The Japanese Tea Bowl

I would venture to guess that there are very few ceramic artists working in clay today without at least some knowledge of  the origins of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and its incredible history, for it has had boundless affects on the evolution of ceramics. Near the end of the twelfth century, the founder of Zen Buddhism began to cultivate and grind tea, not for medicinal purposes as it had been done for thousands of years prior, but claimed the practice had profound roots in religion, and that tea could in fact cure any ailment. With growing popularity especially among prestigious samurais of the following century, preparing and drinking tea together became a near obsession to those who could afford it. The focus of each gathering remained the tea, but other extemporaneous aspects of the experience became of note as well, such as creating a harmonious environment in which to enjoy the tea, selecting vessels and utensils in which to hold ingredients, utilizing texts to center the participants on their experience, and arranging flowers.

Japan also has a unique history in regards to the evolution of ceramics that spans about 12,000 years. The vessels that were first created in Japan were mostly utilitarian table wares, storage containers, and even burial containers often of earthenware. Through continued reliance on clay, new combinations of materials and techniques  resulted in a plethora of different schools of pottery production based on local preferences. Earthenware may have been replaced by porcelain or enhanced by incorporating red clay into the body. Different kinds of kilns were being developed and each was fired differently, all having distinct and characteristic impacts on the aesthetic quality of the pieces produced. Glazes were also introduced in the seventh century A.D. and further developed, bringing to the surface (quite literally) more opportunities for color experimentation, and giving rise to wares like Shinos and Oribes among others. It is in these thousands of combinations along with the evolution of the Tea Ceremony that the artisans producing these vessels came to realize that their work was not only utilitarian, but was also indicative of Japanese culture.

This deep awareness is a common thread in both the Tea Ceremony and the production of vessels themselves. I feel as though it is even yoginic. Just as one who practices yoga attempts to become one with body, mind, spirit, and environment, so too do those involved in preparing tea. It is another perfect practice in mindfulness and conscientiousness, being attentive and sensitive in preparing for the specific guests, selecting the appropriate vessels for them to use, considering the season, the complete cleanliness of the room, hanging a scroll with text to center the participants on the theme, and adhering to every prescribed action in the ritual sequence. It is about total immersion into the culture of the people.

Working with clay has that same kind of philosophical air about it. Throwing on the wheel for instance requires the potter to become so in tune with what is in front of her and with what is inside of her—mentally and physically. She must tap into a certain kind of discipline, one that allows her to take her understanding of the clay and its response to an impulse, housed in the amorphous abyss of her mind, and translate that abstract information into a precise muscular contraction manifesting itself before her. Without working in harmony with the clay, the experience is fruitless. Either the clay dominates the artist, or the artist is too domineering over the clay. The process does not require intense focus, careful attention to environment, and authority over motions; these pillars are the essence of the process.

Creating a successful piece, such as a tea bowl, through dedicated practice yields a satisfaction that is uncoupled. To hold a completed work in your hands knowing that you are responsible for its existence is incredible. So just as an athlete is nourished by a good workout, the potter is nourished by her exercise in throwing.

Furthermore, this same tea bowl is created with the intent to transport nutritional nourishment to the individual or individuals who will utilize it. It does not only yield a feast for the mind, but also a feast for the body. And isn’t it funny that not only does our nourishment spring forth from the earth, but so too does the clay of the vessel we consume it from? There is yet again an apparent interconnectedness involved in the use of the vessel…

Which calls back to mind the ceremony.


Thank you for indulging me in this kind of meditation. I hope it gave you a bit more to think about in regards to clay, clay culture, and where it all comes from. Please share any and all of your thoughts! I’d certainly love to learn more about the origins of the tea ceremony myself, as well as more specific practices, types and classifications of tea bowls, etc. etc. And I’d love to consider other experiential phenomenon that comes to light in the process of creating. Thank you again for reading!

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