Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yixing Zen: The Story of That Yixing Pot

Ten thousand Dharmas return to one.
What does one return to?

A couple of years ago, a Korean teamaster had brought back three pots that were almost identical. All three pots had an image of bamboo grass on the side. One of the three which had “Tea and Zen are not two but one” inscribed on the other side in classical Chinese calligraphy broke during use. One of the pots which had some famous Taoist saying inscribed on it is still in use by the teamaster. The last was gifted as one was about to depart from Korea, it is the pot pictured in this blog.

This pot is a real piece of Zen. It was produced a few years ago by a popular yixing company called “Gum Sa Do Yae”. In 2007 the company stopped production after two of its now-famous potters, Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup, left to open their own kilns. Since that time both of these artists have gained fame and notoriety for their marvelous yixing pots produced from their independent kilns. Their works are stunning in their simplicity and wondrous in their form. They often fetch prices in the thousands of dollar range.

Undoubtedly, these potters have skill. Some, such as the teamaster who gave one this pot, attributes their abilities to their indirect training in Zen.

When Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup were working for Gum Sa Do Yae they were hand-making hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of pots. These pots were virtually all the same and looked almost identical as the one pictured above. They were pumping out so many of the same pots day in and day out that they developed a sort of mindlessness, a true spontaneity about it. This repetitious, joyfully mindless state of work is said to embody the precepts of zen.

This is the way of tea, the way that Korean potters mindlessly toiled hundreds of years before in the mountain kilns- alone with the rhythms of nature and an abundance of repetitious work. As a result of such conditions, works that were detached from conceptual deliberate thought were produced- pieces of zen.

Often the pottery created in this state was finished in a flash of zen, a gye yal (Eng:brushmark, Jap: Hakeme) or spontaneous calligraphy quoting a famous Zen phrase or Taoist quote. When the Japanese first caught sight of the work of these Korean potters they attempted to re-create their style, but were unsuccessful because their actions were too deliberate and steeped in conceptual thought. As a result they kidnapped many of these Korean potters and forced them to produce such works in Japan.
Just like the Koreans hundreds of years before, Yu Ji Mung & Yang Lim Beup also left a spontaneous mark on their Gum Sa Do Yae pots. On the side of the pot that faced the guest an image of bamboo was engraved. On the side that faced the tea maker was a spontaneous quote, likely just whatever came to mind, their empty mind, when finishing the pot.
This pot is a wonderful example of such zen...

Its size, like all of its identical siblings, is medium-largish for a yixing but can still fit in ones palm nicely. Although a touch large, it stands staunch and strong, as if in seating mediation.

The layout of its calligraphy attempts of minimize its enormity and harmonizes the piece. The calligraphy and engraving stretches the pot horizontally. The engraving of bamboo is centered more towards the spout. It looks as if it is blowing slowly in the wind and fills up as it moves more toward the short spout- creating a perfect balance with the handle on the opposite side. The placement of the calligraphy on the other side is placed closer to the handle side. It still manages to harmonize with the handle though by the use of vertical calligraphy near the spout side- absolutely brilliant. The placement of the engraving and calligraphy suggest that these pots should be placed with the spout at 10-11 o'clock. This is part of common tea etiquette as a spout pointed directly at the guest is seen as a rude act. Besides this, the natural placement of the pot at 10-11 o'clock reduces the length of this pot went viewed from directly in front or behind, adding even more balance.

The bamboo engraving is natural and beautiful. Bamboo often represents simplicity. Besides that, it is so common, it bears neither fruit not flower yet stands strong due to its empty form inside. In this way bamboo represents the zen mind- strong in its emptiness and simplicity.

The calligraphy on the other side is read right to left. The larger horizontal section translates to “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one”. Where “ten thousand” refers to an infinite number, “Dharmas” refer to all phenomena or all things, and “one” refers to the nature of all things.

The whole phrase is a famous Zen Koan from case 45 of the Blue Cliff Record . This record chronicles seemlying nonsensical dialogues and exchanges among famous Chan monks that often starled zen practitioners into achieving enlightenment- breaking thought their meditation and attaining “no-mind'.

The vertical calligraphy is the date this pot was made using the traditional Chinese astrological calendar. A statement on presence. A mark of spontaneity. (If anyone can translate the date, please let us know).

A pot of this size must be sturdy and solid. This is achieved by wonderful, thick clay that shines with the essence of tea in its pores. It is fairly sturdy when pouring and pours fast and strong.

Its flat lid, like the layout of the engraving, attempts of minimize its enormity. Lifting it off the top one can sense its sturdiness.

The chops on the underside of the pot, lid and handle also nicely balance this pot.

When steam rises from this pot one is at peace.

A novice monk asked Zen Master Zhao Zhou, “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one. What does one return to?”

Zhao Zhou immediately responds, “I was once in Qing Province and made a piece of clothing: a hemp jacket weighing seven pounds.”


Sunday, November 22, 2009

2009 Fall (mid Sept) Teamasters Luanze Oolong, Feng Huang, Taiwan

If this tea sample didn't say “Fall (mid Sept)” on its wrapper one would swear it a Spring oolong.

The dry leaves smell a faint, sweet raspberry muddled in soft, creamy deep mountain tones. One meditates deeply on the smell and can sense the mountain air where these leaves must have lavished in.

These leaves unfurl in yixing with the urging of slightly cooled hot water.

The first infusion reveals the typical milky, creamy sweetness of Taiwanese oolong. This one is nice and sweet accompanied with a bland taste which thinly coats the mouth and covers the lips. A ghostly, juicy raspberry taste adds additional freshness.

The second infusion has more bitter notes which play well with bland and sweet. Milky, fresh, light, slightly fruity, berry sweetness is divided by bitter notes. A flowery summer and roasted almond scent adds to the light, spring feel of this oolong.

In the third infusion, hidden within the wonderful depth of this tea, the flowery notes blossom in the mouth. This taste climbs into the sinuses where it lingers for quite sometime, a nice reminder of what was, what still is.

The fourth brings sweet, light,grainy, fruity honey notes. It has a bitter sharpness about it that keeps the lighter flavours in check. The aftertaste is more cereal-honey.

The next few infusions the flavour shortens, thins, as it is backed by bitter and bland. The aftertaste is a faint floral reminder of what it once was. The chaqi is a touch warming, bright, clean, clear.

The last infusions last hours not minutes and still manage to push out sweet, thick-honey taste with hints of creamy floral over a nice viscus mouthfeel. This thick, buttery floral honey taste is enjoyed all day long.
Stephane are you sure you didn't put some spring oolong in this fall package?


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Three Levels of Tea Drinking: The Flavour Level, The Sense Level, and The Qi Level

There are three different levels of drinking and appreciating tea.

The most superficial and probably the most common way of drinking tea is by simply enjoying the taste of tea. Tea is a beverage, people drink beverages for their taste. This level can be enjoyed without too much thought or energy- tea for what it is, a delicious beverage. Thousands of people around the world enjoy tea in this way everyday without much thought. This is the first level of tea- the enjoyment of its taste.

The secondary level of drinking and appreciating tea is through the use of all senses. At this level people rely on their sense of smell more robustly. They also rely on their sense of hearing, seeing, touch, and of course taste, to enhance their experience with tea. Tea is enjoyed as a result of the interplay of all these senses. Besides the taste of the tea, those who drink tea with all their senses generally value the smell of the dry leaves, the smell of the liquor, the smell left behind in the cup (or the aroma cup), the mouthfeel of the tea, the look of the dry leaf, the colour of the liquor, the look of the wet leaves, and, although not directly connected with the tea itself- the sound of the boiling water, and the pouring of tea and water. Those who drink tea at this sensory level often wish to enhance their sensory experience with the use of specific teaware and techniques which allow for the honing of the full sensory experience with tea. This is the way that most bloggers, connoisseurs, and experts of tea drink it. This is the second level of tea appreciation, the sum of our sensory experience with it.

The deepest and least common way of drinking tea is by sensing its energetic qi level. At this level people go beyond their five senses and touch the deep level of the tea's qi, the chaqi. At this level tea is enjoyed as a result of its vibration within the body and mind, and the affects it imposes on them. Those who drink tea at this level often meditate with it to better sense its nature, movement, and affect on the body and mind. Because not everyone has sharpened such abilities, most people don't drink tea at this level, but everyone is capable at doing so.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

2009 Fall (mid Sept) Teamasters Hung Shui Oolong, Feng Huang, Taiwan

Stephane kindly sent this sample, this wonderful sample...

Directing them into yixing, the dry leaves smell a roasted sweet grain- first suggestion of roasting. Boiling water is left to cool just for a bit before it awakens these roasted pearls.

The first infusion is a touch chalky with notes of light creamy hay sweetness- honey sweetness. Immediately this first light brew feels very harmonious in the mouth, in the soul.

The second infusion brings with it bitter but smooth flavours of roasted honey with the softest faint fleeting floral taste that brightens the nose.

The roast of this tea is what harmonizes it, makes it feel so whole, so complete. It brings out the flavour without drawing attention to its 'roasted' character.

The third infusion has a smooth un-offending bland nuance to it which plays with sweet tones of sweet grainy honey. Soft roasted barley lingers on the breath.

The cha qi is warm and soothing as it reassures ones active mind. The roasting of autumnal oolong does much to harmonize its energy. If an optimal roast is achieved, this tea being a prime example, the energy of the tea becomes more complete. Ascending and descending energies complement not only the flavour but also the qi.
In the fourth infusion this tea's flavour starts to become sneakier, its thick, viscus feel in the mouth is still quite satisfying.

The fifth and sixth infusion bring only grainy, rough, earthy tones with very little sweet notes to be found. A few faint, gritty honey tastes break through.

The seventh infusion is left overnight. One awakes to thick, oily, yummy, honey water. An earthy floral taste makes its last attempt in this cool cup of tea.

One enjoys the cool tea in this way, admiring the brilliantly roasted wet leaves so early in the morning.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Crane Ib Hak Style Tea Bowl: An Example By Kim Jeong Oak

The crane is an auspicious bird. The crane is a symbol of immortality. Taoists believe that cranes are the vehicles that morals take to heaven, transporting them to the realm of immortality.

The characteristics that make up Ib Hak style bowls capture and transform this feeling into clay.
Into a bowl for which tea is drank.
Into a feeling of ascending into heaven.
Into the crane.

The most obvious features of these bowls is the image of a crane found on the side wall. The cranes on Ib Hak style bowls all look extremely familiar- white tip beak, black neck and head, white body and legs, black tail feathers, black feet.

The less obvious imagery of the crane is found in other characteristics of Ib Hak style bowls. If we look at the 'tong hyeong' style body of the bowl it too, represents the crane.

The bottom of the bowl bulges out a bit. This bulge is found in many bowls as the inside bulges outward conforming to the bulbous shape of the tea whisks fine bamboo thines. This shape is said to be conducive to making the best matcha as it allows for the smooth motion of the whisk when the tea is whipped up. It causes the tea to be exposed to the right amount of oxygen as it splashes up against the lower sides of the bowl.

Besides this of topic technical aspect, the bottom bulge looks like the body of the crane, the concave sides resemble the crane's neck, and the 'eui ban' style protruding lip looks like the crane's beak.

If we turn a Ib Hak style bowl over we can see its 'ja ren' style foot. This foot has 3 wide protrusions (the number 3 is also auspicious) that give the feeling of hooking in and anchoring down. A crane's foot has three pronounced toes. When hunting and walking the crane stands on only one foot, yet is completely in balance. In this way the foot of Ib Hak style bowls is the foot of the crane standing in balance.

Overall, the shape of bowl exudes a feeling of upward movement or ascending. Specifically how the sides of the bowl curve out ascending gently towards the 'eui ban' style lip which gracefully slopes toward the heavens.

Unlike most styles of Korean tea bowls, it stands quite tall. The height of the bowls 'tong hyeong' shape creates a feeling of ascending, of swooping upwards- a crane in flight.

This bowl is the crane.
As frothy matcha slopes over the lip sliding tea over our tongue, we too, perhaps just for a while, are carried away to a heavenly place.
Transcending time, transcending mortality.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Disambiguation of Jiri Mountain (Chiri Mountain, Jirisan, Chirisan) Tea

Please check out this link (here) for a wonderful map of Jiri Mountain.

As you can see Jiri Mountain is not one peak but several in an area considered 'Jiri Mountain'.
Ssangyaesa (Ssangyae Temple) is located in Hwagae Valley.
Hadong is the county that includes Southern slopes of Jiri Mountain, Ssangyaesa, and Hwagae Valley.
Hadong is also the name of the town in Hadong County that is the hub of the tea business here.

Therefore tea from this area can be referred to as:

Jiri Mountain Tea- tea grown on the mountain
Hwagae Valley Tea- tea grown in Hwagae Valley
Hadong Tea- tea that is produced anywhere in Hadong's tea producing area (including Hwagae Valley and the Southern Jiri Mountians) and often shares a generic Hadong tea bag or box


Friday, November 6, 2009

Three Main Tea Producing Areas In Korea: Jiri Mountain

No matter where you go in Korea you will see mountains. You simply can't escape their omnipresent gaze. Out of the thousands of peaks that litter the landscape there are few holier and more, revered than the Jiri Mountains.
The Jiri mountains were deemed important feng shui points at which auspicious Buddist Temples and Pagodas were built. When Chan (Zen) Buddhism migrated from China, it found its home on the secluded slopes of Jiri Mountain. Some of these famous temples are still standing in the same spot they have stood for over a thousand years before.
As long as Zen temples have covered the lush mountain side, so has tea. If you wander the mountain peaks of Jiri Mountain you may just find tea trees that were born from the seeds of ancestors planted over 1200 years ago.
Historical Records of The Three Kingdoms (Samguk Sagi) documents how Kim Daeryum (Dae-Ryeom) smuggled some tea seeds from China. This Korean government official had sewn them into the seam of this garments. A daring attempt, considering the export of China's tea seed was illegal at that time. In 828 A.D., after careful consideration, King Heungdeok of the Shilla Dynasty ordered the tea seeds planted on the Southern slopes of Jiri Mountain.

The tea bushes thrived under the care of the prolific zen monk and teaist, Jingam (774-850) at Ssanggyesa Temple. During Jingam's time, the tea fields around the temple grew and many villages around the Ssanggyesa Temple began planting and producing tea all the way through Hwagae Valley. At that time, and for hundreds of years later, tea became used in all sorts of Religious and Royal ceremonies.

Over the last 500 hundred years, as hard times hit Korea, tea slowly slid into decline. As its use declined, tea plantations were abandoned for other crops, tea slowly continued to spread almost unnoticed, growing wild all over Jiri Mountain.

It wasn't until after the Korean war that tea on Jiri Mountain was "rediscovered". From that time on tea in Korea has experienced a renaissance. Its popularity has gone through the roof in the last few decades. The seeds from the wild plants, are now used to populate much of Handong county with tea plantations.

Most Korean teaists claim that the tea grown here is the only 'true' Korean tea. Most of it is organic and very little, if any, sprays are used. Almost all of the tea made here is done the traditional way, all by hand. Some even produce tea using the completely traditional wood burning method, which takes years of skill and intuition to prefect.

Every year in April and May, Confucian ceremonies are held for 'the Spirit of the Tea' in a spot where three stone monuments mark the area believed to be the place where Kim Daeryum planted seeds back in 828 A.D. Hadong county also hosts an annual Wild Green Tea Festival in May. During these times, these rolling tea hills speak of times long ago. If you listen close enough, you can hear them even in there silence.


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