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 remain convinced that acting on that crazy idea was a good decision.

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 they are always available by just slowing down and sharing 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 arrangement that conveys warmth and welcome. These Insight Dialogue guidelines work in so many applications including when creating a setting for guests.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. It is a chance to be creative and playful, using a light touch to see what happens, a heart connection without words, a small surprise, a way of acknowledging that 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 such as wabi sabi (follow the link for one of the best articles I found on this subtle aesthetic), mottainai (regret about waste), and mushin (open 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 where the one who made the bowl, the forces that broke it, and the one who mended it all contributed. 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. But at times, a mended bowl’s beauty can surpass that of its original appearance.

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The gallery that owned this beautiful bowl by Brother Thomas considered having it mended so the repair would be invisible, but 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 with the results. 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 great treasures. I greatly appreciate Harris’s discussion of how kintsugi is brimming with metaphoric lessons. Here is another video on the power of this metaphor.

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.

Addendum: This post was updated on 3/11/19 to include a most powerful video about the metaphoric power 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, took their portraits and collected them when they fell. 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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An Invitation to Tea

A heightened awareness of what is going on around the hut is part of tea. There may be rain drops falling on the roof, rustling leaves, bird song, falling dusk with the crickets starting up, or a cold, bright winter day.

It was chilly that afternoon in February though record high temperatures had kept the snow away. Sun was streaming in through the naked branches of overhead trees and the evergreens seemed to be drinking it in.

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Modern houses block us off from nature. The tea hut does create an interior meditative world, but it is not cut off in the same way and in that sense brings us back to our roots.

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Within the hut, natural light creates a restful mood as do the tatami mats and simple space. The kettle/hibachi waits on the host mat with steam just beginning to rise. I also directed a small space heater toward where guests would sit.

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The light (and therefore the mood), varies by time of day, weather conditions and with the seasons. It also changes constantly during the course of a practice. It was particularly bright and mysterious that afternoon.

Tea provides a place to slow down enough to appreciate ordinary things that are not so ordinary. Being awake in the moment also allows for a deep rapport between host and guests.

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I stage the utensils in a corner of my one-room hut. A talented friend cut the clam-shell shelf to my specifications, using a board that once served as a desk. The basket holds a blanket that was useful on this occasion.

Although blueberries are not appropriate for a winter ceremony, I knew that my friend is particularly fond of them, so I made an exception.

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At the beginning of the ceremony, guests come up to look more closely at the scroll and flowers. A guest might look down from above to see this view of the flowers that seem to be bursting with promise of the energy of spring.

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The scroll I selected suggests the coming season as did the crocus that decided to bloom in a protected area of my front yard that day. I was told that this calligraphy is of a type that might have been made for sale by a monk at a Buddhist Temple.

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My friend is holding the delicate water scoop. Later the kettle lid will be placed on the rest. Notice the contrasting weights and textures among the various utensils. I was taught that I should lift bamboo utensils as if they were the heavy ones.

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Dense steam rises as the kettle water gets quite hot. The heat is especially welcome on a chilly winter afternoon. A modern summer ice tea variation uses a glass tea bowl.

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I am using a cloth with a pattern and holding it out before starting to fold it. This is a centering and respectful gesture. The tea container is positioned so it may be easily lifted for purification. The cloth will be refolded before the tea scoop is gently wiped as well.

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After mixing the tea into the water, the whisk, made from a single piece of bamboo, looks like this. Tea scoops come in many variations in size, and shape. There are also scoops made out of other materials such as ceramic.

While the whisk is often admired for its design, the bamboo tea scoop has understated elegance. After using one for a while, it becomes clear just how perfectly this small utensil fulfills its function.

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