Making Raku Tea Bowls and Searching for Wabi-Sabi

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This summer I took a Raku course offered by the Visual Arts Department of the Raritan Valley Community College in North Branch, NJ. The Department Chair, Ann Tsubota, taught this course herself, and her first assignment was to throw a dozen tea bowls to use as glaze tests at the first firing. I had seen some famous bowls at the Raku Museum and the Nomura Art Museum in Kyoto last year and have been wondering what to think of them. Therefore it seemed natural for me to continue trying to make such bowls as my individual project for the course. I also tried to come to some understanding of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, which governs the Japanese tea ceremony and has probably influenced Japanese life more than any other idea.


By the end of the course, I had started to gain some control in throwing this form. The next tricky phase of the construction is trimming the bottom. It is hard to match the contour of the inside exactly and even more difficult to remove enough clay to make the bowl feel light in one's hand. I still have a lot to learn about glazing, too, but the dramatic part is the firing and subsequent reduction. Lusters and exciting color changes can be obtained, and interesting patterns develop during reduction with glazes that crackle during the rapid cooling outside the kiln.. One of my favorite bowls is shown in the picture sitting on the text [1] assigned for the course. Another favorite of mine is black, but that one is harder to see in a photograph.

Wabi Sabi

According to "A Brief History of Chanoyu" [2], tea was brought to Japan by Zen priests and monks, who used it as a stimulant for meditation. Later, the Japanese tea ceremony known as Chanoyu was formulated by Murata Shuko (1423-1502), Take no Jo-o (1502-1555), Imai Sokyu (1520-1593) and Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). Rikyu, Shuko and Jo-o all underwent Zen training at Daitokuji, which has had a long, deep relation with tea.

Shuko said that the essence of tea and Zen are the same, and Rikyu realized Shuko's goal of "Wabi-cha," which is another difficult concept. Only "sabi" seems to be straightforwardly understandable as the property of having been transformed by age or use. It is often translated into English as "rustic." I think crackle is valued mainly because it gives Raku pots this rustic feeling.

We do have some clues about what wabi-sabi meant to Rikyu, but they seem to be contradictory. On the one hand, he clearly stated the primary purpose of the tea ceremony in his seven basic rules or guidelines [3]:

"Make a delicious bowl of tea, lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration." --Soshitsu Sen

(The current head of the Urasenke Tradition of Tea is Sen Soshitsu XV.) The purpose, obviously, is to show "every" consideration for the guest.

On the other hand, we know that common utensils sometimes served Rikyu's purposes in his tea ceremony. How is serving tea in a cheap bowl consistent with showing the guest "every" consideration? Rikyu was probably making the same point, whatever it is, when he referred to the following poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241):

All around, no flowers in bloom,
Nor maple leaves in glare,
A solitary fisherman's hut alone
On the twilight shore
Of this autumn eve.

According to Leonard Koren [4], Rikyu often quoted this poem to illustrate the mood of wabi sabi.. The poem appears almost to be a specification of Rikyu's austere design for his tea house, and I am inclined to think both of them are directed to the same point.

The problem, then, is to find some way to read the poem so that it brings "every" consideration into sharper focus. I will suggest that it refers to the host's frame of mind. In the setting described in the poem, there is no observer, whose presence certainly could alter the host's thinking. If the host tries to impress his guest with superior knowledge or more refined taste, he is failing to show at least one kind of consideration. The guest could feel the implied unfavorable comparison with the host, and that would be anti-wabi. On the other hand, if the host has no vain thoughts and earnestly shows every consideration for the guest, that is wabi. It could be difficult for a casual observer to detect the difference!

As for Zen, I can say nothing helpfull(y) about it. By the way, Rikyu is said to have given tea-bowl designs to a tile maker named Chojiro. Chojiro was later given the name "Raku," and the Raku family tradition of pottery has continued to flourish for over 400 years.


1. David Jones, Raku investigatins into fire, Crowood, Ramsbury, Marlborough (1999).

2. Atsumi Hara, Miho, and Sokei Kimura, "A Brief History of Chanoyu,"

3. Nancy Walkup, " Japanese Aesthetics, Wabi-Sabi, and the Tea Ceremony,"

4. Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley (1994).

(last updated July 4, 2001)

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Copyright 2003, Terence J. Nelson