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Remember The Soul, Forget The Bowl

by Aaron Fisher

The old monk's grin bloomed in the dim room, lighting up the corner like a paper lantern, soft and dean light that cast otherworldly shadows. He was overjoyed that a tea lover had stopped by. So few of his visitors understood why he loved tea so much. The simple cottage was to the side and slightly behind his quarters flanking the small temple. There was a small window, through which one could see down the long, winding trail one had come up to get here, but the overhanging roof shaded out the sunlight, perhaps so you could see the glow of his smile better. He had naught but a small wooden table with a wobbly leg, a few simple pots, kettles and a burner. Excitedly, he reached behind him and took out a cloth-covered something, handing it to me with an even greater intensity, as if someone had turned up the knob on the lantern. I unfolded the yellow, nylon cloth to find a bowl inside —bluish-gray pottery, chipped and worn by years of use. Not completely understanding, I just smiled. Later, as we brewed and shared tea from that bowl, for we couldn't communicate in any other way, I realized that I had been given the great honor of drinking tea from his most prized possession. And though the tea itself was simple and unpretentious it resounded so much louder in that bowl, with precious Qi that rivaled some of the best tea I've ever drunk, with silver kettles and antique pots and cups. And that tea session, more than the many times I've drunk famous vintages with famous people, has until now remained so vivid in my memory.

As there are librarians of tea, there are also scholars of teaware; and for some time, I myself got caught up in whose pot was which clay from which age and better for which tea. I've even met teapot collectors who have vast collections of antique teaware who rarely drink tea themselves, collecting teaware for its own sake. The more I travel, though, the more I come to find a simpler, more direct approach to tea and teaware coming into view from the vista of my path. I think there must be a balance between learning and simple enjoyment, unsaid mastery of the quiet inherent in tea as well as interesting discussions of its many facets (so long as they remain relaxed and peaceful). Teaware has always been created for use, and the true tea lover cringes at the pot behind glass teapots- Yixing teapots even shine when used, growing more beautiful in the hands of one who adores them. And I think there is a very real sense in which we can learn and accumulate knowledge, as well as the ability to discern quality, while at the same time remaining simple, truly appreciative and making sure our teaware is for tea, without superfluity.

I recently had two friends bring all this to a shocking and sudden clarity, as their approach to teaware was so different. The first is a true scholar and teacher of tea. He can tell you all about all the details of different kinds of Yixing clay, processing, famous potters, composition, etc. on and on until your curiosity is completely quenched, or until you're sleepy from pedantic boredom. He had just acquired two Early Republic Yixing teapots and brought them over to show me. He laid them on the table and as I handled them, he went on about how one was one kind of clay and the other different. He extolled the virtues of this kind of clay, its rarity today and how fortunate he was to have found the pots. Genuinely curious, I asked him questions about the different mountains in Yixing and the differences in clay composition and processing techniques. We brewed some tea from one of the new pots and enjoyed its presence. As he left, I realized that his pots would return to some museumlike shelf full of such treasures, and based on past sessions at his house, his friends and he would discuss and debate the differences between "zhuni" from one mountain to the next for many hours, apparently enjoying it all.

In stark contrast, a friend who had come to Taiwan from Canada was traveling around and stopped over at the end of his trip. With a preciousness bordering on awe, He brought out a small pot to show me. The pot was an incredibly cheap, Taiwanese-made pot the likes of which can be bought in drug stores for a few dollars. It was completely stained, however, lending it an aged feel. My friend went on to tell me that he had shared tea with a farmer in Nantou who had apparently been using this very pot for several years, and that oceans of tea had sloshed through it. He admired the man, his presence and clarity during brewing and said of all the tea lovers he'd met on this trip, this guy had the deepest affinity with the Leaf. When he complimented the stained, old pot, the farmer had graciously handed it over. My friend went on to say that it was now his most-prized piece of teaware, and would command the highest shelf of his collection. It had made his trip.

Master Rikyu once attended a tea party where several rich samurai and lords were showing each other expensive teaware and antiques and discussing how much they were worth. One of the lords then noticed that throughout their entire conversation the teacher had remained silent. He asked the master for his opinion and Rikyu humbly begged to be excused. The samurai, however, pressed him to offer some insight. You all seem to have missed the point," he began, "the value of a piece of teaware is reflecting in the tea it makes and the state of mind it brings about, not whether it is expensive or cheap, new or old," Perhaps none of the lords understood the rebuke, though they surely responded politely; or maybe one or two of them realized and ceased collecting things for their own sake, achieving a higher level, of understanding on that day.

Like anything, teaware can become an academic debate in which libraries are written and discussed, time spent arguing aesthetics, clay composition or other details, but as such much of the essence of the teaware itself is lost. In Japan, many critics of the tea ceremony often rebuked tea people (chajin) for that very reason, saying that while the ceremony was meant to inculcate simplicity, renunciation and the purification/beautification of the spirit, actual tea people often just ran around buying expensive teaware and chatting or arguing about its many nuances, The very word "Chanoyu" literally means "water for tea." And the simpler we keep it, water and leaves, the purer our intention.

Chanoyu is a very noble and elegant amusement since it inculcates avoidance of the empty vanities of this world and a taste for life spent amid the beauties of Nature, leading men to find their pleasure in that artistic detachment of mind that arises from tht contemplation of the calmness of cloud and water and the grace of fish and bird; yet when one comes to examine the ways of tea-lovers themselves, they seem to think of nothing but the connoisseurship of tea-vessels and their value and how to find bargains in them and consider it clever to get a high price for things they have picked up for a song, and give themselves fancy names and so on, and the result is a lot of bickering and jealousy and the real meaning of Chanoyu is forgotten. Even without that, man s mind is liable to be attracted quite enough by material thing..."(Kobayakawa Takakage, translated by A. L. Sadler)

I think this trend towards pedantry in tea—viewing tea as something to be recorded in notebooks or blogs, criticized and analyzed—is as prevalent today as it once was. In opposition, as I've grown in tea, I've personally learned more and more to appreciate any teaware that makes great tea and brings warmth to my tea sessions, especially those pieces that were used by people with presence. My favorite pot is the one my master chose for me from never use. It is far better to have a few, glorious pots - or even a single, shinning bowl - than to have shelves of pots that just collect dust. Take the time to find the teapot, cup, bowl or whatever that resonates with you; and when you find the one with the energy you are seeking, take it home and treasure it. I also find that a lot of tea lovers would rather have twenty-five cheap teapots than one great one (and, unfortunately, the same can .often .be said for tea). A great zisha pot can be used for many teas, enhancing them all; and a glorious antique one is still often cheaper .than twenty-five new ones made from slip-cast molds with artificial days that aren't even from the traditional mountains.

I have been collecting teaware for around 12 years. Not all of my treasures were expensive. Not all are antiques. I cry to focus less on the price or age as I do on how well it makes tea, and more importantly bow it makes me feel. Much of my teaware represents great friends that have traveled with my on this journey, teaching me about tea, Nature and myself. I'm not saying that it is wrong to learn about teaware, to study the history of Yixing and different clays; but I think there is a point where one can get lost in the scholarly debate of a bunch of* teaware trivia and eventually lose the ability to enjoy it. One becomes snobbish, and can't recognize the beauty in things that aren’t antique, expensive or both.

We all know the quality of "soul" in art, which is why certain paintings pull us towards them when we stroll through galleries. And just as with teaware, there will be some who will walk into the chapel with moist eyes, quivering with rapture at the ceiling; others buy popcorn and take snapshots of themselves beneath; while still others stand around and debate the dates it was painted, techniques, etc. puffing up their chests as they do so. The best art is for me still the kind that pulls me to it from within. It isn't because it has more red or blue, but because it has soul. Similarly, the best music has soul, and we "turn it up, so you know" as Van the Man says. My mom's cooking is better than a gourmet chef for the same reason. And, what's more, I would say that the best tea and teaware are the same. It isn't about how much the teapot costs; and debating or analyzing the details of its manufacture or history also won't give it any more soul. It is about the way it catches our eye, feels in our hands, the way it enhances our tea and brings energy to our session; it's also about who gave it to us or where we bought it, and who used it previously. In other words, it's all about soul.

The Way of Teaware

Tea is a Way, a Dao, because it re-establishes our awareness of ourselves, allows freedom of expression between individuals without ego, and because it affects all aspects of our daily lives, making us more aware, sensitive and compassionate. Most of the enjoyment in tea happens for the same reason. When tea becomes hyper-scholarly, however, the simple relaxation and “ahhh!” as we lean back in joyful contention are lost. I've watched a hundred great teas ruined by arguments and debates about a bunch of minutia that didn't ever really matter. And I think these lessons apply equally to teaware as well.

Anymore, I don't really focus too much on the age, date and artist behind a pot (neither do I ignore these details). I allow my heart to guide me. As I already have a lot of teaware, I can also be much more selective of what comes home with me. I don't buy impulsively anymore. I wait patiently for the teaware that really, truly calls to me. If a pot doesn't resonate in your heart, you are only doing a disservice to it and yourself by buying it. If you don't absolutely love the way it looks and feels, as well as the way it makes tea, you won't be drawn to using it often and it will just collect dust on a shelf somewhere, when someone else might have appreciated that pot in all the ways you aren't! I am sometimes so in love with some of my teaware that just looking at it brings me joy, for it reminds of the hours and hours of quiet we've spent together; and even if all the tea pundits in the world told me that any of these pieces were worthless because the "second factory only produced such and such at such and such a time, and the clay is not real hong-ni, but...", I wouldn't value them any less.

In order for tea or art to reach mastery, spiritual and fundamental success, it must be intuitive. Master painters couldn't tell you where their masterpiece came from. And while there arc critics that can write libraries discussing and debating these masterpieces, they arc rarely artists themselves. Similarly, those that write notebooks full of tea notes and debate and scrutinize it on the intellectual level very rarely are artists — very rarely make great cups, in other words; and I mean the kind of cup that quiets you, humbles you or makes you relax so completely you can't help but sigh in satisfaction.

I think that monk and his bowl demonstrate the Dao of Teaware much more clearly. It was a nice bowl, probably antique. It could have been worth something, but none of those details mattered. Its value was in the way it was used, not in the way it was discussed, photographed or studied.

Use the beauty and grace of teaware to enhance tea and the mood it creates, not to pollute it with more thoughts, greed or disk-association from others, A simple bowl, cracked and worn, can be the pinnacle of all teaware; and not because it is old or worth a lot of money, but because it is simple, yet elegant and because it is brimming with the energy of the beautiful people who've handled it through time. In that way, we drink even the most meager of teas from such a bowl and feel wonderful. This is what was meant by the stories of pouring plain water through a well-seasoned Yixing only to find that it comes out as thick and strong as great tea. When a teapot is loved and used with adoration day in and day out, it will grow in strength, beauty and energy - and years later shine with as great a glory as any masterpiece. Choose the teaware that makes you a better person, expressing your inner clarity in a way that allows you to brew yourself and share you with others. Teaware then becomes the sacred vessel in which the nectar is held, the altar on which we place our sacred leaves, rather than the intellectual pole that serves only to push us further down the River Ego, away from the shore of ourselves.