Hydrangea Tea Hut

A tea hut in my backyard was my dream. I had become familiar with variations in layout, window style, and alcove placement from reading about the tea ceremony. One book that was particularly useful was Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler.

I wanted quality in materials and workmanship although I could not afford authentic Japanese tea hut construction, and I did not have the skills to build one myself. Customizing a high-quality garden shed seemed to be a workable solution. Walpole Woodworkers advertised a salt box shed. I liked the idea of this shape with its ties to New England as well as to Japanese tea huts.

A window on the long side next to the door came with the shed. I decided to retain this minus the window box. I also requested two rectangular windows with three panes side by side; one low down behind the tea preparation area and one centered on the opposite wall. Natural lighting is very important in tea huts both for aesthetic and practical reasons.

On a summer morning, leaf shadows fall on the main window due to the angle of the light. During the course of a tea practice, the shadows change continually and the leaves move in the breeze creating a most peaceful effect. The window appears very different depending upon the time and season. It is well worth planning for such effects in a tea hut’s placement and design.

I chose a site for the hut that would allow it to be viewed on edge from my large kitchen window but would provide privacy for the garden. It would also allow the patio under my kitchen window to be used as a waiting area. The small area in front of the shed was well shaded and already had a tendency toward moss.

The hut was small enough to be constructed without a poured foundation. The workmen carefully prepared the sloped site. They had stained the walls and door as requested and raised the door threshold to accommodate tatami mats. It took very little time for them to assemble the flooring, walls and ceiling. The roof was finished with cedar shingles. The unfinished pine interior of the hut, while not authentic, had a nice rustic quality.

A bamboo sleeve fence was added to visually connect the hut to the garden and provide privacy for the area behind. Smaller vertical poles through the larger ones made for a very sturdy fence. I added dried hydrangea twigs to the lower section. There are many possible charming designs for sleeve fences or you can design your own as I did. See The Bamboo Fences of Japan by Osamu Suzuki and Isao Yoshikawa for ideas.

Inside at the narrow end away from the door, I added an oiled maple board to take the place of the more usual tokonoma alcove. It fits perfectly with the three tatami mats at the same height. I found a three panel unfinished pine grid screen to hold the scroll and had a cabinet with many shelves made for storing utensils. Two low benches along the back wall provide seating for those with bad knees. Pegs behind the door hold coats. For a while, an extension cord snaked out the low window behind the tea kettle. Now, the hut has been electrified so I can use it with a small heater in winter.

Since my hut does not have a hearth, I use a kettle set on a furo heater at all times of the year. I often place wood chip incense in the furo (think of the smell of cedar). The “wind in the pines” sound produced when water is heating is central to chanoyu. Delicate steam curls up contrasting with the solid iron.

Normally tea utensils would be brought in from another room by the host, but since my small hut has only one room, I designed a corner staging area. A “clam shell” shelf holds the tea bowl and tea container. A square basket on the floor holds the lidded water jar, waste water container with a lid rest, and bamboo scoop as well as a container of tea sweets. The hot water kettle is left in place where it will be used on the host’s mat.

In the garden, I added stepping stones and a low basin. Guests gather on the patio. They follow the stepping stones to the basin before proceeding to the hut door where they leave their shoes on the large stone before entering.

The hut has been in use for thirty years. The roof has been replaced, and the interior and exterior protected from the elements and insect damage. The garden grew and changed around it.

I named my tea hut, Ajisai-an which means Hydrangea Hut in Japanese. The humble building has gathered many wonderful memories. During its naming ceremony, the crickets began their song as we started at dusk. After tea, we brought in metal lanterns from the garden and wrote haiku by flickering candle light. A “flower arranging” tea started with various flowers and containers as options and each guest’s arrangement was displayed in turn during the practice.

Another unusual tea had a small American quilt instead of a scroll, pottery made at Sturbridge Village, and a Native American basket to hold maple sugar tea sweets.

The hut has also seen many gatherings with old and new friends that were simple, quiet, and restoring. These, together with the excitement of bringing the hut and garden into existence, are perhaps the best memories of all.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Silent Tea Music

I find music in the largely silent flowing motion of Japanese tea ceremony. It came as a surprise, however, when my involvement with that art played a role in a musical instrument finding its way to its rightful owner. After hearing the shakuhachi played by a master at a gathering at my tea teacher’s home, I obtained a student version of the bamboo flute, thinking I might learn to play it. However, the shakuhachi was relegated to a drawer when I had no luck finding a teacher.

Several years ago, I was introduced to a fellow student in my graduate mindfulness studies program who had a deep interest in Buddhism and an advanced meditation practice. He shared my passion for tea and wrote about the social dynamics of how tea is shared in China for one of his papers. When I learned he had never tried the powdered green matcha tea used for Japanese tea ceremony, I invited him to my tea hut so he could try it.

After declaring the flavor to be “very silent,” he asked if I knew of any shakuhachi teachers. His flute was broken and he greatly missed playing it.

I asked him to help himself to more tea while I went to get my long-neglected flute. I found it where I had placed it in a lovely small chest of drawers. When I returned, my guest told me he had drunk three bowls of tea. Evidently he really liked that matcha!

Fortunately, the long dormant student flute was still playable. When I presented it to him as a gift, he seemed delighted. He asked if I really meant for him to have it. I told him, “Of course the flute is yours.” In fact, I told him that this match gave me great joy. It seemed wonderful that the flute’s voice would be heard in the world after all this time. My new acquaintance later informed me that he played the flute on a daily basis.

My suspicion that the shakuhachi was used for meditation was confirmed by a little research. In fact, it is associated with particular Zen monks where playing the flute serves as a spiritual practice. Shakuhachi playing can be remarkably haunting and expressive with qualities unlike any other kind of flute music.

So my tea hut gathered to it another wonderful memory and a hint of distant shakuhachi playing from a flute that had found its rightful owner.

Landscapes in a Tea Bowl

A tea bowl, especially one containing a pool of frothy bright green tea is full of landscapes. This is literally true as well as being true on a more poetic spiritual level. In thinking about this concept, and comparing tea bowls and Japanese gardens, I found I was better able to appreciate both. 

My favorite type of tea bowl speaks of the earth. Such bowls are honest about the malleable clay from which they are made. One can see the soft bowl from the potter’s hands in the final product just as one can see evidence of geological processes in a landscape. When bowls are fired, color “blooms” and rough textures may result. Such “kiln events” cannot be planned in advance, but only appreciated when they do occur. Even when dramatic kiln events are not present, the process of firing adds depth to the natural feel of the bowl. In the garden, time, mosses, lichens and weathering do the same thing. 

Tea bowl shapes remind me of valleys or deep canyons. The shapes are functional to be sure. The sloping sides of the summer bowl are designed to cool the tea faster, while the more vertical sides of a winter bowl retain warmth. The curves and shapes of individual bowls vary. To raise one while holding it in both hands is to bring a valley pool to one’s lips.  

Tea ceremony tea is actually finely ground green tea leaves. Hot water is added and then whisked to form an emulsion. The color is like sunlight through leaves. One guest, upon tasting it for the first time said, “It is like drinking a meadow.” Simple, pure details of nature matter in Tea, as well as in the garden. 

During the formal ceremony, there is a pause to think with gratitude about all that went into creating the tea. This includes all contributions including the fertile earth, the sun, and those who planted, plucked, dried and ground the tea. Drinking tea is to drink in the landscape with an expanded awareness of what that means. I also try to hold that attitude of expanded appreciation when walking in a beautiful garden. 

It is possible to create a tea bowl using materials readily available from the countryside. Clay deposits are not rare. A primitive kiln may be made by piling up rocks or bricks to form a low cylinder with gaps and chinks in its walls. Into this cylinder is layered sawdust or straw and leaves with the bone dry bowls. The top of the pile is lit, and covered with a lid. Once the smoke rises steadily, the kiln is simply left to fire at a low temperature over night. The resulting gray pieces will have shades of many colors and perhaps patterns of leaves on them. In a class I attended, we made tea bowls this way, cleaned them and immediately drank tea from them. In the same way, the elements of a Japanese garden are often available locally and when combined in the right way create a magical transformation. 

Steven Murphy, a professional potter who studies the tea ceremony, explains that tea bowls must be quiet, but interesting. They cannot shout. An untrained person might find a tea bowl boring. Tea bowls are best appreciated by those with an eye for nature. 

He reminded me that more than just shape is considered in selecting a tea bowl appropriate to the season. A bowl the color of new leaves in the rain might be used in early spring. A bowl with a deep glowing brown glaze might be chosen to contribute a feeling of warmth on a cold winter morning. Seasonal changes with their many moods are consciously planned for in Japanese garden design. 

Like walking in a natural landscape, turning the bowl in one’s hands brings new views and surprises. The light, mood, and evolving taste can teach us to appreciate a familiar bowl in a new way. In some cases, a tea bowl literally changes with use as cracks in the glaze turn brown. A broken tea bowl may be mended with gold. The mended bowl continues to be prized all the more. It is only with use that a tea bowl becomes a real tea bowl. Just as it is only with tending and time that a Japanese garden becomes truly itself. 

Tea bowls have faces called shomen which are turned toward the guest. The same word can be used to refer to the side of a tree or rock which is placed toward the the viewer of a garden. The shomen of a tea bowl may be obvious when a new bowl is taken from the kiln, or it may take some time to appreciate which side is the “face” of the bowl. 

When making a tea bowl, Steven mixes one type of clay with another so that the color is not exact. He might even mix in something potentially destructive like tiny chunks of stone. The clay is made very wet which allows the clay and potter to work together. I have heard some garden designers talk about the importance of working with a sense of freedom.  

After making twenty bowls, Steven waits a day and feels the bowls all over to determine which might become cereal bowls and which might become tea bowls. He smashes any rejects. This is like the gardener who never hesitates to remove a plant that does not fit in the garden. 

Making ash glazes involves a number of steps. First wood or leaves are burned to produce ash. This is sifted, feldspar added and the mixture is ground to a fine powder. Lye is leached out, and the glaze is sieved. When Steven dips a bowl in his finished glaze, drips or streaks may happen adding a feeling of spontaneity. 

Volcanic ash produces pale green or yellow; oak wood, lichen colors; oak leaves, a transparent spring green. Browns come from mixed leaves of maple, oak, sycamore, poplar, white pine needles and “mystery” leaves thrown in for good measure. Spruce and fir needles produce pewter tones. The reddish-orange heart wood of Balm of Gilead Poplar results in yellow, blue, pink or white, but there is no way to predict which color will result. The remarkable Poplar glaze can also produce gold flecks if the bowl is cooled very slowly so that iron in the glaze crystallizes. 

It was a great joy to visit Steven’s studio to view the variety of landscapes in his finished work. There were bowls with sky images, wind images, and the moon viewed through streaked branches. The inside of one bowl had the feeling of looking up under a weeping beech tree. Pieces had very tactile satin and rough finishes in great variety. Some had bits of feldspar creating tiny light bumps on the surface. Colors were all ranges of gray and blue greens, browns, blues, creams and others with gradations and mixtures. Nothing was jarring or artificial. Some bowls had feet with bumps and fissures in the glaze which gave a very ancient feeling. 

Both tea bowls and Japanese gardens use human perception and distillation to create highly refined art forms using natural materials. Both accept and joyfully use qualities that are not entirely under human control. Steven Murphy writes, “My teacher, Keiichiroh Satoh of Nagano, Japan once said, ‘You and the clay have to agree on what it will become. Forcing it only makes pottery with no inner beauty.’” In the same way, a deep understanding of the site is required to create a beautiful garden. 

If I had to spend some time in an ugly part of a city doing stressful things and could not visit a Japanese garden or beautiful natural landscape, drinking tea from a lovely bowl would be my choice of compensation. 

This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

 

Japanese Tea Ceremony’s Enduring Zen Flavor

Tea practice copy

Japanese tea ceremony’s flowing process for preparing a bowl of tea may strike one as elegant or beautiful. However, for those unfamiliar with the art, just viewing a demonstration may not provide much insight into the depth that lies just below the surface.

Tea practice evolved over time. After it was introduced to Japan from China, tea was grown at Zen monasteries. Processed and ground tea leaves were mixed into hot water to support the monk’s alertness during meditation. This emulsion supports considerable and sustained calm awareness all by itself. It was also used as a form of medicine – matcha has many health benefits.

When the warrior elite adopted the drink, they delighted in collecting and showing off costly tea utensils. These objects were used as proof of political authority, and given to generals as rewards.

In the 1500’s, merchants with Zen training adopted a style of sharing tea imbued with refined rustic simplicity. All social classes and women were invited to participate. In this space apart, all present were honored and treated with great respect. Sen no Rikyu brought this style of tea preparation to its peak. Since that time, standards for Japanese tea ceremony have been maintained by hereditary tea schools.

Business executives adopted the way of tea followed by young women who would often return to it after raising their children. Learning about the many arts (like flower arranging, brush painting and ceramics) that tea ceremony employs was another way to fill free hours. Urasenke, the largest tea school, established chapters outside Japan in 1951. They recently began publishing books in English with detailed instructions and extensive photos starting with the styles of preparing tea that beginners learn first.

Tea practice in my tea hut (see the photo above) brings me into this season, and this time of day, embodied and grounded. There is something about the natural movements that brings one into accord with nature’s rhythms. Many comment on how time seems to slow down. With attention fully directed to what one is doing in the moment, there is no bandwidth left over for worrying about how one is perceived, or ego posturing. While you might think tea ceremony’s proscribed procedures would make it feel stiff or impersonal, it actually feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the formality, the caring generosity built into the practice is very real.

Under the right conditions, awareness may broaden to encompass everyone in the tearoom, the mossy tea garden and then expand outward from there. Even when mistakes occur or the right utensil is not available (creative improvisation is definitely appropriate per the tea literature), tea practice consistently brings me centering peace.

From tea ceremony I learned how bringing attention and intention to potentially annoying everyday activities can transform them. Washing dishes can become joyful service and meditative play. Tea ceremony teaches that it is possible to live life more like an intentional work of art with deep respect for the potential in each moment.

Gathering for Tea

Tea plant

The Camellia sinensis plant is used to make tea all around the world. Perhaps that is not surprising given tea’s many significant health benefits. Research has also found that drinking tea can elevate mood, support focus and enhance creativity.

We do not simply drink tea, we create art and rituals around it. And they can be quite stunning. Watch this short slow motion video of portions of a Japanese tea ceremony by videographer Jeffrey Klein.

An elevated mood and greater ability to sustain focus would likely amplify the benefits that connecting provides for our social species. With both tea and social connection supporting wellbeing along with the enhanced creativity that tea makes possible, it is no wonder that sharing tea became a focus for special equipment and gatherings all around the world…

United Kingdom,
Japan,
China,
Taiwan,
Korea,
Russia,
Senegal,
Vietnam,
Colonial America

And drinking tea quite informally is always an option. But while some of tea’s benefits can be had by drinking it alone at your computer, why not enhance those benefits even further by offering to get tea for others or by inviting others to take a break to share tea with you? It is always tea time somewhere.

Beauty & Imperfection

With its seeming love for the one-of-a-kind and constant change, the natural world can be quite worthy of our detailed inspection. Even an oddly unique, or broken and incomplete natural object can be so beautiful it can take our breath away. There is a story about Sen no Rikyu, a famous Japanese tea ceremony master – he shook a few leaves onto the moss after a tea garden was cleaned a bit too perfectly. Leaving a few fallen leaves on the moss points to the wonder and mystery of reality as it really is.

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We care about others’ approval because we need others in order to survive, and that can have us wanting to be perfect. But perfection in the abstract is a rather odd concept when you think about it. Toward what end? According to what standards does it operate, anyway? What matters to one person may not matter at all to another and different cultures value different things.

I have found that people actually love it when we can accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we are open about feeling vulnerable at times. Those who can accept their own imperfections tend to have an easier time accepting them in others which can be a great relief given how much we tend to fear being negatively judged.

Japanese tea ceremony teaches many lessons through the actions involved in sharing tea while engaging with various objects. Take, for example, the beautiful tactile tea bowl below that was made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya.  While it is misshapen and has imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire, irregularities and burnishing from age add depth to its beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.

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The subtle and hard to define Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” embraces imperfection. It recognizes that since everything is constantly changing, perfection is impossible, except in perfect moments as Beth Kempton notes along with wonderful examples in her Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

I find that looking for a beauty that embraces imperfection can provide great solace. At times we can even catch others and ourselves in the act of being beautiful. And seeing the light shining through that deeper beauty can connect us to all that is.

Below are examples of imperfect beauty that called out to me. I recommend the wonderful adventure of finding your own examples.

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Refuge in a Tea Bowl

Tea bowls are literally full of nature. I think of them as having something in common with valleys or deep hollows. Summer tea bowls are more open so the tea will cool faster, while winter bowls tend to have steep sides. After tasting a bowl of bright pea green matcha tea for the first time, a guest remarked, “It tastes like drinking a meadow.”

While a potter shapes clay and applies glazes to make a tea bowl, there is always a collaboration with natural forces. Kiln fire and heat will have their say. If I was stuck in an ugly part of a city, drinking tea from a lovely tactile bowl would certainly be an appropriate compensation. Tea bowls come in endless variety. Here are a few examples:

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A Place to Share Tea

After years of Japanese tea ceremony lessons, I longed for an appropriate uncluttered space of my own in which to practice. Installing a tea garden and hut was such a crazy idea, I knew I should take it seriously. After sharing tea in my hut with many different people, I am glad I acted on that impulse.

The mossy shade in the area I had in mind already felt like a tea garden. I added stepping stones, a granite lantern and a basin.

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The hut dimensions allowed for a board with a screen, an acceptable alternative to the more common tokonoma alcove. I requested custom windows to illuminate the preparation area with soft light.

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Tea utensils are staged in a corner. A friend made the shelf from a board that once served as a desk.

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The tea garden and hut are one in my mind. The healing rhythms of nature are much in evidence here. But you do not need a tea hut to connect with nature’s nurturance.

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All you need to do is slow down and pay full attention to enjoying a cup of tea.

Creating Welcome

Bringing in peace as you prepare for a gathering will affect you in ways that cannot help but benefit your guests – Pause, Relax, and Open, Attune to Emergence and Listen Deeply. Then Speak the Truth in creating an environment that conveys warmth and welcome. The Insight Dialogue guidelines work well in so many applications including this one.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. Using a light touch, see what happens. Relying on a heart connection without words can open us to wonderful small surprises and an understanding that with a little care, life can be lived more like a work of art.

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You can bring to it all the sensitivity and freshness used to create a tokonoma alcove arrangement for a tea ceremony. This one includes a collage by my tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya:

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You may also wish to keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. While it is important to ensure that what touches food or drink is scrupulously clean and that edibles are pure and safe, purity also dictates that anything not needed be eliminated. Care taken with objects and supplies implies respect for your guests.

Ideally, the result will be supportive of a sense of peace and wellbeing as well as openness. It takes a bit of effort, but this approach to preparing for guests is an important mindfulness practice in its own right.

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Kintsugi: Two Tea Bowls Mended with Loving Care

There are very few practicing the traditional craft of kintsugi (literally gold mended) in Japan, although you can purchase materials online and try it yourself.

You can also find examples with related concepts. This article describes three aesthetic concepts related to appreciation of nature including the illusive wabi sabi. Other Japanese concepts related to kintsugi include, mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (openness to transience).

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The example above was a favorite “travel” tea bowl of a Japanese tea ceremony enthusiast. When it broke in transit, honoring it by having it mended using a nontraditional color (normally kintsugi uses gold, silver, or platinum) certainly gave the bowl vibrant new life. Its owner treasures the bowl for the whole series of memories it has accrued including this latest set.

When I first encountered kintsugi, my first thought was about the time-transcending collaboration; the one who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the one who mended it all contributing. I could imagine the bowl held gently in the hand as it was fixed linking the spirit of the mender to the spirit of the maker, even if the maker was long dead.

There are many good reasons to mend a bowl. From tending my tea garden and dealing with storm damage along with all the seasonal changes, I learned the wisdom of honoring the potential of what is here now.

Like everything else, we are subject to constant change.  We are by no means immune from shattering.  But we are also gifted with the ability to work with the creative potential of change, something which informs the very heart of beauty.   Kintsugi adds depth to new wholeness by using, and indeed celebrating, the mending where breaks once occurred.

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The owner of this beautiful bowl by Brother Thomas considered having it mended so the repair would be invisible.  In the end, the gallery owner decided to have it mended using gold leaf.  When shown the bowl, Brother Thomas said he liked it better that way. The above bowl remains a very happy part of the gallery owner’s personal collection.

Although Audrey Harris was not so pleased with her first attempts at mending using kintsugi, the lessons she learned with the help of her teacher were certainly treasures. Kintsugi is brimming with metaphoric lessons.

Here is another video showing a particularly powerful use of this metaphor.

Addendum: This post was updated on 3/11/19 to include the video on the meaning of kintsugi for a survivor.