Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fiat lux


Ceaseless flows the river, water ever changing; bubbles in still pool gather and subside, impermanent: so in this world are we and all we devise.

–Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki

A couple of sunspot cycles ago, a soi-disant Zen teacher warned an old novice against high expectations when offering ego repatterning to help people withdraw from tobacco. His thesis: smoking encompasses a broad range of linked cognitive processes, internal states and overt behaviors, each providing some kind of satisfaction, relief or distraction, and all working to maintain the status quo. Unraveling the skein of social interaction, personal ritual and biochemical dependency therefore requires a superbly concerted effort. This assertion was delivered, somewhat ironically, within the pale of “Mad Russian” Yefim Shubentsov, who for decades has claimed to cure 80% of incoming smokers with one deft wave of a bioenergetic placebo.

While none tasteful enough to be reading this tastiest of blogs could ever be tagged an addict of any sort, it is true that for most of us, it is no single aspect of the tea experience, but a veritable congeries, that drives our ongoing engagement. Consider, for example, a few elements:
  • Learn: read, watch videos, attend workshops, sit with veterans
  • Buy: in shops, on-line, via telephone and post
  • Covet: un/pack, inspect, admire; look, sniff, handle
  • Exchange: share, trade, re-sell, swap samples
  • Criticize: write and speak, assess and review
–and infusing all of these, we hope: Drink! Alone in placid contemplation, convivially as a common focus, tangentially as a quenching and revivifying beverage, integratively as a complement to food, tactically as a stimulant, ritually as a foundation for or embodiment of some broader binding practice.

To hold a delicate creature too closely is to risk choking it, and to reify one transient experience is to constrain the space in which the next will appear. A great part of any mindful exercise of sensuality must therefore be what the Japanese recently call mono no aware, the bittersweet (like a good gyokuro) poignancy of the transient suchness of things. It is a benign expression of wabi-sabi, the gentle communion with transiency itself: the anicca of Gautama; panta rhei attributed to Heraclitus; tides of Tao that do nothing, but through which all things are done. Love each sip and let it go. This is one reason that so many of us, when the illusion of time permits, enjoy gongfu brewing: ten, twenty, even thirty thimbled aliquots of liquor taken in evolving, modulated yet never “controlled” succession from one broad pinch of admired leaf. Taste memory, unpacking the various synæsthesias and comparing this tongue-lave with the last, and the one before that, and many more previous—that is part of the maven’s pleasure. But even without the neurological renormalization that evicts unvarying stimuli into limbo, the limits of our attention make clutching at any one moment’s sensation futile. Better to accept Ovid’s dictum: omnia mutantur, nihil interit: everything changes; nothing is lost. Experiences we cannot remember, even in dream, retain the power forever to alter, amplify and enrich the experiences that follow. So let it be with this morning’s cuppa.

With taste and aroma evanescent, circumstance and company variably fugacious, and the mystic leaf itself a living thing whose maturation and senescence may encompass from weeks to a few score years at dry-stored best, where do we find our concrete exemplars, our durable symbols, the persistent artifacts of our chosen pleasure? Fortunately, perhaps, there requires but a minimal equipage for the heating of water, moistening of leaf and delivery of effusions. So little is enough, to warm a Dalesman’s pre-dawn fingers, lubricate a conclave of Odessan elders or Nyhavn knitters, take each of us—in mind, at least—to reclusion or refuge in our own ten-foot square hut. (Though Thoreau, in his splendid renunciation, apparently found no room for our leaf in his life: “...I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them...”) It is only the conspicuously wealthy, the bored and sated, those requiring expressions of formality to construe meaning in lives set too remote from Nature, who require more. But we are not a species that limits choice according to requirement, so...

With desiderata well in hand, we may wish more carefully or elegantly to store our leafy or lumpy taels, temper water, measure and manipulate the various substances at their various stages. Most often we provide drinking cups, rather than sucking from a common spout (or aiming streams throatward as camel-riders might pass a skin of koumiss), which in turn invites the fair-pot. And then a splashable tray or “tea ocean” on which to perform all these operations, and whisks, picks, funnels, spoons, scoops and other small tools, and perhaps dishes on which to display fresh and spent leaves. Und so weiter, right up to digital thermometers and scales and timers. As though the wings of savory camellia could be pinned to objective time! People of a collecting temperament will have favorite objects, favorite classes of objects, favorite materials, styles, countries of origin; and otherwise establish personal taxonomies of acquisitiveness. And in contrast to the plainsong European aesthetic, aficionados of the Asian schools are free to harmonize gear according to any modality, or none at all. At a certain state of tea-drunkenness, every object looks good; and even before that, the manifest exercise of discrimination and pleasure affords any soul’s accretion of gear its own special numen. My own favorite pieces, modest though they be, span five cultures, four countries and three centuries, and have little in common past a high silica content.

Yet while proclivities vary, as do budgets, access to suppliers, storage and display space, tolerance of cohabitors, threats from light-fingered adults and rambunctious pets or children, most “tea freaks” tend to focus their collecting on the core unit operation—brewing—and therefore acquire a multiplicity of pots and cups even when they have few or none of the many other optional items. In some cases, collecting is itself the main passion, to which the making and serving of potions is mere justification or occasional distraction. For techies, the search for that perfect pot (perhaps one for each type of tea, time of day, class of company, style of service, etc.) is both drive and excuse. For crafts appreciators, the elegance of shape and construction, melding of material to form and function, may incite a desire for great diversity, or conversely to subtler variations around a chosen sameness. (Someone in my past collected Art Deco photographic light meters. Go figure.) Utility, sensuality, investment... For whatever reason, ownership of teapots may quickly become a self-reinforcing cycle.

Though raised on free-leaf tea, with recent decades' reading and travel somewhat expanding scope of knowledge and appreciation, I have safely evaded that unseemly obsession. A recent inventory of my shelves showed just 46 teapots, of which a good quarter are mainly retained for the memories they decant, unusual form, specialist applicability or to complement other displayed items. To be sure, this does not count a smaller number of in-use gaiwans, plus a score or two of both kept on hand as gifts for neophytes who have yet to develop their own preferences. (I would no sooner give a pot or gaiwan unasked to a serious tea-drinker than I would an unsolicited reed to a saxophonist. On one hand, I would not presume to be able to guess another’s tastes, and would not want to put either of us in an awkward position; on the other, I cannot afford teaware of a quality that would constitute a meaningful addition to most of my friends’ collections. But that first Yixing pot or glazed gaiwan is almost always welcome.) Yet even with so sparse a collection, one may eventually find a piece to be surplus to my needs (and even wants). In this case, I usually give the spare to a friend. Like a piano or a sense of humor, a cared-for teapot improves with use. So there is collective benefit in acquiring many pots and keeping few.

Occasionally, though, a pot is not fit to be either used or donated. One such came my way during an expedition to San Francisco’s Chinatown incident to a nearby photonics conference. Not much attractive teaware to be found there at all, and tea of notable quality pretty sparse as well. So it is with our degraded Disneys; real people and the real tea they drink tend not to feature on the tourist maps. But my Geiger counter did perk up in a basement-level knicknack shop, where sat a bad implementation of a bad rendering of one of the most delicious pots I have ever had the pleasure to see, handle and use, at The Tea Gallery in NYC. (Alas, the proprietors of the latter establishment would not sell at any price.) The imitation: rudely trimmed after clumsy slip-casting, with an ill-fit lid and spout too narrow for our lightning steeps, I still found the form compelling. Not $32 worth, but the tag was marked down by half, and it was sitting on a half-price table. Before I could ask for both discounts to be applied, the clerk had performed another binary fission. For $4, it was beyond a bargain, even if not quite pretty enough to display or pourable enough to use.

So sat it alone on the counter for a few years, thirsting for a useful role.

Then one day I noticed a general resemblance to ancient Mediterranean oil lamps. Though for external vision I prefer electric lighting when the sun is in flight, a butane camping torch when the power is out, or a candle lantern if vapors be exhausted, there is something inwardly delightful about an old-style lamp. Especially if one happens to keep a lot of extra-virgin cold-press olive juice around; that makes for a rather pleasanter aroma than, say, kerosene, tallow, or rendered whale blubber. With needle-nose pliers, I carefully snapped out the internal clay screen. When a cotton string proved to transport fuel too slowly, and commercial fiberglass wicks were all too big, I teased a bundle of just the right size from a spare bit of wood-stove door gasketing (available anywhere that cold and cordwood meet, probably at no charge for the snippet required) and threaded it down the spout. Here is the result:

Is it perfect? Not hardly, at least in this relative world. Classical lamps often have a shallow cup surrounding the wick, so that oil—which, as we all know, tends to be pulled away from the flame by a thermal variant of the same Marangoni Effect that engenders wine tears—does not drip down the spout. You can see a hint of this in the photo; though it has not progressed beyond a slight slick, I still keep the lamp in a small saucer. (Japanese porcelain with a blue fugu design, per the crossing of styles mentioned above.) Is it useful? Useful‽ How did that get in there? It is pleasing to eye and nose. Alas, it would not suit for warming o-cha no mizu, or even brightening a brew-table: the aroma, though delicious, would overpower most infusions. Perhaps I’ll make another with an orange-yellow flickering LED in the spout and a fake-flame cellophane tassel above. Or perhaps not. Does tea-seed oil smell nicely when it burns?

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha reminds us that

... this is how to contemplate our existence
in this fleeting world:

Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.

Sometimes it takes a dream to reveal dream, an illusion to reveal that all is illusion, a flickering lamp to reveal a more persistent and immanent radiance. It is said that of the four million words put into Buddha’s mouth since the Council of Arhats, the only surviving ones that actually came out of it were his last, beginning with

Atta dipa viharatha: You are the light itself; here abide.

Until we each and all arrive at that non-place of no-attainment, we need all the illumination we can find. In that spirit, this Yankee-thrift tip for turning an object of limited utility into another of equally limited but different utility—like Gaiman’s werewolf who treasured “a small bone that he had carved into the shape of a small bone”—is offered in humble hope that it may bring pleasure and, in these parlous times, help to generate honorable employment for out-of-work teapots everywhere.


Lew Perin said...

You've given rare pleasure to Thoreau, it's safe to say, if only vicariously or metonymously, for he who shunned butter would hardly have bought olive oil in the shops of Concord.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this piece. I have seldom encountered its like. The style echoes the sense: luminous and lyrical. Great job. It rolls, gathers from everywhere. Really beautiful. ~grasshopper

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the superb description of the floating world. I am especially grateful for the expository tip on frugality, an intrinsic virtue of the superfluous and the superlative.


Anonymous said...

Thank you indeed for a passing moment of true pleasure, taken with a small pot of tea. "Have nothing in your home that is not pleasent or useful" here well combined. Judith S.