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 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 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. All you need is available by slowing down for the full experience of drinking a cup of tea.

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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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