space in dramatic ways, creating dynamism or, equally, a sense of harmonic serenity.

BE1F111E-8D1E-425B-82F9-553139E27009Setting up my teaware to enjoy a moment to taste tea, I try to strike this balance between forms, matter and emptiness. Placed on an expanse of gnarled wood, I arrange each object based on their function and flow. The carved bamboo teascoop sits next to the red Yixing clay 茶船 chá chuán (lit. “tea boat”), in the center of which sits a small 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (“sesame-colored fortified clay Yixing teapot”).

D614A507-A844-4884-9229-E76947B16649Shadows fill the empty space within and between each object, turning each void into dark pools.

D9855589-503F-401E-AF94-252BAF32774BA grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cup and 숙우 sookwoo (water-cooling vessel) are set closely to one another, yet do not touch each other. Their concave hollows are empty, save for the shadows and light gathered within them.

7E55465B-9D1B-4526-BB21-8B5B0791CB7AThe bamboo scoop sits with its back facing upward, the dark, smooth skin set in contrast to the cursive characters carved upon its surface. Even here, space exists between the written words.

13EA25BD-6B3F-41C8-BA99-BEDEA0464BBCTurned over, thick, curled tea leaves are set upon the interior space of the scoop.

C1A3305B-1042-4FE5-94BD-A2FEB45E20C3Placed into the teapot, the leaves occupy the entirety of the empty space. A void becomes full. Filled with hot water from an iron kettle, the tea is left to steep. Seconds pass, allowing the tea leaves to unfurl and expand. In the space of my tearoom, silence fills the void. In my mind, thoughts sit side-by-side with quietude.

B31967BA-EFE7-4B27-BC21-277C989F3342Pouring the tea out completely, I set the lid ajar, allowing hot vapor to exit the teapot and cooling the tea leaves.

C367E4AC-B7BA-4E35-8B7F-1277A76570B3Turning my gaze from teapot to sookwoo, I view the amber-hued liqueur that came from from the coiled leaves of 紫紅袍 Zǐ Hóng Páo (“Purple Red Robe”) 武夷山岩茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá (Wuyishan “cliff tea”).

7C663A01-DED5-4FEE-9006-885252FA8457Then, from sookwoo to teacup, I pour the tea, and in the space between this teacup and my lips, I can sense the complex, spicy aroma of this brew.

One more pause and I am filled with anticipation. One sip and my mind is flooded with sensations, flavors, and lingering notes onto which instinctively and habitually I try to attach words and qualifying definitions. Even as the taste of tea becomes fleeting, the empty space of this moment after tea feels full with thoughts swirling and a mind still grasping. As this settles, time between steepings expands and silence, once again, returns. A time to pause. An empty space. A cup full of tea. A moment brimming with possibilities.

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A Voyage Upon a Tea Boat

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, February is marked by the long continuation of Winter’s grip. Here from the vantage point of my tea room window, overlooking the flurry of a snowstorm overtaking New York City, I cannot help but want to be indoors, nestled against near the warmth of a central heater, and tucked beside a boiling kettle and teapot. I, for one, find days like this quite inspiring for making tea. As a sort of “forced” predicament, snow days tend to make me venture inwards, both inside and into my mind. As always, tea follows.

On this particular day, kept indoors due to inclement weather, I set my kettle to boil and pull out a trusty 茶船 chá chuán, literally “tea boat”. But, what is a “tea boat”, pray tell? I thought I was remaining inside… Who would want to set upon an ocean voyage in such a cold and stormy day? Fear not… a “tea boat” is not quite what it seems.

Rather than a nautical vessel, a “tea boat” is a “warming” vessel! Constituting of an open shallow bowl, this enables the tea brewer to pour water into the teapot and then over the teapot, allowing one to warm the teapot from both the inside and outside! As one continues to do this, steeping after steeping, the water in the tea boat begins to climb up the surface of the teapot. If skillfully done, this water will retain its heat and help to “push” additional flavors out of each subsequent brews. Especially on cold days, this is essential, as teapots can cool down considerably by the latent cold air.

Over the many years I’ve been practicing gong fu cha, I’ve acquired several chá chuán, each with their own particular qualities. My very first was, like many of us beginning in tea, a simple porcelain rice bowl. Not pictured, I eventually gave this away to a tea friend. In its stead, I replaced it with a Yixing tea boat, found in the early 2000s at San Francisco’s Imperial Tea Court. Compared with its porcelain predecessor, the Yixing tea boat is ideal for using for brewing tea. The heat retention qualities of Yixing clay means that the water within the its walls remains hot over many “pour-overs”. Similarly, like the Yixing teapots it heats, over the years, with regular use, the clay has seasoned and attained a “jewel-like” patina.

Other tea boats I’ve collected throughout the years offer a variety of different brewing experiences. A Japanese 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white porcelain piece gifted to me by a dear friend and antiques collector is what I use in cooler days as it is more shallow and the water it keeps cools at a faster rate. Conversely, when I opt not to pour water over the teapot, I often use this dish to practice 干泡法 gàn pào fǎ (lit. “dry brewing method”). In this way, this piece is quite versatile.

In the Autumn months I use an ancient Chinese celadon bowl, the circumference of which has been broken. While still functional as a chá chuán, the imperfection of this piece is a poignant reminder of the effects of time and the ephemeral qualities of everything in this world.

Similarly, on nights set to a full moon, I often prefer to use another piece of ancient Chinese ceramics. In this instance, a large white teabowl from the Song period (960-1279) becomes a perfect complement to the big bright moon that lights the night sky.

When I step out into the world, I find other objects to use as tea boats. When I conduct tea meditations at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I use a piece of Japanese 懐石 kaiseki ware, skillfully repurposed by the tea house’s owner to become a beautiful tea object. While it functions perfectly as a tea boat, the fact that it is essentially a “found object” does not escape me. This, too, adds to the meditation, a worldly object used mindfully, a roof tile polished until it becomes a jewel!

An appreciation of chá chuán would not be complete until I mention the rather elusive and somewhat “endangered” 潮州茶船 Cháozhōu chá chuán, the Chaozhou tea boat. Sometimes referred to as a 茶盤 chá pán, “tea tray”, the Chaozhou tea boat is made up of two pieces, a perforated “tray” that sits atop a deep basin. Originally made of ceramic or metal, these pieces are generally only large enough to fit a small Yixing teapot and, maybe, just three small tasting cups.

Once a common object in the everyday tea set of the inhabitants of the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province, over the years, the Chaozhou tea boat/tray became harder to find, often replaced by “fancier” and “splashier” bamboo, stone, and plastic “tea trays” (茶盤 chá pán). However, as people become increasingly interested in tea’s history, this older form, too, has seen a return in popularity, with modern replicas and contemporary re-imaginings appearing on the market.

So, as you cozy-up close to your tea set today to brew a hearty pot of tea, perhaps you’ll invite a tea boat along. As you sail these seven seas of a myriad of teas, this vessel may prove its worth to you. If you haven’t yet used one, perhaps you can “adopt” and “adapt” an object. Otherwise, use this “appreciation” as your guide.

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