Tag Archives: Zen

Preparing for the New Year

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.

https://s68d646eb7163e1a8.jimcontent.com/download/version/1579353605/module/11985784312/name/Rikyu%27s%20Lunar%20New%20Year%20Chanoyu%20-%20Nampō%20Roku.pdf

6 Comments

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

Up the Hill I Go

Up the hill I go,

What mysteries will I find?

Through forest path and bend in road,

The world I’ll leave behind.

A shimmering brook and water’s ebb,

Flow as I take each stride.

The creek’s force stills and causes pause,

To watch sunlight caught inside.

It glows golden like tea I brew,

By thinning waterfall’s catch.

The water roars less and less each year,

Reduced by late Summer’s dry patch.

What will we do when the water’s gone?

Where will the forest go?

In my mind will it reside?

Where will the trees,

the moss,

the lichen grow?

And what of the mysteries that I once found there,

With forest floors dry and bare?

No owls, no raven, no millipede, no salamander’s lair.

Just the hill set against a vast blue sky,

Amidst the hot, dry air.

It makes me sad to sit and think,

Brewing tea just to drink,

What of these memories will I share?

Of the fondness and despair.

Both occur in the wretches of my mind,

Some thoughts familiar,

Some unkind.

When footsteps on paths crossed are covered over,

By dry leaves, by old soil, by new clover.

Then what there will be found?

Nothing, nothing, nothing will abound.

Yet from nothing always arises something new.

Not in my lifetime but perhaps for you.

The next after me who will come,

A hill, a forest, a waterfall, and then some.

A whole world to explore and all their own,

Where the owls, the raven, the millipede, the salamander call their home.

Not in my lifetime but maybe in yours,

Up the hill you’ll go,

Through the forest floors.

And what mysteries you’ll find,

In the forests, those hills, your mind?

2 Comments

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

Summer Rain and a Bowl of Tea

Early August and Summer’s heat peaks. Out in the garden, daylight glows radiant orange, beaming off of the flat broad maple leaves, through skin of squash flowers, through vines that crawl over the wire trellis down onto sunburst tomatoes.

In the high heat of late Summer, 大署 Taisho (Dàshǔ in Mandarin, lit. “Major Heat”), the intense warmth of the day is inescapable. Tea practice, if in the environs of my makeshift tea hut, is limited to the very early mornings or late evenings when the air is cooler and the light is low. Otherwise, I sit by the glass doors of my studio, looking out on the garden, waiting for the inevitable rainstorm to grace me with a momentary respite from the heat.

Summer rain in the Hudson Valley is frequent, so much so that I’ve begun to sense it. Bright sunlight gives way to dark clouds and warm breezes kick up, pushing the canopies of trees in great green tumbles and swirls. Within minutes, a storm can swell and, for a moment, abate the heat of the day.

As I walk and wander through the garden, enjoying vignettes of flowers and foliage, daylight dims and the first drops of rain begin to scatter.

Quickly, I pluck small, ripe fruit from beneath jagged leaves and bring them with me back into my studio space before the downpour begins to swiftly overtake me.

In my studio, the air is sweet with lingering incense. The temperature cool. The smooth surface of the wooden floorboards invite me to sit upon them and set before me an arrangement of objects for tea.

It is an informal affair. The sound of water boiling echoes the sound of rain. The shuffle of my bare feet across the floor and the quiet landing of a lacquer tray upon a flat plank of wood. Tea and teabowl. A clean cloth and utensils of bamboo. A deep breath and I let thoughts and feelings fall away.

The neatly rounded edges of a small 平棗 hira-natsume feel slick in the hand. If left to wander, the plain curving pattern of time-polished wood grain would have me imagine the cool climes of an 縁側 engawa, the kind of enclosed porch I wish my own home had on days like today.

The cream color of the old bowl is welcomed and relaxed.

The soft crazing of the antique glaze feels at ease alongside Summer’s heat and the sudden showers.

I cleanse each object.

I cleanse the bowl.

Hot water from the kettle feels refreshing and cool as it sparkles translucent, catching sunlight as it filters through the rain clouds, through the glass doors of my studio,

…through the thin cut bamboo tines of the wetted 茶筅 chasen.

Even when wiped clean does the old bowl exude freshness. Even as it sits within the wide expanse of the shallow vessel does the white linen 茶巾 chakin feel inviting like a crisp breeze.

Tea is drawn from the wooden caddy and placed down in the center of the bowl where a circle of glaze sits, surrounded by exposed clay where once the bowl had been stacked with others upon it in the kilns of Vietnam perhaps as long ago as the 14th or 15th century.

The bright green mound of freshly sifted tea glows against the soft earthen colors of the old bowl. Three scoops. A sigil is carved.

The 茶杓 chashaku is lightly tapped against the inner edge of the bowl.

Shadows collect in the cool concave.

On the hottest of Summer’s days, I relish when I am given the chance to make a bowl of tea, when I can softly set the whisk’s tines upon the heap of powdered matcha, and delight as I pour water from my kettle down through their spindling structure.

Small beads of water cling to these thin cut tines, resembling drops of dew, glittering jewels. So refreshed I feel upon seeing these that I, perhaps just for a moment, forget the heat of the day and the worries of life. I sometimes struggle not to daydream, caught in the vision of being contained with such a dewdrop.

Hand to chasen, I center myself and whisk the tea. Soon, 抹茶 matcha powder, water, bowl, motion, and breath combine, giving rise to a fine light foam. The shallow bowl cools the tea and, as I lift the whisk, a slight dome rises upwards from the center of the 茶碗 chawan.

Light dims as thunder peals and the sound of rain surrounds me. I pluck a fruit that I’d picked from my garden and remove it from its lantern skin. Tart and sweet akin to the pressed sugar sweets I once savored in tea gatherings long ago.

I pause for a moment and let the flavor of the fruit fade. I observe the time it takes for the sensation to pass. For the light to shift.

For bubbles to burst within the foam that floats upon the tea. I note time in the space it occupied, in the shape of the tea bowl, the cracks in its glaze, the unevenness of its edges.

I breathe and lift the chawan, holding it wide in the palms of my hands. The heat of the tea radiates through the clay and glaze and out onto my skin, and, although warm, the effect it has on my mind is cooling.

I watch as the matcha’s foam crawls down the inner walls of the shallow bowl. Down the cream colored slope of the surface. Down until the ring of exposed clay emerges. Down until the tea reaches my lips.

Three sips is all it takes and then it’s gone, save for a bit of residue that has collected against bubbles and bursts in the glaze.

As the storm outside settles, I cleanse the bowl and objects once more. The bowl is wiped clean and the chasen is set upright as one does in my school during the hottest days of Summer. The scoop is set beside it.

The natsume is moved once more.

Bowl and objects are placed once again atop the lacquered tray. At rest.

Summer rain and a bowl of tea. Shadows collect in concave shallows. Cool comfort and moistened surfaces. The lingering flavor of tea, of fruit from the garden, of fragrance of long faded incense. As Summer’s heat peaks, rain clouds come and cause reason for pause. As they part and the heat rises again, what did we glean from this momentary respite? Was it enough to cool the mind? Is this the first sign of Autumn?

4 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Green Tea, History, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea, Vietnam

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

Warm Winds and a Shallow Bowl

Spring has faded and the first warm days of Summer of the old lunisolar calendar have arrived in the Hudson Valley. Birdsongs peal against the bright blue sky. Rhubarb flowers climb and explode in the garden and I don’t have it in me to cut them down.

Heat rises. So, too, does a wisp of smoke from my incense burner, filling my studio with the soft scent of 伽羅 kyara. The plastered walls and wooden floors remain cold to the touch. How long before these will warm as well and no cool solace will exist until Autumn arrives?

I pour fresh water into my kettle and sit myself down upon the floor before a sliding glass door that looks out onto my garden. Sounds and fresh breezes blow in, mixing with the incense in the air.

As the heat from the kettle grows, I produce a small ceramic container: a celadon jar originally intended for sweets turned tea caddy with a lid made of dried leaves, cork, and thread.

Inside are the tightly rolled leaves of a 大禹嶺高山茶 Dàyǔlǐng gāoshān chá that a friend gifted to me last Winter. Will their flavors be as tightly kept as their leaves are bundled? Or will they open as Summer has here in the river valley I’ve called home for these past few years?

I loosely arrange objects across the wooden plank I use for a tea table. Cloth. 茶船 chá chuán. A vintage 綠泥西施壺 lǜní Xīshī hú. A shallow 青白茶碗 qīngbái cháwǎn from the 宋 Sòng period (960-1279). Objects are kept informal, alluding to the feeling of the day.

I measure out a portion of tea and place it into the hollow of my warmed teapot.

I wait for a moment and watch the sunlight filter through the pines and maples that tower over the garden outside the open door.

Birds cackle and dogs in the distance bark but do not wake mine who sleeps beside my work desk. A relaxed state seems to settle all about me as I wait for the tea to brew.

Pot in hand, I draw it to the wide opening of the shallow teabowl.

With a simple downward tilt of my wrist and the pot and the tea pours effortlessly into the empty vessel. The color of tea is initially bright and clear against the pale blue-green of the qīngbái cháwǎn.

As the liqueur continues to pour, the color deepens and darkens, until jade turns to gold.

The light of the day is caught against the flat surface of the warm liquid. Blue sky against the crystalline tea liqueur.

As I set the teapot back down into the chá chuán and lift the lid off and angle it upon the open top, the distinctive scent of Dàyǔlǐng becomes present. Big, clean, a mixture of fresh vegetation and fragrant magnolia. Even before I let the liquid cross by lips, I feel as if I’ve already slacked my thirst.

As I take the first sip, I am met with minerality. Next, sweetness. Cascades of flavors followed by a pronounced lingering mouthfeel. Dàyǔlǐng is a unique tea.

Often harvested in Winter, the leaves produce a markedly sweet, if not cane sugar-like, flavor, which recede and evolve into notes of fresh greens and flowers that bloom on trees. The feeling left over is soft, buttery, almost chewy. The qualities of this tea meld into the environment of the cool climes of my garden-level studio.

I relax more and, as I do, so too does my brewing style. I let the tea steep longer.

The color, accordingly, darkens.

The liqueur seems to glow as the sunlight does against the trees and the mountains in the distance.

As the day fades, so too does the tea. Countless steepings have pushed this tea to evolve into a calm, crisp elixir. Still holding on to its Wintery sweetness, although, gone is the intense complexity that the first infusions produced.

Early Summer, too, feels this way. Gone are the radical shifts that marked the previous seasons. Gone is the ice and the garden locked with snow. Gone is the hardened soil, the bare trees, the dark clouds.

What has come is sweet, mellow, easy. The birds relax, as do the leaves in the breeze. The sound of a frog is heard nearby as creeks throb and gurgle beside willows and rocks in gullies and between homes and hillocks of the Hudson Valley.

The sun has woken this world around me and now it stands tall and shimmers in shades of green. The tea leaves, too, evoke this change, this quality, this coming to life from Winter’s hold.

Cool shadows cast darker and darker shade across the stretch of wood and floorboards of my studio. The ease of early Summer spreads and collects in the cooling vessels of my assembled tea set.

Warm winds and a shallow bowl. Winter’s tea and Summer’s flavor.

8 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Incense, Meditation, Oolong, Taiwan, Tea, Tea Tasting

Future, Past, Present

Today is the fifth of May. Ostensibly, it is the beginning of Summer on the traditional lunisolar calendar (立夏 Rikka). And, yet, all around me it still feels like Spring. Rain clouds gather overhead. New green leaves bristle on trees. Shoots rise from the earth. Peony bushes push upwards in the garden, yet their showy blooms have yet to burst. There is a feeling of anticipation, a longing for flowers to unfurl, for skies to clear, for the heat of the day to grow. Alas, the cool of the previous season still lingers and morning’s mist hangs long until noon.

In the practice of 茶の湯 chanoyu, May 5th, the fifth day of the fifth month, is marked by celebration, flavored heavily by its culture of origin. Double five, or 重五 Chōgo in Japanese, is one of the five seasonal festivals on the traditional calendar of Japan, and is associated with a myriad of observances.

Today is 端午の節句 Tango no Sekku, which demarcates the beginning of the month of the horse (the fifth month). At this point in the year, one should begin to feel the heat rise. Yet, here in Upstate New York, a chill remains.

子供の日 Kodomo no hi, or Children’s Day (historically 男の節句 Otoko no Sekku, or Boy’s Day) also falls on this day. The birth of the new season, rites of passage, youthful vigor, 鯉幟 koinobori fluttering atop homes with children. All around boasts the promise of great things to come. Alas, here, Summer’s throb still feels faint.

It is also 菖蒲の節句 Shōbu no Sekku, referring to the practice of hanging shōbu (sweet-flag, Acorus calamus, or Japanese iris, Iris ensata var. ensata) and 蓬 yomogi (mugwort, Artemisia) from the eaves of one’s home (which were believed to ward-off evil spirits and fire).

Here in the Hudson Valley, the iris have yet to bloom, although I still manage to create a bundle of mugwort and iris leaves, which I hang-up against my makeshift tea hut.

With such a multifaceted day, it might feel overwhelming for a tea person to choose what they will do. So much expectation on just one day. For me, it offers a unique meditation, one which I infuse into today’s tea offering.

Setting off across my garden to the dark interior of my weathered shed, I’ve created within it a space to ponder time. Outside, purple-capped deadnettle and broad-leafed garlic mustard grow high. Remnants of Spring.

Inside my hut hangs the soft scent of 白檀 byakudan. The sound of water boiling within the bronze and iron kettle is faint but audible.

Summer in the world of tea is marked by many aspects. One major event is the closing of the 炉 ro and the beginning of the use of the portable brazier, the 風炉 furo. 初風炉 shoburo (lit. “first furo”) marks the first use of the furo. Today, I will use my furo for the first time, in anticipation for Summer’s emergence.

As I look forward to the new season, I also look back time. The bronze and iron 風炉釜 furogama are of an ancient tripod form, akin to those used during the 唐 Táng (618-907) and 宋 Sòng (960-1279) periods.

Beside it sits a square-shaped 鬼萩水指 Oni-hagi mizusashi, and before this I’ve placed a small round 茶入 chaire, enrobed in a blue and silver brocaded 仕服 shifuku, emblazoned with a design of peonies.

As I place a peach-hued 茶碗 chawan beside the tiny tea container, I recognize the significance of the choice in wares I’ve made.

In the practice of tea, we sit and hope to become connected to the moment. “Now”, as a distinct moment in time, is fleeting.

The instance we recognize it, it has passed. Rather, the moment we find ourselves in is often experienced tangentially.

The peonies on the brocaded pouch refer to a flower that has yet to bloom.

Future.

The tradition that associates this aspect to Summer is based on an understanding of the peony’s significance in ancient East Asian culture.

Past.

The presence of the flower woven into silk, which I splay open to reveal the ceramic chaire it contains.

Present.

Angles shift in the tearoom as object are oriented and reoriented based on their action and function.

During the furo seasons, objects are typically set in line with the brazier.

Then, as each object is cleaned, they reset again against the line that runs parallel to the mizusashi.

The bowl remains between host and furo.

The lid of the kettle is removed.

The 柄杓 hishaku rests against the open mouth of the steaming 茶釜 chagama.

During Kodomo no hi, or, more specifically, Otoko no Sekku, references to ancient 武士 bushi (warrior) culture abound. As a rite of passage, it marked a moment in time where a child could take on the affects of a 侍 samurai. In the realm of tea, the hishaku becomes an arrow, the iris becomes a spear.

Here, too, future and past oscillate to triangulate the present. A child assumes the role of an adult, even if just for a day. The adult longs for the carefree nature of when they were a child. Objects used to mark the coming of a new season are imbued with ancient connotations. Between these vectors exists, somewhere, now.

The lid of the tea container is removed and tea is heaped into the center of the peach-glazed teabowl.

A small mountain to climb rises within.

Hot water is drawn from the boiling kettle and poured atop the bright green 抹茶 matcha powder. The tiny mountain collapses, sinking slowly into the warm sea.

As the kettle murmurs and birds call, the tea is mixed in a slow, methodical manner. A slight breeze kicks up outside and I can hear the leaves of shōbu and yomogi beat against the exterior of my tea hut.

In the darkness of this tiny space, I make a single bowl of 濃茶 koicha. An offering for the season to come. A medicine of the past to fortify me as Summer arrives.

Drinking the tea down and concluding my lone tea session, I am yet again drawn to ponder time.

A shallow teabowl is employed as a 替茶碗 kae-chawan to cleanse the whisk. Perhaps I will use this piece for a future tea gathering.

I observe the angle at which I place the bowl down and arrange the cleansed objects upon it and within it.

These angles point towards the heat that will rise as Summer continues.

Cold water is added to the chagama and the bronze lid is placed back upon it.

The bamboo ladle is laid across the rim of the 建水 kensui.

A final 拝見 haiken is prepared to mark the first use of the furo.

Light from the small window beams and catches against the gold foil beneath the lid of the chaire.

Light catches against the curved surface of the tea container.

Against the carved tip of the 茶杓 chashaku.

Against the woven fibers of the shifuku pouch.

Future, past, present caught in light.

Exposed. Laid bare. There to be pondered.

As Spring shifts to Summer. As the portable brazier is used for the first time.

2 Comments

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

Last Days of Grain Rain

The last few days of 穀雨 Gǔyǔ (“Grain Rain”). Here, it feels unfathomable that we are on the precipice of Summer. How would you know as it is raining today in New York? Yet, hints of the incoming warm season are all around.

Blossoms on trees burst. Leaves shine an emerald green. The earth is warm and wet. The insects abound, soon to chime and chatter as they do in the Summer months.

Today, as the world feels cool and refreshing, I sit by my window and enjoy the sound of rain pattering on the plants outside.

Ferns and hostas.

Lilacs and budding flowers.

Water droplets become small jewels as the collect and form bright prisms on velvet foliage.

Old teaware accompanies new vegetation and the awakening of the latent season.

An antique 石灣 Shíwān pot and blue-and-white cup.

Roasted tea beams bright gold liqueur.

Low light filtered through the trees.

The feeling is calm and casual as I spread my wares and body across the surface of my wooden floor.

Birds call outside.

Reflections fade and evolve across the crackled surface of the iridescent glaze of the old teapot.

The flavor of tea lingers even as the scent of it flags.

Cool breeze and the emptiness that’s caused by the sound of raindrops.

Summer is almost here. Can you feel it?

7 Comments

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

April’s Air

Finally, Winter’s cold seems like a memory as Spring’s first warm day is here. Birds call and breezes push through the trees whose branches now brim with red and green buds of the new season. April’s air is fragrant and fresh. So, too, is the soil, waking from its hibernation.

Shoots and seedlings push up from the wet earth, soaked and saturated by the weekend’s rain.

Stepping across the garden to huddle in my makeshift hut, I dust-off the floorboards and bring with me a bowl to make tea.

A whisk.

A 棗 natsume.

A wooden scoop of speckled bamboo that looks like dew, that looks like intermittent showers.

An old thermos filled with hot water.

A 建水 kensui to collect the dregs.

Sitting in my hut, I meditate. Wisps of incense smoke fade and the sound of a bird scratching at the moss upon the roof wakes me, rousing me to make tea.

I arrange the wares to make an informal bowl of 薄茶 usucha.

The silk of my 袱紗 fukusa is folded and pressed against the lid of the tea caddy and then again against the spotted surface of the tea scoop.

Bowl and whisk are warmed and in the sunlight that pours through the one window of my hut, steam is seen rising from wetted objects as they wait to be used to make tea.

Unlike Winter, the world of Spring throbs with life, pulsates with energy, and booms with noise and sound from all directions. The ring of the 茶杓 chashaku against the inner edge of the grey-glazed clay of my 井戸茶碗 Ido chawan pairs with the sound of a robin digging for worms outside my garden hut. The rush of water from the thermos into the bowl harmonizes with the song that the wind and the trees sing above me.

The back and forth of the whisk as bright green foam rises creates a rhythmic tune that syncopates against the hum of the warbler’s whistle, the crow’s caw, the horn of the train along the river’s edge, and the din of the town in the distance.

I am reminded that what we often call peace is just another word for chaos. What we often label as silence is just a cacophony of sounds that blend and meld together.

Spring in full vigor is activity emerging from below the soil, from the wooded husks of once dormant trees, from the silvery swirl of clouds against a bright blue sky.

Tea alone at this moment is just that. A moment borrowed from an otherwise busy world, on an otherwise ordinary Monday.

Time taken to reinvigorate the heart and remind the soul that the seasons are changing constantly.

Momentarily replacing the glowing screen and clicking keyboard for the dim light of a tearoom and the sparkling foam of 抹茶 matcha radiating from within a matte grey teabowl.

For this moment, the only thing I have to examine are the last drops of tea that remain.

The unctuous glaze that has collected and congealed along the 高台 kōdai of an antique chawan.

The rippling lacquer that shimmers atop a natsume.

The speckled pattern of black dots that nature has arranged upon the skin of my bamboo tea scoop.

As the incense burns down, the light of the day shifts, the call of songbirds collect and crescendo, I take my cue to gather-up my items again.

Dregs in a teabowl are wetted and wiped clean. Water evaporates off of the thin tines of an old and broken 茶筅 chasen as it’s set upon a folded 茶巾 chakin. The tea scoop is dusted-off and laid across the chawan’s ceramic rim.

Tea caddy and chawan set side by side before they are put away.

I screw the cap back onto my old metal thermos and open the door of my garden shed to walk back across the stone path that leads to my studio.

Birds call. Wind blows. Branches shift. The soil softens and the first leaves of a radish pushes up to greet the sun. All of these moments combine and culminate together, contributing to April’s air. Fragrant and fresh. Sweet and fleeting.

6 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, Incense, Japan, Matcha, Meditation, Tea

Last Snow

As I write this, it’s late February and the air is still cold and wet. A week ago, the ground was still covered with snow, but with the recent rains and the passing of 立春 Risshun and the arrival of 雨水 Usui (February 19-March 4), the earth has begun to thaw, the ice has all but melted, and the flowers of early Spring have begun to push up in small clusters beneath the trees around my garden. But in this liminal period, even as Winter feels long passed, reminders of the season that once was still abound.

A cold and windy morning brings rain that turns to snow. Its transition happens over a course of an hour, marked first by the tapping of raindrops against my studio window, then a sudden drop in temperature, followed by an occasional snowflake passing by, carried upon a strong breeze. Light showers transform into flurries of white against the grey sky. Pools of water that have collected on the concrete flat outside my studio door freeze and are slowly covered by thin layers of mounding snowflakes.

In the world of 茶の湯 chanoyu, none of these events come as a surprise. Tea people of Japan have noted such atmospheric anomalies for centuries, giving them poetic names such as 余寒 yokan, a “lingering cold” that suddenly returns just as Spring begins to warm, 春雪 Shun-setsu, the snow that comes in Spring and quickly melts, or 淡雪 awa-yuki, light snowflakes that fall, producing a pleasant sound that harmonizes with the wind blowing through the pines (松風 matsukaze).

Sitting at the threshold of the sliding glass door of my studio that overlooks the garden, I see all of these before me. Rather than wander out into my garden hut, I decide to sit beside my boiling kettle and enjoy the dance of snow, as it turns the waking garden of Spring back into a Winter scene for perhaps the last time for a long while.

I gather objects from their hiding places. An old carved circular lacquer tray.

A bamboo teascoop with emerging sprout on its 節 fushi. A 茶筅 chasen whisk made by a master based in Nara. A cream-white teabowl, the shape of which is perfect for this sudden cold.

A 棗 natsume tea container, the surface of which is made up of layers of interchanging red and black lacquer.

I set the objects upon the tray and bring them to the large plank of wood that has sat beside the window door of my studio all Winter and into early Spring. The feeling is markedly informal, quick to assemble, sudden like the snap of cold that has come and may soon fade. Unlike the more formal and structured temae, 盆点前 bon temae for the 宗徧流正伝庵 Sōhen-ryū Shōden-an school is remarkable for its simplicity and directness. There is little flourish, just enough action to allow for one to sit and make a bowl of tea. The motions, while not abbreviated, are contained to the space of the tray and to the area in front of the kettle and brazier. When moments immediate such as a chance snow flurry come by, I favor this temae most of all.

The pace of making tea is like the snow outside. Intervals of fast and slow. Of space and closeness. As snowflakes tumble slowly, with a measured grace, I try and let my movements mirror this. The objects and tray are come to rest in a smooth downward motion, hovering momentarily above the wooden surface of the table and then placed just to the right of the 鉄瓶 tetsubin. Body and tray move down in one motion, with one out breath.

The 茶碗 chawan and its accoutrements are lifted and moved, from left to right hand and then down on the table before the kettle. The natsume follows and is set before the bowl. Items are lined up along a central axis before they are cleansed, one-by-one, and placed to rest before being called into action.

The natsume is first. The grooves of the 漆雕 qīdāo cut lacquer prove difficult for the soft folds of my purple 袱紗 fukusa cloth to fall into. Their many layers of red and black echo the layers of ice and snow that have been accumulating outside the doorway to my garden.

Cut at curvaceous angles, alluding to cloud mushrooms, bats, and foliate forms, the feel is balanced, organic and mechanic, archaic and modern, flamboyant and austere.

Next comes the 茶杓 chashaku.

Bright bamboo set against the white glaze of the teabowl, the low light of my studio during Winter’s last gasp, against the swirling grain of the tea table that I’ve laid across the wooden floorboards.

Three passes within the folds of the fukusa and I set it upright atop the natsume. For the first time, its fushi visible, appearing like a bud that is about to emerge from a dormant tree.

Finally, the whisk and 茶巾 chakin are removed and set upon the tray.

For a moment, the bowl sits empty, cold to the touch.

Both whisk and bowl are cleansed and warmth returns to the chawan, not used since last year. The tines of the chasen spread from the heat of the water.

The center whirl of the tea bowl becomes more apparent as the water glistens off its rounded edges.

I lift the tea scoop and remove the lid of the natsume and as I place tea into the warm, white interior of the chawan, snow begins to fall more steadily.

The dance of snowflake produces a silent symphony, one in which the mind can easily lose itself.

A quiet quality of peace that hold, if only for the space in time when the eye first catches sight of snow falling to until it lands upon the ground, lost in the mound of a forming snow drift.

As I write now, recalling this moment, the world in which I live in still seems at peace. How tenuous a last snow feels, how fleeting.

A bowl of tea comes and goes and the sensation of it quickly disappears, dissipating like Winter into Spring, Risshun to Usui, and swiftly soon to 啓蟄 Keichitsu (lit. “Awakening of Insects”, the period from March 5-19).

Peace, as defined by snowfall, might feel like a long time, but when one recognizes that this moment is the last day of snow, that peace feels fragile and forlorn.

February 19th, I sit down for tea. Come the next day, the world is changed, a palpable heat returns to the Northern Hemisphere, a thawing of something that laid cold and dormant has re-emerged, and the anxiety of what’s to come arises.

As I sit, now, at this time when whisk meets tea, whips it into a fine foam, releases sweet aromas of 抹茶 matcha into the air, and stare out into the white abyss of this last snow day, my breath does, for the while, seems smooth.

The pit in my stomach, the pang and fear that will come the next morning is not here.

Instead, I let my heart become full with the last layers of snow. 雪見 yukimi.

Layers of snow. Layers of time. Soft snow followed by hard ice rain and back to soft. Layers of lacquer, of growth on a bamboo stalk.

Layers of glaze that cover the foot of an old chawan.

From these layers, newness emerges and ultimately becomes the harbinger of things to come.

While the last snow may seem sad, while the passing of peace may bring fear, the heart carries both as if they weighed the same, not knowing how long one will last, not knowing when one will return, just hopeful that life continues on until the next day.

In this, there exists a knowing that this last snow may not indeed be the last. That peace as we know it now, may return in the future, although different, and at what time.

Leave a comment

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

Meditations on war

Good morning friends. Perhaps you woke up today like me. It’s a dark day, not just for the cold and stormy weather we’re experiencing on this Thursday in late February, but also because of the announcement that the Ukraine is now under attack (more so than previously).

New York and New York City is home to many Ukrainians, to many Russians, Belarusians, Moldavians, and peoples near and around the affected areas. War and armed conflict anywhere is tragic and the fallout, seen and yet to be seen, will be terrible.

As tea people, I hope we commit to practicing peace and non-violence. I hope we can not just be against war and violence but be anti-war and anti-violent, both in our actions and our thoughts. Consider why war has been waged and consider how we, both far and close to this conflict, can understand the human costs. Perhaps we should meditate why we live in a world that is more inclined to wage war than to wage peace.

I leave you with some images of an early morning tea session I had while listening to the news and to the accounts of journalists who are now currently in the Ukraine. I wonder if tea and meditation can change any of what has happened or what may happen.

I’ve met many in my lifetime who come from cultures that love tea. Perhaps offering tea and a chance to meditate together can be of support to finding peace between the areas currently affected by war. Perhaps combatants and civilians can ignore the commands of their leaders, put down their weapons, come out of their bunkers, and share a cup. I’m sure they’d prefer this over killing and death. In this hope, I offer up this meditation.

Meditations on war

Perhaps it’s too soon to meditate on war

Perhaps too few people have been killed

Too few lives broken

Too few cities burned

But despite the costs, waging war is easier

When every government known to us is made to wage war

We’ve made it so it’s easier to wage war than to wage peace

Easier to call a missile strike than to solve hunger

Easier to round-up and execute civilians than to secure their rights

Easier to bomb cities and invade countries than to make them ecologically sustainable

Easier to pit neighbors against neighbors than to end systemic racism

War is easier than peace because it’s now a practiced habit

So let’s meditate on war, the ease we want to complicate, a habit we want to break

And practice peace as a habit to create

2 Comments

Filed under Ceramics, History, Meditation, Pu-erh, Tea