Thoughts on tea and the tactile sense… It is really amazing, what friends, who not are as much into tea, or haiku, or all kind of japanese nerdery, can make one think about. Things I have taken for granted, I am trying to find ways to explain with words.

One new area of discussion or wonder, at least, has been the – in the teaworld completely normal – use of unique pieces of handmade pottery, glazed or unglazed. Pieces that only exist in one copy. The bigger matcha bowls, and smaller cups for drinking chinese green, oolong, black or pu erh tea, brewed gong fu style, eastern style.

Being used to having these around in my home, I found myself in a home without any handmade cups or bowls. This time not for tea, but for serving a ceremonial cacao, I wanted bowls, that had ‘something to the touch’, something special, a feeling of hightened tactile sense, while holding the precious drink. I had been so used to that, that having to do with porcelain mugs – even though nice, but all the same, factory manufactured, sterile, not touched by a single hand under production – was quite discouraging. By drinking from them, I felt, a whole dimension was somehow lacking. A certain respect for the content of the cup was lacking. A deepened sensory feeling with the hands holding, exploring, and the lips touching, was lacking. It was flat – instead of deep, concentrated, heartfelt.

When holding a handmade cup, the feelings of the potter talk so much you, they communicate. Vibrations from his or her vision about how a cup should be, are transplanted through the cup, he or she has made. The form it has become, the thickness of the walls, the structure of the clay, the colour and feel of the glazing. All these things, you, during YOUR experience with drinking from it, can explore. Before drinking, and after. Your lips on the rim, how the shape does feel, how the surface. The most important, for me at least: holding the bowl with your hands around it. With a beautiful, handmade bowl, a matchabowl for example, that is a feeling, that talks to something very basic, survivalwise, warming, in you. Holding it, the warmth travels through the surface of your hands, to your whole body. The structure is felt. From one person to the other, you. Holding it, in front of your breast, it is close to your heart, and apart from the warm liquid, it gives your soul and heart something very essential, giving, nourishing. With a cup in your hands like that, you are close to heaven. How more perfect can it become. What else would there be. I can think of not much else.

Best greetings, Ulla

This morning, the last day of this strange 2020, a white Nepal, and then the first of alltogether six teas, that arrived from Elton Powell, ´Tea for You’, just in time for a few days off work here around New Year. The white tea is light, like green tea also, a good thing for me in the morning, reading about haiku.

A while ago, I used the starling haiku mentioned earlier as an example for friend, who had asked about what haiku was about. He thought haiku were spiritual, philosophical texts, and was dissapointed to hear about the amout of real life experiences, they often contain. “Then what are they more than a direct description of what is going on..? I can make a haiku about a pølsevogn?” I said, he could – but again struggled in search for words. It’s not JUST – but sometimes it is. But there is depth of feeling as result, a lingering, a smile…

(15 dec. 2020)

So: If a haiku was about things in the physical world, so ‘real’, was it a spiritual text then, or not? The question seems to answer itself this morning, or suddenly falls into place. I am reading an article about Aldous Huxley, haiku and zen (by Mike Chasty in “Blithe Spirit”, Volume 17, No 4, Dec 2007). It tells about the time, where haiku was taken up, introduced, to english speaking readers in the ´50ies and ´60ies. It came in a time, when Aldous Huxley had published his “Brave New World”, and the modern world was racing towards a more technical, mechanized life, but also the reaction against it, by writers, the beat generation and later hippies. Huxley realizes, that that zen spirit, that connection to nature and its inherent possibilities for enlightenment, also are found in english speaking traditions, fx the poetry of english Wordsworth and american Whitman. He cites a work by the guru of haiku, R.H. Blythe, who found much ´zen-like´ in english literature, and wrote a book about it. Both acknowledge, that there can be found a different attitude towards nature in these works, and in haiku, which he misses in the normal modern approach, in modern life: an answer to the endless questions and discussions of what human nature is about. A living relationship between humans and animals, plants, landscapes and seasons, a relationship, where both partake. A state of mind, that can be reached, where humans are more whole and complete. An open zen-like state of mind, full of humility, the mind empty and quiet, without thoughts, non-cluttered. He is aware of that this state can be expressed in literature, and especially haiku, which he regards as one of the most refined and elegant ways.

Teacup in my hand –
filling it, the warmth increasing
through the clay

Reading: Aldous Huxley, “Those Barren Leaves”, 1925, “Do What you Will”, 1929, “Doors of Pereption” , 1954, R.H. Blythe, “Zen in English Literature”, 1942.

Not so much on tea this time. Skip if if you want : ) Am drinking 8y old Da Xue Shan Sheng Pu Erh, nice and warming. Darker with each brew. A bit of morning light in this else very grey december. Hyazinth flower looks towards spring already…

Emptiness. There are days, when we fall in, and spend too much time on social media. It happens. When you have been following all kinds of threads and read all kinds of random opinions, lets say even just for half an hour, and you put your mobile phone away – try to give some attention to, what happens to you afterwards. Try to come to yourself. You may feel the silence, the absence of noise, clutter, voices, that are not your own. You might even feel empty. There seems to be lacking something, you look and listen to what is there now, but there is nothing. You look around, and look for things to catch your attention. Things to do. To distract your mind with. – That seems to have become an everyday situation for the modern human in 2020, soon 2021. –

NOW. Imagine NOT having had turned on that mobile phone for distraction to begin with. You start in an empty room. You might choose a few books instead, from a pile, or your bookshelf (which I recommend you have…). You might light some of your favorite incense, a candle, prepare a cup of calming warm tea – and with that, you settle in your favorite chair or sofa, your cosy nook. You can also do just one of these things. In each case, you create a setting. You give yourself room. You honour your own time. You might begin to read. When you read from a book, it is different than from a screen. There is no light, no moving pixels, no ads, no messages coming in, disrupting your flow. You can focus. You can take it in your own time.

Slowly, the text starts to talk to you from the pages, sentences fill your mind. But only with one voice at a time, a voice of your own choice. When you look up from a book, the thoughts hang in the air, you can pause – and think your own. Make mental comments. Complete the conversation with the book. Then you can read on, when you like. Looking up again, you might enjoy the light in the room, the silence in between the thoughts. The air suddenly has a flavour. And you´re not alone any more. You are in good hands, in good company. And you smile at the voice from the book, or the incense that talks to you. You are experiencing, being present in, your life. Your own life. Congratulations.

Best regards, Ulla Conrad

(18. dec. 2020, or earlier)

(Drinking China Tie Guan Yin ‘High Roast’ Oolong Spring 2018′, from ‘Tea For You’, Elton Powell, UK)

Starlings / in a chorus / unrehearsed (Francis Attard)

Just that. Just that little fine picture, just that little comment on the starlings, which not really is a comment, but words connected to that experience, just enough – to suddenly reveal that whole picture in my inner. I HEAR them. I have seen it, heard it, but these five words bring it all back to me, in an instant. They are the KEY to unlock that moment of beauty, that was already in me, in my realm of experiences or memories – but it UNLOCKED it. It comes directly across, no flimmer, no ego or “I”.

(I regard it as a good haiku, even if it doesn’t have the typical contrast of two different realms, which merge and become one, which I normally consider important. Maybe the words ‘chorus unhearsed’ works as a kind of association to a human chorus, maybe that’s where some depth or co trast comes from.)

Another haiku is:

bright morning sunshine /steaming cows / on the frosty grass (Dennis Stukenbroker)

That is why just reading two or three haiku already fills you up with impressions, and you really can’t take in more than a few at a time… each of them needs time, space to unfold. There has been written a lot about this, but it is true: After reading, give it time to unwrap in you, find in to the picture you have in yourself, and the one you make anew in that moment, or a combination of the two. Suddenly, you SEE. Suddenly you SMELL. Suddenly, you are THERE at the spot. You have travelled in time and space, and arrived.

October market / Through lingering mist / the smell of crepes. (Diana Webb)

Only when the words have dissolved, and you stand in the scenery, the haiku has reached its destination, its purpose. That is the creative act, the readers responsibility, that is needed to make it come alive, to make it arrive, to finish it.

(All haiku are taken from British Haiku Society’s haikumagasin “Blithe Spirit”, Volume 17, Number 4, dec 2007. I have not asked for permission to cite them at this point, if there any objections, please let me know).

Best regards, Ulla Conrad

(13. dec. 2020)

(13. dec. 2020)

(Drinking Da Xue Shan ‘Snow Mountain’ Sheng Pu Erh, from HOJO)

Imagine how much pleasure there is, in a winter forest, a place, where you´ve never been before. Here my thoughts on zen, haiku, tea, and nature. 
I am out walking, and the effect of the pu erh tea, I drank this morning, is still in me. It vibrates in my whole body, like a grounding warmth inside, which I feel while walking. I walk pass houses, leave the village, pass an old farm, look it up on the internet. I find black and white pictures of its former grand interior, a big hall with a fireplace, rugs covering the walls, the family history, the stables for the horses. All gone now, at least all hidden behind the modern facade of a management company. And I walk on through the fields. I pass an empty plot, a garden with a huge oaktree, and imagine myself building a cabin there, right under the tree. The plot needs looking after. I could imagine myself there. I go on, finally enter the forest properly, and can begin to explore. Soon after the entrance, a bit further in, suddenly a big stone on the earth appears. It is round, but has a big depression on the top. It looks like something, that has been worked on, like somebody has used it to grind flour, over a long time, in old times. I squat down, and, after taking my gloves off, put my hand there. I feel coldness, but somehow also warmth underneath. My skin, my flesh, starts tingling from the cold, and my imagination, my fantasy, runs wild.
I get up again, and go on. The path is lined by brown leaves, and big trees. And suddenly there, further on, at the bottom of a tree, there is – a troll. The atmosphere is like it, and that´s probably why I see it. It´s like a round face with a hat, two eyes and a big round nose. A friendly little head sticking up above the earth, the rest hidden in the ground. It looks friendly, it looks right at me. It makes me laugh! It is later revealed, that it only consisted if peaces of treetrunks, from a felled tree…
Both these experiences could be compared to a haiku poem. In the three short lines o f a haiku, the poet tries to show the moments, he awakens out of a general setting, a meditative state. So here, first the forest itself, walking on this path, lined with brown leaves – the first part in a haiku, forming the background, the ongoing atmosphere, the season. And then comes the feeling in the hand, suddenly touching the stone, feeling the cold – the second part of a haiku, the contrast, the surprise. And again, a second time, the forest as the background, and then suddenly – the face of a troll appearing in a tree. It is a haiku happening right there, small insights happening, small here-and-now experiences. A haiku in itself, a haiku moment – and also, that is what a haiku can capture, that is what zen is. Small awakenings, in the now. With all your senses open. 
And as if building up to the third experience, the most important one, I am being led to a little earthen wall a little further on. And I diverge from the path. I crawl up the wall, step through the dried leaves, up and up, until I reach the top of the crest, surrounding a big hole in the ground, maybe from big lump of ice in the iceage, which melted here, and left a hole. Its now lined by trees, there are beechnuts on the ground. Suddenly up there, there is a great view over the fields. Here the forest stops, here is a natural border.  I sit down at the first tree I reach, and I have this wonderful feeling of arriving, the first time since I moved home. Looking over the fields, and looking towards the village, I have settled in. It has red roofs and yellow walls, looking over green hedges. I rest and I breathe, and I take my shoes of, and feel myself, the energy, and the ground. I feel connected to it. Seeing the small honeysuckle plants on the ground, now hibernating, but with green leaves above the ground, I want to take some home with me, and plant them. There are lots of them, small seedlings, so I pluck a few, and and take them with me, hoping that that will be ok with the spurit of this place. And I promise to come back to this place, rever it, honour it, and love it. It feels good. 

The old beech tree –
the new year being drawn up
from it roots

Best regards, Ulla Conrad

(5. dec. 2020)

Drinking a tea which I initially started on yesterday, a Da Xue Shan ‘Snow Mountain’ Raw Pu Erh from Hojo. There is snow in the air, all heavy and grey, and in my new attic appartement on the slope of a hill I nearly am on a Snow Mountain.

Preparing this setting for drinking tea in an eastern way creates a background for a way to be present. It establishes an atmosphere, that invites you to slow down, and sit. Sit and observe, feel, be open to whatever sensation will occur, when brewing, tasting, drinking.

The japanese zen tradition teaches, that enlightenment can happen intuitively, like a lightning, in a single short moment – not through long years of study or following the rules of a monastery or other institution. Preparing oneself by being present in the now at all times, if either sitting on a cushion or not, then any kind of sensual everyday occurence can wake you up, and create such an enlightenment: a sound, a scent, a view. Zen appreciates the senses, the intimate with the concrete. And in terms of tea: the sound of boiling water in the kettle, the scent of a raw pu erh tea, the view of the steam rising from the wet teapot.

Basho, the haiku poet who formed the haiku tradition in the 17th c, reminds one, that a haiku (or hokku, as it was termed then) should show both these concepts, or worlds: the universality, and the sudden essence, of the world. Two worlds, two realms of being. Which have been seperate, but now complement each other, become one. Many haiku follow this scheme – two pictures, a general setting, and then the sudden experience – merging together in a realized oneness. Basho wrote:

Midday silence – / the sound of cicadas / penetrates the mountain.

As a reader of these haiku, you imagine the same situation, you return to that moment, when they spontaneousely, intuitively experienced that ‘haiku moment’.

In japanese tea ceremony terms, this reminds me of a day, I was sitting as a guest, and watching a friend make tea, matcha. On the ceramic fireplace, furo, there were a few brushstrokes, resembling autumn grass. Suddenly, after listening to the silence, and the movements of the friend, I HEARD the rustling in these leaves, these grasses. I was in nature, completely vibrating and alive.

This morning, pouring hot water over the teapot, the steam was rising from the whole pot, and was dancing in the morning light. Another moment, where everything was alive, everything was perfect, just as it should be. On top of the lid was a clay mouse, and even that one kind of came alive.

Being a poet, here is what the haiku moment appears – and can be transformed into a – haiku.

Best regards, Ulla Conrad

(8. dec. 2020)

This week temperatures dropped, and with the arrival of the first snowflakes a few days ago, and the start of December, winter has come. I am brewing a GABA Oolong tea from Tea Masters. Enjoying the warmth and sweetness of it, no astringency at all (Cultivar Jinxyan, origin Mingjian, central Taiwan, harvested July 2019).

The other day I tried to explain to a friend, why I enjoyed gong fu cha, the chinese way of drinking tea. He didn’t understand – why all the utensils, so many different options, teapots and cups. I tried to describe it. The joy of choosing a tea and tea ware after what energies seemed right, the meditative process of brewing, the tasting, the state of mind, the being in the now.

Maybe I found some words to describe it in the book about haiku, I am reading this morning. Again, here with haiku, an artform is used to catch and celebrate the moment you are in, the now. No past and future, just what IS here and now, in front of you. It uses things in nature just outside of you. But the person seeing them, is, as realized in zen, ONE with these things. The realization of this being-one happens not through metaphysical thoughts and reasonings, but through a sensual experience, something you see, smell, hear, around you. It is one with the feeling of the person in this particular moment, it represents and IS that feeling. Contrary to that, describing a situation, commenting on it (as I do now ; ) only creates a DISTANCE between you and the outside.

Like these concrete, simple words that form a haiku, the teapot and cup in front of me ARE. Sitting there, as themselves, being part of the reality around me, in me. In this space, in the silence between me and them, they come true. They breathe. It is like the emptiness in a Japanese painting, the nothing, that makes that possible. The space, the listening, AFTER reading a haiku, after taking a sip of tea, lingers in the room, in your mind. The filling-in with your own perceptions, feelings, memories, only makes it complete. You need to participate. Be there, give yourself, your whole being, to the moment. Then – you ARE.

Best tea greetings, Ulla

(6. dec. 2020)

Matcha bowls

A few matcha bowls in my collection…

Here it’s sunday morning, nov. 8th, and I’ve started on an obscure Sheng pu erh, Meng Hai Tea Factory 8172. I found it in a chinese shop run by a dane, he had it on top of a shelf, as a display, sold it for nearly nothing, and it has been one of the best pu erhs I have tasted. The number if it, 8162 means from 1971, but maybe it’s just the year of the recipe. But it’s at least 15-20y old.

Yellow yellow yellow Ya Bao…