Hidden in a non- descript housing development in North York, PA is a lovely gem of a place, Gessha Japanese Tea House. From the quiet street of small, tidy tract homes, one could not have guessed what waited through the bamboo gate and around the back of Tea Master Frey's home.
A gorgeous, hand built, 4 tatami-matt Tea House, complete with the humble entrance that could only be enacted by taking our shoes off outdoors and bowing deeply, where all are equal, kings and commoners alike, and the strict social system of entitlement is erased....
November is a big month for Tea Practitioners--the Spring tea that was picked and stored in ceramic jars, aged so to speak, is ready to be presented to the taste buds as Macha, thick, earthy, satisfying, startling!
And in this Tea House, as in all others, November marks the month that the hearth is sunk beneath the floor, rather than occupying a space above ground as in the warmer months. The November hearth is banked with nestling charcoal and branches, arranged from thickest to thinnest, until the top of the hearth looks like an arrangement of thin, brittle bones.
Dirt and dust is swept away with a feather, in this case, one from Japan, which I recognized as once belonging to an owl.
So November is an opportunity to gather together to sample the taste of the past Spring, and Macha is the guest of honor!
Sensei Fry treated us to a wonderful Macha, enough in one gorgeous tea bowl for 3 sips each, and as we passed it around, bowing, wiping the rim, bowing, he told us about the scroll and haiku in the tokonama (art alcove)--it was a stunning, dynamic piece by Soen Nakagwawa Roshi, which read:
Into the zendo at twilight
the maple leaves
Nakagwawa Roshi was truly a character; one story has him enacting an instant tea ceremony in an airport, when he placed a pinch of tea in a student's mouth and directed, "Now make water!"
After our first tea, we were served a meal of sticky rice, root vegetables, salmon, pickles and umboji. We had an opportunity to talk to the other guests, some brave enough to become students of Sensei Frey. Then, because our legs had all but fallen asleep sitting on the tatami, we went out walking in the garden. The house cat, a wild orange boy, ambushed us from behind saplings and kept us all entertained, as we shivered and stretched our legs.
Returning to the warmth of the Tea House, we had a chance to admire the ceramic vase and ikibana, a tall sprig of yellow blooming witch hazel and a green, green branch with a camelia bud that had yet to open. The vase, a traditional gourd shape, had been twisted and animated with a potter's expert hand.
Our second tea, made and served by Fujie Twilling, was Usuch (thin tea) using the hakobidemae procedure, which is one of the very first methods learned by any student. And the name of the tea was Biwa no Shiro, by Konbayashi. With this tea, we had sweets, one in particular which had a crunchy outside layer that seemed to shatter in your mouth with one bite! Nowhere are sweets this good!
Crunching, slurping, bowing some more...slurping the tea is good manners, and informs the host that the tea has been enjoyed to the dregs! And the hands linger on the bowl, a Buddha bowl....
There were two different chawan (tea bowls) making the rounds in this serving--one was a black Oribe, with mountain designs on one facet, the other was a highly stylized porcelain bowl with a falling leaf decoration, from red maples. But the bowl I loved the most was a hefty Shino, humble and displaying wonderful Wabi, that happened to fit perfectly into my hands. I didn't want to let it go, and even now I can still feel it!
The surface was like a walk on the moon, and the Macha inside was like a swim through waving kelp beds with my mouth open!
As guests, it was our pleasure to admire the tea implements and ask after their provenance--there is always a story to be told and many pieces to be passed from hand to hand, lingering over what our 6 senses tell us about each piece...the presence of the artist's hand in the bowl, the feather weight of the bamboo tea scoop, the house-shaped incense holder, the exquisite tea caddy with it's brocade bag--each component is an essential ingredient to the experience, and nothing is left to happenstance. This is a place where mindfulness reigns supreme, and all partake of the practice; time stands still, the hiss of water in the iron cauldron over the charcoal, the smell of tea as it is whisked into green froth, the sensation of cool fresh air one shoulder from the open window behind me, the way my hands slide cooly over the tatami as I bow, and a warm golden glow surrounding us, where tea is a meditation, a gate, a question mark for me.
Hours later, walking, walking, walking, I talk to the dog, I talk to the rising full moon and to the leaves finally blowing from the trees, loosening and flying, a final flight, walking, and talking to myself and creating Haiku inspired by Macha caffeine, like jet fuel, and feeling that any meditation would continue far into the night, far into the week, no work to attend to, meditation far into the year, and how many years might pass? Perhaps nine years, sitting finally like Bodhidharma to face the cave wall, and knowing too, that afterwards, dreams would be inspired, like tea!