Landscapes in a Tea Bowl

A tea bowl, especially one containing a pool of frothy bright green tea is full of landscapes. This is literally true as well as being true on a more poetic spiritual level. In thinking about this concept, and comparing tea bowls and Japanese gardens, I found I was better able to appreciate both. 

My favorite type of tea bowl speaks of the earth. Such bowls are honest about the malleable clay from which they are made. One can see the soft bowl from the potter’s hands in the final product just as one can see evidence of geological processes in a landscape. When bowls are fired, color “blooms” and rough textures may result. Such “kiln events” cannot be planned in advance, but only appreciated when they do occur. Even when dramatic kiln events are not present, the process of firing adds depth to the natural feel of the bowl. In the garden, time, mosses, lichens and weathering do the same thing. 

Tea bowl shapes remind me of valleys or deep canyons. The shapes are functional to be sure. The sloping sides of the summer bowl are designed to cool the tea faster, while the more vertical sides of a winter bowl retain warmth. The curves and shapes of individual bowls vary. To raise one while holding it in both hands is to bring a valley pool to one’s lips.  

Tea ceremony tea is actually finely ground green tea leaves. Hot water is added and then whisked to form an emulsion. The color is like sunlight through leaves. One guest, upon tasting it for the first time said, “It is like drinking a meadow.” Simple, pure details of nature matter in Tea, as well as in the garden. 

During the formal ceremony, there is a pause to think with gratitude about all that went into creating the tea. This includes all contributions including the fertile earth, the sun, and those who planted, plucked, dried and ground the tea. Drinking tea is to drink in the landscape with an expanded awareness of what that means. I also try to hold that attitude of expanded appreciation when walking in a beautiful garden. 

It is possible to create a tea bowl using materials readily available from the countryside. Clay deposits are not rare. A primitive kiln may be made by piling up rocks or bricks to form a low cylinder with gaps and chinks in its walls. Into this cylinder is layered sawdust or straw and leaves with the bone dry bowls. The top of the pile is lit, and covered with a lid. Once the smoke rises steadily, the kiln is simply left to fire at a low temperature over night. The resulting gray pieces will have shades of many colors and perhaps patterns of leaves on them. In a class I attended, we made tea bowls this way, cleaned them and immediately drank tea from them. In the same way, the elements of a Japanese garden are often available locally and when combined in the right way create a magical transformation. 

Steven Murphy, a professional potter who studies the tea ceremony, explains that tea bowls must be quiet, but interesting. They cannot shout. An untrained person might find a tea bowl boring. Tea bowls are best appreciated by those with an eye for nature. 

He reminded me that more than just shape is considered in selecting a tea bowl appropriate to the season. A bowl the color of new leaves in the rain might be used in early spring. A bowl with a deep glowing brown glaze might be chosen to contribute a feeling of warmth on a cold winter morning. Seasonal changes with their many moods are consciously planned for in Japanese garden design. 

Like walking in a natural landscape, turning the bowl in one’s hands brings new views and surprises. The light, mood, and evolving taste can teach us to appreciate a familiar bowl in a new way. In some cases, a tea bowl literally changes with use as cracks in the glaze turn brown. A broken tea bowl may be mended with gold. The mended bowl continues to be prized all the more. It is only with use that a tea bowl becomes a real tea bowl. Just as it is only with tending and time that a Japanese garden becomes truly itself. 

Tea bowls have faces called shomen which are turned toward the guest. The same word can be used to refer to the side of a tree or rock which is placed toward the the viewer of a garden. The shomen of a tea bowl may be obvious when a new bowl is taken from the kiln, or it may take some time to appreciate which side is the “face” of the bowl. 

When making a tea bowl, Steven mixes one type of clay with another so that the color is not exact. He might even mix in something potentially destructive like tiny chunks of stone. The clay is made very wet which allows the clay and potter to work together. I have heard some garden designers talk about the importance of working with a sense of freedom.  

After making twenty bowls, Steven waits a day and feels the bowls all over to determine which might become cereal bowls and which might become tea bowls. He smashes any rejects. This is like the gardener who never hesitates to remove a plant that does not fit in the garden. 

Making ash glazes involves a number of steps. First wood or leaves are burned to produce ash. This is sifted, feldspar added and the mixture is ground to a fine powder. Lye is leached out, and the glaze is sieved. When Steven dips a bowl in his finished glaze, drips or streaks may happen adding a feeling of spontaneity. 

Volcanic ash produces pale green or yellow; oak wood, lichen colors; oak leaves, a transparent spring green. Browns come from mixed leaves of maple, oak, sycamore, poplar, white pine needles and “mystery” leaves thrown in for good measure. Spruce and fir needles produce pewter tones. The reddish-orange heart wood of Balm of Gilead Poplar results in yellow, blue, pink or white, but there is no way to predict which color will result. The remarkable Poplar glaze can also produce gold flecks if the bowl is cooled very slowly so that iron in the glaze crystallizes. 

It was a great joy to visit Steven’s studio to view the variety of landscapes in his finished work. There were bowls with sky images, wind images, and the moon viewed through streaked branches. The inside of one bowl had the feeling of looking up under a weeping beech tree. Pieces had very tactile satin and rough finishes in great variety. Some had bits of feldspar creating tiny light bumps on the surface. Colors were all ranges of gray and blue greens, browns, blues, creams and others with gradations and mixtures. Nothing was jarring or artificial. Some bowls had feet with bumps and fissures in the glaze which gave a very ancient feeling. 

Both tea bowls and Japanese gardens use human perception and distillation to create highly refined art forms using natural materials. Both accept and joyfully use qualities that are not entirely under human control. Seven Murphy writes, “My teacher, Keiichiroh Satoh of Nagano, Japan once said, ‘You and the clay have to agree on what it will become. Forcing it only makes pottery with no inner beauty.’” In the same way, a deep understanding of the site is required to create a beautiful garden. 

If I had to spend some time in an ugly part of a city doing stressful things and could not visit a Japanese garden or beautiful natural landscape, drinking tea from a lovely bowl would be my choice of compensation. 

This article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of the Journal of Japanese Gardening which has since been renamed, Sukiya Living; The Journal of Japanese Gardening.

 

Japanese Tea Ceremony’s Enduring Zen Flavor

Tea practice copy

Japanese tea ceremony’s flowing process for preparing a bowl of tea may strike one as elegant or beautiful. However, for those unfamiliar with the art, just viewing a demonstration may not provide much insight into the depth that lies just below the surface.

Tea practice evolved over time. After it was introduced to Japan from China, tea was grown at Zen monasteries. Processed and ground tea leaves were mixed into hot water to support the monk’s alertness during meditation. This emulsion supports considerable and sustained calm awareness all by itself. It was also used as a form of medicine – matcha has many health benefits.

When the warrior elite adopted the drink, they delighted in collecting and showing off costly tea utensils. These objects were used as proof of political authority, and given to generals as rewards.

In the 1500’s, merchants with Zen training adopted a style of sharing tea imbued with refined rustic simplicity. All social classes and women were invited to participate. In this space apart, all present were honored and treated with great respect. Sen no Rikyu brought this style of tea preparation to its peak. Since that time, standards for Japanese tea ceremony have been maintained by hereditary tea schools.

Business executives adopted the way of tea followed by young women who would often return to it after raising their children. Learning about the many arts (like flower arranging, brush painting and ceramics) that tea ceremony employs was another way to fill free hours. Urasenke, the largest tea school, established chapters outside Japan in 1951. They recently began publishing books in English with detailed instructions and extensive photos starting with the styles of preparing tea that beginners learn first.

Tea practice in my tea hut (see the photo above) brings me into this season, and this time of day, embodied and grounded. There is something about the natural movements that brings one into accord with nature’s rhythms. Many comment on how time seems to slow down. With attention fully directed to what one is doing in the moment, there is no bandwidth left over for worrying about how one is perceived, or ego posturing. While you might think tea ceremony’s proscribed procedures would make it feel stiff or impersonal, it actually feels surprisingly intimate. Despite the formality, the caring generosity built into the practice is very real.

Under the right conditions, awareness may broaden to encompass everyone in the tearoom, the mossy tea garden and then expand outward from there. Even when mistakes occur or the right utensil is not available (creative improvisation is definitely appropriate per the tea literature), tea practice consistently brings me centering peace.

From tea ceremony I learned how bringing attention and intention to potentially annoying everyday activities can transform them. Washing dishes can become joyful service and meditative play. Tea ceremony teaches that it is possible to live life more like an intentional work of art with deep respect for the potential in each moment.

Gathering for Tea

Tea plant

The Camellia sinensis plant is used to make tea all around the world. Perhaps that is not surprising given tea’s many significant health benefits. Research has also found that drinking tea can elevate mood, support focus and enhance creativity.

We do not simply drink tea, we create art and rituals around it. And they can be quite stunning. Watch this short slow motion video of portions of a Japanese tea ceremony by videographer Jeffrey Klein.

An elevated mood and greater ability to sustain focus would likely amplify the benefits that connecting provides for our social species. With both tea and social connection supporting wellbeing along with the enhanced creativity that tea makes possible, it is no wonder that sharing tea became a focus for special equipment and gatherings all around the world…

United Kingdom,
Japan,
China,
Taiwan,
Korea,
Russia,
Senegal,
Vietnam,
Colonial America

And drinking tea quite informally is always an option. But while some of tea’s benefits can be had by drinking it alone at your computer, why not enhance those benefits even further by offering to get tea for others or by inviting others to take a break to share tea with you? It is always tea time somewhere.

Beauty & Imperfection

With its seeming love for the one-of-a-kind and constant change, the natural world can be quite worthy of our detailed inspection. Even an oddly unique, or broken and incomplete natural object can be so beautiful it can take our breath away. There is a story about Sen no Rikyu, a famous Japanese tea ceremony master – he shook a few leaves onto the moss after a tea garden was cleaned a bit too perfectly. Leaving a few fallen leaves on the moss points to the wonder and mystery of reality as it really is.

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We care about others’ approval because we need others in order to survive, and that can have us wanting to be perfect. But perfection in the abstract is a rather odd concept when you think about it. Toward what end? And according to what standards does it operate, anyway? What matters to one person may not matter at all to another and different cultures value different things.

I have found that people actually love it when we accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we can be open about feeling vulnerable at times. Those who can accept their own imperfections tend to have an easier time accepting them in others which can be a great relief given how much we tend to fear being negatively judged.

Japanese tea ceremony teaches many lessons through the actions involved in sharing tea while engaging with various objects. For example, a beautiful tactile tea bowl like the one made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, may be misshapen or have imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire. Irregularities and burnishing from age and use can add great depth to beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.

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The subtle and hard to define Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” embraces imperfection. It recognizes that since everything is constantly changing, perfection is impossible, except in perfect moments as Beth Kempton notes along with wonderful examples in her Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

I find that looking for a beauty that embraces imperfection can provide great solace. At times we can even catch others and ourselves in the act of being beautiful. And seeing the light shining through that deeper beauty can connect us to all that is.

Below are examples of imperfect beauty that called out to me. I recommend the wonderful adventure of finding your own examples.

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Refuge in a Tea Bowl

Tea bowls are literally full of nature. I think of them as having something in common with valleys or deep hollows. Summer tea bowls are more open so the tea will cool faster, while winter bowls tend to have steep sides. After tasting a bowl of bright pea green matcha tea for the first time, a guest remarked, “It tastes like drinking a meadow.”

While a potter shapes clay and applies glazes to make a tea bowl, there is always a collaboration with natural forces. Kiln fire and heat will have their say. If I was stuck in an ugly part of a city, drinking tea from a lovely tactile bowl would certainly be an appropriate compensation. Tea bowls come in endless variety. Here are a few examples:

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A Place to Share Tea

After years of Japanese tea ceremony lessons, I longed for an appropriate uncluttered space of my own in which to practice. Installing a tea garden and hut was such a crazy idea, I knew I should take it seriously. After sharing tea in my hut with many different people, I am glad I acted on that impulse.

The mossy shade in the area I had in mind already felt like a tea garden. I added stepping stones, a granite lantern and a basin.

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The hut dimensions allowed for a board with a screen, an acceptable alternative to the more common tokonoma alcove. I requested custom windows to illuminate the preparation area with soft light.

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Tea utensils are staged in a corner. A friend made the shelf from a board that once served as a desk.

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The tea garden and hut are one in my mind. The healing rhythms of nature are much in evidence here. But you do not need a tea hut to connect with nature’s nurturance.

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All you need to do is slow down and pay full attention to enjoying a cup of tea.

Creating Welcome

Bringing in peace as you prepare for a gathering will affect you in ways that cannot help but benefit your guests – Pause, Relax, and Open, Attune to Emergence and Listen Deeply. Then Speak the Truth in creating an environment that conveys warmth and welcome. The Insight Dialogue guidelines work well in so many applications including this one.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. Using a light touch, see what happens. Relying on a heart connection without words can open us to wonderful small surprises and an understanding that with a little care, life can be lived more like a work of art.

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You can bring to it all the sensitivity and freshness used to create a tokonoma alcove arrangement for a tea ceremony. This one includes a collage by my tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya:

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You may also wish to keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. While it is important to ensure that what touches food or drink is scrupulously clean and that edibles are pure and safe, purity also dictates that anything not needed be eliminated. Care taken with objects and supplies implies respect for your guests.

Ideally, the result will be supportive of a sense of peace and wellbeing as well as openness. It takes a bit of effort, but this approach to preparing for guests is an important mindfulness practice in its own right.

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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. This article describes three aesthetic concepts related to appreciation of nature including the illusive wabi sabi. Other Japanese concepts related to kintsugi include, mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (openness to transience).

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The example above was a favorite “travel” tea bowl of a Japanese tea ceremony enthusiast. When it broke in transit, honoring it by having it mended using a nontraditional color (normally kintsugi uses gold, silver, or platinum) certainly gave it most vibrant new life. It is treasured by its owner for the whole series of memories it has accrued including this latest set.

When I first encountered kintsugi, my first thought was about the time-transcending collaboration; the one who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the one who mended it all contributing. I could imagine the bowl held gently in the hand as it was fixed linking the spirit of the mender to the spirit of the maker, even if the maker was long dead.

There are many good reasons to mend a bowl. From tending my tea garden and dealing with storm damage along with all the seasonal changes I learned the wisdom of honoring the potential of what is here now even as everything changes. At times, the radiance due to loving care brought to mending a troubled past can lead to a beauty that surpasses the original.

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The owner of this beautiful bowl by Brother Thomas considered having it mended so the repair would be invisible, but the gallery owner thought better of that and decided to have it mended using gold leaf. When the bowl was shown to Brother Thomas, he was most pleased. In fact, he liked it better that way. The bowl remains a very happy part of the gallery owner’s collection.

Although Audrey Harris was not so pleased with her first attempts at mending using kintsugi, the important lessons she learned with the help of her teacher were certainly treasures. Kintsugi is brimming with metaphoric lessons. Here is another video showing a particularly powerful use of this metaphor.

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.

A Personal Garden Refuge

It takes many years to really get to know a garden so that you are in each other’s bones. I encouraged the moss that already liked to grow here. I added stepping stones and a tea hut. I watched for the new maple leaves, and took their portraits in the fall. Children jumped on the stepping stones. Raccoons drank from the water basin. The garden and I bless each other with mutual nurturance even as we continually change. Peace gathered and peace extended.

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