Tag Archives: Tea Tastings

Take the Time You Need

Take the time you need. No one will give it to you otherwise.

Take the time you need it takes to boil water. To set out wares for tea. To sit.

Take the time you need to breathe in and to exhale.

Take the time you need to step away from work. To put space between you and your job. Between you and your expectations. Between the expectations you have of others and the expectations others have of you.

Take the time you need to pour boiled water into pot. Boiled water from pot to empty cup. Warmed cup to waste water bowl.

Take the time to sort through leaves, to pick those you want to steep, to place them into the open pot.

Take the time you need to inhale aromas awakening, sense flavors arising, arouse thoughts from a curious mind.

Take the time you need to brew tea leaves. As much time as you need. As much time as the tea likes to steep. As much time you like to sit.

Pour out brewed liquid into cup and take time to ponder how long it will take you to drink it up.

Take the time you need to do all of this. Again and again and again if you need.

Take the time you need to take up space, both here in this world but also in your mind and in your heart.

Take the time you need to stretch out your body, your wanting soul, your unmet desires.

Stretch each thin until opaque becomes transparent and take the time you need to explore each facet of yourself. Of your inner world and outer world. Of your insides and of your surroundings.

Take the time you need. Take all that you can spare. And when you’re done, return back to your day, knowing you’ve given yourself the time you need.

****

Dear Beloved Blog Reader,

Upon publishing this article, I thought I’d offer my afterthoughts on writing my 200th blogpost on Scotttea, which I’ve included below.

Thank you for your support, your feedback, your continued readership.

Thank you,

Scott

“Take the time you need”

Words that kept rattling around in my head.

I have not been on social media for a short bit and I plan not to be on for a while longer. Life, expectations, social and professional demands. These things can push one inwards and, hopefully, allow for an investigation into what truly matters.

Years of being on social media, fighting screen addiction, and fretting daily about am I on too much or too little has come to this. A breath. A long, drawn-out breath. I’ve chosen to just sit with this feeling and to just engage with the act of not acting, not using online life to become a replacement for the real thing.

Hikes in the forests with friends. Sunlight and the warmth of a Summer’s day. The slow growth of gourds in the garden. The sounds of birds in the trees.

I can’t cling to these things but I also can’t capture them and share them the way technology seems to want to promise it can. Can we truly experience these phenomena through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Twitch? Can an hour on YouTube teach you both how to fix your furnace and fix your life?

Will comments and likes, link shares and photo album memories spark the real change we all need to see in our lifetimes? Or, is it a carousel that keeps us spinning, approximating forward motion but amounting to stasis, to stagnation over decades of use and being used?

For all this, I feel like I still have accomplished nothing. Friendships and memories are the jewels drawn from this hard time spent and these I cherish.

200 blogposts on tea. Digital paper and words. Flavors and phantasms. Pictures and poetry about things long passed.

I hope for more meaningful moments. More life not led online. More connection through cups of tea shared, not facilitated through fiber optic cables.

Summer comes but once a year. In our lifetimes, perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll experience enough to count 100. Then where will these Summer’s warm days be? In memories. In the sensations of heat against our skin as we sip from warmed cups of tea. From the feelings of friends and family whom we still can meet.

To do this, all this, we must all take the time we need.

4 Comments

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

A Wednesday Meditation

“Hump Day” is what we call it. A sort of apex or summit we must climb. For those who have a “regular” work week, this day marks the middle of your “stuck-at-work” situation. An equidistant point from weekend to weekend. From freedom to freedom. What if I told you there was a way to freedom that you could get to now? What if the freedom you seek was with you all along?

If you can, find yourself a quiet space. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.

You don’t need to close your eyes. You don’t need to assume a posture. Just rest the body and let the mind wander without judgement, without enforcement. Just observe the mind and your thoughts, just as one observes clouds in the sky, waves on water. Without fixating on one thought or the other.

If you’d like, you can make a cup, or bowl, or pot of tea. I’ll join you.

First, get yourself some clean water. For much of us in this world, this may be the hardest part. If you do have readily available clean water, consider yourself lucky. Privileged.

Set the water within a vessel to boil and just wait in silence and relative inactivity while the water rises in temperature. You may feel like the water in the vessel as it comes to a boil. You may feel your seatedness dissipate into a sense of agitation and unrest until your inner entropy grows and breaks. Or, you may find that, as you meditate, you quiet down, your mind becoming smooth, the once roiling surface of inner activity becomes calm. As the heat rises, so too may your awareness of the moment and space around you. That centeredness you might feel becoming like a soft, gentle hum, similar to the sound water achieves when it is early in its boil. When it is “ripe”.

Rather than use this time to prepare for your next action, for your next meeting, or for readying your accouterments for making tea, just sit with the water until it begins to boil. Not only will this give you the opportunity to listen to the many “stages” water goes through to rise to its boiling temperature, but you might also find that this reduction in any additional activities helps you to focus on the current task at hand. So, until the water boils, just sit. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.

When the water does come to a boil you will know. Depending on your particular elevation, this may mean that you will arise at this moment quickly upon hearing the rolling bubbles upon the water’s surface or need to wait until a few moments afterwards. Regardless, once boiling has been achieved, now should be when you prepare to make tea.

Set up should be quick. If you need more time, consider adding cool water to the now boiling water. Begin with selecting your tea. For me, I’ve chosen a Spring of 2021-picked, semi-wild 작설 Jakseol from Jirisan, Hwagae Valley, gifted to me by a dear friend who sourced the tea for her own tea shop which is located in Insadong, Seoul, South Korea. For you, choose any tea you’d like. It can be a “true tea” (Camellia sinensis/assamica), a tisane, or just something you’d like to brew, whisk, or steep. Regardless, the fact that you have something to enjoy makes you quite lucky. To know what type of tea it is, where it came from, who made it… This is truly a gift if you have this.

Next, with tea ready, find yourself a cup, bowl, or pot.

Since I am making a loose leaf tea, I will use a teapot, with an accompanying water vessel (숙우 sookwoo) and teacup.

If you want to, maybe consider pairing your vessels with the locale and method of where your tea came from.

This might help to brew the tea in the intended manner of its origin.

Otherwise, use what is readily available to you. Do not feel that you have to go too far out of your way to adjust your approach, your wares, or your means. As a meditation, use what is around you, and as little as possible helps.

Before you begin to brew tea, warm the wares. If you are making a bowl of 抹茶 matcha, pour hot water into the bowl and wet the whisk. Roll the bowl in your hands to let the water climb up the inner walls of the bowl. This will help to warm the bowl before use. If you are making a cup of tea, omit the wetting of whisk and simply pour hot water into the cup, again, rolling the water within the cup to let it evenly warm the interior walls. For me, I first pour the hot water into the sookwoo. From sookwoo, I transfer the hot water to the pot. I gently roll the pot to warm its insides and then pour the water into the teacup.

Since I am only using one cup, I pour out the remaining hot water into a waste water bowl that I keep beside me. I will keep the hot water in the cup until I am ready to pour tea into it. Prior to that moment, I will pour out the hot water so as to keep the cup warm for the duration of the tea’s brewing.

With vessels warmed, next comes the tea. For any tea, take a moment to appreciate it in its dried form. Whether it be a bright green mound of matcha powder, a jumble of herbs, a scraggly pile of roots, a compressed cake or brick, or a collection of loose leaves, pause and enjoy the sight of these once-living things.

Think of the care, the preparation, the time, and the effort that went into making these, and to the skill, talent, and choices that contributed to bringing them to you to enjoy today. There may have been many challenges for the people who made the tea. Maybe many obstacles both human-borne and natural that created difficulties. There may have been suffering that occurred. Now as you enjoy the dried tea, think of these. Acknowledge this. Be aware and be gracious.

As you place the tea into the vessel of your choosing, breathe in and inhale the aroma that rises. Heat and moisture act as a catalyst which unlocks tea’s flavors. Even in its minute form, that of condensation and residual heat held upon the surface of the tea vessel, it is enough to “wake” the inner qualities of tea even before it has been steeped. For me, when I employ a teapot to brew tea, I like to lift the pot to my nose and inhale deeply so as to examine the many more subtle flavors that tea has to offer. As I return the pot back down, I like to notice how these flavors change and dissipate over time. This, too, can become a meditation.

Now that your tea has been placed into its vessel you must introduce the element of water in order to produce a tea liqueur. In some practices, this means drawing a measure of hot water from a cauldron with a ladle. In others, it may mean hot water is poured directly from a boiling kettle. For this particular tea and the practice that comes from Korea, it means water must first be poured from kettle to sookwoo and then from sookwoo to teapot. This set of actions allows the water to cool slightly, adjusting it to ensure that the tea’s flavor is less astringent once it has been served.

Upon closing the teapot and beginning the tea’s steeping, wait. If you are whisking a bowl of matcha, whisk and breathe. Regardless of what action you are doing, either waiting in pause or whisking in motion, breathe. Make your inward breath fluid and measured. Make your pause before exhalation steady. Have your outward breath direct and gentle. Have your pause before inhalation focused.

As you wait for your tea to steep, do not worry if it will be too strong or too weak, too bitter or too watery. Rely on your experience, your intuition, your practice and your patience. If you are whisking tea, work gently and without a goal achieving mind. If your practice is to make a thick foam for thin tea (薄茶 usucha), adjust your motions so that this will arise gently. If you are making a bowl of thick tea (濃茶 koicha), work smoothly. Your smooth actions will result in a smooth concoction.

Once you have prepared your cup, bowl, or pot of tea, serve the tea. If you are alone, as was initially prescribed in this meditation, serve yourself. If, during this meditation and as you’ve been preparing your tea, others have gathered, serve them first and then yourself. You’ll find that the act of offering up something you’ve made with care to others can become its own meditation too.

Before you and/or your guest(s) drink the tea you’ve prepared, take a moment to enjoy the color and aroma of the tea.

Look down into your bowl or cup and let the colors and scents come to you. Observe their delicate qualities, and let them soak into you as if you are appreciating a fine piece of art, a beautiful blue sky, a humble stone against a mossy tree. Enjoy its unique qualities and the sensations that arise within as you do this. And then let them go.

As I pour the steeped tea liqueur from my teapot and then (not traditionally) into the sookwoo and then cup, I marvel at its color and escaping aroma. The tea is a beautiful bright golden green. The fragrance is floral and grassy. Even as I sit upon the floor beside my work desk, I feel as if I’m both here in this moment and also transported elsewhere to a place where nature and vitality abound. Having visited the tea farm where this particular tea was made, I imagine that I am there as I enjoy the sight and smell of this tea.

Before I drink the tea, I thank all the various forces that brought me to this moment, to where I can enjoy a cup of tea, even on a busy Wednesday. I am reminded of the many times earlier in my life when I felt that I could not take a moment to meditate, even in its most minute of form. I recall the feeling of being so bound to my work and duties and busyness that I could not even justify to myself to take a moment for myself. I recognize now that I am quite lucky and quite privileged to even be able to take this moment to make tea and hope others, like yourself, can do so too.

Before we drink tea together, across this expanse of space and time, let’s pause once more. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.

Whatever you’ve made, cherish it. Whatever you have come to share with yourself and others, enjoy it. Your time is precious. Once it has passed you will never get it back. No price or currency can replace it. Tea, as I’ve come to know it, is, in a sense, a gift of time. Time to sit and let the water boil. Time to sit and appreciate a piece of nature. A time to sit and steep, to wait and wonder.

We can use this moment to give time to ourselves or share time with others. As we lift our bowl or cup (or pot… if you happen to want to drink directly from it…), let’s not forget the many forces and many choices that come to create this moment.

Sip and enjoy the flavors. Sit and enjoy the time. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.

Now, if you are like me, one cup or bowl of tea may not suffice.

With each subsequent cup of steeped tea, meditate on the waxing and waning of the flavors.

Many whole leaf teas will take two or three or possibly four or five steepings before they begin to express the depths of their flavors. For an aged tea, this may take many more. The true limiting factor to tea, and to any experience, is yourself.

Ask yourself, “Do I have time to take time for myself? Can I continue to be at peace in this moment as I meditate?” Your answer may need to balance the many factors of your work day or your responsibilities. While you have taken a momentary pause to make tea and meditate, remember that meditation should not become a distraction. It should not become something you attach yourself to.

Finishing a meditation is just as important as beginning one. When combined with tea, this may lead to a natural conclusion. The flavor of the tea leaves may fade. You may have served or prepared your final bowl of matcha. At this moment, you should end your meditation.

However, before you do so, consider that, as you began your meditation with the collecting of water in a kettle, brought it to a boil, warmed and cleansed the wares, and placed tea into your tea vessel, concluding your tea meditation and the cleaning and returning of wares should also be part of the meditation. So, just as you did before, breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.

Leaves should be removed from the pot and, as they had been before in their dry form, admired now that they have fully unfurled. If you’ve made matcha, take a moment to enjoy the form of the dregs, of the light dusting of green tea powder still clinging to the tea scoop. Like the leaves, these are the echoes and tracks of the moment that just passed. Of the time and effort you and many before offered to make this all possible.

Cup and pot and sookwoo are wetted, warmed, and then dried accordingly. The pot is left open. The cup placed upside down.

The space is left in a sort of active rest, not abandoned and ignored, but in a state of readiness for the next moment to come. As you end your meditation, consider the state of your mind now. Is it rested? Is it active? Is it ready for the next moment?

Let the breath become the bellwether, let your moments both internal and external be aligned to this as it was when you were making tea. Whether you are whisking a bowl, serving a cup, or brewing a pot, don’t forget this. And remember, too, that while this may be a Wednesday meditation, whenever and wherever you need it, you have it within you to do this again. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Hold. Repeat.

Leave a comment

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

Warm Winter

With the first day of the new year, I find myself wanting to climb a mountain. Ever since moving away from the city, I’ve used these moments of wandering the trails and streams to reset the mind, recalibrate the heart, and refresh the spirit. With the chaotic year that was 2021 now behind me, momentarily losing one’s self within the ramble of woods and ravines feels like closing the door on the world behind me and opening another on what’s to come.

The path, as always, is winding. However, today, it seems noticeably different, shockingly similar to when I last hiked along this trail. This Winter has been warm. Autumn leaves still lay scattered on the forest floor.

Moss.

Lichen.

Ferns and the green leaves of mountain plants still abound.

The water that normally by now would be frozen still cascades and pools as it runs down the carved cut it created over centuries.

Memories of trying to climb this mountain last year return. Memories of ice and snow, of Winter’s lock in frigid torpor. These running headlong against what I see today, which is a forest that is very much awake, very much alive in a warmer time.

As I climb higher, I relish the rare instance I find myself in. While I fear that this weather is somehow linked to the greater warming pattern that our future holds, I cannot help but to find myself enjoying the sight of spiny moss poking up through the rocks…

… of bright yellow mushrooms in bloom…

…of buff and woody shelf fungus climbing up a tree. Simple pleasures found in times of warning. These are for certain demarcators of things to come.

More twists in the trail, more steps up the steep hill, and I find myself back beside my usual waterfall stop. The same rocks and fallen trees welcome me as if it were months ago, still full of energy and color and water surging forth from the recent Winter rains. I sit down upon the wet rocks and spread out a cloth kept in my rucksack. Upon this, I sit a teapot and cup. The sound of water rushing off the rocks. The sound of water pouring from my thermos into the open pot over rolled leaves of 鐵觀音烏龍茶 Tiě guānyīn wūlóngchá. The last of this tea for the first of this year.

Pot closed, I wait and wonder what the year will bring, what the tea will taste like, and what the warm weather will set forth for years to come. The sound of the waterfalls rushing beside me. The occasional chatter of birds and backpackers in the distance. Silence before I pour out the pot into a single red and white cup, pouring out as much as the tiny open vessel can contain.

Golden hues from the tea leaves left against the enameled interior of the 宜興 Yíxìng cup.

Gold and the reflection of the trees above it.

The bare cold trees that stretch skyward against the dull grey expanse. Their branches skeletal against the sky.

Below, copper-colored leaves collect in wetted piles and flat, matted carpets across the forest floor.

Between these two worlds, the river cascading…

…the rock which I sit upon…

…the tiny tea set which is keeping me warm.

With each successive pouring of the pot the tea grows darker, the flavors more complex, shifting from sweet butterscotch to deep notes of incense wood.

Bitterness is there and so too is a lingering complexity that coats my tongue and throat.

In the ancient texts, they note the occurrence of 甘露 gānlù, an auspicious omen, the sweet dew that comes from nature, moisture that clings to leaves, that is said to be a medicine that is far above others to replenish the body and bring immortality.

In tea, it can describe the saliva that is produced on the back sides of the cheeks, that carries the flavor of the tea into the body, that continues to permeate long after the tea is gone (producing the sensation of 回甘 huígān).

My only hope is that this flavor lingers longer as I pack up my bag and head up the mountain, and that this may be a harbinger for a harmonious year to come.

The warm Winter weather makes the trek up the mountain gentler. No footsteps in the snow to mark the way. Instead, an uneven ripple of leaves that runs up the side of the hill points to where others have gone before me, guiding me to the top.

Fallen trees and the forest thins as I get closer to the mountain’s peak.

Toppled limbs and trunks with scarlet veins brought to life and luster in the moisture of the morning.

At summit, I see nothing. Just a blanket of fog across the town and wide river below. The sound of a train in the distance is muffled by the soft lumbering clouds. Thick mist and no vista to speak of.

I’m reminded of the tradition in many East Asian cultures, where upon the first of the new year, people climb mountains to watch the sunrise for the first time, to see its rays of golden glow peek and creep over the horizon. Wishes are made and offered up to the new day on the new year in the hopes that they will come true.

On this first of the year, in the obscurity of the fog and cold clouds, I wish to remain up this mountain a little longer, waiting for Winter’s chill to bite me. On this warm Winter day, I worry for our little planet, for the forces that we don’t yet know. I hope for a better year than the one that has now since passed, and for a better future not yet here.

Leave a comment

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

Once New Tea Seems All the More Older

Today, on this bright December day, the cold that had locked me indoors seems to have warmed, if only momentarily, enough to bring me outside. As the light of the day passes swiftly during these Winter months, I use time outside to close-up my garden for the season, covering the raised beds with tarpaulin, and heaping leaves over my compost mounds to help keep the heat of their decomposition in as the days grow colder.

The sweet scent of the desiccating leaves is wonderful. The rich aroma of dark piled earth beneath them complex, a swirl of vegetation and minerals, roots and mud, rocks and clay. The heat of the turned compost heap lifts in steam like tiny clouds drifting off a mountain’s top in the morning.

I tap off my boots and leave them by the door to my studio. Before I set down to return to my daily work, to my email replies, spreadsheets and presentations, I pour cold spring water into my stainless steel kettle which I’ve had for almost twenty years now.

The click of the polished metal switch. The red glow of electric light that signals “ON”. The hum of energy coupled by the growing noise of water coming to a boil. The rattle of the flapping metal lid.

As water boils, I assemble a tea setting for one. A hand-carved wooden tray from Korea. A 茶船 chá chuán made of 朱泥 zhūní clay. A large 芝麻鍛泥宜興茶壺 zhīma duàn ní Yíxìng cháhú (sesame-colored fortified clay Yíxìng teapot) shaped like a compressed meditation pillow.

The handle atop its lid carved to look like an arch reminiscent of a bridge, reminding me that this pot was gifted to me by a former tea teacher of mine, his knowledge of tea crossing over to me.

I bring out a cup I’ve been favoring ever since Winter arrived. An 鬼萩 Ono-Hagi (“Demon” Hagi) cup by contemporary Japanese ceramicist 山根清玩 Yamane Seigan.

Its foot, rough and unctuous in the hand, splayed in a 切十文字高台 kirijumonji-kōdai (“cross-cut foot”) manner. This I set atop a burl-wood cup rest.

From the kettle, I pour forth a draught of hot water into the clay teapot. The sparkle of water in the late-day sun reflects the ceiling of my studio and my face as I peer down into the wide opening of the warming vessel.

I pour this water into the white glazed tea cup and return the pot to the empty tea boat.

With the bamboo scoop, I arrange a handful of old wild leaves I’d sourced years ago when on a trip up to 南糯山 Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà (ᩈᩥ᩠ᨷᩈ᩠ᩋᨦᨻᩢ᩠ᨶᨶᩣ/西双版纳州).

What were once bright, silvery green leaves of 毛茶 máochá have, over the course of nine years, transformed into darker, more russet curls akin to the fallen leaves I had just been piling against the edge of my garden. Time and the heat of the kettle will only tell how these leaves have fared over the many years they’ve been packed away.

I lift the scoop and tilt it down, letting the twisted leaves fall into the empty and wetted pot. The quiet aroma of this now-aged tea is faint, warm, still grass-like, yet a shadow of its former self.

Water from the kettle poured downward upon these leaves and they tumble and twirl in tiny vortices until they settle on top of themselves, already beginning to show signs of their expansion.

The lid closed, the leaves continue their process of steeping and expelling their flavor, darkening the color of the brewed liqueur in their quiet ecstasy.

As the tea steeps, I pour out the warm water from the waiting cup. As I pause once more, I grip the pot, readying my hand to lift it and pour the first of many cup’s worth of liquid from it.

I place my index finger atop the tiny carved clay bridge that spans the softly beveled lid.

I pinch the uppermost portion of the teapot’s handle between middle finger and thumb. As I lift the pot from the red clay chá chuán, the tiny vessel feels balanced in the hand. Pouring out the brewed tea liqueur feels as natural as holding the pot level.

As tea enters the empty tea cup, the true color of this aged tea is revealed. A bright golden hue. Almost the color the tea would have produced when it was still young. However, as I pause and place the pot back into the tea boat, I begin to sense the fragrance of the tea. Gone are the wild grassy notes of a young 生普洱 shēng pǔ’ěr. Instead, I detect the bittersweet aroma of old, wetted leaves, of clean river stones, of rich, loamy soil.

I lift the cup to my lips and breathe in this aroma one last time before I sip from uneven edge of the thick-glazed teacup. The flavor upon my palate is soft and sweet. Much like the tea’s aroma, its liqueur is complex, earthy, active. Leaves picked in Spring of almost a decade ago still hold their energy. Their large, rumpled surfaces still taste of their natural sugars, their vegetal bodies, their woody branches that they sprung from, the mountain soil from which they were grown.

I am reminded of the bumpy bus ride from 景洪 Jǐnghóng up to the roadside stop to meet tea master Li Shu Lin and his wife Cai. I am reminded of that trek up to their family’s tea farm where we picked leaves and ate rice and chicken and mountain vegetables in the smoke of their ancestral home to the sound of their family singing songs in their local dialect.

Sweet and bittersweet is the tea and these memories. Their home burned down this past year. This tea is a fading hold-out, disappearing more and more I sit down and take moments like this to reminisce and drink a small handful of my woefully small collection I’ve kept stowed away. Still smoky like a young shēng pǔ’ěr but more clear and settled like an older one. Caught somewhere in between. Will it last to be older than this memory I hold onto now? Will it darken to the point that it feels and tastes and smells like the old rich earth that I dug my fingers into as I clamored and climbed up those hills to see the ancient tea trees Master Li kept hidden on his family’s mountainside?

Light from the day stretches across my studio floor and I find my mind buzzing and drunk from the tea I’ve been sipping now for an hour. The kettle rattles some more and I pour another drought from its curved and molded mouth into the clay teapot.

The tea’s color is darker now, like a deep brandy. The leaves, now stretched and unfurled, do not flag in their flavor, but, instead, keep giving, like the memories and knowledge I gained from that first trip I took to visit tea farms in China.

As this year comes closer to its close, once new tea seems all the more older. I, for some reason, do too. 2021, a year that seems to have come and gone, passes like a dangerous beast we have all been hiding from. We, huddled close to the hearth, try to wait it out until it has gone. Clutching close to this moment, to the sweet flavors that this tea reminds me of, the calm this pause brought me now. Will it fade? Or will it grow and become more beautiful and profound, much like these once new, now old, tea leaves have done?

****

Dear Beloved Blog Readers,

If you would like to help fund the recovery of tea master Li Shu Lin’s tea production in Nánnuòshān, in Xīshuāngbǎnnà in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed his family’s home, tea producing facility, and over twenty years-worth of stored and aged tea, please visit the currently ongoing fundraiser set up by So Han Fan of West China Tea. Your support helps to rebuild the home and tea production of Li Shu Lin and his wife and fellow tea master Cai. Anything and everything helps!

Thank you!

Leave a comment

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

Winter’s Sun

Grey slate skies. Birds huddled in brambles and twisted thickets.

Ocher and orange leaves tumbled dead between stones in the path.

Cold wind whips against the thorn vines.

Old green moss caught against the worn walls of my garden shed.

The world creeps closer to its Winter torpor, slowing down until it barely moves. The mountains along the skyline are already dark from the shadows cast by Winter’s sun, which settles shallow against the horizon in this more northern part of the Northern Hemisphere.

Settled in my studio in the early afternoon, I look out upon this vista, a pallid visage of 大雪 Dàxuě (Major Snow), a period that extends from approximately December 7th to December 11th in the traditional lunisolar calendar. Each day, expecting snow. Each day, the birds scavenge hungrily at any scant seed or borrowed insect, searching to eek out a meager existence, to make their way through the coming cold that the depths of Winter will bring. I see this in their speed as they move, against the lumbering backdrop of Winter.

I, in my studio, remain in a seated meditation, made up of only necessary motions, enough to make tea. The kettle I fill with cold water and set within the recess of an old wood and copper brazier.

The long plank of weathered wood I push beside the window to my garden, positioned to appreciate the drab scenery outside.

An old and seasoned 茶船 chá chuán. A cloth. A coin.

Take off my ring and place it beside a bamboo scoop.

Set down a pear-shaped teapot to brew tea within.

A 染付 sometsuke blue-and-white plate to catch excess liquid upon.

Three 宜興 Yíxìng and white porcelain 品茗杯 pǐn míng bēi to enjoy the color, aroma, and flavor of tea from. Three cups. Enough to capture the qualities of tea. Three cups, each enough to contain the universe in its entirety.

The hiss and bubbling of the cast iron kettle comes just as a long stick of incense burns away. The steam rises from the kettle’s spout as a single, twisting column up to the ceiling, dissipating in the cold air of my studio cellar. I lift the lid off from the pear-shaped pot and set it down atop the old coin from two centuries ago.

Into the empty hollow I pour boiled water, heating the air, the clay, the body of the teapot.

On goes the lid. Out goes the water into the three small cups. The clear, clean light of early afternoon catches in the convex and concave of water and cup. The surface tension of the liquid pressing upwards, distorting the small world it captured within it.

As the cups warm and wait, I pull leaves from an old tea tin and place them within the upturned cut bamboo scoop.

Large, dark, twisting leaves of a now-aged 武夷山巖茶 Wǔyíshān yánchá that I left to settle as once they were too strong in taste for casual enjoyment. Now, since eight years passed, I’ll taste them to see how far they’ve come, how much they’ve mellowed, how little they’ve changed.

Even knowing what tea they are escapes me now. The old tin is marked 「大紅袍 」 “Dàhóng páo”, but I wonder if this was just a marketing ploy. Still, the tea smells sweet, the dried leaves still exude a scent of warming spice and of aged citrus peel and smoked salted plum.

The cool light of Winter’s sun makes these leaves look blue and inky. 烏龍 wūlóng seems most fitting in this part of the day and time of year.

, the dark blue-black of a crow’s coat.

lóng, the long, twisting body of a dragon as it climbs out of a thermal vent, billows from a mountain’s pass, or undulates beneath the ocean’s wake or river’s tidal bore.

I lift the scoop and in one motion place tea into open pot. Black leaves disappear into black shadows.

Hot water is poured and fills the once empty vessel. Foam and oils rise and collect against the opening’s edge and settle before I rest the lid back down upon them.

Shrouded in the darkness of the covered pot, the leaves perform their dance, uncurling and untwisting from the many years they’ve been locked motionless by time, by the heat of the charcoal heap, by the choices made by the tea master to produce this type of tea, just a hike’s trip down from the mountain side they were picked and grown.

Only seconds pass, enough to empty the little cups of their clear warm water, and then they’re filled with tea.

One, after the next, receiving a portion from the pot.

Around and ‘round, until each cup is brimming and even in color and taste.

The pot is returned atop the center of the chá chuán. The lid is lifted off and placed, again, upon the old silver coin. The aroma of tea, with notes of incense wood and warming spice rises, whether from cups or pot or both.

The hiss of the kettle beside me. The quiet chatter of birds outside. The low din of an airplane’s roar overhead against the cold, slate grey Winter’s sky. Colors caught in the distance. Sparse leaves still clinging to their single tree branches. Their brethren piled below. Softer blues and purples and browns along the mountain’s edge. The flat green of grass now since met the first of Winter’s snow.

I sit and admire the cold quiet of Winter from the warmer climes of my studio hall. Peering down to enjoy the sight of three tea cups, their surfaces bulging with the abundance of tea they hold. Dark red is the color they contain. Rich and wonderful. The presence of oxidation, the mark of an even and heavier roast, of catechins and polyphenols, of time and the pause I took while the tea was steeping.

I take my time with the first of three cups. Sipping slowly, reading the flavors, colors, and aromas as if they were a good book, a short story that develops quickly but leaves you ponderous as to how it will end. The first and second sip are sharp and full. Spices and aromatic incense woods are there, but so too are the more subtle and sweet notes of aged orange peel, reminiscent of the kind once gifted to me by the mother of a tea merchant I once worked for. She’d place a slice within her pot of 普洱 pǔ’ěr she had imported from China by way of Hong Kong and it would soften the bit the tea had acquired from the heat and the dank moisture of the humid harbor city it had aged in.

One cup,

then two,

then, finally, three.

Each cup a part of the tasting process that is represented in the character 品 pǐn. Sipped and savored until empty again. Empty and ready to be filled with a second and third and fourth steeping of tea. Each an empty canvass upon which the tawny colors of this “Big Red Robe” will be splashed upon. An empty vessel where I can fill my mind with all manner of fleeting visions and fading sensations.

The day grows on and the sunlight grows dimmer. Even at 4pm, the light of the day is as dark as evening was in Autumn. The sun pushes its amber-hued light through the trees, through the twisted branches of an old plum that grows beside my studio door.

Much like the light of day, the tea continues and deepens in its color. Long past its seventh steeping, its liqueur remains dark. The flavors have long since transformed, from spicy and complex to warm and woody, with tones of the charcoal that once dominated its profile years ago when it was first purchased in a tea market in China. Even as the flavor wanes, it still exhibits the qualities of a fine yánchá.

After one final sip before I prepare another steeping, of which number I’ve now since lost count, I breathe out and enjoy the crisp, clean, mineral flavor that continues to linger. The characteristic 巖韻 yányùn (lit. “rock/cliff rhyme”) of the tea is still here. So, too, are the other classic five distinctive qualities found in all great yánchá of Wǔyíshān.

huó, which exudes the liveliness and active flavors that still play upon my palate. 甘 gān, the sweetness of smoked and dried plums that lingers in the back of my throat and space beside the base of my tongue. 清 qīng, found in the clarity of the tea’s liqueur and taste. 香 xiāng, still present in the residual aromatic fragrance that still continues well past the tenth brew. And, finally, 巖骨 yángǔ, the “rock bones” of the tea, as it still has substance and the heartiness akin to eating meat.

For a moment more, I sit, and let the flavors fade. One last draught of hot water is poured out from my kettle. One last chance to taste that which will come forth from these leaves.

I pause for a while and watch the steam rise and dissipate from the open mouth of the teapot. The dull, dim light of late afternoon shining across the flat surface of water.

Lid placed atop the pear-shaped pot, my focus shifts to admire the objects one more time, now caught in the cool light of a Winter’s day.

The gold of my ring still warm.

The grains of the bamboo still soft.

The wide expanse of the old wooden plank I use for a tea table wave-like and wondering. A field upon which the mind can get lost within its many swirls and gentle curves.

Even in the dwindling dusk, the old silver coin sparkles, light reflecting against its worn edges and the condensation left behind by the teapot lid that once rest upon its face.

I lift the teapot once more and pour its contents out, again, between the three small cup. The tea is still there, still giving, not waning like the light of the day; its color dark, instead, like the coming night.

In the quiet of this time I sit in silence. I observe stillness that exists between night and day, as one world fades into another. I look down to enjoy the sight of the empty teapot, its lid resting at an angle atop the open mouth of the cooling clay vessel. This, too, is caught in a moment between action and inaction. In a tenuous stillness of doing and not doing.

Not yet emptied of its tea leaves, not yet cleaned. Not yet boxed up, not yet put away. Not yet forgotten, not yet remembered. Not yet longed for, and not yet brought back for enjoyment. It, like a memory, is caught in a liminal space.

As the light of the sun disappears over the hills beyond my home, I peer from my window up towards the now deep blue sky. A half moon. On its way to fullness. Bright against the bleakness of a season that has yet to fully form. Half way towards realization. All it will take is time.

4 Comments

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

The Sun Shakes Off the Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

I slowly pull the ribbon way. Peel paper apart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water is then poured from sookwoo to teapot.

From teapot to cups.

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

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

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

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

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

Three cups of tea for myself and two unknown guests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cups sit empty, waiting for a second pour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Comments

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.

2 Comments

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

What Welcomes Winter

November began and now seems as if it is almost over. What began as a last stand for Autumn’s glory now seems torn and tattered like the many leaves that still cling to the trees around my tea house. Save for the few maple trees that still hold onto their leaves, the small forest that abuts my wooden hut is bare, wind whips through the branches, whistling sweetly. Mornings are cold. The rain of October is replaced with lighter occasional showers, intermittently broken by bright blue skies of daybreak.

Frost forms. A thin surface of ice covers small pools of rainwater left on the edges of my garden. Bright red rose hips alight the otherwise colorless world. Autumn’s last hydrangeas are dry and brittle. What welcomes Winter are these minute indicators. Not one but all at the same time seem to arrive like a royal retinue, heralding the new season, forcing all beings to bow to Winter’s undeniable influence.

The tea world is not immune to these effects. Everything about the practice shifts at this time. Gone are the regular outings to the river’s edge for an impromptu 野点 nodate. The matchstick partitions and 簾 sudare blinds that once welcomed cool breezes have been folded up and stored away, not to return until Summer’s heat rises. The last of Autumn’s wild grasses are featured in the 床間 tokonoma, but hazel and Winter chrysanthemum seem more appropriate. The tea jar is cut open and the 風炉 furo is finally put away in favor for the 炉 ro. The tiny world of the tearoom becomes all the more intimate as people gather closer to the sunken hearth.

In these times of pandemic, I have only one guest, my partner, and I do not invite friends to share tea. We huddle together in the biting cold on the first day of the tenth lunar month to mark the shift in season. 立冬 Ritto. The first day of Winter on the old lunar calendar. In lieu of having a sunken hearth, I use an old 火鉢 hibachi made from a single burl of paulownia wood. In the makeshift tearoom, it, and the iron kettle set within it, are the only source of heat.

Typically, the opening of the ro (炉開 robiraki or 開炉 kairo) comes sometime between late October to early November, when the presence of Winter is first felt. The 16th century teapractitioner千利休 Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591) took a rather poetic approach, shifting to the 囲炉裏 irori only once the 柚子 yuzu turned color. Others, still, wait for the first day of the tenth lunar month. It was believed that on the tenth (double) hour of the first day of the tenth month (the hour of the boar on the first day of the month of the boar) that it would be safe to transition to a sunken hearth, as this hour was linked to the element water, ensuring a safe use of fire in the house (and tea space). I have chosen to make tea in accordance with this tradition, however, given how cold the day was, I opted to set the time earlier.

Regardless, as we enter the small tea hut, the light remains dim. Steam rises from the kettle, its lid resting at an angle. The sound of the boiling water within it produces a steady hiss, akin to the sound of wind pressing through the small forest.

With the door closed behind us, we spend a brief moment to appreciate a lone dried-out sprig of hydrangea flowers, worn and weathered yet still brilliant and sparkling like silver in the limited light of the tearoom.

As I set down in the position of host and my partner in the position of guest, I offer a bow and tea sweets made of fragrant jelly and sweet chestnut, set atop a large leaf plucked from a nearby maple tree.

Before me sits the 水指 mizusashi and 茶入 chaire enrobed in a silk 私服 shifuku pouch.

Stitched upon the green and gold brocade are the patterns of chrysanthemum and pine. One, the last echoes of Autumn. The other, the fresh arrival of new Winter’s growth. A time of transition.

I move the chaire over to the right and place the tea bowl, 茶筅 chasen and 茶杓 chashaku beside it.

Next, I bring out the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and 蓋置 futaoki, setting these on either side of me.

Preparing tea in the ro season calls for a more intimate arrangement. The 茶碗 chawan and chaire are placed at an angle, set closer to the guest and to the heat of the sunken hearth.

As each object is cleansed, they are set between the mizusashi and kettle, bridging the gap between the source of hot fire and cool water.

The chaire is removed from the shifuku.

The chashaku is placed atop the lid of the tea container.

The chasen is placed beside this.

The chawan is brought closer to the host. Hot water is drawn from the kettle for the first time and poured into the black void of the 黒瀬戸茶碗 kuro Seto chawan. Steam rises and swirls in thin plumes as the water enters and settles into the tea bowl.

I set the flat tines of the chasen into the bowl and for a moment they catch the light that filters through the one window cut into the tearoom. The whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmed. The chasen is returned beside the chaire.

The water is poured from tea bowl to kensui. I pause and wait for the final drop of water to roll out of the chawan before wiping the vessel dry with the 茶巾 chakin.

I return the bowl before me and reach for the chashaku. I bow and motion to my partner to enjoy the sweet as I begin to prepare a bowl of tea. I bring the chaire to my center and remove the lid, placing it beside the tea bowl. I press the curved tip of the chashaku into the opening of the chaire and pull out three scoops of bright 抹茶 matcha powder.

I place the teascoop atop the rim of the chawan. As I tilt the chaire over and pour powdered tea into the tea bowl, I notice how light and shadow play off of one another. The bright green cascade of tea falling into the black bowl. The angled darkness forming from the edges of the chawan and lid of the chaire. The dark skin of the smoky-colored bamboo and the thin layer of tea clinging to it.

I lift the tea container and place the lid back atop it. I pick up the chashaku and mark the mound of tea.

I remove the lid of the iron 茶釜 chagama and pull water from it, pouring a some of the water into the chawan and over the tea and returning the rest to the kettle.

The tea is kneaded slowly with the thick, flat tines of the chasen. Slowly the concoction becomes a thick green paste. Slowly the scent of tea overtakes the aroma of incense, of the decaying leaves outside, of the fresh pine needle buds that brush against the moss-covered roof of the tea hut.

More water is added to the mixture and the tea is, again, slowly whisked until it achieves a mirror-like appearance. Light once again enters the tea bowl, illuminating now the emerald pool of thick tea.

I lift the bowl and place it in front of my partner. A bowl to share, unconventionally, between guest and host. As they lift the bowl and enjoy the first sip, I wait in silence.

As second and third sip are enjoyed, I pick up the last lone tea sweet and eat it before the tea is passed to me.

A single trail of 濃茶 koicha runs up one side of the inner wall of the tea bowl. As I lift and turn the bowl to drink from it, I make sure that I drink beside this track of tea. Slowly, as I tilt the bowl to drink from it, the koicha climbs down from the center. Light from the window bounces off the rounded well of the chawan, off the unctuous layer of tea that lines the vessel, off the minuscule pocks and pores of the black glaze. The tea slowly makes its way to my mouth and soon is gone. All that remains is a thin layer that now coats the bottom of the tea bowl.

With bowl placed once again before me, I opt to make an informal gesture and whisk the remaining tea into a bowl of 薄茶 usucha. Hot water is scooped once again from the chagama and poured into the chawan.

In the swirling steam that emanates from the tea bow, I quickly whisk a bowl of tea for my partner, offering another moment to enjoy the shift from Autumn to Winter, from something somber to something light, unexpected, relaxed. In this transition from furo to ro, the sentiment in the tea space becomes less formal and less constrained.

The ro, itself, was not part of the formal tea room arrangement, only making its way into the emerging practice of tea as the rustic aesthetic of 侘茶 wabicha became more widely adopted. Appropriating, adopting and adapting forms from kitchens, travelers’ inns and hermit huts, the sunken hearth calls host and guest to gather closer, to share the heat, to offer everything that one can muster as what is available becomes more meager in the cold Winter months. To transform the “waste” and dregs of tea as an offering to one’s guest is, itself, a gift during this time. Unconventional but welcomed. Like the ro itself, or, in the case of my makeshift tea hut, an old hibachi.

With the final bowl of tea drunk, I cleanse the bowl one last time. Water is added first from the chagama to the bowl and then poured into the kensui. Next, cool water is drawn from the mizusashi and poured into the chawan. The bowl and chasen are cleansed and placed one inside the other. The chashaku is wiped again with the 服紗 fukusa, removing the residual tea dust from the tip of the tea scoop.

The chaire is moved back to rest in front of the mizusashi. The chawan and collected wares resting within it are placed beside the chaire. A drought of cool water is added to the chagama and the lid is placed atop it.

The mizusashi is closed. The black lacquer lid appears like a dark void, caught in the angular light that beams through the small tearoom.

In the waning moments of the tea gathering, I offer 拝見 haiken to my partner, giving them a final opportunity to appreciate the tea ware and the quiet of the tea space. Each item is purified before presented.

The lid of the chaire and the chaire itself.

The shifuku is plucked from its resting position beside the mizusashi and rearranged to sit beside the chaire it once covered and protected.

Finally, the chashaku is cleaned one last time and placed between the shifuku pouch and tea container.

In the low light of the tearoom each item glows.

The glaze of the small chaire holds an iridescent golden shine.

The shifuku pouch, emblazoned in a tessellated pattern of pine and chrysanthemum, sparkles.

The hazy pattern upon the bamboo skin of chashaku appears like a moon peering through a thick clouds of night. Despite the chill in the air, the light in the tearoom is warm, echoed by the heat that radiates from the simmering kettle.

Objects are returned to the host and the chawan is offered for one last viewing. A kuro Seto tea bowl.

Coated mostly in a black glaze, the texture of which is reminiscent of the dimples surface of citrus skin (柚子黒 yuzu-guro), save for the exposed clay of the foot.

The cut calligraphic mark of the potter, 杉浦芳樹 Sugiura Yoshiki (1915-1982) catches shadow and light.

The imprint of the artist’s life left within the clay, felt by the palm of those who’ve since held his work. The imprint of this moment left in the minds of guest and host, two partners as we endeavor to make a life together amidst the chaos of the world. All set against the ever-changing constant swirl of the seasons, one transitioning into another.

What welcomes Winter is what we see and what we feel. Demarcations on a calendar, one the freezing of the earth, on the chafing colors of the leaves on the trees and on the surface of a citrus’ skin. A hole cut out in the center of a tea space. A void where once the furo sat in Summer. The exchange of one thing for another. Of time. Of things that may no longer return come the next year. Of death and decay. What welcomes Winter now may, indeed, never be seen again, save for the impressions they’ve left on our mind.

Leave a comment

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

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.

6 Comments

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

EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II

Dearly Beloved Readers of Scotttea,

A little over a month ago I led the tea talk and interactive workshop “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”. As part of an ongoing series of tea talks I’ve been leading for over a decade, and a sequel to a talk I gave several years ago, this time I dove even deeper into tea’s history to investigate tea and tea culture during the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Now, as many of us find ourselves sequestered in our homes, under self-quarantine against COVID-19, I want to offer up the video from this tea talk, filmed live at Floating Mountain Tea House in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Only two hours long, consider this video a crash course in ancient tea history as we discuss how tea developed from ancient medicine to lofty beverage, enjoyed by scholars, monks and emperors alike. Using ancient Sòng, as well as antique and contemporary reproductions of Sòng teawares, we’ll go into great detail of how tea during the Song period was prepared.

All 抹茶 mǒchá, unless stated otherwise, was hand-produced and hand-ground in the manner detailed in Sòng period texts, to approximate as closely the look, feel and flavor from this time. For reference, I have provided a list of what we tasted.

• First Tea: Hand-ground semi-wild 白茶 báichá from Fuding, Fujian, China.

• Second “Tea”: Powdered mugwort leaves grown and produced in South Korea.

• Third Tea: Hand-ground 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn grown in the Dongting mountains near Lake Tai, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

• Fourth Tea: Whole leaf 碧螺春 Bì Luó Chūn (brewed for comparative purposes).

• Fifth Tea: Fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha from Uji, Kyōto prefecture, Japan.

For additional insights on this topic, I have linked previous blog posts that discuss tea during the Sòng period:

“Everything for the First Time”

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

“Celebrating Qīxī with Tea Made in the Song Style”

“EXCLUSIVE: History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period”


To view “History in a Bowl of Tea: Tea in the Song Period, Part II”, follow the link above.

For the first talk I delivered on tea in the Song period, please follow this link provided below:

If you are interested in attending or scheduling this tea talk or tea talks like this, please email me at scottttea888@gmail.com.

1 Comment

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