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The introduction to a work in progress entitled Chawan: Gateway to the Transcendent World of Tea, by Walther G. von Krenner and Ken Jeremiah:



Walking along the garden path, tea ceremony guests smell a faint waft of incense used in the hearth preparation.  They arrive and sit down, admiring the surroundings, and although they just got there, the preparer has been there for hours: cleaning the path, selecting a hanging scroll and flowers appropriate for the season, and setting out all the utensils for use in the ceremony.  Upon the guests’ arrival, he opens the door in a specific manner and ushers them inside.  If it is a traditionally designed teahouse, the door is small – so small that guests have to practically crawl inside.  This is a tradition initiated by the great tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) to impart a liminal feeling that one is entering another world.
The room is bare, and other than a scroll and some freshly picked flowers, it looks imperfect.  It is only four and a half tatami mats in size (about 10 sq. ft.) because according to the Vikramaditya Sutra, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and 84,000 of the Buddha’s students gathered in a room with such dimensions: an allegory regarding physicality and existence that is enacted in the Way of Tea.  The guests sit and, if it is a formal ceremony, the host serves them a meager meal consisting of one or more small dishes; called kaiseki, it originated in Zen monks’ cuisine.  Great thought went into the choice of foods and their display in addition to the plates, bowls, and utensils used.  All of this is a prelude to the most important ceremony: the Cha no Yu. 
Although the term reveals humility and only means “hot water for tea,” each portion of it is prescribed.  The host brings in the tea utensils ― all of which have been chosen for their self-effacing beauty ― and he cleans the tea bowl with boiling water from the kettle.  He rotates the bowl to warm it before discarding the water.  Then, he uses a tea scoop to place powdered green tea into the bowl.  Adding water, he uses a bamboo whisk to mix the tea, creating a green froth at the top.  The color is accentuated by the type of clay and glaze used in the bowl’s creation.  Once prepared, he hands the tea bowl to the principal guest, who raises it in his right hand and then places it in his left.  Rotating it twice, he drinks from it and then returns it to its starting position by turning it in the opposite direction.  Once the first guest finishes, the host cleans the bowl again and then repeats the process for the next guest.  After, all present get to admire the items used in the ceremony.  They are prized art objects that symbolize an important aspect of Japanese history and culture, and while some people in the world might wonder about the reasons behind such an elaborate ceremony held in such an unassuming building, for others it is spiritual and hints at transcendence.
Many people throughout the world drink tea without giving much thought to the leaves, how it was prepared, or the cup itself.  It is familiar, and when things become familiar, people tend to consider them less often.  However, tea was not always so commonplace, and before it was introduced to Europeans in the 16th century, it was known as an exotic Chinese drink.  In truth, the Chinese highly respected it.  Perhaps it is because it began as medicine, or maybe it is because, from a Chinese perspective, the selection of leaves and their preparation have a spiritual connotation: the process reinforces the connection between human beings and the earth.  Certainly, such a sentiment is found within Daoist ideals.  Tea had various names including tuo, she, ming, and qia, and people thought it had minor health benefits like improving eyesight and relieving fatigue; it was also thought to affect miracles like strengthening intent and pacifying the spirit.  Once it arrived in Japan, it was thought to have even more effects such as providing divine protection, prolonging life, harmonizing internal organs, and increasing joy.
Before it was commonly consumed as a beverage, it was taken internally for a variety of illnesses, and it was also applied externally to wounds and skin irritations.  Somehow, the value people placed upon tea increased.  Known as liquid jade, it became the favorite drink of the Yangtse-Kiang Valley inhabitants in the fourth century.  An ideograph to express its nature appeared, and it was called cha: the name that today still refers to the drink.
People found contentment in preparing and imbibing tea, but not all shared the same aesthetic values.  Schools developed, and over time, their styles changed and became more elaborate.  Even the way tea was prepared – something that seems commonplace and without many possibilities today – varied, and tea was whipped, steeped, and boiled.  Initially, tea leaves were steamed and then crushed in China.  They were molded into round bars and then mixed with such ingredients as orange peel, salt, rice, milk, and more, and while other cultures continue to mix their tea with similar ingredients, some would say that the Chinese method of drinking it was purified during the Tang Dynasty.  It was during this time that a particularly obsessed aficionado even created the Cha Jing or Tea Classic.
Written by an artistically appreciative man called Lu Yu between 760-762 C.E., he perceived a connection between the preparation and drinking of tea to Daoist and Buddhist ideals alike.  It became something spiritual: symbolic of the harmonizing nature of the universe.  Yin and yang, the interconnected opposites that drive creation and destruction, and wuji, the void without polarity from which they sprung forth, are represented in a cup of tea and all the objects needed in its preparation.  His book has ten chapters.  The first describes the mythological origins of the drink, which was supposed to be an important nourishment for Daoists seeking immortality.  It explains how to judge the quality of leaves and how soil affects their growth and taste. 
Like other Tang Dynasty writers, his words had a poetic ebb and flow.  For example, he wrote that tea leaves should have “creases like the leather boot of Tarter horsemen,” they must “curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain.”  Chapters II and III explain the tools needed to pick, dry, and store tea leaves in addition to instructions for making tea cakes.  Next, descriptions of the utensils used to actually make tea are provided, with specifications regarding size and shape, and recommendations for the material of their construction.  Such items include braziers, fire chopsticks, tongs, tea holders, water basins, salt containers, bowls, bowl baskets, and more.
His subsequent chapters deal with the proper way to boil water for tea use and naturally, the preferred type of water.  Mountain spring water is best, followed by river water, and then any other type of spring water, and specific instructions are provided regarding how to roast tea cakes and when to add salt to the water.  He divides the boiling process into three segments, differentiated by the size of the bubbles in the kettle.  Once small bubbles appear, salt is added to the water; as the bubbles grow in size, the tea is added, and when a full boil ensues, a ladle of cold water is added to not just cool it before consumption, but also as a symbolic gesture meant to restore the water’s vitality.  Much about the tea ceremony’s origin in China and then its subsequent adoption and modification in Japan is symbolic, and a seemingly simple movement or posture is actually in place for profound reasons.  An outside observer might watch guests of the Japanese tea ceremony do things that seem superfluous, for example, turning the bowl in their hands twice in a clockwise direction before drinking the tea, and then returning it in a similar but reversed fashion after emptying the bowl.  This action has symbolic roots in Confucianism, but serves practically, as it allows the participant to see the entire bowl and admire its attributes.  Elements of many other schools of thought are likewise found within the Korean and Japanese tea ceremonies.  The former is thought of in a theatrical sense nowadays, but its origins are found in the cha-rye (offerings to ancestors) and hoen-cha (offerings to Buddha) observances, linked specifically to Chungdam: the eighth century monk who ceremoniously offered tea to the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, on Mt. Namsam.  Similarly, the latter Japanese tradition stemmed directly from a practice begun by Zennists, but the ritual includes elements of Shinto, Confucianism, and Daoism in addition to Zen philosophy.
Lu Yu was the first person who explained the proper method of drinking tea in China (in writing), and it is probable that some of the formalities that he proposed were modified and refined in Japan and Korea to suit their different aesthetic ideals.  He was certainly not a unique figure in Tang China insofar as his appreciation of tea is concerned, but he was highly respected.  He even spent time with Emperor Taizong and had many students.  The scholar and writer Huangfu Zhen even honored him with a poem entitled The Day I Saw Lu Yu off to Pick Tea:  

A thousand mountains will greet my departing friend,
 When the spring teas blossom again.
With such breadth and wisdom,
 Serenely picking tea—
 Through morning mists
 Or crimson evening clouds—
 His solitary journey is my envy.
We rendezvous at a remote mountain temple,
 Where we enjoy tea by a clear pebble fountain.
In that silent night,
 Lit only by candlelight,
 I struck a marble bell—
 Its chime carrying me
 A hidden man
 Deep into thoughts of ages past.

In time, all supplementary ingredients were discarded, including salt, and powdered tea was preferred.  To mix it, a split bamboo whisk (chasen) was created, and when people think about the Japanese tea ceremony today, this is one of the most well-known and important instruments.  Another is the tea scoop (chashaku), and despite their meager appearance, they are shaped in different ways: diverse styles preferred by various tea masters due to their bend, stem shape, and tip.  Considered art objects, they are stored in specially made bamboo cases on which appear the artists’ names and the names of the scoops.  Some of these seemingly insignificant objects sell for thousands of dollars today. 
Other objects needed for the performance of the tea ceremony are more conspicuous: the kettle in which water is boiled (kama), the rest upon which the kettle’s lid is placed (futa-oki), the freshwater and wastewater jars (mizuzashi and kensui), the flower container (hana-ire), and the tea caddy (cha-ire or cha-ki) and tea leaf jar (ruson).  Also important are incense containers and instruments for lighting the charcoal fire, in addition to plates, bowls, and utensils for use in the accompanying kaiseki meal.  The design of such instruments reflect the type of tea being served, whether it is thick (koi-cha) or thin (usu-cha), in conjunction with a myriad of other factors including the season and the aesthetic aim of the tea preparer.  Because it plays the most active role and is the item that guests interact with most, the tea bowl (chawan) is the most important object.  Like all other pieces used in the ceremony, there are numerous styles that differ greatly from each other, and the materials used in their construction are important not just for practical reasons, but also for aesthetic ones. 
Historically, some (Chinese) artisans crafted porcelain vessels through which they tried to recreate the color of jade.  This attempt led to blue and white glazes, and their colors affected the tea’s appearance.  The blue glaze made the tea seem greener, so it was preferred by the majority of tea masters.  Later, when tea preparation changed and powdered tea was used, the preferred color of the vessel was darker: blue-black or other variations, again depending on the aesthetic taste of the preparer, and when steeped tea became fashionable, lighter colors, even white, were preferred.
When instruments for use in tea preparation were first introduced to Japan and Korea, artisans initially strove to duplicate the Chinese designs that they highly admired.  In time, however, potters created their own unique designs, which highlighted indigenous ideals of beauty.  Different schools developed, and each style used diverse types of clay and glazes.  In Japan, Seto ware was first made in central Honshu.  They attempted to duplicate the greenish-blue Chinese bowls but did not maintain the correct kiln temperatures.  The resulting color was amber instead.  However, their beauty was admired, and it became its own unique style.  Modifying the clay composition slightly, the wares displayed the yellow color for which they are now famous.  Other styles (grouped under the overarching term Mino) include Shino, which has smooth clay and a thick white glaze, and Oribe, named after artist Furuta Oribe (1544-1615), who used various colored glazes and painted slips to create unique masterpieces.  Karatsu kilns were established in Kyushu because the Japanese greatly admired certain Korean bowls and wished to duplicate them.  Often displaying a light-colored glaze, sometimes the pieces were decorated with images of tree branches, plovers, and more.
Some tea bowls are thought to be quintessentially Japanese, displaying a sense of wabi, or austere beauty.  These include Bizen and Shigaraki pieces, which are unglazed wares that are slowly baked in kilns without protection.  The heat and fire create some beautiful and unusual effects.  Pieces directly exposed to fire turned reddish brown, while those protected from the flames by accumulated ash turned cooler colors.  Ash also melted onto the pots, thus creating a texturally exquisite, naturally formed ashen glaze.  In Japan, it is said that the best bowls are raku, those deep black or red, smaller-than-average tea bowls that were designed to satisfy the tastes of the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu, former friend and confidant of both Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Raku bowls are hand-carved, and their shapes reveal a simple beauty.  However, it is their deep glazes, created through the combination of lead and special stones selected from the Kamo riverbed, that make them so highly admired.  Fans of such artwork strive to collect fine pieces that exemplify the unique kilns and ceramic styles preferred by various tea masters.  No matter which type of bowl admirers prefer, they will find that while some are affordable, others fetch outrageous sums of money.
A world-record was set in 2016 for the most amount of money paid for a tea bowl.  A rare Jian tea bowl from the Kuroda family was sold at auction for $11.7 million dollars, even though it was expected to only bring in about $2 million.  One of the most famous tea bowls worldwide is a Korean Ido bowl called Kizaemon, which is currently located at the Rinzai Zen temple Daitokuji in Kyoto.  One of the previous abbots once remarked that if the temple ever caught fire, efforts must be made to save the tea bowl before being concerned with anything else, as its sale would provide more money than needed to rebuild the temple complex.
When looking at the bowl, it seems imperfect, and many people might not understand why the bowl is worth so much money: why it is considered a masterpiece.  After all, the glazing seems imperfect; there is a scorch mark on the side of the unevenly shaped vessel, and the glaze itself is crackled due to it cooling at an inconsistent rate.  To some unfamiliar with the tea ceremony, this bowl would seem to contain many mistakes, but in reality, everything about the bowl was likely intentionally created, as some potters who make vessels for the ceremony strive to create unpretentious pieces with irregular shapes.  Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Nihon Mingeikan (Japanese Folk Museum) and author of The Unknown Craftsman, wrote that this particular tea bowl is one of the finest in the world: that it possesses the very essence of tea.  Certainly, stained by repeated use as a vessel holding tea, it has substantially darkened in color since its creation.  Since some chawan are porous, the tea discolors them.  Far from being thought of as a defect, this discoloration is a sought-after effect, and certain kilns’ potters are known to plan a bowl’s crafting and subsequent glazing with future color changes in mind. 
Although outsiders can generally not see this bowl today, Yanagi, who was a philosopher and founder of the Mingei Movement, did get a chance to view it.  Describing it as the embodiment of beauty, he wrote, “It was within box after box, five deep, buried in wool and wrapped in purple silk.”  Highly valued Japanese crafts are generally placed in boxes specially made to house them.  Like the art objects within, the boxes themselves are aesthetically pleasing, and great effort goes into their design and inscriptions.  Some famous tea masters have admired the look of some boxes so much that they even referred to them as being vibrant and alive.  In time, some ceramic objects used in the tea ceremony become famous.  They are kept as priceless objects and passed down for generations.  Occasionally, they are sold.  When this occurs, the new owners often have a new box made, and the original box is placed inside.  It is for this reason that some bowls, like the aforementioned Kizaemon, are nested in the center of multiple boxes, a tradition redolent of the Russian matryoshka dolls of decreasing sizes that are likewise placed one inside the other.
While the innermost doll in Russia is just a smaller version of the outer one, in Japan, opening the boxes reveals an honored object, one which, adhering to Mingei philosophy, is beyond standard interpretations of beauty and ugliness.  They are functional and representative of the notion that true beauty can be found in the mundane.  Among tea utensils, tea caddies were the most revered historically.  They were even symbols of power.  When Oda Nobunaga’s forces secured Kyoto in 1569, the Ashikaga Shogun presented him with two tea caddies symbolic of their subservience.  Later, Nobunaga gave one of them to his son, which demonstrated that he would be the successor.  More than just honored objects with powerful significance, they often bridged gaps between other art forms like poetry and literature, and some famous caddies were named after lines found in famous poems.  For example, one Seto piece was named Hashihime (Bridge Maiden) after the following poem:

The maiden of Uji
Tonight may wait for me,
Lying in bed alone
To people quite unknown.

Other art objects were likewise named after lines from poems and literature, and though tea caddies were originally the most valued tea utensils, as time progressed, the tea bowl became the more revered.  Beginning with symmetrical shapes aimed to replicate their Chinese counterparts, uneven, more ordinary bowls were then awarded great distinction
Designing pieces with uneven shapes accords with the design of teahouses and tearooms, which likewise display irregularity.  Okakura Kakuzo referred to them as Abodes of the Unsymmetrical, and famous tea masters would design not just the house itself, but also the garden and everything else that surrounds it, making sure to maintain balance.  Nature is not just outside, but rather, there is a comingling of the outside world and the inside world.  At the same time, the teahouse was designed to separate guests from the distractions of the outside world: to be a respite from quotidian concerns.  It is a gateway to the transcendent world of tea.