Tag Archives: Tea Practice

Major Cold: Looking Down the Long, Dark Tunnel of Winter

It is late January and, by now, many of us begin to anticipate the warmth of Spring. However, as nature would have it, the coldest days of Winter are finally upon us. In the interim, between the New Year of the Gregorian calendar and before the New Year of the traditional lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the period of what is called 大寒 Daikan in Japanese (Dàhán in Mandarin), “Major Cold”, begins.

Extending from January 20th to February 3rd (changing slightly depending on the given year), this time sees the most extreme point of Winter’s chill, with winds that are wild and biting, the earth frozen and solid, and the ice ever-present. In the world of tea, practitioners of 茶の湯 chanoyu take heart and double-down on their commitment to live according to Rikyū’s old adage, “in the Summer suggest coolness, in Winter, warmth”. So dedicated to this latter notion are tea people that all manner of accommodations are made to ensure that the guests’ needs for warmth are met.

Warm water with ginger is often served to the guests as they wait to enter the tearoom. More charcoal may be added to the 炉 ro to boil the water and heat the tea space. Even the type of teaware used is adjusted to increase the warmth of the tea. It is during this time of year that the host will bring out the 筒茶碗 tsutsuchawan.

Named for its distinctive “tube-like” shape, the tsutsuchawan casts a visually different form in the tearoom when compared to the typical shape of the teabowl. Comprising of a vessel that is taller than it is wide, the height of the tsutsuchawan ensures that the hot tea made within it remains hot by the moment the guest receives it. Given that traditionally 茶室 chashitsu are constructed out of nothing more than wood, paper, grass, and mud, any means taken to retain heat is vital. Tea was (and still is) a medicine at its core.

As I sit in my own modern (and, frankly, modest) tearoom today, I find myself feeling far from the historical essence of chanoyu. In my New York City apartment, I sit in the artificial warmth of 20th century steam heat. The sound of the radiator seems a constant feature of my Winter-locked life here in the city. In stark contrast, I look out of my window to a world blanketed in a fresh coat of snow. Ice hangs on the eaves and dark grey clouds filter sunlight into a dull glow.

As I bring the water in my antique bronze and iron 茶釜 chagama to a boil, I arrange my teaware. A vintage 備前焼筒茶碗 Bizen-yaki tsutsuchawan.

A small wooden 平棗 hiranatsume lacquered with persimmon juice.

An antique 茶杓 chashaku.

A 茶筅 chasen made of speckled bamboo. Peering out of the darkness of the deep chawan is the white linen 茶巾 chakin, folded in a manner favored in the 裏千家 Urasenke school (a subtle and mindful nod of appreciation to their form as I am a student of 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an).

As I cleanse each item, touching them with the smooth silk cloth of my 袱紗 fukusa or bathing them in the heat of the boiling water, I ready them for their action of making tea. The chashaku is rested atop the natsume. The chakin is removed from the teabowl. The whisk is wetted and warmed. The teabowl is empty and is radiating heat from the water it once held. These actions all have their intention and are supported by the purpose-built wares.

As I scoop tea from the small wooden natsume and place it gently into the center of the teabowl, I feel the heat still held in the clay. Its presence subtly activating the aroma of the fresh 抹茶 matcha powder. The shape of the bowl sends this flavor upwards to me as I pour half a ladle’s-worth of hot water into the chawan. As I whisk the tea, I am mindful to adjust my action to the unique shape of the tsutsuchawan. My movements are tighter, slightly faster, whipping the tea into a light foam.

Pulling the chasen from the teabowl with an upward motion, I see the results of my action: a soft, gentle foam, lustrous like mounding snow. It glows like a wondrous light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

As I sit in the makeshift tearoom of my urban apartment, listening to the wild wind whipping at my window, the sight of trees bending and heaving to the force of nature, I cannot help but to recognize the luxury and, indeed, the privilege I live in. Tea is a luxury. Heat is a luxury. The walls around me and the food in my belly are all a luxury, brought to me, in large part, by a privilege that I alone did not make for myself.

As I set the bowl before me and lift it in thanks for this moment it and my practice has brought me, I let my thoughts on this situation linger. I pause before I lift the bowl to my lips, its heat radiating, the fresh, fragrant liquid within it unavoidable and pleasant. How can I share this solitary bowl of tea with the world around me? How do I share this warmth that I have now during the coldest time of year?

As I sip and empty the tall vessel, watching the final dregs pool and collect within its flat base, no immediate answer comes to me.

As I turn the bowl over to appreciate the rough textures of its 高台 kōdai and to see the carved mark of the potter’s name, I find no reply from the great and boundless universe. To “just make tea” seems to be enough and yet so little. Today, the peace I often find myself having at the end of making a bowl of tea does not seem to arise. Instead, the problems of the world, the problems of privilege, still seem to remain.

As with other forms of meditation, the act of making a bowl of tea is said to be a kind of enlightenment. Alas, it is a misconception that enlightenment brings an air of settled peace or a sense of harmony. In truth, the enlightenment that arises is, instead, no different from the pain and suffering or the joy and exuberance of everyday.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of life, sometimes all we see is the darkness. Sometimes when we look down the long, dark tunnel of a tsutsuchawan, all we see are the final dregs and residue of the tea we’ve finished. It is our practice to see this. It is also our practice to do all we can to make the guest warm, especially when we are living through the coldest days of Winter.

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

A Large Whisk and a Long History: Evolution of the Tea Whisk

It’s mid-January and it already feels like the year is wearing me down. Nations are tipping towards war. My partner’s family are being forced to evacuate their ancestral home in the Philippines due to a volcanic eruption. Climate change continues to cause worldwide calamity. In these dire circumstances, I cannot help but to sit and make tea.

I am reminded of the esoteric 真言律宗 Shingon-Risshū (Shingon-Vinaya sect) ritual held every January 15th at 西大寺 Saidaiji in the ancient capital city of Nara. Called 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki (lit. “big tea made in a grand style”), it involves the serving of a large bowl of tea to the local congregation of temple goers.

Originating during the 鎌倉時代 Kamakura jidai (Kamakura period, 1185–1333) when a Buddhist monk by the name of 叡尊 Eison (1201-1290) offered a bowl of 抹茶 matcha to the deity Hachiman. In this, he also offered tea to the local people. Rather than serve the assembled crowd with a multitude of small bowls, he opted to serve the tea in one large bowl. Today, the practice is said to bring the tea-reciecing guests good fortune and health for the New Year.

Similarly, given that all of the objects for this ritual are equally large (the 茶碗 chawan, the 茶筅 chasen, the 水指 mizusashi, the 棗 natsume, and 茶釜 chagama), it requires great strength and collective assistance to make and drink a bowl of tea. Having seen pictures of this early on in my tea practice, I was amazed at the scale of this, notably the size of the tea whisk, which measured almost a meter in length.

Sitting in my tearoom today, making a single bowl of tea to usher a year of good fortune, I cannot help but to ponder the develop of this piece of tea technology we know as the tea whisk.

Prior to the “official” popularization of whole leaf steeped tea (brought about by the 1391 imperial edict by Ming Emperor 洪武 Hóngwǔ (1328-1398), which declared that 貢茶 gòng chá, tribute tea, would no longer be offered in cake form), tea had largely been enjoyed as a mixture of hot water and powdered tea leaves throughout much of China, Korea, and Japan.

During the Tang period (618-907), compressed tea leaves were crushed and simmered, often brewed along with additional additives such as salt, dried herbs, flowers, and roots. As such, this beverage was more akin to the many medicinal soups that were part of the broader variety of Chinese medicines of the time. It wasn’t until the mid-Tang period that we see recorded the consumption of “tea for tea’s sake”, in such treaties on tea as 陸羽 Lù Yǔ’s (733-804) 茶經 Chá Jīng (760-762). However, tea wouldn’t be whisked until the later 宋 Song period (960-1279).

During this time, tea leaves were picked and processed and then ground down into powder. This powder tea would then be compressed into cake forms (團茶 tuánchá). Prior to brewing, the tea cakes would be broken, pulverized, sifted and powdered, finally being scooped into a tea bowl, where water was added and the tea was stirred from a thick slurry to a drinkable beverage.

Historical writings note that by the mid-Song period, tea was being whisked with a specialized tea scoop (茶匙 cháchí). In his 茶錄 Chá (“Record of Tea”, 1049-1053), 蔡襄 Cài Xiāng wrote that this scoop should be heavy so it can be whisked with force and that it was optimally made with gold, though commonly with silver or iron. Bamboo was deemed to light to achieve the desired results.

By the 1100s, this process had further refined, and so too did the equipage. Emperor 宋徽宗 Sòng Huīzōng described in his 大觀茶論 Dà Guān Chá Lùn (“Treatise on Tea”, 1107) the process and utensils for making a delicate bowl of 抹茶 mǒchá. In this, the stirring stick is replaced by a finely-crafted 茶筅 cháxiǎn (chasen in Japanese).

In the hands of a skilled tea practitioner, a bright, creamy foam would arise, “lustrous like mounding snow”. This refined process was poetically called 點茶 diǎn chá, to “mark the tea”, as more skilled practitioners were famed to have been able to create images in the foam they produced. To aid in this process and achieve the desired suspension of the tea powder, whisks fashioned out of finely splayed bamboo were crafted.

As one part of a wide array of necessary tea equipage, the whisk occasionally appeared in art depicting tea preparation.

A clearer image appears in the 1269 illustrated text 茶具圖贊 Chájù zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”) by 審安老人 Shěnān lǎo rén (Old man Shenan). Here, the whisk is given the poetic name 竺副師 zhú shī (literally translated to “Vice Commander Bamboo”, reflecting twelve “officer” ranks in the Southern Song period, there being twelve objects in the “Pictorial of Tea”). This image seems to depict what Huīzōng noted in his treatise; that the whisk should be made of older bamboo, the tines carved down to fine points like a sword’s blade, to be flexible and strong yet able to remain quiet and manageable when whisking tea.

Concurrently, by the late Southern Song period, we see whisks beginning to take on a form that bears a close resemblance to modern matcha whisks. Evidence of this is found in the ink on silk handscroll painting by Southern Song literati painter 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng (active 1190–1230). In his《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”), Lǐ goes to great length to show the contents of a tradesperson’s cart.

In this, we see a variety of tea ephemera, from ewers and bowls, a small stove and cup holders.

Upon closer inspection, one can see what appears to be a tea whisk.

Though records such as 朱權 Zhū Quán’s 1440 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”) mention that tea continued to be whisked up through the early-to-mid Ming period (1368-1644), the Song-style whisks (and the preparation of whisking powdered tea) eventually disappeared from China as the less complicated approach to brewing whole leaf tea took hold. However, whisked tea and the tea whisk did not disappear completely. Instead, it had made its way to Korean and Japan.

Beginning in the Tang period, Buddhist monks from Korean and Japan travelled to China, returning with learnings, as well as tea seeds and tea wares. From the Song period onward, the whisk began to make its way into both Korea and Japan, eventually influencing their own tea cultures (which were already deeply influenced by earlier Chinese forms). While records and physical artifactual evidence of whisks from these geographic areas or cultures from this period are limited at best, the whisk that was most likely used at this time was most likely similar to that of Song China.

Today, we can find its “distant relative” in the unique tea whisks used in throughout the Japanese archipelago. In Toyama and Niigata prefectures they employ a special “double-whisk” for the whisking of バタバタ茶 batabatacha (a form of powdered post-fermented tea, often serves with salt).

In Okinawa (once the Ryūkū kingdom/琉球王国 Ryūkyū Ōkoku), a larger and more robust bamboo whisk used used for whisking ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha (often made of a mixture of toasted rice and tea, though other versions exist).

Superficially, both the batabatacha and bukubuku whisks bear a close resemblance to the tea whisks described in the Song period.

Both are long and flexible, and both forego the final splaying of the bamboo tines (as seen in the whisk depicted in Lǐ Sōng’s “Huòláng ”. In regards to the batabatacha whisk, this allows for the unique double-whisk form to flex and whip-up a fine foam.

As tea culture continued to evolve, tea and teaware forms evolved too. Japan continued to transform the shape and construction of the chasen until it took on a form that is recognizable today, with a set number of tines (usually ranging from 80 to 100 to 120), often finely carved to thin and flexible tips, splayed apart into two sections (an inner core and outer ring) through weaving thread between the individual tines. However, variations still exist.

In 茶の湯 chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”) and 薄茶 usucha (“thin tea”) call for different types of chasen.

Koicha, because it required the host to “knead” the tea into a thick slurry, calls for a more robust chasen. As a result, the tines of the chasen are fewer (typically often 80 tips, sometimes 60).

Usucha, since it usually requires a faster motion, requires the tines to be more flexible. As a result, the artisan will cut more of them (100-120 tines) and carve them thinner.

However, wider variations occur between different schools and levels of formality they observe, resulting in a wide variety of shapes, styles, lengths, tine count, types of bamboo employed, and ways they are carved and woven.

Smaller, more portable tea whisks are even made to be packed away for traveling tea sets, like this miniature chasen used for 野点 nodate.

So, what does this all mean as I sit to make my own bowl of tea? What does it mean to look upon a tea whisk? It is such a simple and mundane object to a tea practitioner. And yet, it, like everything in this world, has its story, it’s past. There was a person who must have been the first to imagine this. It surely did not invent itself. And yet it changed over time.

Someone must have believed they could refine the shape, the feel of the object in the hand, the way it might sit upwards atop its handle (as we now practice in chanoyu).

Someone must have decided that the whisk would work better if the tines were thinner, more flexible, more resilient to breaking. Someone must have understood that pre-warming the whisk in hot water would make it perform its task with greater ease and grace.

We cannot take this process for granted. Countless creative minds over thousands of years have left their mark on this most mundane of object to produce the transcendent experience we know as tea.

To be able to whisk a bowl of tea is in some way a culmination of this and a continuation of this evolution.

What new discoveries will we make?

What new hidden wonders will arise from our inspired minds. What great fortune will be bestowed upon the next generations from the thoughtfulness of those who currently live upon this tiny planet?

One bowl of tea after another. One more moment to recreate the world.

****

Links to resources and images (which are not my own):

Image of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://www.lmaga.jp/news/2018/01/33827/

Link to video of 大茶盛式 ōchamoroshiki “big tea” at Saidaiji, Nara: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=50DDa4RFpCg

Translation of 大觀茶論 Dà guān chá lùn (“Treatise on Tea”): https://www.globalteahut.org/resources/april16elec.pdf

Wikipedia article about 茶具圖贊 Chájù tú zàn (“Pictorial of Tea”): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorial_of_Tea_Ware

Link to complete and detailed images from 李嵩 Lǐ Sōng’s 《貨郎圖》“Huòláng ” (“Image of a Peddler”): http://www.8mhh.com/2015/0107/20397.shtml#g20397=12

Translation of 茶譜 Chápǔ (“Tea Manual”): http://archive.globalteahut.org/docs/pdf_articles/2017-04/2017-04-a016.pdf

Images and great article about バタバタ茶 batabatacha tea whisk: https://www.google.com/amp/s/japaneseteasommelier.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/batabata-cha-from-toyama/amp/

Image of ぶくぶく茶 bukubukucha tea whisk: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ブクブク茶

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Everything for the First Time

With the beginning of the year, there is a sense of renewal and potential for firsts. The first rays of sunlight cascading over the horizon on New Year’s morning. The first flecks of snow dancing in the grey skies of January’s Winter. The first moment we enjoy time with close friends. The first opportunity we have to truly sit in silence.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, the first gathering for tea is often heralded as a celebratory occasion, as everything from a bowl of tea, a flower in the 床間 tokonoma, the scent of incense wafting in the air is greeted with a renewed sense of freshness, as if the year itself was unfolding before one’s eyes.

For the first gathering, known in chanoyu as 初釜 hatsugama, literally “first kettle”, an atmosphere of freshness is emphasized. Sprigs of new pine often greet the guests as they wait. In the tearoom, long arching branches of green willow rise from a single tube of freshly cut bamboo, tied into a single circular knot, representing the commitment to togetherness and camaraderie in the year to come. For teabowls, often two are offered, one of gold and one of silver, together poetically called 島台 shima-dai, the Isle of Eternal Youth.

For my own hatsugama, I chose not to be so ostentatious. For me, a single black 天目茶碗 tenmoku chawan would do. Serving this atop a wooden 天目台 tenmokudai, I would offer up a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha to my partner, a formal 感謝 kansha, an offering of deep gratitude.

Echoing yet another first, this would be the first time that I would prepare tea in such a manner after a series of focused trainings that I had conducted with my tea teacher. During these sessions, he had meticulously drilled into me the precision of form required to prepare tea with a tenmoku chawan and tenmokudai.

From the way the teabowl is carried into the tearoom to the way that the hand glides over the wide rim of the wooden flange of the three-section tenmokudai when setting it beside the 茶入 chaire, to the cadence adopted between each motion; each have been subtly changed and adjusted, following the instruction of my teacher. As these movements slowly become muscle memory, they open my mind again, as if for the first time, to the great expanse that is the creativity and endless meditation of tea practice.

Uncovering the 茄子 nasu (eggplant-shaped) tea container from its brocaded 仕服 shifuku pouch felt like opening the New Year’s potential.

Once the silken cord was loosened, a weight seemed to have been lifted, a burden unbound.

What emerged was a humble jewel made of mottled ceramic containing just enough tea to share.

Once purified, I set about to cleanse the other tea implements. The 茶杓 chashaku, fashioned out of a piece of 檜 hinoki cypress, was cleansed with my 袱紗 fukusa and placed atop the lid of the chaire. Hot water was pulled forth from my antique iron kettle and poured into the chawan. The 茶筅 chasen was placed into this and allowed to warm.

The tenmokudai was then purified, running the folded edge of my purple silk fukusa first along the rim of the 酸漿 hōzuki (uppermost supporting cup), and then upon the top surface of the wooden flange (羽 hane).

The bowl, itself, was as black as a starless night, save for an oily splash of glaze on its outer surface and for a rim framed in metal. Once clean, it stared up at me like a mirror, like a void.

Into its center, like a crucible, I issued the first scoops of bright green 抹茶 matcha powder.

Next, setting the chashaku upon the flange of the wooden tenmokudai, I emptied the remaining tea into the teabowl.

Tilting the chaire, the matcha cascades downward, collecting into a free-form mound.

Closing the emptied chaire, I place it beside the chasen and set the chashaku once again atop its lid.

Pouring a small amount of hot water atop the tea, I begin to slowly and meticulously knead the concoction of water and powdered tea into a thick paste. Adding an additional measure of water into the bowl, I hold the chasen at an angle with my left hand so as not to let it touch the rim of the teabowl.

This, like many of the silent motions performed in this 点前 temae are a show of deep respect to both the honored guest and to the teaware itself.

Once fully mixed, the tea becomes a flat, opaque material; it, too, mirror-like in its appearance.

Pausing for a brief moment, I allow myself to breathe before I offer the bowl of tea to my partner. For a moment, we both peer upon the collected wares. Together, we wait for one another to respond. I break this pause as my hands meet to lightly grip the right and left edges of the hane of the tenmokudai. Lifting it up and setting it down closer between myself and my guest, I then turn my body to face my partner. Lifting the bowl atop the tenmokudai once more, I set it before my partner and we exchange bows. In this instance, I offer this bowl of koicha completely for her.

Offered in the formal manner using the tenmoku and tenmokudai, it harkens back to an earlier form once practiced during the 宗 Song period (969-1279), when tea was served to scholars, nobles and individuals of high honor atop lacquered stands. In this approach, the bowl is elevated above the dust and clutter of the world and was presented as an offering to one’s longevity, as tea was considered as a healthy elixir. As I offered this bowl of koicha to my partner, the first of the new year, I did so as an offering to her good health and continued vitality.

Finishing the tea, the residue of remaining koicha in the black expanse of the tenmoku chawan’s center appeared as a mere imprint of the passing moment.

As we finished our final pause before closing the early morning gathering, and before we both would part to begin our day of work, I arranged a simple 拝見 haiken of the 茶道具 chadōgu. A tea container in the shape of a small, round eggplant. A tea scoop fashioned from a portion of red-grained hinoki wood. A brocaded silk pouch decorated with chrysanthemums and pine needles. All arranged along the center of an old wooden tray for incense.

And in the alcove, a celadon 香合 kōgō made in the image of a glimmering moon, a reminder of the lunar eclipse, another first for the year.

In a singular moment such as this, we are offered the opportunity to enjoy something as if it were bestowed upon us for the very first time. The heat rising from the kettle. The soft, gentle sound of boiling water contrasting with the gusts of wind pressing through the trees. The bittersweet taste of tea still lingering in one’s senses.

As these moments come and fade, we are reminded that all time is like this. Constantly arising and constantly dying, one moment after the next. What we perceive to be future and past are merely shadows and echoes of what we know as now. One continuous moment. This first kettle for the year. The last dregs of tea. The beginner’s mind found when learning a new and ancient form. Everything for the first time, all the time.

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Forgetting Time

On the final day of the final year of the decade, I find myself not wanting to celebrate in a bombastic manner. In stark contrast to previous years where New Year’s Eve was cause for loud, raucous festivities, my partner and I decided to make the journey from the clamor of New York City to the quietude of rural Delaware and the comfort of a close relative’s home on the banks of the Mispillion River. The attitude here is laid back, calm, pensive. The only thing that seems to shift is the wind that pushes through the pines.

Rather than stress about celebrations, I opt to make a simple bowl of tea for my partner and her aunt to mark the passing of the decade. Wishing to enjoy the waning light of the day, we decide to hold a small tea gathering in the chilly December air.

Upon a small table which has been built out of the scraps of an old wooden fence, I place a simple 盆 bon made of carved burl wood. Atop this are arranged the implements for tea: a vintage 益子焼茶碗 Mashiko-yaki chawan, an old bamboo 茶杓 chashaku, a red and black lacquer 甲赤棗 kōaka natsume.

Angular shadows of the late afternoon and Winter’s sunlight create a shifting landscape across the uneven surface of the old wooden table.

The kōaka natsume, which I tend to only use on days of celebration, looks like a large bright red sun against a pale blue sky.

Once opened, it reveals a low hill of bright green 抹茶 matcha.

As I move from cleansing the lacquered natsume to the implements within the teabowl, I move tea objects around the horizontal plane of the table, from table’s surface to bon.

For my partner’s aunt, who is new to the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, these actions seem as if they are part of some mysterious ritual. However, after the many years I’ve been practicing tea, they are nothing special. My movements are straightforward and direct, without flourish. Nothing fancy. Just enough. Everything I have prepared before, natsume, chashaku, tea whisk and tray are all I need.

The teabowl, the vessel which will convey the tea to my guests, is just that, a vessel. Nothing special.

I draw forth three scoops of matcha from the kōaka natsume, tapping the chashaku along the inside of the teabowl to remove the residual tea powder from its curved tip.

Pouring a measure of hot water from an antique cast iron kettle into the chawan, I whisk the tea into a thick foam.

Passing the bowl to my partner, I pause, listening to the wind pressing through the trees. The soft hum of pine needles shifting in the wind and the sound of an iron bell striking in the distance.

In the last days of the year, we can often feel as if we are working towards some sort of momentous climax. Even more so, we see the end of a decade as some final chapter closing. However, time rarely seems to work this way.

When we make tea, we begin not with the whisking of the tea or the heating of the kettle. It doesn’t even begin when we set up a tea space. Instead, it begins years before this, when we first learn how to make a bowl of tea. Perhaps it begins even earlier, when we first awaken to the mere idea of having tea.

Similarly, the tea gathering does not end when the guest finishes their bowl of matcha nor when the final bow is given between host and guest. It doesn’t seem to ever end. Instead, the tea further seems to meld seamlessly into one’s own tea practice and one’s own life.

Like layers of sand being pushed up, one on top of each other, by the continuous forces of the ocean. There’s no distinguishing between one layer or another. They just create this thing we call a beach, and this is only something that we can immediately perceive. There is much more sand on the bottom of the ocean. Time is rather like this.

We believe we see change and abruptness, and yet, when viewed in its totality, the change is regular, nothing special. We revel and rave at the shifting from one year to another, one decade to another, and yet, this, too, is nothing special.

In the practice of tea, my teacher has told me to learn the forms and then forget the forms. In learning the forms, we forget the self. When we forget the forms, we find that the once perceived barrier between form and self was merely something we had constructed, something we pushed up against. Much like how New Year’s Eve becomes New Year’s Day, this too is 無門関 mumonkan, a “gateless gate”.

When I cleanse the teabowl one last time and we take our last bows, the tea gathering doesn’t end, it merely transforms. When we forget time (年忘れtoshi-wasare, lit. “forgetting time/forgetting the year”), perhaps we can see what we get so worked up about. A year’s end. A decade’s beginning. Nothing special.

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Kettle for the End of the Year

The holidays have arrived and the frenetic running around that has characterized much of December is beginning to show signs of slowing. The weeks of preparation and fretting over the finer details of the festivities and tending to guests have given way to more relaxed improvisation. In this brief lull, we realize that the accumulated burden of seasonal responsibilities and expectations will never be sustainable. As this breaks, it feels like the spirit of enjoyment arrives and we steal short-lived respites amidst our currently busy lives.

In these moments, I find myself longing to be closer to friends and family. My 取り合わせ toriawase reflects this, as I pull together wares that remind me of close connections, new and old. In the final days before the New Year, I hold an intimate 歳暮の釜 seibo no kama (lit. “kettle for the end of the year”). The feeling is relaxed and simple, like the weight of all that has led to this moment has somehow lifted.

With my large antique 茶釜 chagama coming to a boil and the scent of kneaded 練香 nerikō still lingering in the air, I bring into my tiny tearoom the implements for making tea. The teabowl that I select is a smaller contemporary 茶碗 chawan created by 二階堂明弘 Nikaido Akihiro, whom I had the chance to meet earlier this year.

Holding a healthy helping of freshly-ground matcha is a red and black 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer tea container which I’ve now owned for over a decade. As I cleanse this piece with the dark purple silk of my 袱紗 fukusa, I am given the opportunity to closely inspect the layers upon layers of lacquer which have been applied one on top of the other in contrasting intervals of black and red, revealed in the deep cuts carved by the artisan.

Each layer of lacquer can take days, even weeks to stabilize, as it is applied to the object’s surface. As such, the tea container feels like a record of time itself. An abstract calendar marking time. A tree, growing outward, increasing in size layer by layer. Had it not been for the artisan’s elegant carving of the surface, we would only see the bright red surface. Instead, we see its depth, each layer representing the passing of time.

Even the teabowl, with the 茶筅 chasen, 茶巾 chakin, and 茶杓 chashaku, feels like a tiny universe; complex and self contained. Alone, it sits tightly arranged until through the action of preparing a bowl of tea does it explode into a myriad of pieces.

The chashaku, made from a piece of dark bamboo, comes to reside atop the carved surface of the 棗 natsume. The chasen is warmed and cleansed, alongside with the teabowl.

Tea is issued into the chawan and for a brief moment both guest and I ready ourselves for the tasks at hand.

I, marking a secret sigil of my school into the small heap of matcha that sits in the center of the teabowl.

My guest, enjoying slivers of candied 柚子 yuzu which I’ve served atop a small 16th century Korean lacquer dish that had been gifted to me long ago by an antiques collector I’d met in Seoul.

In this dance of objects, people, senses and motions, each have a place. Host and guest sit together, brought in union by their intention to share brief moment and perhaps nothing more. The objects, whether austere or exquisite, serve a purpose as well, with each piece collectively contributing to create a greater whole. If one were absent, the moment may not happen. As water is added to the matcha powder and whisked into a fine foam, the aroma of tea lifts upwards.

Now, too, the eye is drawn to the flecks of residual powdered green tea that still clings to the curled tip of the chashaku that rests again atop the carved lid of the natsume. We marvel in this vignette, something that is utterly spontaneous and happenstance.

As I lift the chasen from the teabowl, a tiny peak floats in the center of the matcha foam.

From this central point, the eye wanders outwards to incorporate other objects in its field of vision. The teabowl. The tea container. The bamboo scoop. The delicate tines of the chasen. Some who sit to enjoy a bowl of tea will become lost in these objects. They will see only the material of the world. The gifts, the glitter, the gloss. The layers of lacquer that have accumulated upon the surface of their life. The weight it places upon them. They may feel this and not even know that it is there.

In this daily practice of making tea, I have learned to offer up a bowl whole-heartedly and let it go. I give myself up to that action, offering everything I can. Practiced over the almost two decades that I’ve been wandering in this path, I cannot recall how many bowls of tea I’ve made. Today I make it for my partner. Tomorrow I may make it for you. Later, I may make a bowl of tea for myself. How many bowls of tea will I have to make until I will, as the late Ram Dass said, “awaken from the illusion of separateness”? When will I as your host and you as my guest make us both a bowl of tea? When will that bowl of tea satisfy us all together?

The last kettle of the year can mean so many things. It is sometimes translated as the 年の暮れ toshi no kure, or a “year’s end”. Conversely, it can also be understood as 行く年 yuku toshi, or the “passing of the year”. In this passing, we see the year die. Yet, in this death, we somehow understand that time continues. One layer of lacquer ends and another is there. The object we perceive has not disappeared. It has, instead, merely grown. We are not sad to see this happen. We do not judge time as harshly as we judge ourselves.

In this last kettle of the year, there is a serenity that arises with time, as responsibilities we once held close now seem to ease. I now look at my guest with a greater sense of ease now that I’ve made them a bowl of tea, and they look upon me in a similar fashion. Any pretension has faded.

After the final dregs of tea have been sipped, we take one last moment to enjoy the sight of the small teabowl. It, too, was lacquered once, though the layers of 漆 urushi it had applied to its surface were burned off in the intense heat of the potter’s kiln. What remains is a rough beauty. A stark contrast to the clean cut lines of the natsume. And, yet, the story it tells is similar in a sense. The journey it has seen is reflected upon its skin. Wrinkled lines collecting on the contours of my cheeks and around the corners of my eyes. A split that runs down the length of my bamboo flower vase grows with time until it, too, will begin to leak water.

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

In the Longest Night, Tea by Candlelight

The arrival of the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the middle of the cold season and a foreshadowing of the year’s close. In the ancient twenty four term lunisolar calendar of East Asia, the Winter Solstice is the twenty second term, 冬至 Dōngzhì (Tōji in Japanese, 동지 Dongji in Korea), literally meaning “Winter’s Extreme”. While this may not represent the coldest moment of Winter (that usually arrives in the middle of January), it does define the extreme point in which the Sun’s rays recede, producing the shortest day and longest of the year.

In celebration of this, my partner and I have decided to hold a small gathering of friends. As the darkness of night begins to roll across the evening sky, we finish our gathering and friend part ways. My partner and I remain and decide to finish the evening with a bowl of 抹茶 matcha which we will share.

Arranging a small setting for tea in our tearoom, we keep things simple: a single 黒瀬戸茶碗 Kuro-Seto chawan, a small 肩衝茶入 katatsuki chaire (“shouldered” tea container) wrapped in a brocaded silk 仕服 shifuku pouch, a 茶杓 chashaku and 茶筅 chasen carved by the Nara-based master craftsperson 谷村丹後 Tanimura Tango.

Gathering in our small tearoom, we are accompanied by the light of one burning candle, set between host and guest. The light it casts creates curious shadows across the serpentine grain of my wooden tea table, producing dynamic bands of light and darkness.

In the shadows, the figures of Silk Road travelers rendered in vibrant golds and purples upon the brocaded shifuku are obscured.

So, too, are the thin tines of the chasen as they descend into the dark abyss of the deep chawan.

Warm wooden tones sit side-by-side the slick surfaces of ceramic glaze. The sudden flicker of the candle sends shadows shifting and scattering, settling once again. Inside the tearoom, silence and sound vacillate as I move through the methodical actions for making tea. The low hiss of the old iron kettle coming to a boil. The movement of water from 柄杓 hishaku to teabowl to 建水 kensui. The cleansing of the chawan to prepare a boil of 濃茶 koicha.

I pause and offer my partner a tea sweet made of tart citrus rind wrapped in 餅mochi, atop which ice-like flecks of crystalline sugar glisten in the candle’s light.

Next, I set about preparing a bowl of koicha. I first draw three scoops of powdered tea from the chaire, followed by pouring the remaining contents out into the teabowl.

A small measure of hot water is issued into the teabowl and I slowly begin to knead the tea into a thick paste. More water is added and I continue to mix water and tea until it reaches just the right consistency.

In the low light of the candle-lit tearoom, one can barely make out the deep emerald green of the koicha against the black of the Kuro-Seto teabowl. I pass the bowl to my partner for her to enjoy the first few sips. She then passes the bowl back to me and I finish the remaining tea.

I take a moment to cleanse the bowl once more so we can admire its form, its dark glaze and its carved 高台 kōdai. Peering into its interior, the pebbled and pocked surface of the teabowl catches every stray beam of light, illuminating the center 茶溜まり chadamari where once a small mound of matcha had once been set.

Turned over, the carved name of the artist appears outlined in shadows.

My partner and I pause once more, enjoying the view of the ink-black sky outside our window, before I begin preparing a final 拝見 haiken.

Set beneath the flickering candlelight, we enjoy what may be the last moment of the year these objects will be seen. In the week in which the Winter Solstice comes and goes, we, too, enter a period of darkness. The days feel short yet each day is filled with activity. We cannot wait for moments when we can find ourselves around those we love, whether they be distant or near.

As with every closing of a tea gathering, we bid farewell to the honored teaware. All that remains is the solitary candle, the light of which too dims with morning’s arrival.

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

In Memories and Here Today: The Flavor of Aged Korean Ddokcha

As we head closer and closer to the end of the decade, marked by decreasing temperatures and the increasing prevalence of ice and snow, I am reminded of the closing of the previous decade.

In the final years of the millennium’s first decade, I found myself at an impasse. Spending a Winter abroad in South Korea while attempting a PhD at UC Berkeley, I was struggling to find balance between the rigors of an academic life and conducting an earnest practice of tea and meditation. Residing in the urban super-metropolis of Seoul during the biting cold of late December, I was often forced to remain indoors.

Initially timid, I eventually began to explore the city, seeking out tea houses and trying to locate a Buddhist temple where I could refine my meditation practice. Located near a temple district, I soon began to wander the antique markets of Insadong. There I found the small traditional tearoom of 삼화령 Sam Hwa Ryung, where owner and tea person Ms. Kim began to teach me about the qualities and diversity of Korean tea, as well as slowly introduce me to her friends, many of whom were local artists and members of nearby Buddhist temples.

Luckily for both my practice in tea and meditation, Ms. Kim introduced me to Misan Sunim, who is both a practitioner of the Korean Way of tea and abbot of the 조계종 Jogye Order of Korean 선 Seon Buddhism. Soon, I was sharing my time between Ms. Kim’s tearoom and visiting Misan Sumin’s temple, learning the forms of tea he practiced alongside with his temple group.

Today, as cold rain runs down the windows of my tearoom, freezing before it can reach the sill, I sit and meditate on this time in my life. How ten years can come and go so quickly. How a lifetime can seem to arrive and still I have yet to fully awaken to it.

Reminded of the gentle guidance and dear friendships of Ms. Kim and Misan Sunim, I pull out the 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea set I had acquired a decade ago. Set against the swirling wood grain of my tea table, the pieces of rustic ceramics look as if they were made of unevenly shaped stone. While all seem in harmony together, individually they retain their own distinctive character.

The 숙우 sookwoo, with its round circumference interrupted by the deliberate pinch of the potter to produce a simple spout.

The patches of grey and white that splash up the sides of the three small teacups.

The intricate network of cracks running along the surface of the once pure white side-handle teapot. How age and use have marked each one of these objects. How they, like me, now bear the testaments of time.

As I slowly warm each piece of teaware, I pull from my tea cabinet a small, citrus-sized object wrapped carefully in handcrafted paper made of mulberry fiber. From this emerges a tightly compressed ball of aged 떡차 ddokcha, gifted to me by Ms. Kim ten years ago. In this time, the tea has darkened. Where once vibrant green tea leaves coiled around one another, today they appear almost black.

Lightly plucking-off a small handful of leaves, I begin to carefully place each into the center of the teapot. I then pour hot water that had been momentarily left to cool in the sookwoo into the teapot, allowing for a brief moment to pass, giving me time to view the tea as it begins to steep.

Placing the lid atop the teapot, I let several minutes pass. In this pause, I do not keep track of time. Instead, I simply breathe, finding an easy and natural rhythm and observe the motions of my mind. The storm outside my tearoom rages and the windows shake against the gusting wind. As I breathe, amidst the clamor, I hear the steam rising from my iron kettle.

Another moment passes and I pour the tea out from my teapot, from one cup to the next and back again, making subtle adjustments to ensure evenness in color and flavor. What is revealed is a deep golden liqueur which catches me by surprise.

Admiring the color for a moment more, I am reminded of the first time I had experienced this style of tea, huddled in the warm wooden and plastered interior of Ms. Kim’s tearoom. Then, as with today, a storm raged outside, and yet the focus remained squarely on tea.

I can remember the dried fruits and traditional sweets she would produce from her tiny kitchen, and the collection of cups and teabowls she had stacked around her. The sound of a kettle and the scent of tea. The texture of worn utensils and a lifetime of practice.

I looked down once again at the teacups neatly arranged, each beaming back at me with the exquisite color brought on by age. “So this is what a decade looks like,” I say to myself and take a first sip.

Soft tones of butterscotch followed by notes of toasted yam and a slight licorice finish. Clean and clear yet with an echo that remains. A bit like a memory. Distant yet perceptible. Still with the capacity to teach me something new, something surprising.

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