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Hear curator Frank Feltens describe the historical context of this tea bowl.
Frank Feltens (00:06):
The practice of drinking the powdered type of tea that we today know as matcha arrived in Japan around the twelfth century, and it actually arrived together with the faith that we now know as Zen in Japan, closely linked to each other. And the powdered tea was drunk in Zen monasteries in order to stay awake during the long hours of meditation that were practiced there and that were part of the Zen monastic practice. So, in order to drink and prepare this tea slowly over the centuries, an entire microcosm emerged around the aesthetics and the practice and the accoutrements of drinking and preparing tea. And this tea bowl is one of those outcomes.
Frank Feltens (00:54):
In the early days in Japanese Zen monasteries and also in tea practice, Chinese objects were cherished more than anything: imported pieces—tea bowls, vases, other accoutrements—that came from China all the long way across the sea and were expensive and cumbersome to bring to Japan. So, in all those works, this kind of importation made them very coveted and very sought after by elite practitioners of tea, both directly in the Zen context, but also lay people, because tea quickly seeped into elite culture in Japan, in medieval Japan. And with this proliferation of tea among the Japanese elites, but also slowly in the late medieval period among the larger population, an awareness grew that Japanese tea could not only rely on Chinese importations but also needed to have accessible wares, much more accessible wares, produced at home—homegrown ceramics.
Frank Feltens (02:02):
And the early stages of those ceramics for tea made in Japan really received a lot of inspiration from works in China. So, this tea bowl here made in the early sixteenth century, around 1510 to 1530, either at the Seto kilns or the Mino kilns in Japan puns on Chinese Jizhou ware in terms of its glaze. And this type of speckled, dark, almost iron rustic looking glaze was called tortoise-shell glaze. And the Japanese kilns were trying to emulate the appearance of these Chinese ceramics, but they mixed and matched the appearance. So, if you look closer to the bottom of the bowl, which is unglazed, you’ll see the traces of the potter’s wheel as the potter threw this bowl and molded it on his wheel, or on her wheel. So, that is actually a feature not of Jizhou ware but of Jian ware, which was even more highly praised in Japan. So, Japanese homegrown ceramics, in other words, mixed and matched these types of features of different wares that came in from China.
Frank Feltens (03:14):
And then over the centuries, another thing happened in which these wares were more infused into the Japanese cultural consciousness and perceptions of beauty in a way that broken works were often fixed using a gilded lacquer or so-called kintsugi. So, if the bowl was broken, either intentionally or unintentionally, it was fixed by using these gilded lacquer repairs that you see in this bowl in particular. And the assumption is such that these repairs actually happened much later than when the bowl was made in the sixteenth century, perhaps even as recent as nineteenth.
Frank Feltens (03:55):
Because if you look even more closely, you notice at the rim there is a chipped-off piece that was replaced by a lacquer repair that uses a motif of cherry blossoms, and this type of really luxurious repair is really more of a late Edo period or nineteenth century—almost into the modern age—type of repair that you see occasionally in works that have been fixed closer to our own time. So, in this way, this small object really embodies the transition of time, the evolving aesthetics of tea in Japan, but also the evolving aesthetics of ceramics in the way that wares from China were appropriated in Japan and then used and lived with over time.
Frank Feltens is the Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art at the National Museum of Asian Art. He is a specialist in Japanese art with a focus on the late medieval and early modern periods, including Japanese photography and the intersections between painting and ceramics. He is co-curator of the exhibition Mind over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan.
Zen priest Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger of All Beings Zen Sangha in Washington, DC, speaks about how this sixteenth-century tea bowl like this might have been used by Zen monks.
Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger (00:13):
From a practitioner standpoint, when you’re in monastery, everything has what we call forms or rules about how things are handled, from your garments that you’re wearing to how you’re holding your chopsticks as you eat to how you’re holding the tea bowl. And so, very often, the form would be that there would be tea served in the afternoons. Anything that’s served after the midday meal is considered medicine in the monastery. They don’t call it nutrition or food if it’s after lunch. So, in this case, the tea, and really it is because you’re working long hours, you’ve been up since 3:30, 4:00 in the morning. It’s the afternoon and probably your energy is flagging. And so, you’re called back into the temple, the zendō, and you sit at your cushion and your tea bowl is in front of you and the attendants, the people that are serving the tea, come around and you hold the tea in a very prescribed way with one hand under the tea bowl— left hand— and the right hand to hold the side.
Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger (01:16):
And you just indicate very subtly when you’ve had enough tea poured. You know, there’s a prescribed way of bringing it to your lips and kind of setting it down. So, this particular tea bowl, as I looked at it, one of the things I really liked is that the bottom of it doesn’t have any glaze, which means tactilely it would be lovely to hold. You would feel more secure with it. I would feel more secure with it in my hand because the person who’s created it has left that kind of rough- edge element to it. And then there’s also the swirling in the bottom, which— the kind of the fingering of the potter— so, it kind of lets you see the potter’s fingers, but also it lets your fingers kind of hold the object with better dexterity. So, having said that, just the colors of the glazes, these wonderful earth and almost mountainy kind of glazes are just really beautiful.
Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger (02:04):
So, when you’re being served the tea and everybody’s drinking tea silently, in fact, the idea is that the whole thing happens silently— the pouring, the cleaning, and putting away everything silent— you’re really taking your time to bring the tea forward. So, you’re really feeling, admiring the weight of the bowl, the fragrance, the aroma. It’s often there is no heating in a Zendo, so it might be the steam even, that you’re just enjoying the warmth of the hot steam coming into your face, obviously the warmth into the body, and then also that aspect of nourishment, that medicinal quality of taking something hot and lovely into the body when you need it. Often, it’s served with a little sweet, and so that also would be that kind of extra medicinal support for you as an individual monk to get through the rest of your day. So, the repair, the kintsugi repair that’s been done back then would’ve used varnish or resin with gold dust in the joinery.
Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger (03:02):
And what would that do to somebody using it? Well, I think what it would call forward very much is the lessons that we have around impermanence and the fact that it is the nature of all things to change. And so, in a very kind of a beautiful way, we bring forward a very grave lesson of Zen, which is this kind of tender-hearted intimacy that we develop, it’s in practice with everything, with our cushions, the teacup, with our chopsticks, with the bird outside the Zendo, there is this intimacy created when we let other things sort of drop away. And so here you have this teacup that’s been repaired, which is kind of showing us that tenderness, that vulnerability, that impermanent quality to all things. So, in some ways the teacup itself is that lesson about impermanence. And the precious— and the flip side of that then is it awakens for us or amplifies the preciousness of our life.
Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger (03:58):
If something so precious can be broken, our own lives can also be gone in a moment. And so, we can have a greater awareness and appreciation for and care for what we do have. And so, a broken teacup— one of the Zen master, paraphrasing, because I couldn’t find the exact quote, but I think it’s Katagiri Roshi who said, “you look at your teacup and the tea and you think the teacup is just a teacup.”
Rev. Inryū Bobbi Poncé -Barger (04:26):
He says, “I look into the teacup, and I see the universe.” So, this aspect that like everything is right there— the dynamic creation of it, the repair of it, the use of it for how many decades, years, the lips that have touched the rim, the water that has come to be poured into it and its origin, the water’s origin. Just so many things can indeed, if you allow yourself to go to that kind of depth of engagement with it, allow us to kind of see this primary lesson of Zen is about that we’re creating this moment. We’re co creating this moment. So, I’m not alone making this moment of drinking this beautiful tea out of this mug, but there’s all these vast things that are happening simultaneously to allow this moment to be present. So, this co creation kind of comes forward, I think, in seeing this particular kintsugi bowl.
Reverend Inryū Bobbi Poncé-Barger, Sensei,is the Abiding teacher and resident priest for the All Beings Zen Sangha in Washington, D.C. She is a fully ordained and transmitted priest in the Soto Zen Buddhist lineage of Shunryū Suzuki Roshi (founder of the San Francisco Zen Center). Rev. Inryū serves on the Board of Directors for the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and is a member of the American Zen Teachers Association.
Look closely at this Japanese tea bowl with Washington, DC, high school students Penelope Morris and Akesh Mallia.
Akesh Mallia (00:08):
It looks like it was cracked and then put back together with that line going through. I think it’d feel pretty light based on how the walls of the bowl look very thin, and I’d assume it’d feel light. Maybe, now that I look closer at it, I think there’re some flowers on it that I didn’t notice before. Might have been like decorative and probably for drinking tea based on how shallow the walls of the bowl are. I don’t think it would be that useful to eat rice or soup in it, and it would be easier to drink tea. I think it’s for like a tea ceremony or something like that.
Penelope Morris (00:43):
I think it’s interesting because the bowl looks like it was very valuable. I mean, the flower detailing looks really ornate. So then, it makes me wonder why or how it was broken.
Akesh Mallia (00:56):
I think these cracks add something in that, I know in Japan, when something is broken, there is a practice to fix it with gold or something to make it more beautiful, andthat shows how there’s beauty in broken things. I think that also adds some character to it.
Penelope Morris (01:14):
I’d probably give it a place where it’s prominently displayed because it looks really cool. And I don’t know if I’d want to put anything in it because I wouldn’t want to break it again.
Akesh Mallia (01:23):
I agree. Knowing that it’s from the sixteenth century now, those are really detailed flowers and stuff, so I think as you stated before, it’s very valuable so I wouldn’t want to put anything in it.
High School Students from Globalize DC shared their perspectives with the museum. This program focuses on increasing access for DC’s public school students to high quality global education, language learning, and study abroad opportunities. Globalize DC reduces barriers to access for underserved students and schools, supporting sustainable pathways to college and careers in global fields.
Musician Yumi Kurosawa provides her perspective on this tea bowl.
Yumi Kurosawa (00:06):
Even though the tea bowl was broken, it’s rebirth as the kintsugi tea bowl gave it a new life and start. This reminds me of one of my compositions, GreenPt, that I created when I was in the middle of artistic transition and reset. I remember this period in my life as I was trying to find the right balance of traditional and new sound as a composer.
Yumi Kurosawa is an award-winning musician who specializes in the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and venues across Europe and Asia, and has appeared with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, and the Houston Grand Opera. All About Jazz noted that when she plays, “the koto’s notes flow like the water of a stream in a Zen garden.”