It’s been a while since I last sat down to commit my thoughts to writing. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. Soon enough, late Autumn turned to early Winter, and now it’s the midpoint through 小寒 Shōkan, “Minor Cold” in the old lunisolar calendar. 2023 has begun, but the new year has yet to come and the first murmurs of Spring won’t arrive until a month from now.
In this pause, much has happened. To call it a pause is perhaps to diminish the past months in a way that could allow for it to be easily forgotten. Perhaps, when reading this entry, the gap may allude to a time period of no importance. Alas, even in the silence of a meditation or the quiet before daybreak, there is much activity in the mind and in the world around us. A world of preparation, preparation for a new year and for a new life.
For these past months, my partner and I have been preparing for our first born child to enter the world. As her partner, this has placed me in the support role, tending to her comfort and needs. As parents to be, this has also meant preparing our house for the arrival of our baby, making sure that our daughter-to-be will feel safe, supported, and empowered within her new environment. The creation of “home” feels palpable as it comes into realization.
As a tea person, I can’t help but to draw parallels between this preparation and the measures taken to ensure that a good 茶事 chaji (tea gathering) will occur. The inviting of the guests, the preparation of the 茶道具 chadōgu (wares, lit. “implements for the Way of tea”), the cleaning and setting of the tearoom, and sweeping and arranging of the 露地 roji (the tea garden, lit. “dewy path”). A myriad of tasks must occur before one brings one’s guest into their inner tea space, a setting where both host and guest will have the opportunity to commune and make a lasting and profound connection to one another and to the moment they both share through the making of a bowl of tea.
Similarly, as the new year soon arrives on the traditional lunisolar calendar, preparations must occur as well. In the coming weeks, I hope to host an informal 初釜 hatsugama at my home with a small number of close friends as my guests. Much as I do with the constant thoughts of my not-yet-born daughter and the current needs of my partner, I find myself wondering about what my invited guests may need, how can I ensure their comfort, and what must I do to make sure that they have a meaningful experience.
While all of this is a lot to take in, the garden outside remains in total hibernation. The leaves of my poor tea plants either shine like sparkling emerald-hued lacquer or have shrunk in the bitter cold of the season. Their current state is a reminder for me to remain focused on the present moment. Spring will come, but one must remain aware that we are still living through Winter. It is time to conserve one’s energy.
Noting the cold in my tea studio space, I draw my linen curtains closed. The light of the room changes and warms as the low sunlight of the morning filters through the soft undulations of fabric. I pour cool water into my 鉄瓶 tetsubin and wait until it warms and boils.
A low hiss rises and turns into a single note. To this pleasant tune, I begin to collect teawares and pile fresh-ground 抹茶 matcha into a carved lacquer tea container. While I’ve been better these days with practicing more formal tea preparation, I retreat to a more casual form and opt to make tea in the more relaxed 盆点前 bon temae style.
With items placed upon a circular tray and set down onto the large plank of wood I use as my tea table, I begin to feel more grounded. What I’ve found over the years of practice is that tea affords me a moment to let my mind focus on the task at hand. To set aside my phone, my computer, my digital fetters. To acknowledge my worries and whatever they’ll do as I just sit and make a bowl of tea, either for a friend or loved one or, as I am doing at this instance, for myself.
The movements are simple, straightforward. Objects are set down, at first one next to the other, …
…and then one in front of the next.
The 棗 natsume is cleansed with the folded 袱紗 fukusa, …
…then the 茶杓 chashaku.
The bowl and whisk are wetted and warmed, made pliable by the heat of the water, and readied for their role in making matcha.
In these motions, there is no ceremony, as there is no ceremony in life. There’s just movement, intention, mindful action interspersed with thoughtful pauses. The more one does this over time, perhaps the more fluid and direct the cadence will become. Perhaps not. Regardless, what may look like ritual, rite, ceremony or service is just a means of doing. Preparing a bowl of tea is like this. Preparing for life is like this too.
With bowl warmed and implements cleansed, I lift the chashaku and set the lid of the carved lacquer natsume beside the empty 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan.
The first scoop of matcha is placed into the center of the teabowl, followed by a second and then a third.
As I inscribe a mark into the mound of green tea powder, I note the aroma of fresh tea lifting upwards and wafting towards me.
In breath is followed by out breath, and I tap the residual matcha off the tip of the chashaku against the inner side of the chawan.
As I place the natsume back down upon the tray and the chashaku atop it, I pause for a moment to appreciate the way light and remaining tea dust collects on the rounded edge of tea scoop tip. Like an echo of action or trace of a moment, the matcha powder clings, outlining the form of the 露 tsuyu of the chashaku. A gilded edge to this page in time.
The 茶筅 chasen is placed inside the chawan atop the mound of tea. Water is poured from the tetsubin through the thin tines of the whisk, mixing with the matcha powder, and hanging from the bamboo blades like dew does on grass.
As I center myself and whisk the tea, I remind myself that the tines of this chasen are growing older and weaker with each use. Some of the tips have lost their shape, others have broken over time. Too aggressively whisking the tea might result in more broken tips. Lifting the whisk further out of the bowl and avoiding scratching the well of the chawan can ensure the chasen’s longevity. A lighter touch. A softer grasp. Smoother breathing. Focus.
Finally, whisked and whipped into a foam, I lift the chasen upward and out of the teabowl. Before me sits a single bowl of tea, prepared for myself.
Dim light accentuates the softly rising mound of 薄茶 usucha bubbles that drift atop the surface of the liquid. I catch myself holding my breath, in anticipation for what’s to come. A hatsugama. A new year. My partner’s pregnancy. The birth of our daughter. A new life.
As I bring the bowl to me, lifting it in thanks for this moment of solitude and silence, I’m reminded of Rikyū’s solitary 正月 shōgatsu tea gathering.
It was on the New Year’s morning of 1582 that he made himself a single bowl of “大フク/ofuku” (which can be understood as either 大福茶 obukucha, lit. “great fortune tea”, or 御仏供茶 ōbukucha, lit. “tea offered to the Buddha”). Finding myself on the precipice of so much, anticipating so much, I begin to recognize why Rikyū chose to enjoy a bowl of tea before embarking on a new year in life.
Much like whisking a bowl of tea, you can’t grip life too firmly, nor can you work yourself too hard. Much like the whisk itself, the body and mind breaks under pressure and that which you set out to make will come out rushed and sloppy. What is called for is a lighter grip, a softer touch, smoother breath. A relaxed approach to an otherwise rigorous practice. Solitude. Silence.
The silence I’ve kept these past few months has for a while now hung over me. Sometimes I worry if I am incapable of writing again, or afraid that, by writing, I am just doing so in a performative way. Is a blog entry a product of something more ominous, a dire symptom to a world that measures our existence with social media posts, likes, impressions, and clicks on a page?
In my silence, I sometimes check to see who has been reading my blog. Years ago, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people would read an article a day. Now, maybe one or two. Recently, some days would pass and no one would read my blog. I must admit, I feel a sense of accomplishment knowing this.
But action and inaction, silence and speech, are both two sides of the same coin. Both are a form of doing. Increasingly, my silence has begun to feel like this: something that I have become busy doing.
As I sit and finish drinking my tea, staring down at the foamy dregs that cling to the inside concave of the grey chawan, I realize that it’s my practice to make tea as a means to mark moments in my life. Whether this is a conscious decision or not, the subtle changes in seasons or the more tremendous changes in my life have all been accompanied by an offering of tea.
Perhaps I make tea to stop what I’m doing, to sit and still the mind. But it is foolish to think that this act can stop time or stop the myriad of sensations my mind and body feels. They keep going. Coming as they do and passing onward. With no beginning and no end.
Where is my mind and my heart at this moment as I prepare for the new year?
Footsteps in the snow might mark where we’ve been.
Past writings and old photographs.
Tea clinging to a scoop, moisture caught in a cloth, heat still captured in the ceramic walls of a chawan, in the iron skin of the tetsubin.
But the mind sometimes also imagines a path out ahead. A direction where the next step goes, where the hand is set to grasp the next object, a space to place one thing into or onto the next.
Even when we are silent, there comes a moment before our silence is broken, when our mind forms words, when we anticipate action, when we commit to speech.
It is hard not to get caught in anticipation for what lies ahead of me this year. Trepidation and excitement. Ponderous moments of wondering. My heart and mind at times overflowing with joy, with a complex array of emotions.
Soft light filtering through fabric, through faceted glass, through windows, through treetops, through clouds. Each day growing lighter as Spring approaches. New life promises to push through the cold earth. Even now, before Winter’s coldest days have yet to come, as the last of the springwater still holds its warmth, but for how much longer?
For those who would like to learn more about Rikyū‘s 1582 solitary shōgatsu, I recommend the 2019 translation and article by Adam Sōmu Wojciński, linked here.