Tag Archives: Tea Set

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 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

The Skill and Challenge of Love and Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey 분청사기 buncheong-jagi cups from Korea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tea leaves are pulled from the teapot.

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

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

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

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

Clear and Bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth and fifth steepings are sweeter, lighter.

Sixth and seventh are sublime and fleeting.

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

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

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

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Filed under Ceramics, China, Education, Green Tea, Incense, Meditation, Tea, Tea Tasting

Tea in Time of Turmoil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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The Less Said, the Better: Tea in Remembrance of Bashō.

IMG_2514How does one capture the fleeting essence of a moment? How can words sum-up the feeling of an Autumn’s breeze or the surprise of a falling leaf? How can one connect to a world that seems to grow ever more distant each day?

As a practitioner of tea (茶の湯 chanoyu, 功夫茶 gōng fū chá, and others), I grapple with this regularly. In my practice, whether it is the mindful selecting of teawares, tending to my guests, or the silent contemplation of the seasons, my own inability to capture with words the qualities of a moment is both a challenge and a meditation. During this last weekend, I had the opportunity to engage with this as I organized an informal and solitary tea outing in observation of 芭蕉忌 Bashō-ki.

As a memorial day for the 17th century haiku poet 松尾 芭蕉 Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), I was reminded of his terse and oftentimes frank poetry that sought to humble the reader through describing small vignettes of natural, unfettered everyday occurrences. Using poetry as a means to communicate this, Bashō never sought to elevate a moment through flowery words or diversion. His world, existing on the edge of society and often caught in a melancholic state, summed up, with seventeen syllables alone, the dirt and the dead, the evanescence of Spring’s bright flowers and Autumn’s falling leaves. Always there was change and, always, was the ego in the state of exposing itself.

IMG_2515As I set forth from my apartment to settle underneath a stone arch and maple tree on a brisk mid-October’s day, I brought with me as much and as little as I could hold in my small woven grass tea basket. Limited by the size of the basket, I chose to look upon this moment in the same way Bashō might have composed a haiku. Five-seven-five. The confines of a haiku. Within this can exist an entire universe. Thus, this small box, placed upon the broad expanse of a brocaded cloth, was itself a tiny and infinite universe.

IMG_2510Opened, I looked upon a world of opportunities. A fine 茶杓 chashaku, a deep purple 袱紗 fukusa, an antique ink brush washing pot that will double as a 振出 furidashi, a travel 茶筅 chasen contained in a bamboo tube.

76B8C80E-5EB2-49EA-B62A-44366EF81D57Removing these reveals even more layers. As I unwrap each object, a scene unfolds.

1554EE9D-B412-446A-89E3-D6AB7476AC2FA cloth emblazoned with red and white 紅葉 momiji conceals a hidden jewel.

0EADE223-F1CF-4C9B-9F42-F420F5356905An old lacquer 棗 natsume with a simple 壺 tsubo motif.

177D79A0-9BD6-4CB2-A7FA-A612D337BB7CA small dark red 茶碗 chawan.

D38E98C2-D58D-4992-9B41-0AA7F65E9391A monk’s old wooden eating bowl.

A863EB7F-AC34-4C3F-B295-04E71C3DE516In the shifting breezes of the daytime, I began to arrange the objects in front of me. Tea container and tea whisk. Chasen and chawan. Each were purified before I began to make tea.

F9EC0BAE-343A-4233-AFBA-A02EA474A225As I moved through these wordless motions, a passerby walked by and I invited them to join me. Curious, they asked about the unusual furidashi. Upon describing its use and origin, I removed its lid and tapped-out three red 枸杞 góuqǐ (goji berries) onto a curled maple leaf.

D1D3B351-ACEB-46F3-B671-CB55704A72D1As they enjoyed the dried fruit, I began to make them a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Lifting three scoops of 抹茶 matcha powder from the natsume, I became highly aware of the shifting winds. Small flecks of matcha powder blew off each tiny mound I placed into the center of the bowl.

IMG_2511Resting the small bamboo chasen atop the small hill of tea, I then poured a thin stream of hot water from my thermos into the teabowl.

IMG_2512The soft scent of Fall leaves mingled with the bright aroma of tea. As I whisked the tea, leaves continued to blow around both me and my guest. Gusts of wind moved a collection of idle leaves around the brocaded tea cloth, floating and spinning as if caught in a dance.

344A4DCD-B69F-4E0F-8AD8-A43A4CD87966As they settled I lifted the whisk from the teabowl and for a moment we enjoyed the silent vignette of a bowl of tea and fallen leaves. How these told us of the changing season. How this moment spoke volumes. How a tiny bowl of tea captured a wordless dialogue between host and guest.

IMG_2517In both the practice of tea and in the works of Bashō, one is offered the opportunity to merge with the natural world and to forget the self. The leaves. The trees. The sound of water collecting in the wooden 建水 kensui. The feeling of wind fluttering against one’s sleeves. With nothing elaborate present, the mind has nothing to cling to. Straight-forward words. A humble bowl of tea. We can read into each a freedom that is gained when we unhinge ourselves from our egoic mind, accepting things as they truly are. In Japanese, this may be called 無我 muga, an act of self-renunciation.

IMG_2516In this moment, on this brisk mid-October day, two minds connect, tea is shared, and something unspoken is understood. The less said, the better.

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

Tea on a Rainy Day

IMG_2257There’s something about a cold, rainy October day that inspires me to want to make tea. The crisp air, grey skies, the sound of rain hitting against the window of my tearoom. All of this seems to come together and quiet the mind. Brewing tea seems to naturally follow.

Rain is not always ideal for tea. I can remember when I made my first trip to a tea farm, I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was climbing Jirisan, one of Korea’s oldest tea-producing regions. As I clamored towards a tea master’s home, I was told that no tea was being harvested that day. “Good tea,” the tea master informed me, “was not picked on rainy days.” Rather than witness tea picking and processing, the master sat me down and prepared for me a delicious cup of tea. Rainy days were, as it turned out, perfect days for enjoying tea.

IMG_2334As I sit in my tearoom, enjoying my forced sequestering due to inclement weather outside, I’m reminded of this early tea memory. Inspired, I set my large iron kettle to boil and pull forth a small, tea-filled celadon 香合 kōgō, itself a reproduction ancient Korean 고려/高麗 Goryeo period (918-1392) inlay celadon container.

4C87D024-9041-46AF-83E1-CC78E4BA6344Setting this aside with a cut bamboo teascoop, I put together a traditional set of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi tea ceramics: three small teacups, a side-handle teapot, and a 숙우 sookwoo. Like the rain outside my window, the there is a certain rhythm to the preparation of Korean tea.

IMG_2335First, water is brought to the perfect “ripeness”, indicated by it coming from an audible rolling boil to a quiet, energetic simmer. Once achieved, a small amount is scooped out from the kettle with a lacquered gourd.

D53124A4-11EA-40F1-AC32-188374862F3FFrom the gourd, the water is poured into the sookwoo. I pause and let the water warm the open vessel.

7EA07296-CCFF-4ABA-BE67-AE9158C16694The lid of the teapot is removed and the hot water is transferred from the sookwoo into the teapot. As the teapot warms, I once again pour water into the sookwoo. I wait for a brief moment and then water is poured from teapot to teacups.

B9EDDEA1-F5AF-425E-8755-8EE3750012D1As the cups warm, I open the wide lid of the celadon kōgō and I carefully place the long, dark, wiry leaves of a semi-oxidized 발효차 balhyocha atop the concave side of the bamboo tea scoop.

A9B8082C-2E60-4E4B-BEA1-76B40CDF1609The leaves are then placed into the warmed teapot.

08BEC89B-3688-4F44-9A1D-DAC6BA0E8ECAWith every inward action, I breathe in. With every outward action, I exhale out. As I reach down to the sookwoo, I exhale. I inhale as I lift it towards my center. With a drawn out exhalation, I pour the water into the teapot. I pause and inhale. As I set the sookwoo down, I exhale. As I draw the lid of the teapot inward towards me, I inhale, enjoying the warm, fleeting aroma of the balhyocha.

FCF370D5-0155-4C04-90DF-A733BD9B8930As I exhale, I gently place the small grey ceramic lid atop the opening of teapot. I wait and, as I do so, I hear the sound of rain growing louder. As the rhythm of the rain quickens, I bring each teacup towards me and empty the warm water from them. This, in turn, echoes the sound of water outside, bright and refreshing.

IMG_2341Once emptied and placed back onto the wooden tea table, I reach back to grasp the teapot, pouring its contents into the now vacant teacups.

54D34264-ED92-43FB-8775-ED6F6DAE888DLifting the lid from the teapot, I let the tea leaves cool, enjoying, yet again, their aroma, this time transformed by the passing of time and the sustained heat of their brewing.

6FDDCE99-5A86-46BA-841F-E787FF039F3CWith the sound of the storm keeping steady outside my window, I sit and quietly admire the color of the first steeping and the quietness of the boiling water as it once again reaches its perfect ripeness.

IMG_2339One steeping turns to two, two into a third, and then countless more. The rich amber hue of the first brew deepens with the second and continues to darken with the third and fourth. The earthy and organic notes of boiled chestnut and baked apples evolve into bright, high tones of raw honey and the sweet pith of roasted pumpkin, eventually quieting into a subtler and more elusive flavor akin to aromatic pine resin.

IMG_2336All said, I exhaust myself before I exhaust the tea and as the storm lifts, I empty the teapot to view the leaves, still warm and steaming. What were once thin, twisted spindles have since unfurled into uniformly russet leaves.

IMG_2337Like the storm that passed and the rain that presided over much of my day, the tea may be done, though its sweet memory and complex flavors still linger. I am left only to wait for another rainy day.

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