It’s early April. New York City seems like a ghost town. A surreal space, emptied of its occupants. Yet, while the streets are vacant, the flowers are in bloom. The 梅 ume blossoms of March cling to their branches. 桜 sakura burst and the scent of magnolia hangs sweet in the breeze. All above me, a pure crystalline sky. Clouds stretch onward in all directions. An effluence of life emerging in full vigor as Spring continues. Without the world bustling in its typical chaotic way, nature fills the void beautifully.
For me, life goes on within the confines of my New York City apartment, my partner and I adjusting to our new rhythms and daily patterns. Wake and meditate. Tea before a day’s work.
On April 2nd, I prepare for 宗徧忌 Sōhen-ki, the observance of the death of 江戸 Edo period (1603-1868) 茶の湯 chanoyu master and founder of 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū, 山田宗徧 Yamada Sōhen (1627-1708). The process of setting up tea for this becomes a bit of a meditation. While I am a student of Sōhen-ryū, I feel as if I know very little of the founder of my school of tea, save for the anecdotes shared by my teacher; a sort of oral history.
While it is known that he was originally a pupil of 小堀遠州 Kobori Enshū (1579-1647), then (more famously) of 千宗旦 Sen Sōtan (1578–1658), my knowledge of the man remains foggy. Even in his own words, collected in his writings such as the 茶道便蒙抄 Chadō Benmōshō and 利休茶道具図絵 Rikyū Chadōgu Zue, I am left with little more than details. As such, to truly understand who Yamada Sōhen was, I must rely on my own tea practice: forms and philosophy passed down to me, from my teacher, a link to the lineage.
For the observance of Sōhen-ki, I decide to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha for my partner and I to share. For this, I select a 海鼠釉天目茶碗 namako–yū tenmoku chawan (“sea cucumber-glaze” tenmoku teabowl), which I set atop a wooden 天目台 tenmoku-dai. The attitude which I want to preserve is a sense of somber formality.
Paired with this, I select a 文琳茶入 “bunrin” chaire, enrobed in a light blue and silver 仕服 shifuku. The color selection is intentional, in the hopes to harmonize the teaware with the bright blue sky outside my window.
In my 床間 tokonoma, a small flower plucked from a walk in my neighborhood, arranged in a bamboo 花入 hana–ire. Yamada Sōhen was known for crafting bamboo flower containers.
As I sit down to prepare a bowl of tea, I carry in the tenmoku chawan, placing it next to the chaire, which I had placed into the tearoom prior to my partner entering. Next, I carry in the 建水 kensui, 柄杓 hishaku and bamboo 蓋置 futaoki. I bow to my partner and I begin to arrange the teaware to prepare for cleansing. The chawan on its wooden stand is moved between the 茶釜 chagama and 水指 mizusashi.
The chaire is placed in front of the teabowl. I remove the silken shifuku from the chaire in a slow, methodical process.
The silk cord (緒 o) is untied and pulled.
The gathered silk cloth is loosened, and the two sides of the shifuku are pulled down, revealing the chaire inside.
Once removed, the shifuku is placed between the chagama and mizusashi. The chaire, still sitting before the chawan, is moved to sit in front of the mizusashi. Removed from the brocaded fabric, its modest earthen colors accentuate the quality of 侘び wabi, balancing an otherwise formal and refined arrangement.
The 茶杓 chashaku, formal (真 shin), is made of a single cut of cedar.
Once cleansed, it is placed atop the lid of the chaire.
The 茶筅 chasen, made specifically for whisking koicha, is wetted and warmed.
The tenmoku–dai is cleansed.
The tenmoku chawan is emptied with both hands into the kensui and is dried.
Peering deep into the center of the teabowl, I momentarily let my mind explore its inner surface. The uneven undulations of the unctuous glaze. The bright pools of blue and silver against a field of dark brown. In the center, a mirror-like image looking back at me.
I lift the chashaku and bow, offering my partner to have a sweet. From here, I begin to scoop tea from the chaire.
Once three scoops are placed into the center of the teabowl, I set the chashaku down atop the wide wooden flange of the tenmoku–dai.
The tip of the tea scoop covered in a fine dusting of green tea.
I finish by pouring the remaining 抹茶 matcha powder out of the chaire, offering the rest of the tea to be enjoyed.
The neat, tiny heap of tea now appears like a chaotic action captured on the canvas of the once empty vessel.
A small amount of hot water is drawn from the chagama and poured over the matcha powder. With the chasen, I slowly begin to knead the tea and water into a thick green paste. More water is added, pouring over the thick tines of the koicha chasen.
A minute later, I have slowly turned the concoction into something resembling a thick pool of lacquer.
Lifting the teabowl by the tenmoku–dai, I turn towards my partner and offer her the bowl of tea. We bow and she accepts the tea, taking the first sip of koicha. Afterwards, she returns the bowl to me and I finish the thick tea within it. Two trails of tea dregs radiating from the center of the bowl.
I cleanse the chasen with a separate teabowl and remove the remaining tea dust from the chashaku. The chagama is closed and so, too, is the mizusashi.
Finally, I prepare 拝見 haiken.
Without exchanging words, we examine the chaire. Its round shape and uneven brown glaze make it look like a small sparrow huddled against in a tree.
The chashaku, with its curved tip and red wood grain, appears pure, like a 如意 nyoi scepter of a Buddhist priest.
The shifuku, shimmering in the low light of the tearoom, appears like a treasure bag, voluminous in the manner preferred by Sōhen-ryū.
It dawns on me as I sit there peering down upon the assembled 茶道具 chadōgu. These “things”, these little objects. They represent something more than just what they are. They are all vessels of a particular Way. These actions, from the way the hand holds the tea scoop to the method of closing the chagama so to let the lid ring against the mouth of the kettle, producing a sound like a large temple bell, these, too, are part of a particular Way. They all have their origin. They all have a progenitor.
While time may have transformed these into what we see and experience today, there is a source. And yet this, too, is an empty vessel, a conduit through which something more has been transmitted. Is it a teaching through a teacher? Creativity through a person’s mind? Spirit through intention? When the earth slows down. When a pure crystalline sky appears. Clouds stretch onward in all directions. An effluence of life emerging in full vigor as Spring continues.