Tag Archives: Tea Person

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

The Salt in the Sea: Catharsis and the Way of Tea

In late July, Summer drags and the heat of the day is felt most severely. From July 22 to August 6, 大暑 Taisho, “Major Heat”, marks the final apex of Summer’s heat. For the practitioner of tea, any measure to mitigate the effects of this heat are taken.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu, tea gatherings are held in the early morning, before the sun is able to warm the earth, affording a fleeting moment of coolness. Everything about the tearoom at this time is lighter, and airier. Glass containers and teabowls are often employed. 簾 sudare hang from the eaves and 葦簀 yoshizu screens replace the 障子 shōji.

With these changes, the world of the tearoom seems evermore fragile, made-up of grasses, reeds, light woods and translucent glass. In this tenuous existence, however, there is life, vitality, and an ever-present awareness of how precious our existence is and how unique our chance to ever meet again must be.

With months of the pandemic still raging strong, I sit in my New York City apartment and wonder whether I will ever gather for tea the same way I had prior to this time. The feeling is bittersweet. A sense of longing for something from my past, yet a recognition that things will never be the same. A deep and gentle sadness for friends and family who have been separated, and from the time lost. A great feeling of my own mortality now rarely escapes me, a realization of how transient life is. 物の哀れ mono no aware.

Finding myself caught in the brief moment of the morning between the cool of the night and before the pervasive heat of the day, I decide to make a bowl of tea. Unable to shake the sadness that I’ve been feeling, I decide to meditate with this emotion and involve it in my daily practice of tea.

From my antique tea cabinet I remove a small 桐箱 kiribako, tied-up with a woven silk cord. Written across it is the signature and seal of 茶平一斎 Chahira Issai, a famous 蒔絵 maki-e artist from 輪島 Wajima, 石川 Ishikawa prefecture.

The words 汐汲 shio-kumi, “salt-scooper”, are written is a light calligraphic script.

Untying the cord and removing the lid, I pull from the box a dark maroon lacquer tea container in the shape of a 金輪寺棗 “Kinrinjinatsume. A shape that purportedly has its origins in lacquer containers from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279), the “Kinrinjinatsume was apparently popularized by 後醍醐天皇 Go-Daigo-tennō (Emperor Go-daigo) (1288-1339). Originally, the natsume would have been used to contain 濃茶 koicha and would have been used in more formal tea settings. However, by the 1600s, the practice of using it as a container for 薄茶 usucha seems to have emerged.

Atop this particular version, the words 松風 matsukaze are written on the lid. Wrapping around the exterior of the cylindrical body of the lacquered natsume are images of curling and churning waves, with salt and foam rendered in cut flecks and dust of gold. This is the 汐汲棗 “shio-kuminatsume, favored by 圓能斎 Ennosai (1872 to 1924), the 13th generation head of the 裏千家Urasenke school of chanoyu.

I take a moment to fill the tea container with fresh 抹茶 matcha, producing a softly pointed mound of tea powder. As I do this, the kettle in my tea space comes to a low boil. Cool fresh water is drawn and poured into a green 縄簾 nawasudare 水指 mizusashi. A bamboo 茶筅 chasen and white linen 茶巾 chakin are wetted and placed in the center of a shallow antique Sòng period 平茶碗 hira-chawan. A 茶杓 chashaku made of cut bamboo is placed atop the teabowl.

In the low light of the morning, the chawan and shio-kumi natsume are brought into the tea space. As I sit down, the light of the day begins to grow.

Soft shadows collect under the edges of objects placed first in front of the mizusashi and then arranged between the warm 風炉 furo and myself.

The shio-kumi natsume is lifted and its lid is cleansed in the manner similar to a 茶入 chaire before being set down in front of the mizusashi.

The chashaku is purified next with the refolded 袱紗 fukusa and then placed atop the lid of the natsume. The thin carved shape of the tea scoop running along the center of the silver lacquered 漢字 kanji. The natural pattern of the bamboo resembling waves.

I fold the fukusa again and return it back to my side. With my right hand, I reach for the chasen, lifting it from the teabowl and placing it beside the natsume.

I remove the lid of the lid of the 茶釜 chagama and a ladle’s worth of hot water is pulled from it. While I pour water from the cup of the 柄杓 hishaku into the shallow of the teabowl, I watch as a fine mist of steam spins along the water’s surface. Small whirlpools form and dissipate, dissolving as fast as they appeared.

I dip the thin tines of the chasen into the warm water, pressing them and flexing them, appreciating the tiny beads of water that collect upon them like clear dew that collects on grass after a night’s rain or a morning’s mist.

I pour the water from the teabowl into the 建水 kensui and dry its surface of the shallow chawan gently with the linen chakin.

I take care to ensure the woven fibers do not tear upon a small rock that has broken through the teabowl during its firing a thousand years ago.

The shio-kumi natsume is brought forth again and the lid is placed before the teabowl.

Three scoops of bright green matcha are issued from the tea container and placed into the center of the chawan.

The chashaku is tapped lightly against the inner edge of the tea vessel and the natsume is placed back beside the chasen. I transfer a ladle’s worth of cool water from the dark green mizusashi to the bubbling chagama. Warm water is pulled from the iron kettle and half a ladle is poured into the teabowl.

The sound of water, the mixing of water, the foaming of both water and tea. The whisk frothing-up foam as if it were waves upon the seashore. In this Summer, I have not yet seen the sea. I have not yet seen friends or family. Some of those friends and family I may never see again in my lifetime.

As I prepare the bowl of tea to serve to myself, in this moment of quiet solitude accompanied by the sound of water, I am reminded of the sadness that surrounds shio-kumi.

Shio-kumi is not just a poetic name given to a tea caddy. Shio-kumi refers to a tale of love lost. Of a woman, named Matsukaze, herself a person who works hauling brine to make salt on the shores of 須磨 Suma (near modern-day 神戸 Kobe). The story was retold in the 1811 歌舞伎 kabuki play titled “七枚続花の姿絵” “Shichimai-tsuzuki Hana no Sugata-e” (“A Dance of Seven Changes”), itself, originating from a 能 play titled “Matsukaze”.

In the play, the lovelorn character of Matsukaze pines for her poet lover 在原 行平 Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893), who was momentarily exiled to the shores of Suma, where the two met. As she scoops saltwater from the sea, she recalls her love and the feelings she had for him, now a distant and bittersweet memory.

As the foam of the tea rises, I peer into the center of the teabowl.

A low mound of whisked matcha floats, tiny bubbles suspended in liquid.

I sit back and my gaze widens as I set the chasen back beside the natsume.

The quiet hiss of the boiling water in the chagama. The sound of a gentle breeze outside my tea space. Silence. Solitude. The missing of friends and family. The longing for their company. The recognition that the apex of Summer is here. Half a year has come and gone. A year of death and disease. Of change and revolution. Of awakening. Of letting go.

I lift the chawan and drink the tea. As I tilt the teabowl, I watch as the fine foam of the matcha catches against the rough surface of the small rock embedded in the ceramic. Small, bright green waves pressing against the trapped object. Moving over and around it. The tide pulling outward, leaving the shore exposed, uncovered.

Dregs of tea dry quickly, like salt on the edge of briny pools. I pour warm water into cleanse the bowl and then finally cool water to cleanse the chasen.

The bowl is overturned and I inspect the carved 高台kōdai. The cracks that have formed over time. The small entrapped rock visible from both sides. The warmth still held in the clay.

I turn the bowl back over. The chakin is folded and placed into the chawan’s center. The whisk is placed with its tines pointing upward. Small beads of fresh water cling to the thin bamboo blades.

The chashaku is purified once again and placed back down onto the rim of the shallow teabowl.

The shio-kumi natsume is placed beside the bowl.

I arrange a final 拝見 haiken to admire the wares one-by-one. The natsume is cleansed once again. The chashaku is placed beside it.

I admire the broad, rounded end of the teascoop.

Images of waves come to mind.

The silver calligraphic characters atop the lid of the shio-kumi natsume bring a sense of coolness and ease.

I lift the lid and turn it over. Five 千鳥 chidori are rendered in gold. I recall the sensation of sea breezes. The sadness that comes as you hear their shorebird cries. The shape of the tea caddy is akin to the salt-scoop buckets on the sea’s edge of Suma. The motif of waves the same that once decorated the hem of Matsukaze’s 着物 kimono. The reminder that the feelings of loss are both sad and sweet. To have once loved and lost. To have known that feeling of closeness with those you love. To remember that now, now that they are not here, now that they are gone, perhaps gone forever.

The heat of Summer grows as the day continues until it is unavoidable. Even in the shade of my tea space, it still creeps in. Through the reeds that cover the windows. Through the gaps between fragile woven grass. The feeling is transient and vital, precious and unique.

****

Additional Notes & Resources

As this particular post contained quite a bit of research, I wanted to make sure that I included additional notes and resources to follow.

Above, I’ve included an image of 初代 坂東 しうか Shodai Bandō Shūka (1813-1855) performing Shio-kumi, staged in the 7th lunar month of 1847, image created by 三代 歌川 豊国 Sandai Utagawa Toyokuni (1786-1865). In this, you can see how the salt-scoop buckets were rendered in the same way that the natsume wave motif was decorated, including chidori (which appear flying above the waves on the blue sky). It is my belief that this motif (which was common and popular during the 井戸 Edo period, 1603-1867) probably came to reside upon the natsume through way of this prop from this much-loved kabuki dance.

As always in tea, pull one thread and you reveal a tapestry. In this case, a simple natsume reveals a story that spans centuries, interwoven with various arts!

If you’d like to learn more about this particular piece of teaware and the play that inspired it, I’ve linked several resources below:

“Shiokumi” – Kabuki 21

https://www.kabuki21.com/shiokumi.php

“Kinrinji natsume” – Chanoyu.World

https://chanoyu.world/natsume-kinrinji/

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

Sitting with Discomfort

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

What I am writing to you today is meant to challenge you. Indeed, every post I write is meant to challenge you. The message in this post might connect with you, it might not. This post might not even reach you. You might not be able to get past the first paragraph without feeling uncomfortable. That’s the point.

In the almost twenty years of practicing tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, the Korean Way of tea), I’ve come to see tea as a great source of comfort. For me, it provides a calm “home base”, a return to center, and a way to settle the mind. For years, now, I’ve written about this quality of tea, the special place it creates to practice meditation, and a space where I can explore culture and history. Tea and comfort have seemed very close together; at times, one. 

But then there is the reality of practicing tea. You use boiling water and, occasionally, you get burned. You over-steep tea and it becomes bitter. You make a mess. You break a piece of ceramic. This is uncomfortable, but you get over it, you learn from it, you move on. The comfort returns.

Chanoyu is uncomfortable. The upright posture. The sitting in the formal 正座 seiza position. The sometimes forced silence and oftentimes scripted dialogue. The formalism. The repetition of it all. It is uncomfortable, but, again, to get good at it, to overcome and understand this discomfort, one must practice it. One must master it. It will take your lifetime to do this, and it will take lifetimes to further develop and deepen this practice until it evolves into a rich tea culture. 

But there is another discomfort that we need to sit with in order to understand it. We need to sit with racism. Racism in tea and racism in the world at large. 

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my New York City apartment. I have ample access to food, to running water, to resources. It’s Summer and the AC is on. A kettle is quietly boiling and I’m getting ready to prepare a bowl of tea. It’s comfortable. 

As a white person in America, I’ve come to this place largely through privilege given to me and maintained by a system that enables, empowers, engenders, and encourages white supremacy. It’s part of the history of this nation and it’s woven into the very fabric of this country, written into the very documents upon which it was founded. This foundation was, and still is, based on maintaining power for white people. Comfort for white people.

While this history was and still is based around ensuring the comfort of white people, the acknowledgment of this is (and this will be the understatement of all understatements) uncomfortable. It should be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Indeed, if you are not uncomfortable with this truth, if you are not ashamed by it, embarrassed by it, or enraged by it, I encourage you to sit more with it, examine it, see what it enables. See what it allows a certain section of humanity, a certain class of people, to get away with. See what it has done in the past and what it continues to do. Are you still comfortable?

While this does not sound like the writing of a tea person, I assure you, it is.

When one thinks of tea (particularly from a Western, white perspective), one thinks of the formal English afternoon tea, of the “exotic Orient”, of old and ancient ways, of plantations and magic elixirs. These are commonly celebrated images and often part of the marketing of tea. By and large, these myths were created by whites, to entice a white audience. This may explain why outside of the countries of their origin, tea and traditional tea culture is greatly consumed by white people. Yet, whether you acknowledge it or not, these myths are racist constructs; with the sole purpose of creating imbalances in power, authority, authenticity, agency, voice, and claim over another people and another people’s culture. 

As Edward W. Said (1935-2003) posed in his 1978 work Orientalism, images such as these were created to normalize and amplify the legitimacy of Western hegemony and to cast those outside of this sphere as the “other”. The cultures of Asia, of Africa, of the Middle East were cast in a different light than their Western counterparts. They were mystified, exoticized, rarified, and set in opposition to the self-proclaimed logic of the Western cultures and world-views. In this light, tea’s historical claim as a medicine is thrown into a form of epistemological conflict between the “scientific” medicine of the West and the thousands of years old medicinal practices of China. The notion that Western science has to validate Chinese medicine before it is deemed “safe” is part of this. This is racist.

This is echoed in the way tea and tea practices are written about; still largely cast in a poetic or spiritual or mystical light. While this has historically been part of tea and tea literature (from writers, poets and tea practitioners like 陸羽 LùYǔ to 太田垣 蓮月 Ōtagaki Rengetsu), it certainly is not its totality. One should not necessarily be preoccupied by this approach. One should not ignore the science of tea. The logic of tea. The real world and human part of tea. Tea is a plant, a product, a trade good, an object that has been fought over, smuggled, loved and loathed. It has a history and it has specific locales and cultures from which it arose.

This reality is most apparent in the trade of tea. Historically (and still to this day), the production of tea was a back-breaking work, requiring skill and knowledge gained over generations to produce high quality tea. Like anything, tea was and is not immune to the influences of oppression and racism. Today, the majority of the world’s tea comes from India, from farms that still practice and uphold methods developed during India’s colonization by the British. Still to this day, throughout the thousands of plantations that supply India’s tea industry, of which employee over three million workers, flagrant violations of domestic law and basic human rights continues to be the norm. 

In a 2014 report conducted by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, researchers found that plantations continue to keep their workers in cramped, dangerous living conditions, with little access to fresh water and basic sanitation. There is little to no access to medical care. Labor laws are ignored, unions are either broken, ignored, or used against the needs of the workers they represent. Workers are often bound to the service of the plantations, either through economic limitations placed upon them by the plantations or through the controls over housing offered by the plantations. Remember this when you comfortably sit down to your cup of Assam. Are you still comfortable?

Why this tone all of a sudden? Where did the niceties about tea go from what was typically a blog about the peaceful, relaxing qualities of tea? Before and certainly since the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and countless others who have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across America and the world, I’ve been trying to come to terms with this. For my lifetime, and perhaps yours too, I’ve been sitting with this discomfort, of seeing black people, indigenous people, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people silenced, minimized, denied, and killed. It’s never felt comfortable. It’s always felt terrible. Yet, for much of my life, I’ve been told that I alone was unable to change this or affect this. I, as with many white folks, recognized this pain, acknowledged it, yet didn’t know what to do with it.

Recently, something changed. Rather than get loud, get angry, get provoked (which, of course I also do), I just sat. I meditated. It was uncomfortable. Sitting, meditating, making tea. It felt stupid (and it still does). Would this make a difference?

In her 2018 book How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide, Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming gives ten action items to confront one’s own relationship with racism (I’ve included all ten below this post). In the first point, she states “Relinquish magical thinking.” By this she means that there is no quick fix to ending racism, no magic wand will make it disappear, and no single action will eradicate it. Instead, it takes constant work. Constant practice. 

She states:

Racial oppression is so intrinsically violent, so ghastly and inhumane, that facing it in its full, catastrophic splendor is almost more than the mind can handle. And so, given that it’s human nature to avoid what’s unpleasant, many minds do not handle it at all. And then there are those who cling to the fantasy that racism can be easily eradicated simply because they’ve never studied it—and so they are unfamiliar with the scope of its historical, economic, psychological, sociological, environmental, and health dynamics.

If you want to pursue the cause of social justice, give up the need for quick fixes and gird your loins for a long struggle.

Upon reading this, something clicked. For some reason “gird your loins” instantly reminded me of the long, protracted, formal and mindful sitting in seiza. How I’ve been sitting, now, for years in seiza, each time as I prepare a bowl of tea. Similarly, the notion of something only arising from investigation, through outward study and self-study was akin to tea. It is also akin to meditation.

I was reminded of a quote by theologian and founder of the 曹洞宗 Sōtō-shū order of Zen 道元禅師 Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253): 

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

In their statements, both Dr. Fleming and Dōgen ask their audience to practice diligently, to honestly interrogate the self and the structural machinations that formed the basis of one’s egoic mind, and dismantle that which they take for granted, whether this be the “stories we tell ourselves” or the status quo. Neither Dr. Fleming nor Dōgen deny that it will take a lifetime of practice, strength and diligence. Both acknowledge that it will be mentally uncomfortable and physically uncomfortable. Yet, both are clearly guided by wanting to point their audience to greater enlightenment.

To become an enlightened being and to dismantle racism both within ourselves and in our communities, there are no quick fixes. We’re in this not for the sprint but for the marathon. As white people who are trying to be a better white allies, we’re going to have to continue to sit in discomfort. We’re going to have to be brutally honest, both with ourselves, our privilege, with the world around us. We’re going to have to commit to change, to be accountable, and to be comfortable with the fact that despite all that we might learn about racism, all that we know about racism, that we are not the experts on this. We’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to have to listen and learn and recognize that the little sensation to want to always speak, to always want to have the “right answer” or the “right solution” to a problem (including racism) comes from the desire for comfort, for assurance, for the status quo. It come from the ego, one nurtured by a society founded on the tenets of white supremacy. 

What tea has taught me in the many years of my life practicing it is that one must first learn to be silent in order to truly listen. In order to dismantle systemic institutionalized racism, as a white person I will need to learn how to listen to those who have, for their lifetimes, studied it, fought against it, know it and experience it firsthand. I cannot raise my voice but, instead, work to amplify theirs. In the same way that I cannot claim to be an expert in tea, I cannot ever become an expert in dismantling racism. I can, however, be a good student in this and work hard to learn from my teachers.

New York City-based writer, blogger, novelist, activist, critical thinker, and creator-curator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin, Robert Jones Jr states “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” As compassion and empathy is at the core of dismantling racism, it, too, is at the heart of the spirit of tea. To make someone a bowl or cup of tea is to recognize their humanity. This is a powerful gesture and, when studied, can become a powerful meditation and practice.

In his lifetime of practicing chanoyu, the former 家元 iemoto of the 裏千家 Urasenke school of tea, 十五代千宗室 Sen Sōshitsu XV has proclaimed his mission of making tea as “peace through a bowl of tea.” Central to this belief is that so long as you can have two sworn enemies sit together and share a bowl of tea, they would become friends; through this gesture peace could be made. In chanoyu, we spend considerable amount of time to practice this and, eventually, master this. This is exemplified by the way tea is taught. Before one learns how to serve a bowl of tea, one learns how to be a guest. We do this as a practice in compassion, so we know what it is like to be on the receiving end, to recognize the humanity of each participant, and to know their discomfort and to know how to act when this arises. As a result, the relationship between host and guest, between comfort and discomfort, becomes a practice in compassion which, in turn, becomes a fulcrum of action.

In practicing tea, we are taught that we are not helpless and that we can reshape the world out of compassion. Each action in tea reflects this. We are taught how to source the right water to make sure that its flavor will harmonize with the tea. We learn how to prepare the garden path for the arrival of the guest. We are shown how to lay the charcoal so that it warms the water to the right level of heat, dependent on the time of day and time of year. We are made aware of the many subtle changes that happen in the tearoom in accordance to the comfort of our guests. We learn how to be patient and sit with our discomfort as we learn from our teachers. All of this is done diligently so that when it comes our turn to act, we can finally make a bowl of tea for someone, so that host and guest can truly connect in equanimity.

In the same way, we cannot adopt a stance of hopelessness against racism. In the same way we actively practice compassion in tea, we need to actively learn about and practice anti-racism. We need to critically assess our racial socialization and recognize the dynamics it has created (and still creates). We have to meditate and sit with this, actively. To my white blog readers, we need to make a proactive decision to do this work and stop relying on BIPOC and LGBTQI people to carry this burden. We all need to be active in critically engaging with and dismantling oppression. We all need to be good students in this practice.

As I’ve been writing all of this, I’ve been preparing a bowl of 濃茶 koicha. The manner in which I’ve been preparing it is a formal style known as 唐物点前 karamono temae. As per its namesake, the procedure of making tea in this manner involves wares that were once native to ancient China (唐物 “karamono” literally translates to “Táng objects”). While the procedure of karamono is largely the invention of creative tea masters of the chanoyu tradition, the use of foreign wares such as a Chinese or Chinese-styled 茶入 chaire (featured is a 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire or “shouldered” tea container) reflects a sign of deep respect of one culture for another.

Looking deeper into the 取り合わせ toriawase of the setting, one finds that the chaire is protected in a silk 仕服 shifuku. The brocade it is made of is emblazoned with images of readers upon the Silk Road, a motif common during the Táng period (618-907), stylistically linked to designs found in Central Asian and Middle Eastern tapestries and textiles. 

The formal 茶杓 chashaku, made of carved cedar, is in a form that would have originally been made of carved ivory or hand-shaped gold or silver, the origins of which harken back to tea scoops of the Sòng period (960-1279).

The 茶碗 chawan is a 黒楽茶碗 kuro-Raku chawan by famed ceramicist 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III. The form of this bowl originates from teabowls first made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō, himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent.

Beyond the notion of toriawase being a concept in which objects are chosen and combined with care, it, too, is an act of compassion and a recognition of the person for whom you are preparing a bowl of tea. Each object is brought together to convey through the interrelation of subtle visual cues a message specific to the invited audience, so that they may awaken to the moment within the tea gathering. For you, my beloved blog reader, I’ve chosen these objects to convey a special message. The karamono, and the heightened level of respect each object is given during its specific temae. The mixing of cultures through time and space. The context within which we are sitting. A meditation on discomfort with the realities of the world, with our place in it, and with our responsibilities to face and change them. As tea is about unlearning old practices and misconceptions in order to truly learn, one must do the same with racism and hate.

While enjoying the last dregs of koicha, the final haiken, the objects and their interwoven histories, the discomfort of where I am and where we are collectively as a society doesn’t go away. Even as I bring teawares together from different cultures, respectfully using them, employing them to deepen my meditative practice, I do this not to quiet the mind but to study it. Practicing tea and sitting in discomfort. Practicing tea and facing down the long and twisted history of racism in this country and in this world. If you haven’t begun sitting, sit now. Sit now, listen and learn. Are you still comfortable?

 

****

 

Additional Readings & Resources

As noted, below are resources on anti-racism, including Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming’s ten action items from her book “How to be Less Stupid About Race”, published by Beacon Press.

 

1. RELINQUISH MAGICAL THINKING.

2. CRITICALLY ASSESS YOUR RACIAL SOCIALIZATION.

3. START OR JOIN AN ANTIRACIST STUDY GROUP AND SHARE WHAT YOU LEARN ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM.

4. EMPOWER YOUNG PEOPLE TO UNDERSTAND SYSTEMIC RACISM.

5. RECOGNIZE AND REJECT FALSE EQUIVALENCIES.

6. DISRUPT RACIST PRACTICES. GET COMFORTABLE CALLING SHIT OUT.

7. GET ORGANIZED! SUPPORT THE WORK OF ANTIRACIST ORGANIZATIONS, EDUCATORS, AND ACTIVISTS.

8. AMPLIFY THE VOICES OF BLACK WOMEN, INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND’ WOMEN OF COLOR.

9. SHIFT RESOURCES TO MARGINALIZED PEOPLE.

10. CHOOSE AN AREA OF IMPACT THAT LEVERAGES YOUR UNIQUE TALENTS.

 

Writers & Authors

Sara Ahmed, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Rokhaya Diallo, Angela Davis, Mona Eltahawy, Jacqueline Goldsby, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Janet Mock, Toni Morrison, Ijeoma Oluo, Shailja Patel, Issa Rae, Isabel Wilkerson

 

Articles & Online Resources

Anti-Racism Resource Collection

http://www.resourcesharingproject.org/anti-racism-resource-collection

 

White People 4 Black Lives

https://www.awarela.org/white-people-4-black-lives

 

“A Toolkit for White People” – Black Lives Matter

https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Toolkit-WhitePpl-Trayvon.pdf

 

“Anti-racism Resources to Become a Better Ally” – JDSUPRA

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/anti-racism-resources-to-become-a-36289/

 

Anti-Racist Resources from Greater Good

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/antiracist_resources_from_greater_good

 

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

In One Month’s Time: Everything’s Changed. Everything Remains the Same.

With a blink of the eye, the month of May has come to a close. At its beginning, Spring was in its last days of full glory. Blossoms blooming and bending every bough. Fresh shoots of grass pushing up through rich dark soil. The mornings keeping cool. Fresh breezes blowing.

In four weeks’ time, Summer has come. The myriad of flowers that once hung on trees now blow about as dried-out bodies on the streets, collecting in corners, dedicated and rotting. In their place flap large, billowing leaves of deep green, waving in the wind like huge unfurled sails atop masts of sailing ships.

During this month, the occasional rain storm has come and gone, leaving this new verdant world bedecked in a crystalline veneer of shimmering droplets. In this new world that emerges, the silence of morning pervades and lingers throughout the remainder of the day. The booming voices of birds echo through the neighborhoods. The soft patting of leaves fluttering produces a mellow, rhythmic murmur.

In this new world that has arrived, inspiration is tempered by loss. Creativity presses up against destruction. A new world arrives as the old world dies all around it.

In the quiet of my tea room, I cannot escape this. The silence of this early Summer, the lack of cars on the street, the hush that comes over passers by, the bated breath. The cause of sickness that has gripped the world where one loses their ability to breathe. The sickness that grips this nation where one is choked to death. This, too, creeps into the space of my tea room.

A wide bowl and low-slung tea caddy greets me.

A green 水指 mizusashi with a lacquer lid stands side-by-side the summery bronze brazier. Etched in its clay, green-glaze pooling within the carved and combed pattern, is the motif of 縄簾 nawasudare, a twisted rope curtain rustling in the breeze. What would refresh me and my guest on a hot, windless day, seems to do little to placate a sense of burning restlessness in me.

As I sit for tea, I do not do so to pacify the mind. I do so merely to observe its motions.

I cleanse the wooden grain surface of the small 平棗 hira-natsume.

I check its interior to see that the low mound of tea remains undisturbed. With care, I place the container down in front of the mizusashi.

I purify the 茶杓 chashaku and place it upon the lid of the natsume. The skin of the bamboo marked by hundreds of black spots. 緑雨 ryokuu.

I lift the 茶筅 chasen and place it beside the natsume and chashaku. I lift a ladle’s worth of hot water from the 茶釜 chagama and pour it into the wide-rimmed Summer 茶碗 chawan. The sound of water splashing inside rings like a hollow bell.

The chasen is returned to the bowl. The bamboo tines open slowly. When the mind is focused, the heart opens. When one does something in service for another, the heart softens. I lightly whisk the chasen in the warm water and return it beside the natsume. Small beads of water still cling to the upright blades, slowly running down like held-back tears.

The teabowl is emptied and dried. The uneven glaze ripples across the circumference of its interior. It appears as a mighty mountain range surrounding the center, save for where one will eventually drink from, where the tea will climb up the side. An interrupted chain, breaking, building, abating to the crashing of the now like a wave upon the shore.

Nine rough spur-marks appear from the center where once another bowl had been stacked upon this one, each packed within the belly of a kiln, burned and born from the fire. How many countless beings had been destroyed in the passage? How many more have been broken in the service to others? By uncaring hands?

I lift the first of three scoops of green tea from the open natsume and place it in the bowl’s open center. Two more follow it.

A small mound is made and broken by the sigil of my school.

The remaining dust is tapped off and whatever still clings to the tip of the chashaku is carried over to sit upon the lid of the tea container.

Cool water is drawn from the deep green interior of the mizusashi and poured into the steaming mouth of the chagama. The hiss of the boiling kettle quiets as warm water is drawn forth and placed into the chawan. Bright green tea powder lifts upwards, floating on the surface, slowly becoming saturated by the water, and sinks.

I lift the chasen and slowly press it into the center of the pool of tea. With one hand I stabilize the bowl and begin to whisk, at first slowly, speeding up until it is a quick back and forth movement. My eyes focus on the chawan, on the water lapping against the inner edges of the bowl, on the mixing of the tea and hot water, on the size of the bubbles forming as the concoction turns into foam.

The mind focuses. The hand motions slow. The breath becomes more even and calm. One long out-breath. One long weight pressing down upon the chest. Exhale. Inhale. The joy of breath. The sadness that comes when one realizes how vital this is to life. How often individuals are robbed of this breath. Of this very moment they were given.

I offer up the bowl of tea to my partner. A simple gesture. A bowl for peace. A bowl for change. As a wordless lament.

Bubbles rise again from the iron chagama as the last of the tea is had. Small pools of foam still clinging to the interior of the chawan. The warmth of the tea still present. The heat still radiating from the clay of the teabowl until it slowly leaves the body. The flavor lingers. The scent wafting sweet like the blossom on a honeysuckle vine.

I draw forth a ladle of cool water from the mizusashi and pour it down into the center of the bowl. The last of the tea swirling around. Small granules of 抹茶 matcha sinking and rolling down to the lowest part of the concave form. Light shimmers and bends in the water.

Memories of a moment pass and bend with time. Distortion and a great forgetting can occur if we don’t steal moments away like this. If we don’t actively take back the time that is so eagerly pulled away from us by work, by leaders, by taxes, by expectations. Each moment, priceless and fleeting. As mundane as today. As special as Spring turning into Summer. A kind of magic. Inexplicable.

I use the whisk and cleanse the bowl once more. I and my partner inspect the rough-hewn 高台 kōdai hoping to learn something profound.

I wipe the remnants of tea powder of the chashaku. I arrange the wares inside the bowl once again, though their exact placement differs now.

The wooden natsume is placed beside the teabowl, side-by-side like two old friends. They may only meet once this year. This early Summer.

I decide for a small 拝見 haiken. Words don’t pass my lips. The objects assembled are just that, objects. This practice called 茶の湯 chanoyu. This Way called “tea”.

This dust we whisk into a bright, light foam. Will this change the world? Will this moment do anything to change the tide?

A wave crashes against the shore. A tiny rivulet presses through the mountain’s rock.

A tree expands in size throughout the course of a year. Dried-up blossoms rotting in the gutter. Large leaves billowing in the wind.

A subtle change. A mighty force to be reckoned with.

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

The Peony Blooms, The Bowl Widens, The Furo is First Used

Bright cloudless skies hang over head. Grass pushes up through earth in the fields. The first heat of early Summer hangs in the air. Over the weekend, I escaped to the countryside to see all of this unfold before my eyes. Nature in full transition. The constant force. Coming home, I carried this feeling with me. A souvenir. An お土産 omiyage. Something brought back, special to a particular place.

As I walked the streets of my urban neighborhood, however, early Summer was still there. Lush green leaves on the maple trees. Mugwort growing tall in the shadows cast by fences. A burst of color as the tree peony blossoms (牡丹 botan) in the city gardens. All telltale signs that Summer has arrived.

For me, all this subtle change produced an upwelling of desire to make a bowl of tea. As is the custom for practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the “tea year” begins with the beginning of early Summer. Akin to a flower beginning to bloom, the energy of this time is on the rise, not yet cresting with the oppressive heat of the season, nor waning with the slow retreat and cool of Autumn.

Reflecting this, 茶人 chajin shift from using the sunken hearth (炉 ro) of the colder months and begin to use the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. To observe this major shift, both in the technology used in the tearoom, as well as with the arrangement of the tearoom itself (as the hearth is closed (炉塞ぎ rofusagi) and the 畳 tatami are shifted), a special gathering to mark first use of the furo is held, 初風炉 sho-buro.

In keeping with this change, I adjust my 取り合わせ toriawase, bringing wares into the tearoom that reflect the fresh feeling of early Summer. In my 床間 tokonoma, I hang a scroll with light cursive calligraphy reflecting upon the coming of Summer. Below this, I place a small wooden incense container (香合 kōgō), inside of which is kept small cut pieces of 沈香 jinkō, the fragrance I am featuring in my sitting.

Below my tearoom window I have set my antique bronze furo, atop which sits its paired iron 茶釜 chagama, wisps of steam rising from the small gap between the mouth and lid.

Beside this is the 水指 mizusashi. Sitting before this, a small 文淋茶入 bunrin chaire. Before I prepare tea, I meditate for a moment, to listen to the sound of the kettle and to appreciate the dim light that filters through the rough hempen shades of my tearoom window. The heat of the kettle is soft, mingling with the heat of the day.

I leave the tearoom and return with my additional tea equipage.

I set the teabowl down and the chaire before it.

Slowly I untie the braided silk cord from the brocaded 仕服 shifuku, spangled in a motif of shimmering tree peonies against a sky blue field. I remove the chaire from the silk pouch and cleanse its glazed exterior with my 袱紗 fukusa.

Next I turn to the assembled implements with the teabowl.

I purify the 茶杓 chashaku, pinching it between the folds of the fukusa, cleansing the handle and curved scoop, placing it atop the lid of the chaire once cleansed.

I then lift the 茶筅 chasen out of the bowl, placing it next to the chaire.

I bring the teabowl closer to me and remove the 茶巾 chakin twisting it above the open mouth of the 建水 kensui that rests beside my left knee. I unfold it and refold it, placing it momentarily on the lid of the mizusashi.

I lift the 柄杓 hishaku off from the tiny porcelain plinth of the 蓋置 futaoki. With hishaku in my left hand and chakin in right, I lift the lid from the chagama. Steam rises steadily from the mouth of the kettle. The sound of the bubbling water breaking the silence of the tearoom. I place the bronze lid atop the futaoki and folded chakin atop the lid.

Passing hishaku from left hand to right, I draw a ladle’s worth of water from the kettle and pour it mindfully into teabowl. I press the chasen into the hot water. The tines slowly expand outward. Once cleansed, I return the whisk back next to the chaire, and pour the hot water out into the kensui. I wait for the water to drain completely from the teabowl, save for a final drop, which I catch with the chakin.

Now clean, I sit for a moment to appreciate the teabowl. Brushstrokes of glaze against the uneven, crackled surface of a white 刷毛目唐津茶碗 hakeme Karatsu chawan. Refreshing now, knowing that Summer’s heat will come in the weeks and months ahead.

From the chaire, I remove three scoops of 抹茶 matcha, placing each in the center of the bowl.

I place the chashaku along the rim of the chawan.

With both hands, I lift the tiny tea container and empty it of the remaining tea, allowing it to cascade and fall into the chawan, creating a loose mound of bright tea powder.

In order to make the first bowl of 濃茶 koicha of the new year in tea, I pull forth a ladle of hot water from the kettle, pouring only a small measure of this into the chawan, returning the remainder back to the chagama.

The hot water pools around the edges of the tea, producing a small island of matcha amidst a emerald sea.

I bring the chasen down into the teabowl and slowly begin to work the tea into a thick paste. As the tea powder begins to bind with the water, the intense aroma of freshly ground green tea begins to rise, filling the tearoom, overcoming the lingering scent of aloeswood. I add an additional measure of hot water and continue to slowly, methodically whisk the tea. Back and forth, in a rhythmic manner. My hand slowly whisking. My breath keeping pace. Slowly the tea transforms into a slick opaque liquid. It is ready to consume.

I sit for a moment, having placed the chasen back beside the chaire, its tines coated in a thick layer of tea.

I stare down at the bowl of koicha. The dark green of the matcha looking back up at me.

In this pause, I hear the wind outside my window. Birds singing. Trees swaying. Even though I do not see the indicators of Summer, I can sense them.

I stare down into the bowl. The koicha appears like a void, like a mirror reflecting back at me. Does this reflect the future? The season that is due to come? The moment that is near to end? How to sum up a period of time so brief as a bowl of tea. Thousands of moments have I now had like this. The breath before I sip. The sensation of the tea changing my heart and mind. A feeling of being part of some sort of indescribable transformation. How a peony blooms. How we drink from a wider bowl as Summer nears. How the ro is closed and the furo is welcomed into the tearoom.

In this moment I quiet the mind and raise the bowl. I turn it ninety degrees so as not to drink from its 正面 shōmen and take the first sip. The flavor instantly washes over me. I pause and sip again. The flavor deepens. One more sip and I watch the tea pull from the center of the chawan down to the rim and into my mouth.

As I place the bowl before me once more, I see how time, gravity, my own production have played out over the crazed and crackled surface of the teabowl.

White brushstrokes of glaze. Grey streaks of clay beneath it. Tea. Steam. Sunlight filtering through the woven blinds. This moment caught in the empty space of the teabowl.

I cleanse the bowl, the whisk, the chashaku. I set each object to the side. Hishaku atop the kensui. Futaoki set below.

I produce an antique 香盆 kōbon upon which I set the chaire, chashaku and shifuku for 拝見 haiken. Light extends across into the tokonoma. I observe how light plays across the ceramic surface of the chaire. How colors and tones emerge as the day’s light grows.

How the grain of the chashaku feels warm.

How the silk of the shifuku is refreshing. A peony blooms across its brocaded expanse.

Leaves and blossoms, twisting and curling, billowing over the empty volume and undulating into the gathered folds. The kettle hums and the scent of aloeswood returns. Early Summer has arrived and the furo is welcomed back into the tearoom.

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