Posts Tagged ‘chanoyu’

46. Chazen ichimi


Hohryu Kyusu

For at least eight centuries the practice of Zen has been closely linked to the consumption of green tea. In 1191 the Zen monk Eisai returned to Kyoto from his studies in China, bringing a bag of tea seeds, which he planted in the temple garden. In 1211 he wrote Kissa Yojoki (The Book of Tea), Japan’s first tea book, extolling the healthfulness of green tea. Ever since, Zen practitioners have used green tea to nurture their bodies, soothe their minds, and keep themselves awake during their long hours of sitting. “Chazen ichimi,” declared the sixteenth-century tea master Sen Sotan:  “Zen and the taste of tea are one and the same”.*

Over the past two decades, health-conscious Americans have also brought green tea into their daily lives, but where taste is concerned, the reviews have been decidedly mixed.  “Would you drink green tea,” a skeptical friend once asked, “if you didn’t know it was good for you?” And another, whose taste in beverages runs to single-malt Scotch and a good Merlot, reported that he tried green tea and it tasted like pasteboard. If that is the taste of Zen, so much the worse for Zen.

If you too have tried green tea and found it not to your liking, that may be the end of the matter. However, if you already drink green tea but would like to enjoy it more, you can do so by making a small investment in equipment and by following a few time-honored instructions. With patience, care, and a little practice, you might find yourself enjoying a delicious, authentic cup of Japanese green tea.

First of all, you will need fresh tea. What is available in the supermarket or even in specialty tea shops is often anything but fresh. It may have been languishing in a tea bag or bin for a very long time. I order tea directly from Hibiki-an (www.hibiki-an.com), a  family-owned firm in Kyoto, and it arrives in a few days, sealed in a foil-lined bag. When I open the bag, the aroma of the unbrewed tea is itself enticing.

Second, you will need a kyusu, an earthenware teapot designed expressly for brewing green tea. For the price of a coffeemaker you can buy a kyusu online, and it’s well worth the expense. The distinguishing features of the kyusu include its hollow side handle and its interior mesh filter, which covers the opening of the spout. In contrast to the familiar infuser, the latter feature allows the tea leaves to open and to float freely in the water, releasing their flavor.

Third, you will need the softest, purest water you can find. Hibiki-an recommends Evian, Rocky Mountain, and other bottled waters. Here in Western New York, I use Chemung Spring Water, and it has proved equal to the task.

Fourth, you will need to pay attention to the temperature and the brewing time. On most mornings I drink a refreshing Sencha tea, which is brewed at 176 degrees Fahrenheit for sixty to eighty seconds. Other teas require other temperatures and brewing times. At first, you will need to use a thermometer and to watch the time very carefully. Later on, you can dispense with the thermometer, and you can adjust the prescribed time to suit your taste.

To prepare two cups of Sencha tea, you will need a kyusu and three small teacups. To brew the tea, please follow these instructions:

–Boil the water, let it cool for a minute, and pour it into the kyusu.  When the water has cooled for another minute, pour it into two of the three cups. Drain any remaining water from the kyusu.

–Next, pour the water back and forth among the three cups. This process heats the cups and further cools the water. It also allows the water to oxygenate, which improves the flavor of the tea.

–Check the temperature. When it is around 176 degrees, add a tablespoon of loose Sencha tea to the heated kyusu and pour in just enough water to cover the leaves. Replace the lid, and wait for twenty seconds, letting the leaves absorb the water. Then add the rest of the water, and brew for a minute or slightly longer.

–Now pour the tea alternately into two of the cups, and offer one to your guest. Lifting your own cup with both hands, take time to inhale the aroma of the tea. Contemplate its provenance, its impermanence, and its beneficial influence on your mind and body. Then drink it slowly, with full attention, and enjoy the taste of Zen.


*For further information, see Barry Briggs’ weblog  Go Drink Tea at http://www.godrinktea.com/. See also D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton, 1993), pp. 269-314; Soshitsu Sen, Tea Life, Tea Mind (Weatherhill, 1979); and Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea (Stone Bridge Press, 2007).

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MatchaFor the Westerner who might wish to enter Zen practice, one of the most accessible points of entry is the way of words. Over the centuries Zen teachers have warned against reliance on language, likening it to a finger pointing to the moon, but they have also offered pithy sayings, ranging from the most intelligible to the most arcane. “Not always so,”  Suzuki Roshi observed. “Only don’t know,” the Korean master Seung Sahn declared. “Live as if you were dead,” exhorted the seventeenth-century Rinzai master Shido Bunan. Taken to heart, any one of these sayings might initiate the newcomer into the practice of Zen. For my own part, however, I have found the Japanese motto ichigo ichie to be one of the most helpful, both for the novice and the seasoned practitioner.

Pronounced each-ee-go each-ee-ay and translated as “one time, one meeting,” this motto is closely associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Ichigo ichie enjoins the host and guests in the tea hut to regard their gathering as unprecedented and unrepeatable. Though governed by custom and tradition, each meeting is unique. It will not occur again.

Ichigo ichie is said to have originated with Ii Naosuke, tea master and chief administrator of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Every morning, Naosuke, who had many enemies and feared assassination, made himself a bowl of tea, pronouncing it ichigo ichie: unprecedented and unrepeatable. In 1860 Naosuke was indeed assassinated, but the phrase he coined survived him, becoming a motto for students of the Way of Tea.*

“One time, one meeting” is also a motto for students of Zen meditation, but in Zen practice the context extends well beyond the drinking of tea. For in Zen training we learn to regard all encounters as unprecedented and unrepeatable, however similar they appear. In her essay “There Are No Repetitions,” the Rinzai priest and concert pianist Maurine Stuart puts the matter this way:

We are always at the beginning. It is always the very first time. When I play the piano I often come to a repeat sign. Can that passage be repeated? If I am teaching a piano student and we see a repeat sign, I tell the student that there are no repeats. We return to the beginning of a certain passage, but it’s never the same. It’s always fresh.**

At first glance, these assertions may seem to defy common sense. Would that the menus of certain restaurants might be unrepeatable! Would that our waiter, putting our food on the table, might say something other than “there you go.” Would that Garrison Keillor’s tone of voice might vary even a little, or the village siren play a new tune. Same old, same old, we complain. Been there, done that.

To the Zen practitioner, however, such dismissals only mask an underlying reality. The menu may not change, but other conditions will, and no two meals will ever be the same. By marshaling such phrases as “same old, same old,” we strengthen our preconceptions and bolster our sense of security, but we also erect a verbal screen between ourselves and the world before us.

To pierce that screen is the task of the Zen practitioner. And to return to the ground of being, where we may experience the world afresh, is a central aim of Zen discipline. Sitting still without thought of attainment, we relinquish our preconceptions and renew our attention to whatever is occurring, right here, right now: the flow of our breath, the rumble of a truck, the thought of an errand left undone. In so doing, we free ourselves from our habitual patterns of thought and feeling, our sometimes painful attachments to the past. And we allow the things of this world to reveal themselves as they truly are: vibrant, unprecedented, and unrepeatable.


*See Eido Tai Shimano and Kogetsu Tani,  Zen Word,  Zen Calligraphy (Shambhala, 1995), 35.

**Maurine Stuart, Subtle Sound (Shambhala, 1996), 16.

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