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.

 

Finding Joy in Details – Morrisonite Jasper

I find Morrisonite to be particularly rich in details. Both the jasper and the beautiful location where it is found stimulate the imagination. I can count on delightful surprises when I attempt to capture its endless patterns and colors in closeup photos.

The slabs shown below include an entire cross section of a jasper seam. The second photo shows a small section of a slab. Several examples exhibit the overlapping egg pattern that also occurs in several other types of jasper.

Lapidary artists find a great deal to select from. While the finished cabs can be set in jewelry, the best are often acquired by collectors who prefer to keep these little works of natural and lapidary art just as they are.

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Creative Tea and Dialogue with Art, Music, and Spoken Reactions

Creative T&D
Photo from video by Jeff Klein

Lidia Kenig-Scher painted while Jim Flavin played various instruments. Here, Jim improvises on the didgeridoo while below it singing bowls respond sympathetically.

In April and May of 2019, four of us worked on a project to capture footage of a creative variation of tea and dialogue while a painting emerged in response to “the unending sea of blessings,” (a Japanese scroll saying). Besides our contemplation topic we were also supported by Gregory Kramer’s Insight Dialogue guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence (previously Trust Emergence), Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. The video at the link below provides an idea of what occurred over three sessions including spoken reactions and discussion:

Creative tea and dialogue video

After we shared tea in her living room, Lidia Kenig-Scher worked on the painting in her studio as Jim Flavin played a variety of instruments in the next room and videographer, Jeff Klein, captured the action. The materials, tools, and effort involved lent a grounded, down to earth quality to this multimedia dialogue. The video shows how the rhythms and the feeling of the music influenced Lidia’s brush strokes. Jim mentioned feeling a connection even though he could not see the painting.

The tea we drank at the start of the second session had four ingredients. Since there were also four of us, that seemed a great metaphor for our communal awareness that retained what we each contributed to the blend.

We experienced a particularly vivid example of the stages described by Mitchell Kossak in Attunement in Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward an Understanding of Embodied Empathy where periods of seeking safety and risk taking ultimately result in an experience of the universal. Lidia had put up a quote about the wisdom of trusting emergence rather than forcing things on her studio wall some time ago. Jeff trained his camera on that quote and his comment about how well that quote expressed what happened the previous day is included in the video soundtrack.

After the doubt, empathic support, and effortless expansive creative flow, the completion of the painting recognized by a hug, felt particularly powerful. That hug also symbolized the closeness the practice supported. I could not help but be grateful that we were capturing all that on video.

The plan was to display the painting in my tea hut for a later tea and spoken dialogue session (see below):

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I am glad we discussed our common belief that creativity is not just for professional artists. Nor is it just for the young. Contrary to what younger people might believe, older adults can actually experience reduced anxiety and increased life satisfaction; they may no longer care as much about what others think about them, bringing a new and most welcome sense of freedom that supports creativity. In fact older adults bring a number of gifts to tea and dialogue practice. Creative tea and dialogue is certainly not just for professionals as this joyous example shows.

I am most grateful for the generosity of these talented artists:

Jim Flavin is a musician and certified practitioner and teacher of Jikiden Reiki. He collects percussion instruments from all over the world and shares them with others in the drum circles he leads. His work as a contractor provides many opportunities for the practical application of mindfulness. He believes in spreading unconditional love through expressing respect, kindness and honesty in all relationships.

Lidia Kenig-Scher is an award-winning mixed media artist and transformational catalyst. Her intuitively conceived works are installed in the interiors of successful homeowners and entrepreneurs, many of whom claim that the art emits a vibration capable of positively affecting their lives and the spaces where the art is installed. This highly decorated interior designer and Feng Shui master also teaches people to “paint from the heart,” a meditation-based technique grounded in more than 40 years of Buddhist practices and intense spiritual work. Lidia notes that her artworks invite personal growth because she too starts by opening her heart and trusting her brush to paint the truth.

Jeffrey Klein is a bilingual videographer with a 25-year career in multi-media production in Japan and the United States including podcasts and videos intended for retail, business, entertainment and educational contexts. Samples of his work are available at his website.

What it Means to Have Faith in The Unending Sea of Blessings

A video of how the painting below, “The Unending Sea of Blessings,” by Lidia Kenig-Scher* was created is available here.

The Sea of Unending Blessings SMALLPhoto of Lidia’s painting by Jean Abate, Framing & Fine Art Reproduction Specialist, Northeast Digital Imaging, Salem, NH

“The Unending Sea of Blessings”

According to William Scott Wilson in The One Taste of Truth: Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea, page 135:

“This phrase from the Kannon-kyo is the summation of the life, free of obstructions, that we can have if we put faith in the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

If, in a lawsuit, you stand before a magistrate,
Or are in dread and fear on the battlefield,
Think upon the power of Avalokitesvara,
And all the myriads of enemies and their hostilities will retreat and disperse.
The wonderful sound, the Perceiver of the World’s Sounds,
Brahma’s sound, the sound of the tidal sea
Surpasses the sounds of the world
And for this reason, should be constantly kept in mind,
Thought by thought, never giving rise to doubts.
Perceiver of the World’s Sounds, pure wisdom:
When in pain, suffering, or close to death,
He is able to provide a foothold and support,
Provided with all merit and virtue;
His compassionate eyes never leave sentient beings:
An unending sea of blessings.
For this reason, you should bow with deepest respect.

It is also a recognition that despite all our grousing and discontent, we are already fully blessed. To truly understand this, however, we must get past our egocentric selves. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, enjoins us to act not in response to our own pain and suffering, but to that of all other sentient beings. This Bodhisattva is often depicted with a thousand eyes with which to see suffering the world over, and a thousand arms with which to act for its cessation.

In some understandings of Buddhism, all Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and attendant gods are reflections of our own potentialities. In this way, Avalokitesvara is the Unending Sea of Blessings, and we ourselves are Avalokitesvara, and are ourselves the source of unending blessings.”

*Lidia Kenig-Scher is an award-winning mixed media artist and transformational catalyst. Her intuitively conceived works are installed in the interiors of successful homeowners and entrepreneurs, many of whom claim that the art emits a vibration capable of positively affecting their lives and the spaces where the art is installed. This highly decorated interior designer and Feng Shui master also teaches people to “paint from the heart,” a meditation-based technique grounded in more than 40 years of Buddhist practices and intense spiritual work. Lidia notes that her artworks invite personal growth because she too starts by opening her heart and trusting her brush to paint the truth.

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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Viewing Stones

Many viewing stones are completely natural, although some are cut so they can be placed cut side down in a carved stand. With an impact that belies their small size, viewing stones can be highly evocative of mountains, waterfalls, or pools. They are worthy of contemplation for the response they produce in us.

At times they resemble animals or are prized for their surface patterns. A tiny figure may be added to complement the mood of a stone. Larger ones are displayed outside in gardens. Placing a number of them together on a stand provides an opportunity to linger and enjoy the “conversation” among their diverse colors, shapes and textures.

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Sharing Visual Creativity

In June, 2019, a bunch of us shared art and crafts in a wide variety of media at Park Avenue Congregational Church. When someone (or in this case someones Karen Stark and Gwendolyn Phelps) takes the lead in organizing one of these shows, the results can be quite interesting. With luck, that will encourage those who think what they create is not good enough to submit their work anyway. We can all communicate things that matter this way. It need not reach the level of high art to express the joy of being alive. Children understand this. We should all learn from them.

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Water Tower Magic

On September 7, 2014, a unique event took place to celebrate a local landmark (below) that was turning 90 years old. The notice I saw spoke of images of local places by both youth and adults. Each art work would be briefly projected on the substantial Arlington, MA Reservoir structure before another took its place. Curious, I took my camera and portable canvas sling bench to the classical revival water tower.

The images can only hint at what it was like to walk up the road to the top of the hill as the glowing tower came into view. I joined the crowd that had gathered there as darkness descended and the Luminarium Dance Company interpreted the images to music issuing from two large loudspeakers.

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More Than Just Stones

I had the shadow box for some time before I discovered what I wanted to do with it. It was a multi-step process: 1) Pick a stone, 2) Find or take a photo that told a story about the stone, 3) Arrange the stone and photo in the shadow box, and finally, 4) take a photo of the completed arrangement like those below. I could not predict what would happen. The ones I struggled with could come together in perfect balance in the end. I kept thinking of new possibilities. This could be endless. Stones just have resonance.

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Morrisonite jasper slab with closeup taken from the top right.

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Lobster claw Scholar’s Rock with a lobster roll.

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Bubble lace agate with closeup.

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Hut Stone Scholar’s Rock with Japanese garden photo.

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Jasper pebble & the Whidbey Island beach where I found it.

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.