A 2-pound lump of clay, wedged with two hands and centered perfectly on a potter’s wheel. Centered. That is the beginning of the form called a tea bowl, and that simple form holds a simple green tea and is, inextricably, a milestone in Japanese culture. If I had my way in a peaceful world, it would become a part of our world. I’m talking to you, friends.
Let me introduce you to a tea bowl. Let me introduce you, fair readers, to a particular magic, a fusion of art and clay and craftsmanship. These small bowls are vessels, vessels to be held in two hands delicately and lovingly. This dance becomes a form of meditation.
The conception of the clay form is pure Japanese. This culture covets the bowl, covets the shaping and firing of clay. If America has a love affair with the coffee cup and the thick bitter brown brew within, then the Japanese dote on the tea bowl. Dote on the pungent green tea. Dote on the ceremony around both.
The bowls are named: Sunrise, Sea at Dusk, Moon over Bay. Bowls from the 16th century are locked into wood chests inside Buddhist monasteries. Once a year they are brought forth and put on display. People actually line up to see a simple tea bowl, to honor the master craftsman who threw the bowl. To ooh and awe and oh my!
Both the Portland and Seattle Art Museums display a few. Mostly, we scamper past. What, after all, is the big deal about a small bowl? Let me tell you: The vessels represent the Zen of life.
As many of you know, the Japanese have a tea ceremony. They build small shrines, tea rooms where humans visit and drink the tea. Hold the bowl in two hands. Let it warm their skin. Turn it in four directions. Offer a favorite side to the host. Then, they sip the tea as if it is a magic elixir. This is sometimes called respect for the Here and Now. In a better world, it is not defined. Perhaps it is the Tao.
A potter centers a clay lump on a wheel head. Perhaps the lump weighs 10 pounds. He or she centers that lump, brings it into an even concentric ball of clay. The shape is formed into a kind of small pinnacle. The potter pulls up about two pounds of clay from that larger mound until it is even and centered in his hands, and then — sometimes with eyes closed in concentration — enters the clay and opens an even crater into the middle. From there the piece is drawn into a bowl shape. Hands pass over the clay several times, on a good day, like a prayer. If the potter is experienced and dedicated, the clay opens like a flower’s petals.
Drinking tea is a year-round avocation. But there are different-shaped bowls for different seasons. There is the winter bowl, with the sides drawn in, closed a bit at the top to hold in the heat, to warm the hands and the stomach on a cold winter day when snow falls on cedars, on gardens and tile roof tops and the world surely is at peace. It is, isn’t it? There is also a summer bowl, with sides flared to allow the escape of the tea’s sweltering heat. It is hot outside, and the cherry blossoms are wilting on the ground, a lush carpet of cranberry and pink. A breeze moves off the sea and whips the steam that rises from the clay bowl. Watch that steam drift and write a poem or a short story, later, after the tea is drunk and friends scatter.
In Japan they have master potters. They are respected like our finest athletes. The older they get, the more they are respected. After all, the older they get, the better they get, more sensitive and revealing. The greatest of the artists in Japan are designated as national treasures. A tea bowl by one of these masters can bring thousands of dollars. But it isn’t the money. Money only amplifies respect and honor. Money is of lesser significance. It is the substance of a lesser god. Stone purity: the bowl, the clay vessel — that is what is significant. Art is love. And love sometimes is art.
Each of these bowls is fired in a brick kiln. The kiln can be fired with gas or stoked with firewood. I’ll tell it to you straight: fire is best. Fire is deep and mysterious and primal. Ash (called fly ash) attaches to the bowls. Scribes inside-outside like lava rushing over raw earth. A stoneware kiln uses gas and remains, like its sister firing, a magical moment. Silica becomes glass; clays melt and fuse and shape the bowl as if by a magic fire stick or wand. Colors and hues jump forward and claim space.
In the middle of the night when temperatures hit 2,300 degrees and higher, white light dances before your eyes and you see ghost-like forms as you peer into tiny ports on the side of the kiln, on the dragon’s side. A wave of heat moves past you and up the belly of the dragon kiln, heat moving like a river. You stop and gulp and then avert your eyes (It is so hot, you can’t look for long.) and whatever prayer or poem or song or chant that you are humming or whispering or forming like clay in your heart or head, you fling those same prayers or poems or songs or chants at the heart of the dragon, into this inferno of split, stacked and dried firewood, into the white-hot fire box, into the belly of the dragon.
Well, it is transforming clay while it transforms you, you the potter, and these, your small clay bowls. And that is why clay is art, and art transforms our lives and the world we live in. And art can be a clay stoneware bowl.
Sit quietly facing a friend, and turn a small tea bowl in your hands until your favorite side, your favorite vista, faces that friend, and say thank you for the day, the tea and the song that tea makes turning to steam and escaping into the soft breeze that floats like gossamer dreams, here, there and away.