Tag Archives: Tea Person

A Meditation on Drying Teapots

Morning comes and soft light filters through the doors and windows of my studio. Books on the shelf smell of old paper. Last night’s incense still seems to linger in the air. Cold breeze. Dew on grass. The din of crickets and morning’s traffic.

Inside the studio, stillness. Sitting with me is a small collection of objects. Teapots drying on the black-lacquered surface of my desk. Five teapots once brewed five teas. One more pot and it would feel like the six persimmons in 牧谿 法常 Mùxī Fǎcháng’s (1210?–1269?) 六柿圖 liùshì tú.

Their clay bodies now cold in the space of my studio. No longer holding the heat they once contained. Their lids, all of different shapes and sizes, cocked at angles to allow for air to flow within the caverns of their empty hollows.

On some, the stain and patina of years of brewing tea. For some, several decades now mark their skins. Some dark, some light, each telling of their age and their use and their utility.

Shapes and forms abound, each pot more different than the next. One, the shape of a concubine’s breast.

Another’s lid the form of a cow’s nose.

While most are without decoration or adornment, one carries the vignette of a bat and bamboo.

Look closely and you’ll see it has a poem on its obverse side. In this raised clay, our mind tells stories and gives itself the chance to wander.

The lone glazed pot sits in contrast to the others, blazoned in purples and pinks and what other colors came forth during its firing. When I brew from this vessel I’m reminded of the artist who gave it to me, a gift from a life that now seems far removed.

I am reminded of the dark hole I climbed out from to escape that life. How my practice in tea and the support of friends helped point the way.

Skin like that of a pear. Skin like that of leather. Like an old river stone washed and polished yet still holding onto its innate texture.

Clay and stone and vitrified sand sandwiched and pressed deep into the bodies of each pot. Green and red and brown, orange and violet. Colors and shapes, grains and grit. Cold air on cold clay and dried spent tea leaves.

A bamboo scoop, each joint a day of growth, the moving of the sun, the return of the moon.

Each node the presence of a root that once held it firm into the ground. Now pulled from its source and sitting here with me, with these five drying teapots. Time.

This is what it always had been. A meditation on drying teapots. This, too, is part of the practice. When they have all dried up, when their pores have emptied, when they finally go back to containing nothing, then they can be of use again.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Oolong, Pu-erh, Tea

Let Life Get in the Way

It’s the morning of the ninth day of the ninth month. In the old lunisolar calendar, this is Chrysanthemum Festival. Sitting in my studio, looking out across the garden, vines wrapped around the trellis, flowers of the bitter melon bursting against a dark green canvas, I think about the months that have passed since I’ve given myself time to write, to put thoughts down on page.

The cicada’s hum seems to now be giving way to the sound of field crickets, to the call of crows, to the geese and katydid. Gone is the heat that, as a tea person, I sought to abate with references to water, to coolness, to impossible ice. Soon, the decay of Autumn will be all around me. Winter’s withered repose soon there after.

To sit and ask “what happened?” or “how did I get here?” will not do. Questions of the past rarely help to give a clear picture of the present. Instead, as I sit, I find myself using the stillness as an opportunity to examine my current practice and reflect on this Summer as a great moment of change.

It began amidst a flurry of activity. I had become engaged to my partner earlier in the end of Winter-beginning of Spring, and found myself planning for a wedding in the time of an unpredictable pandemic. For what “free time” I was sporadically given, I used most of it to piece together the logistics and physical material that would eventually make up the wedding celebration. Like a massive 茶事 chaji, I threw myself into the act, ideating with my partner, collectively envisioning what a day built on intention and mindfulness would look like. In those brief in-between moments, I would make tea.

As the heat of Summer climbed, I sought momentary solace in my garden shed. With resources and time stretched thin, my hopes of transforming the meager structure into a full-fledged 茶室 chashitsu was put on hold. The result was a meditation on what life gave me. A weather-worn hut. Barely walls enough to keep the rain out, barely doors firm enough to keep a mouse or squirrel from wandering in. Spiders clinging to the rafters. A butterfly caught against the window pane, let free to soar skyward.

The hut became a refuge against the world outside. The path became grown-over. Slick with dew in the morning, the high humidity of the day left the stones wet until dusk.

Inside the shack, I made impromptu 点前 temae. 葉蓋点前 Habuta-temae became my regular favorite, using leaves from the local maple trees found around my property.

Hydrangea from my garden glistened in my makeshift 床の間 tokonoma.

Mulberries from the woods made for a readily available 和菓子 wagashi, their uneven leaves providing for a perfect surface to set them upon.

Old wares kept me company.

A shallow tea bowl from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279) became my Summer bowl.

A 茶杓 chashaku fashioned from speckled bamboo became my wish for rain.

The light that gathered on the plywood floor of my teahouse was the first to fill the cup of my 柄杓 hishaku, well before hot or cool water did.

It was a world of light and a world of shadow. A realm to calm the mind, to cool the soul.

The practice that evolved over the Summer, from one tea session to the next, came in fits as starts. All the while, I felt my hands becoming steadier, my form more fluid. Subtle adjustments that had come from regular practice joined now with accepted muscle memory.

Water from kettle to 茶碗 chawan. Light flooding into water, illuminating the interior of the small, shallow bowl.

Tines of the 茶筅 chasen opened up. The practice expanded into regions of my life I had not anticipated.

The mere act of setting down the tea scoop lost its gravitas. In exchange came the ordinary.

Wiping of the tea bowl from when it was first wetted felt like polishing a mirror, in that I could see my reflection on the action.

Cool light against a warm ceramic surface. Woven textures. Rumpled edges. Old fabric, as old as my practice.

The steam that rose from the 茶釜 chagama and the freedom of being able to make tea outside of the home gave me a new sense of levity against the deadlines and time stamps that came with planning a wedding and building a life. Work felt like it was somewhere else, somewhere outside the four thin plywood walls of my tearoom. The regular roar of a far-off road a reminder of how busy everyone and everything can be. The hum and hiss of the kettle became a quiet reminder of the need to stop everything. To sit and practice.

Scooping tea from the wooden interior of an old 平棗 hira-natsume felt like Summer. Deep, soft, luscious tea powder placed into a crisp blue-green celadon bowl. The mark of my school’s sigil upon the bright green mound.

The delicate tap and bell-like sound that rang from the small shallow bowl.

The shadows that collected in the concave, in the pits and scratches, the ripples and edges fashioned and formed a thousand years ago.

The kiln of life shaping me now as I practiced tea in the heat of a Summer morning, in the scant spare time I gave myself, in the brief interludes between work and work after work.

The lifting of the large maple leaf off of the glass 水指 mizusashi.

Folding it and placing it into the dark void of the 建水 kensui.

Dipping the ladle into the depths of the cool water so as to bring it forth and let it mix and coalesce with the bubbling boiling water of the 釜 kama. Fierce forces merging with the gentle. Quiet and still with moving and churning. Sitting amongst these forces, the mind isn’t given the chance to discern which is “right” or “wrong”. No value to these elements as they conjoin. Instead, just a reverence for their place within a practice. Their importance to the moment. As important as the tea. As important as the wares. As important as the space they all occupy. As important as the persons who brought them into being.

Tea and water are brought together, first in a great wave, one upon the other.

Whisked and whipped into a single concoction, both combine, suspended one alongside the other.

The bowl is lifted and passed.

I, practicing alone, move to the space of the guest and delight in the flavor of wild fruit before enjoying the soft, bittersweet flavor of tea.

Light gathers upon the foamed 薄茶 usucha.

Sipped and savored and gone, the empty interior of the tea bowl feels vacant.

Warmth still radiated from its clay and glazed body. The scent of tea still lingered in the air. The afterglow of a moment still present.

Cleaned and objects put away, the practice in the shed did not end when it was over. The steady pace of work and life kept on and pushed me forward.

Tomatoes grow green on the vine, slowly turning red as they ripened.

Okra flowers blossomed and bloomed and bore their bright green and red pods.

Ground cherries formed little lanterns upon their hairy stems.

My partner and I wed, first over a bowl of tea, then before our friends and family. Like a beautiful storm, it came and passed, and scattered all who came to witness the moment back across the earth, back to their homes and back into memories. Now, savoring the flavor of the tea that was served in silver and shared between my love and I, it’s impossible to encapsulate the experience of this Summer in words alone.

There were sounds, sensations, scents. A great fragrance made of a myriad of qualities wafted through the terrible and terrific world and kept me buoyant throughout it all. Stress and pressure would sometimes rise and crescendo, but in moments like this, I’d walk across the garden and find time with myself alone.

Now as Summer is gone and Autumn is here, the clinging to desires, to goals, to wants and needs, seems to have mellowed. Where once I had wracked my mind to write and to perform the very best I could, to turn each moment with tea into poetry, each allotted time at work into productivity, I’ve now since let this give way to a settled practice.

I am reminded of sitting by a rushing stream; its movements fluid and sure. Water passes over the rocks and around the rocks. Rocks and trees and mountains get in the way of the water and yet a river forms between them. Letting life get in the way of practice does not hinder it but shapes it. Let life get in the way. Assuredly, your practice will form around it, with it, conjoining into one form, one concoction of the surrounding elements.

As Summer turns to Autumn, the earth cools again. The skies, once a bright azure, turn a buff grey. The pumpkin blossoms bloom.

The wild grape leaves grow weathered more and more each day.

Old carrot flowers dry beside fresh morning glories.

The path and the first fallen leaves.

****

As a final note: Thanks to Sam Bufalo LLC, @sambufalo for the photo of the outdoor tea gathering!

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

The Cicada Hums

The cicada hums and sweat drips from my brow. The hot days of Summer linger on, long days stretched into cool dark nights.

Rain comes and goes in peels of thunder, roaring past the old wooden eaves of my weathered garden hut.

Tea inside, pulled from a woven basket and laid out onto chipped and splintery plywood.

One pot.

One 숙우 sookwoo.

One cup.

Tea enough for one and then some.

A butterfly trapped against the window of my hut is released and left to fly skyward.

Crickets chime and beat their sonorous tune in the cracks between the shingles of the roof. Moss forms mountains and forests for them and other minuscule creatures to explore.

Locked deep within the darkened world of my garden hut, tea leaves curl and twist in the hot water from my thermos.

Round and round the twirl until they settle on the inside base of the ceramic pot.

From grey glazed pot…

… to grey glazed sookwoo

… to grey glazed cup.

Clear green-gold liqueur passes until it reaches my lips.

Caught within this liquid, the flavors of early Spring, the light of the sun, the taste of the earth.

토향. To Hyang.

Savory flavors and sweet.

Passionate emotions and soft, buttery gentleness.

A touch of bitter.

An absence of sour and spice.

Stone and mineral.

Soil and leafy bud.

A fragrance that fills the room and my heart.

This tea has been gifted to me by an old dear friend. A decade and some years has passed since we last sat together for tea.

Yet, without hesitation, she sends me tea again each Spring and Summer.

A gift that reminds me of the flavor of friendship.

Its long lingering taste.

In the heat of Summer, this slacks my thirst and makes the weather more bearable. Sweet reminisce of the past is what tea serves up best.

For when in Summer we wish for Spring again.

When a friend has not been seen in a long while, how one longs for their company.

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Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, Incense, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Get Lost

Light emerges in the morning before the sun climbs over the mountain’s summit. Earth still cold from night, this is the best time to set out on the trail.

Between day and darkness, the forest feels foreboding. Where once I trusted myself, my mind now plays tricks on me in the shadows. Noises emitted from far corners echo through the knotted woods. Pathstones, once my guide, now confuse me, making me doubt the way. Steps fall shorter than they did before, second-guessing as I stumble and grope in the low soft dim of the swiftly approaching day. My ambition is to make it to the top and then some before the sun hangs high in the sky, but at this rate, I’ll settle for somewhere next to a cool cascade to abate the sting of sweat upon my brow.

Upon this compromise, I slow my pace and my heartbeats follow. What’s the use of racing one’s self? That old competition between ego and the true self has gone on long enough. Time for this, too, to take a break as I walk up the side of the mountain.

Morning birds call, rustling invisible in the fresh green canopies. Towering trees stand tall, unmoving. No breeze this Summer’s day.

The fear that gnawed at my stomach before has subsided now. My feet move more assuredly across stones in the pathway, pressing me further upward towards some undetermined destination. The crashing of water booms now before me. The small rivulet I’ve been walking beside has been traced to its source. A series of falls fades upwards against the rambling hills, cutting narrow passages through rock and wood. Moss and fern and dappled branches collect in chaotic brambles, soaked and saturated by the sparkling water.

I stand and sigh. No views from the summit today. No peering down on the thousands of villagers who occupy the river valley below. Just to sit and look within. There must be a hundred or so persons within me alone.

Set down my satchel. Unearth my worldly belongings. Unwrap the contents of my box. A cup. A pot. A measure of old leaves. A book. An antique thermos (though not antique when first purchased). I feel old, though not worn out. Just old enough to know what five decades look like. Old enough to have seen this world in a better spot. Old enough to have lived several lives in this one life and just begin to laugh.

Before I load the leaves into the little pot, I open up the book of poems by 寒山 Hán Shān and read a passage at random. Of course it’s something biting. Something melancholy. Something longing for that which has been lost but perfectly settled since life in the mountains. Never has a poet said “Get Lost!” to their readers so succinctly before than the old words of this cave-dwelling writer.

Book now closed, I toss the aged leaves into the open pot. They no longer bear the vibrant greens and opalescent blues of a fresh Taiwanese oolong, but now look like old wood, twisted and tawny from years of storage. I pour hot water into the pot and close the lid.

While my mind wants to wander, replaying the words of Hán Shān and the many stories I often regale myself with, I opt to just sit and let the sound of the mountain stream wash my ears. The loud crash of the falls quiets the rest of the world around me. The ever-present din of combustion engines subsides, though still there. The chatter of birds muted, though undoubtedly they still sing on. The regular patterns and habitual verbosity that usually keeps me in constant conversation with myself keeps on but I choose not to listen. The serenity of the forest, sitting beside the waterfall, is not without this chorus of the world, both inner and outer. It all just exists.

I pour the first of three cups of tea from the initial brew into my cup. It is light and mellow. Years from when the tea was harvested and now enjoyed have calmed the wild flavors that would normally be expressed. The tea now tastes of age. Sweet. Simpler. Softer, too.

I sit and sip, breathing out intentionally to capture the fleeting following flavors that get caught on the tongue and back of throat. “Why have I been so quiet?” I ask myself. “Why have I failed?” another voice mutters. “You used to be so prolific,” yet another voice adds. What company I have brought with me to this quiet spot. Perhaps I shall invite them to have some tea.

A second cup and third I pour. Each becoming darker and darker as the tea opens. Another steeping and I sit with the teapot, the shape reminding me of a puffed-up meditation cushion. “They collect farts,” I remember one monk saying. “Perhaps they do,” I recall thinking to myself.

I sit and try and ultimately fail to be in the now. Instead, my mind plays tricks on me and begins to spin stories of past, present, and future. Past obligations come to haunt me. Present situations arrive to tug at me. Future expectations invite themselves and don’t get the hint to leave me be. They all come to join me at this ever-growing tea gathering.

I breathe and pour out the next of three cups that are bound to come from this second steep. Golden-hued, it captures the light that filters through the forest. A cup of polished brass or untarnished bronze. A glint of sunlight. The outline of a tree painted upon its flat, reflective surface. I peer into this little world, a miniature vignette in situ.

Where does this world go when I drink the contents of this cup? Into my belly? Into my mind? Was it there before? Did these rays of light collect themselves within the concave of this cup before there was tea within it it? I bet they were there even before I sat down to idle away this moment. Why, now, are they deemed so special? Now that they have a vessel to reside within? And what to make of them once they’re gone? They’re my memory now. Will they die with me when I die or will they pass along and upon which dimension will they exist?

I don’t usually bother myself with such questions, but sometimes find myself being asked something like this by my partner at night, only to anger them by my all-to-clinical response. Who knows? Who cares? But then, who is “who”?

Each subsequent cup of tea poured is a reminder to sit down and shut up, and this time I listen. Finally there comes a minute of peace, which expands more and more as I breathe. The troubles of the world won’t go away when I sit for tea, nor will they subside when I hole myself up in this mountain crevasse next to a gushing cascade. They won’t disappear when I write about them, nor when I scorn them. In fact, they won’t ever disappear at all. They will always remain in me, in you, and in this world, and, as such, we must always work on them constantly.

Make friends with our fears and with our phobias, and invite them to tea. Let those whom you don’t understand speak up first and just listen actively. Don’t look for an answer when you yourself are lost. Get lost, and then get lost again. Learn how to disappear completely. Don’t speak, especially when you shouldn’t. Don’t write when you haven’t first determined what to say.

Words are like staccato actions. They’ll leave their mark on the world like thousands of chisel marks. To those who are privileged and think that all they produce is art, they will find their unpracticed hand produces a greater mess. Let those who are practiced make the masterpiece and learn by the examples they’ve set.

Done with my diatribe, I find myself sitting alone. Cup and pot and thermos beside me. The pulsing water falling. The leaves in the trees fluttering as they did before. Birds, calling to one another with words unintelligible.

One more pot of tea before I go. No trek to the summit. Content with halfway up the mountain. The tea leaves rise with the flood and shimmer on the surface, caught in the low light. Darkness abounds still. The morning sun hasn’t yet climbed above me or the mountain. It will be on my back as I walk down the sloping trail home.

One more poem from the poet read in silence. The last cup of tea slacked. Teaware wrapped up and packed. Tossed into my bindle and upon my back. Back down the mountain I wander. Back down to the world with all the problems. Back to where I have friends that I love. A garden that needs tending. A dog that expects to be fed. The sun finally crests over the rolling ridge and floods the river valley with light. Is this what I was waiting for?

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Filed under Ceramics, Meditation, Oolong, Poetry, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

Sometimes Winter stays. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to want to go away. A cold day can last for hours but feel like an eternity. There is a somber quality to snow; it blankets the ground, producing a clean white canvas where trees and rocks and hills are reduced to minimal shapes. This might feel like a welcoming world for those who enjoy the stark quietude that arises from this setting. For others, this icy encasement is a tomb. Cold, barren, deathlike.

Yet, assuredly, Winter slowly fades. Not all at once, but like someone who is waking from a long sleep. Feeling returns to the body. Light becomes perceivable through the thin membrane of the eyelids, through the crisscrossed latticework of lashes. Eyes open. Forms begin to materialize. In these moments between slumber and waking, we forget our dreams and the inexplicable unease of a nightmare. Visions that once enthralled us are now inaccessible, the chasm of unconsciousness too vast to cross.

As Winter thaws and its icy grip loosens, Spring’s warm light slowly creeps in. The sun shakes off the snow, causing crystalline cascades to crash down from the bowed limbs of pine trees. Birds emerge from their hideaways. Rabbits lollop and bound over snowdrifts. Foxes dart and skip from the corners between garden and forest. Shadows bend and play in the new light that comes with this time, running over mounds and valleys articulated in the melting snow. Water drips from the eves of my house, from the standing pole in the field. The old lunisolar calendar is right. This is the first of Spring. 입춘 Ipchun (立春 Lìchūn in Mandarin, Risshun in Japanese , Lập xuân in Vietnamese). The first solar term of the new year.

As the Northern Hemisphere warms, humans, caught in their myriad of global existential crises, still seem locked, frozen in place. Nature always seems to be one step ahead of the human world, waking before them. Spring winds begin to blow, the first buds form on the iron-like plum branches, and cracks form across the ice that covers ponds, snapping and popping and echoing in the silence of the cold.

I sit inside my indoor tea space, waiting, wanting to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen since this pandemic, friends whom I haven’t seen for years. Staring across the rolling hills of snow in my garden, I hear footsteps tread across the path to my front door.

A package from a dear friend in Korea bearing gifts wrapped in red and yellow handmade paper, tied up in colorful thread. Although I haven’t seen this friend in over a decade now, the package awakens memories of when we first met, one frigid Winter long ago. I spread the gifts across the long-stretched length of my wooden tea table. A world wrapped in snow. Gifts wrapped in paper.

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

A bundle of tea, compressed within a tube of bamboo. 죽통차 jugtongcha. Bamboo tube tea. I am elated. A tea I’ve never tried before. Although similar to 後發酵茶 hòu fājiào chá of Southwest China, 후발효차 hubalhyocha (post-fermented dark tea) is distinctively its own form of tea. Produced from semi-wild tea leaves grown on the slopes of 지리산 Jirisan in South Korea, the leaves will undoubtedly be a tangled mix of compressed green tea buds.

Printed upon the small packet in Chinese characters (oftentimes reserved for honorific names) is the tea’s poetic name 「碧芽春 」Biyachun. “Azure Bud of Spring”. A nod to what is soon to come. I gently feel the shape of the compressed tea through the white paper covering before setting it down and moving on to the next package.

This neatly wrapped item is heavier in the hand. Something solid with mass is hidden within the paper sheath.

I remove the tied string and paper to reveal a small, high-shouldered 분청사기 buncheong-jagi vase. I set it down and appreciate its form and beautiful blush and grey color. Closer inspection shows a fine network of crazing upon its surface and small iron-oxide spots formed by the heat of the kiln.

I pick the vessel up, roll it in my hands. Enjoy its pure and deceptively simple shape. I upend the piece and set it down to inspect its base. The mark of famed contemporary Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun. A favorite of my friend. This is truly a gift.

I return the small vase back to its upright position and begin to unwrap the final package.

It is light, almost as if it were just the paper itself.

Loosening the red paper cover, I find the contents to be roll of dark cloth, hand-stitched with red thread along the edges.

As I unfurl the woven fabric, I recognize what it is: a 다포 dapo (茶布 chá bù in Mandarin). A cloth for setting teaware upon.

This is special. This is a surface upon which tea can be made, a plane upon which possibilities are endless. The color is surprising, unusual. It is the result of a traditional permission tannin dying technique. The edges stitched by my friend’s hand. The three items are a call to action, to set the kettle to boil, and to slow down and make tea. 

As if unwrapping a gift all over again, I peel the paper from the bamboo tube-packed hubalhyocha.

Picked last Spring, the tea leaves are still dark green, save for the downy silver-tipped buds that only occur during the early harvest. 

I unsheath a tea knife and begin to gently pry off a measure of tea, being mindful not to break the delicate young buds in the process.

I set the tea aside and lay out the dark cloth across my wooden tea table. Like the snow outside, the persimmon-dyed dapo is a blank canvas.

I wander out to my garden and cut a sprig of pine from the small forest. I return to the warmth of my indoor tea space and begin to arrange the wares upon the long cloth. The pine is placed into the buncheong-jagi vase.

A wooden tea tray and square of woven hemp cloth are placed atop the dark fabric.

Atop this I place a buncheong-jagi teapot and 숙우 sookwoo. An archer’s thumb ring for a lid rest.

Matching cups are placed one on top of the other. Wooden cup stands are stacked beside them.

A tea scoop made of bamboo with a poem is placed along with these objects.

The heat of the kettle rises and steam begins to coil upwards from the iron spout.

I place the measure of tea into the upturned bamboo scoop.

I arrange the wooden cup stands. I place the cups upon them.

I breath and lift the iron kettle from the heat of the brazier and pour a draught of hot water into the sookwoo. The grey and white glaze of the ceramic reacts to the warmth of the water, deepening in tone, revealing a new array of colors. Blues and pinks, purple and amber emerge from the clay.

As the water heats the sookwoo, I remove the lid from the teapot, setting it down atop the archer’s ring.

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

As the three small cups warm, the measure of tea is further broken down and placed into the open cavity of the teapot. A gentle scent of tea rises, the first hint of what is to come. It is sweet, tannic, reminiscent of the soft aroma of Spring rain.

Water is once again poured into the sookwoo and then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

The lid is placed back upon the teapot and the tea is left to steep. One after the next, the cups are emptied, their clay bodies warmed by the heat of the water, ready to receive the first steeping of tea. I do not let the tea brew for long, knowing that, regardless, this tea will be powerful.

As I pour into the cup closest to me (usually the “host’s cup” in the traditional 茶禮/다례 darye “tea rite”), I inspect the initial color of the tea, determining whether it is ready to be fully decanted. The color is lively, deep, golden. As I begin to pour into the cup furthest from me, I see the color of the tea’s liqueur darken. The next cup is slightly darker. The cup nearest me darkens with the additional pouring. I move back the the remaining cups, adding tea to them and back the the host cup. The final drops of tea are distributed to each cup until the teapot is fully emptied of liquid.

The pot is returned to its resting position and lid removed to allow the leaves to cool, for the remaining heat to rise out of the pot.

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

This number frequently appears in traditional East Asian numerology. It is the number of strength during tough times. The number of heaven, earth, and humanity. It is the number of Buddhist “jewels”, the three “refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

In Winter, it takes on another meaning too. As Winter is at its coldest, it is said that only three plants survive to Spring. The pine. The bamboo. The plum. Poetically, these are called the “Three Friends of Winter”. 歲寒三友/세한삼우 Sehansam-u in Korean (Suìhán sānyǒu in Mandarin, Saikan san’yū in Japanese, Tuế hàn tam hữu in Vietnamese).

I pause for a moment and reflect upon this. Friends making it through challenges together and making it to Spring.

Outside my window, snow still remains. Shadows stretch across the sparkling hills and icy drifts. The desiccated stocks of yarrow and grass poke up here and there.

Small plants peak out from icy holes from where they once grew in Spring and Summer.

Inside are warm cups of tea. A kettle boiling. What treasures these are! Old friends and memories!

The tea, the vase, the hand-stitched dapo; these are reminders of resilience. Long after the tea is gone, the last leaf steeped, long after the ceramic vase breaks, long after the deep color of the dark cloth fades; friendship will make it through to the next season, to the next lifetime.

I raise the first of three small cups to my lips and savor its beautiful aroma. Rich, warm, akin to the skin of a dried persimmon. I take a first sip. Wild, active flavors dance across my tongue, filling my mouth. It is nothing like any other tea I’ve had before. Not bitter but full-bodied. Not smoky or excessively dry, but juicy and alive.

Hints of pine resin, of tart forest berry and grape leaf. Marigold, honeysuckle, and bamboo pith. As I finish the cup, final notes of walnut skin and apricot arise. A distinctive minerality and mallow texture coats the cheeks and throat. It lingers and does not fade. I drink the second and third cup and, each time, the flavors grow in their intensity, piling up like the many thin layers of snow outside my window.

As I sit, radiant in the sensations that come from enjoying a fine tea, I pour a second draught of hot water from the kettle into the sookwoo.

Steam rises, catching sunlight. I pour the cooling water into the teapot, submerging the leaves once again. In the daylight, they begin to look more alive. Their verdant colors awaken more. Their aroma becomes more pronounced.

I place the lid back atop the small mottled grey pot and wait again for the tea to steep. The kettle sighs as it boils.

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

The bamboo scoop, with its poetry carved, rests. Who knows when next it will be call upon in service for making tea. Light filters through the sprig of pine.

I lift the teapot and begin to pour the tea again. First to the cup nearest me.

Next, to the cup furthest away. Then back and forth, from cup to cup, until each is full of the golden liqueur.

I lay the pot down again. The lid placed back upon the archer’s ring. The second steeping was intentionally faster, pulling back to express more delicate flavors.

The color of the cup is lighter, brighter. Gone is the intensity, but each flavor remains strong, pronounced.

I sit with the tea for several hours more, letting the kettle rise to a boil, refreshing it with cool water.

Outside my window, the light dims as afternoon recedes to evening. The sun settles its final beams down across the snowy landscape of my garden. Icicles hang from the plum tree beside my home, catching light. Leaves in my teapot rest.

This time I’ve had, tucked beneath the mountains that stretch along the Hudson, has revealed to me the microcosm that each season brings. There are minute steps that the world takes away from the cold of Winter and to the opening of Spring. Almost imperceptible is this transit, evinced only in the subtle shift in sunlight or the way the wind curls and carries warmth where once it produced a chill.

Friendship, too, slowly transforms, evolves, deepens even as the time between meeting widens. This change, like the incalculable shifts that occur between seasons, are not always felt. Perhaps like the seasons, it is when we are inspired by our friends to endure and to create despite all our challenges, that we feel their presence the most.

While the snow remains, Spring slowly approaches. Indeed, it is already here.

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Filed under Ceramics, Education, Korea, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

The Cold Earth

The journey through Winter unfolds like a walk into the wilderness. At first, it comes with the frost that overtakes the garden and is retained at its edges. The hoary frost that clings and encapsulates toothed leaves.

The freeze that finally takes the last remaining chrysanthemums.

The jagged crystalline structures that accentuate the natural geometry of twisting artemisia.

These are the final sounding knells of late Autumn as it succumbs to the dormancy of the cold season. After this point, Winter has begun. We and the whole world around us is engulfed. The untamed wild that is Winter will only feel deeper, darker, more formidable as time progresses.

The depth of Winter does not come until late January. While each day is growing lighter, temperatures continue to plummet until the earth grows hard and the mountain streams freeze over. Here, one must harden the self and to test one’s resolve in their practice.

Since moving my life closer to the mountains and streams, I’ve become evermore aware of the seasons’ cycle, their waxing and waning, entrance and climax.

Now in the depth of Winter, the mountains remain locked in ice. While not constant, when it does snow, it stays, no longer melting as it had in early January.

The garden is blanketed in white. Neighboring houses appear through the gaps between the trees, as if huddled to stay warm. On the coldest day, the apex of what is known in Japanese as 大寒 Daikan (Dàhán in Mandarin), I resolve to put my practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu to the test. Since Winter began, I’ve avoided making tea within the confines of my makeshift tea hut. Its thin walls are no true barrier to the elements. Enrobed in a layer of frozen snow, it is a difficult place to envision making and enjoying a bowl of tea. However, on the coldest day of the year, when temperatures dip to their lowest, it seems evermore a welcoming challenge.

Packing up wares and kettle, scroll and an ad hoc portable 置炉 okiro made of leftover floorboards, I make my way across the snowy garden, down a stone path to the small tea hut. As I walk, I note how even the garden has been transformed by Winter’s grip. Shapes become obscured, softened.

The thorny patch of wineberry and roses are coated in downy snow.

Rough stumps look like ink-painted mountains envisioned by 范寬 Fàn Kuān (c. 960- c. 1030). Have I, too, become a traveler among mountains and streams?

I walk over carved stepping stones, their chiseled edges wrapped in a layer of snow. I feel a tinge of sadness having disturbed their perfect, untouched form.

Even in the coldest of extremes, I notice moss still growing on the shingles roof of the wooden hut.

I push a small stone that keeps the door closed and open up the old garden shed. Cobwebs collected in the corners. Light filtering through the one window. I unroll the scroll and set the kettle to boil.

I rest the 鐶 kan upon the rough bricks that make up the 床の間 tokonoma.

For a moment, I sit and contemplate the meaning of the 掛け軸 kakejiku. 「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū. “Once in a lifetime”. Literally “to encounter once in a thousand years”. The cold is biting, even as the kettle and heat of the 炉 ro begins to warm the small interior of the hut.

I pour fresh water into the 水指 mizusashi. Before it, I place a tall 茶入 chaire, wrapped in a multicolored silken 仕服 shifuku.

In the shadows that are cast upon the surface of the rough-hewn wood. In the silence of the lonely tearoom. In the quiet that only happens when the world is covered in snow. I sit. I observe. I take in the solitary moment.

The bright spangled pigments and dimpled texture of the silken pouch. Its riotous colors against the cold white of the 鬼萩 Oni-Hagi mizusashi. The rich purple of the braided knot that keeps the lid of the chaire on tight.

I bring tea bowl and 茶筅 chasen, 茶杓 chashaku and 茶巾 chakin, and place them beside the tall chaire.

The bowl, a 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsu-chawan, is only used on the coldest days of Winter. Its high walls and slim profile help to keep the heat of the tea within its interior, keeping it warm for the guest to be served the hottest bowl of tea possible on the coldest day.

Alone, I will be both host and guest. A practitioner practicing in solitude, resolved to test his mettle against all that Winter can muster.

I position the 建水 kensui beside me. I set the 柄杓 hishaku down atop the 蓋置 futaoki. The sound of the kettle is a low, resonant hiss.

I breathe and reposition the teabowl, from left hand to right hand to down before the upper corner of the ad hoc okiro. A jumble of old floorboards. A pile of dust. I lift the chaire and place it before the tsutsu-chawan. Both bowl and tea container are of equal height.

I reach down with both hands and delicately untie the braided cord of the shifuku pouch.

I loosen the strings and gathered fabric. I peel the silk from the smooth ceramic sides of the chaire.

I place the ceramic tea container down before me. I place the shifuku beside the mizusashi. The multicolor pattern upon its dimpled surface now muted in the cold light and shadows that stretch across the floor made of the pressboard within the austere interior of the wooden hut.

I let my gaze rest upon the tall, slim chaire. The bone lid.

The iridescent drip of glaze that runs down its front. Its refinement and its rustic qualities. I lift it and cleanse it with my folded 袱紗 fukusa.

Once purified, I place it beside the lower corner of the mizusashi. The chashaku follows, cleansed and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Finally, the chasen is placed beside these objects, set between mizusashi and okiro.

All that is left is to remove the chakin and add hot water into the teabowl.

I remove the lid from the iron 茶釜 chagama.

The sound of boiling water rises, competing with the sound of the slight breeze that passes through the pine trees that hang over the hut.

The bamboo ladle is dipped into the open mouth of the old iron kettle and hot water is drawn and poured into the tube-shaped chawan. A plume of steam rises from the dark void of the teabowl. The kettle is closed again to retain its heat.

The chasen is placed lightly into the center of the teabowl. The thin tines of the bamboo whisk disappear into darkness and shadow. The whisk is softened by the heat of the water, flexed and inspected and placed back beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro. The chawan is emptied and wiped with the chakin. Only the inner walls are cleansed. The bottom of the bowl is too deep to reach into.

I breathe and lift the chashaku from the atop the chaire and pause before I lift the tea container. I remove the lid and place it to the side of the tsutsu-chawan. The two become a contrast of dark and light, rough and smooth.

Even the floor provides a juxtaposition to the lid which now rests upon it. The scattered array of chipped wood and jumble of printed words; a curious canvas upon which this object has been placed.

I remove three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder from the chaire and place each, one on top of the other, into the dark center of the teabowl. Next, I lay the wooden chashaku down upon the rim of the chawan and tilt the chaire over, letting the remaining contents within it cascade downward into the teabowl.

The chaotic pile it creates is akin to the mounds of snow that have accumulated around the eaves and corners of my house, made out in vibrant green.

I replace the lid atop the chaire and set it back down between the mizusashi and chasen. I inscribe the sigil of my school into the tea with the curved top of the chashaku and tap it lightly against the inner edge of the teabowl. I bright, bell-like sound chimes from the high-fired clay of the ceramic tea vessel.

Tea powder now in bowl, I reach for the hishaku once more and remove the kettle’s lid to draw water once again. A high, constant his emerges from the mouth of the iron kettle as I pull water from it, adding a minute amount to the tea powder within the tsutsu-chawan.

I set the hishaku atop the kettle, to wait until I need it again. I reach now for the chasen, lifting it from its resting position and placing within the mixture of matcha and hot water. I slowly begin to press and knead into the two substances, methodically mixing them together until the form a thick aromatic paste. Unable to see into the bowl of tea, I rely solely on muscle memory. I feel the tea and try to recognize when it is ready.

I lift the hishaku once again from the kettle and with right hand holding the ladle and left hand lifting the chasen slightly out of the chawan, I pour a second measure of hot water into the teabowl.

I continue to mix the tea together, its consistency becoming thinner, though still viscous. The fragrance of tea filling the space, blending with the crisp scent of snow. My breath matching the slow, controlled cadence of the whisk, as I try not to let the carved bamboo blades touch the inner walls of the teabowl. Even whisking in a tube-shaped chawan is done differently, more mindfully. All of this against the backdrop of the coldest day of the year.

As I finish, I lift the whisk out of the bowl and place it upright beside the chaire, between the mizusashi and okiro.

The bowl of 濃茶 koicha is complete.

I pause and stare down at the tall chawan. A glint of green light shines back up at me from the depths of the dark vessel. Dark clay. Dark shadows. Dark pitted patterns against its inner walls. I lift the bowl and turn it so that the 正面 shōmen faces away from me. I offer a small bow and give thanks for my health, for the health of my friends and family, and for this moment, once in a lifetime.

I tilt the bowl as I bring it to my lips. The intense aroma of tea, of warm unglazed ceramic, of snow and ice, of the iron kettle and the paper scroll in the alcove. I peer down the long, dark cavern that is the tsutsu-chawan. In the dim light of the tea hut, the interior of the vessel appears mysterious, the tea an apparition at the end of a tunnel. Winter is like this. At one moment a beloved entrance into a season of togetherness, of warmth, of celebration and the coming of new possibilities. In this same moment, it is long, unending, cold and cruel, dormant and dead. In this environment of extremes, one’s practice is tested.

In the traditions of 禅 zen and the various martial arts of Japan, Winter was historically treated as such. During the coldest days, ascetic practitioners engaged in 寒稽古 kangeiko, to test the limits of their spirit. On this, the coldest day of Winter, I have been tested.

As I set down the teabowl, steam rises from my mouth and from the mouth of the tsutsu-chawan. A single trail of thick tea crawls slowly back down the inner wall of the vessel.

The deep green color caught in a streak of light that enters the empty void of the teabowl. I pour hot water into the chawan and pour this into the kensui.

I remove cool water from the mizusashi and use it to cleanse the teabowl and chasen. Extra effort is made to do this as the residual tea is thick and not easily lifted from the surface of the bowl, from the bamboo tines of the tea whisk.

Once cleansed, I place the folded chakin back into the center of the chawan. The chasen I place atop this. The chashaku, with tea dust now wiped from its curved carved tip, is set along the rim of the teabowl.

The objects, still warm to the touch, are placed beside the chaire, which has been shifted back in front of the mizusashi.

Space exists between them both.

Room enough to breathe.

Room enough to coexist. 間 ma.

Cold water it drawn from the mizusashi once more and placed into the open mouth of the boiling kettle. Cold water and hot water mix and calm the roiling boil contained in the 釜 kama. The sound, the bright and lively hiss, returns to a dull hum. There is the sound of crows cawing and sifting through the snow outside the tea hut.

The hishaku is moved from right hand into left. The bronze lid slides back onto the kettle’s mouth, set slightly ajar. A thread of steam rises from the gap. The mizusashi is closed. The hishaku and kensui are placed together.

The top of the futaoki is wiped and placed with the ladle and waste water bowl. Shadows have shifted. Light collects inside objects and concave volumes. Glaze with crackles that resemble ice. Cold, defined shapes in soft, dull sunlight.

I move the teabowl and produce a wooden tray to conduct 拝見 haiken. The grains of the old 香盤 kōban somehow remind me of time passing as I place the lid of the chaire atop this surface. Humble and ordinary are the rings on a tree. Only when cut on an angled bias do they stretch and yawn and expose themselves. Time, once deemed a collection of interchanging intervals, stripes that circle the heartwood, are pulled apart. Left to be examined as long, uneven patterns, random, chaotic, beginning and ending with no apparent meaning.

When Winter brings death and dormancy, sickness on a vast scale as we’ve seen, with these memories stretch and yawn and sear into our collective consciousness? Will we avoid them, shut them out, close the door and create walls around them as we do on this coldest of Winter’s day? What will the tree rings of time show of this year? Of the next? Of the final years that we cling to this fragile earth, now hardened and cold? Was this the coldest of day or will tomorrow be? Will this coldness never end? Are the plum branches outside my window made of iron or will they once again bloom?

「千載一遇」Senzaiichigū.

“Once in a lifetime”.

“To encounter once in a thousand years”. What will we see while we are still alive? 

The chaire is cleansed and set down. Next, the shifuku. Finally, the chashaku. Arranged beside one another. Caught in the dim light. Caught in the contrasting shadows. Against the craziness of the construction plywood and of my madness that drove me out into the cold to practice tea. Kangeiko called me and forced me to make a bowl of thick tea, to prove I could, against all odds, to live even as there is death and desolation all around me.

The empty chaire. Gold foil under its bone lid.

The silk shifuku pouch. Empty. Made of fabric of found 着物 kimono.

The wooden chashaku, carved from an evergreen.

Like those that hang over the roof of this hut.

Warm hues. Cold light of a Winter day. The rising hiss of the kettle returning. Heat radiating from its iron skin.

Haiken is a nonverbal answer to an unspoken 公案 kōan (gōng’àn in Mandarin, 공안 gong-an in Korean, công án in Vietnamese).

To provoke great doubt into one’s practice. To push it to the point where logic falls to the wayside. To the point where only known, lived truths dwell. To awaken to this.

Objects are set aside. The bowl is brought back before me.

A void. A dark mystery still.

The flame-licked exterior of the tube-shaped bowl, discolored where ash and heat brushed against its clay surface.

I lift it up slightly and roll it in my hands. The clay is still warm from when it once held the heat from the kettle, the vitality from the tea. I turn it over and inspect its 高台 kōdai. It is low-slung. Cut and carved-out.

The name of its maker, possibly that of the contemporary Bizen potter 黒田 美紀 Kuroda Miki, is barely decipherable. Small stones and pebbles and grains of sand explode out onto the exterior. A mess of reds and purples, browns and whites. Like a rejected old brick.

I return the bowl to its upright position.

The form is obscured when viewed from up close. The individual thumb prints. The pinches that pressed against the outer walls. Again, marks of its maker, but if a different kind. No name, just the reminders of the action. No words, just truth.

Does what forms the exterior also form that which is found within?

Is the surface an indicator of the void?

Tracks of a solitary animal caught crossing the snow.

An excursion out into the cold on the coldest day of Winter.

Once in a lifetime.

Perhaps, soon, the ice will melt.

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

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 Last of Autumn’s Leaves

Autumn has passed and Winter’s presence grows more and more each day. Morning’s light emerges later and darkness arrives over the horizon sooner than the weeks and months before. Winds whip and howl through bare trees.

The mountains, evermore, replace their vibrant pigment in exchange with varying hues of umber and shades of purple. The colors that do remain cling to branches and scatter on the forest floor. The last of Autumn’s leaves.

The lichen.

The moss.

The rich soil.

The slick cascade of water rushing from the rivers and over rocks. I spend the last of these days, where the final forces of Fall remain palpable, crawling up the edge of a waterfall to the top of a mountain.

In the foothills that mark the trailhead, one final stand of bright, golden maples eek out their last celebration for the year.

Fluttering leaves.

Filtered sunlight.

A cathedral’s nave cast from nature.

Further into the forest, the trees grow bare. Looking upward reveals a spindly network of branches, none coming too close to touch, forming empty channels between them. Bright blue rivers of sky. Birds call and sing. The swirl of the wind. The sound of the brook echoing and beckoning me deeper into the forest, further up the mountain.

As I ascend I pause to appreciate small chance-made vignettes that adorn the forest world. A gnarled old root caught in decomposition.

Two fallen tree trunks, blackened by fire.

In Winter’s cold decay, life still pulses through the forest. Springing up from the thick carpet of fallen leaves, young saplings find a foothold.

Ferns of all forms unfurl.

Moss find shelter in cracks and crevices.

On twisted roots.

Over rocks.

Halfway up the mountain, I stop to savor the rush of the cascade.

Perched on a stone boulder outcropping, I spread out a tea set kept in my side bag. A brocaded box and tea-stained linen cloth.

A small 內紫外紅 nèi zǐ wài hóng 宜興茶壺 Yíxìng cháhú from the early 1980s set atop an oak leaf.

Opened, it becomes a vessel to contain the moment, a chance to pause, an opportunity to meditate in nature. No extraneous noise, just the sound of the waterfall and the wind pressing through the trees. No unnecessary thoughts, just those enough to attend to the act of making tea.

Thoughts enough to guide my hand as I place old tea leaves intro the center of the open teapot. Twisted, dark, aged leaves of an old 普洱茶 pǔ’ěr chá that mirror those fallen on the path that led me to the waterfall’s edge. Red and russet and warm. Dry and leathery like a worn boot.

I pour out a measure of hot water into the open teapot and, for a moment, watch as the tea leaves roll and slowly expand. The deep blue of the sky overhead reflecting in the tiny pool of the open teapot.

I replace the lid and wait for the tea to brew.

In this moment of waiting, I observe the world around me.

The waterfall, the rocks, the forest. The cascade and the rush of water.

The pool in which it all collects and churns.

The mountain stream that ambles and coils downward.

The water, disappearing over a bend and humped back of the hillock. Water, merging with earth, with the wood of the forest, with the light caught against the leaves and the skyward stretching columns of trees.

I pour out the first of many steepings from the tiny teapot into a single cup.

The color of the brew is a deep scarlet. The aroma is rich like healthy soil. The favor is sweet and satisfying, akin to a fine wine, with a soft lingering finish that tapers off slowly until it merges and fades with the myriad of scents that define the forest.

I continue to sit and steep tea. Time passes, marked by the slow shifting of light through the trees.

The change in color of the tea’s liqueur

The expanding of the tea leaves.

One last cup and I close the pot and wrap up the small tea set to continue on my journey up the mountain. Further up the mountain, the forest thins. Yet, here, too, Winter’s blooms can be found. 

Witch Hazel flowers burst atop the knobby and twisted branches of their weathered trees.

New moss emerges from underneath desiccated leaves.

Even a fallen sycamore leaf appears new, alive, fiery against the cold earth.

Climbing higher still, I reach a mountain lake, the source of the waterfall.

Here I rest and sit for tea, spread out atop a warm, sunbaked stone.

The same tea is brewed from before.

It’s flavor seems gentler now, it’s color paler.

I let each steeping go on longer, letting the leaves soak and expel their flavor slowly.

Atop the stone, I sit with the teapot in silent mediation. The chill of Winter abated by the heat of the sun, yet its presence surrounds me. The umber and purple mountain tops rising up against the lake’s edge.

The bare branches stretching up to the sky. The cold wind that creeps between the folds in my coat. The last of Autumn’s leaves, clinging on to a season long since passed.

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea, Tea Tasting, Travel

A Makeshift Hut

In the clamor and chaos of this year, I’ve chosen to retreat. Escaping a city which I have grown to love, I’ve moved my life back closer to nature. Closer to the mountains and the rivers. Closer to the trees, the rocks, the rich soil, the wildlife. While not isolated by any means from civilization, the small town up the Hudson that I’ve relocated to seems far enough (even if only in the mind) from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.

The view from my front door is a mountain, currently in the throes of Autumnal transformation. Part of the reason why I wanted to move from the city was this: to replace the brick and steel and concrete facades with the mountains, the trees, the creeping vines within which I could create a space to deepen my tea practice. Part of this, still, was the hope that I could build a dedicated tea space.

Upon the land which I live now, tucked along the edge of a vegetable garden, an overgrown patch or raspberries, a cluster of rocks, and a grove of trees is a small, ten feet by ten feet wooden garden shed. It is here that I shall make a tea space; a makeshift hut.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, there is the tradition of 見立て mitate. Simply stated, this is the act of selecting something that was not intended for tea and incorporating it into the context of tea. Often this is seen with such things as rice bowls being transformed into 茶碗 chawan, well buckets into 水指 mizusashi, and cooking pots into 茶釜 chagama. Rarely does an entire structure, such as a wooden shed, become a 茶室 chashitsu. Alas, this is what I have done.

In truth, the chashitsu, too, has always been, at least conceptually, something repurposed, originally modeled after the huts of lone hermits, meditators and herb pickers. As I clear out the contents of my makeshift hut left over by the previous owners and two field mice, I am reminded of the poet and essayist of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), 鴨 長明 Kamo no Chōmei (1153 or 1155–1216). In his 1212 work 方丈記 Hōjōki (literally “square- record”, variously translated as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut), Chōmei wrote of his own retreat from the chaos of the imperial capital of Kyōto, from the fires and the famine, from the destruction and the infighting, to a small hut. There he dedicated his life to the devotion of Amida Buddha and the pursuit of tranquility.

Of my ten-foot square hut, I’ve made a tea room. All around its exterior is nature. Vines climb up its wooden walls. Moss grows on its shingles.

The paint is worn and weathered.

Two river rocks hold the door close.

Flat flagstones set the boundary between the outer garden and inner space. Inside, two broad planks of plywood supported on stacks of bricks become my floor.

A corner and some spare beams for a 床間 tokonoma.

In the alcove, I hang a sprig of wild grape. For a kettle, I use an old metal thermos. When I open the two double doors, light floods into the space and gives views of the garden for the seated guests. When I close them, a single window is just enough to illuminate the space in front of the host.

In the meager light of a still Autumn morning, I wake with the crickets and walk to my makeshift hut with thermos and teabowl, tea and whisk. I employ a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III for my first bowl of tea to be prepared in this new tea space. Its uneven shape and the empty void it creates feels fitting, for it, like the hut, is a dark crucible of creation and possibility.

I measure out three scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha and place each into the center of the teabowl. What little light creeps in through the solitary window beside me catches on the scattered flecks of tea powder and on the dimpled surface of the chawan.

I pour water from my thermos into the teabowl and place the tines of the 茶筅 chasen into the warm concoction.

The wetted bamboo disappears in the shadows caught in the kuro-Raku chawan.

Once fully whisked, the scent of tea and incense and worn wood combine.

As dawn breaks, the interior space of the tearoom begins to glow, sending long shadows stretching across the floor, causing the chaotic mosaic of compressed wood to sparkle and iridesce. The deep black of the Raku chawan accentuates the bright green of the matcha foam.

I lift the bowl and set it before the space reserved for future guests. As instructed by my teacher, as I meditate on the developing state of this makeshift hut, I will need to try different arrangements. To sit in the host’s position can only give one a single point of perspective. To create a space for the practice of both host and guest, must also know what it is like to be a guest. In this instance, as morning’s light grows, I stand up and sit back down at the 正客 shōkyaku position.

There, the bowl seems darker, more of a mystery. The shadows collect inside the bowl, creating a small vignette of the glowing tea within it.

I lift and turn the bowl a half turn. I pause, giving a moment to look out from the window. Maple and pine and the shape of a low hill. Fog and morning’s dew. The sound of a solitary songbird breaking the chorus of crickets.

I lift the bowl to my lips and imbibe the first sip of tea. A second and third soon follow. Soon all that is left are the final dregs. An empty bowl. Faint remnants of past creation. New possibilities to come. A makeshift hut on the edge of a small forest. Twisting vines curling up its sides. Light of the morning to illuminate both host and guest. A space to seek what is still unknown.

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

Tea Without Tea

October came and now closes. Early Autumn, with its cool breeze, cricket songs, and spangled leaves fades into the chill and rain an approaching Winter. In these days, I, along with the local songbirds and squirrels, wait for the first frost. I wonder when the portable brazier will be exchanged for the sunken 炉 ro.

In this time I’ve not been making tea. Instead, my life has been in the grip of a constant state of movement. Moving from my apartment in New York City to a home tucked along the Hudson and folded into the mountains of upstate. Moving into boxes and out of boxes. Moving old objects into new spaces. Moving one life along another twist in the thread.

This movement, while exciting, has kept me away from the much needed moments of stillness. Far from the quiet I have known when I was sitting in my now old tearoom. Quiet replaced with the hammering and drilling, the sawing and stomping that comes with building a new space to live and practice in.

Kept from my regular practice of tea, the “tea mind” finds itself engaging with different processes and different objects. Even with no tea to steep in a pot or whisk in a bowl, the tea mind still continues to address the world in accordance to the context of tea. Instead of sitting down for tea, I find myself retreating up to the mountains. Here, the forms are different but the meditation remains the same.

Twisted tea leaves which I place within a pot are replaced by the golden leaves of Fall which are scattered upon the forest floor.

The appreciation of a thick, unctuous glaze that wraps around a 茶碗 chawan is exchanged with a pause to enjoy a moss-covered rock along a path’s edge.

The sound of the kettle familiar to me in my tearoom is echoed in the soft sound produced by a waterfall that cuts its way down the mountainside.

I breathe deep, measured breaths as I climb throughout the yet explored terrain of my new environment. I recall the countless wanderings of my youth, when weekends were spent hiking the hills and mountains of California. The mind remembers this, the muscle memory, the cadence of actions and inactions.

Deeper still, the mind recalls the flavors of the forest in Fall, yet, now, these too are different. The trees and shrubs, rocks and soil have subtly changed. The practiced tea mind, the one that has focused itself for many years on the flavors of tea, is now attuned to appreciate these new tastes too.

The concepts familiar with the tea mind are transformed and repurposed as well. The “one moment, one meeting” of 一期一会 ichi-go ichi-e returns, not now for a guest coming to my tearoom or a piece of teaware to be shared, but for a brightly-colored maple tree, which today bursts with golden leaves, tomorrow to change to orange and later brown.

The notion of 侘び寂び wabi-sabi, which is normally epitomized by the rustic beauty found in a weather-worn object or a piece of ceramic transformed by the furnace, is pushed closer to its source, to nature itself. It is found at the ebb of a river’s bank, where a thin line of leaves swept up upon the rocks, to where one recognizes the impermanence of every mind-formed state.

It is found in the silver-grey clouds that glide over the mountains, dark and mysterious as is encompassed in the concept of 幽玄 yūgen.

While these concepts come to mind, in a tea practice without tea, do they still maintain their significance? Can the tea mind exist without tea? Is there tea without tea? As I find my current life packed-away in piles of boxes, in the dust that clings to me here and there, I ponder this.

As I look out the window of my new tea hut in the making, I wonder if this has always been for naught. Is this practice defined by the objects it contains or is it defined by nothing at all? Is the boundary that separates form and formlessness firm or permeable?

Is the cloud, the sky, the lake, the earth separate or intertwined? As I continue my current life without tea, is this, too, a life with tea?

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Filed under Ceramics, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Travel