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 such as the illusive wabi sabi, mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (openness to transience).  This post presents two examples that had great meaning for their owners.

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The first example (above) was a favorite “travel” tea bowl of a Japanese tea ceremony enthusiast. When it broke in transit during a trip, he had it mended using a nontraditional color. Kintsugi normally uses gold, silver, or platinum.  The owner treasures all of his memories of that special bowl, including those associated with its latest vibrant transformation.

When I first encountered kintsugi, I realized the process was a form of time transcending collaboration. The person who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the person who mended it all contribute.  

Of course, there are many good reasons to mend a bowl. But this art goes beyond the practical or sentimental. From tending my tea garden through growth and change and at times dealing with storm damage, 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 potential which informs the very heart of beauty.

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When this bowl by Brother Thomas broke, its owner considered having it repaired so the mend would be invisible.  In the end, he decided on gold leaf.  When shown the elegant results, Brother Thomas said he liked the bowl better that way. It remains a treasured object in the gallery owner’s personal collection.

Although Audrey Harris was not so pleased with her first attempts at kintsugi, the many important lessons she learned from the process with the help of her teacher were certainly treasures. Kintsugi can also be used as a most powerful metaphor for human healing as this video makes clear.

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

Cleaning My Tea Garden

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Tea garden cleaning is not too serious an enterprise. It is said that young boys and old men are perfect cleaners of tea gardens because they are not too careful. In fact there is a story that Sen no Rikyu, who was a great tea ceremony master and setter of standards, shook a tree to scatter a few leaves into a too-perfectly-cleaned tea garden.

When I am cleaning my tea garden, I often get lost in what I am doing and before I know it, an hour or more has passed. I allow myself the luxury of taking my time. I stop to check if the few remaining weeds in the moss are distracting rather than enhancing and natural looking.

As I work, I notice the pattern of shadows and whether there is a breeze or a light covering of snow on the evergreens. I notice the color of a single fallen leaf. Sometimes I sweep the moss with a broom. I may replace a fallen twig I have removed. I “listen” to the garden and what it tells me should be done.

I water everything carefully, and the moss fills out and deepens in color before my eyes. I scour the rough granite water basin and fill it with pure water. Then I place the delicate bamboo dipper diagonally across the round opening. If it is evening, I light the lanterns not to provide light, but to enhance the growing darkness and to mark the path.

In winter, I carefully clear the stepping stones trying not to disturb the snow around them. This is a beautiful time of year in the garden as the snow mounds on the evergreens and lanterns and the bare branches of the trees enhance the solitude.

Normally cleaning the garden has the effect of taking me far from the mundane frustrations of life and bringing me to a state of peace, openness and gratitude. There is also the joy of anticipating the remaining tasks yet to be done inside the teahouse. These tasks include selecting the scroll for the tearoom, arranging the flowers, and preparing the tea utensils for the particular occasion.

I usually select a scroll that suggests the coming season. One or two simple flowers from my yard are arranged in a basket or mud-colored vase. I place odd numbers of molded sweets or dried fruits in an abalone shell. Sometimes I place them on a wooden plate with a leaf.

Tea bowls, jars and containers, bamboo scoops, pieces of cloth used in cleansing, and a special tea whisk are all selected. My appreciation of the beauty, simplicity and functional rightness of the tea utensils continues to grow over time.

This is just one example of how tea grows deeper in meaning the longer one practices. Many aspects of tea are both simple and profound. Its values, which are only implied indirectly in this article, are particularly true and precious to me.

One of the very last steps in preparing for a tea ceremony is to wet the stepping stones just before guests arrive to create a feeling of freshness and as a sign of respect and greeting.

This article was originally published in the March, April 1999 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening.