The Tea Bowl is the Lotus Flower

By Lam Wong, 2022

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a legend of how during a sermon Buddha transmitted the mysterious dharma. Keeping silent, Buddha simply raised a single stem of a lotus flower and smiled. While all the monks were puzzled by his gesture, Mahākāśyapa 摩訶迦葉, one of the Buddha’s senior disciples, smiled and understood Buddha’s intention and wisdom perfectly. Without words, all in silence — this has come to be known as “heart-to-heart transmission.”

Along with his or her robes, a bowl is the most important of a monk’s possessions. When a master has chosen a successor, he or she would pass on these two items as proof of lineage. One of mankind’s earliest hand-crafted containers, a tea bowl is made of stone or clay. With care it can withstand the rigours of harsh weather and last for centuries. Just like the human spirit, a bowl withstands all the complexities of life but expresses itself in a quiet way: simple yet conveying significant meaning.

Unaffected by time and discursive thoughts, a chawan 茶碗 (tea bowl) plays the role of a silent messenger in the Zen-inspired ritualistic tea ceremony, whether in Chinese tea sage Lu Yu’s 陸羽 (773-804) wilderness tea hermitage or inside Japanese Chanoyu 茶の湯 grandmaster Sen no Rikyū’s 千 利休 (1522-1591) asymmetrical tea room. The chawan quietly holds the sacred message of the tea maker’s intention. The bowl carries all the essence of life and the tea itself as it’s passed from tea maker to drinker. In virtually a religious manner, the beauty of this process is unvoiced but understood, like Buddha’s raising a single lotus flower.

During the late southern Song Dynasty 宋朝 (1127-1279), tea from the Wuyi Mountain 武夷山 area in Southern China became popular among the elite and court members in the Chinese capital, Hangzhou. A new culture of stoneware tea bowls using rich dark glazes developed in the small town of Jianyang 建陽, near Wuyishan. The old Jian ware 建盏 kiln sites 建窯 and ruins showcase the history of the area’s chawan craftsmanship. Mainly used in tea ceremonies, Tenmoku 天目, meaning heavenly eye, was one type of stoneware created in Jian kilns during the Song Dynasty. These dark oil-spotted glazed bowls are arguably the most highly prized chawan in the world, having achieved prominent status among tea lovers. One good example in this exhibition’s collection is the Tenmoku chawan with hare’s fur glaze in mottled black. When looking inside the tea bowl, one feels as if embraced by a black hole void of all form, falling back to the very beginning of our mysterious universe.

Every tea bowl has its own personality embedded within its history and holds a special secret or spirit carried down through the ages from its original owner. Even after its owner has long passed, like Buddha’s relics after his Pali Nirvana 涅槃, each chawan embodies a story. The Kizaemon-Ido 喜佐衛門 tea bowl (16th Century), a Korean Ido 井戸 (Water Well) type glazed, everyday tea bow is an example of such a rare object. This chawan was made by an unknown potter in Korea during the Keicho era 慶長 (1596-1615) with the most ordinary material, backyard clay and casual ash glaze. A wealthy merchant named Takeda Kizaemon from Osaka was its first owner. When Kizaemon lost his fortune, he was forced to sell all of his possessions, but he refused to part with this tea bowl. However, the bowl was believed to possess an evil spirit that cursed Kizaemon and all of the bowl’s successive owners. Each successive owner contracted boils, a troubling skin disease. This Korean Ido tea-bowl was eventually housed at Daitoku-ji 大徳寺 in Kyoto, a temple associated with Japan’s most influential tea master, Sen no Rikyū, and the great artist Kobori Enshū 小堀遠州. Now the Kisaemon-Ido has become likely the single most valuable chawan in the world and a designated National Treasure of Japan.

Yanagi Sōetsu 柳 宗悦 (1889–1961) explained in his book The Unknown Craftsman, translated by the prominent British potter Bernard Leach: 

All beautiful tea-bowls are those obedient to nature. Natural things are healthy things. There are many kinds of art, but none is better than this. Nature produces still more startling results than artifice. The most detailed human knowledge is puerile before the wisdom of nature. Why should beauty emerge from the world of the ordinary? The answer is because that world is natural. In Zen there is a saying that at the far end of the road lies effortless peace. What more can be desired? So, too, peaceful beauty. The beauty of the Kizaemon Ido bowl is that of strifeless peace, and it is fitting that it should rest in that chapel, the Koho-an 孤篷庵, for in that quiet place it offers its silent answer to the seeker.

Fine chawan often communicate and express the Wabi-Sabi 侘寂 philosophy, an aesthetic that values the beauty of life’s imperfection and impermanence. This concept is epitomized in the art of Kintsugi 金継ぎ, an ancient Japanese technique of mending broken ceramic. Kintsugi is a metaphor for acceptance, self-discovery and healing. It sees suffering or the brokenness of traumatic events as part of life. Kintsugi teaches us to be patient and calm, and to remain positive. It helps us learn from our mistakes and appreciate the flaws of life, allowing healing to transform something broken into something more beautiful over time. Here in this exhibition a broken chawan with zigzag golden lines holds this sacred message of embracing our flaws and imperfections. There is no Nirvana without Samsara, no liberation without suffering. 

After water, tea is the most popular drink in the world. The art of tea is a vital and meaningful practice. Sharing tea brings harmony and peace to people from different backgrounds. Though apparently simple, preparing and serving tea requires lifelong learning of the tradition and its various forms, and a deeper knowledge of how tea itself comes into being. The art of tea is deeply rooted in and has long been associated with the Eastern philosophies of Taoism, Buddhism and Zen. Tea art cultivates positivity and improves life in many ways. Each bowl of tea is a treasure, and no single tea encounter can be repeated. As the ancient Zen saying puts it: One Time, One Meeting 一期一會.

Tea bowls are made with many natural elements – earth, stone, clay, glaze, ash, wood, fire, and kiln – brought together through the craftsmanship of a chawan maker. From this perspective, a chawan embraces the whole of nature. When we hold a chawan in our palms, we hold the spirit of nature, a force and source of our very own being. A rustic bowl with myriad colours, textures and expressions is derived from a long history of experiments and techniques of firing and glazing. Whether in the tradition of Tenmoku 天目, Raku 樂, Hagi 萩, Karatsu 唐津 or its two dozen forms of design, each creation pays tribute to the forbearers of master chawan makers in the long evolution of this art form. Each chawan embodies a deep respect for its materials and, most importantly, for nature, as tea and tea bowl are equally wondrous creations. Nature, our best teacher, is the true master. The chawan, in all its simple understated form, carries this message, just like the single lotus flower in Buddha’s hand.


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